Op-Ed: In Defense of Pickiness

As an upstart comics review site, one of our primary methods of publicity is tweeting our reviews at creators and hoping for a retweet. This process is made much more complicated (or at least uncomfortable) when the review is openly negative, and impossible when the creators aren’t on twitter in the first place. For last month’s review of Detective Comics, I just started tweeting at randos who had posted positive things about #DetectiveComics, asking them to defend their position. One such rando was game enough to actually engage us, offering several arguments to both why DetCom 8 wasn’t so bad, as well as why our attitude may actually be detrimental to comics in general. As I sat down to write this month’s review of DetCom, I realized that I was much more interested those arguments than in anything going on in the issue. I’d like to use this space to respond to those very arguments.

First, a note about fairness: I am fully aware of how unbalanced this piece can become. I hope to present the arguments with as much context as possible, and will be approaching them with an open mind. My goal is not to set-up a straw man, or to “win” an argument against someone not here to defend their opinions; I simply intend for this to be the next step in a dialogue. I look forward to continuing this conversation with that twitterer, our readers, and my fellow Retcon Punchers in the comments and elsewhere.

The exchange began with me picking a fight with a total stranger, guilty of nothing other than expressing an opinion I didn’t understand:

curious what you saw to like in #DetectiveComics 8. We hated it pretty much everything about it; what are we missing?

Game enough to take my question at face value, he gave an earnest response:

The pacing was very strong and the whole thing was selfcontained. I can see how you weren’t wowed, but what is there to hate?

Now, I understand that pacing and self-containment can enhance an otherwise good work of art, but I don’t think they are virtues on their own. An outbreak of smallpox on a small Pacific island can be self-contained and well-paced, but that doesn’t make it likable.

Happy to have engaged someone about this issue, I tweeted back:

we enunciate it better in our review: http://wp.me/p2a7lL-mv but in essence: that everything is needlessly EXTREME! and DRAMATIC!

At which point he clearly followed the link and actually read our review of Detective Comics 8 (did I mention that this guy was particularly game?). His response:

honestly, I could suspend my belief for all the intense bits thanks to the time sensitivity. I think you’re kinda overreacting.

Again, this didn’t really seem like a reason to like the issue in question (and the bit about overreacting may have put me on the defensive), so I responded:

I’m not sure I understand; is your excuse for the bad parts that the issue was overstuffed? Two wrongs don’t make a right.

His response came in a rapid-fire set of well-reasoned tweets later that evening:

 Comics are an art form in which our greatest strength is in simplification and exaggeration, this applies to both art and story

No argument there, other than to add that simplification and exaggeration may very well be the strength of all art (or at least representative art). He continued:

I see you throwing around the EXTREME catchphrase like it in of itself is a bad thing, but that isn’t the case.

Intensity can be used as a valuable tool to exaggerate the pressure of a situation, so can breaking character.

I think that’s why Detective Comics 8 ended up the way it did.

EXTREME can definitely hurt a comic, but that’s when it is so potent that it overrides readability.

Rob Liefeld is a good example of this.

EXTREME was a tool used to make this story self-contained without losing any drama. That’s what im saying.

I didn’t mean to imply that intensity itself is bad, just that it’s completely unearned and distractingly deployed in Detective Comics. We’re told that things are intense rather than actually feeling any intensity. It seems clear that we just have a different tolerance for how artificially intense something can be before it detracts from the overall experience. To me, the intensity of DetCom 8 isn’t just distracting, it’s distractingly distracting. He went on:

On a personal level, Reviewing is becoming an edutainment artform,

as a information scientist I love that as it catalogues many things popular culture misses, like comics…

…but I see several consequences too, one such being that we too make our reviews EXTEME for entertainment

This idea that a review can either be entertaining OR honest actually offends me. I review comics because I like discussing them with people. My interest isn’t in entertaining others, and it certainly isn’t in writing dishonestly negative reviews. Sure, that review of Detective Comics 8 afforded me the opportunity to make a few cheap jokes, but only to draw attention to how dumb the writing was. I never misrepresented my opinions to make the review entertaining, and I kind of resent the implication. He continued:

And in doing so we demand perfection. That’s a problem, because it discourages creators from taking risks.

And risks are important for evolving the artist and the art form.

I agree that risks are important, but I disagree that demanding perfection discourages risk. Innovation is one of many things that I demand of the comics I enjoy, as are coherent plot-lines and relatable characters — none of which are featured in Detective Comics 8. That issue isn’t a failure because Daniel took risks; I’d say it’s a failure because he didn’t. Self-contained issues aren’t new or risky, and neither is overly grim ‘n’ gritty storytelling. Pandering to the lowest common denominator is never risky, and the writing in that issue is lower than low. Mostly, though, my gripes with DetCom have nothing to do with risk, just that I think it’s a profoundly stupid title. Then he let the other shoe drop:

That’s why when a comic is simply good, we should support it, and that’s why I support DetectiveComics 8.

Again, I’m not sure I can disagree more. Setting aside our clear difference of opinion on whether or not Detective Comics is “good,” I take issue with the notion that it’s somehow good for the industry as a whole for me to support comics I don’t love. There are so many fantastic titles out there, I can’t see why it does anyone any good to support mediocre ones. Moreover, I can’t see how I could support such a habit. My comic-buying resources are limited, and with so many great titles out there, it makes no sense to spend time and money on others that are simply good. Survival of the fittest dictates that competition breeds success — being discerning with your support actually improves the industry by forcing mediocre titles to improve or perish. Supporting a mediocre product is actually bad for the industry because it lowers the bar for comics at large by allowing less-than great titles to dominate comic shop shelf space.

I can understand that this is counter-intuitive; if a title fails, it’s bad for that title, that creative team, and that publisher. It’s reasonable to assume that that would be bad for the industry, but you have to keep in mind that it will simply be replaced by something else — something possibly better. I can also understand why that seems like it might produce a homogenized fleet of Batman clones or something, but it’s important to keep in mind that no title exists in a vacuum. Comic fans are a diverse group, so the market can sustain a great deal of diversity. More importantly, if two titles are too similar, they’ll actually limit each other’s market share — the market can only support so much of any one thing. To increase sales, publishers will seek to diversify and distinguish their comics, the same way pretty much all other industries do.

But I hate thinking about those kind of practical, business-y issues. My philosophy is much simpler: If I like a comic, I buy it, if I dislike it, I don’t. My only means of encouraging comics I like is with my money, but that encouragement looses potency if I apply it indiscriminately. If I have $2.99 (or $3.99, as is the case for Detective Comics), why should I spend it on something I don’t love? I could instead put that towards supporting a title I actually care about, or just sampling different titles month-to-month (or even local/independent comics), both of which are more supportive of the industry than paying for a title I don’t particularly care for.

After all of that, he concluded with a sentiment I think we can all get behind:

however, that one upside down page was indeed stupid.

7 comments on “Op-Ed: In Defense of Pickiness

  1. It’s true, reviews are often entertaining; if they weren’t, no one would read them. And if no one reads your review, then you aren’t actually sharing your opinions or starting any dialogue, and what’s the point of that?

    It’s a tough balance to maintain, between saying something funny and actually saying something. I know if I had to sacrifice one of those two things in a review, I would scrap the humor, but I generally try to maintain both.

    • I personally find reviews entertaining because they’re honest. That’s why I read them. I’m looking for genuine, thoughtful commentary on the artwork in question. (If I want to read insincere potshots, I’ll go straight to the comments section on youtube, thank you very much). I think funny reviews are funny because the people writing them just have a sense of humor, not because they’re joke writers parading as journalists.

  2. I know I’m like 100 years too late to weigh in on this and we’ve already had some fallout on this issue. But I just wanted to add my two cents:

    The internet is a tricky place to express thoughtful opinions. I think we generally work pretty hard not to focus on the quality of and issue or series, but focus rather on the literary and artistic techniques that affect us personally. Or we use this space to theorize about what something means or what’s going to happen next. Or whatever. This is primarily a fan space: we’re fans of comics, and to imply that we aren’t when we pan an issue we don’t like is totally insulting. I’ve written far more positive “reviews” on this site than I have negative, and I universally enjoy writing positive articles more, because the material challenges me and engages me on a thoughtful level, so I can apply those same qualities to my writing on the issue. But when Detective Comics is so convoluted and mean spirited, I’m certain it is the material demanding to judged based on its quality and not its content. I can’t apply thematic analysis to Detective Comics #8 (or #7 or #6 or #5 or #4 AND SO ON IN THAT FASHION) because there’s nothing to discuss.

    Also, come on, sometimes your honest reaction to something is simply “CHRIST THAT’S STUPID.” I’d be upset if Drew and written anything but. What purpose does it serve to praise something unworthy of praise?

  3. Pingback: Op-Ed: In Defense of “In Defense of Pickiness” | Retcon Punch

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