04 October 2009

Trouble with Comics: The Group Blog of Comic Book Galaxy: Five Questions for Tom Spurgeon.

How much do I enjoy reading for The Comics Reporter? It's the first site I check out every morning. Every time I think I have him pinned, he comes at an issue from an unexpected and often revelatory angle.

Tom's breezy-but-blunt writing style pulls no punches, but casts a wide net over what he thinks is the important and interesting news relevant to comics readers. His reviews, along with Chris Allen's and Jog's, have never, ever steered me wrong; there are not many critics I can say that about.

In short, I love the way he centers his mind around his love for comics, it is entertaining when he expresses those thoughts in words. At one point in this interview I think he's a little hard on himself vis a vis the content he provides on his site, so let me just say for the record that I would be lost without The Comics Reporter and the focus Tom Spurgeon brings to it. In a very real way he directs the attention of the smart people reading about comics right now, and for the past five years, and I hope to hell he never, ever stops.

Alan David Doane: You recently celebrated five years of The Comics Reporter, for which I heartily congratulate and thank you. As I recently noted, your site changed the online comics commentary game right out of the box. Could you tell me in what ways you think writing about comics has changed in the past five years, and in what ways it's stayed the same?

Tom Spurgeon: Thanks, Alan. Jog and the Comics Comics gang have come along since five years ago, I think, so that's where I'd start. If they came earlier than that, it's their improvement I'd cite. Jog is a better writer than he was two years ago, even, and he was good from the first post. I read him right now like I used to read Bob Fiore: as a well-informed, funny, fellow reader with a supple writing style that's in there doing battle with comics week after week, a constant companion. He's challenged me to be a better writer, although I haven't responded yet like I hope to eventually.

I like the overlapping approaches of the Comics Comics guys. There's some depth there, too, both in the intellectual firepower on display and in the approaches themselves. For instance, a surface reading of Frank Santoro's writing on comics might indicate that this is a guy obsessed, like so many others, with the comics of his youth. And yet I think there's something much more complex than that going on with Frank in terms of how he feels the fundamentals of comics language have been altered due to factors like changes in printing technology and the rise and decline of specifics sets of influence. The day I got your questions, Frank's initial post on the just-past SPX was simply a bunch of comics he received while attending. The older I get the more it's hard for me to give a shit about who sang karaoke with whom at these events. I just want to hear about the art, so Frank's ability to separate last weekend's event into art and scene and focus first on the art even in this rudimentary way really warmed my heart.

In a more general sense, I think the big change between now and then is that you simply have more writing about comics on-line. That's not to say that some writing hasn't cycled itself out, because some has. But on balance I think there's more work to consider, a metric ton of it now. A lot of it is at least pretty good, and the perception I think is that the main vehicle for coverage about comics is now the collective voices of those doing so on-line, which wasn't a done deal five years ago. You can talk about specific kinds of institutional voices not being developed yet, that we're only just beginning to see considered, documented reportage, for instance, but you can't deny people write the hell out of major events now.

You pay a great deal of attention on The Comics Reporter to conventions and other comics-related events like lectures, signings and personal appearances. What do you think these events mean to comics and comics readers?

First, let me suggest that your perception that a lot of time is spent on The Comics Reporter covering such things is mostly a failure on my part to publish as much as I'd like in terms of original content like reviews and interviews and longer essays.

As to why they're important at all, I go back and forth on that, Alan. I think that for a lot of people those kinds of things are simply a social outlet that connects them back to one of their favorite things and affords status to those who operate well in that sphere. That seems pretty obvious.

There's more to it, though. I think Tom Devlin has a point when he talks about shows like SPX or signings at your local comic shop being potentially important to both readers and artists in a developmental sense. I know that being able to go to the Chicago conventions when I was a kid was a big deal in my being able to find books that sustained my interest in comics, and to glimpse some of my favorite artists at work, and those shows were mostly awful. I can't imagine how mind-blowing it would have been to grow up near SPX or MoCCA. Holy crud.

I also think that Brian Hibbs makes a good point whenever he talks about signings and exhibits and store appearances as a way for the artistic community to keep vital a pair of markets ostensibly devoted to them: the Direct Market of higher-end comics shops, and the hand-selling market strung together wherever a comics-type person is allowed to ply their wares.

Marvel and DC publish many dozens of titles each and every week, and yet you usually highlight only a handful in your "This Isn't a Library" feature as being among the "well-regarded" titles shipping in any one given week; I'm projecting here that you don't think that the majority of corporate-published comics are more than average in quality, or at least aren't regarded as such by the average reader. What one thing do you think Marvel and DC could do to get more titles under that "well-regarded" heading on a weekly basis?

That's a tricky question, Alan. First of all, "well-regarded" is a relative term and an entirely subjective one at that: my 2009 of four or five books a week that seem to be liked more than others might be someone's absolute Golden Age of twenty titles a week that will be remembered for all time. Time will tell.

Second, I'm always reluctant to backseat drive the big companies, because according to the standards they've set up for themselves – making money out the wazoo – those companies are much better run than anything I've got going on. Whenever I hear someone say with such great, shaken-fist certainty that "Marvel needs to do this right now," I think of how much money the people at Marvel have made in recent years up to and including this Disney deal and it occurs to me the sound of their solid gold shoes clanking around is going to drown out any vocal criticism.

Third, I'm not sure that it isn't a miracle that we have any good books of that type at all, as a lot of the mainstream characters seem exhausted to me. There are just so many stories. I don't need any more Fred Sanford than the 135 or so television episodes that already exist with him in it; I could do with 50 fewer, in fact. And I love Fred Sanford. I'm not yearning for any more stories about Gulley Jimson than the book and movie I know about, and that's a wonderful character. And yet I bet there are about 200 comic book stories starring, I don't know… Deadpool. How can more than a fraction of those stories truly work? My friends and I joke that we've had our lifetime's allotment of Red Tornado. You know? I'm think I'm on "full" as far as the second most interesting red android superhero popular in the '70s goes. No entry on my bucket list will ever include the words "Man Bat." Whenever people talk about all those Spider-Man movie fans not reading the comics, they seem to presume that after the movies there's still a Spider-Man sized hole in these people's hearts. I'm thinking maybe not.

Let me try to answer the question, though, I'm sorry. I think the one thing that the mainstream companies could do to alter the landscape in favor of more highly regarded, well-executed series is to embrace as their primary goal publishing growth over a minimum five-year period. Once you push things to the corners of the drawing table like market share and month-to-month victories in the top slots and replace getting to those goals via exploiting the existing market via ingrained things like stacked weekly comics drop-dates with the pursuit of more general growth, it might free up your publishing efforts from a lot of the structural barriers that get in the way of talented creators doing sustained runs on a variety of characters and concepts. Might. It's hard enough for anyone to do any book well, but it seems like a number of good ones simply fade because the market's fundamental set-up, the market that the big companies have formed around themselves, doesn't give them a chance. The sales on such books spiral downward when they fall below a certain threshold; existing titles crowd the sustainable slots based on momentum rather than on quality or demand; publishers are rewarded for stuffing their line-ups with short-term tie-ins, better jobs await talented creators who given their druthers might make a go of it on the more obscure work. A bigger market might not float all boats, but it could possibly change some unfortunate habits and give better books a more expansive target area to hit in order to have a chance to develop into a long-term success story.

I feel like a lot of the conflict between comics generalists (those who love good comics of any genre within the art form) and hardcore superhero fans could be avoided (online and perhaps off) with more of a recognition of the difference between the two states of mind and an acceptance that the difference exists. But I do think the better future for comics lies in the hearts and wallets of the generalists, who have seen an incredible bounty of comics explode over the past decade. Do you think the schism between the two types of buyers is good or bad for the future of comics?

I think it's good to have both kinds of buyers, and it's a situation pretty typical to most art forms. I don't know that one has to be prioritized over the other. I'm not even sure there's still a lot of conflict, Alan, above the level of annoyance, not since the bookstore market and direct sales methods were opened up a bit for non-mainstream works. Superhero comics' place in the overall comics world is probably closest to the musical's place in the world of theater. If you like Tom Stoppard and Rebecca Gilman, you're probably annoyed when your friend talks about seeing a show in New York and you know they only mean a show with people singing in it. But your friend's devotion to The Lion King isn't stopping you from seeing Arcadia or Spinning Into Butter, except maybe in the broadest sense. Again: annoying, but not fatal.

Comics doesn't have enough patrons that it can afford to piss off any of them for the sake of making a point or fostering any one person's ideal industry set-up. I'd like to see five times as many casual readers of comics have a chance to fold more comics over into their overall reading, but I wouldn't mind three times as many hardcore superhero comics readers, either. Why would I?

What do you think comics journalism is doing right, and what is it doing wrong, both in print and online?

I don't read any comics-related print magazines anymore, so I couldn't tell you there. The last print journalist I thought did an admirable job covering the comics industry was Greg Stump when he was full-time at the Comics Journal in the mid-1990s. (I worked with Greg.)

As for on-line journalism covering comics -- that's hard for me to say because I'm a participant in that world. Not only that, but I'm discouraged right now at what a terrible job I've done covering the rapid succession of big news stories that have hit the comics world recently. I think I've managed a decent editorial or two, but the newsman in me went straight to the basement and hasn’t been seen since late August. I was clearly not prepared to handle stories like that, and I need to figure that out and fix what needs fixing as soon as I can.

Although I find my own progress disappointing, especially in light of my Roberto Duran-like response to recent challenges, I'm actually not dissatisfied with the overall level of development regarding industry coverage on-line. It's coming along. Whenever I used to be on panels on this subject, people talked about doing more extensive journalism like it was a switch that you could be expected to flip, or a lifestyle choice that could be embraced. In fact, the lack of a certain kind of journalism became kind of a two-edged excuse platform. On the one hand, there was this criticism that people weren't doing it because they didn't have the will power; on the other hand, the fact that there wasn't extensive reportage meant that you were kind of justified in running press releases and kowtowing to pressure from marketing people.

It's both easier and a lot more difficult than that. The easy part is that you can blog or write commentary or do your reviews or choose your interview subjects as if you're an independent newsperson whether or not you're doing involved, investigative journalism. A lot of journalism is attitude and curiosity and applying standards. The hard part is that it takes time to develop the resources necessary for some of the more involved journalism that all industries need. I think when one sees significant, prepared journalism from a news organization, it tends to come at a pretty late stage in that entity's development. That was certainly true with comics on the print end of things. So I think we're seeing more and more sophisticated coverage as on-line entities ranging from CBR to Michael Cavna's blog mature and become better-run and have more on-hand in terms of personnel, money, time and know-how to throw at those kinds of gigs. That should continue. Hopefully, we'll value it when it comes.

Read Comic Book Galaxy's previous interview with Tom Spurgeon.

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