Criteria for judging quality in comics (from a talk at the University of Maryland).

I always enjoy our yearly session talking comics with the ‘gradual’ students at the College of Information Sciences at UMD, in large part because interesting questions get raised that I had not yet considered.  Here the question was:  ‘If you were developing an award for comics, what criteria would you use to decide if a comic is noteworthy?’  In other words, how do I tell if a comic is good?

I’m not 100% sure how I answered that or if I answered adequately, in part because I’ve never consciously considered it.  I’m fairly sure my answer was something along the lines of “Um, I know what I like?”   –and that, being an illustrator and writer myself, and having read a great deal of comics and being  in the business of thinking about them I have a basis of knowledge against which to weigh or measure a work of art.

But that sort of begs the question, the logical fallacy of circular reasoning:  ‘I know a lot because I know a lot’.

What’s more intriguing is to examine what it is my brain is doing when I assess a comic.    The question is not “Why do I know what I like?”  but  “What is ‘like’ like?”  or “What makes ‘good’ good?”

I may be thinking about that for some time, but here is my first strafing pass at it:

Being a visual person, the first thing I notice about a book is the art.  Every artist has their own visual signature.  Weight of line, scratchy and sketchy vs claire ligne (clean style, a la Tintin, et al), saturation of color, breadth of palette — in truth these things can vary widely and still catch my attention.  Here what I’m initially looking for is whether this work is distinctive:  have I seen anything like it?  Does it remind me of other artists I like?

Royden Lepp’s remarkable ‘Rust: Visitor in the Field”

But novelty alone is not what makes a work ‘good’.  Personally having bought mediocre books or seen ‘bleh’ movies off the strength of a good review, I’m aware of what I’d call Jaded Critic Syndrome.    That is, having read umpteen dozen books in the last x-number of hours, sometimes the reviewer is desperate for something that doesn’t remind them of the last ten books they read.  Thus a stinker may catch critical acclaim for risking something new –though it never catches a wide audience– since it’s simply trying too hard to be different.

Still, one reason why I rarely review mainstream comics lies in that breadth of sameness.  Artists who learned to draw by reading comics, and so on back to ‘a finity’ often don’t stand out from each other.  It’s axiomatic I suppose, since they are learning to draw the same uniform over and over again, the work often appears relatively uniform.

–Incidentally, one of many reasons you can tell superhero comics are mostly written by overgrown post-adolescent ‘dudes’ and not women lies in that conceit of the superhero costume.

Only occasionally you will read about a superhero using his ‘spare costume’ when his first one gets destroyed.  The blasé acceptance of what this implies is pretty gnarly given real  life implications.  Really dude?  You have only one pair of clothes you wear every day?

Anyone who has taken a yoga or pilates class understands how gamey that super unitard would be after even one night of web-swinging.   This without even considering the biohazard potential of blood and snot and whatnot from various fistfights.  (Radioactive spider blood, even).

And while the average postpubescent comics fanboy might be comfortable in that favorite shirt every day, I’m pretty sure a sensible superhero or heroine wouldn’t mind switching up that image now and then, depending on the weather or what enemy she expected to battle, or whether she had a public appearance that day, and so on.  That’s just practical.  People judge you on these things, might as well use it to your advantage, and send a message beyond:  ‘I only own one shirt’…

Anyway.   So.

What about the art?  I like the lope and flow of a line.  The composition of a panel.  Whether the story makes sense without words.  Whether you can infer from panel to panel what is happening even in the split-second freeze-frame of an action sequence.  Whether characters are distinguishable from each other, and more so, if  they can develop personalities with the sound ‘off’.  And so on.  Do the drawings have ‘life’ or do they feel painterly and static.   Are they able to draw ‘Story’.

From  ‘Rust: Visitor in the Field’, the boy called ‘Jet’ makes his entrance…

This is not something I’m conscious of, it’s just a question of whether my pupils dilate when I pick the book up, if I feel a breath of space in my chest, if the eyeballs slickly pivoting in my skull choose to ricochet around a page of their own accord.

Most importantly: does the animation studio of neural gnomes in my visual cortex start churning out pictures in my imagination to fill out the detail missing between panels.  Does the gap between panels pulse with the current of the story, and does the current carry me along with it?

Once the art grabs the eye, next lies the question of  the story itself.

Does the work make me feel something?  Do I lose awareness of my immediate surroundings?  Am I pulled into the immediacy of action?   Do I want to know what happens next?  Do the characters come alive?    Do I like them, or detest them?  (Both reactions are interesting, better than boring).  Can I hear the dialogue in my head?  Does it sound like distinct characters talking or one writer jabbering to himself?

Does it matter?  Do I learn something, see a part of the world I never knew?  And do I care?  Does it make me feel anything?  Does the story have pathos, or catharsis?

And then later, resonance:   Am I still thinking about it, does the world live on in my head after I have put the book down?  Am I greedy for another reading or a next volume?  Would I recommend it to someone?   This last category would seem to be the criteria for an award-winning book.  Does it have value beyond the final page of the book.

Here then are the Takoma Park Maryland Library criteria for Quality Comics, in brief:

  1. Art: can the artist draw Story.  Can you infer personality or mood?  Does the work have humor, or pathos, inherent in the pictures.  Did any panel make you laugh out loud by the images alone?  Does it ‘live’ on the page and in the spaces between panels?  Is the composition — what is framed by the panels– dynamic and interesting on its own.
  2. Story.  Does it flow, do I want to know what happens next?  Do I care about the characters?   Is it credible,  am I willing to suspend disbelief, does it make sense within its own world?
  3.  Dialogue.  Can I hear it in my head?  Do characters have distinct voices or does it read only as though a writer is talking to himself through two different characters.  Do I forget that the writer is there?  Would it be fun to read aloud to a crew of kids on a Tuesday afternoon?
  4. Resonance.  Do I care?  Would I recommend it to anyone?  Did I learn something?  Am I eagerly waiting for the next volume?

That’s my first pass at it.  I expect I’ll return to refine this, or post a follow-up later.  For now I will certainly be more conscious what sorts of dominos are toppling in my head the next time a pick up a book than makes me go ‘ah…’

[Next:  a review of  ‘Rust:  Visitor in the Field’ published by Archaia Entertainment — answering ‘yes’ to all of the above.  Plus leftovers and musings from the recent New York Comics Con].

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