As many of you know, I'm one of the people who complains loudest about the neglect of art in online comics criticism. I think this situation has improved over the last year, and I'm grateful for that. But I also see a lot of reviews which discuss art in rather vague terms. In other cases, the criticism being made isn't really fair. Usually it seems like the reviewer knows what she/he is trying to say, but can't quite articulate it clearly. This can be frustrating to readers of the review, and doubly so any creator who stumbles upon the review.
Looking over my review of The Ultimates 3, I think I kind of fell into some of these traps in an effort to make jokes at Joe Madureira's expense. That's not what I aim to do here, and I'll avoid it in the future. Bearing that in mind, here are a few problem areas I see pop up pretty frequently in reviews, and a few suggestions for improvement. I'll try bear them in mind in the future myself.
Weak criticism: All the faces look the same
Better: All the facial expressions look the same
Also good: The similarity in the faces undermines the storytelling
I often see this criticism used against once-popular superhero artists whose work has fallen out of favor. It sounds reasonable on the surface, but there are many beloved cartoonists whose faces all basically look the same. Usually they get by with this for one of two reasons. First, if the faces are similar but still remarkably expressive, then it's a lot easier to forgive an underlying similarity. Second, the type of story also matters. If we're talking about a strip with a limited, established cast of characters (like Peanuts), the cartoonist can get by with this sort of thing. If we're talking about an intricately plotted ensemble piece with characters constantly cycling in and out (like Monster), then it's going to be a problem if everyone looks the same.
Ideally every cartoonist would be as versatile as Naoki Urasawa, but that's probably unrealistic. In reality, we should try to bear in mind whether or not a comic depends on a variety of easily distinguished faces. And it's also important to consider genre here. Frankly, it's kind of hard to draw distinctive faces for a team full of impossibly attractive alpha plus pluses. A truly remarkable artist will make these characters easily distinguishable, but it's not fair to expect every artist to be Jaime Hernandez.
Weak criticism: The anatomy is unrealistic
Better: The anatomy undermines the aims of the comic
This frustrates me more than any other piece of criticism because it rests on an unstated assumption that the purpose of any comic is to reflect reality as closely as possible. This, of course, is not true. There are plenty of reasons to distort anatomy: to make the reader laugh, to indicate that a character falls into a particular character type, to make the character appear more heroic/monstrous, or to add impact to a particular panel.
Of course, there are times when distorted anatomy draws attention to itself. Context matters. For instance, a scene where Captain America is punching the Red Skull is very different than a scene where Steve Rogers is on a date with Sharon Carter. Exaggerated musculature has a place in the former, but maybe not the latter.
Weak criticism: The art was was too cartoony/static
Better: The style was inappropriate for the story/genre/scene/whatever
Similar to the above, this criticism should always be linked to content. One of the great advantages of comics over film is the ability of the artist to manipulate characters in a way that a director could never manipulate his/her actors.* That means there's a place for bulging eyeballs, rubbery arms, and other exaggerations in comics.
Having said that, there are times where that kind of cartooning is inappropriate. Mark Millar's Ultimates was notable for being a comic which tried to place superhero action in a real world context. Ed McGuinness would not have been the right choice for such a story. On the other hand, the appeal of Hate came largely from its art; if it had been drawn by Adrian Tomine or Jonathan Bennett, the tone of the comic would have shifted dramatically. (Of course, there's also room for comics where there's a deliberate disconnect between plot/script and pictures. But that's not the easiest thing in the world to pull off, and I see more comics with an unintentional disconnect than ones with an intentional disconnect.)
Personally, I'd like to see more fluidity. That's something I think Western cartoonists could learn from mangaka. Many of my favorite manga titles feature sharp shifts in style, from cartoony to realistic (Dr. Slump) and vice versa (Hunter x Hunter). I think it's an effective technique, the sort of thing that would make modern superhero comics more palatable to a wider audience.
I'll get off my soapbox now.
Weak criticism: The art appears to be Photoshopped
Better: The art appears to be Photoshopped in a particularly inelegant or incompetent way
Whenever an argument about Greg Land breaks out, eventually someone with some background in art will show up to remind everyone that any artist working in a realistic style has to use photo reference, and many are using Photoshop. The difference is that the Greg Lands of the world are hilariously inept/shameless in their use of photo manipulation. It's worth making that distinction clear.
Weak criticism: Not every panel contained background details
Better: The background art failed to establish setting (time and/or place) or mood
It's rarer and rarer to read comics which ignore background detail completely. Most mainstream artists include fairly elaborate, realistic establishing shots when the action shifts from scene to scene. (This might also be a function of improved writing, or the abandonment of the "Marvel method" for detailed scripts.) But you do see complaints that artists omit background details on some panels. One should remember that this is occasionally done for a reason--to emphasize the characters in the foreground, to improve the composition of the page, or to make a complex action sequence clearer or more forceful.
Backgrounds are more important in some comics than others. Rob Liefeld's X-Force always seemed to take place in vast subterranean complexes**; I don't really miss the background detail in those situations. World War Hulk, however, depends on details--smoldering buildings, shocked New Yorkers, and the like. Omitting those details would have gutted the emotional core of the comic. And let's not forget that an artist can provide detailed backgrounds that utterly fail to establish setting or mood; see the aforementioned Ultimates 3 #1.
Weak criticism: There was too much photocopying
Better: The excessive photocopying took me out of the story
This always strikes me as a very lazy criticism. Certainly there are times when photocopying gets out of control, but I see some criticism which evinces a total misunderstanding of the author's intent. The most common use of photocopied panels is as a storytelling device, usually to indicate an uncomfortable pause. But there are other uses as well: to indicate the passage of time without action, to emphasize silence, or to sell a joke.
There are times when I find photocopying excessive or unnecessary. A slight change from panel to panel helps indicate that the writer's intent is to further the narrative rather than to save time for the artist. And a subtle change is often the most effective--a little eye movement, a slight turn of the head, or whatever. But again, that's personal preference, and not a criticism I'd make unless (a) the photocopying was done to the point of overkill (like for seven consecutive panels), or (b) the dialogue necessitates some change in expression or body language.
Weak criticism: The coloring was murky
Better: The coloring did not complement the art or the tone of the story
Also good: The coloring obscured or clashed with the line art
A pretty common complaint; in fact, I'd bet that most online discussions of the aesthetics of coloring include some reference to murkiness. It's a vague adjective, though. I think there are basically two distinct complaints encompassed by "murkiness": (1) the palette being used by the colorist and (2) the interplay between color art and line art.
The validity of the former criticism is largely going to depend on context, both in terms of story and line art. The most glaring recent example of this was the first issue of The Ultimates 3 (it's the cautionary example that keeps on giving!) where the muted palette did not suit either Jeph Loeb's SLAM BANG INCEST script, nor Joe Madureira's How to Draw Comics the Wizard Way (1998 edition) line art. In contrast, Frank D'Armata's coloring on Captain America is appropriately muted. Ed Brubaker's story is as grounded in reality as any in the recent history of Marvel, relying on intrigue and surprise more than conventional superheroics. Steve Epting's art emphasizes this approach, as does D'Armata's colors.
The other complaint, about the relationship between line art and coloring, is less context-dependent. Sometimes a colorist can destroy delicate linework by choosing a hue that's a little too dark, as is the case in the second Eddie Campbell panel here. In other cases, the colorist over-renders the art by adding rendering to an already heavily rendered drawing. Then you have two competing levels of rendering, which renders*** the art confusing and ugly.
My basic thought is this: the denser the line art, the clearer the coloring should be. Once again, I think D'Armata's gets it right on Captain America. When Epting's inking is dense, D'Armata resists the urge to do too much rendering. However, Epting frequently leaves his art somewhat open, giving D'Armata a suitable venue for rendered colors. When the two are working in harmony (which is often the case), the book is realistic without being stiff. That wouldn't be possible without skillful coloring. Yet, shockingly, I've seen people describe D'Armata's coloring as "murky."
So, I guess it boils down to this: neither limited/muted palettes nor rendered colors are inherently bad. The success of coloring largely depends on the skill with which it's integrated into the line art. And "murky" isn't an especially useful descriptor.
Basically, you can boil all this down to one rule: when discussing art, you should seriously consider the intentions of the author(s) (meaning both writer and artist, if these are separate people). There's plenty of room for criticism based on personal preference, of course, but there are often reasons for the choices which artists make. That's not to say that the only criteria for criticism is the success of the creators in realizing their intentions. It's perfectly legitimate to say that the creators' intentions were not worthwhile, and thus reading the comic is a waste of time.**** Please note that this isn't an endorsement of objectivity in criticism, which I absolutely don't believe in. Also please note that all this is true for writing as well, but that's a different column (which I probably won't write).
*This obviously doesn't apply to animation.
**Mostly because they're easier to draw, I'm guessing.
****I basically feel this way about 99% of all webcomics I've read.