Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Newsarama Is Bad And Matt Brady Should Feel Bad Part 2: In Which Shots Misfire

Reviewing comics is hard.

Okay, that's a damned lie. Reviewing comics is stupefyingly easy; any asshole can do it, and these days it seems like every asshole is. It's doing it well that's hard. A good review does more than simply sum up the plot and say whether the reviewer liked or disliked it, although that is where they one starts. Like the spices added to a jar of store-bought pasta sauce (yes, I'm hungry again; deal with the food analogies), it's the personality the writer infuses the review with, and the skill with which he transfers the desire to read the comic (or the desire to shun it, if the review is negative) to the reader, that builds upon the base to make the final product truly good.

Or, in the case of the number of bad reviewers of comics (to say nothing of all other media), it's the lack of those things, an impenetrable roteness and distance, the staggering mundanity of it all, that kills a review stone dead. I've known many writers to be able to withstand any amount of negative reviews, but I've never known one not to be at least a little cheesed off by a truly bad one, a review that managed to talk much but say virtually nothing about their work.

And then there's just the fact that some people shouldn't be writing, period. You know the ones.

There's a little bit of all of this in Newsarama's weekly set of comics reviews, Best Shots. Which, by the way, is such a depressing title. When matched against the reviews themselves, it conjures images of Mr. Burns skeet-shooting, using a papier-mache rifle he can barely lift, with Smithers pulling double duty, shooting the clay pigeons into the air and then shooting them out of it, complimenting the dottering old miser on his steady eye and calm trigger finger all the way. Or, I imagine '80s singing sensation Pat Benatar, whose "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" was a disturbingly large part of my childhood, being visibly insulted at receiving this as a response, and taking out her frustration on the nearest available target. That image actually gives me a bit of sick pleasure, so we'll skip over it and get down to brass tacks.

The head of the "Best Shots" crew is Troy Brownfield, who never met a massively-hyped Marvel or DC comic he didn't like. Brownfield's taken lately (I say lately, but I mean over the last year or so) to doing day-of-release (or sometimes preliminary) reviews that uniformly read like long-winded marketing copy, or some twisted Ain't-It-Cool-News version of Mad Libs. "[Issue of tentpole series] [vague plot summary everyone already knows anyway] [creative team ass-kissing] [prediction of longevity and historical prominence for a series that'll be filling up quarter bins at San Diego in five years]." One would be tempted to think Brownfield has a side business on eBay, if he weren't so darned earnest about it every time. I think he actually believes the books he reviews are pinnacles of comics achievement. Now, I'm not one to knock corporate comics for the fun of it, but really, World War Hulk and Countdown are not going to be remembered as turning points in the field the way Watchmen and Dark Knight are. (This is largely because today's BIG. EVENT. COMICS. are trying too hard to be Watchmen and Dark Knight, but that's another entry, and one I've already written, to boot.)

The rest of the usual gang of idiots mostly follows Troy's lead. This week's edition is a good enough guide to the various tics of these mostly indistinguishable hacks, so I'll start with the liberal quoting followed by snark that you all came for.

We have a winner right out of the gate with Corey Henson's review of New Exiles #1:

"While over the past few years, Claremont has reined in his more excessive tendencies to fit in with more acceptable, modern comic-scripting techniques, here he has no such inhibitions. This issue is packed with expository narration and thought balloons, and Claremont uses them to good effect by dramatically setting up scenes, getting into his character’s heads, and teasing us with future subplots: Sage’s struggle to cope with replacing Roma as guardian of the Omniverse; a potential love triangle between Psylocke, Sabretooth and Mystiq; and possible subterfuge on the part of Cat. It all gives the comic a slightly old-school feel, which will delight longtime fans of Claremont while at the same time alienating those that don’t share the same affection for his work. That last bit’s a shame, but let’s face it, this book is clearly not even trying to convert new readers to Claremont’s fanbase, and that’s perfectly alright. There’s nothing wrong with catering to a specific audience, especially on a book that has no impact on the Marvel Universe at large."

Roger Ebert has a catch phrase that sums all of this up: "If you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you will like." The thing is, when Ebert says it, it's not supposed to be an endorsement. It's a statement of mediocrity, nothing more, nothing less. He's telling the audience to diminish their expectations. Apparently, by Henson's thinking, diminished expectations are perfectly all right. There's a really easy insult I could springboard off of that, but I'll be kind and simply say that mediocrity should never be met with praise, and that there's a lot wrong with catering to a specific audience at the exclusion of any other, both creatively and economically. But then, that's what Marvel and DC excel at these days, and it's not like they could be taking the wrong tac, could they?

Next we have J. Caleb Mozzocco's review of Chuck Dixon's return to Robin, who seems to be angling for an award for Most Backhanded Compliments:

"It should come as no surprise then that this first issue by the new creative team doesn't feel fresh as much as familiar, but it's a very comfortable sort of familiar. While Dixon's comics scripts aren't exactly the art form at its highest, and are rarely what I'd call excellent, they're almost always very, very good … Characterization isn't necessarily his strong point—in much of his work, you could switch out the title heroes for another character he's written or writing, and nothing about the story would change really—but he seems to know, like and write the character of Tim Drake better than any other… Newcomers should simply find it a little more rewarding than it's been for much of the post-Dixon period. But you could certainly do much worse if all you're looking for is an entertaining super-comic."

Gosh, I'm trembling with mild interest. No, wait, that's Restless Leg Syndrome. As for the rest of the review, well, I hope you like reading about what people have been saying about Robin's dead girlfriend on the Internet.

Chanel Reeder's review of Marvel Adventures: The Avengers #20 is full of things that piss me off:

"I could see it being interesting to a younger reader, while at the same time I was entertained too. Even though Troy informed me that I was probably still included in the young part, I still maintain my position … The storyline is typical, if not predictable, but overall it was still good ... After Dr. Hank Pym goes missing from Giant Girl’s fathers research lab, suspicions rise and the search to find him begins. Little do they know that they don’t even have to look past their own backyard. Literally … It was a natural progression for Spidey to be somewhat of a focal point in the story, due to his past history of bug experiences, so he fit in well with the introduction of Ant-Man … Overall, the Adventures Avengers are at a turning point in the storyline, and it seems to be taking an interesting direction. It has potential to be good, so I hope that I’m not disappointed later on."

Okay, I know this is the definition of amateur hour, but can we at least get some writers who would manage better than a C- average in a Freshman Writing course? Someone please tell me this is a sick, cruel joke at my expense. Still, at least Reeder seemed to care about honestly critiquing the book she was assigned, which is more than I can say for the others. But it also seemed that the crew dumped the book none of them wanted anything to do with on the writer at the bottom of the totem pole, and that just demolishes my respect for all involved. Or it would, if I had any.

Let's move on to Tim Janson, who really likes Atomic Robo:

"I’ve been all over Atomic Robo since the very first issue and I continue to love this series from Red 5 Comics. I think it’s truly one of the best new independent titles of the past year and Red 5 Comics would get my vote as best new publisher. Atomic Robo is a throwback to pulp adventures of the 30’s when you knew who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Atomic Robo is an intelligent, wise-cracking robot, created by genius inventor Nikola Tesla in 1923. The history of the character notes he’s been involved in many events over the span of 80 plus years decades from the space program to the civil rights movement."

It goes on like this. Now, I'm all for enthusiasm, but I'd like to know a little bit more about *why* this book is so good. This, right now, is like the guy going around in 1977 (you know there was at least one) telling all his friends about this cool movie he saw called Star Wars, and it has this guy called Luke Skywalker and this thing that looks like a moon but it's really a Death Star and there's lightsabers that go *whzooom* and a big furry guy who's all *wroaaro* and it's SO AWESOME. Show, Tim, don't tell.

Sarah Jaffe's review of Persepolis (the comic and the movie) suffers from assuming we all already know what Persepolis is about and why we should already have read/seen it. Which, okay, is a fair assumption given the press it's received, but still, every comic is someone's first. Like Janson, she focuses more on her love for the comic, and the review suffers for it. Also, and this is very mean of me, but I can't not make fun of a line like this:

"All hyperbole aside, I cannot think of a more important graphic novel for you to read."

Gosh. Imagine what she'd have said about it with hyperbole.

Janson repeats himself with his review of the latest Rex Mundi trade, so let's skip down to the "Pellet Reviews" (again, the joke is too easy, even for me). In fact, let's Pellet Review the Pellet Reviews.

Brian Anderson, Birds of Prey #114: Brian shows enthusiasm and personality, and at least offers some examples of what's good about the book, but overdoes the parenthetical phrases, and unfortunately picked an annoying personality to display. Still, he stands out.

Tim Janson, Red Sonja #29: I'm sorry, I was so flabbergasted that Dynamite's Red Sonja has lasted 29 issues that I forgot to read the review. Who the hell, other than Janson, is reading this?

Troy Brownfield, Angel: After the Fall #3: This is a review.

Troy Brownfield, New X-Men #46: Okay, Troy, if you're going to review it later after the final chapter of the crossover is out, then you should probably just skip telling us you're going to review it later after the final chapter of the crossover is out, and review it after the final chapter of the crossover is out.

Troy Brownfield, 76 #1: This one's actually good, probably because shorter reviews better fit the amount of content Brownfield is able to come up with.

Troy Brownfield, Cemetery Blues #1:
So, a character named Falstaff makes you think of an Italian zombie movie. That's not at all right.

Oddly enough, Michael C Lorah (is the middle initial just an initial, like in "Harry S Truman", or did Troy just forget the period? Only he knows for sure) gets it right with his advance review of NBM's Little Nothings. His review explains the book without summing it up, shows a working knowledge of comics craft, uses clear and effective figurative language, and aptly translates the aesthetic experience of reading the comic. I don't really know what he's doing here, but good for him for rising above the morass of the rest of the material. Lord knows it's easy to forgo setting standards for yourself when no one else around you is.

Yeah, I said it again. That's really what it comes down to; Brownfield and most of the Shots crew seem not to care about actually writing good reviews, but about pimping the stuff they like. A visit to the crew's home site, Shotgun Reviews , confirms that suspicion: this is a bunch of nerds talking about their favorite nerd stuff. And that's fine, that seems to be the main purpose of the Internet other than porno, but that's not reviewing, that's marketing. And trying to pass yourself off as a journalist, even an entertainment journalist, when you're just an unpaid amateur marketer is a slap in the face to actual journalism.

Then again, as we will see, Newsarama and actual journalism rarely have anything else to do with each other.

Next: "You remember that time..."

1 comment:

Russ said...

I probably would never have seen your blog here if you hadn't linked it to Shotgun Reviews, but let me clarify a few of the statements you made.

I don't need to get on here and list Troy's curriculum vitae, but he has a Master's degree in English, has been working as a journalist in print media for at least a decade, and he currently teaches college (of which one of his classes is feature, commentary, and review writing). So, it's one thing for you to get on here and say that he seems "not to care about actually writing good reviews, but about pimping the stuff they like" or "trying to pass yourself off as a journalist, even an entertainment journalist, when you're just an unpaid amateur marketer." That's fine if that's your opinion, but apparently there are several of those in the private sector that don't share your opinion. Since it didn't cost you anything but a few minutes out of your life to read Best Shots and it's costing his employers his salary and other various benefits to do what he does for a living, I would probably trust their expertise and opinions over yours because they have more at stake in his performance of work duties than you do.

As far as what Shotgun Reviews is all about, you might think that we're all "a bunch of nerds talking about their favorite nerd stuff" (which I think is a rather elitist statement), but there is a wide variety of topics covered on the site, including comics, movies, music and hip-hop, books, sports, politics, pop culture... maybe what you were looking at on a given day seemed "nerdy" to you, but we appeal to a much larger audience than you're acknowledging. We are one of the Top 10 Magazines and E-zines on the net according to Alexa, sharing space on the list with Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, Vibe, Variety, and the Hollywood Reporter. Next year, we'll have existed as a web site for 10 years. I think that if our audience were simply limited to "nerds" that we would have an awfully difficult time justifying how we got in the Top 10, but have a much broader demographic. Not only that, but the free promotional review items that we get are the result of our Alexa rating, which means that the people that are spending their company's money to give us this stuff for free to review must think we're doing something right, or they wouldn't be dropping things like $250 DVD box sets on my doorstep (like I just got from WWE). Again, their money is at stake, not your free opinion, so I trust them over you.

As far as the "Best Shots" title goes, I can't speak for Troy on this one because I didn't come up with it, but I assume it was to point back to Shotgun Reviews and to give it consistent branding, much like what has been done with the Shots in the Dark podcasts. Maybe you don't like the title, but it's good business sense to me, and it helps drive traffic to the site.

In particular, I was also amused by your comment about how "there's a lot wrong with catering to a specific audience at the exclusion of any other, both creatively and economically" and the "celebration of mediocrity." I finally got out of comics a few years ago when I decided that my kids and my family needed my money, and not my comic shop guy's kids and family. I just don't understand the mentality that will decry commercialized comics crowding out comics of artistic and critical acclaim, and yet state in the same breath that mediocre books that haven't found their audience need to make way. Now, I'm not saying that you're saying that--that's just a particular argument I've heard over the years. But, I thought it was a curious take on your part to jock Marvel and DC for putting out commercially successful books and then slap Marvel and DC for putting out commercially successful books in the same breath.

I also find it hypocritical that you would slam the Best Shots team as a bunch of "nerds" and then have a web site that pretty much is devoted to the topic they're talking about. Then you say that "the main purpose of the Internet other than porno" is "a bunch of nerds talking about their favorite nerd stuff." You're going to fault them for that when you're sitting here doing the same thing. Or maybe the people at the country club ARE talking about "Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil" these days and I never knew it.

Like I said, you're entitled to your opinion, but I think it's misinformed and very disingenuous.