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On Criticism

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the role of criticism, specifically negative reviews of comics and how they tend to be received by the creative individuals involved.

For myself, I always consider reviews useful—even the hatchet jobs. It makes my heart sink a little when I hear other artists dismiss all reviews as irrelevant to their process. A common claim is that reviews tell us “only about the reviewer” and tell us “nothing about the work,” but I disagree. Yes, reviewers have biases. Yes, they miss the point sometimes. But there’s always some kind of information embedded in any reaction to any creative effort.

Take an extreme example:

Suppose you’re a cartoonist, and ten years ago you made a casual remark about some political issue in an interview or on a panel. A stranger decides they don’t like you, based entirely on this one remark.

Ten years later, you’ve just published your first graphic novel. You’ve poured your heart into it. It’s a thousand pages long, it’s everything you wanted it to be. And an online review site hires that same stranger to review the book.

Still upset about the political remark you made a decade earlier, the stranger-turned-critic savages your magnum opus, tears it to shreds, all the while clearly referencing a perceived political position which has nothing to do with the book, and is nowhere in the book. All negatives. No positives. All based on that one remark from ten years ago.

If you were that cartoonist, you could easily dismiss such a review. You could easily say that a bitter, biased, petty review like that is a classic example of a completely useless review, that it told you “only about the reviewer” and told you “nothing about the work.”

But you’d be wrong.

Because even in that extreme example there was a vital piece of information about your work that was worth paying attention to: The simple fact that your art and/or story were insufficiently powerful to overcome a grudge.

And that’s information worth having.


Discussion (44)¬

  1. Mike Leung says:

    Your vote for Dukakis ruined Zot for me.

  2. I generally shudder at the notion of creators reacting to criticism in their work, to be honest. In my mind, criticism is for anyone BUT the creator of the work that’s being criticized.

    • That’s pretty much what it is.

      A very long way about telling others if they think the comic/movie/show/etc… it worth looking at.

    • It’s absolutely true that the last person criticism is (or should be) intended for is the artists themselves. But that’s precisely where the value to the artist lies–in seeing the response to your work of someone who owes you nothing, who has no need to worry about your hurt feelings.

      Critique that’s actually intended for the artist tends to be full of softened blows and kindnesses, which can distract an artist from the harsher comments that they actually need to hear. Not that artists never need encouragement as well–of course they do–but that’s not the most practical information to be had.

      Of course, criticism needs to be read critically as well, if one is to distinguish the genuine insights from the mere insults.

  3. Kyle Latino says:

    The last too lines of that post just blew my mind. Really, you’ve convinced me.

    Also, I picked up the first trade of Tezuka’s BLACKJACK, INCREDIBLE! I need the rest. It made me appreciate how much your work scratches that Tezuka itch too.

  4. Steve Weiner says:

    I voted for Dukakis too.

    While I do see your point that the artistic creation overcame a bias, what you’re saying isn’t really about a review. The review, in this instance, serves only as a way for the person unfavorably predisposed to communicate with the artist; the review in itself has nothing really to offer. My own experience is that if the creator has a strong reaction to a review then there’s either something very powerful in the review or not much to consider. Those are the reviews I read over a few months later & decide whether the reviewer might be right–I did miss the point–or the reviewer did.

  5. Mike L says:

    The most common misconception about criticism is that one has to be on a similar skill level as the creator in order to have a valid opinion. I read stuff from many different artists from many different disciplines who cannot abide ramblings of people that couldn’t compete with them in some way. If said person is not an artist, their opinion doesn’t matter.

    But isn’t art, all art about communication? And who is the artist generally trying to communicate with? If the answer is ‘only with the artist,’ which sort of defeats the idea of communication, then sure, no critique would apply. Otherwise, anyone in the intended audience might have something useful to say. My #1 critic is someone who cannot draw at all. He tells me things I can’t see because I overthink them as an artist.

    Without critique, how could one properly grow? Critique, too is a way to get out of one’s own head. To find new angles that one couldn’t see on one’s own. The tricky part is choosing which critique to listen to, to realize which has the right weight, and which can be damaging.

  6. Artists tend to be a little autistic about their work, which can be good and bad too. For me, it’s important to have the reactions of everyone, not to decide what to do next, but to understand how my work is communicating. You may disagree with the critics, but never ignore them.

    “All the pieces matter!”

  7. howard says:

    “Because even in that extreme example there was a vital piece of information about your work that was worth paying attention to: The simple fact that your art and/or story were insufficiently powerful to overcome a grudge.”

    Pretty good example. I recently read a webcomic by a complete lunatic. The blog associated with the webcomic was completely unrelated to the comic, and instead filled with fringe, ultra right politics.

    There was a lot of craft and imagination in the comics, however, and my reaction is “Y’now, it’s hard to imagine the comic and the blog posts came from the same brain!”

  8. John says:

    Strangely enough, this applies to all forms of art, not just comics. I’ll cite one example out of experience and that would be ballroom dance. You would be amazed about the amount of gossip and background politics that happens in the ballroom world. A tango dance instructor whose class I attended regularly was told that his class was canceled at the studio, because he wasn’t bringing in enough people. A reason I thought was complete bull. One week later, another instructor snapped up his time slot and gleefully announced that he was going to hold an Advanced Ballroom class. This instructor hated the Tango instructor and didn’t even hide it. You’d think that people could easily dismiss such things, but that never happens. Grudges affect all kinds of art, some in good ways and some in bad ways. The epilogue: The Advanced Ballroom class was canceled because it wasn’t bringing in enough people (mainly, men). The Tango instructor is teaching at a different studio and the interest in Tango (because of me and my dance partner) has been growing at the prior studio.

    Go figure!

  9. membrillu says:

    I don’t entirely agree… in Spain we have a saying: “no one is more blind than he who refuses to see”. That is meant for the hypothetical critic, of course

  10. [...] Creators | Scott McCloud ponders the role of negative reviews: “… I always consider reviews useful — even the hatchet jobs. It makes my heart sink a little when I hear other artists dismiss all reviews as irrelevant to their process. A common claim is that reviews tell us ‘only about the reviewer’ and tell us ‘nothing about the work,’ but I disagree. Yes, reviewers have biases. Yes, they miss the point sometimes. But there’s always some kind of information embedded in any reaction to any creative effort.” [Scott McCloud] [...]

  11. I would agree if I didn’t meet so many people who would hold the grudge no matter what. You could be giving away gold and they’d still talk bad about you. You can win over many people with wonderful work and smiles, just not everyone.

    In the end, what does bad critism matter? Sure it hurts today but it’s quickly forgotten. The work is what is most meaningful. Find peers whom which you can trade constructive critiques. Forget trying to please the professional critics for they get paid to be critical and work hard to earn their keep.

    In the Boston Daily Advertiser on March 12, 1885 they reviewed Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. The paper’s critic was one of many who blasted the book as “wearisome and labored”. Many reviews at the time said that Twain’s book was racist and in bad taste. I hope Mr. Clemens quickly forgot about those critiques, history sure has.

  12. [...] McCloud, author of Understanding Comics and Zot!, has written an interesting post up on comics criticism — specifically, looking at negative reviews. For myself, I always consider reviews [...]

  13. darrylayo says:

    I very much agree, except perhaps with the last example. People who hold grudges are just people of a certain type.

    BUT. I feel so disappointed when creators lash out at their detractors and negative critics. I understand why, of course, but a certain kind of maturity and perspective is important to possess as a professional artist. It holds us all back when the cultural atmosphere is one that severely reprimands critical thought.

    It all comes back to haunt us because as more people feel that it is wiser to be silent in their opinions, many cartoonists amble forward in poor directions. Uncriticized, they can often become embedded in works that are silently unpopular. No one wants to be the “bad guy,” so no one pushes them to change or improve. The truth comes out when the Final Critique is issued: a decline in sales and actual interest in the Uncriticized Artist’s work.

  14. cat says:

    I like that you used a pic of Anton Ego for this writeup. :)

    • cat says:

      After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new comic, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?

      • Scott says:

        Actually, I’m trying to not talk about it much at all since it’s going to take so long to finish! I’ll be turning it in early 2012 and it’s unlikely to see print until late 2012. That’s a really long time!

        BTW: Congrats on the Ignatz!! That was awesome. ^__^

        • cat says:

          Aw, thanks Scott! I was so surprised I actually won (I thought Dash Shaw had the best story ever) and owe it to all my good friends that were there to vote for me. I’m looking forward to releasing YOTR Books 1 & 2 in print in time for MoCCA. I’m shooting for a manga digest book with a 28+ page color section (Book 1) and the rest in glorious b&w (Book 2). Winning the Ignatz at least gives me a little leverage with getting it printed/published somewhere (I hope).

          Also, I hope you caught that I was just quoting Anton Ego’s dinner order from the final act of Ratatouille and not, you know, actually making a comment about your new comic. LOL

          2012 is a long time, but I have a feeling it’ll be worth the wait! Is this going to be a gargantuan novel on the scale of Tatsumi’s “A Drifting Life” (in page count, not theme, of course)?

          Thanks for the kind words in Bissette’s intro to my Inkwell collection, too, btw. THAT was awesome!!

  15. eddie pitman says:

    Where I agree that criticism is helpful (though not if you are obsessed with pleasing everyone) —the last line of your post makes me cringe a bit.

    In today’s political climate, many people allow their opinions to be swayed by an artist’s political stance and/or by comments rather than the work created— no matter how brilliant the work is. I don’t think that it’s necessarily a reflection of the artists ability if he can’t persuade a critic to put away their petty bias and it can prove to be a deadly spiral of lost confidence if he chooses to believe a criticism only based in malice.

    Still a great post. Learning to weigh criticism is an art unto itself.

  16. Osias says:

    Strongly disagreement here, Scott. NO art and/or story is sufficiently powerful to overcome a grudge if the person with the grudge does not care to read your story. And things like that exist a lot.

  17. Nat Gertler says:

    Agreeing with Osias. The knowing that the work was insufficient to conquer a grudge is only of real value if:
    1) Conquering a grudge is a reasonable goal of the work.
    2) The reviewer actually read the work in question

  18. Nisachar says:

    The last two lines actually blew the argument for me.

    I agree that criticism is important and that there might be something worth considering in even the flimsiest reason for dismissal of your work but not for the last two lines in the article.

    Of all the things to raise your standard, those two are not on my list.

    Well said otherwise.

  19. [...] It’s a pretty good post, go check it out! [...]

  20. Douglas Wolk says:

    Two relevant quotations here. The first is from Robbie Fulks’ “How To Be Miserable as a Professional Musician: A Ten-Step Guide,” which can be applied to some extent or other to any kind of culture-making:

    “Never forget that all your failures are the doings of a conspiracy of soulless profiteers and knaves, while all your successes were owed you.”

    The other one is from Dave Hickey’s essay “Air Guitar”:

    “Colleagues of mine will tell you that people despise critics because they fear our power. But I know better. People despise critics because people despise weakness, and criticism is the weakest thing you can do in writing. It is the written equivalent of air guitar–flurries of silent, sympathetic gestures with nothing at their heart but the memory of the music. It produces no knowledge, states no facts, and never stands alone. It neither saves the things we love (as we would wish them saved) nor ruins the things we hate. Edinburgh Review could not destroy John Keats, nor Diderot Boucher, nor Ruskin Whistler; and I like that about it. It’s a loser’s game, and everybody knows it. Even ordinary citizens, when they discover you’re a critic, respond as they would to a mortuary cosmetician–vaguely repelled by what you do yet infinitely curious as to how you came to be doing it. So, when asked, I always confess that I am an art critic today because, as a very young person, I set out to become a writer–and did so with a profoundly defective idea of what writing does and what it entails.”

    • Scott says:

      Hi Douglas Those are two magnificent quotes!

      One thought that occurs to me is that the deliberately *ignored* review may actually have more power to distort the target’s creative process than the review that’s read, understood and sent back to the shelf. The one would grow over time, while the other is likely to slowly shrink.

  21. BAM says:

    First, I do think that artists and creators of all sorts should certainly seek something valuable in all criticism, even if there is nothing there to find, or even if the value found in even the least valid criticism is subjective and unintended by the critic. I think the point of the post is valid, but not universally applicable. What I mean to say is that some people are way too buried in their own perspective to truly critically assess anything that doesn’t fall into their narrow viewpoints (extremists of various sorts come to mind). They start with a conclusion and warp all incoming data to fit that conclusion. Just sayin’, is all…

  22. khaled says:

    Scott, that put a smile to my face, because it’s a very well put idea. It’s true, it is easy, but the work should be strong enough to change or to rise above any preconceptions/thoughts/etc.

  23. [...] We’ll start off by linking to Scott McCloud’s recent article on how creators would be wise to pay more attention to criticism, even horribly, [...]

  24. R. Maheras says:

    I dunno. I have mixed feelings about professional critics.

    I hate to stereotype them, but from what I’ve seen over the past 40 years or so that I’ve been paying attention, most professional critics have very little professional expertise in the areas they criticize.

    It’s almost seems to substantiate this twist of the old “teachers” adage, “Those that can, do; those that can’t, become critics.”

    A good example of this is Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert. I’ve long been a fan of his, and I value his opinion fairly well, but the guy co-wrote one of the lousiest screenplays ever for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” and his few other attempts at screenwriting/filmmaking were just as bad.

    In the comic business, if you look at all the people who have been paid critics over the years in “The Comics Journal,” et al, only a handful of them had any success as comics creators.

    This points to the weakness of most forms of criticism, whether it is for comics, films, politics, or whatever: Almost anyone can be a critic, but few can jump in the ring and actually compete at a competitive level.

  25. Brian Fies says:

    Scott, interesting topic and take. I guess I agree in theory, disagree in practice. I’d *like* to be able to dispassionately read all reviews, carefully consider the reviewer’s points, learn what I can, and apply it in the future. I wish I were that guy, but I think I’ve discovered that I’m not.

    In the real world, I’m too elated by good reviews and too dashed by bad or even middling ones. I care too much; a review can make or ruin my day. One great frustration is, even if a criticism is perfectly on-point and I nod sagely to myself and think, “Why, yes, he’s absolutely right, I really did botch that part,” there’s nothing I can do about it! I can’t fix it! The work is done and out into the world with no do-overs or take-backs. I suppose one could try to apply those lessons to the next project, but that feels a lot like trying to guess what the readers/critics want so you can give it to them, which is the prototype of bad creative advice. In your example, what am I supposed to do with the information that my story wasn’t powerful enough to overcome a grudge? Pander to that critic? Write and draw more *powerfully*? I don’t know how to turn that particular knob up to eleven. How about I just conclude that nothing I do will ever be good enough for that particular person and resign myself to living without that one sale?

    I also learned that many reviewers aren’t willing to play fair and meet creators halfway. Particularly in the realm where comics meet the Web, critical standards are non-existent. The relationship is too imbalanced, it’s too easy for cynics to sit on the sidelines recklessly sniping and picking. Defending your work, or really responding at all, is a fool’s game that just wastes your time and makes you look whiny and petty. It can all be pretty demoralizing.

    Speaking only for myself, having concluded for my own peace of mind that bad reviews did me more harm than good, it was a short jump to ask why I should put any more stock in good ones. I mean, *obviously* the reviewers who like my work are smarter and more perceptive than the others. Goes without saying! But aside from the affirmation and warm fuzzies, the good reviews give me even less useful information than the bad ones. (But my publisher and I still appreciate them a lot!)

    I used to hear actors and directors say they never read their reviews, and I never believed them. Now I do. I confess I continue to skim reviews, but really just enough to sense whether they’re positive or negative. Either way, I try to put them out of my mind quickly. Nothing I do is going to please everybody; critiques go in either one bin or the other. Whether I suck the suckiest suckitude that ever sucked or produce pages of such beauty they make the angels weep, I’ve got work to do.

    • "O" the Humanatee! says:

      If you agree with a criticism, isn’t “try[ing] to apply those lessons to the next project” trying to please yourself as much or more than it’s “trying to guess what the readers/critics want so you can give it to them”? (I’m assuming the criticism is specific enough that you can apply the lessons, unlike your example of “draw more ‘powerfully.’”) You sound like you’re resistant even to good instruction.

      To put it another way: Suppose you get violently sick after eating a meal. A doctor determines that the part of the meal that made you sick was the shellfish – turns out you’re allergic to them. Do you ignore the doctor’s advice to avoid shellfish because it would feel too much like trying to guess what he wants?

      • Brian Fies says:

        I’d say there are four kinds of criticism: good good reviews, good bad reviews, bad good reviews, and bad bad reviews. I find value in the first two. They’re also the most rare, and hard to sort out from the others. I used to think it was worth the effort and angst. Not so sure now.

        I’m very open to “good instruction” from editors, peers, professional writers/artists/cartoonists, and people whose judgment and opinions I respect. I seek their input and find it invaluable as I work. I’d say that “instruction” from strangers that comes long after the work is done is far, far down the list of input I find helpful and worthwhile, particularly since it’s often contradictory (the bit one person hates is often someone else’s favorite). I agree with Marc-Oliver: criticism is (mostly) for anyone BUT the person whose work is being criticized–and I think most critics see their jobs that way, too. They write for readers who haven’t seen the book yet, not the one person who wrote it.

        Your shellfish analogy would work better if critics were trained to the same extent and held to the same professional standards as physicians. It’s more like you get violently sick and one person says you’re allergic to shellfish, one says you got sick because Jupiter’s in retrograde, one blames leprechauns, and one says you’d feel much better if you just drew more Wolverine.

  26. It has been a loooooong time since I have been on the creator end of a review, so I just wanted to post a thought about reviewers as they relate to me as a potential viewer/listener/attender of art. I find that reviewers are very much like artists to me in the sense that it is a matter of finding one that fits my tastes. If someone is considered by one and all the greatest film critic that ever lived and yet likes movies that I consistently dislike, this reviewer is of little to use to me as a consumer.

    There is so much artistic content out there that I rely on critics and reviewers to inform me as to what is out there, and then, mostly through trial and error, I try and find the critic whose tastes match mine. This helps me to find the comics/music/theatre etc that I would enjoy with more hits than misses.

    Does this approach box me in a bit when it comes to the old “broccoli art test” (Just try it! You might like it!). Yep, but then again I know that I am someone who likes to go out on a limb a bit once and awhile and see someting out of my comfort zone. There are still some critics who can match up that aspect of my tastes more often than not.

    The interesting question is that should a creator value criticisms of his or her work more from critics whose tastes match closer to theirs. In fact, I’ll just pose the question: Do any of you creators out there put more weight in critiques from critics that have “gotten” past works of yours?

  27. Will Curwin says:

    I think, now, critism just really gets confused with opinon. And its no surprise since we live in a country that says we are allowed to have critisms and opinons, without information to back up either. However, as an artist myself, I would much prefer to have critism then not have any at all. (Or in less word, “if you can’t hold critism, stay off the drawing board! *SNAP!* *SNAP!*)

  28. Arka-Eddie says:

    Please allow me to narrate an incident.

    5 years earlier a guy named Sarnath Banerjee made a graphic novel titled ‘Corridor’ and it was the first graphic novel by an Indian writer/artist. and the first graphic novel in India. This piece of work was not something great but a descent one and something worth reading.
    A famous film-maker and musician runs his own collum an a popular Bengali newspaper and he criticized the writer/artist as ‘Corridor is a poor work. Sarnath isn’t able to write good literary work and is not a qualified artist. That’s why he choses to be a comics creator.’
    What Sarnath actually did was to chose a shabby and untidy form for his story as it suited the text and content well. But the readers of the collum got a completely wrong idea about him and as well as the art form.

    Here my point is – Comics is not a popular art form in this part of the world. What this remark did was to make a negative impact on mass and made the scope for newer experiments narrower. And added to that it virtually affected the creators who are trying to do some comics work.
    I also personally believe that criticism positive and negative alike, does much good to the creator. But in this occasion what good it did to anybody?

  29. Sen says:

    Excellent. Very true, Scott. Very well-put. I can’t ever completely dismiss anything said about me and my work (and I am and always will be a bit on the sensitive side), but even if a review said nothing but bad things, there is the point that the comic/art/writing has obviously not left its mark on the reviewer. And while it may just be that one person, reviews are always a good point at which to reevaluate one’s work. There’s always some value there, or else it wouldn’t be a review…it would just be blathering.

    I personally have a hang-up with reviewers (professional or not) who seem to have no qualification to be in a position called “reviewer”. However, even despite that, I find value in reviews and comments left by people who are not artists, writers, or even regular readers of books and things in general. It’s just an added perspective, things I as a creative person may not have thought about. So in the end my hang-ups don’t amount to much.

    Also, a lot of people now seem to find that negativity in critique “will drive the point home”, or maybe even make them better reviewers. I’ll assume this is because America tends to sugarcoat everything, and it got old. People will, if jerks, also tend to embrace their inner jerkiness when reviewing, letting that part of who they are all flow out. Needless negativity is just as destructive as needless sugarcoating, however, and there’s also no need to be derisive and undermining in critique as well, because it should be intended to help.

    Reviews these days really do seem to help the creator more than anything else (at least in some cases/genres). I don’t know anybody who has ever made their buying decisions based on reviews, and most people who read them seem to be creators, but review sites are on the rise. Makes me wonder!

  30. R. Maheras says:

    If one is totally honest about one’s work, I think the best and harshest crtic is oneself.

    The fact is, I think 90 percent of what I’ve drawn over the years is crap, nine percent is OK, and one percent is great.

    And despite the fact I’ve been drawing for more than 40 years, I still have plenty of room for improvement.

    So what can a critic — especially one who has never been a professional comic book artist — possibly tell me that I do not already know?

  31. Michael says:

    I don’t know if enough people have SEEN my work for me to establish a valid baseline of criticism