Monday, November 01, 2004

Commentary (of sorts): Do reviews matter?

An article has been making the rounds for the past week or so -- I think it originated with The Los Angeles Times -- questioning the influence of film reviews. In short, audiences usually pack theaters for big action movies and lowbrow comedies no matter what the critics say, and sci-fi and horror fans will march to the nearest cineplex to see anything in their favorite genres.

So, why do critics bother with these films when their opinions do so little to effect their fates (particularly in the face of multi-million dollar publicity campaigns)? Roger Ebert says it's the critic's job to champion the worthy works that might otherwise go unnoticed:
"You don't need a critic to tell you about Titanic. You really need a critic to tell you about good movies you might miss or might not have heard of otherwise. You don't need a critic to tell you the box office is right."
That, of course, brings me to comics, which faces a similar scenario, if on a much, much smaller scale.

Titles such as Batman: Hush, Identity Crisis and Avengers Disassembled hover at the top of Diamond's monthly sales charts by virtue of their "special event" status -- the equivalent of the summer blockbuster -- not because of critics' response, or even story quality. And although Chuck Austen's X-Men is lucky to receive mediocre reviews on even its strongest months, it held the No. 11 and 12 slots in September. Why? Either Austen has a secret army of fans -- unlikely, considering his softcore Spandex porn WorldWatch #1 sold about 4,500 copies -- or readers buy X-Men because it's a core X-title starring their favorite characters. (I concede this may be a false dilemma; I'm sure there are some readers who've simply enjoyed the stories with no bias toward the writer or the characters.)

These books and, in fact, most of Diamond's Top 50, are virtually immune to critical influence. A negative review of X-Force or JLA is no more likely to sway readers than a positive review. So, why do reviewers -- bloggers, columnists, et al -- bother with them?

This isn't an empty challenge for some sort of justification, or even a noble call to arms; it's a genuine question.

To echo Roger Ebert, readers already know about Millar and Romita Jr.'s Wolverine and Azzarello and Lee's Superman. They don't need reviewers to tell them.

It's the lower-selling quality titles, both "mainstream" and independent, that readers may not know about. Are those the books reviewers should be spotlighting instead -- the ones whose fates may depend on a few hundred additional readers?

It can be argued that titles such as Demo, Street Angel and even She-Hulk have benefited commercially from critical attention, or at least positive word of mouth. With that in mind, should reviewers set aside, say, Batman in favor of Gotham Central or Ultimate Elektra in favor of The Awakening or X-Men: The End in favor of Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco?