Five Ways to Improve Your Comic Reviews

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Have you ever wanted to get into comic reviewing or thought your reviews just needed a little extra something? I see a lot of reviews missing some key aspects those few times when I do actually read other people’s reviews. It’s been three years since I’ve started this blog and over the course of that time I’ve learned a lot about comics and the medium in general, but more importantly how to write about them. I’m in no way an expert, but I do have pretty strong opinions on what makes a good review and how we can better talk about and analyze comics as an artistic medium and an entertainment medium. Below are five tips to improve your comic reviews. Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips to add.

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1. Talk panel design and page layout

I think one of the things I see missing from a lot of reviews about comics is discussions on how the story is conveyed through the pages. Comics tell their stories through panels organized on a page in specific ways for specific reasons. Each panel and the space in between serves a purpose in moving the story forward and conveying the artist/writer’s intentions. If you want to be a great comic reviewer, you should be able to look at a page and see how the panels are arranged to say convey the passage of time, or movement, or how a page’s layout works with the timing of a joke or gag.

Take a look at this review I did for Our Dreams at Dusk Volume One. In it I pull out a few pages and take a look at how they specifically convey mood and story through their layout and panel transitions. Don’t fret too much if you find this all confusing. It took me quite a while to get to this point too. Luckily there are a lot of great resources to get started. I would highly recommend checking out: Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner, the Youtube channel Pause and Select, and the Youtube channel Strip Panel Naked to name a few. Try to sit down and pull a page or two out of your favorite comic and really think about why the artist and writer chose to display it in that particular way.

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2. Discuss the artistic style

The integration of art and storytelling is the distinguishing factor between comics and prose. Leaving out a discussion of the art style, coloring, shading, or line work can be detrimental to a comic review. For me, the art style of a comic is a key deciding factor in whether or not I’ll enjoy it. I have a bit of a background in fine art, so I may be more picky than the general person, but leaving out discussions or even images of the comic means the review will be fairly dissatisfying for me. Each artist has their own unique style and way of doing their line work and shading. Taking a minute to really sit down and examine what makes one artist different from another will really boost the quality of your review.

Take a minute to check out these reviews I did for the manga Mars and the graphic novel Daytripper which have some of my favorite art out of any comic. Mars is a great example of classic shoujo style with its light and almost ethereal line work. Daytripper has a great art style that combines a sketchy line-work and watercolor to create fantastical pages. There’s not much in the way of resources I can recommend for this one. I think it’s just a matter of experiencing a lot of different comics and getting familiar with artists, styles, even eras to get a good grasp of the differing styles out there.

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3. Know your genre

What makes a shoujo a shoujo? What about science fiction? Or superhero comics? What particulars of the genre distinguish it from other genres? We should be looking to see if we can find these identifying aspects to examine how they are used or misused in the comic under review. I mainly write about the romance genre on this blog, so I can tell you what distinguishes a high school romance from a thirty-something romance from a queer romance. I can tell you the various tropes and repeated plot lines these stories use and reuse. Getting familiar with these points is the first step in understanding the genre as a whole and being able to then tell your readers if this comic is a good representation of that genre.

Learning the history of the genre is super important here. You want to be able to tell if a writer is referencing something or commenting on a certain aspect of the genre. One Punch Man is a great example. Knowing that it’s a series that is commenting on the shonen battle genre and its trope of power creep is essential to reviewing the series as a whole. If you have a particular genre you’re really interested in writing about, read everything you can. Don’t stop at comics, read some prose, some short stories, or some critical/academic literature about it. The more you become familiar with everything the writer might have drawn from, the better you can understand and identify how their leveraging the genre in their storytelling.

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4. Get familiar with the creative team

Western comics are so much harder to write about in this respect than manga. Manga can have one maybe two credited artists and writers at the most whereas Western comics can be split between writer, artist, penciler, colorist, letterer each with their own unique style and skill set. It becomes much more challenging to follow and read-up on each contributor and their specific style. However it is important to try and learn a little of their background, what they’ve worked on before, what genres they excel at, and if they have any specifics to their style. For manga, the job is a little easier with most of the credited creative team under the mangaka. Though they may have assistants that help them with backgrounds or effects, the overall design and planning of the manga comes from the creator themselves. Artist and writer teams are not uncommon, but you’re more likely to see a single name credited as writer/artist on the cover.

If you feel daunted by this at all, take it in steps. Maybe don’t look at the whole team, but how one or two particular people really made the comic what it is or how one person’s style or experience really showed through in a particular volume. You can also examine how an artist or writer has grown or changed from their last work or how they incorporated elements from a past work into the current one. Go back and read what you can, look them up on Wikipedia, or see if they have a personal website or blog somewhere.

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5. Know the jargon

Jargon or specific vocabulary is very important for any specific creative medium or profession. There are specific words that refer to very specific things, and, to some, failing to use the correct one or omitting them all together can make it seem like you aren’t as familiar with the medium as you actually are. Academics, for example, are known for using a ton of jargon and are also known to be unable to turn it off in casual conversation. But in the academic world, you’re expected to know the specific terms for the concepts you’re talking about. It lends support to the perception that your an expert in your field. Now you definitely don’t have to be an expert in comics to begin reviewing them, but replacing common words with the specific jargon of the medium can go a long way in giving credence to your review and making it seem more reliable.

CBR or Comic Book Resources, a major comic site, has a great look at writing comic reviews, and one of the tips they go over is incorporating jargon. The writer, Ron Marz, spells out some important terms you should know if you’re going to be reviewing comics. Terms like: panel, gutter, splash, and two-page spread. Another great resource is the reference book I mentioned in number 1, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. If your reviewing manga, you should know the terms for specific genres (shoujo, shonen, josei, isekai, iyashikei), character tropes (tsundere, deredere, nyandere), and that a manga creator is called a mangaka. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the terms of your medium and genre–there are tons of great lists out there–and I guarantee your reviews will begin feeling more authentic.

~~Thanks for Reading!~~


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3 thoughts on “Five Ways to Improve Your Comic Reviews

  1. You brought up panel layout! It’s always something I end up forgetting either because I don’t have the manga on hand to photograph or the panels aren’t available elsewhere online. It’s a really important factor though that seems to be really under appreciated like you said.

    Including further sources for reading up a bit (something I haven’t done in awhile) was really nice too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: July (2019) Monthly Favorites – Phoenix Talks Pop Culture Japan

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