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Taking Criticism

You may recall back in April I made a post about pieces of advice that I have heard from numerous professionals given to amateurs at one time or another, which I found to be rather worthless to folks just starting out. One of the points was about ignoring critics, to which I countered that you should simply take all feedback with a grain of salt and try to determine which is beneficial to you and which is not.

Unfortunately that is easier said than done so today let’s expand on that.

The first thing to look at is whether the advice you are getting is relevant to what you want to do with your comic. I’ll give you an example from my past. Back in 2011 I decided to get serious with my goal towards breaking into the print comics market and actually having a career. The first step was to find an editor who would help me improve. I had worked with one before but there had been issues, since neither one of us knew what exactly the editor should do.

So I go hunting and find a guy who does a column about breaking in and offered to do freelance work. He had even critiqued an old script of mine and given some good points.  I emailed him about the project and he gave me a fair rate, so I sent the money and the script.

And then, well, this happened:

Sadly, that is actually an understatement of how off mark he was. Now he gave good advice in terms of pacing, dialogue and exposition. In fact I did learn a lot about writing thanks to my experience with him. The problem was no matter how many times I tried to explain I wanted to make something more along the lines of Christopher Nolan, he wanted traditional superheroes, even insisting the character shouldn’t get tired after seven days of 14-hours patrols that involved running around the city and getting into fights. Eventually I let him go and he took it well.

The problem with feedback is many people don’t know what you’re trying to make or who think it’s a bad idea because it isn’t something they would like. Back when Cowboys and Aliens came out in theatres, many critics complained about the sci-fi angle despite the title. One of the worst cases I can think of is Kevin Smith’s tale of when he was hired to write a Superman script and the producer wanted him to make a Superman who didn’t fly or wear the iconic costume, and was possibly a violent killer.

The second part would be whether the other person does know what they’re talking about. This can be difficult. When Scott Kurtz says ignore criticism, he’s talking about comments from general people. His advice is to instead find a group of fellow creators, your peers, who you can advise and they can advise you, and so you get a professional opinion. The problem for new people is that pro level creators don’t have time for them because they have so much to do.

They can help out their friends because it’s just a quick “Maybe tone Brent down so he’s more sympathetic” as the pro knows what they are doing. But someone new who still has no grasp of anatomy, perspective, variations on camera angles, characterisation beyond stereotypes or clones of popular characters, joke writing or even storytelling? It would just take too long and you don’t even know if they are going to stick with it beyond a year or so.

And then there’s also the issue that I’ll get to into the third topic. Are you actually going to react well to being asked to change? They probably get asked for advice all the time, only to get responses of “I’m perfect, what do you know?” and that can get grating after a while.

Now associating with people on your own level is a great idea. Making friends can pay off if they get big and you can help each other reach new heights. But just remember not to take everything they say as gospel, since they’re still down below with you and you’re both there for a reason. They will get better if they try to, but it’ll take time.

The third thing to clarify is whether you don’t want to take the advice because you think it’s bad, or if you think it’s an insult to. I remember back in my early days just how god damn hostile I could get when working with my first editor. Not the guy in the comic, the one before that. I also used to get very pissy with Paul whenever he changed the script. Even if it was an improvement, I just hated the idea of anyone wanting my work to change. The weirdest thing is I never considered my work to be that good; it just aggravated me to hear someone correct me.

Crit01

And I have noticed others get like this. The TV Tropes page Small Name, Big Ego used to be full of horror stories of people who refused to be corrected. It was what helped me get my head out of my arse and realise that yes, sometimes correcting mistakes can be a good thing. The hostility doesn’t even make sense to me anymore, though I do accept I can still be a little stubborn when hearing comments on ways to improve.

There’s really nothing I can say that can fix this though, it’s about personality rather than expertise. And you have to want to change in order for it to happen. I guess it comes back to my other column about picking a path, is that the person you want to be?

The last and most important thing though, would be can you do what they want you to do? That’s the entire column summed up, really. The back story people are asking for, would that spoil planned plot twists? You’re told to colour in a more painted style but do you know how to do that? Long poetic narrations could be nice but are you the kind of person who works better with short, to the point dialogue and one-liners?

While it is good to stretch your wings creatively, going too far beyond your current abilities will cause problems and can make for a weaker product. I’ve always had an issue with Detective Comics #741, which features the death of Batman supporting character, Sarah Essen Gordon, second wife of Commissioner Gordon.

The comic was drawn by Damion Scott, an artist with a penchant for over-exaggerated expressions, which he continued to use even though he was drawing an emotional scene of Gordon realising his wife was shot by the Joker, and Batman announcing he won’t stop Gordon from exacting vengeance. It was supposed to be a tense moment but came off as conflicted, since the artwork was so overly cartoonish it was almost funny but the sombre writing made it too inappropriate to laugh.

You need to know your limitations and also know your strengths. You can improve on your weaker areas now and later, but don’t decide to make jokes about Christianity when it’s blindingly clear you know nothing about the religion.  Or try to deconstruct Harry Potter when you haven’t read the books.

I hope this helped in some way, so that when El Santo finally comes bearing down on you, then you will know not to take it too personally.

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Posted on May 25, 2013, in webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. If people are asking for backstory you can’t give because it would spoil a plot twist, and it’s not a “I can’t wait to find out” situation but a “I’m confused, why won’t the author tell me this?” situation, you need to rethink your plotting choices and what to reveal when.

    • David Herbert

      Not necessarily. Ever read A Song of Fire and Ice or seen the HBO series based on it, Game of Thrones? In it, the character of Jaime Lannister is known as the Kingslayer since, despite being part of the royal guard, he killed his king. He is at first presented as an irredeemable villain but through character development, he eventually breaks down and confesses why he did it.

      Had we known earlier (I’m not going to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the books or seen the show), the reveal wouldn’t have had the same impact as it does at the point it was revealed, the third book and third season.

      • Good point, and good example. Sometimes an author has a good reason for withholding information from the audience, even if that reason may not necessarily be clear to the audience at the time.

    • Both of you need to reread my second clause.

      • David Herbert

        Right, my bad. Okay, better example then, one for webcomics. Shortpacked and the drama tag. At first, seeing Galasso burn the thing is confusing. What are his reasons for it? It doesn’t make sense. Then you find out what its purpose was and it leaves the reader with a more emotional impact since you’ve spent years only seeing him as a cold, unfeeling megalomaniac.

        However most of the time I would agree with you.

  2. Even without the given context, that page you showed from Detective Comics #741 did deliver the mood correctly. I really didn’t find the faults that you had with it. Then again, I tend to veer more towards cartoony visuals and as a result may not have the same conceptions of subtlety that you might have.
    While I do understand the points you are trying to make in your articles, I often come across examples where I end up disagreeing with your assessments (like your belief that Demo Reel was an act of self-indulgence on Doug Walker’s part). Then again, I could just be very sentimental and have absolutely horrible taste.

    • This probably boils down to a matter of taste. I’m sorta with David Herbert, in that I do not like it, usually, when the Batman artist draws the Dark Knight a little too cartoony. Sometimes it works — I thought that Frank Quitely’s style worked well with Morrison’s more 1960’s Batman & Robin style pair up — but the current climate suggest something that supposed to be more somber, moody, and noirish.

      Then again, I also someone who’s not generally enamored with, say, Jim Aparo, who’s considered by many to be the best Batman artist of all time. I’m pretty indifferent to his work. Kinda bland, I think. On the other hand, I will trawl the comic shops looking for old issues illustrated by Neil Adams, whom I consider the best Batman artist, because he grounds Batman stories in modern day realism (something the Nolan movies ran with).

      It’s a matter of taste, and something that you really can’t divorce from putting out a criticism… which ties into the larger theme of David’s piece. If every criticism was basically “well, I’m not into it, but maybe you’re into it — who am I to say?”, then each piece would be super wishy washy and very uninteresting. Criticizing something means taking a stand on a set of principles, which has to be defined for the reader to accept or reject. As a critic, I’m not the last word on anything, but I can tell you where I’m coming from.

      • I never said I didn’t agree with David Herbert’s actual arguments. I merely have a few misgivings regarding some of the examples he’s been using. I just didn’t want to sound like one of those a-holes on the Internet who put down anyone who doesn’t share their opinions, which is why I took a neutral stance with that last comment.

    • David Herbert

      It’s cool, we all have different opinions. Though you’re right, I probably should have tried to find a better page for that scene.

      As for Walker, my issue is not that Demo Reel was self-indulgence, it’s how he did it. Necessarily, it was a show that parodies movies, done by a man who thinks imitation means putting on a funny voice. There’s a video where at a con panel he and Team Four Star read 50 Shades of Grey.It’s really striking there because while everyone’s doing almost accurate portrayals of people, you have that contrasted with Doug trying to do a Christopher Walken impression that is just a bunch of hiccoughs.

      I find Walker to be the actor’s equivalent of a caricature artist. He doesn’t go for accuracy, he goes for what would be more entertaining. That’s fine once in a while but to me he goes overboard because he enjoys it.

      But that’s just me. If you enjoyed it then that’s great.

  3. I have a personal principle where I will thank for any criticism I receive, though of course whether I will actually do what they suggest is another thing entirely. I believe no-one should ever dismiss critique because of the critics stature, one should thank and think about the critique he receives from a random nobody just as much as critique coming from a pro. Although one should give more value to criticism given by those more experienced in his own field (because odds are they ran into the same problem you did years back and know how to fix it).

    One good example would be the art teacher in my previous school. He didn’t like the fact my comics were filled with violence, and he said my ink-lines need more depth to them and that I should try out ink-line shadowing in different ways. With the first one I simply disagreed, its in his taste to not prefer violence in any form of art, whereas I don’t really see a problem in it, whereas with the ink-lines he was absolutely right and I started practising on it more.

  4. The way I always saw it; if someone talks shit about what I draw or write, I believe I deserve it. Because god knows how many times I’ve criticized other people’s work right in their face.

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