Friday, August 29, 2014

Reviewing Art In Comics: What I Like To See/Aspire To Provide

Let's be honest: There are a dearth of websites, blogs, podcasts, etc. doing reviews of comics.  I'm on a podcast that reviews comics weekly, and have been known, on occasion, to provide a written review of a comic both at Captain Blue Hen's website and, in the early days, this blog.  On the podcast, we keep a loose format; consistency in review aspects isn't something we spend a whole lot of time on.  For myself, I at least try to critique both the art and the written content every time.

But we're always trying to improve, right?  I think we owe it to ourselves, our fans, and comics creators in general to include at least a minimum of planning in our approach to reviews.  I'm not saying every review needs to hit every check-box on the list, but what I AM saying is that taking those planning steps and, at the least, pre-loading a mental checklist prior to reading critically can elevate an otherwise lackluster critique to something the audience can benefit from and enjoy.

I focus on art because it's not uncommon to find reviews of comics that don't even mention it.  Bizarre, right? I mean, it accomplishes a significant portion of the storytelling in any good comic, so why wouldn't you at least talk about it in any review?

Many reviewers, I think, feel intimidated by the processes and techniques on display.  They feel more comfortable talking about plot and script because these are aspects common to comics, prose novels, plays, movies, etc...a familiarity with these is to be expected in any warm body approaching a comic review, as presumably literate reviewers have likely been exposed to these basic elements some order of magnitude more often than aspects such as pencil line work.

Comic art, where sequential, still images take a major role in story delivery, is a just little more niche, isn't it?

Below, I list some aspects of sequential art I like to explore in my reviews.  It is by no means an exhaustive list, and it doesn't come from some authority on the subject.   Like all my reviews, it is crafted from opinions and personal interest in the topic, so take/leave as you see fit. My hope is that it gets any prospective critic thinking about aspects of comic art in a constructive way prior to critical reading.  Perhaps it will cue readers to aspects they haven't thought of, or suggest further areas to explore the media.  Remember, even if you don't understand all the tricks of the trade, you are ALWAYS qualified to talk about whether the artist was successful communicating with YOU. Also, I'm not perfect. Keep in mind I don't always live up to these guidelines:

1. The Artists' Name(s): At a minimum, mention the artist's name.  A good review might also include the names of those involved in layouts, clean-up, coloring, etc. Coloring, especially, is an essential function, and any time the colorist is a separate body from the listed artist, then that colorist (and their work) deserves mention in your review. A good rule of thumb is, if you touch on any contribution to the work in more than a passing manner, you should be mentioning the contributor by name.  These are the men and women bringing your favorite media to you, and they deserve mention in any critical discussion.

2.  The Medium: You want to be aware of what you're looking at.  Comics art has expanded in available technique greatly over the past several years, especially where computer image production is concerned.  Are you reviewing traditional pencil work on paper, with inks overlaid and colors applied later in the process? Or is it even colored? Maybe it's painted, where color is approached in conjunction with laying out form, as opposed to creating monotone borders around everything. Was the art produced digitally, or with hand tools, or both? Although it's getting more difficult to tell them apart in some instances, you can usually spot digitally-produced line work.  If you're not sure, take to the internet and do some research; you should be able to glean something about the artist's usual approach.
Clayton Crain is one of the more prominent digital painters in comics.  Note the lack of black line borders around forms you would see in a traditional line drawing. See that highlighting at the edge of Frank's left leg? Line artists in comics tend to shy away from letting glare/highlights extend to the edges, even if the lighting calls for it, because it disrupts the line around the form. In this case, however, it results in a more consistent lighting environment.

3. The Style: Discuss your first impressions of the artist's style: Is it cartoony? Realistic? Cinematic? Does it fit with the narrative? Are proportions exaggerated?  If so, could these exaggerations be carried into 3 dimensions? What I mean by this is, if you imagine changing the 'camera' viewpoint, would the exaggerated proportions carry the same meaning or impact, and are they consistent with a depiction of a 3D environment?  Sometimes, the consistency that would suggest a 3D world is consciously sacrificed for the sake of impact or style. Many artists in comics (Jack Kirby comes to mind) use exaggerated proportions and skewed perspective to increase impact, illustrate emotion and power, etc. in a way that would fall apart if you were to rotate the view around the focus of the image. However, it remains something for you to consider, and possibly comment on.
An artist with a cartoony style who makes frequent use of exaggerated perspective and proportion, Joe Madureira nevertheless demonstrates an expert knowledge of the human physique.

4. The Lines: For non-painted material, how does the line work grab you? Artists can bring a truckload of technique to laying out even the simplest lines on the page. Line thicknesses can change gradually or sharply across a given segment, and the line itself can denote shape, lighting, consistency of materials, reflectivity of the surface being rendered, and a laundry list of other things. Any line drawn on the human face can carry a host of information besides the outline of the form. Note how line weighting is used or discarded, and how much detail is brought forth by varying line thickness. You might find, for example, that an artist's inattention to line weighting sucks the contour and dimension out of a figure or face, or how subtle variations can produce a more effective, impactful portrait of a character.
Steve Dillon is an artist that, in my opinion, could loosen up and vary some of the line work around the mouth and other facial features.  A solid, unbroken line around the lips, for example, is something you don't see often on people who don't wear lip-liner. For me, this results in a fishy, plastic look that I don't enjoy.

5. The Anatomy:  Everyone's favorite! How well are the characters rendered? Do you feel the artist is comfortable depicting characters across the broad range of musculature and posing available to the human figure? Or is(are) the artist(s) relying on a limited range of 'pre-fab' poses? Do the characters articulate convincingly? Do the various muscle groups and shapes respond to and limit character actions convincingly, or do they move like plastic figures? Is anatomy exaggerated? Are characters overtly sexualized? Is there a variety of body shapes, faces, heights, etc. available, or is there 'same-face/ re-tread' happening?
Frank Cho, in my opinion, has mastered human anatomy and musculature. And look at the rich detail in those backgrounds!

6.  The Poses:  Note how the artist conveys action in the scene.  Can you envision the scene a split-second prior to the panel you're looking at, and a split-second beyond? Do the figures carry weight and motion in their stance? Are the poses chosen for characters believable? In the case of some of the more fantastic characters and environments, do they need to be? Do the characters interact with their environments in a believable way? Are the character stances consistent with the plane of the floor, the chairs they sit on, the steps they climb, etc? Or do the characters appear to float about in their surroundings like Sandra Bullock in a space capsule? Are the attitudes of characters conveyed in their body language?
Note the infinite variety of poses available to an artist like Amy Reeder, especially in the crowd scene..and how the poses in the crowd impart motion and impact to the fly-by. Note also the attention to panel layout and composition that imparts action in a very cinematic way.

7.  The Blocking:  Are scenes set up in a cohesive way?  Are the best camera view-points chosen? Is the action up front and big, or is it distant? Are the panels muddied by too many superfluous characters or objects? Keep in mind, there may be scenes where such confusion is essential, as the Times Square example featuring Rocket Girl, above, will attest. Note how the scope and gravity of a given piece is altered as these aspects are changed.

8.  The Backgrounds:  One of the first things to suffer where deadlines loom and artists fatigue is the amount of detail in the background.  Obscuring the background with a monotone plane of color is something you see frequently. This can also, however, be a stylistic choice that centers the readers' focus around a character or bit of action, where the minutiae of the scene becomes unimportant.  Take note of the techniques used and when and where the backgrounds are allowed to add visual detail.
While Jock's stylistic approach to characters is unparalleled, I thought this issue suffered, in general, from a lack of detail in the backgrounds. Others may, on the other hand, enjoy this aspect, as it shifts the focus to some very well-rendered characters.

9.  The Lighting: Lighting of a given scene is almost always important, and it's an aspect that has really taken center stage in recent years. The number of colors and effects available to comics have increased by an order of magnitude at least twice in the past 15 years or so. Who is conveying the lion's share of the lighting in the work under review, the line artist, the colorist, or everyone involved? Some line artists are quick to add significant areas of shadow and shading to their work to convey as much as possible about lighting and form, while others leave these elements almost entirely to the colorists and inkers. Note which artists, and their respective techniques, convey detail in the lighting and shadow.  Is the lighting consistent with a source either inside or outside a given scene, or is it simply placed wherever works to convey mood?  Does the light source remain in place as the 'camera' moves around in the scene? Is shading done (in your opinion) in the correct amounts? Does it vary with the type and nature of the lighting, or is it too uniform? Does it muddy the forms too much with cross-hatching and sketchy contouring? Does the lighting add realism, emotional impact, irony, etc. to the scene?  These are all things to consider.
Note the attention to detail in the lighting: Every panel, every character is rendered with deference to a light source that remains anchored in 3-dimensional space, even as the viewing angle changes from panel to panel. This type of continuity can work, even on a sub-conscious level, to increase the level of immersion.

10.  The Color:  Color can be a bit harder to critique with any sort of objectivity. Many aspects of what color choices can do for a scene are covered in the other entries, above. I also like to think about the mood the colorist is going for, how well the coloring fits the material, whether it looks busy with a myriad of tones or goes instead with a few simple flats, whether colors match the detail level and compliment the line work, especially in high-detail environs, the dynamic range evident on the page, and the attention given to lighting.

Again, this is by no means a complete list. My hope, however, is that it will get the reader thinking along those lines (npi) in a way that enhances his or her enjoyment and appreciation of comics, and encourages a potential reviewer to deliver the detail the audience is looking for.