“He Said She Said”: The Art of Review by Damonk

Everyone’s got an opinion on whether something’s good or something sucks. Be it literature, movies, steak tartar (tofu tartar if you’re vegetarian), video games, wine, webcomics, or even video games based on a webcomic about wine, someone’s going to give some sort of opinion on it, whether you like it or not.

In a world where personal lucre is limited and so many products and services are pricy luxuries, one cannot just blindly purchase items and hope for the best. Even going to see a movie is an expensive investment, and most people can’t afford to plop a Ten-spot on something they’re going to sleep through.

Enter the Reviewer, a useful time and money saver, the (sometimes self-appointed) voice of the common consumer.

While not everyone will listen to Bob-at-the-office’s water cooler rants about how the latest John Woo movie was a scintillating piece of *insert colourful positive or negative expletive here*, society has developed a tendency to listen to the “enlightened opinions” of a certain published not-so-few. They scream their opinions from TV spots, from newspapers, and even from online ‘zines much like this one here. Why do we listen to them? Why do we care? Why do we feel that what they say may somehow affect a product’s potential clientele, regardless of how popular or unpopular the product was prior to their published opinion?

Well, we cannot underestimate the power of the media, for one. While Bob-at-the-office may have an audience of three or four, a published reviewer’s comments will reach the eyes or ears of thousands, or even millions at once. Even if, say, ten percent of those exposed buy into the review, that’s anywhere from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand people with ten bucks in their hand that they will either keep or give to a creator/business, depending on the reviewer’s final words.

In the webcomic world, most of the entertainment product is free; subscription syndicates aside, reading a new webcomic usually only costs you time. Of course, in this modern day society, where time is more valuable than money, this means that the stakes are just as high, if not higher. It makes sense, then, that even a free resource such as an online comic should find itself under the magnifying glass of Reviewers, too. Since people can’t afford to wade through thousands of comics’ archives to find what they may like, they turn to those who DO devote the time for them, and ask for advice. Thus we flock to sites like Sequential Tart, The Time-Wasters Guide, Korsil, and our own Comixpedia, to check out what these published people have to say about potential entertainment sources for us.

In the last few months, a selection of “controversial” reviews were published on the Comixpedia – public reaction to these reviews was fairly marked, as hundreds of voices piped up in response, either praising or lambasting the reviewer. We say “controversial” in “quotes”, because those who lambasted more often than not were those who were already fans of the reviewed webcomic, those who didn’t need a review to tell them whether to read the work in question or not.

And this is an important point to make: no matter how good or how bad a webcomic (or any work of art/literature) may be, there will always be someone who likes it and someone who hates it. This is why you have Academy Award winning movies that gross oodles of money and fans, yet still inspire splinter cells to crop up here and there with “I hate XXXXX movie” websites. This is why movies that are financial disasters still get cult followings. Sometimes, the reviewer will be on the fans’ side, and sometimes not.

Reviews, however, are not written for those who are already fans or haters of a particular work. They are written for those who HAVEN’T yet read/seen it, those who are curious, yet still unsure whether or not to invest their valuable time and effort into the mystery product that lay before them. In essence, a review is meant to serve as a quick gloss of a work, one that is meant to help a potential reader to better decide if it’s worth the investment.

But how does one decide to become a reviewer? More importantly, how does one even decide what makes for a good review? Those are tough questions, and while there may never be a straight, universally-accepted answer – since opinions on what makes a good review are probably as varied as the opinions given on any reviewed work – we here at the Comixpedia have come up with our own set of standards and guidelines to help us better inform our readers as to what’s out there in WebcomicLand.

The following points are part of a Reviews Guideline that is shared with the staff reviewers of this publication. Written by the Editor-in-Chief, they are but his own opinions and thoughts as to what makes a good review. Some of you may find these guidelines helpful, some may find the Editor-in-Chief nuts (he means, look – he’s speaking about himself in the third person right now… not really a poster child for sanity, huh?). Heck, some of you may even be inspired to take up the challenge, and become a staff reviewer for the Comixpedia. In any event, you will at least better understand the work and process involved in writing a review for our publication.

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1) A Reviewer should not review a webcomic until it has proven that it is going to stay. My own personal “probation period” is about two to three months… unfortunately, there are too many people who start out with a bang but fizzle out in a matter of weeks, and offering reviews to comics that die right at the outset is not productive or very helpful to readers or the community as a whole.

2) On top of that “time probation”, a reviewer should not review a webcomic until it has accumulated at least a MINIMUM of, say, 25 full pages’ worth of material for anything more frequent than a weekly (the equivalent of one print comic?), and at least a dozen for a weekly or less. If you’re reviewing a strip comic, then that number should be doubled, to at least a minimum of 50 strips. This helps ensure that the reviewer has a fair sample with which to judge a work carefully and accurately. Reviewing a webcomic that has only 2-6 pages up, say, isn’t very useful because the artist has not been given enough time to show exactly what s-he can do and is intending. You can’t gauge art or writing skills fully until you’ve got a sufficient sample.

3) No matter how small or big the archives may be, read the ENTIRE thing. Sometimes this may seem like a very difficult task indeed, when you’re reviewing one of the older webcomic vets with their five-year vault of old strips. Nevertheless, you have to plough through the entire lot, otherwise you’re not able to give a fair call on the work at hand. Imagine an airline pilot who was trained in everything except for how to land the plane ’cause he couldn’t be bothered to read that part – not gonna be a very long career for him, nope. If you give a review based on a sampling of a work, you’re risking giving a very skewed and inaccurate view of the webcomic. If a creator is willing to work hard enough to draw the freaking things, the least we can do is READ them all before passing sentence, right?

4) When reviewing, make sure you include the following information:
*name of artist
*name of comic
*link to comic (hyperlinked to the comic name)
*name of host or affiliate, if applicable (e.g., Keenspot, ModernTales, etc.)
*brief overview/summary of comic
*an opinion on the art, with at least one supporting example
*an opinion on the writing, with at least one supporting example
*an opinion on the whole “feel”, with at least one supporting example
*a conclusion (approval/disapproval, or anything in between) based on your supported arguments

Those, to me, are the bare MINIMUMS of what you should offer as a reviewer. You CAN add a number of things if you wish – how you found it, similarities to other works you’ve already seen, impressions on the site design or other peripherals, any other justified personal comments, etc. These also change depending on what genre of webcomic it is, on whether it’s a serial comic or a gag-a-day comic, etc… you can’t judge a serial Fantasy comic as a gag-a-day School comic, for example – everything has a different standard from which to be looked at.

5) Never forget the importance of having a great hook for an opening paragraph or sentence. Your job as a reviewer is to give people a potentially new webcomic to read or avoid. For that to happen, though, you have to make sure that these same people want to READ your review first. Humor or wit is always a good way to grab someone’s attention; people are addicted to levity – make ’em laugh once, and they’ll want to read on, in the hopes of getting another funnybone fix. But don’t try too hard, either – people can tell when you’re forcing it.

Same goes with conclusions. You want the main ideas/arguments of your review to stick in the reader’s mind, so be sure you punch up your ending with something intelligent, clever, funny, or a mix of the three. Make sure you bring back elements of the review’s body in your conclusion, and don’t forget that the reviewee is prime material to work with. Can you make a witty comment or some clever wordplay using the webcomic’s title? Using a key slogan or trademark buzzword from the strip? Can you bring back something you said at the beginning and use it again in a funny/intelligent variation on the theme?

Your final words are meant to be a quick recap, that last sucker punch that will jar your intended message right into their brains. The beginning is where you hook ’em in, and the end is where you give ’em the payoff. Make sure they get their money’s worth.

6) A review is NOT a critique. This is not for the artist her/himself (though they can glean some valuable information from it, as well), so sitting there and pointing out and chipping away at very specific things at length is not going to be useful to a reader. You want to give the reader a taste, not analyses and pie charts.

7) Keep your review fairly brief (but not TOO brief). What a reader should get from this at the end is a good feel of what the comic is about, without having read it yet – however, you don’t want to spoil everything for them, either. Your review should be just enough to either entice or turn off a reader from a work, depending on your just and fair objective comments. It’s understood that you can’t be 100% objective, because like it or not, you’re still only judging a piece based on personal taste, really. Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t be FAIR.

For the purposes of the Comixpedia news publication, the suggested word counts are as follows:

· feature review: 600-1000 words
· standard review: 400-700 words

You can exceed or be under the count if your piece is strong and to the point. If something is complete, it doesn’t matter how big or small it is, so long as it’s well done.

8) Don’t dumb things down for your readers. They are smarter and more perceptive than you may think, and can tell when someone is being condescending.

9) Be honest. Don’t be afraid to say that you don’t like a comic if you really don’t, regardless of what popular opinion is. Only be prepared to support your opinion with reasons that can’t be shot down. If you don’t like the writing, for example, explain why – let the reader know exactly what it is that bothers you about the work. Saying “I don’t like it, it sucks” without explaining it, though, is useless. If you can’t tell your readers WHY you like or don’t like something, then why what’s the point of listening to you?

10) Be open-minded; always remember that just because you don’t like something personally, that doesn’t instantly make it a BAD work. Don’t be afraid to say something like, “I can’t explain it, but it just doesn’t work for me”, yet still be able to admit that, say, “but the art is fine [with examples, of course] and even though I don’t personally like it, it’s still admittedly, a decent work”. Of course, only do this if that is the case. If you really find that something sucks, and can back it up, then by all means, say so.

11) Accept that not everyone is going to agree with you, no matter how observant and objective you are. Learn to distinguish between the feedback that is constructive and the feedback that is just angry fanboys/girls venting outrage with no substance to their arguments/flames.

12) ENJOY being a reviewer. There’s no point in doing something you don’t like.

13) No, I mean it. ENJOY it, dammit.

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Once a reviewer has followed all these steps and sent some sort of formulated opinion to the reviews editor, it is given a detailed review of its own, as the editor will challenge any opinion that seems loose or weak. Once the editor is satisfied with the reviewer’s arguments/opinions (whether he agrees with them or not), they are ready to be published, so that a new host of readers can offer the same kind of scrutiny. And thus you find yourself with a published opinion on a set work, one that you, as a reader, can choose to accept or reject as you see fit.

Now that you have seen how we review things around here, any questions? Comments? Perhaps you’d like to offer a review of your own on our process? We’re sure you have an opinion on it – everyone else does, even Bob-at-the-office.

One thing we can’t forget in the end: a reviewer, no matter how famous or unknown they may be, is just some person like you, offering an opinion on something they’ve tried out first themselves. As a reader, you have the right to agree or disagree with what they say. Reviewers are NOT always right, and even when you agree with them, it doesn’t mean that they are right in everyone else’s eyes.

Not everyone agrees with Bob-at-the-office that imitation beef jerky is better than sex, for example, no matter how convincing his arguments may be.

Damonk is the Editor-in-Chief and the Executive Editor for Reviews and Columns.

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