One year ago last week, I began doing webcomic reviews on Da Blog.
Recently, I've been having a crisis of confidence about the whole enterprise.
This should be obvious enough to anyone who read my 8-Bit Theater review. Quite frankly, I completely stalled while writing it. I found myself trapped in a place where I couldn't say much more than "It's a webcomic, and it's not Order of the Stick. Um... it loves non-sequitur. Um... it... structures its updates well. Um... I got nothin'." Roger Ebert (or even Eric Burns(-White)) I'm not.
Now, maybe that's just a symptom of how dull and repetitive 8BT is. But 8BT really just put into focus a trend that's been dogging me for some time. Quite frankly, I'm not entirely sure what my audience is or what it should be. Am I writing for the average person to let them know what's good in webcomics? Or am I writing for Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere to identify what certain webcomics get right and wrong?
It shouldn't be that difficult to do the former - is a webcomic entertaining and captivating? But not only is the answer to that question dependent on each person's tastes, it's actually a lower bar than a lot of people give it credit for. People in English courses and otherwise preoccupied with deconstructing every layer of meaning out of a story will find things to object to in strips like Ctrl+Alt+Del by nitpicking every ounce of it. But to be honest, most people don't care about all that. All they care about is that it's funny. As long as a comic meets the relatively low bar that it be entertaining (for a humor strip) or addictive (for a strip with continuity), it's probably going to attract an audience. I really don't need to say much more than answer those two questions for you to know whether or not you'll want to follow a given strip. (This is where I keep trying to condense the size of my reviews, yet I keep feeling they're too short.) This may explain some of the popularity of Twilight despite geeks hating it with a passion: it's really a romance novel and no better or worse than any other romance novel, but because it happens to have vampires it attracted geeks who expected a sci-fi story and held it to a standard it should never have been expected to be held to.
(Note that Ctrl+Alt+Del, at the moment, is starting to turn even me off. Yes, of course it's a good idea to give Zeke a mate! It's not like that's a hokey, boring stock plot for man-made life going back to the original novel of Frankenstein! What's that? Why aren't you making a she-Zeke (only now you are)? Of course, it's because Zeke owes his sentience to a myste-e-e-e-erious X-factor that can't be easily duplicated! Because that's completely original and not at all hokey and boring itself, and certainly not a lame attempt to jack up the melodrama you'll probably bust through and give us a she-Zeke anyway! On the plus side, at least we have the beginnings of an explanation for why Zeke could be created by freakin' Ethan...)
A lot of my reviews have been written with an eye towards teasing out the differences between webcomics and other art forms, and with no small eye towards what lessons I myself can learn as an aspiring webcomicker. My reviews have typically been written with this as a base: am I continuing to read this comic going forward, and why or why not? But answering the latter question tends to lead me to present the answers as things that other webcomics can follow.
I don't do a lot of saying, "This webcomic is good and here's why you should read it". I honestly can't answer the latter question. I can only say, "Just read it, I found it good." (CAD is a good example; I started reading it because I found it entertaining - and you can't really explain what makes a joke funny - and addictive, which basically translates to, "I want to find out where it goes from here," regardless of what "it" is.) What I teased out as the reasons why tends to be technical stuff that would bore the average reader and says little about the content of the comic, and is more suited towards Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere, so I end up saying, "This webcomic is good and here's what they're doing that you should be too." At least one other webcomic review blog embraced this whole-hog and frames its reviews as the answer to a question: "What did I learn?" I'm not convinced, though, that this is the best way to review webcomics, or anything.
I think I need to go back to my heady early days when David Morgan-Mar was praising me for my review of Darths and Droids, and even six months ago when Robert A. Howard was praising me for my review of Tangents. If you read my Darths and Droids or original OOTS reviews, you see that a key element of the former is a deconstruction of the key elements of the strip, attempting to tease out exactly what it is that makes it tick (a similar element to what made my Tangents review stand out, in fact - I think my review of the Floating Lightbulb might be my best review in a while for this same reason). It's almost a "just the facts, ma'am" approach to reviewing webcomics, as long as it's also balanced with an attempt to find out whether or not I like it, and if it's popular, trying to find out why that is (indeed my original OOTS review is little more than straight description). I took my original inspiration from Websnark and it's the Websnark model I need to at least try to return to.
I think my real problem comes when I try to review something I don't like. I've said this in the past, but I don't like making an impact on anything, and whenever people seem to think I want them to change their sites they often belligerently respond with variants of "it's MY site and I can do what I want". (This is one reason why my Tangents review seemed to go horribly wrong after Robert A. Howard himself showed up - even when he took me seriously it freaked me out a little bit.) One of, in my opinion, my better reviews is my Dresden Codak review (which I think did a better job than the similarly negative, but more disconnected, 8BT review - I probably should have re-read my DC review once I decided to make my 8BT one negative), which broke down everything that I saw as going wrong with the strip. Does that mean I want Aaron Diaz to change any of it? Not necessarily. If that's the way he wants to take the strip that's the way he wants to take the strip. I'm merely reporting on what I see as wrong with it, for the benefit of shoppers who are considering adding to their webcomic plate (or starting one). But even in that review, there's an element of "what did I learn?" in there, trying to take lessons from Dresden Codak and apply them to webcomics in general.
Part of the difference is that originally, and lasting all the way through my post on art in webcomics, the general statements I was making were directed towards the webcomic community. But as I had run-ins with Robert A. Howard, and (in February) with David Morgan-Mar over a slow patch in Darths and Droids (the latter of which I'm not sure will subside until Attack of the Clones does), I needed to defend the negative statements I was making towards webcomics that I didn't actually expect any action on, and I decided I was really writing for Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere to help them avoid the pitfalls. If I'd reread my Dresden Codak review I'd have seen that sometimes the problems are just too endemic to fix, and I wasn't always making negative statements to help anyone "avoid pitfalls" at all. I need to restate my mission: I'm writing reviews to deconstruct a webcomic's elements to determine whether or not I like a given webcomic and why, with an eye to observe a webcomic in motion and with an audience of potential webcomic readers first and the webcomic community second, with maybe a tertiary audience of Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere.
But first I need to rest my brain from the heavy work I've been putting it through, especially given the class I'm in at the moment and the paucity of work I've done for it. So it's likely that - with the exception of a post when the current book of OOTS ends - there will be no more webcomic posts until late July at the earliest. I'm hopeful that with this re-examination I can return to my roots and create webcomic reviews more on par with what I've written in the past. I may even re-review some comics I've given subpar reviews to, though that's likely more of a long-term project. (For me to give a more meaty review of Girl Genius than the one I originally gave, for example, I'd probably need to go on a fairly lengthy archive binge.)
By the time I do return to webcomic posts, though, it will be a rebirth of sorts in more ways than one, because in all likelihood I should have completed a relaunch of Da Blog and the web site, which could be perhaps the most major development to come to either before or since, finally taking Da Blog and the website off of Blogger and Freehostia. (Not that my new file manager completely fixes all the problems I had with Freehostia's.) One development that will result from this will be the merger of Da Blog with the web site, allowing all my major online presence (outside Twitter) to be housed under one address and one banner title, instead of awkward names like the Morgan Wick Online Universe or the Morgan Wick Sites.
I don't intend to give away too much right now, but one reason this relaunch hasn't occurred already is because I intend to blow up some of my more common labels into full-fledged sub-sites (and the software I'd need for that isn't as up-to-date as I'd like). For example, my sports posts should be merged with the Morgan Wick Sports section of the site. As a result, my webcomics posts will become an entire site of their own (still connected to Da Blog though), with the potential for a comparable level of support material you might not necessarily expect from a blog alone. So I'd like to ask you: what would you like from a webcomics review site? I definitely hope to include an index to my reviews to aid in finding them, and maybe links to better organize access to the Webcomics' Identity Crisis series, but what else might I include to take advantage of having an entire site devoted to webcomics as opposed to a blog, even a glorified one?
By way of analogy, I could look at the web site of a movie reviewer, such as Roger Ebert's site. That site contains reviews (obviously); the Answer Man column, answering people's questions about the movies, which might not be terribly portable to webcomics, which I wouldn't be qualified for because I don't read that many webcomics consistently, and which would be more of a blog feature anyway; the Great Movies columns, which might manifest into a list of links to the good webcomics and webcomic blogs; the Movie Glossary, but we already have TV Tropes, though a guide to some of the terms I use might still be useful, akin to Eric Burns(-White)'s own glossary; "people", a home to some biographical vignettes, suggesting it might be useful to help tell, say, Phil Foglio apart from Tim Buckley apart from Rich Burlew and Randall Munroe and David Morgan-Mar and Ryan North and Tom Slidell and Jerry Krahulik and Mike Holkins and Scott Kurtz, though that might be a lot of work for little gain (and again, might be more of a blog feature pending the execution)...
...the blog of someone not named Roger Ebert for some reason; "commentary", not always by Ebert himself or about movies, and probably close in concept to Da Blog itself; guides to film festivals and the Oscars, the former of which isn't completely applicable (concepts like Zuda perhaps?) and both of which are more appropriate to blog posts (though things like sub-indices might be appropriate); "editor's notes" that are basically comments by the author of the aforementioned blog; "one-minute" (short) reviews; and the equivalent of "letters to the editor". There's also places to search the review archive and get movie times and tickets (again not applicable). Are there any things I could add to a new webcomic review site other than straight-up lists of links? What do you think?
Whatever comes of it, let us plow forward into the second year of my webcomic reviews... and hope it comes out better than the second half of the first.