Sunday, 4 November 2012

Some thoughts on writing about comics

Earlier in the year, I was asked if I wanted to write for the Forbidden Planet International blog, which I was absolutely thrilled about as writing about comics is something I want to do full-time and as a paid job. So far it's been a fantastic experience, largely thanks to Richard and Joe, who are just incredibly helpful, supportive and great to boot. Unfortunately, the combination of working 26 hours a week, plus studying for my MA full time has meant I've not been able to contribute to the blog as fully as I'd like. As we hit November and the year careens rather terrifyingly towards an end, I thought I'd write a post about some blogging/writing/reviewing related thoughts that have been swimming around in my head. Please note: these are purely personal musings and not related to anyone else.
  • Being negative/positive: When I started writing for FPI, the guys told me they never write out and out negative reviews/pieces. Critique away, they said and if something doesn't work for you, say what you feel, but no slamming anyones work. I'll be honest- I was initially a bit sceptical and frustrated by this, a) because let's face it, it can fun to read and write about some of the rubbish that's out there, particularly if it's well done, and b) because I thought it was preventing me from being honest in my writing. I have, however, come to advocate the no-out-and-out-negative policy. I think it challenges you both as a reader and a writer, forcing you to look at things deeper and differently- it certainly made me change my approach from responding to something instantly upon first reading with gut reaction, to taking time to come to a book again, to analyse and re-assess any initial opinions made. If a book inspires an abject loathing in you, there's nothing to force you to review it. Yes, we want comics that are thoughtful and intelligent and push the medium to be better, be the best it can, to go beyond, but in all types of art there is a place for genre fulfilment and solid entertaining stories well told. Of course, creators should expect criticism as they are bound to receive it at some point, but I do think if you can avoid unnecessary hostility of something that a person has put time and effort into, regardless of whether you think its synonymous of a deeper affliction, more power to you .
  • Objectivity/personal taste & reading outside your comfort zone: I still struggle with this one. I'm going to put these two concepts together as I think while there are naturally some genres, art styles, types of stories that you gravitate towards, it's important to read outside of what you know and like. It's informative and it broadens your understanding of the medium. Often you read things and whilst you don't like them per se, you can appreciate what the writer is trying to do and say whether he's doing it well, how and why. I read Josh Simmons' The Furry Trap earlier this year and didn't really like it, but I hope I kind of got what he was trying to convey and why he chose to present things the way he did. Similarly, I'm currently reading then omnibus collection of Posy Simmonds' Mrs Weber strips and can't really find any entry points into it all, not being white and middle class and around in the 70's/80's (and these points are the politically driven focus of the strips), but I'm planning on taking those things and using them to write about how it comes across as strangely insular. On the flip side, there have been so many things I've tried and subsequently loved that I've lost count.
  • Review copies: Firstly, getting free comics is great- there's nothing to complain about there. It is however, a quid pro quo system. People send you books in the hope you'll write about them, thus giving them some publicity/advertising and you get to read a comic for free. Generally when you're dealing with an individual who sends you their own work to review, things are usually fine- you either like it and review it, or don't like it and send them a cordial message explaining it didn't really work for you, so you won't be covering it. Thankfully, I've not had a bad experience yet. When it comes to publishers, things are a little trickier: a couple have insinuated that they'll only send books as long as they get covered, which can be a bit funny as it's generally difficult to know beforehand whether something is going to work or not. I'm not sure, in my limited experience, whether this is pretty common practice, but it makes me uncomfortable, as it makes me feel like I'm being bought. I can appreciate it's expensive to send out books, and while I am genuinely grateful to receive them, the mild blackmailing makes me feel an unrealistic pressure to like every book they send, which is impossible.
  • Digital: There's no denying the impact and influence of digital and the opportunities it's providing creators and even comic journalism (which is almost solely a digital job), but I'm having difficulty getting to grips with digital- whether it's review pdfs or stuff I've had to occasionally buy- I just don't like reading a comic book on my computer. Books are something I sit down with and experience- a time out, a comfort, a pleasure and sitting down with a laptop or e-reader and scrolling through pages just doesn't do it for me. The screen is a barrier, placing me at a remove,  and whilst I'm ok with reading novels on an e-reader, I feel art needs to be tangible. This is mainly an issue with reading long-form works- web-comics that are ingested in small doses don't inspire the same boredom as endlessly clicking through 100+ pages does- it makes it feel more like work.
  • Press releases/teaser images: I'm really excited to be involved in comics, but also often very puzzled by certain practices. One of these is the things you get sent on mailing lists; teaser images, announcements, random bits and bobs. FPI was my template for comics blogging long before I began writing for them, and they have, I think, a unique identity and integrity- Richard is king of reviewing and covering the British comics scene, and then there's a hefty dose of sci-fi and a lot of other interesting stuff. So perhaps my view is coloured by that way of collating stuff together, but when I first saw the bits of fluff mailing lists send out being turned into 'news' on major comic sites, I was a little gobsmacked. Frankly, a lot of it isn't worth covering- and that's not me being snobbish, but I suppose if you are a big mainstream site putting up x number of posts each day, you've got to have something to put up. And I guess it fits into the you scratch my back I'll scratch yours category mentioned earlier, which is beneficial to everyone involved. In a weird way because I currently write for free, it kind of liberates me to choose not to slap together random images which are emailed to me with no text and make a post about them- at this point it's not part of my comics writing. If there's a press release on a new series or something in which I'm actually interested in though, I'll make an effort to find out more (if I can) and put some kind of spin on it before publishing.
  • Learning & canon: This is more of a personal objective. There are so many people who write about comics and do it well, with eloquence and insight, and the way to get better is to continue to learn and improve. I love comics but I'm aware I came to the field quite late compared to people who have been reading them since childhood, and that I don't know a great deal about them, so I'm reading books and writings on process, technique, history. Another thing I've been musing over is the concept of a comics canon. In terms of importance there are certain creators' names who come up again and again as seminal: the Hernandez brothers, Robert Crumb, Chris Ware etc. A lot of their work I've tried and just don't 'get'. But I keep coming back and dipping into it, because too many people (far knowledgeable than I) whose opinion I value have stated its importance for me to ignore. The idea isn't to develop a personal liking of their work (although I'm not averse to that),  but to recognise and understand why their work is regarded in such esteem.
  • Write every day: Pretty much everyone who writes professionally reiterates this in some form, but it's just that crucial. Quite simply, the more you do something, the better you get at it. Even if ti's for an hour a day- write. Write on the days you feel really sick of writing and feel everything you put down is colossal rubbish of the first order. Do it anyway. If I take a day's break from writing, the next day I find it's that bit harder and I want to do it that bit less. Between uni and work, I'm managing this in some form but there are days when I slack off due to laziness and that's got to stop.
  • British/US: Based purely on my interactions with people (via email mostly), I've found that American creators and people working in comics are much friendlier and open than the British people I've had contact with. No theories as to why this is, just an observation.
  • Time/motivation: Which is what it all essentially comes down to. The time to read, the time to write something halfway decent, the time to browse around and see what people are making, what the pertinent discussions are. This is my main area to work on at the moment- it takes me 2 hours to travel to uni, 2 hours to get back and whilst I usually do have a little time to spare after studying, I'm so knackered it's hard to motivate myself to start writing. Towards this end I've set up a (really boring) schedule which basically goes something like work, work, work, study, study, study, write. The worst thing is trying to get reviews done in the fortnightly pre/post release window that may be helpful to someone in terms of visibility and profile- that makes me feel guilty.  Nothing comes easily, I guess, so if you want something, you've got to work for it, but it can be very frustrating trying to fit so much into little slivers of time. Hopefully, next year as things ease up, there will be more time to devote to comics writing and events.
And that's it. It's been pretty slap-dashed together I'm afraid, but I hope it wasn't too boring to read, and it's been helpful to get it out of my head and down onto paper. Kind of.

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