ywibaysfb and webcomic criticism

Your Webcomic Is Bad and You Should Feel Bad (YWIBaYSFB) was a blog active in the years 2007-2008. The title, based on a dated Futurama meme, is an accurate reflection of its content: insulting, mocking, and booing webcomics that the author, John Solomon, deemed bad.

I did not actively read YWIBaYSFB at the time, but one did not need to read the blog to be aware of it. It made a lot of waves in webcomic circles, and everyone came to watch the train wreck. Whether the train wreck was the blog itself or the webcomics it mocked was, I suppose, the subject of some disagreement.

For context, 2007 is the year I started blogging. I was feebly trying to attract readers, and making barely any headway at all. In contrast, YWISaYSFB instantly got huge amounts of attention, thousands of comments, and even a parody blog it inspired acquired some renown. Within a year it stopped, and its legacy is now inherited by the Bad Webcomics Wiki. I think this flash in the pan says something about the challenges of criticism.

The blog

For research purposes, I went back and tried to read YWIBaYSFB. YWIBaYSFB is really rough, not gonna lie.

If any readers choose to take a look, I should warn that there’s a clear pattern of transphobia. I don’t think John Solomon was going out of his way to be transphobic, he was just a normal amount for the time. But it’s a problem when he’s trying to write edgy reviews about webcomics, some of which involve gender swapping (see this video about El Goonish Shive for context), and at least one by a trans artist. There’s enough trans content in these webcomics that it makes me wonder if, even in 2007, webcomics were super queer (as they certainly are today). Alternatively, it’s not that webcomics were so queer, but that queerness was a magnet for mockery, and therefore overrepresented. Either way, it quickly dispelled any notion I had of portraying the blog in a positive light.

The very first post explains the blog’s goals:

This blog is about the terrible webcomics, the horrendous webcomics, the webcomics that manage to attract readers even though they really shouldn’t.

This suggests that the blog wants to be about popular webcomics, but this is not born out by the execution. I imagine John Solomon thinking of all the webcomics he wanted to rip into: Shortpacked, Dominic Deegan, Ctrl-Alt-Del, gosh so many. But after those first three, John Solomon is already talking about obscure webcomics that have not attracted any significant number of readers–followed by more discussion of the first three webcomics. I get the sense that he started out with a certain amount of passion, and then just kept going after he ran out of things to say. He was stuck in his brand.

Or perhaps I’m projecting based on my own experience reading the blog. I tried to read YWIBaYSFB but soon I found myself skimming articles, and then skipping through them to find anything worth mentioning. The trouble is, John Solomon is not exactly an insightful critic who can pinpoint where a webcomic goes wrong; no, he’s more like an artist whose medium of choice is streams of invective. After a while, each review became interchangeable. For example, the following piece of criticism, while colorful, could be directed at nearly any webcomic:

I’m not going to go on about the art much, since it’s obvious how terrible it is. How very, very terrible it is. It’s not really improved since the start, it’s cut-and-paste like Buckleyvision, it’s… it’s… it’s shit, let’s face it. There is nothing you can say to defend it.

The reviews I was most able to appreciate were of webcomics I’ve read personally–only three of them. In particular, I appreciated Solomon’s very last review, which was of Dresden Codak, a webcomic I still read and enjoy to this day.

Some of John Solomon’s criticisms of Dresden Codak seem quaint. Solomon seems particularly affronted by the fact that Senna Diaz, the author of Dresden Codak, was trying to do the webcomic full time. Lots of webcomic artists do this; it’s no longer unusual. He places a lot of value on publishers, that I just don’t agree with. Other parts of Solomon’s critique seem overblown, but there’s a seed a truth in them. Dresden Codak does have a famously slow update schedule that makes me concerned for Diaz’s ability to make a living. And I think that “Hob”–Dresden Codak’s story arc running at the time–had many issues, especially its obnoxiously optimistic transhumanism. It is easier today for fans to recognize the weaknesses of “Hob”, because they can point to the more recent story arc as an improvement.

Solomon’s major criticism is that Dresden Codak is pandering to the “‘pathetic, lonely nerd’ demographic”. I see where this is coming from, and I’ve heard similar critiques from multiple people. The protagonist, Kimiko Ross, is a shy and lonely nerd who seems to function as a stand-in for the reader in a nerd’s wish-fulfillment fantasy, while simultaneously supplying fan service by being a girl. But I do think the supposedly gratuitous fan service ought to be re-evaluated in light of the current knowledge that Senna Diaz is trans.

In the end, I think Solomon’s review of Dresden Codak is possibly his only good review. Although I disagree with it, it seems to come from an authentic place of being invested in Dresden Codak, and being more recently disappointed by it.

The challenges of criticism

The central irony of the critical review, is that it works best when both the reader and writer are actually invested in the object of criticism. But how can you sustain investment in a thing that you don’t like?

In my assessment, YWIBaYSFB mostly failed to be invested in the webcomics it was criticizing. There were a few examples, for sure, but most reviews that depended on mere clever prose (or not so clever, IMO), which was largely independent of the webcomic under discussion. Or, even if Solomon was more invested than he appeared to be, I as the reader was definitely not invested.

I think the premise of YWIBaYSFB was doomed from the start. It’s too difficult to be authentically invested in enough webcomics that you can sustain a blog solely of critical reviews. Most webcomics are not short works, they’re serials that span years. For all my talk about enjoying webcomics, I currently read no more than 30 of them. If I wrote a review every week, I’d run out before the year was out. And most of those webcomics, you know, my review would be more positive than negative, even accounting for my willingness to write criticism of webcomics I actually like.  It would be far more viable to mix positive and negative reviews together.

There are also issues associated with the low barrier to entry in webcomics. Yes, that means a lot of webcomics are bad, so you think that would make it easy to write lots of critical reviews. But it also means that most webcomics are very personal and obscure. What’s the point of bashing terrible webcomic #298342, when none of the readers will have any investment in that webcomic? It seems like the only person who would care is the webcomic’s artist, who would see the unsolicited criticism as unfairly picking them out–and they’d be right. And so, most critical reviews we get are from mean-spirited folks like Solomon, who just don’t care that they’re unfairly picking people out.

On the other hand, because webcomic criticism is so hard to do, that makes the webcomic space feel oppressively positive. For example, I used to follow LGBT Webcomics to discover new webcomics, but frankly most of the webcomics were really bad. The tags were also inaccurate, often taken directly from the authors, who are incented to tag their webcomic with basically everything. And it felt like a forbidden thing to actually say any of this. The LGBT Webcomics blog was nothing but plugs and positivity, and that was all it ever could have been.

It’s easier to criticize webcomics that have achieved some degree of popularity. Heartstopper for instance, has been adapted into a TV show, I feel it’s fair game. But you know, part of the joy in a medium with low barrier to entry, is precisely that I’m not confined to popular examples. I like being able to get invested in webcomics that nobody else is invested in. And when I consume media, I prefer to consume it actively, thinking and talking about what I’ve read. It can be really hard to do that for webcomics.

Many people don’t like critical or scathing reviews. When those reviews are written by the likes of Solomon, that’s totally fair. But I hope this discussion illustrates why good criticism is quite difficult to get right, and why I see it as precious.

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