2013 hasn't been a great year for webcomic reviews. Of the review sites mentioned here in 2012, Webcomic Reviews Every Monday! and Your Webcomics! stopped updating, WebcomicZ was replaced, and El Santo of The Webcomic Overlook has only reviewed half as many webcomics this year as he did last year. A couple of other sites have had their share of problems as well, as Comic Booked's Tatiana Christian stopped writing reviews, and The Bad Webcomics Wiki was temporarily shut down against their will. Now, as the year draws to a close, the webcomics community's left with a bunch of second-rate reviewers that serve as examples of what not to do.
(This post is partly inspired by How Not to Run a Webcomic, a defunct tutorial site about the don'ts of making webcomics.)
Be a webcomics cheerleader
Offender: Sara Zimmerman of Unearthed Comics
The worst way someone can start a review is by writing, "This is one of my favorite webcomics." Not only do these words guarantee that the review will be terrible and uninteresting, but it also ruins any sense of mystery about what the review will be like. You can expect glowing statements of how "amazing," "hilarious," or "beautiful" the webcomic is, and it comes across more as cheerleading than actually reviewing or critiquing anything. It's okay to be impressed by a new webcomic once in a while, but if you're a huge fan of a particular comic, then just don't review it. Pick something else to write about.
Zimmerman's repeatedly guilty here, introducing Lunarbaboon and Victims of Circumsolar as some of her favorite webcomics and declaring herself a fan of Formal Sweatpants and Safely Endangered. And right away, she calls Rain Dogs "great" and The Awkward Yeti "wonderful," and writes that she "fell over laughing" when she found The Gentleman's Armchair. To be fair, though, she has a couple points in her defense: One, all of the reviews have "Best of Webcomics" in their title, and two, it's really more of an interview blog even though it's labeled as "webcomic reviews." However, in my defense, blogs like this tend to die out, and Unearthed Comics is an example of one that's still updating since it's fairly new.
Offenders: Heather Antos, Máiréad Casey, Jessica Maybury, Elaine Tipping, & Alice Vernon of Girls Like Comics
This one's the older brother (or, in this case, older sister) of the previous offense. The blog even pokes fun at its younger sibling, as Maybury jokes, "Dust Piggies is one of my favourite web comics, so you know right now that this is going to be a highly unbiased and balanced review." You'd think that, with five writers, the blog would have some variety, but... not really. Antos calls Pumpkin Spiced "very cute, fun, and enjoyable," Casey writes that Fall On Me is "very lovely," Tipping says that Plume is a "brilliant comic" that she "was blown away by," and Vernon labels Cereals for Lunch as "very enjoyable" and Ava's Demon as "pretty much a perfect webcomic." Of these five, Casey's review stands out as being the most critical, as she complains that "as a narrative there is still a little to be desired" and has a few minor issues with the writing, but her critiques are still too timid to make her an exception.
I'm not trying to suggest that it's wrong for a reviewer to write in a positive way about webcomics they like, and I don't consider sites that are negative about everything to be ideal, either. What I'm saying is that a review blog should have a mix of comics that are good, comics that are bad, and comics that are so-so. It might be a little trickier to coordinate this sort of balance with five contributors, but it's definitely not impossible.
Get distracted by the little stuff
Offender: Fes Works of The Webcast Beacon
This guy must be really into web design, because he goes on and on about it in every review before he finally gets to the comic's art and writing. I did the math on it, and he's averaging about 450 words just on web design while only spending about 500 words on the entire rest of the review. In his review of Flycoren Kausim, he actually devotes 980 words to describing the web design while only spending 450 words writing about the comic. In that review, the website section has 17 paragraphs that seem to be individually analyzing every graphic and button on the site, and he gives separate grades to the background image, the header, and the overall website, and yet, Fes Works doesn't even bother to say what the comic's about. His entire description of the plot is that it's "set in a fantasy environment" and "starts off innocent enough but soon adds a foriener [sic] that gets wash [sic] upon shore." Oh, and it also has characters that "almost look like cow people... kinda." That's all there is from a review that's nearly 1,500 words long. I mean, I recognize that web design's an important aspect of webcomics that's often overlooked, but I just don't care that much about it, and I come to a site like this looking to read about webcomics, not to see an in-depth critique of the site's URL. And if Fes Works doesn't have much to say about a particular comic, then he should just keep the review short rather than fill it with commentary on the site's menu bar or whatever.
Try to review too many webcomics
Offender: Helen of Narrative Investigations
We have a whole review just criticizing Helen and her mass-review style, and I don't know if she's ever read it, but if she has, it doesn't seem to have had any effect on the quality of her reviews. In March, she did "Webcomic Review Month 2013," in which she reviewed 21 webcomics in one month. (That's about one review every one-and-a-half days, and it's an average of one-and-a-half reviews per post.) As always, her idea of a "review" is to briefly summarize the concept, make a couple comments about it, and then recommend the webcomic without really bothering to critique the art or writing. (Helen has stated in the past that she'll recommend any webcomic as long as it "has already established a conflict and has introduced a number of characters.")
The problem with mass-reviewing is that a review isn't interesting unless it goes into depth about the webcomic, and five 200-word reviews aren't nearly as interesting as one 1,000-word review. Balancing quality and quantity is essential for a review blog, and it isn't clear what the source of Helen's focus on quantity is. I mean, it's not like the reviewer who reviews the most webcomics in a certain time span gets a trophy for it. One appeal of mini-reviews like these, though, is that they're easy to write, and there isn't any chance the reviewer will upset anyone or say something that someone might disagree with. However, if someone doesn't feel comfortable expressing their opinions online, then writing webcomic reviews probably isn't the right hobby for them.
Promote your own work
Offender: David Herbert of The Webcomic Overlook
The first time Herbert brought up his webcomic Living With Insanity was in his review of So... You’re A Cartoonist? where it made some sense because his comic was very similar to the one he was reviewing. He didn't make a big deal of it at the time, and he didn't mention his webcomic again for a while until he wrote "Picking a Path," which is when his integrity started to go downhill. In the first sentence of that article, he links to his webcomic and starts talking about it even though it wasn't related to the topic, and then he goes on to link to his other webcomic at the end of the article, writing, "[Comparing] someone popular to your own comic [...] can also make you obsessed with gaining more hits. Speaking of which, Domain Tremrot could use some love (hah)." "Obsessed with gaining more hits," huh? That might partly explain why three of the articles that soon followed are full of images from Herbert's projects. "Fighting Writer's Block" and "Taking Criticism" both show multiple strips from Living With Insanity, and "Self-Managing Quality" has a large image of Herbert's book that links to a site where readers can buy it, as well as a link to Gemini Storm, which is another comic he's selling. Now, it's true that these articles are about his own experiences as a webcartoonist, but it's possible to talk about that subject without explicitly advertising a product. And in "Tarquin and General Villainy," he advertises his book in the first line even though it has nothing to do with the content of the article.
I'm aware that it isn't easy for someone to sell books and improve their web presence, but a review blog isn't the right outlet for accomplishing that, and it makes the articles seem annoying and unprofessional. Webcomic reviews and articles should focus on the comics, creators, and medium, not on the person who's writing them. And if a reviewer wants to provide an expert's perspective on a subject, why not ask another creator about it instead of showing off a comic the reviewer himself made? That said, I don't have a problem if a reviewer wants to include a link to their book or website, but if they do it, it should be small and below the writing, in a place where it won't draw attention to itself.
Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, where five more review sites will get chewed out.