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Monday, February 02, 2004

 


Dirk Deppey -- The Comics Journal's webmaster and weblogger is probably the most widely-read comics commentator on what Graeme McMillan calls "This, the comics internet." Certainly he's the most well-informed, curious and interesting. He not only agreed to answer Five Questions but formatted the HTML, too, without me even asking. Just another reason to love the man.

What drove you to create ¡Journalista!?

A desperate need to give TCJ.com a reason to
exist as something other than brochureware. I moved to Seattle, Washington from
Phoenix, Arizona three years ago, ostensibly to take up the position of "catalog
editor" for Fantagraphics Books, but also with the implicit understanding that
my skills would be needed to revive The Comics Journal's moribund
website. When I got here, I discovered that previous attempts to do something
with the site had left it with a reputation among staffers as an eater of time
and sanity -- a reasonable assumption, in hindsight, since there was no
site-specific staff, and work thus had to be performed by people who already had
full-time duties. As a result, no one was particularly interested in creating
new content for TCJ.com. At the time, it was clear that if I wanted to do
anything with the site, I'd have to do it myself.

My first experiment with the website was a message-board forum dealing with
comics theory, which went nowhere fast. After that, I gave the site a
top-to-bottom makeover, redesigning the homepage to place the focus squarely on
the print magazine and consolidating the content already online. My next step
was the Audio Archives,
which was an attractive idea for two reasons: (1) I foolishly thought that it
wouldn't require a lot of work on my part, and (2) The Comics Journal's
collection of interview audiotapes is probably the single largest oral history
of the American comics medium in existence, and really should be preserved in
digital form for historical purposes before it melts into magnetic mush. (Online
excerpts aside, I have my doubts as to my ability to complete the job. I've
produced over 200 compact discs of interviews in the past two years, and am
maybe 1/20th of the way through the collection. Clearly, this is a decades-long
job I've set for myself. Wish me luck.)

The Audio Archives brought more traffic to the site, but only on a monthly
basis. I wanted to make TCJ.com a little more indispensable than that, but had
few options given my budget (zero) and staff (me). I've long been a fan of
politically-oriented weblogs, and given how solidly superhero-centric most
comics news-sites were (and are), it seemed to me that there was a need for
something that kept people informed about everything else in comics --
especially the business side of things. Given this, a comics-related weblog was
really a no-brainer. I needed something that would bring The Comics
Journal
back into the online conversation concerning comics, and a regular
day-to-day look at the medium in its various permutations fit the bill quite
nicely.

I spent some time working out the kinks in the idea. At first, my biggest
concern was that I would effectively be turning the website into "Dirk Deppey's
TCJ.com," and my original plan was to write the weblog pseudonymously under the
handle "Journalista." Managing editor Milo George nixed that idea right away,
thankfully. Given budgetary and server-space limitations, I also decided early
on to handcode the blog rather than use a pre-existing software package. Since
my previous job as webmaster for a group of sports-related websites had turned
me into a fast HTML-coder, this was far less of a burden than it sounds, and the
weblog is still created without automation to this day: archives, RSS feed and
all. It's all done with templates, folks. Anyway, I blogged for two weeks
without formally linking it to the website, just to prove that I could handle
the workload, and then presented my efforts to Milo, Gary Groth and Kim
Thompson. All concerned were impressed enough with my efforts to give me the
go-ahead to continue, and I've been writing a weblog ever since.

(I should also point out that I've continued to receive strong support from Milo
and Gary for my website-related efforts, as demonstrated by the recent addition
of Dan Holloway's review column, and Kim's given me an astonishing amount of
leeway in scheduling my catalog-editor hours to accomodate all the
Journal-related work. It's their support and understanding which makes it all
possible, and I don't say that nearly enough in public.)

I think most people who are interested in this sort of thing consider your
weblog to be the one indispensible one every weekday -- Christ knows, I do --
what's the view like from up there at the top of the comics blogosphere?


I'm having a blast. ¡Journalista! has been far more successful than
I ever expected. In the past fifteen months, traffic has grown considerably, and
the weblog's homepage now attracts between 1300-1500 unique visitors per day --
small potatoes in Internet terms, but healthy enough for a comics-related
webpage where the biggest draw isn't a perpetual Marvel/DC blowjob. Furthermore,
if the online reaction and my own email is any indication, a major chunk of the
readership seems to be composed of industry professionals, as well as online and
mainstream print journalists who use it to keep track of day-to-day events. I
regularly get email from creators and editors from all of the major publishing
houses, from a wide number of retailers and others in the Direct Market
foodchain, from university professors and academicians, and from writers and
editors for magazines ranging from Publishers Weekly to The Village
Voice
, as well as over a dozen metropolitan newspapers -- someday, if I get
a spare moment, I may even have a chance to answer some of it. Like the print
magazine it represents, ¡Journalista!'s audience is small but
absurdly influential in proportion to its size.

¡Journalista! is frequently referred to as a news-site, but I think
this is a misleading label. The biggest reason for its success has been the
content aggregation it offers, rather than anything remotely resembling original
journalism. The weblog is first and foremost a means of keeping track of other
people's coverage of events in the medium, without having to wade through a lot
of press-release puffery, and it would be insufferable arrogance on my part to
pretend that my role in the internet ecosystem involves anything greater. I
seldom commit acts of original reportage. I've created several minor uproars now
as a pundit, but that's clearly not the key component of ¡Journalista!'s
success.

What do you think comics blogs offer readers interested in comics that they
can't get from magazines, websites and message boards?


If you follow comics as compulsively as I do, weblogs have become essential
reading, a fact due in large part to the democratic, almost Darwinian
opportunity they provide. Anyone can start a weblog, after all, but nobody's
forcing people to read them. It's only by having something significant,
informative and entertaining to say that one can attract a readership these
days; those that do it well earn their success accordingly -- write well and
write often, and other weblogs (and their readers) will notice, which in turn
will get others to notice, and so on. Because of this, there's an enormous range
of opinions and perspective available out there, and the conversations produced
in the blogosphere have often been quite valuable. I'm particularly fascinated
by manga-bloggers at the moment. I've been aware of manga for years, but I'm not
particularly knowledgable about the subject's intricacies, so I'm learning a
great deal from people like Shawn Fumo and Adam Stephanides right now. Likewise, there are a few comics retailers out there writing weblogs -- see Jim Crocker and Dan Shahin for examples -- but I'd really like to see more following suit. Given the enormous changes currently reshaping the industry, the perspectives retailers could offer are conspicuous by their absence.

Almost as valuable -- certainly as entertaining -- have been the reactions to
the rise of the comics blogosphere among pre-existing writers and journalists,
who'd clearly gotten used to being the only voices out there attracting readers.
Have you noticed how defensive such people have gotten about the perceived
encroachment upon their territory? Suddenly everyone has a printing press, and
this is driving some who'd been doing it for years more than a little nuts. The
fact that bloggers are just as likely to criticise the "legitimate" comics press
as they are anyone else in the field is undoubtedly a major component in this
state of affairs. Even Rich Johnston, a good reporter who got his start on
Usenet (and of all people should therefore know better), recently made a persnickety attempt to divide "the comics blogosphere" from "the comics stratosphere,"
almost surely irked by the perceived threat to his status as a celebrity pundit.
Do you think there are online yo-yo enthusiasts going through similar identity
crises right now? The longer you think about that, the funnier it gets.

You're a Fantagraphics employee and therefore subject to the presumption of
arrogant elitism -- yet you love Morrison's New X-Men and rightly
chastised me for spoiling the big reveal in my blog. Tell me about the comics
you love and what about each of them that you find unique and appealing?


Where my own reading habits are concerned, Morrison's New X-Men -- as
well as Ellis and Cassaday's Planetary -- are probably the exceptions to
the rule. My love affair with superhero comics was never all that strong to
begin with, even as a child, and ended during early adolescence. I can even
pinpoint the moment it ended: the second issue of Chris Claremont and Frank
Miller's Wolverine miniseries. The issue concluded with a fight between
the title character and a group of ninja on a kabuki stage, with Wolverine's
girlfriend seated in the front row. The fight was depicted as being a bloody
clash of blades, and ended with Our Hero ruminating over the pile of bodies he'd
just created: clumsily inserted into the interior monologue, in what was
obviously another letterer's handwriting, were the words "They're lucky they're
still breathing," or some such. I puzzled over this obvious and nonsensical
editorial afterthought for a few moments, until finally concluding that it was
only natural, given that Wolverine was, after all, a children's comic. I
then decided that I was getting a little too old for such things, and promptly
abandoned comic books for several years, only returning once I discovered that
there were other things artists were doing with the comic-book form.

Superheroes have always been a little ridiculous, a fact amplified by the way
the various tropes that make up the genre have accumulated and ossified over the
decades, to the point where their creators often forget why they exist in the
first place. Why masks and capes? Why secret identities and crimefighting? Why
secret hideouts, why attempts to take over the world? For the most part, it's
just assumed that This Is What They Do, and as a result the reader is given no
greater reason to accept such things. You're either already an initiate -- and
need no further explanations -- or an outsider, in which case there's no real
reason to buy into such clichés in the first place. I can appreciate
something like Moore and O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as
entertainment, but I have no real enthusiasm for the genre for its own sake; I'm
not so much "biased against superheroes" as simply disinterested in the topic
unless the results are especially entertaining and original. Only in a world
where superheroes are seen as The One True Genre could this be seen as an
elitist perspective.

I have no innate bias against most other forms of genre fiction, either, but if
I had to boil down what attracts me to literature into a single, snappy
catchphrase, it would be "give me something real." I don't care for Dave Sim's
early barbarian parodies, but his deft political and religious satires reward
multiple re-readings. I like Ennis & Dillon's Preacher not so much
because it's a modern-day Western as because it says something interesting about
the bonds and limitations of friendship, and for the interesting perspective it
brings to the table concerning American culture. I like Ellis & Robertson's
Transmetropolitan for it's knowing optimism in regards to technological
change as much as for Ellis' ability to successfully riff on Hunter S. Thompson
-- Makoto Yukimura's Planetes recently grabbed my attention for similar
reasons. By contrast, Jaime Hernandez really didn't have that much to say about
such things in his early "Mechanics" stories, and consequentially I greatly
prefer the ones he created after ditching the Rockets and concentrating
upon the Love, where he does have a significant and fascinating
perspective.

The more a work speaks to me as an adult, the more of an impression it leaves.
Eddie Campbell's Alec tells me something about life that is refreshing
and invigorating -- I always find myself appreciating other people more after
re-reading it. Chester Brown's I Never Liked You provides me with tools
that help put my own often turbulent adolescence in perspective. I go back and
forth on other merits of Craig Thompson's Blankets, but its depiction of
the author's early experiences with religion mirror my own, and resonate
meaningfully on that level alone. I could spend all day explaining why I
appreciate the comics of artists like Phoebe Gloeckner, Gilbert Hernandez and
Chris Ware -- or Garth Ennis' War Stories, for that matter. Such works
tend to stay with me more than most genre works not because there's something
inherently wrong with genre, but because they more fully provide me with what
I'm seeking. Literature at its best helps me to understand, appreciate and
engage the world around me. Give me something real.

One of my favourite ignorant quotes is this:

"¡Journalista! at tcj.com gets snobby praise but is
almost all but useless, filled as it is with The Comics Journal's biases
towards almost utterly obscure work."


Tell me why the uphill battle against this sort of stupidity is worth fighting
on a daily basis.


Even ignoring the insane notion that popularity is some weird sort of quality
barometer: Marjane Satrapi is obscure? Art Spiegelman is obscure? Joe Sacco is
obscure? Osamu Tezuka is obscure? Chris Ware is obscure? Harvey Pekar is
obscure? Jules Feiffer is obscure? Robert Crumb is obscure? Only if your sole
point of interaction with the world around you is a comics shop. Comics shops
are obscure -- that's the problem.

The attitude displayed in the above quote reflects an ideology which is at the
root of much which is generally wrong with the world of American comics. Neilalien
recently expounded upon the theory that comics shops were for superheroes, while
bookstores are for everything else. The big problem I have with this theory is
that it sacrifices long-term growth and stability for short-term satisfaction
and self-absorption. It essentially reduces an entire network of distribution to
the role of "secret clubhouse" for a small, stagnant group of afficianadoes by
maintaining a hostile and defensive front towards anything that doesn't fit into
their narrow field of interests. Meanwhile, an entire new generation of readers
is growing, convinced that comics are sold in bookstores, packaged in
pocket-sized digests and read right-to-left. At this point the notion that kids
just don't read comics, once held as gospel within the industry, has now been
decisively refuted. Teenagers, even teenage girls, have no problem with buying
comics -- they simply have little interest in anything the American comics
industry has to sell.

Where will the next generation of Direct Market customers come from?
Business-wise, it's a dead end. I have no doubt that the Direct Market can
maintain its current customer base for the next couple of years. Five years?
Likely. Ten years? Possibly. What about after that?

Right now, comics shops are a closed circuit; the products it sells are
overwhelmingly targetted towards a clientele that is exclusively devoted to a
single genre, and whose favorite titles require an enormous familiarity with the
minutiae of continuity in order to appreciate them. This satisfies the existing
readership, but at the expense of anyone else. The problem is that as time goes
on, tomorrow's comics readers will eventually supplant the current generation,
and there'll be no more of a reason for them to enter a comic-book store than
there is currently. If you don't already have a jones for superhero comics, why
would you be caught dead at Bob's Hero Hut? As the Direct Market's existing
clientele ages and withers away, so will the American comics shop. Any other
form of business would be alarmed at the prospect of never again attracting a
significant body of customers -- yet this is exactly what Neilalien is asking
creators, publishers, distributors and retailers to accept as a good thing. If
you value the weekly trip to your local comics shop -- and I do -- this attitude
is worth fighting on a daily basis because to do anything else is to place a
time limit on how long your local comics shop is going to be around. I have my
doubts as to the likelihood that such a fight will succeed, but I don't view
them as sufficient reason to give up. Mind you, I'm Arizona white trash, from a
family that never knew when to walk away from a fight; your mileage may vary.

Visit Journalista! every goddamn weekday for more of the same, and thanks to Dirk for answering Five Questions.

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