"How can you give Vampirella five stars?"

A column article, Manifesto by: Jason Sacks


"How can you give Vampirella five stars?"

It's amazing how often we get some variation on that question around here, and it’s always a question I find a little hard to answer. See, at Comics Bulletin we believe that we should allow our reviewers the autonomy and freedom to rate their comics in a way that fits their aesthetic. The issue of Glory that I think deserves 4½ stars may be your 3 star book. For example, I know that Tucker Stone of The Comics Journal disagrees pretty vehemently with some of our reviewers about the merits of Peter Panzerfaust and Thief of Thieves. Tucker's take-downs of those titles are pretty epic, even if I don't agree with him. It's great that he's thinking about the books, and I'm sure that any Internet consumer in 2012 is smart enough to read several reviews of a book before making a decision about buying it.Thief of Thieves #1

After all, all notions of taste are subjective. We all bring different perspectives to the table and all want different emotions from the content we assume. It's those different perspectives that make for great debates about aesthetics. Glory hits all kinds of my pleasure buttons as a comic fan (hey, get your mind out of the gutter. I mean the kind of magical reality of it all, not something below the beltline.), but it might not hit yours. Fair enough.

But that said, the question "How can you give Vampirella five stars?" is a damn good question, because the next logical question is, "If Vampirella deserves five stars, then how many stars does Watchmen deserve? Twelve?"

And no offense to Eric Trautmann, current head writer of the Vampirella franchise and a tremendously nice guy, but there really is a major qualitative difference between Vampirella and Watchmen. And no offense to Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, but they're playing in a different aesthetic playground when they do an issue of Conan the Barbarian than Derf Backderf of My Friend Dahmer played in. One will undoubtedly be considered one of the best graphic novels of the year when everything is said and done, while the other just aspires to be fun, commercial entertainment – and there ain't nothing wrong with that.

But what is it about My Friend Dahmer that places it on a different scale than Conan? And do Wood and Cloonan's previous productions, the two Demo series, work on a different scale than Conan because they're not genre fiction? Are there multiple sliding scales for aesthetic quality, or should we try to force everything – the high ambition comics and the low ambition comics – onto one scale? Does the intent of the creator matter? And how the Hell do you rate Avengers Academy and Habibi on the same scale, when the virtues of ambition, passion and artfulness are so different between the two works?

These are the questions that keep me up at night. I've been writing for Comics Bulletin for about eight years and I've probably written close to a million words on comic art and Comic Art. I struggle a lot with these questions, and I'm sure a lot of you struggle with them too. So I thought I'd share my thoughts on this topic with you and hopefully start a dialog with you readers and writers about this subject.Batman vs. the Royal Flush Gang in Justice League: Doom

First of all, let's take it as a given that some comics are better than others. I think we all believe that. And let's also agree that some comics aspire to higher ground than other comics. Some books take years to create, involve multiple drafts, and inspire complex thoughts about difficult subjects, while others are nice, commercial stories about a guy with webs who fights a guy with octopus arms. The latter book can aspire to High Art – and occasionally does become High Art – but I think that most people will agree that the former book is greater than the latter.

We can all disagree about where that dividing line is between good and great, but the fact is that we all grok the idea of there being high and low art. We're always making decisions about the quality of an item when we choose to consume it. We all know that opera is a higher art form than a reality TV show, and it's part of our cultural conversation that we judge The Marriage of Figaro on a different scale than Parking Wars.

When Zack Davisson gave Justice League: Doom 4½ stars, he wasn't rating it as one of the best DVDs of the year. He's rating Doom as a great DC Animated cartoon. Doom is clearly not meant to be on the same level as Martha Marcy May Marlene, which Danny Djeljosevic also gave 4½ stars. Of course not. The works aspire to different levels of quality, and only a fool would compare a DC Animated cartoon with a complex Fox Searchlight drama. Just because both movies come out on DVD doesn't mean that they should be compared on the same scale.

But it's not fair to either movie to say that one simply has no chance to be rated high, just because it isn't created in a way that allows it to achieve that level of quality. Why should the highest possible rating for Justice League: Doom be something like three stars, because Martha Marcy May Marlene is closer to the qualitative level of a 4½ star work? Isn't that unfair to the talented artists and artisans who worked on Doom?

And more than that, isn't it unfair to Comics Bulletin's audience to assume that we need to rate everything on the same scale as everything else? I really believe that all of you are intelligent and discriminating enough to make that little calculation in your mind, to know that one size does not fit all and that there is a great work and a Great Work, that there are items that are great within their genre and there are items that are actually great?Martha Marcy May Marlene

Of course, even within a specific artform we also believe in judging items on a different scale. I know there are lots of readers and writers for Comics Bulletin who love horror and science fiction movies. We as a site love and embrace those movies, and try to judge them on their own merits. But I think it’s inarguable that most horror films are, to put it lightly, not about to be considered for inclusion in the AFI Top 100 lists. Sure, the rare Night of the Living Dead slips over the line to become something approaching real art, but a movie like that is the exception rather than the rule.

You could argue about why we have a rating scale in the first place. What is the point of a scale that gives equal ratings to Justice League: Doom, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Glory #24? Why not scrap the scale altogether and allow our fantastic writers to just write about the item and leave the review at that? Isn't that what the more arts-oriented sites like The Comics Journal do, after all?

Yeah, I see that point, but I think it takes away from a service we provide. I believe our readers like to be able to tell at a glance what the quality of a work is, and have a quick and easy way to compare items of an equal level of quality. Justice League: Doom, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Glory #24 are all dramatically different works, with dramatically different ambitions, inspirations and reader expectations. But within their narrow worlds, each of these works is nearly as good as it gets in its own milieu.

And if an issue of Vampirella - yes, Vampirella, the big-breasted vampire from the planet Draculon who fights evil cultists – is actually of a transcendent quality within its milieu, then why shouldn't that comic receive 4½ stars? Isn't an insult to Eric Trautmann and his team for them to be told that in Comics Bulletin's world, there's no way they can produce an almost-perfect work of comics art starring Vampirella – especially in comparison with other comics of a similar type? Doesn't that sort of blanket rule represent the epitome of elitism? It seems wrong to me to dismiss a genre work out of hand just because it is a genre work.

I think this is a problem that any site or magazine that offers ratings has to face at one point or another, and one I wrestle with constantly on Comics Bulletin. Frankly, I do feel that this rating scale can really confuse our readers at times, make it hard for them to judge relative quality, and even sometimes doubt Comics Bulletin's objective reviewing chops. I'm aware that in this era, we're constantly being rated as a website versus our peers, and that all of you dear readers are deciding if we're presenting work that speaks to you as a media and website consumer.

For now, anyway, we'll continue handling ratings the way we currently do, with each work compared with its peers. But does that make sense to you? Reader, would you like to see us handle ratings differently, or do away with ratings altogether? Do these sorts of relative ratings make it more or less confusing for you to judge Comics Bulletin and the material that we present? Please share your comments below or on our Twitter or Facebook. We really do want to know what you think about this.

And to answer the questions above, we gave Vampirella five stars because our reviewer thought that next to its peers, Vampirella was as good as comics get. I gave My Friend Dahmer five stars because next to its peers, I thought it was as good as comics get. But if you're comparing Trautmann versus Backderf… well, that's just not a fair comparison for either man.

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