A comics news site has stirred up a controversy by hiring a pseudonymous reviewer, and the comics clubhouse is outraged. But we need people like Jess Lemon, according to Alasdair Watson (if, indeed, that is his real name).
15 August 2003

Generally speaking, I try not to talk about other comics websites. I dislike watching the media become the story. But in this instance, I'm going to talk about a something going on on another comics website, because I think it offers telling comment on the way comics fans relate to the outside world. I thought I'd talk about Jess Lemon for a bit.

For those of you that don't visit Pulse (and what's wrong with you anyway?) Jess Lemon is a pseudonymous reviewer who writes critiques of currently popular titles from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about the history of comics, or its conventions as a medium, under the title of "Extra Credit Reviews". He or She (part of the joke is that when asked about the reviewer's gender, the two editors give contradictory answers) has a brother who supplies 'him' with a certain amount of information about the comics, and appears to be a big fan of the classics, particularly Dickens.

Whether or not any of that is actually true is completely irrelevant. The set up is simple: reviews from the same perspective that any of your reasonably educated non-comics reading mates have when you convince them to read something from your collection. The Dickens references are a gag with a barb in it - Dicken's stuff was all serialised when it was first published, and only collected into books after it had run in newspapers, so he's a perfectly fair touchstone to hit when talking about serial fiction as well as quality writing.

Jess has neatly divided people into two camps. People who get the joke, and wankers.

'It's argued that Lemon shouldn't be taken seriously because we don't know who he is.' No, wait, that's not right. It's not fair to dismiss what Jess is doing as a joke. Because while there are a horde of people that have been saying the same sorts of things about the accessibility of most mainstream comics for ages, it's been a bit diffuse, or as an adjunct to other comments. I have to admit, it's entertaining and valuable to watch someone actually reviewing comics primarily on the basis of their accessibility, not on the basis of their story or art. (Although both are obviously considerations when looking at accessibility.)

What interests me, though, is the reaction.

As I say, there are those that get the point. Then there are those that seem to think that because Jess Lemon is a pseudonym, he cannot possibly be saying anything important. That somehow, the accuracy of Lemon's comments is compromised by the fact that they don't know Lemon's real name. Patently rubbish. Most of you have absolutely no proof that Alasdair Watson is my real name, or that that's really my photo up there. I am, to all intents and purposes, just a cluster of opinions, some more lucid and rational than others.

Yes, of course there's the argument to me made that people will assign more weight to opinions that they know and trust, that someone's status as a professional, or long-time pundit will add (or subtract) weight from their arguments, and that Jess Lemon doesn't have this history, this context, and therefore should not be taken seriously, because we don't know who he is.

This is also plainly a notion belonging to the intellectually stunted. Are we suggesting that no one new can turn up and talk sense without establishing their dues in comics? Jess Lemon isn't at the top of my "must read" pile of reviewers (chiefly because I think he or she is just pointing out the bleeding obvious), but that doesn't mean that I can't see that Jess is making perfectly valid points.

'It's part of a nasty little clubhouse mentality that pervades comics.' This "you're new, so don't speak until you've learned our ways" attitude isn't unique to comics - it's a phenomenon of any community, especially online, where there are often etiquette rules that require newcomers to "lurk" and watch a community for a while to see how things are done. Jess Lemon is violating these rules, both as a pseudonym, and by positioning himself squarely as a newcomer - he's clearly marked himself as someone who the community will not consider as having the "right" to criticise. That's another absurdity that I'll get back to later.

What makes me laugh (in a hollow, despairing sort of way) about all this is that Lemon is providing the sort of critique that comics desperately needs. Anyone with sense has been complaining for years about the dwindling audience for comics, and when someone comes along pointing out precisely why Comic X isn't going to reach a mainstream audience, half the audience decides that they're not worth listening to, because the person telling them doesn't seem to be from within the community.

Doesn't that seem a bit arse-about-face? Surely the point of Lemon being pseudonymous is that if he is someone with a rep within the industry, his comments are too easily dismissed as, "well, they're already familiar with comics, what would they know about what an outsider thinks"?

And take a look at that sentiment. Anything strike you as frightening there?

How about the word "outsider"?

It's all part of a nasty little clubhouse mentality that pervades comics on almost every level. I don't mind it so much in other avenues of on-line discussion, but it's particularly daft in a discussion about something that is both an industry and an art form. Since when does it serve an art form to be exclusionary, and since when is it good for an industry to close itself off from new customers?

'Lemon is providing the sort of critique that comics desperately needs.' By all means, if you want to talk about comics with your mates, set yourself up a discussion ground and do so. But for Christ's sake, mark it as a place for you and your pals to chat generally, rather than as a place to talk about comics, because it doesn't serve the image of comics well to represented as a bunch of exclusionist enclaves. Even if we are forced to buy comics in dark little shops with an unpleasant stench of mad people's sweat, there's no reason to keep them there. And I think getting past this clubhouse attitude in on-line discussion of the medium would be a useful step - it'd allow us to take more notice when someone not historically associated with comics points out what the industry might be doing wrong.

I said I'd also make mention of this notion of the "right" to criticise, as people have suggested that as a newcomer, Lemon doesn't have it. That they don't have the "right" to say nasty things about these people who have put hard work into creating something. To an extent, that's true. There's no call for them to impugn their sanitary habits, or question their parentage, or anything of that sort, but then, I haven't noticed Lemon doing that - the comments are directly squarely at the work, and his reactions to it. And if they reflect unfavourably upon the creators, well, maybe the creators should have produced something better.

Lemon has paid his money, just like anyone else - of course he has a right to an opinion on the work he's handed over his hard-earned for. And if he can get a soapbox to speak from, then he has a right to say what it is. The creators don't have to listen, and they don't have to like what they hear if they do, but Lemon's got a perfect right to criticise.

I've heard it said that Lemon's comments are unfair, as they're directed against works that are not aimed at newcomers to the market. Then I suppose the question to ask is, given that the comics market has been shrinking for years, why the hell are we producing anything that's solely aimed at a dwindling audience in a harshly competitive market?

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