[an error occurred while processing this directive] Celebrating Five Years of Pushing Comix Forward [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive]
INTRODUCTION by Alan David Doane
I admire Tom Spurgeon, but I don't idolize him. I say this in hopes of avoiding any accusations of being a part of the Spurgeon Cult of Personality (see below), or worse yet, I'm sure we'd all agree, "Team Spurgeon."
It's easy to seem sycophantic, though, when comics has produced so very few qualified critics. Fewer still who write about virtually every aspect of the artform and industry with personality, wit, and most importantly in Tom's case, oftentimes the sense that he has included no more words in a given piece than are absolutely necessary to communicate to the reader what it is he wants to convey. When speaking of the small group of highly-readable online comics commentators, Tom is at the very top of that field.
For years, Spurgeon was known to me mostly as one of the better writers for The Comics Journal, the magazine which has had more of an impact on how I see comics than any other single element of my life in the three decades I've been reading it. When Tom co-wrote the definitive Stan Lee biography a few years back, Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, I interviewed him about it on the radio. It was a good interview -- by which I mean to say that I didn't stutter much and Tom actually answered the questions with insight and energy.
Tom edited The Comics Journal from the fall of 1994 to spring, 1998; from issues #172 to #211. Even though he stepped away from his editorial duties, he wrote the excellent mini-comics column "Minimalism" from 2001 to 2004 and now focuses on corporate superhero comics in the column Cape Fear under new managing editor Dirk Deppey. Among his other duties for Fantagraphics, he's editing the Comics Journal Library series and various solo books from Journal writers, including Bob Levin's two books in 2003 and 2005 and a forthcoming work by R. Fiore. Tom doesn't just know about comics, though, he also created them -- writing the comic strip Wildwood, which ran from 1999 to 2002. He and Jordan Raphael wrote that biography of Stan Lee in 2003, and perhaps afraid his critical faculties might ever be doubted, Tom tells me "I wrote the nation's only positive review of the Howard the Duck movie in 1986."
Perhaps the most remarkable Journal accomplishment of Tom's, in my opinion, was how fascinating he was able to make comics writer Joe Casey seem. In the interview you're about to read, conducted by Ed Cunard, Tom talks about his interest in "the disconnect between having an idea and realizing that idea on paper." The Casey interview, in The Comics Journal #257, found Tom digging deep into Casey's intended themes and artistic goals. After I read the interview, I bought up a number of Casey works I had previously read but dismissed as not terribly outstanding comics, most of them of the superhero variety. I began to get a sense of the disconnect Tom speaks of at that time, as I re-read Casey's Children of the Atom X-Men mini-series and other efforts the writer had made. The themes and intentions Casey had revealed to Spurgeon in his Comics Journal interview were there, buried deeply under the wildly varying art and capricious editorial whims that all corporate comics writers are subject to. I didn't come away from the experience thinking Casey was a better writer than I had thought (better-intentioned, perhaps, and with more potential than previously assumed), but I did learn that Spurgeon is one hell of an interviewer, capable of perceiving and revealing nuance and intent where it's all but obliviated by the traditional corporate comics structure, and eager to learn not only what his subjects have done, but what they have failed to do, sometimes through no fault of their own.
Once he started The Comics Reporter in 2004, Tom became a daily part of life for internet readers interested in comics. Virtually overnight, he (and site designer Jordan Raphael) had implemented the most readable, enjoyable and informative comics website ever. While I am sure Tom will shy away from such praise, no honest, intelligent observer of the comics industry would argue with me. And if it's any comfort at all to Tom, I do know that pointing out TCR's significance in the little world we all share is, indeed, damning with faint praise. So be it. The Comics Reporter changed how I see online comics coverage in the same way The Journal changed the way I saw comics itself.
Tom has reignited the excitement I feel about covering comics online, and I know that I am not alone. I know the guy who conducted the interview you're about to read, Ed Cunard, feels much the same way, and I know that Tom's daily efforts are a big part of why Ed, and I, and so many people, once again feel not only a need to write about comics, but a direction in which that need perhaps can be focused. Which is not to say that I or anyone else should imitate Tom Spurgeon's work, so much as find inspiration in it. That inspiration is part of why we decided to overhaul Comic Book Galaxy, and it's most certainly why the very first thing I wanted to have on the site on the first day of our new incarnation was an interview with Tom Spurgeon.
My thanks to Tom for taking the time to answer Ed's questions, and my thanks to Ed for asking them. Enjoy, everybody.
What was the day-to-day experience of your time working at THE COMICS JOURNAL like? Was there anything about that experience that surprised you?
The day to day experience of working at the Journal was sort of... interesting. As anyone who'd been my editor since and seen me unable to complete projects knows, I suffer from extended bouts of depression and workplace paralysis, so finding a comfortable, productive groove was always a challenge. Fantagraphics is wide open or at least used to be -- within reason, you set your own hours and could do as you largely pleased. Once I got comfortable I remember leaving for matinees a lot and coming back, that kind of thing. I never counted vacation days or sick days, although I think they do now. Fantagraphics allowed me a lot of room to experiment with different work schedules to see what worked best, which is a great thing to find out in your 20s. Gary was largely withdrawn from the magazine right after the birth of his son, so I was kind of on my own to find my way. In the end I appreciated that freedom, but it was tough early on. I thought I was going to get fired all the time. I even cried in the library once.
Eventually I figured out that the job was 400 percent easier if by the end of every day you answered all of your mail and e-mail. That's my advice for anyone with an editing job. Answer all of your mail every day. Instant success.
Did I find anything surprising? One thing is that back then it was really, really difficult to find anyone to write reviews of genre stuff – say, STRAY BULLETS – that weren't apologies or just sort of dim. I think that's much easier to do now. I was also surprised by how many Journal writers had it deep in their mind to one day write a Marvel or DC superhero. Almost half. In fact, I eventually had my own character that I would talk about just from being asked about it a lot over coffee: that would be Wildcat, whom I've always liked for the cool costume and high-concept idea of a giant thug who rides around on a motorcycle kicking the shit out of people. He's like Superhero 101. If there's more to him than that, I don't want to know. He's like what all my friends from Jersey would do if superheroes were allowed to operate with impunity.
From a company standpoint I think I was surprised by how many people assumed the magazine was there to hype their projects, and would get indignant if you passed on news of that variety. That's probably worse now.
On THE COMICS JOURNAL forums, someone broached the subject of favorite TCJ editor, and a few people listed you as one of their choices.
That would be two, Ed. And one of them was a friend using a pseudonym.
Are there any particular issues or memories of your tenure as editor that stand out to you, positively or negatively?
Most of what I remember about working at THE COMICS JOURNAL now is how enjoyable it was to work with other young people. I worked at QVC Home Shopping before moving to Seattle. That was a lot of sitting with the assistant managers at lunch pretending I knew who won the Darlington 500 and generally wishing heavy machinery would fall on me and end my life.
So it's the personal memories that dominate when I think of working at the Journal. Hanging out on the back porch smoking and complaining about our low pay. The poker games at the moldy house in Ballard. Eric Reynolds and I posing as comic shop employees to sneak into a Marvel retailer presentation. Gary placing Conrad Groth astride a garbage can so he could finish an argument on CompuServe. Stopping work early to browbeat the interns about their taste in comics. Everyone should work at a place like Fantagraphics at least once in their lives, although no one can afford to twice.
From an editorial standpoint, the JOURNAL seemed to be having a hard time connecting with what was going on in comics at the exact moment. The mid-1990s was really interesting for comics, because in art comics you had this sort of three-way split between underground-minded comics, more literary-based alternative comics and then the more design conscious, more poetic new generation. Over in superhero comics you had people trying to find a space for self-expression amid this really cynical avalanche of shit the big companies were puking out like so many monsters in a Miyazaki movie.
So what I remember from engaging the art form at the time is getting to write a lot of first reviews for cartoonists like Patrick McDonnell, Al Columbia, Ivan Brunetti, Craig Thompson and Brian Ralph, which was a total privilege, and then trying to find ways for the magazine to connect with work from mainstream writers like Kurt Busiek and James Robinson. I also brought in Bart Beaty to write for the magazine because I thought it was obvious that European comics had changed since the Journal had blown them off five-six years earlier, and Bart had a great approach to newer works from cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim.
We also did a couple of special issues like #200, which had a Charles Schulz interview and a Chris Ware interview and a lot of good essays, and #210, which was the Top 100 issue. I may not have the best taste in comics, but I have really broad taste, so I hope that issues like that subliminally help people think of comics in their entirety instead of just one narrow track.
Plus I found out I can't spell.
In the same thread, you chose Gary Groth as your favorite TCJ editor. Why Groth?
He's the only real editor that magazine ever had, although to keep me working there once my name was briefly on top of the masthead. I didn't fight it when Gary asked for the top space back because the magazine obviously reflects his sensibilities - always has and always will, to its sometimes detriment but mostly positive effect. If you had to sum up what that magazine is all about in ten clippings, seven of them would be editorials by Gary.
THE COMICS JOURNAL can be a polarizing publication. Some consider it the worst example of comics-centered elitism, while others praise it as the benchmark for all writing on comics. What points made by both sides are worth considering?
The strange thing about the elitism argument is that the Journal has a really bad record as an elitist publication. The Top 100 list contains so many popular works a real elitist would throw a hankie over the nose and beeline for the door: PEANUTS, FANTASTIC FOUR, POGO, GASOLINE ALLEY, SPIDER-MAN... It's only in the context of comics that questioning the quality of current superhero product seems elitist, and it's not so much the elitism with which people seem to have the problem but the assumed criticism of their own reading material.
That's not what you're asking, though, is it?
Let's see. I think the good point that the magazine's critics make in terms of an elitism argument is that JOURNAL writers can overvalue seriousness of intent at the expense of excellence of execution. I think there's a lot of second-rate work championed by those who write for the Journal based solely on the fact that it fits in the same rough category as ambitious, literary comics. It meets those expectations. Alan Rudolph doing Robert Altman instead of Robert Altman.
I think the good point that people make when they consider the Journal the benchmark of all comics writing is that the JOURNAL has the virtue of having been around and having published a great deal of writing, and a lot of it is good - Carter Scholz, Bob Levin, and Bob Fiore are really good writers consistently, and are frequently great, and there are flashes of great stuff from people like Rob Rodi and Jesse Fuchs. I mean, if you're going to have a benchmark, it's good to have a benchmark that's always in the game as opposed to some rarified writing that gets locked into a time and place.
While it has always had a reputation for focusing on more alternative comics, THE COMICS JOURNAL hasn't exactly shied away from covering mainstream comics, both in the news pieces and in the feature interviews. Where do you think the anti-mainstream reputation comes from?
It's probably because THE COMICS JOURNAL's actually been anti-mainstream in a lot of ways, and feels it needs to be that way.
Big mainstream companies are rarely champions of art or artists. I think it's a fair assessment of comics history to point out 1) the mainstream companies used to be party to a lot of institutionalized abuse of its creators, 2) the mainstream companies have been absolutely hostile to any sort of competition in the direct market era, and 3) with the fully Jack Kirby-loaded Marvel era '62-65 a possible exception, the mainstream companies have a really lousy hit-to-miss ratio on a publication by publication basis.
You throw on top of that factors like a literary subset of comics had to be imagined and willed into existence since 1976, not just nurtured like in other art forms; and the fact that everyone in comics tends to take everything grimly seriously because passion has to be a substitute for financial reward, and you have the seeds of some pretty grim arguments over the years.
But yeah, Ed, what you say is right. The magazine does try to cover mainstream comics, too. I was just as excited to interview John Romita Sr. and Steve Rude as I was James Sturm, and I think the results were just as serious and hopefully just as good.
Could you elaborate on the idea of "a literary subset of comics [that] had to be imagined and willed into existence since 1976?" What specific titles are you thinking of, and how do you believe they rose up? What obstacles stood in their way, and what helped them survive?
If you go back to the late '70s and early '80s in North America, there were comics in every other genre in which we enjoy comics, every other type of comic was out there, except what I would call art comics -- like the books Pantheon publishes now, or that Drawn and Quarterly does. Graphic novels not as a format but as actual novels that could be shelved next to other novels of the moment and have a chance to appeal to their readers in much the same way. I mean, the notion was there, and there were voices in the desert, but there wasn't like a whole group of comics to point at that was doing this. Every other popular or formerly popular art form had this kind of subset at that time, too. What Fantagraphics accomplished was sticking around long enough and being insistent enough that those sort of comics would have value and encouraging those who did them by publishing them or covering them in their magazine or inspiring others to do so, so that a *bunch* of that kind of comic could develop out of that strange brew of genres and approaches. It's not very hard to imagine a publishing world where Maus and Will Eisner's books and Harvey Pekar's comics were stranger than strange flukes. Fantagraphics helped art comics get to a critical mass much faster than would have happened otherwise, despite not having much in the way of resources themselves.
Where would you place Fantagraphics in a historical perspective vis-a-vis the other comics companies before and after it?
I think Fantagraphics is really important, sure. They're a pretty big company in terms of output and a pretty successful one when it comes the signal-to-noise ratio, so without FBI you'd have a much more limited number of cartoonists able to find art-comics work. The fact that they wiggled into a small crevice of the direct market allowed cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Joe Sacco to publish enough pages they went from noteworthy to remarkable -- which I don't think they could have done if they could only publish in WWIII ILLUSTRATED and RAW, say.
They've also had an important role since about 1994-1995 of being a big enough company – if you include the porn – that their concerns are dealt with at the distributor level because a certain amount of money is coming in. I love a lot of smaller publishers, but I think the 1990s distributor wars would have gone much worse for the small press if there hadn't been one company big enough to be at least listened to.
Also they obviously publish a lot of good books and great artists, more important ones than anyone in North America would be my guess. That doesn't hurt.
When you're interviewing a creator for THE COMICS JOURNAL or for your site, how much time goes into researching the subject? What kind of information are you looking for when interviewing comics creators?
The Journal interviews are career retrospectives, so I try to read everything they've done and every interview they've given. I usually start a month before the interview date, and try to fit that reading in and around other stuff I do so it feels more like reading than research. Sometimes this can be tough. I'm preparing to interview Ralph Bakshi for them right now, my last one for a while, and it's sort of a nightmare, partly because I'm not used to tracking down movies as opposed to comics.
I have my own particular sets of interests when it comes to what I like to get out of an interview. There's an historical function, which means I try to ask people about certain experiences if they haven't been covered in the Journal before - like if they worked for a company not a lot of other creators interviewed have worked for. I think that's valuable. I'm interested in the disconnect between having an idea and realizing that idea on paper. In terms of superhero comics, I'm interested in the idea that you may be working with characters that were exploited by companies to the detriment of their creators, particularly how young artists and writers feel about that. I'm always interested in theme.
I also like formal questions. It's fascinating to hear how writers conceive of a page in terms of different-sized spaces, because that's something that's very foreign to other kinds of writing. Tom Stoppard does not break down his next scene into a series of squares on a page like Joe Casey might have to.
I don't see myself doing any career-spanners on the CR site, so those are probably going to be project related -- whatever I find interesting about that particular project.
In some ways, Dirk Deppey, the current editor, has been credited for leading a renewed focus on increasing the scope of TCJ's coverage, particularly in terms of manga and superhero comics. While it's still too early to judge, where do you think the evolution of the magazine is going?
It's probably the only way to go in terms of making the magazine relevant and sell better after the decline in sales in the early part of the decade. Honestly, I'm not reading a whole lot of the magazine now, as I'm kind of unconvinced there are enough interesting writers to match that expansive approach.
In issue #250, you wrote about the deleterious effects of a "Team Comix" mentality. Do you still generally feel the same way as you did then? While the name "Team Comix" has gone by the wayside ---
Really? You're breaking my heart.
Is it still a factor in comics coverage/discourse?
My hunch is not quite as much as it was a few years back. Perhaps the snide nastiness of my editorial and the mellifluous "Team Comics" phrasing injected a note of skepticism that went to work on people. Probably not, though. Instead, I think what's happened is there's been a shift into a business model that has kind of discombobulated things for a moment. Where the Team Comics impulse might be best found right now is in the notion that all of the pretty good comics works out there right now are actually great, and the way such ideas about who is great and who isn't become naturally assumed and copied by other writers. For those reasons, I still despair of great, great work coming from any cartoonist younger than Chris Ware.
A few years ago, you and co-writer Jordan Raphael put together Stan Lee And The Rise And Fall Of The American Comic Book. What prompted you and Raphael to take an extended look at Stan Lee's career?
Well, Stan's a fascinating guy. He also goes back all the way to the beginning of comics history, so you can tell the story of comics through him, and what he was doing was directly or indirectly relevant to a lot of it.
One of the things I've always found really interesting about Stan is how much garbage he went through as a de facto spokesperson for the entire industry. In an early appearance, I think on the Dick Cavett Show, when Stan suggested that college kids were reading Marvel Comics, a comedian shot back something like "Are they using pacifiers, too?" This really nasty undertone... you hear about old-time cartoonists denying they did comic books at cocktail parties, and these tapes show you why. I remember watching a video of Stan on the Alan Thicke Show in the early '80s and Thicke is being dismissive and making fun of the She-Hulk and I'm thinking, "Man, imagine taking shit from the doofus who wrote the Facts of Life theme song."
There's stuff from a geek standpoint, too, just things we wanted to write about. For instance, I think the best early Marvel comics are great for their execution rather than just their concepts, and I was dying to put that into words. Charlie Biro, Bill Everett and the Simon/Kirby team all played around with a lot of the concepts that went into Marvel. But Marvel's comics were really good, too, and over a longer period. It's not just having a nerdy superhero like Spider-Man, but the supreme conviction with which Steve Ditko drew Peter Parker's frustration. It's the breadth of Jack Kirby's visual imagination that kills you over time, not just the potency of a single design. That's the stuff you take away.
After doing the preliminary research for the book, was there anything that surprised you, or challenged preconceived notions you might have held regarding Lee and his work?
I think the intensity with which Stan pursued promotional opportunities through the 1960s is pretty amazing considering how relatively laid-back he was in his job before that. I bet most people in his position wouldn't have pursued the college students, for example, but Stan seemed almost eager to go someplace and talk for whatever small pittance they could afford, although of course the money got better later.
Another thing I found really impressive, and I think you could even argue it's Stan's most important contribution, is how he picked up on what Jack Kirby was doing visually and was able to communicate to his other freelancers, both on his own and later through John Romita. We think of Marvel's success as overnight because of the company's propaganda, but this was a sustained effort of years and years, and it was a company-wide one.
What do you think creators today can learn from Lee's work, either as a comics creator or as a promotional force?
Stan Lee was 38 years old when FANTASTIC FOUR #1 came out.
Should that be read as a suggestion to pace oneself, or is it something else?
It's never too late to start your life's work.
What kind of comments did you receive regarding the book from fans, either online or in letters sent to you? Were they mostly favorable, or did some feel you were unfair to Lee?
Most of what we heard was positive, particularly from a lot of sources that couldn't say so publicly. I was particularly happy that after Mark Evanier and RC Harvey looked at it, they had only one or two minor objections between them -- there are some comics histories, even some highly regarded ones, with a factual error on every page if you really scrutinize them.
I think a lot of people appreciated that we didn't shy away from the controversial material but sensed that overall we found a lot to admire in Stan's story, which we did.
Writing is often seen as a solitary profession, at least in terms of sitting down and doing the work. How does the co-writer relationship work? In what ways did you and Raphael play off the other's strengths and weaknesses?
Jordan was an intern of mine at the COMICS JOURNAL, and we're pals, so we work together pretty well. He'll no longer get me coffee, but I can hit him without worrying about getting yelled at by Kim Thompson. Jordan had covered the Stan Lee Media stuff for a media magazine in Los Angeles, so he was able to provide a perspective on that part of Stan's story while I could concentrate on the critical appraisals of the comics, that kind of thing.
John Byrne was smart enough to notice that we split up the chapters for first drafts, and that the final edition of the book did not reflect as many drafts as we would have liked in order to smooth some things out. But that's the book business.
Do you have any more book-length projects in the pipeline, focusing on comics or other topics?
Yeah, I do. I wrote a book about breakfast culture in the U.S., and am working on one about television. I want to do an oral history of Fantagraphics, kind of like Terry Pluto's book on the ABA but with Helena Harvilicz playing the role of Marvin Barnes.
Aside from your book, what comics-related books would you consider "essential reading," either in terms of focus or the quality of writing?
I edited both of Bob Levin's books: The Pirates and the Mouse and Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers and Pirates. I think both of those are really good. Bob's a really talented writer. He interprets every comic he reads in intensely personal ways, and deals with the problems of doing so right on the page. His recent essay on Vaughn Bode in one of those COMICS JOURNAL specials was just stupendous. Donald Phelps' Reading the Funnies can be a chore, but he offers up some really fresh critical insight into old strips. I liked Bob Harvey's first book about the aesthetic of the comic strip a lot. I haven't read last year's Gerard Jones book, but I'm told it's really good. Everybody should read Jules Feiffer's "The Great Comic Book Heroes" essay. I'm looking forward to the forthcoming Charles Schulz biography as well as Dan Nadel's book on outsider artists working within mainstream comics publishing.
Why did you start The Comics Reporter?
I wanted something that was mine, and that I could do every day related to comics, and no one would fund a magazine when I shopped it around last summer.
What inspired you to want to start your own magazine?
I wanted to do a weekly trade magazine about comics that provided readers full information about publishing news and covered the entire field in a respectful, hopefully authoritative way.
How different do you think the print incarnation would have been from what we have today in The Comics Reporter?
It would have been very different because I can only afford to spend two hours a day on Comics Reporter. It would have been much more service-oriented, too. I don't think it's a bad thing to provide people with information they want about comics they want to buy. At any rate, I want to get to that point with CR, but I'm a far way off from getting that done. My track record keeping anything but the blog going on CR has been atrocious! Hopefully, I'll get better.
What lessons are there in not being able to find funding for the trade magazine? I presume you would be as diverse in your own print magazine as you are online and in the Journal, covering everything from minicomics to corporate superheroes...so is there no one out there willing to fund a magazine about the totality of the artform and industry of comics? Are we really only able to sustain the extremes of Wizard and Comic Art and The Comics Journal, with no middle ground seen as viable?
Well...once you add up all 15 billion magazines and dedicated web sites the field is pretty well-covered and other than Wizard, none of them make the kind of money that would attract people to the project as a business venture. Also, if I were in their position I would have to wonder if Reed is going to end up doing something like this -- I still say it's about 50 percent likely -- and take away some if not most of your audience just by kicking your ass with their resources and market penetration. Finally, there's just no compelling reason for anyone to give me money to do anything. I have no track record in making anyone money, and no experience in publishing.
In the TCJ article about your site, you are quoted as saying "I don't see anyone out there covering it the way I'd like to see covered." What was missing?
I was probably drunk that day, but basically I like to see comics from all continents and all companies covered. I'm also not interested in movies and toys simply because they have a comics-related concept.
In terms of delivery, TCR is formatted like a weblog. Do you consider the site a blog, a site, or something else entirely?
It's a way of life, Ed. It's a way of life that consists of being fat and lonely and reading a lot of comic books and occasionally being grumpy about them and then crying yourself to sleep in your Lobo pajamas. It's not for everyone.
I think I basically see it as a site. The weblog dominates because I've failed miserably in finding the time to keep the other parts of the site functioning as well as the weblog.
While you've chosen to avoid comments threads and message board set-ups, you still publish reactions from readers in a letters-to-the-editor format. What are the benefits of publishing the reactions that way?
When someone writes a letter, even in the form of an e-mail, they tend to stick to the subject at hand instead of talking about themselves. Message boards always end up being at least 50 percent about the people on the message board, and I figure I'm asking enough of people to be interested in something like comics for a few minutes every day that to ask them to screen a bunch of in-jokes and what not is too much. I'll publish just about any letter, though.
When providing content for your site, are you trying to come up with a certain mixture or balance in terms of both content and topics?
There's a little bit of that, but mostly I take what comes at me and if you pay attention to what's going on in comics there's stuff going on from all different areas of comics. Europe's been quiet lately, and there are fewer deaths right now, but everyone's gearing up for summer. You can't make up the news.
A few months ago, Bart Beaty began contributing pieces on European comics for CR. Do you think there will come a time when you bring on more contributors to cover other "beats" like you did with Beaty?
Bart approached me, actually, and wanted to practice writing for an on-line venue to see if he would eventually want to do his own site. A site by Bart would be pretty amazing, so I was only too happy to help and have such great content, even if it was only temporarily. I fully expect him to leave when he's ready. So that's a pretty specific circumstance; I can't see it repeating. If I were to somehow find that magic way to be paid for CR I would love to have a few more writers cover beats, but only if the writing was there, not so much to make sure a beat was covered. There's so much bad writing out there about comics, including some of my own, that it's not like there needs to be any more.
Recently, Comic Foundry interviewed you regarding writing comics criticism in which the questions were highly concentrated on the act of critiquing. What about the writing? What, if any, certain processes or routines do you go through when working on different types of writing about comics? Are they similar processes and routines to what you go through when you write for The Stranger, for example?
I swear, Ed, the hardest part about writing for The Stranger was staying awake through the entire play. It's this weird, unknown fact of Seattle Garage Theater. They're all like 80 degrees and primed for napping. Nothing like that in comics. Well, maybe the Eisners.
I'm not sure I'm getting the question. With longer pieces I try to make sure I have something to say before I start writing that's worth writing a longer piece -- it may not be what I end up with, but I think it's pretty obvious when I've written an article where I don't have a single strong opinion going in. The shorter pieces I just kind of dive in and hope for the best. All writing is re-writing. I tend to write really unreadable, turgid prose, so trying to make my prose leaner is always a priority. I prefer to write early in the morning through about noon. Empty stomach.
I think a lack of editing comes across in much of the online writing on comics, myself included. Is it a symptom of internet publishing, do you think, or are we just getting lazy?
Both, probably. Most of the financial models don't allow for editors, and the ability to publish instantly is too great a temptation, particularly when it means less work.
As a critic, what other critics have inspired or influenced you, related to comics or otherwise?
Man, that's a good question. I guess I liked Pauline Kael in the New Yorker on film when I was old enough to start reading the articles - I remember distinctly reading a Blade Runner review, although I'm not sure it's hers, and being amazed someone could talk about a movie for that long. I liked John Simon in I think National Review on film and then New York magazine on theater when I got old enough to appreciate mean. Carter Scholz in the COMICS JOURNAL when I was in my early teens. He just wrote a great piece on Thomas Pynchon for I think Bookforum, so he's still got it. I worshipped Jonathan Rosenbaum when I lived in Chicago. Come to think of it, Ron Rosenbaum's famous piece on Charles Portis was great. It's all about people named Rosenbaum. Mencken is always good.
Is there something that comics criticism can take from the language of film, literary, art or music criticism?
I'm not enough of a formally trained critic to say definitively. I'd vote yes, because I assume they all borrow from each other.
Prior to reading Dean's interview with you, I wasn't aware that Raphael was also a part of your site. What does he contribute to the site?
Jordan did the basic design -- it looks just like the web design he did for the Annenberg School at USC -- and does any hard web stuff that comes up, which almost never does. He also acts as a sounding board for me when I'm doubtful about something. His favorite section is the letters, so he always gives me feedback about the letters, but not very erudite feedback. "That letter was stupid, dude."
Calling the blogosphere's reaction to CR "positive" might be a bit of an understatement -- it's rare to see someone link to one of your pieces without having an adjective or two thrown before your name (something I've done on occasion, I must admit). Are you in any way lured into the "cult of personality," or is the reaction more disconcerting?
I'm totally into it for the admiration of my peers, Ed. I'm hoping this year at San Diego a few of them will agree to tug me around the floor in my Son of Satan chariot while I poke Klingons with my trident and lob jars of urine into the crowd.
I find every mention I see really flattering and highly undeserved. The ego thing is tough in comics. It shouldn't be, because it's ridiculous to think you could place too much value on such a modest return, and yet I think a lot of unfortunate things that go on in the industry happen in order to repair broken egos.
At the same time, we live in a personality driven world, so it's a real boon to emphasize yourself in order to get your message across. So you do things, well, like this interview. I hope in the end that I'm bringing people to the world of comics through me rather than bringing them to me through the world of comics.
You're one of a small number of people who've made the transition from print coverage of comics to online coverage. Do you think that the comics internet adds something (good or otherwise) to comics discussion in a larger sense?
The main thing I think everyone forgets is how easy the Internet makes it to gather and publish news. A lot of the basic publishing information that took up a lot of time 20 years ago is retrievable with a copy/paste action now, and I can publish in 30 minutes rather than 30 days.
As far as the wider discussion goes, the weird thing about the Internet is that people's ability to communicate on it is still under development. More people are much more able to argue their points than was true ten years ago. So it's hard to say. I think it will eventually be invisible and the general conversation will neither be raised nor damaged, such as it is.
I know you've said that you try to take the "I" out of TCR --
Told you I couldn't spell.
-- but I can't help but feel a little curious regarding you as a reader, rather than as a critic. If you're ok with it, can I ask you some questions about your comic reading?
Sure. Although you realize even my mom has stopped reading at this point.
When did you first discover comics? Is it a particularly vivid memory, or would you have trouble pinpointing that first experience?
I would have trouble pinpointing that first experience. Comics were always around. My dad was a newspaperman, and my parents were good Midwestern '60s small-L liberals who thought at least in theory that all art forms had equal value. We got one comic book every week for helping Mom at the grocery; there were three kids. I have a very early memory reading a Flintstones comic in Chicago's Union station when I was three. I also remember my first comic book collection, which was about 10-12 comics I put into envelopes. But not the first comic, no.
When did you first discover alternative comics? Was your first reaction to books outside the mainstream a positive one, or did it take a while for other types of comics to grow on you?
I'd seen a lot of comics that weren't mainstream comic books before I saw alternative comics. We got the New Yorker every week - the New Yorker in the '60s and '70s was essentially a print NPR for those in the heartland - and had some books so I was a fiend for Saul Steinberg, Peter Arno and Charles Addams. I also loved PEANUTS. I'd seen some underground comix owned by the stoners renting a house near my parents' lakehouse where we went during the summers.
The reason I mention all of these things is that more than any distinct artistic impression all this stuff made it just seem natural that there would be other kinds of comic books beyond MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE and that I would want to see them.
But comic books... the first non-mainstream comic books I found were CEREBUS and ELFQUEST, for which I'd been primed by seeing them in Bud Plant ads. It was kind of understood, back in the days when collecting meant "scarcity" rather than "sifting," that these were the very special unique items only available at comic book stores. My first comic book shop was Comic Carnival on Carrollton in Indianapolis, and pretty soon after that a shop opened in Muncie, the town where I lived, called "Bright's Book Exchange." It's the first place I ever drove a car. Boy, that's sad.
Anyway, if you think about it, those of us that were born 1966-1972 were pretty lucky in that the first wave of indy comics came along right when we might have become tired of reading standard superhero comics, and then more and more alternative or arts comics started to show up in their midst as we might have become tired of Nexus and Sun Runners or whatever. That was the big selling point of comic shops back then -- they carried everything, not just what they wanted to sell. We got lucky on what was coming out and when.
As far as comics growing on me, well, certain kinds of comics kind of hit you at different ages. I remember with Love and Rockets reading it and thinking it was okay and then about the age of 18-19 the whole thing just hitting me WHAM! and I re-read the five or six I owned obsessively for two weeks before I got a new paycheck and could buy the rest.
When did you first become interested in comic strips and editorial cartooning? Was it through contemporary work, or through rediscovering older pieces?
I always loved comic strips, partly because of my dad, who was into comics enough he actually clipped BARNABY when he was a kid. The PEANUTS books were easy to find, affordable, and fantastic; that helped. PEANUTS was a giant part of my childhood. I liked modern comics, too. Dad used to let us help pick his paper's cartoons, so we felt like real connoisseurs, but we always thought the old stuff was better the same way we felt all the good rock music had been made in the '60s.
Editorial cartooning still isn't a natural area for me, but I recognize its importance and there are a few of the older guys I like quite a bit just for their virtuoso drawing talent. I'm not sure who the hell we ran as a kid - probably the Indianapolis Star guy who won the Pulitzer that nobody liked. I remember there was a local cartoonist who drew this character named "Benny Beans" over photos. Benny would frown on things. "Benny Beans frowns on this untidy yard at Main and Devon." What a dick. I hated Benny Beans.
Have there been any periods since you started reading comics that you stepped away from reading comics and if so, why?
No, not really. When I was in college the only place that carried comics was the local drug store and while I was gone freshman year the decent shop back home closed in the black and white bust. So I didn't read as many comics, but I was still interested in them. The only time I saw good comics was going to the Chicago Con and buying big piles of stuff from the Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics tables. I had a LOVE AND ROCKETS poster on my wall that confused people, and plenty of Matt Groening books and Chester Brown single issues around for people to read. People really do like comics; they're just not interested in buying them.
The funniest thing about college and comic books was that I went to a really conservative, cliquish school down south, and I knew a lot of comic book geeks that were totally in the closet about it. I wore a CEREBUS t-shirt once to football practice and I remember this freshman taking me aside at water break and whispering "I know what your shirt means." No one cared in high school or college if I read comics; no one cares now.
In your opinion, what creators are making the standout comics of today, and what comics of the past are still speaking to you?
I'm really boring here. I'm very excited to read new work by Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, Chester Brown, Phoebe Gloeckner, David B., Ben Katchor, Kim Deitch. Tons more. I generally like Tom Toles, the editorial cartoonist. The MUTTS Sunday books by Patrick McDonnell are really strong. I look forward to the new TOP TEN by Alan Moore. I really liked the first trade of CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL.
The comic of the past that speaks to me right now is LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE. Gray's cartooning is so odd and fragile, these gigantic oppressive white spaces. I love the way it looks. I just read a George Price book I really liked, too, although I'm not a huge fan. My favorite old comics are BARNABY and THIMBLE THEATRE.
Which creators do you see as having great potential?
Kevin Huizenga and R. Kikuo Johnson are the two to watch.
What are some of the strengths of comics as a medium?
The biggest strength is that you can create this idiosyncratic, intimate way of looking at the entire world and allow a reader full immersion into it. I also think the ability to jump around smoothly and effectively in time is an underrated, obvious gift when it comes to narratives. Other than that, I'm not really sure.
Getting away from form, momentarily... Do your tastes in comics reflect your tastes in other media, or do you go to comics looking for something else entirely?
They probably... oh, that's good. I really don't know. They probably reflect my taste in other media. Yeah, I can see that. I read way more comics than I would if my taste were the only arbiter, but the ones I would choose to read share a lot of similarities with films I seek out and music I listen to. I like my share of foreign films, jazz music, and HBO television shows, which is sort of like reading EIGHTBALL in terms of each work's place in the market. I like going out to special-effects movies much the same way I enjoy reading many superhero comics. I might catch something on Turner Classic Movies the same way I pull an old strip collection off the shelf. That kind of thing.
A lot of comics creators and commentators that I've talked to are really into jazz (which makes me happy, as it's something I'm absolutely devoted to as well). Do you think there is something about jazz music and culture that either reflects or parallels comic books/strips and their surrounding culture, or is it just a happy coincidence?
Probably just a coincidence. Although... I bought a lot of jazz when I worked in Seattle because I couldn't stand to listen to any more loud rock music when I got home.
What is it about superhero comics that still make you want to read them?
I find it interesting that they're still around and still dominate the landscape despite being such a specific sub-genre -- or at least I would call it a sub-genre. So many of the modern superhero comics have a weird exhaustion to them, just too many stories told over too many years for a concept you could maybe get one movie out of, you know?
I also like bright colors and watching people hit each other. I'd like to see more asskicking in today's superhero comics. Shut up and start fighting, that's what I say.
Aside from the surface parts of superhero comics, are there any other types of stories that the genre does particularly well?
I think like most fantasy genres superheroes tend to do really well when there's a simple dichotomy to be explored -- this guy's actions compared to that guy's actions -- or when the superhero thing is used as an exaggerated aspect of our daily lives. Neither of these is the kind of story superheroes do very easily, now that I think of it, which is probably why good ones are so rare.
While superhero comics are often criticized for too much "sameness," the same criticism can also be applied to alternative and self-published comics. Do you see any trends outside the comics mainstream that people are falling back on too frequently?
Wow, I've never thought of that before. One thing arts comics seem to be shaking off right now is attempts at occupying the same space as the wildly inventive Fort Thunder crowd. I wish more cartoonists were attempting more ambitious work, longer narratives, but that might be personal preference rather than professional judgment.
Comics, in some ways, have been one of the more interactive media. Fans seek out online forums, fill letter columns (or did, anyway), and many attempt to get into the field as creators. What makes comics different from other media in that regard?
For one, it adds a weird sense of entitlement. Many comics fans criticize comics as if it's understood it will soon be their turn to drive the car, the way a lot of poor people will vote as if they're rich people because they think they'll win the lottery.
Comics are different in that it's not all that hard to join the tribe -- "yell at people on-line" gets you halfway there, and I don't think that's true of film or the music industry. Although that would explain a few things.
Does the investment fans have with the medium add something to the medium at large?
Maybe. It's nice that they are so many attentive readers and you have access to your readers in comics much more directly than in other forms, which can be valuable for some creative people. Working on a comic strip can be agonizing because you feel like you're working in a vacuum, which I don't think someone like Mark Millar feels. But in the end I think it might even detract from the medium as there's always been too much playing to the room and not enough putting on long pants and going outside. It's nice out there, even though it's probably colder; best of all, it's healthier.
Also at Comic Book Galaxy: Listen to Alan David Doane's interview with Tom Spurgeon about Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book
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