Okay, I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been a little obsessed with the xxxHolic Roundtable at The Hooded Utilitarian. I’ll get around to that a bit more in a moment, but first I’d like to point you to our latest roundtable at PopCultureShock in which I join Michelle and the rest of the gang for a discussion on manga gift-giving. It was an entertaining exchange for all of us and I hope it will be for you too!
So, back to the Utilitarians, guest participant Kate Dacey wrapped up the series with her take on the first three volumes of the series, offering up exactly the kind of pithy brilliance I’ve come to expect from her. Also, since a few whiners (and by “whiners” I mean me) made a fuss about the roundtable being limited to the series’ first three volumes, Vom Marlowe posted an explanation (and unnecessary apology) for the roundtable’s breadth of discussion, offering interested parties a chance to open up the topic to the series as a whole. Noah Berlatsky then punctuated it all with an official round-up of links and discussion points.
Some of my favorite bits of the roundtable were in comments, particularly those between Noah and Ng Suat Tong (most to be found here and here), which quickly turned to discussion of comics criticism as a whole and the state of manga criticism online. David Welsh offered up his personal take on the subject at The Manga Curmudgeon which led me to think about my own critical standards a bit as well.
There’s been a lot of talk in the manga community lately about how and why we review (see Deb Aoki’s recent post at About.com for a fairly comprehensive overview) so it’s been on my mind for a while. I suspect, like David, I have some inconsistent standards to answer for, though partly that’s because I think my job is a little different depending on who I’m writing for, which affects how I approach each title I review.
At PopCultureShock, for instance, I think my job is to offer a reasonably objective review with the purpose of informing readers about new titles and helping them determine which they want to buy. Since PCS offers reviews from a slew of different contributors (but just a single opinion on any one volume) I try to speak to as broad an audience as possible and view each title from that perspective as well. To this end, I try to temper my own personal biases at least enough to make my reviews accessible/useful to a variety of readers, not only those who are Just Like Me, which lends itself to a more professional, journalistic tone than I might exhibit elsewhere.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, here at Manga Bookshelf I feel that readers are looking for a much more personal take on the books I read. My background in comics is weak, to say the least. I’ve only been reading them for a few short years and I read almost exclusively manga and manhwa. There are approximately ten zillion critics readers can turn to who have a lot more to say about manga as manga, and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life learning from those people (which is a true pleasure, by the way, as they are generally brilliant and stunningly kind). What my background strongly qualifies me for, however, is in-depth discussion of characterization, dialogue, motivation, and emotional content. This is what I tend to focus on when I really get into a review, especially here, where I feel the freedom and even the responsibility to personalize my reviews within a loosely professional framework.
It is also important to note that whereas other editors may assign me a wide variety of books, including those I do not like, when facing a stack of review copies provided for Manga Bookshelf, the ones most likely to get significant attention are those that I feel I have the most to say about, which on my blog translates to “those that inspire the strongest emotional response.” While that sometimes includes titles that elicit a decidedly negative reaction (Black Bird, vol. 2 anyone?) a lot of these will be titles I genuinely enjoy. Will I discuss their flaws? Of course I will. I like a lot of deeply flawed manga. I will also spend a good amount of time talking about why I like them so much and that is likely to influence the tone of the review overall.
Whether I’m writing at Comics Should Be Good (where the audience is mainly fans of western comics) or as a guest reviewer at About.com (where the focus is a bit more didactic), each audience (and editor) has slightly different needs and expectations, and I do my best to adjust accordingly, sometimes with more success than others. I’d try to do the same if I was writing for a publication with a heavily cerebral focus, say, or one that favored snarky humor.
The point I am slowly getting around to here, is that I think the question that might be most worth asking is not so much, “Is there a different standard for online manga criticism than there is for criticism of western comics?” but closer to, “What are manga fans primarily looking for in online criticism?” While I suspect the answer to that is more nuanced and contains more variety than any of us might be prepared to address in a single blog post, I also think it is probably pretty clear. Blogs come and go in the blink of an eye and nothing kills a blog faster than lack of readership/response. So who’s still writing (and writing and writing)? There’s your answer. I don’t know what it means, but I think it can’t be a bad thing.
As a reader, I have my own criteria for what I want out of manga criticism. The bulk of that is easily addressed by the five female voices I’ve written about before, along with all the other ladies on the list. I also spend a lot of time appreciating the thoughts of people like The Hooded Utilitarians, David Welsh, Ed Chavez, Ed Sizemore, Jason Thompson, Christopher Butcher, Moritheil, Matt Blind, and hell, here’s my blogroll. These people have so much to say and I’ve never felt like I was missing anything vital to my world as a manga fan. Someone in those comments (Suat, I think?) suggested that a sense of community seemed to be key in the world of manga criticism and I’ll admit that’s a huge priority for me. For me, what the community provides is an ongoing meta discussion connecting blog to blog to Twitter to blog and that’s what I’m here for more than anything else.
This little bit of link-blogging has become quite a monster so I think it’s time to stop. All thoughts are welcome, and again I’d like to thank the folks at the roundtable for giving me so much to think about this week. It’s been a good time.