Critiquing the Burgundy
“I chartered one of the superb vessels of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company for a hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and invited several parties to go along with me, twelve hundred in all. I shall not take so many next time. The fewer people you take with you, the fewer there are to grumble. I did not suppose that any one could find anything to grumble at in so faultless a ship as ours, but I was mistaken. Very few of our twelve hundred had ever been so pleasantly circumstanced before, or had sailed with an abler Captain or a more obliging baggage master, but yet they grumbled. Such is human-nature. The man who drinks beer at home always criticizes the champagne, and finds fault with the Burgundy when he is invited out to dinner.” - Mark Twain, in a letter to the Chicago Republican
Ah, webcomics. Like Twain’s steamship, you are invited along for the ride, free of charge, for a venture beyond the bounds of the usual. And doesn’t it also seem to hold true that the more people along for the ride, the more grumbling occurs?
I’ve touched on this subject before, and while there’s always the possibility of commentary that’s just outright trolling, the majority probably comes from the idea of being helpful. That we care, so the criticism we are providing will make things better somehow, particularly if we’re pointing out what seem to be mistakes.
Now in looking at the issue from the other side in the case of Zombie Ranch, there has been more than once that we missed filling in the colors of a certain spot, or in the case of last week’s comic forgot altogether to put the bolts and brands on the zombies that should have been there. Truth to tell I woke up the next morning suddenly realizing it and expecting to log on to find someone questioning the lapse, and yep, there it was in the very first comment. There was nothing to be done there but go “whoops” and make the correction as soon as we had the chance. Thank heavens for a digital age that makes that easy. Sooner or later we’d probably notice these mistakes ourselves (hopefully before going to any print version), but I have no problem with people bringing them up. I do wish we were perfect enough it never happened, but occasionally there’s going to be a fly landing in the Burgundy glass and it’s legitimate to politely point that out.
But all that said and done, there are limits. There is a line where constructive criticism just crosses over into nitpicking, and the artist(s) who invited you along on this trip might justifiably become a bit frustrated. Now I still don’t think it gives an artist the right to have a public meltdown and go crazypants on someone, but my “inspiration” for the current post came from moseying by one of the latest pages for the always gorgeously drawn and composed Next Town Over.
NTO has a big audience, no doubt far bigger than ours… I don’t think we’ve ever gotten 20 or more comments on a single page, for instance, while Erin Mehlos gets them on a regular basis. But then I look at some of those comments and see things like “The wound has moved” or a discussion of how the rain shouldn’t be slanted a particular way. Now I’m no artist, but rain is not a particularly easy thing to do well, and I find the fact she’s including it at all to be rather impressive, particularly since she now has a newborn child to take care of. She spends a few posts going back and forth on the idea of viewer perspective before the frustration bubble bursts:
“Assume Faraday is standing dead north: the rain is moving northeast. There is some missing splashing, I’ll grant you, and it’s generally an imperfect rendering; I can only spend so long on each page with an infant in my arm. Do you want your money back? “
A little snarky? Eh, could have been much worse. I’ve wrestled myself at times with the balance between being diplomatic and more-or-less gently reminding someone that while they may think they’re being constructive, they’re really not. They’ve crossed that line to grumbling that the free Burgundy on their free trip doesn’t taste *quite* right to their palate, and it’s particularly baffling to see that with a work like NTO where from my perspective the free Burgundy is still quite delicious.
But then, this is probably exactly why most webcomic artists turn off their comments sections after reaching a certain critical mass, deciding their time is better spent living their lives and creating than arguing on the Internet over the minute artistic merits of their work. After a certain level, the feedback must just start becoming white noise, or worse. That hasn’t happened yet with NTO, and I give Erin a lot of credit (well, even more credit) for continuing to stay engaged with her fans even in the face of the occasional frustrating exchange, and dealing with being a new parent… a phenomenon that still makes Dawn and myself break into cold sweat to consider.
And we’re still quite far away from that theorized critical mass, so the good and bad can still be parsed with aplomb and consideration. Plus, as I said before there’s the occasional actual mistake. I pride myself on making every last bit of text error-free, and grammatically incorrect only insofar as I mean it to be for character and story purposes, but my “visual editing” can still be a bit hit-or-miss in the wee hours of a deadline night. I don’t want to discourage anyone from pointing out what could be an honest to goodness mistake, because yeah, we’ve had them.
Meandering back to the other side for a moment, I think as readers of webcomics we just have to always try to be aware of the effort going into them behind the scenes, and keep in mind that we are the guests of a generous host… and for that matter, unlike Twain’s steamship we are free at any moment to leave and find our glass of Burgundy elsewhere. So while I don’t advocate a comments section filled with nothing but empty sycophancy, if the artist doesn’t respond to a given critique, or even better actually does take the time to respond and point out the thought behind their decisions, then it’s probably best to just relax and continue to enjoy the wine.