What Can We Learn from Reviews?

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woohooligan's avatar
How were your holidays? I hope you had a great time with all your family and friends! :D

In the spirit of "lessons learned", I'd like to talk a little bit about this review I just got this month from the Webcomic Police. I'll link their review down below, but first I want to take a moment to thank them and really anyone providing reviews of comics.

I'm always grateful for anyone who takes the time to write a review for me or for anyone else for that matter. Reviewing is itself an art form and it takes time and dedication to maintain a review blog of any kind, but especially of long-form media like books or comics. (Reviewing the latest selfie-stick doesn't require hours of reading.) Just as with webcomics, the internet is literally awash in webcomic review sites that started, published a couple of reviews and then died because the reviewers couldn't keep themselves going, whether that was due to time constraints, loss of interest, or the general thanklessness of being a reviewer (trust me, I'm sure Siskel, Ebert and Roeper all got LOADS of hate mail and probably not much else). The Webcomic Police even published their own review of review sites a few years ago and out of the five they mentioned, 1) Webcomics Weekly no longer exists, 2) Tangents announced a move to a new domain in January 2014 (three years ago) and never published again, 3) Your Webcomics last updated nearly a year ago in February, 4) the Overlook had a hiatus from June 2014 to September 2016, leaving only two of the five even functional, one of them with an over two-year gap. So I have to thank the Webcomic Police for sticking with their blog and providing these reviews to the comics community in general. I think the comics community (much like a democracy), is a richer, better community when it has a diversity of voices and opinions in it and to a greater extent, I think that means when it has more reviewers, even including reviews that I may not personally agree with. So thank you, Webcomic Police for staying and contributing your voice to our community. :D

If I remember correctly, I've had five reviews so far and of those five, this is the only one that's been notably critical of my work, so I feel like I've been pretty fortunate when it comes to reviews in general. You certainly can't expect every critic to love your work, so I think four out of five isn't too bad, really.

The reviewer uses the name LibertyCabbage -- they're very private and don't give real names on the site, which makes it rather difficult for me to humanize them... You know what, screw it, I'll just call him Joe. (Apologies if Joe is actually Joanne.) Anyway, Joe reviewed four humor comics in one contiguous blog titled "The Golden Rule of Humor" (well, three comedies and a drama he said he thinks should have been a comedy). Sharing the review with other comics is fine, although I would have liked the title to be explained somewhere in the blog. I really don't see a recurring theme in these reviews that might reference the title? So it seems like Joe just picked any old phrase with the word "humor" in it, rather than having a particular reason for mentioning "the golden rule".

I will say upfront that I acknowledge that criticisms about some of my comics being overly wordy are fair. That's something I'm working on as I continue to publish, although sometimes it's difficult to find a good balance. The third page of the Taste of Wrath subplot has a lot of text and very little art, and I spent a bit of time contemplating expanding it into two pages to make it more visually appealing. I decided against that because I was worried it would ruin the pacing of the story, that the individual pages would bore readers with a bunch of talking heads (it's an out-take from a TV news program). However despite being text-heavy, that page surprised the hell out of me (see what I did there?), by being rather popular and shared quite a lot compared to most of the pages in that story. That one page got ten shares ... I'm not sure any other page of Amity's story has ten shares. Maybe. I'd have to go digging to find one. The vast majority of those pages have under five shares, so I think it's worth noting that there's significantly more to the appeal of this page than its text-to-art ratio. (The fact that I write lengthy, usually satirical think-pieces in the commentary below my comics may contribute to the popularity of pages like this one, which contains a fairly thorough examination of American gun culture and public policy.)

I feel like requesting this review from the Webcomic Police may have been a mistake on my part. It's still free publicity, right? No such thing as bad publicity? Well... maybe. Joe says in the opening few paragraphs of the review that he basically hates comedy, or at least he dislikes webcomics in our genre. If I had known this ahead of time, I likely wouldn't have asked Joe for the review. If you're a rock band, you don't go looking for reviews from a guy who says, "what the hell is up with all this Rock and Roll nonsense? Why can't people stick to Classical and Big Band?!" Technically, Joe says comedy is his least favorite genre in webcomics, and cites a lot of humor comics being full of negativity and depression, (no one's ever accused Woohooligan of this). Then he says his expectations are really low, but proceeds to apply super-high expectations to all the comics. Admittedly Joe's site, the Webcomics Police, have kind of a shtick of being super-harsh, hence "police" in their name, so I can't be terribly surprised by that. I guess I'm more annoyed by the inconsistency of him saying one thing and then doing the opposite within the same blog entry. (I could also understand more if it was in different entries written on different days, if it represented an evolution in his views.)

Here's a direct quote: "So, on the bright side for the webcomics I'm about to review, my expectations are pretty low. I just want to read humor comics that actually try to be funny and not, you know, focus on how the creator's a depressed loser who wants to kill himself. "

So there's the low-bar Joe set as his expectation for the reader, but that's not at all the bar he holds the comics to. I feel like, if he's this annoyed by comedy in general, why does Joe even bother accepting requests to review comedies? I've had a couple of different reviewers tell me either that they don't accept requests or they don't accept requests for comedies, which may not help me out much, but is something I fully understand. I'm just not sure I understand agreeing to review something and then explaining to your audience how much you loathe this thing you're about to review, sight unseen. "Man, I hate fantasy. Now for my review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone." First your predisposing the reader to dislike the things you're reviewing before there's even a review (even if you end up liking them) and second, you're priming them to expect a rant rather than a critical analysis. It feels like poor decision-making.

The combination of normal time constraints (I already said I understand these reviews are time-consuming), the admitted tendency toward dialogue and complex, philosophical ideas in my comic, and Joe's general distaste for comedies may have resulted in skimming rather than reading prior to the review. For one thing, at the bottom of every comic is a ShareThis widget that lists how many times a given page has been shared, and while not necessarily perfect, it's probably a decent indicator of popularity... but Joe seemed to ignore it completely, choosing to highlight three specific segments of the story that both don't work well out of context, and were among my least popular pages. (He did also include three frames from Let the Wookiee Win, which has been moderately popular.)

Joe gave me good marks for my art, which is nice. Everybody seems to enjoy my art -- it's something that Brad Guigar also complemented me on last year when I hired him for a consultation. "The creator's been drawing comics for 10 years, and his skill and experience shows when he puts in his full effort. He also has a knack for drawing comedy, with the effective compositions, expressive figures, and smart color choices indicating someone who's used his time well in learning the ins and outs of the genre." Joe even felt weirdly compelled to give me two separate ratings for my art instead of the individual rating he gave the other three artists. He didn't explain why he did that. My guess is to emphasize that he thinks my story pages are lazy, since he gave me an almost perfect 4.5 donuts for "gag art".

But he says flatly at the top of my review that my work is "not funny" (objective), rather than even saying it's not his style of comedy or he has difficulty relating to it (subjective). He also sums the entire blog with the comment that all the comics (except one) "fail to entertain their audiences", rather than the more accurate, "failed to entertain me", as Joe is obviously not a member of the audiences of any of these comics. He cites as his main criticism of my writing that the comics in my story are dialogue-heavy (which he seems to have arbitrarily decided is automatically "self-indulgent"), and that I make pop-culture references apparently at all. At first my pop culture references are too old because I mention Hitler and the Bible and the original Star Wars trilogy, but apparently also bad if I mention anything recent like Pokemon Go, although he does preface this criticism by saying he basically hates people referencing things in general because he thinks it's lazy.

He goes on to cite what he says are my most prominent references, which actually mostly aren't prominent at all. Here are his picks:

:bulletblue: Ayn Rand - who despite being central to the plot is only present in a whopping four pages or so
:bulletblue: Hitler - who's barely present in only two pages -- did he say prominent because the illustration was physically large?
:bulletblue: Jimi Hendrix - who's barely involved in a four-page conversation between Amity and Steve -- Katherine Hepburn's part although also short was far more notable than his
:bulletblue: the original Star Wars trilogy - of these four, this is the only one that I agree with being "prominent" - yes, I've made a number of strips about the first three Star Wars films. But since several of those are pretty popular pages, I would say this makes Joe somewhat out of touch with what's currently popular online, if he's trying to use this as an example of the work being dated. Hell, most of Blue Milk Special's jokes are about the original Star Wars trilogy and they're featured on Line Webtoon and making roughly $500/mo on Patreon! (Despite describing themselves as a "non-profit" fan project.)

Oh, and he says referencing the bible is dated. The bible is dated, folks! Nope, nope, haven't seen any bibles in middle-America since at least the turn of the century! I mean, it's not as though people today are often harassed on the basis of long-standing beliefs about the bible (COUGH! Gay Marriage), right? Nope, nobody's having any modern experiences with that stuff! The bible is as contemporary as carpetbaggers, war bonds and Little Orphan Annie decoder pins! ;P

But then he says he doesn't like my story or the jokes in my story either and that I should have stuck to one-shots (that's how he ends my review). So which is it? Are my one-shots better (which are primarily references you say you don't like), or my story (which you say you also don't like)? You say I need to stop doing one to focus on the other, and then you say the other sucks. Incidentally, a large amount of the traffic to my site is because of those pop-culture comics that Joe says suck. So by saying in his review that I shouldn't do this, he's explicitly stating that I should stop doing one of the main things that's helping me make a career out of this work. It's effectively like telling AT&T that they really should get out of the telephone business, despite the fact that it's their primary source of revenue. So while I appreciate critique, I have to say, in any objective world, this bit of critique is worse than useless, it's counterproductive.

Joe did actually give a lot of positive marks to a comic called Trixie Slaughteraxe for President, comparing it positively with Beavis and Butt-Head, which is probably fairly telling, since I never liked that show. And therein likely lies the main problem. He's really looking for his comedy to be in the style of something like Beavis and Butt-Head -- sight gags, puns, dick and fart jokes, and please for the love of god, don't give me anything that engages the front-part of my brain in any real way. I've never been opposed to Beavis and Butt-Head, if that's your style of comedy, more power to you. I take issue with people saying that's the way comedy "should be" or that it's only funny that way. I didn't care for Beavis and Butt-Head or for the Three Stooges, but I happened to enjoy the TV show Frazier quite a bit (and more recently The Big Bang Theory which is one of the most popular shows on TV in recent years). Those are vastly different styles of comedy and all three of them were very popular in their day. In another ironic twist, he compared Woohooligan to the comic Tripp by my friend Bill Taylor (spinester). I'm pretty sure he didn't know that I've known Bill for some years now and he said he also didn't like Tripp apparently primarily because it was also too dialogue heavy, although I happen to know Tripp had a really active following.

Here's another direct quote from his review of Trixie: "There are no pauses in the narrative to explain the characters' backstories or provide a wall of text about minor details, and it lets the creator completely focus on setting up these goofy situations. I mean, I know saying that makes me sound illiterate, but creators can get self-indulgent with their writing, and nothing's more irritating for me as a reviewer than reading a bad webcomic that has way too much dialogue."

I get it, shut up with the talky-talk and give you a pie in the face. This probably also explains a lot about why the gist of his review of Bohemian Nights was "I don't like drama, your comic should be a sitcom."

But while these kinds of comments speak to what I said earlier about how I think he'd be better off if he decided to stop reviewing comedy (and possibly drama), my biggest problem stems from a kind of drive-by race-baiting he did toward the end of my review. You didn't like my comedy and you think my characters talk too much? Fine. But then he decides he can't move forward without mentioning the Trayvon Martin subplot and this is where it becomes really apparent that he didn't really read.

Here's Joe again, "My last complaint with the writing is about a scene where Trayvon Martin goes to Hell, which implies that he was an evil person. It's hard for me to understand why the creator included a scene about this sensitive subject, as it isn't funny or tasteful, and there isn't a coherent message behind it... Even if the gag was handled a little better, it's generally not a good idea to joke about racism, and if someone's committed to trying to do it, then it should be done with more delicacy and finesse."

He's complaining that he didn't feel like I was delicate enough with it, but then his answer to what he says is my indelicacy is to say to his readers, "hey everybody, RACISM!" without bothering to try and figure out why those pages are there. If he had read, or maybe even glanced at the commentaries underneath my comics, he'd probably have figured out that those few pages with Trayvon Martin are among the most researched pages I've ever created! I spent days and days researching the Trayvon Martin story both for the comic itself and for my lengthy commentaries underneath those pages. There is a great deal of my heart and soul, bleeding onto the page there about the challenge of being a decent person in the face of cultural forces and media distortions, and he reduced it to "oh and there's this stupid racist shit here." Thanks, Joe, you're a real stand-up guy. This is the real reason I'm concerned that it may have been a mistake to request this review. Maybe this publicity is bad publicity? If it makes people think I'm just casually throwing racism around?

On the issue of what being in Hell implies specifically, I left a comment on the review and I'll repeat it here: I can't imagine someone reading from the beginning and still saying that subplot implies that Trayvon was an "evil person". (And I said in no uncertain terms in the comments on those pages that I think Trayvon was a good kid.)

The entire story about Amity begins on the first page (comic 214) by saying that eating bacon damns you to hell, though it hardly makes you evil. Page after page of the story reinforce the idea that being in hell doesn't mean anything other than that you were mildly interesting before you died. (And for those reading along, there's a long-term story here that I don't want to give away.) If you ate bacon (gluttony), if you even thought about having sex (lust), if you wore makeup or were famous (pride), if you enjoyed owning a car instead of riding the bus (greed), if you gave your niece a stuffed animal gift (idolatry), all of those things are cited as reasons for being damned to hell, though obviously none of them make a person evil. This is a story about a world in which, as the author, I personally would be in hell for a wide variety of reasons, though I hardly consider myself evil. You can't understand what the Trayvon Martin subplot implies if it's taken entirely out of context.

I'm realizing now as I'm writing this that Joe says his review started on page 235, which is a pretty weird place to start. Man, I hope I didn't accidentally recommend that page to him... He completely missed the intro to the story and Amy's entire journey through heaven before she dyed her hair and changed her name... I guess that would explain why he would think being in hell implies being evil, because he started in the middle. But even starting at 235, he would still have seen Black History Month (which is 257) if he'd actually read instead of just skimming a few, and he would know that I'm not being casual about racism. That's also one of the hardest and most researched pieces I've done, and like the comic about gun culture, it's one of the most shared (I think it also has around ten).

Anyway, If you're interested, here's Joe's review: www.webcomicpolice.com/2016/12…

Okay, I've gotten all of this out of my system. It's 3AM here. Thanks for sticking with me! :heart:

EDIT: I don't want people to think I'm just trying to blast the reviewer or that I think this is the worst thing that's happened to me. Like I said, I'm always grateful that people are willing to review me. It just seemed odd to me that Joe agreed to review my comedy in light of what he said about not liking comedy, and I'm a little miffed and a bit concerned about possible backlash from the casual inclusion (and dismissal) of the Trayvon Martin subplot. Although to be fair, I knew when I started the Trayvon Martin subplot that it was sensitive and there could be uncomfortable consequences, but I published it because I felt like it was important. And to be honest, I'm still kind of puzzling out if there's a better way to approach requesting reviews, or if I should just accept this as the normal occasional setback? Basically, I'm still trying to figure out the lesson or take-away from this. So if you have any thoughts, I'm all ears. Thanks! :D

Happy Holidays! :holly::holly: :santa: :rudolph: :holly::holly:
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trivialtales's avatar
Dang. Yeah, one would think context is pretty important. I'm not sure why you'd want to jump in on the middle of a story. Especially a satire, where context is everything.

Here's a pretty mean review I got: blackguard23.livejournal.com/1…

It makes me smile now to think how devastated I was at first. Then you realize it's just some guy online and it really doesn't matter.