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Captain Nihilist Asks: Why do negative reviews?


From the desk of El Santo, a.k.a. Captain Nihilist:

Since the Webcomic Overlook is primarily a review site, I don’t usually engage in essays on criticism or reviewing. However, the subject of what makes a good critique is something that I don’t mind touching upon from time to time. Previous posts attracted the attention of my fellow webcomic critics, and there’s nothing I like more than hanging around with our snarky little Knitting Circle. We’re sort of an exclusive clubs, we critics of everything: in some respects, proliferating exponentially with the debut of the internet; in other respects, disappearing quietly into the night.

So if you’re someone who comes here to read up on my reviews, you might want to skip this post. This one’s for the critics. It’s probably going to be pretty boring for everyone else. So if you’re in the latter crowd, I humbly direct you to my delightful “Vikings Are Totally Lame” post on the parent site.

Sahi likes it.

For those of you staying, I’m also going to be quoting a lot of Roger Ebert. Not because I have a raging man-crush on him, or because I have a framed picture of him giving the thumbs up on my office desk. I think he’s written some of the most essential words on the subject … just from a film critic’s point-of-view.

I’d like to follow-up on a discussion I was having with Fes in the comment section of Webcomic Beacon: Episode #61. I felt that this episode, which dealt with the difference between webcomic hobbyists and webcomic professionals, was their best one yet.

Inevitably, though, the question of criticism came up. It stemmed from a tangential discussion that those who are hobbyists should be exempt from criticism because they’re doing it for fun. (The counter-argument: if it’s on the internet, it’s free to be criticized.) In a way, that’s fair: it’s kinda stupid for a TV reviewer to do a write-up for public access show, isn’t it? Then again, The Webcomic Beacon folks kinda did conclude that there is not division between hobbyists and professionals, so that line, once more, gets blurry.

More importantly for the purposes of this post, though, it was pointed out that bad comics should not be reviewed. Fes, I think, was especially chuffed that it seems all negative reviews ever do is give free publicity to the comic. He went so far as to say that CAD probably got its audience due to all the bad reviews.

This is, more or less, the Eric Burns-White approach to criticism. From his FAQ:

Hey! I know a webcomic that’s really terrible! Would you look at it so you can make fun of it?

Um. No. We don’t go looking for things to insult just so I can insult them. That’s not criticism. That’s just being mean. We don’t care if you think we’re funny while I’m being mean. We don’t choose to be mean to people just because we have a website. When we are sarcastic (or even mean) to sites, it’s usually after we’ve been following that site for years and really liked it at one time (or even still like it now). So, don’t bother e-mailing us links to Gonterman comics unless you actually like Gonterman’s comics and you want us to read them because you think that one of us will like them. There are plenty of all-negative snarksites on the web, if that’s what you want. We even read and enjoy some of them. But that’s not our thing.

Needless to say, this site doesn’t follow that philosophy. In my 90 reviews thus far, I’ve handed out 6 one-star ratings and 14 two-star ratings. (I don’t count anything beyond that a “bad” review, per se.)

In fact, I sorta resent the idea that you’re “just being mean” if you read something that you didn’t like at first and didn’t like in the end. I, like Mr. Burns-White, also don’t seek out bad comics, but I’ll still on long past the beginning in the fruitless hope that perhaps it’ll get better. I’m not just being mean. I’m also being a masochist, a sadist for detailing my experiences online, and an irascible grouch. It’s more work intensive.

What’s the most obvious reason to write a negative review?

People like reading them.

Webcomic readers will point out John Solomon’s site, but that format is hardly unique to webcomics. (And I don’t care what the nay-bobs say; he and his crew really were excellent at what they did. Just pull up other similar, less clever review sites that popped up in its wake to see why.) On my desk, I’ve got Mike Nelson’s Movie Megacheese, where he talks about all the bad movies he’s seen. Hell, Ebert himself released a book collecting his negative reviews called Your Movie Sucks. If you want to go far enough, snarkfests like The Daily Show gets accepted as a legit news sort for liberals (and I suspect that Rush Limbaugh gets the same cred from conservatives).

On my own site, 6 of the 10 ten most-read reviews got two-stars or less. (Remember, only 20% of the reviews I’ve written have been negative.)

Critics of critics (God, there’s got to be a better term than that) will say that while these are funny diversions, they’re not very productive and cheap ways to draw in readers. I disagree. More on that later.


What’s a less obvious reason to write a negative review?

You will come off as a more legitimate reviewer.

From Roger’s little rule book:

Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. As Robert Altman once told me, “If you never gave me a bad review, what would a good review mean?” He was a great man. He thought over what he had said, and added: “But all your bad reviews of my films have been wrong.”

So I never take it to heart when someone starts up with the tired old “If you hate it so much, don’t read it” vitriol (which really means “don’t write about it”). It’s really something tossed off in anger, but if they stopped to think about it, what kind of world would this be if everyone only wrote good things about anything?

We’d all be friggin’ ad sites. That’s what we’d be.

As I’ve said before, negative reviews do the reviewer themselves a lot of good. The reader will know where we stand, even if they don’t agree with us.

So you said a negative review can be productive? In what way can it help the webcomic writer?

See, this is where I think a lot of critics hit a speedbump. They start writing to the webcomic creators themselves. I think there are painfully few people qualified to actually say if the webcomic artist is doing the right thing or not. They’re better to get their opinion from teachers… and even then, they’re not always right. (One of my favorite anecdotes: the guy who founded FedEx got a “C” on the paper that detailed his business plan. The rest of you can point out how Dr. Seuss was panned by his art teacher.)

Don’t write to the webcomic creators. If you really want them to improve, you can correspond via e-mail. I meant “productive” from the standpoint of the casual webcomic reader.

Here’s an excerpt from what I consider absolutely essential reading: Roger Ebert’s “‘Critic’ is a four-letter word”.

A lot of people don’t know what “critic” means. They think it means, “a person who criticizes.” They don’t like people who do that. It seems an impotent profession. Critics are nasty, jealous, jaded and bitter. They think it’s all about them. They’re know-it-alls. They want to appear superior to everyone else. They’re impossible to please. They don’t understand the tastes of ordinary people. They love to tear down other people’s hard work. Those who can do it, do it. Those who can’t do it, criticize. What gives them the right to have an opinion? We’d be better off without them.

Criticism is a destructive activity. If I like something and the critics didn’t, they can’t see what’s right there before their eyes because they’re in love with some theory. They don’t have feelings; they have systems. They think they know better than creators. They praise what they would have done, instead of what an artist has done. They use foreign words to show off. They’re terrified of being exposed as the empty poseurs they are. They are leeches on the skin of art.

Many wise words have been written in defense of critics, usually by themselves. Some of the wisest were written by Brad Bird, in “Ratatouille,” a cartoon about rats. He gives this speech to Anton Ego, a food critic:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends… Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

I think Anton is too hard on critics, although perhaps he is writing autobiographically. Is he correct that “average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so?” I would suggest that the average piece of junk is not meaningful at all, apart from the way it conditions the minds of its beholders to accept more pieces of junk. How important is criticism of it? Powerless, usually. Why do critics bother with it? I will appoint myself spokesman. We had to endure it and want our revenge. We enjoy writing scathing and witty prose. We know we are rarely writing for those who seek out junk. Perhaps we hope we entertain, and encourage the resolve of those who avoid it.

It’s weird how that Ratatouille quote has sorta become the Gettysburg Address in discussions about critics, isn’t it? It’s used for both pro- and anti-criticism sides of the argument. Scott Kurtz even brought it up to defend his slightly anti-critic point-of-view in the Webcomic Weekly recorded in the aftermath of the Kurtz/Carlson dust-up. Me, I think Mr. Ebert is closer to interpreting the true meaning. Brad Bird is, after all, the same guy who had Syndrome evilly sneer in The Incredibles, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

I love that quote in the last part: “We want our revenge.” That gets to the heart on my own motivations.

But here’s the most crucial part of his essay:

I believe a good critic is a teacher. He doesn’t have the answers, but he can be an example of the process of finding your own answers. He can notice things, explain them, place them in any number of contexts, ponder why some “work” and others never could. He can urge you toward older movies to expand your context for newer ones. He can examine how movies touch upon individual lives, and can be healing, or damaging. He can defend them, and regard them as important in the face of those who are “just looking for a good time.” He can argue that you will have a better time at a better movie. We are all allotted an unknown but finite number of hours of consciousness. Maybe a critic can help you spend them more meaningfully.

Don’t think for a second that I am proposing myself as that critic. I am only trying to define what I aspire to. I have learned most of what I know about movies from other critics, and by critics I mean everyone who has ever given me an interesting insight into a film. If “Siskel & Ebert & Roeper” had any utility at all, it was in exposing viewers, many of them still children, to the notion that it was permitted to have opinions, and expected that you should explain them.

In other words, Ebert believes his primary mission wasn’t to define what was good art and what was bad art. Rather, it was to give people the impression that it was OK to have an opinion and to understand why you have that opinion.

I don’t think people read negative reviews simply because it’s entertaining to watch someone pick-apart a trainwreck. People read them because, oftentimes, they’re more open. By pointing out what went wrong, they’re subversive windows into what constitutes a decent webcomic. They’re rebellious and seemingly brave, resisting every sordid attempt by everyone and everything that what’s being read is actually good. They’re a testament that not everything is great, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with “the average piece of junk.”

Freedom of thought, man: it’s a dizzy, crazy, euphoric feeling.

But negative reviews are destructive to the webcomic community! They embiggen none of us!

Recently, Bengo wrote a post criticizing Gary Tyrrell of popular webcomic blog Fleen. Now, I’m not in total agreement with Bengo, but I haven’t done the research or soul-searching that he has. The best I can do at this point is keeping his opinion to heart.

However, It’s not so much the post that got to me but one of the responses after (by Floating Lightbulb reader JM Brown):

It’s not difficult to see Fleen showing favoritism to certain creators but the webcomic community can’t grow if everyone is sniping each other behind the back.

I’m not trying to pick on JM Brown. He seems to be a reasonable guy. The sentiment, though, is something I’ve personally seen posted many times over in other webcomic-related discussions. “Don’t say anything bad… or you’ll ruin everything!”

First, that’s completely false. Pundits in the print industry have been predicting for a long time that comics will eventually make the transition from print to web. The big time publishers — DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, and Image — have made significant investments to increase their online presence. The current economic crisis, too, may actually benefit webcomics rather than hinder them. In my previous post, for example, Mr. Clevinger wonders if the changes in Diamond Comics Distributors policy will pretty much force independent comic creators to a webcomic format. So growth is going to happen no matter what.

And second, how does complaining kill growth, anyway? This country (the United States, in my case) was founded by whiners! Seriously, the colonists were living the good life under one of the least oppressive empires in world history. Look at the Declaration of Independence: it’s, like, whine, whine, whine, whine.

OK, so that’s gross oversimplification. And I’m not suggesting that the Founding Fathers were wrong. My point is that no one would have succeeded if everyone was being a nice little boy and never, ever raised their voice about something they didn’t like.

So, anyway, that’s the end of my take on the usefulness of negative reviews. Tune in next week for something fluffier … and, perhaps, more controversial.

Posted in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics