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Thread: The Art of Reviewing Comics

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    MH Senpai 伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member
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    The Art of Reviewing Comics

    This is from a friend of mine who is known for reviewing comics (albeit American) on the internet, and I asked him to do a guide to doing reviews for our Scrapbooks forum. The differences between comics and manga shouldn't be that big a deal. Enjoy!

    * * * * *

    The Art Of Reviewing Comics
    By Steve Sellers

    Overview


    On the surface, reviewing a comic book sounds like a simple process. It seemed that way to me, years ago, when I first started writing reviews. It seemed even simpler as time went along and I wrote over a year’s worth of them. After all, we’re talking about expressing an opinion on something we’ve read. We all form opinions on everything we see all the time. How hard can it be, right?

    However, looking back on it now, I think there’s somewhat more to the process. It’s one thing to look at the printed page and understand what works in a comic or not. It’s quite another to look “under the hood”, so to speak, and understand why your favorite creators wrote and drew the comic the way they did. It’s another thing again to be able to explain your opinion in a way that makes sense to your readers. What I plan to do with this guide is to help you along with this process.

    So does it matter whether the subject matter is manga or American comics? I’ve reviewed both, so I think I can fairly comment on this. To an extent, it probably doesn’t. The general principles apply no matter what you’re doing. However, I think you have to consider the audience and the creators’ intent when you’re reviewing anything. So if you’re reviewing for manga, you should consider how effectively manga techniques are being used in the comic. But in terms of structure, you shouldn’t have to think of the distinction much if at all.

    I’ll add one last word before moving on. You do not have to write to a formula. This is not a guide about writing reviews the way I would. Be true to your own style. If you like to use humor to make a point, for instance, by all means do that. If you disagree with some of my methods and want to try a different way, by all means go for it. The idea is to understand the craft enough to make conscious decisions about how you want to go through the process.


    Pre-Writing

    The most important part of reviewing a comic starts before you even write it. I really cannot stress this point enough. Yes, reviewing is essentially writing an opinion. However, if you want your opinion to be taken seriously, it needs to be thought carefully through. Your opinion needs to come across as clear, logical, concise, and valid to your audience. That way, even people who disagree with you (and there will be plenty of them, trust me) will at least respect what you have to say even if they disagree. Credibility is any reviewer’s most important asset. Work hard to build, maintain, and keep it.

    This may sound obvious or trite, but I urge you to read the comic you are reviewing carefully. Read it at least twice. I don’t mean a quick, cursory scan either. Carefully go through each page, each panel, and each line of dialogue. When you finally sit down to write the review, keep a copy of the comic at hand for reference. Do your best to understand what the writer and artist are doing. You need to be able to see what the creators intended to do as well as the execution on the printed page. You also want to be careful because if you’re going to comment on what you’ve read, you need to make sure you’re reporting the story accurately.

    Once you’ve done that, work out your reasoning in detail. If you liked the comic, think about why this comic made an impact on you. What specifically worked for you, and why might it work for your reader? If the comic didn’t work for you, why specifically did this comic fail? Is there anything the writer or artist might have done differently to make this comic better? Is the comic flawed from the concept, or is it just that the execution is lacking? Think about these questions carefully as you sit down to write.

    Above all, do your best to be fair to the comic you’re reviewing. You don’t have to be completely impartial because you are writing an opinion. However, I do think it’s a good idea to explain whatever preconceived biases you may have from the outset. For instance, if you don’t like what the creators of this comic have written or drawn in the past, say so. However, try to objectively evaluate the work in front of you, irrespective of past work. Give creators you don’t like credit when they do something right. By the same token, take creators you do like to task if they do something wrong. You will come across as a more credible reviewer if you treat your subject fairly and with respect.

    Finally, we’ll look at the basic structure of the review itself. The most common review structure consists of an introduction, an analysis of the writing, a critique of the art, and a conclusion. However, that’s only the simplest way to do it. You can certainly add more to this structure if you have more to say. If you want to discuss the book’s marketing strategy or even just lighten the review with some humor, you’re more than welcome to do so. However, the four-part structure covers the most important points.


    The Introduction

    The introductory section is designed with two purposes in mind. You need not spend a great deal of space. The introduction can be a single paragraph long. However, even if you opt for a short piece, the introduction is still the most important paragraph you write as far as the reader is concerned.

    Firstly, a good introduction should catch your reader’s attention. As the review writer, there are many tools open to you. It’s possible to use humor, an interesting tagline, or any other sort of device. The important thing is that the introduction sums up your basic point in a way that the reader can understand.

    Above all, the introduction is primarily your mission statement. The reader needs to understand the point of your review. The main idea of your review should be found somewhere in the introduction. Make it clear to the reader what comic you are reviewing and, in general terms, what it means to you. The rest of the review should all back up the main idea that you’ve expressed in the introduction.

    Now that we have a basic plan and an introduction, let’s explore the nuts and bolts of the comic being reviewed.


    The Writing

    First, I want to digress a moment and explain why I focus on the writing above all else. When reviewing a comic, I generally always begin with the story. The story is what the comic is ultimately about. It’s the main idea that the comic is trying to express. I don’t mean this as any sort of disrespect to the artist, because the artist has a vitally important role in creating the comic. However, in my view, everything flows from the story. The whole point of a comic, to me, is that the story functions properly and comes across well through the art. The art should serve the story and show how the narrative unfolds visually. To me, the story is the main idea of the comic, so I like to begin there.

    Do you have to begin with the story when writing your review? No. If you are an art-oriented reader and you believe that you can make the review work, then by all means begin with art analysis. That said, I’d only recommend it if you have a strong background in art. Even so, it may be wise to do so after you’ve had some practice in writing reviews. Do what seems right for your review and for you as a writer.

    I would recommend trying to understand the craft of writing before reviewing it. Contrary to popular belief, writing a story requires a certain amount of craft and skill. Not everyone can do it well. I’ll try to cover the basics down as best I can, but I couldn’t possibly explore all the elements of writing in this guide. If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend tracking down a copy of Writing For Comics by Alan Moore (writer of V For Vendetta, From Hell, Watchmen, and many of the greatest comics published in the United States). It’s a very short read, but it will teach you more about the elements of comics writing than any huge volume ever could. I also suggest looking at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is a good introduction to the craft of the medium.

    When examining the writing, I begin by trying to understand the writer’s intention when crafting the story. What basic theme or idea is he aiming for? Does the story look like it’s about something, or does the story meander around hopelessly with no central idea? Does the basic concept make sense? Does it look like there’s a good idea at the core of the story, even if the rest falls flat? If the comic is well-written, the execution of the story should support the author’s intention.

    Once you’ve determined that, look at the execution. Look at the structure of the story and see how well it holds up. However, I’d advise a certain amount of caution here. Writing can be affected by a number of different factors that don’t show up on the page. Sometimes what appears like a story problem on first glance may be a confusion of the art. Bad art can turn an otherwise good story into a mediocre comic. Sometimes an editor may make changes that are harmful to the story. Be sure that if there is a problem, that you’ve attributed the cause to the right person. Fairness will help your credibility as a reviewer.

    However, there are certain important story elements that the writer is responsible for. While I won’t list everything here, I will cover the more important ones. These are the kinds of questions I generally ask…

    Characterization: How well does the author write the characters in the story? Do the characters come across as believable people, or are they flat and unmemorable? Do the characters have logical reasons to be active in the story? Does the villain or antagonist have a valid point of view that makes sense in the context of the story? Is the conflict engaging and memorable? Are the characters acting as they normally would, or are they being forced out of character to advance the plot? If characters are acting strangely, does the writer explain why or does he ignore the problem? Have the characters learned anything significant in the story, or do they remain the same as when they started? Do the relationships between the characters change and grow? How well does the writer understand people, and does it show in the story?

    Plot: How does the story hold together structurally? Do events flow in a logical fashion? Do events seem like they would logically happen if they took place in that setting? Is there anything that the author has failed to account for? If there is action, does the fight evolve in a logical way, or does it look like the fight is “thrown” so a character can win? Are the characters dumbed down in any way solely to advance the plot? If there’s a surprise twist, does it feel logical or does it feel like it just came out of nowhere? In short, does everything make sense?

    Dialogue: How well do the characters speak? Do the characters have substantially different voices, or do they all sound the same? Do the characters sound like people or like a writer? Does the dialogue fit the characters and the setting the story takes place in? Is the page cluttered with unnecessary words, or does the art have room to tell the story properly? Could the writer say more with less verbage?

    Continuity: How well does the writer maintain consistency with what has happened before? Does the story contradict any previously established facts, and if so, why? If the story does contradict something, does the writer give a reason for it, and if so, does it make sense? Has the writer forgotten about or ignored an important detail that he should have included?

    Originality: Does the story offer new and interesting ideas that you haven’t seen before? If this is an ongoing series, is this story different than other stories featuring these characters? Has the writer taken these characters to emotional places that we haven’t seen before? If there is a new character introduced, is this character original or an obvious rip-off of someone else? How well does the writer hide his influences? If the writer has adapted old ideas, has he twisted them into something new or is it just a retread of something you’ve seen already?

    Visual Writing: How well does the writer use the tools of the medium? How well are the panels arranged and laid out? Is the writer showing the same tired “talking head” format, or is he finding new ways to show the action? How does he show the passage of time? Does he look like he’s writing something to be read or to be drawn? If he’s writing for manga, how well does he use those stylistic techniques?

    There are many other questions, of course. You may want to address points dealing with ideas, with structure, with theme, or anything else that crosses your mind. It’s also important to note if you felt emotionally invested in the work. There are many technically well-crafted stories that lack passion and fail to move the reader, and fall flat as a result. It’s also possible to dislike a writer’s approach or style, even if the story technically works. Personally, I would not call something a bad comic unless there is something technically wrong with it, but you may decide differently.

    In the end, you’ll have to make your own call about how well a story works or doesn’t. There are many ways for a story to work, and many ways for a story to fail. What works or doesn’t is going to be entirely your call. Writing is a subjective art form, and while there are certainly rules, it’s possible to break some of them and still end up with a good story. Just use your best judgment.


    The Art

    For the purposes of this guide, I’m going to focus on how well the art tells the story. I’ll admit from the outset that while I have some basic knowledge of art, it isn’t my strongest point. This is simply how I approach it. If you know more about art, you can do it differently.

    Do you have to be an artist in order to criticize art with any serious credibility? No. Absolutely not. You don’t have to be a professional artist to judge art any more then you have to be a film director to criticize the merits of a movie. It helps, sure, but it’s not a requirement. As long as you have some idea of what you’re talking about and can express yourself reasonably, you should be fine.

    I do recommend that you try to understand the basics of comic art, however. You’ll want to know what purpose that panel arrangement and visuals play in telling the story. You’ll want to know how space is used to indicate the passage of time. You’ll want to know how the art conveys the illusion of movement. You’ll want to know how the art uses “camera” angles to set a scene through single panels. Most of this is covered in Understanding Comics, which is a useful learning tool to becoming a good reviewer. When you understand what an artist is trying to do, you’ll be better equipped to write an informed opinion about art.

    You may also want to look through basic art books and understand the basic craft of art. You don’t have to do this to be a good reviewer, of course, but I think it helps. Try to understand things like anatomy and perspective and various artistic styles. Learn the basic terms that artists use. You don’t need to be any kind of an art expert if you aren’t one. You only need to understand enough about art to evaluate it in an informed way. If you can do that, this will help your credibility.

    Keep in mind that art criticism is a very subjective process. Different artists have different styles and primary influences. There may be styles that you love and styles that you dislike. There are certain stylistic techniques in manga that I don’t care for, for example. However, I’ve gradually come to the realization that style is less important than what works for the story. If you can justify your position on a style, then you can certainly criticize it. At the same time, any style might be able to reasonably work if it’s used on the right story.

    The most important question to ask yourself: how well is the artist telling the story? This is a much less subjective way to approach art review. You don’t need to know everything about art to know this. More often than not, it will show itself just in your understanding of the story. A good comic will clearly show what happens in a progressive and logical way through the art. A poorly drawn comic will be harder to understand and follow. I’ve spoken to people who’d initially thought a story was bad, only to find that they simply didn’t understand the story because the art wasn’t clear. On the other hand, it’s also possible for a comic to fail because the artist misinterpreted story directions or a variety of other reasons.

    In short, the first thing you should do is find out if the art is telling the story. If the artist is telling the story well, the comic technically works. If not, it’s your job as the reviewer to explain why the story isn’t coming across properly through the visuals.

    Sometimes, the reason may simply be a poor stylistic fit between the artist and the writer. If the artist can only draw dark and gritty crime noir and the story calls for light-hearted romantic comedy, you’re going to have problems. This isn’t the fault of the artist; he’s just doing the best he can with the talents he has. In this case, the editor is the logical place to place the blame if the comic doesn’t work, because it’s his job to know better.

    It’s also possible that the artist and the writer may simply have different visions. This happens from time to time. Writers tend to think in terms of character, plot, and so forth. Artists tend to think in terms of the visuals they can imagine and how best to show the image in their minds. It’s possible for a writer not to think visually, or for an artist to see visuals that don’t mesh with the story. The writer gives stage directions, but sometimes the artist may misunderstand them or decide something else may work better. Perhaps the artist has a different idea of how a character would react than the writer does. This leads to a conflict that weakens the comic on the printed page.

    Also, it might be that the art is simply hard to read. The panels don’t make sense, the story doesn’t flow visually, or the visuals look muddied or confusing. This may be a stylistic problem, a technical or craft problem, or something else. It’s possible that the art could have been rushed to meet a deadline. Just make the best judgment with the information you have and account for it as best you can.

    The best comics are the ones where the writer and artist are firmly on the same page. This will always show in the comic when it’s done well. This is shown most clearly in the small details. If the artist is strongly in tune with the writer, the artist will get the writer’s point across with no need for dialogue whatsoever. Small details will show in the script, the characters will be properly expressive, and the “camera” angles will show everything they need to. This is what every comic should aspire to be, and so few comics achieve.

    In the end, art is a matter of interpretation, so you will have to make many calls as a reviewer. How you make those calls is entirely up to you. As long as the review comes across as a logical and informed opinion, you’ll have done your job.


    Conclusion

    Once you’ve done explaining the nuts and bolts of your review, it’s time to wrap it up. Generally speaking, it’s a summation of everything you’ve already written. In fact, many of the same rules used in the introduction apply just as well here. The conclusion is fairly simple, so I’ll just go over a couple of points.

    Like the introduction, you want to end with a strong closing statement. The closing statement should cover the most important highlights of your review. Generally this will be a rephrasing of your main idea as written in the introduction. Get to the point and make it simple.

    As you might imagine, the closing statement should provide closure. This sounds obvious, but it needs emphasizing. You want people to remember your conclusion, because it’s the whole point of your review. End the review on as strong a note as you can manage. You want to start strong and end strong.


    End Notes

    Once that’s finished, you’re done with your review. However, that’s not quite everything. There's still a little bit more left to do.

    Firstly, do whatever proofreading and editing of your review that you need to. Spelling and grammar are important, especially when you’re writing to persuade an audience. Make sure there aren’t any serious mistakes in your writing before you submit it. You’re not going to have much credibility when you’re criticizing someone else’s writing if yours isn’t up to standards. You don’t necessarily have to be perfect, but you do have to be coherent and legible. Do your best to ensure that your writing looks as clean and polished as you can manage.

    I’d also suggest looking over your reasoning and try to anticipate anything that a reader might have problems with. Not everyone is going to agree with you. You may have to defend your work from time to time. That comes with the territory. Make sure that your reasoning makes sense to you and that you can defend your points if called upon to do so.

    Once everything is done, submit or post your review wherever you’d like. There are many comic review sites on the Internet, so I’m going to assume that you know where you’re submitting your review. At that point, all you can do is look over your work again and wait for any reactions. Try to learn as much as you can from your work and improve with the next one.

    Assuming you receive feedback from someone, I always suggest that any reviewer behave professionally when dealing with criticism. Always be courteous and respectful when replying to your readers, even if they’re critical. Especially if they’re critical. Listen to what they have to say, and decide how much of their criticism is constructive and worth applying. These people are there to keep you honest. Certainly, they may well be wrong, and in that case, you should defend your words with the best and most respectful argument you can make. However, there will likely be times when your readers have good points to offer. If you know how to learn from constructive criticism, you’ll become a better reviewer.

    Above all, if you realize that you’re wrong about something, be honest and admit it. No reviewer is perfect all the time. If a story starts off with what looks like a glaring mistake, and the writer explains it away in a later issue, give him credit. If a reader points out a hole in your review that you can’t refute, listen to him and admit you were wrong. It’ll help your credibility to be honest about your own work, trust me.

    Finally, enjoy writing your reviews. Love what you do. Care about what you’re writing about. Genuine passion about your subject will make your writing better. Write your review because you believe you have something to say about this comic that no one else does. Keep reviewing as long as you believe that. If you can do that, you’re a step ahead of the game.

    While this guide is somewhat simplistic, I hope this answers the most important questions. More than that, I hope whoever reads this gains something worthwhile from this. This guide covers lessons that I’ve learned from years of writing. I hope they’ll be of some value to you. Best of luck to you as you make your own journey as a reviewer.

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  3. #2
    =D 英雄メンバー / Eiyuu Menbaa / Hero Member Tamerlane's Avatar
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    I read thru part of it already and it seems like it is going to be a great help.

    ::runs off to read some Bleach manga::

    I am going to have to give reviewing a try. Should be interesting......or really bad....one of the two.

  4. #3
    MH Senpai 伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    I think it's a lot of fun personally, but obviously my own reviewing style doesn't necessarily follow what Steve has outlined here. His reviewing guide is more for articles or columns that's done professionally, and these are probably more suited for wide range exposure on the internet.

    But I never fancied myself much of a writer, and my reviewing style is the one I'm most comfortable with at the moment


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    Registered User 初心者/ Shoshinsha / Beginner
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    hehe, never expected to see Steve's work here. ^_^

    While I've written many reviews in the past, I'm not sure if I'll have time to do so now. But if I get the chance, I will. I've been itching to talk about Absolute Boyfriend, which is absolutely fantastic. ^_~

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    Registered User 中級員 / Chuukyuuin / Member zerocharisma's Avatar
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Ooo! More good analysis! My contribution to this topic shall be thus:

    http://www.newsarama.com/general/Wor...ords/WWW02.htm

    This is a great article by Michael J. Straczynski about the art of telling a story via graphic narrative. In it he analyzes a page from "The Watchmen."

    z.

    I would be interested if anyone has more analysis like Gold Knight's post and this.

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    MH Senpai 伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Though Straczynski (who's from my area, btw) definitely was on the mark about that page from Watchmen, I wasn't too crazy about that ASM page and to be honest I'm not too crazy about his work at all. So I found it kind of interesting that he reviewed his work and of course he would try to make it look good, that was somewhat unexpected. Bleh. But thanks for bringing up that article.

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    Registered User 中級員 / Chuukyuuin / Member zerocharisma's Avatar
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Quote Originally Posted by Gold Knight
    Though Straczynski (who's from my area, btw) definitely was on the mark about that page from Watchmen, I wasn't too crazy about that ASM page and to be honest I'm not too crazy about his work at all. So I found it kind of interesting that he reviewed his work and of course he would try to make it look good, that was somewhat unexpected. Bleh. But thanks for bringing up that article.
    Hah, I brought up the article because I learned something from it. Here's a narrative technique I've never thought of before--splitting a large set (the ship) into smaller panels and then using them sequentially for an interesting way to portray exposition spatially.

    The Straczynski work I'm most familiar with is Babylon 5 and his screenwriting book. I would be interested to know the reasoning for your evaluation of his graphic novel work for the the sole reason that I know I will learn something from it So what does it need?

    z.

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    MH Senpai 伝説メンバー / Densetsu / Legendary Member
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Well, in that case, I really hate it when panels repeat scenes two times in a row. It's just pure laziness. Yes, it was designed to show the pause between scenes, but c'mon, Mary Jane must have a stick up her lovely butt for her bodily expression to freeze like that perfectly, especially as I would have expected a skeptical look of some kind to manifest in the next panel, but all we get is a blank stare.

    Maybe it's just that that technique is being overexploited lately in American comics, which is starting to bug me, tho.

    But in general, it's actually Straczynski's writing in Spidey that bug me, not the comic book art within his books, which is usually good and sometimes even wonderful. As for his work on Babylon, I haven't seen that show, but a talent in one kind of media doesn't always translate to similar success in other media, so...

    ESPECIALLY with the advent of graphic novel stories. For example, now you have demand within the industry for writers to script stories that are meant to start and finish in the span of 6 issues (like the Kakashi Gaiden).

    Well, there are writers that just can't do this sort of thing. They don't understand how to capture the fans' excitement with short stories. Chris Claremont of X-Men comics, for example, was a wonderful writer when he could dream up all the subplots over the span of 100 issues, but when forced to work in a story for only 6 issues, he fails horribly. Stracynski might be suffering from the same problem, especially since he's also a TV series writer.

    There's only one TV series-cum-comic book writer so far that I've seen that really has conquered the move, and that's Joss Whedon. He understands how to do both types of stories.

    And Kishimoto proved he could write an excellent short story with the Gaiden just as well as he could write a long story, as well.

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    Registered User 中級員 / Chuukyuuin / Member zerocharisma's Avatar
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Again, insightful comments and I learned something.

    I think the "frozen model" comes from the four-panel comic strips, where the one character deadpans the other character to get a laugh. So I guess in that sense it's less a narrative technique than an overused tool to elicit a laugh.

    Somewhere that technique made me completely crack up, though--have you ever seen Men in Black 2? Tommy Lee Jones delivers a line, Will Smith deadpans him, then just leaves. I think they play off this graphic bit.

    In anime/manga it's when somebody says something and the next frame shows that speaker and recipients just in outline.

    As for American graphic novels, I don't read them much because I don't like the hyperreal graphic style. Maybe it's just my Asperger's Syndrome, but I prefer the simpler lines, the graphic tones that differ between panels of different emotional tones, the wide variety of camera angles/viewpoints, using the art to get the point across. Just more appealing.

    z.

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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Quote Originally Posted by zerocharisma
    Again, insightful comments and I learned something.

    I think the "frozen model" comes from the four-panel comic strips, where the one character deadpans the other character to get a laugh. So I guess in that sense it's less a narrative technique than an overused tool to elicit a laugh.
    "Overused" is my main problem unfortunately. A joke done too many times gets stale; it used to be funny, but you've got to start doing something new after a while.

    Quote Quote:
    Somewhere that technique made me completely crack up, though--have you ever seen Men in Black 2? Tommy Lee Jones delivers a line, Will Smith deadpans him, then just leaves. I think they play off this graphic bit.
    Actually, no, only seen the first movie. I'll have to check it out. ^^

    Quote Quote:
    As for American graphic novels, I don't read them much because I don't like the hyperreal graphic style. Maybe it's just my Asperger's Syndrome, but I prefer the simpler lines, the graphic tones that differ between panels of different emotional tones, the wide variety of camera angles/viewpoints, using the art to get the point across. Just more appealing.

    z.
    Yeah, I agree. There has to be a balance between art and story, with neither distracting from the other, or you have a poorly told story. Hyperreal art can work, but only with simple dialogue and very little text ( Alex Ross' Kingdom Come and Greg Land's Sojourn were good examples ) but with a lot of text, you need to have less distracting art that will work with it (Jim Lee's art at its peak in the early issues of unadjective X-Men issues, for example, usually made readers gloss over Chris Claremont's text, which wasn't good.) In some cases I think manga takes the "simplification" process *TOO* far, though. "American manga" tends to do this as well.

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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Really is an ART ... I did not think it that way ...

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    MH Senpai 英雄メンバー / Eiyuu Menbaa / Hero Member Raine_Joybringer's Avatar
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    Re: The Art of Reviewing Comics

    Quote Originally Posted by Wajahat
    Really is an ART ... I did not think it that way ...
    Yup, it sure is! I used to draw a few comics back a couple years ago, and it's never quite easy to get the feeling you want across. But when you hear someone say that they understood, it's a wonderful thing to know you've succeeded. And reviewing isn't just looking at the art, but understanding the entire story behind it- it's reasons for why things are done that way and why certain things were chosen.

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    Visit my dA account: deviantART Or my FF.net account: Fanfiction.net

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