Leading Hellboy scholar from Multiversity Comics, Mark Tweedale, stops by to talk about their role as a comics reviewer, getting noticed as an indie creator, and how to inspire readers to care about your characters...
Let’s say it’s either fortified wine or schnapps. If those aren’t available, I’ll find an interesting gin cocktail.
As for what I actually do at Multiversity Comics, I ramble in reviews and annotations columns. Our reviews are more like post-game discussions than proper reviews, almost always written under the assumption the reader has already read the comic.
I think the competitive impulse can be destructive. I know this’ll seem strange to some people, but I actively seek out news pieces on other websites and link to them. So if 13th Dimension or The Mary Sue is doing a cool Hellboy piece, my readers are going to hear about it - by actually linking to the original article.
The reality is our website is small, so when the big news hits, it’ll land on a big website, usually where comics aren’t their focus. They get the news out there to as many people as possible, and we just can’t compete with that. But after that article runs, the conversation on their website stops. So that’s where I come in. I’m focused on growing the community around these books.
The trick is to make it conversational rambling, not Wikipedia-speak rambling
The other part of what I do is what we call annotation columns, where I’ll pick a topic from a comic series and explore it. The big one is Hell Notes, which is all about the Hellboy Universe and involves a lot of rambling. The trick is to make it conversational rambling though, not Wikipedia-speak rambling.
Reciting the plot is not what it's about, that's for sure. Few things are as painful to read in a review.
I guess my situation is a little strange, because a big part of what I do for Multiversity Comics is review Mike Mignola's comics for Mignolaversity.
Usually comic reviewers are writing about different titles all the time, usually new titles, whereas Mignolaversity covers every single issue Mignola releases. So what do you say about the 150ᵗʰ issue of B.P.R.D. that you haven't said about the other 149? That's the real challenge.
First and foremost I want to be conscious of how the art is telling the story and try to deconstruct that. For me, one of the most fun reviews I got to write was when I went completely off the rails to talk about Tonci Zonjic's colours in Lobster Johnson: The Pirate's Ghost. When you're doing a series of long-term reviews, you've got to focus in on things sometimes. I did one review where I spent about half of it talking about hand acting. That’s not something you could do if you were only reviewing one issue in 10; it’s too much of an indulgence.
Mignolaversity reviews are almost always done in pairs as a conversation. We can cover each other's blind spots. We sometimes disagree, which usually leads to a better review because we're forced to explore why we like/dislike something. Our weakest reviews are when we both agree with each other. At the very least, if we're going to agree, I hope that we agree for different reasons.
The Mignolaversity team virtually never gives a book 10 out of 10. I’ve done it only once (for Hellboy in Hell #10). We see 8 as our “excellent” ranking, and anything above that means the book is extra special.
Oh boy, it’s weird sometimes, because I’m not just doing reviews, I’m doing interviews and process pieces too, where you get to know the people behind the books a bit.
When I write a review, I have that nagging voice I have to deal with that says, “Are you being objective?”
Those interviews and process pieces unavoidably create bias, but at least I can try to be aware of my bias and challenge it. I work a lot with Cullen Bunn, doing interviews with him pretty regularly, but I’m lucky in that Dark Horse and Oni Press send me material well in advance. It means if I’m writing a review about a book, I can write it before I do the interview.
As for Mignola, yeah, he’s aware of my work. I was writing Hell Notes for about a year until I found out he occasionally uses them for his own references. Sometimes he emails me corrections or send a teasing, “Close, but not quite right... you’ll see.”
Yeah, there was a bit of that. I’ve been told that what I’ve written has occasionally changed the way they’d tell a story, mainly to clarify a particular plot point or reference.
Dark Horse once sent me a hardcover copy of a convention-exclusive hardcover of Hellboy in Hell: The Death Card, which was really cool. When I got the book, I turned it over and on the back they had a quote from me on there. So, yeah, I’m on his radar.
So with that in mind, how do you review a book when it isn’t working for you? I’ve heard some reviewers say writing criticism is fun, but that’s not my experience - it’s hard work. I can’t be satisfied with simply saying “I didn’t like this”.
I have to unravel the reason why without devolving into the worst kind of pedant. Occasionally I’ve had an artist reach out to me to clarify a piece of criticism so that they can make themself a better artist. I think it speaks to the character of the artists that work on these books that they take criticism constructively.
Yeah, and you’re reviewing each chapter without knowing how the book ends. Plus you’re writing a thousand words about a 22-page comic. Actually, it’s more like writing a review for a single act of an episode of TV, just a single section between ad breaks.
You’re writing a thousand words about a 22-page comic
Simply sticking to the elevator pitch. High concept stuff is great to distil into that marketing paragraph and it’ll probably get me to pick up the book... but it won’t stop me from putting it down. Ultimately, the elevator pitch is a hook and nothing more. Don’t assume I care about your characters and your world; assume that I don’t and make me care.
This tends to manifest as exposition-heavy stories more interested in world-building than the story unfolding. Another tell is characters than are only motivated by things that directly affect themselves. Unless the point of your story is to explore disconnected people, your characters need to draw from a bigger pool.
You need to have characters in your story that are invested in the world and other characters
If you want to get readers invested in your world and your characters, then you need to have characters in your story that are invested in the world and other characters. If your characters care, that’s the first step to making your reader care.
If you want to talk about a problem specific to comics, it’s when panels are more focused on looking cool than telling a story. You’ll see it in a comic where every panel is trying to be dynamic, almost terrified to use the same composition for two or more consecutive panels. This sort of approach stifles the reader’s ability to quickly read subtle body language, and in a visual medium like comics, that can seriously hurt the story.
Pitch your book to the right person. There’s a lot of people writing for Multiversity Comics, and they have their own interests. If I get something about the latest Marvel or DC superhero, I know the sender is pitching blind. I’m the last person they should email anything like that to.
The ones that come immediately to mind came from someone I already had a relationship with. They knew my work and interests, so it was usually something short and sweet, sometimes as little as a “check this out” email with a link to a tweet or an Instagram pic.
Comics are a visual medium. A few well-chosen panels can often say more than a wall of marketing text
Being active on social media seems to be the thing that catches my attention. It’s how I learned about the Kickstarter for Tee Franklin and Jenn St. Onge’s Bingo Love, and a snippet of art on Twitter led me to Lorena Alvarez’s Nightlights. I got so worked up about Nightlights that I simply had to review it. (It’s very gratifying to see Alvarez nominated for an Eisner this year.) Tucker Stone from Nobrow got back to me immediately with a preview PDF, and when the review went live I got a thoughtful email back from him about it.
Comics are a visual medium. A few well-chosen panels can often say more than a wall of marketing text.
The thing is, it’s rare that a review is going make someone pick up a book, especially coming from a smaller website, especially when final order cut-off is three and a half weeks before an issue comes out.
From a marketing perspective, they’re useful to draw pull-quotes from when it comes time to put together a trade. For me, I try to make my reviews about conversation, not just the one I have with my co-reviewer, but with the one that happens in the comments below. I want to build a community around these books.
I can and do read comics for enjoyment, but I do need a break from the books I write about. I can get burnt out otherwise.
I’m definitely more of a creator reader in my own time. I have writers and artists I like, but I tend to skip their company-owned work and focus on the work they control creatively. I’ll make exceptions, of course, like Faith Erin Hicks doing Avatar: The Last Airbender. That sounds like an unmissable book.
Now that I think of it, I tend to follow editors. I’ll find an editor whose taste aligns to my own and I know they’ll virtually always make something I like.
Daniel Chabon at Dark Horse seems to always work on books I like. Most recently it’s Blackwood from Evan Dorkin with Veronica and Andy Fish.
I also love the books First Second publishes, though I’m probably biased because they win me over by publishing a whole book instead of issues, and it’ll usually come out in hardcover and paperback at the same time, so there’s no wait for me to get the deluxe version I crave.
First Second’s Twitter account posts morning subway reads where they show off books from other publishers; they have great taste. Plus I see what comics creators are excited about. One of my favourites lately was The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang. The big surprise for me was Black Hammer, since I’m not really into superhero comics, but Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s twist on the genre is just what I needed for that world to spark to life.
Bingo Love by was great. Oh, and Isola (Brendan Fletcher, Karl Kerschl, MSassyK, and Aditya Bidikar) is so damn good. There’s so many things going on in that book I love, but the thing that stands out to me the most is the pacing. Generally American comics are too fast for my taste, but Isola brings back memories of reading Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
But yeah, if creators I like are talking about a book, that’s usually a good sign.
I'm not just a paper comics reader, I'm an oversized hardcover kind of reader. I work on a computer, both for my day job and my Multiversity job, and I read review copies as PDFs, so reading comics digitally always puts me in the frame of mind of work. Plus I like to marvel at a well put-together book. I like the tactile experience, the smell of the ink... plus it's nice to have a few books which have personalised art from the creators inside. (Thank you, Brian Hurtt!)
That said, I need to learn to enjoy digital comics because my bookshelves are getting seriously out of control.
Oh boy, this is gonna be interesting...
Huh. Okay, that's surprisingly accurate, though more classical music than usual.
I’ve got a column called The Harrow County Observer, which has been running for three years now. It’s coming to an end in June when Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook’s Harrow County #32 comes out. The series has been my favourite running comic for the duration of its run. I’m currently in the middle of a four-part interview with the creators, going behind the scenes. I’m a big special features geek, so I love doing these pieces, a kind of “director’s commentary” for comics.
Mark, thank you so much for your time - your insight into comics reviewing will be invaluable for myself and other indie comics creators. Folks, you can find Mark on Twitter at @MarkTweedale and @multiversitycom