Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Mediocre Review and My Defense

Comics reviewer Don MacPherson took a look at WHTTWOT on his "Eye on Comics" blog and didn't entirely like what he saw. While complimenting some aspects of the art, story, and production design in particular, he didn't find it as personal and engaging as he would've liked, and rated the book 6/10. In a paragraph I found most stinging, and one that's going to inspire the rest of this sure-to-be-too-long post, he wrote:

"Just as Fies is about to sweep the reader away with the excitement of a pivotal moment in human achievement, he obstructs that hopeful feeling somewhat by trying to focus the audience’s attention on the facts and people that made up that moment. He diverts from the feeling to the footnotes. At times, Fies’s script reads (more) like a Wikipedia page than a component of a story."

First, the comparison to Wikipedia is just capriciously cruel. But more seriously, another reviewer made a similar point as part of a much more positive review, mentioning that she found the book a bit "didactic." I've mulled that over a while and figured I'd face it head on.

The word "didactic" means "educational" and, I think, carries a connotation of being too teachy-preachy. Of course, two of the main reasons books were invented were to teach and preach. Fictional works with stories and plots and characters can do it too, but they're not supposed to get caught at it. In particular, it's not something readers are used to finding in a graphic novel. (Although such exist. For example, I've got a neat graphic novel atop my heap o' books titled Suspended in Language by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis about the life and work of physicist Niels Bohr that's intensely, deliciously didactic.)

And yet, other works of fiction do it all the time. In Moby-Dick, Melville provided an advanced curriculum on operating a whaling ship. You can't open a James Michener book without finding a chapter that basically begins, "First, the Earth's crust cooled . . ." Tom Clancy goes to great lengths to explain how his military hardware works. Dan Brown's "Da Vinci Code" books are seminars on medieval art, architecture and legend.

Those guys weren't just showing off. They went to the effort because they wanted to give their readers a common foundation of knowledge needed to inhabit their fictional worlds. The vessels, geology, weapons and history they painstakingly described are more than sets and props. They're integral to their stories, with behaviors and moods, almost characters themselves.

Likewise, to pick an example from WHTTWOT, the progression from vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits isn't just techno-geek filler or background for the story; it is the story, at least part of it. The context is important. Transistors helped fuel teen rebellion because they gave kids control of the radio dial for the first time. No transistors = no rock and roll, and my character Buddy wouldn't have been half as independent and surly. I can't assume everyone (or anyone) comes to the book with the same knowledge, so I need to build that common ground.

Part of the answer to the question "Whatever happened to the World of Tomorrow?" is revealed through the characters, part through the "Space Age Adventure" comic books, part through the narrative. Everything in the book serves a purpose and is meant to have a payoff. Nothing is extraneous.

All right, not "nothing." I admit I threw in a few bits that weren't strictly necessary just because I thought they were fun or cool. But not many.

So I'll own up to being didactic. To me the more interesting critical question is, did I do a good or bad job of it? On that point, I expect reasonable people will disagree. Some readers are enthralled by material that makes others' eyes glaze over. It's a tough balance, and impossible to satisfy everyone. I think the tale of technology that runs from the 1939 World's Fair through Flash Gordon, World War II, Von Braun, Chesley Bonestell, the Atomic Age, Walt Disney and the Apollo Program is fascinating, and tried to convey why. MacPherson locked into the gentle, low-key story of Pop and Buddy and found it unsatisfying, particularly compared to the drama of Mom's Cancer. I understand that.

My reply is that Pop and Buddy are just two of the characters in WHTTWOT. Equally important are the character arcs of Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid, and the "character" arc followed by science and technology through the middle of the 20th Century. Those three threads are meant to braid together to tell one story, and tie together in the end. None stands alone. My own opinion of how well I accomplished that varies day to day (I tend to be hard on myself), so I'm not surprised when critical opinions diverge. Especially if the book a reader expects isn't the book I wrote.


Namowal said...

My impression was that he didn't read it as closely as he could have, as the "footnotes" seemed tied to the storyline. It wasn't like you threw random "Hey! It's [insert decade here]" icons.
The snarky Dr. Pepper commercial allusion at the end (of the review) annoyed me too.

Brian Fies said...

Understanding that my opinion differs, I think it's a fair review. I actually drafted this post a few days ago, before the review appeared, so it's not really a direct response. The review just provided a good excuse to run it.

I probably shouldn't have. Just regard "Brian being grumpy" as an exclusive inside look at the creative and publishing process. Like seeing Hemingway drunk.

But thanks!

Mike said...

I see a lot of very positive response in the review, despite the fact that he doesn't go for the bulk of the narrative structure, or come to the same conclusions about the main topic. Which is to say, for someone who wasn't blown away by the book, he had a lot of good things to say about it. I agree that the snark at the end was unnecessary, but it was more distracting than anything else -- a real break in tone.

In any case, I agree with you that you're not the first author to include explanation. What I came away with was that this review was less about the quality of your work and more about the distance between what he wanted you to do and what you did. Which, as you note, is fair commentary, but nothing to beat yourself up over.

Matt C said...

As I said in my review, I took away that Buddy aged slowly as he (and his father) are comic book characters rather than 'real' people. Your Author's Note pretty much confirmed this for me.

I don't always agree with Don's reviews although he generally has something interesting to say, but I think he's way off base here.