Who Reviews The Reviewer?

Who Reviews The Reviewer?

Writer Paul Constant made a career out of reviewing books. Now his very first comic, Ahoy’s timey-wimey high school drama Planet of the Nerds is hitting shelves today — and it has him thinking about the relationship between being a critic and a creator. Check out his thoughts below, as well as a preview of Planet of the Nerds #1! – James Whitbrook.

I’m a critic who’s reviewed hundreds of books. Now my comic, Planet of the Nerds, is about to be reviewed. Gulp.

I’ve written thousands of reviews over the last 15 years. For outlets like the Los Angeles Times and Recode and The Progressive and Newsweek and tons of alternative weeklies I’ve reviewed movies, restaurants, plays, art shows, house parties, museum exhibits, burlesque performances, and political speeches. More than anything, I’ve reviewed books. Comics, novels, memoirs, histories, biographies—you name it, I’ve reviewed it. I still review at least one book and one comic a week at my website, the Seattle Review of Books.

When I tell people I review books, they often react by saying something like, “uh-oh—I hope you don’t tell me what you really think of me.” People expect me as a reviewer to be a professional Mean Girl—someone who’ll make fun of your tuna casserole to your face, with huge vocabulary words and a withering tone.

And, sure, I’ve written my share of negative reviews. But most of the time it’s the so-so reviews that get the most violent responses. One bestselling Seattle novelist—her most popular book has been adapted into a movie that’s out this spring—still slags me off to anyone who’ll listen because three years ago I dared to suggest (in a mostly positive review) that her latest novel was uneven and repetitious. I’ve had writers tell me that I’m jealous of their success (not true) or that I failed to understand the point of their movie (not true) or that I’m a bitter, heartless creep (nobody’s perfect!) And really—it’s ok. It’s part of the job. I expect it.

Cover art for Planet of the Nerds #1 (Image: David Nakayama, Ahoy Comics)

But this week, the reviewer is becoming the reviewed. The first issue of my first full-length comic book, Planet of the Nerds, is coming out from AHOY Comics. It’s about three jocks from the 1980s who get cryogenically frozen and accidentally thawed out in the modern day, only to find that nerds rule the world. From multiplexes to Silicon Valley, the nerds that these jocks picked on are now wealthy and popular and winners. Of course, our jocks vow revenge on the nerds.

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little bit nervous about the reviews that Planet of the Nerds will get. The reception thus far has been very positive, but I know that the first truly negative review is out there lurking around a corner, just waiting to ruin my day. As a critic, I understand that a review is only one person’s perspective—it’s not really about the text so much as one reader’s experience with the text. I know better than anyone that no one review can represent a book’s full value to the world. You might hate a book that I love, and vice versa. That’s ok. There’s no definitive right or wrong with art.

But I didn’t work on Planet of the Nerds alone, and so I worry about what negative reviews might mean to the rest of the team who worked on the book. Alan Robinson, the artist on the Nerds, worked for months perfecting every nuance of the facial expressions and body language of our main characters. Colorist Felipe Sobreiro took Alan’s gorgeous art and breathed new life into it. And AHOY publisher and editor Hart Seely and Tom Peyer took a huge chance on an untested comics writer. I worry that negative reviews will make them feel bad about all the hard work and time they’ve put into this book, or that my failings as a writer will somehow reflect poorly on them—even possibly hurting their careers.

Image: Alan Robinson, Felipe Sobreiro, and Randy Elliott, Ahoy Comics

Image: Alan Robinson, Felipe Sobreiro, and Randy Elliott, Ahoy Comics

A preview of <em>Planet of the Nerds</em> #1.

But part of putting art into the world means being willing to accept that not everyone will like it. I’ll always remember when, years ago, I wrote a lukewarm review of the first issue of Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque’s Vertigo series American Vampire. The next day, Snyder sent me a short and very kind email that said, essentially, “thanks for reading the book, sorry it didn’t connect with you, we’ll keep trying to win you over with future issues.” That combination of graciousness and resolve is really the best response any artist can have to a critic—and as a reader, it made me a lifelong fan of Snyder.

Art isn’t a monologue. It’s a conversation. As a reviewer and as a writer, my mission is basically the same: to keep the conversation relevant and interesting and constructive. So I truly can’t wait to hear what you have to say about Planet of the Nerds. Whether you love it or hate it or somewhere in between, I’m just excited and honored to share this conversation with you.

The first issue of Planet of the Nerds, by Constant, Alan Robinson, Felipe Sobreiro, and Randy Elliott, is on shelves now.