What Do Reviewers Know?

In the process of writing a review, I came upon a link which took me to the PVP comic site. Beneath that, Mr. Kurtz was (by chance) talking about a review of their new how-to-make-comics book. It seems the book’s reviewer was disappointed in the advice on dealing with critics. It basically seems to boil down to “don’t listen.” Maybe he was kidding or he was venting. Maybe he wasn’t. Either way, I can’t let it stand without saying something.

I’m both a reviewer and a comic creator and that advice as presented doesn’t sit well with me. Normally, I would defer to Mr. Kurtz’s point of view on comics due to his history in creating a successful strip. In this case, while I agree with most of the post, I’m taking issue with the extreme nature of the advice.

He rightfully points out that a comic artist gets better only by making mistakes and learning, so don’t listen when they point out your mistakes. It’s not mentioned in that post, so maybe it’s not fair of me to bring it up, but I assume that an artist would accept praise from that same critic.

So which is it? Should comic creators listen to critics or not?

Mr. Kurtz points out that the trend in the blogosphere is that the reviewer takes some kind of ownership or credit over how the comic is created. To be fair, I have seen that “strange sense of entitlement,” as Mr. Kurtz describes it and I think that is bad form on the reviewer’s part.

IF the reviewer HAPPENS to say something that helps the creator make a better comic, then that’s great. Likely, the creator already knew about that weakness because they are intimately familiar with the work. That does not mean the reviewer deserves any credit other than they happened to be the first to mention a criticism to the general public. For a reviewer to think they are owed something, well, that’s just crazy talk.

Mr. Kurtz is also correct when he says:

“It’s not that we don’t realize we’re making mistakes. It’s not that we’re oblivious to the fact that our work is imperfect. But if we play it safe and never risk those imperfections, then we’ll never grow as artists. Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut.”

That is why Mr. Kurtz’s advice is to ignore all critics, but I think that’s going too far. It’s not prudent to ignore them just like it isn’t smart to take everything they say as golden truth. (In the comments below the book review, the reviewer says the same thing.)

Just like artists, reviewers (and readers) have imperfect viewpoints and varying skill at their craft. They have biases and they might not like your comic simply because of the subject matter. However, there is that time when one of them brings out something in your comic that you really ought to correct. Maybe it’s one time in a thousand but it will be there.

So what is the balanced way to listen to criticism? One, break down what they said and two, (as my Dad always says) consider the source.

Did they mention something positive? What was it specifically about? Then look past the words to see what they are saying. Was it all positive? Maybe they are in the core of your desired audience. What does that audience like? Is that the audience you want? What do the positives teach you?

Was the comment all negative? Was it full of name calling and other abuse? Make a mental note of their outburst of emotional response and then look past it. It could be that the reviewer simple doesn’t like the genre of comic you are making. Maybe they are looking for something specific that doesn’t even work in your format. Read some of their other reviews and compare what you think to what you read there. What else can you learn from any negative criticism they offer?

Now that you’ve broken it down, you need to realize that as an artist, you likely have a thin skin. Remembering that will allow that to more usefully shape your reaction to criticism. In their thinking, they aren’t lauding or slaughtering your creation as much as they are talking about how it made them feel. The reviews are as much about the reviewer as the comic they review.

As an artist, you learn from everything you observe. Maybe one moment you are considering the odd shape of someone else’s chin and the next you are watching how water drips off a leaf. There are a thousand little details you notice but you don’t try to draw them all, do you? You take what is useful and edit those things out which don’t fit your vision.

Do the same with reviews. Don’t limit your improvement by ignoring them. Don’t let them try to draw the comic for you. Make your mistakes and continue to improve. Whatever else, don’t let them stop you.

The driving purpose behind the reviews on this site is to help artists avoid the trial and error process as much as possible. While Mr. Kurtz is free to have his viewpoint, I feel it would be a great disservice to follow his advice in this matter.

UPDATE: 8-15-08

Kurtz feels (and his opinion is fine) that the book’s advice on criticism is solid. Namely, that critical review for the artist comes only from pre-chosen artistic sources, not from the web at large and not from reviewers. That’s fine. He has a lot of strong opinions thrown at him and considers it all just a wall of noise. The rest of it has me shaking my head in disbelief.

The relevant passage from the review:

“…Oddly, the promotion chapter doesn’t mention either press releases or getting reviews, both sources of free coverage; instead, dealing with critics is covered in the audience chapter. The author of this section, Dave Kellett, breaks them into four categories and says, “each one can be diffused or made impotent by kindness and politeness.” So the goal here is not to listen, but to deflect. And that’s reflected in his categories; not one covers someone pointing out a legitimate flaw or place for improvement in the work. In other words, he doesn’t think critics are ever right…”

I don’t see anything in there about reviewers deserving credit for affecting the creation of the comic. I don’t see anything saying that critics know how to create comics better than artists. It sure seems to me that the book reviewer was just saying that it was strange to have nothing in the book about actually dealing with critics of any kind, press releases and the like. I’m disappointed that the book apparently doesn’t cover those basics.

Kurtz’s claims that artists shouldn’t listen to reviewers because they give wildly divergent opinions lacks sand, though. If you ask any number of artists for a critical review of your comic, you’ll get a wide variety of opinion there, too. I suppose what is needed on the artist’s part is some small side of them that still wants to look at their work objectively and vision of what they want to do.

If you really don’t know what you want to do or how you are accomplishing it then you will have no idea which bit of constructive criticism to listen to. At best, you’re hit and miss just listening to your own thoughts. I find it hard to believe that these artists have nothing to say on whose opinion you should listen to. Which of your peers deserve trust?

Kurtz claims that critique is covered in the book by the four artists looking at each other’s comics. As if any four critiques should be enough to answer any questions you might have. As an artist, I want more than that. The more eyes on my work, the more chance there is that someone will make a really good suggestion (and not necessarily from reviewers.) Is the advice really that you ignore every single idea unless they are on your “pre-approved peer list?”

Ignoring critics is more like refusing to deal with them because you might not like what they say. Kurtz’s real advice seems to be “Listen only to those praising you.” That is a sure fire way to go down in flames, no matter what you’re trying to do.

Another good way to go down in flames is to be defensive when your work is criticized. The reviewer disagreed with Kurtz in the comments, yet she retained a level of dignity and even wished him well. She was trying to allow the subject to drop. Kurt’s comments (#31 and #34) were way out of line and unprofessional to boot.

Please also note in the reviewer’s comments that she paid for the book. She didn’t get it for free. She was a reader interested in “Comics Worth Reading.” She was the sort of person you would want to sell your book title “How To Make Webcomics” to. She was someone who would have recommended your book to all her comic loving friends. She is a reviewer who gave your book a very positive review and a customer. If you want to keep customers and keep customers friendly, you don’t mistreat them.

It’s a real shame that Kurtz and the other three artists feel that this is acceptable. You know, it’s one thing to choose not to listen to unsolicited opinions (reviews) and to seek the advice of “respected peers” It’s quite another to be rude simply because someone else disagrees with you.


  1. I guess it depends on what the reviewer is trying to accomplish. Kurtz has a point: the internet is a harsh place, with nay-sayers, mockers, and trolls usually outnumbering anyone that has anything of merit. But, you know, that’s not always true. Scott DeWitt of Fanboys took criticism to heart (he even wrote a strip about it) and crafted something much better than what he had before. I guess each situation is unique, and the direction is really up to the artist himself.

    I haven’t read the article, but if I remember the podcast where this is covered, the advice they gave was instead of relying on online reviewers, take an art class instead. It was fairly sound advice: a teacher will be with you to watch you improve on the fundamentals. And as a student, you know that they have a strong interest in imparting their knowledge to you.

    That said, I don’t know if it’s really the duty of reviewers to try to improve a comic. I mean, if the creator comes out enlightened and inspired, that’s great! But it never has been (at least in my case) the reason to write a review. I write for webcomic readers. The audience that maybe has read Order of the Stick or Sinfest and not much else. If I’ve convinced a couple of readers that Dr. McNinja is worth checking out, then I’m happy.

  2. Hey Larry! Thanks for stopping by.

    The direction a comic takes is totally up to their creator. They can seek advice, accept criticism or ignore outside influence. Art instruction will always help, as will writing classes, marketing courses and other skill training.

    In principle, I think an artist ought to consider every avenue as a potential source of improvement. That includes reviewers, books by comic artists, other kinds of artists, Aunt Tilly and your three year old cousin Jake. I think you can learn something new if you take the time to listen. Of course, you have to weed out what is useful and what isn’t. Ignore the trolls, of course.

    Most reviews are indeed meant for the readers, not so much the artist. At the very least, it would be impolite for a reviewer to be giving the artist pointers. Still, the artist can learn things from reviews.

    The artist is so close to the work that it can be difficult to have a big picture view (ie “the drab colors ruin the whole comic.”) For the artist, reviewers have a different set of eyes and they tell you how your comic looks to someone else. Even a negative review will tell you what is accomplishing your comic’s goals and what is not. For those looking to improve, that has value.

    I had to speak up because this site is where I review comics with a comic creator’s eye. I look a comic over and try to learn something new in order to better my craft. I choose to share what I’m learning. Maybe- just maybe, some artist will read the reviews here and be able to skip some of that mistake filled trial and error.

    My reviews on Comic Fencing (and past reviews on Pop Syndicate) are more for the readers.

  3. Pingback: Scott Kurtz vs. Webcomic Reviewers and the Democratic Response! « The Webcomic Overlook

  4. The Doctor

    I agree with both of you actually. Reviews can definitely serve as an informative, outside opinion, since all of us will invariably be biased toward our own works. (I’ve seen notable exceptions, such as the artist who does “This is Me,” but it seems forced and not sincere as he constantly puts himself down and seems to not like it) I also believe, though, that they must be taken with a grain of salt, given the tendency toward trolls and putting people down just because you can’t do better.
    I think it depends on the reviewer, their qualifications, and their approach. Even the best advice isn’t worth much if it’s put forward in a mean, unkind manner. (Note that’s not the same as being direct or truthful)

  5. Whoops! Some of the comments got stuck in the spam filter.

    Bengo, one of my little projects is designing a site logo. Unfortunately, I continually get distracted by the next review to write or meal to eat. I’ll have one soon.

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