25 November 2009

Daily Breakdowns 041 - An Interview with Sean T. Collins

Sean T. Collins is probably a name familiar to most of those reading this column. He's been writing about comics for several years, on his blog, other online destinations like Robot6, of late, and in publications like The Comics Journal and Maxim. He's even written his own comics. We started around the same time, and though both of us have contributed to some of the same websites and publications, and I think he's even a Facebook friend, I can't say I've ever really taken the time to get to know the guy. This was something I wanted to rectify, especially since I've always respected his writing. Plus, who doesn't want to read a substantial interview over the Thanksgiving break? -- Christopher Allen

Sean, where did you grow up?

I grew up on Long Island in New York, in a town called Garden City.

Did you write from an early age?

Yeah, I guess I did. I enjoyed writing assignments in school, and I wrote for fun as well, though I never considered myself "a writer" or thought about pursuing it for a living, despite encouragement particularly from my high school English teachers, until a year or so after I graduated from college. Fits pretty comfortably now, though.

I seem to recall you, like many others, maybe posting on message boards before an actual website or blog. Would that have been Brian Michael Bendis' Jinxworld message board where you first got into the fandom side of comics?

Actually, no, I never hung out there. The first place I ever wrote about comics online was the Savage Dragon message board, because from my senior year in college, beginning in 1999, through about 2001, that and The ACME Novelty Library were the only comics I was regularly collecting. Eventually I discovered The Comics Journal message board, where people hadn't just maybe also heard of ACME, they actually wanted to discuss it. So that board was my stomping ground for quite some time, until I realized how little I enjoyed the nasty back-and-forth that message boards engender and realized that with a blog, I could curate how I interacted with other people about comics a lot more effectively.

I think at the time you were working on Abercrombie & Fitch's Quarterly catalog/magazine, which had its share of controversy. Can you tell me a little about that experience?

Oh man, it was a lot of fun. And that's really where I got into comics. My boss was a comics fan, and it was a chance encounter with his copy of the Wizard magazine with a preview of Grant Morrison's New X-Men that got me thinking about going to the comic store, Jim Hanley's, to check it out, and maybe see what else was going on. For years I'd only been getting Dragon, ACME, and whatever Frank Miller was doing, and didn't think of myself as being "into" comics. That started at A&F, as did thinking of myself as a writer at all--before then I'd been working as a production assistant on films and TV shows, and it was only another chance encounter with an old high school and college friend who worked there that lured me into writing full-time.

As for the job itself, it was a blast. You could expense virtually anything, first of all, so thank you "Uncle Abercrombie" for all the comics you bought me during that period. Secondly, we had almost total creative freedom. When I think of the people I interviewed for that publication, from Clive Barker to Will Eisner to Underworld to Chuck Palahniuk to Phoebe Gloeckner, I still can't believe it. I shall not see its like again. Lousy cultural conservatives spooked the company into shitcanning it, damn their eyes.

What led you to AttentionDeficitDisorderly Too Flat and online criticism??

Well, like I said, I'd been posting on message boards but found that increasingly frustrating and negative. I started up a blogspot blog briefly and worked on that for a few months in 2002, if I recall correctly, but I think one last pang of "oh my God, once I write this stuff here, it's there forever!" panic, coupled with the feeling that I was duplicating the services of other, better pop-culture/political bloggers, led me to delete it and stop. But eventually I was inspired by how much I was enjoying the blogs of Bill Sherman, Jim Treacher, and my friend and soon-to-be Alltooflat.com web host Ken Bromberg to give it another shot.

In the early days comics was a pretty small part of what I was writing about, and in fact I regularly apologized for writing about them at all, because at the time I believe my main audience was friends of my kid sister who thought it was neat I was writing an online diary, essentially. But I soon realized how much fun it was to talk about comics with other people whose opinions I respected, so comics all but took over.

What did you think of the scene at the time?

I had just made it in on the ground floor. I was just telling someone the other day that I'm positive I was one of the first twenty comics bloggers and reasonably sure I was one of the first fifteen, and it's possible I was one of the first dozen.

What was interesting about comics blogs at the time was, because there were so few of them, anyone who posted about comics once in a while was welcomed with open arms. For example, folks like Jim Henley and Eve Tushnet, who were primarily political bloggers, were pillars of the community. It helped that their writing on comics was pretty sharp, of course, but even still. These days big political bloggers post about comics every so often and it doesn't even register; back then they could have toplined Journalista for that day.

Speaking of, Dirk Deppey's Journalista was a huge step forward in the evolution of the comics blogosphere. He sort of centralized the discussion and got us all in touch with each other, and made me realize that there really was a discussion going on in the first place. He's a really key figure, along with NeilAlien, who was the first, and Dave G., who created the automated Comic Weblog Update tracker, and Kevin Melrose and Graeme McMillan, the big "third wave" comics bloggers whose linkblogging established what eventually became the model for pro comicsblogging.

You were at Comic Book Galaxy for a short time. We didn't cross paths then, as I was writing elsewhere. How did you come to be on CBG?

I don't know that I was ever "at" Comic Book Galaxy, actually. I knew Alan from blogging, I think--I know he used to hang at the Journal board, but our time never really overlapped. He also hosted a discussion group or two that I was a part of. If I recall, he asked me if I'd be interested in contributing, and I was.

I do remember you reviewing Eightball #23 before most everyone else, and being pissed. And then ADD reviewed it, and so I was discouraged from reviewing it myself after you two. That doesn't seem to be a question. OK, what else did you write, if you remember, and what led you to leave the site?

Let's see. There was the Eightball #23 review, which Dirk eventually picked up and re-ran in the Journal. There was a thing I did on Invincible, Demo, and Black Hole on spec for some other place that didn't get picked up, but Alan ran it. And looking in the archives now, I did a review of Carnet de Voyage, too. But I think that's about it. It's not that I "left the site" or anything like that, it was just one of many venues I was writing for at the time, from the Journal to my own blog.

You ended up working for Wizard Magazine. I remember being disappointed at that, because you stopped doing comics reviews out of a concern over conflict of interest, I think, and focused more on horror movie reviews and your own zombie prose serial. What did you do for Wizard and what was that whole time like?

I did a bunch of different things for Wizard. I started as a freelancer, but I think I only did one or two assignments before they asked me to come in to interview for a full-time position. I started off in their Special Projects department, working on their various publications that weren't their four monthly magazines--How to Draw softcovers, tribute hardcovers to big-name artists or characters, their quarterly PosterMania pull-out poster mag, a paramilitary trade publication called Special Operations Report. In between I'd pitch in with the occasional assignment for Wizard proper.

Eventually I was moved over to a sort of soft-Managing Editor position at Wizard, where I was responsible for assigning work and scheduling deadlines and so on but didn't work on the budget. I did that for a while, during which time my writing and editorial presence in the mag picked up as well--I was the editor for the "Bookshelf" review section, and the "Secret Stash" indie/alternative comics column.

In 2007, after they'd relaunched the website, I was moved over to be managing editor of that. But I don't think they really knew how to monetize it, so that ended up being one of those "promoted out of a job" situations--I was laid off maybe four months after I took over, although during that time we added something like a million hits a month, so good for me.

That whole time was a pretty good one, on the whole. As I always say whenever anyone asks me about Wizard, I met some of the best people I've ever known there. Never have I worked with so many grade-A individuals, many of whom I'm still friends with today. I didn't necessarily make the industry connections that many folks make there--my responsibilities didn't include the weekly phone calls with creators that a lot of folks there did--but seeing how the sausage gets made was a real education. Recent events involving Wizard and its management offer a glimpse of what working there could be like from time to time.

A couple of reasons that kind of led to me wanting to interview you are that a) we both started reviewing comics around the same time, and b) we both kind of went away from it and came back with, to use the ciiche', a vengeance. You write criticism on your blog and elsewhere, but also news at Robot 6 and some work of a promotional nature for Marvel.com. What drove you to get back into the game in such a widespread fashion?

Well, when I was laid off by Wizard, being able to write about comics again on my own terms was tops on my list of "on the bright side"s. Obviously I'd maintained the blog presence, writing about horror as you mentioned, so it was easy to get back in the swing of things. I was gratified by the response I got from people who either remembered my comics blogging from before Wizard or with whom I kept in touch during that time, and even from some folks who'd gotten into the blog through its horror iteration and liked it enough to stick around for the comics material.

Meanwhile, during my time at Wizard, I was able to write about comics on a freelance basis for mainstream publications like Giant and Stuff--Wizard had no beef with its employees picking up some extra money writing for outlets whose main audience was outside the industry and its devotees. So that was going on all along, and continues to happen, mostly at Maxim.

And by the time I was let go, I'd made plenty of friends and acquaintances not so much on the creative end of comics as on the editorial end. I think that by the time I got home from the office that day, I had an offer from DC to write jacket copy for them. Two of my former Wizard coworkers who'd landed at Marvel got me work doing stuff for Marvel.com on projects I was interested in. I continued to freelance for Wizard and ToyFare. I contribute the occasional interview to The Comics Journal, for which I'd been writing on and off for several years. I covered San Diego for Comic Book Resources a couple years ago. Brian Hibbs asked me to join The Savage Critic(s). Finally, after a stint filling in for a vacationing JK Parkin, the Robot 6 crew made me part of the permanent staff. I'm really enjoying it there.

Some of those gigs pay well enough that I'm happy to do whatever I can for them. Others aren't a lot of money, so I make it a policy to only do assignments I'd want to do even if no money were involved. In all cases it's just fun to write about comics, and if I get paid for it, so much the better!

That seems to be the only attitude one can have if you want to have any longevity and satisfaction doing this. Speaking of the Marvel work, I know you had something to do with Strange Tales but wasn't clear what that was.

I did a couple of things for that project. The main thing was interviewing pretty much everyone involved for Marvel.com. That's a prime example of a freelance gig I'd have done for free, though please don't tell Marvel that. I also wrote the contributor bios for the back of each issue, and the jacket copy for the collected edition. It's a fun project, the end result looked great, and I'm happy to have been involved with it.

Did you come back to comics reviews with a different approach at all?

Definitely. I suppose the main thing--and I can't imagine I've been 100% successful in this regard--is that I try to be a lot less catty and nasty and snarky. It just seems so easy, and like such a waste of time to me at this point. Why spend time finding some dumb superhero book I know going into it I'm not going to like and then show off how superior I am to it, when I could be spending that time digging into something that at least has a chance of being worthwhile? Snark is an easy out for people to write off what you're saying to boot--"Oh, that guy's an asshole, fuck him." People still think I'm an asshole, but ideally it's not because I tapdanced all over some Warren Ellis comic anymore.

Also, beginning in 2008 I started reviewing at a pretty relentless pace: Three reviews a week, every week. (Though I did take a break in early 2009.) That's the best thing I've ever done for myself as a writer and as a critic and as a consumer of comics. Just getting your hands dirty, engaging with comic after comic after comic in specific and concrete terms. It made me realize that what I used to do was something different. It used to be a lot more pontifications and prognostications about Comics, if you will, rather than actually talking about actual comics. (At least on my blog, that is--I was reviewing for the Journal for a lot of that time.) It's nice to have reviews be at least as big a part of what I'm doing as a writer-about-comics as linkblogging or little stories about what I think this or that con or new series means for the industry.

That said, I still love linkblogging, throwing up little updates on what's going on with Clive Barker and Lost and He-Man and serial killers and Lady Gaga and whatever else tickles my fancy. My blog is always gonna be about whatever interests me. A lot of that is comics, and also horror and genre film, but the fact that it can be whatever I want it to be is what makes it fun to do every day. I also assume that by this point, whoever my audience is is my audience for that reason!

I totally agree about the benefits of frequent writing about comics--all sorts of comics. It's also nice being on a group blog because there's a nice sort of pressure to pull your weight and be productive; at least I feel that moreso than when it was just me on my own blog. I'm curious about the disinclination towards snark. Not that you should do anything you don't feel, but doesn't highly intelligent snark, or let's call it no-holds-barred criticism a la Abhay Khosla or Tucker Stone, have its place? Isn't it just as valid, as long as the arguments are reasoned and thought-provoking, no matter how harsh?

It may be valid, it may not be valid. It depends on the piece. What I can tell you is that valid or not, it's not interesting to me, and it's frequently actively annoying. I also think the harshness quickly becomes an end in itself, so in that sense, I grow suspicious of its validity pretty quickly, I guess you could say. I've done it in the past and I reserve the right to do it again, because grown-ups can change their minds about these things, that's part of the fun of being a grown-up, but for now, it is not for me as a critic or a reader of criticism.

I read recently where you clearly disagreed with Steven Grant on disco, of all things, but didn't really get into why.

If it was comics, a medium much younger in its critical evolution, wouldn't it be valuable to the medium to not leave poorly-reasoned arguments alone? One thing I think is missing from the otherwise high-quality criticism online are critics willing to take public issue with each other. If you can do it respectably, doesn't everyone benefit?

I hate to say "it depends on the piece" again, but it really does. In the case of Grant's thing on disco, he phrased his argument in such a way as to disinvite criticism from someone my age--an "if you weren't there, you don't understand" deal--so I'm not about to batter down the doors to take issue with a poorly reasoned argument whose maker seems that uninterested in hearing what I have to say about it. Which leads to a larger point, which is that some arguments are so dopey that no, engaging with them doesn't do anyone any favors. I think comics critics in particular, for some reason, have a weakness for "bomb-throwing" as Douglas Wolk has put it. You write your post about how all autobio/manga/superheroes/whatever are garbage, or how as a matter of fact Chris Ware or Art Spiegelman or Jack Kirby are awful, then sit back and wait for the hits and comments and responses to roll in. If fewer people responded to that kind of nonsense, for example, the state of comics criticism would improve.

That said, I don't think I have much of a problem taking issue with other critics. One thing I wish would happen is that there'd be less of a sense that when you're disagreeing with a critic's argument, you're fighting with that critic on a personal level. I'll admit it can be difficult to separate my ideas from my self sometimes, but usually unless you call me names, I try to keep sight of the fact that it's my ideas or writing you have a problem with, not Mrs. Collins's number-one son.

Reading your reviews, I'm curious--how come you don't seem to review old comic strip collections and the like?

I don't read 'em? I've been collecting the Peanuts volumes because I love Peanuts and at some point I plan on sitting down with those and giving them a real thorough read and review. Ditto Achewood, to use a more recent example. But generally I'm not a big strip guy, and with the older, "classic" strips in particular, I find their narrative sensibility and sense of humor just doesn't speak to me anymore. I can appreciate Krazy Kat, but I don't really enjoy it.

Do you think the quality of comics criticism--online and/or print--is substantially improved from where it was when we started, or five years ago? I read your transcript of the SPX panel of critics, and not only was it lively and sharp, but it was much more interesting than any such panel I've ever attended at SDCC in the years I've been going there.

Totally! It helps to know where to look, though. I'm about to articulate a viewpoint of mine that has come up in all sorts of different discussions, but a couple years of therapy taught me to find the things that make you happy, and go ahead and be happy with them. What that's translated to in blogging terms is that I'm always at a bit of a loss when I read complaints about how the comics blogosphere's not gettin' it done, or the state of criticism is poor, or whatever, because I'm just finding the critics I get something out of and reading them, not dashing myself upon the rocks of the folks who break down their weekly pull list, or hate everything, or love everything, or see criticism as a way to score points, et cetera et cetera. Tom Spurgeon's been reviewing again lately, you've got Joe McCulloch, the Comics Comics crew of Dan Nadel, Frank Santoro, Jeet Heer, and Tim Hodler, on Robot 6 there's Chris Mautner, I think Curt Purcell brings in a valuable outsider perspective when he discusses horror comics, I've always enjoyed the mix of voices on the Savage Critic, Blog Flume is infrequent but usually terrific...I don't want for good criticism.

This is all online, of course. Print, who knows. The last bastion of it, The Comics Journal, is basically kissing print goodbye as a meaningful way of engaging with the medium in a timely fashion. Or in the Journal's case, a remotely timely fashion. We'll see what happens when they move online--frankly, the mix of commentators they're touting for their blogs doesn't fill me with confidence.

Do you find the level of quality invigorating? Does it push you to be better? Do you consider yourself competitive in any way?

I find it invigorating in that it's fun to read good writing. I don't think it "pushes me to be better," no...I mean, in theory you should want to write well anyway, right? Most of the people I just listed are doing different things than what I'm doing, so there's not really a sense that I'm going one-on-one with them in any way. Whether they're great or whether they stink wouldn't really affect my writing either way. Maybe the exception is Spurge--he's the critic I feel I've learned the most from, in terms of a model that emphasizes in concise fashion what comics do and how they work in terms of the reaction they engender in the reader.

But now that I think about it, just as influential in that regard is the writing I did for Wizard! We had two critical outlets, the Bookshelf column in the magazine which reviewed graphic novels and trade paperbacks, and the Thursday Morning Quarterback column online which reviewed the week's floppies. In both cases space was at a premium--well, time more than space, in QB's case--and so you had to get in, say what mattered, and get out. My editor in chief when I started working on those columns, Pat McCallum, had a very, very specific recipe for what needed to go into each review. You needed to briefly summarize the plot, so that people had some idea what you were talking about. You needed to say something about both art and writing, and you needed to cite specific examples of whatever you said about them so that you weren't just asserting things without back-up. You couldn't just say "this sucks" or attack the creators--you had to keep everything engaged in the work at hand. And in Bookshelf's case, you had to do this in under 150 words. Once I discovered I could do that book after book, frequently with books I was amazed I had that much to say about, I realized I could certainly do this on my own.

Back to your questions--I definitely don't consider myself competitive. For one thing, like I said, I think most of the better reviewers are all doing different things, so competitiveness doesn't enter into it. In terms of hits, I've said this a million times, but for a very long time I couldn't properly track my site stats even if I wanted to, so I never really had any idea who was coming to my site from where and how many of them there were. After hearing myself say this during the Critics Roundtable panel at SPX, I decided I'd figure out how to use Google Analytics--due to my site's architecture it's not as easy as you'd think--and I did so, but found I still don't care at all. The times I've tried tracking my hits, I've mostly used it as a way to find cool blogs, since you can discover who's linking to you. I've certainly never considered blogging a certain way in order to attract hits and become a bigger deal versus other blogs.

Pat McCallum seems to have had guidelines quite similar to ones ADD and I set down for Comic Book Galaxy. Do you believe that having restrictions in place are more often helpful or harmful to art? I know you're a big defender of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which always seemed to me to have suffered from any sort of editorial guidance.

Broken-record time: Depends on the art in question! Maybe a firmer editorial hand would have steered Miller away from doing two key action sequences in flashback, which would have made it a better book, but it also could have told Lynn Varley to tone it down or told Miller to do more crosshatching, which would have made it a worse book. Not surprisingly, I see the need for editorial guidance more in the work by lesser-experienced cartoonists I've read lately. But as a guy who's been blogging on his own since 2002 or so, I'm not about to go out there and campaign in favor of editors.

Speaking of that recent piece of yours about TDKSA, music clearly plays a large role in your life. When I read the piece, and it could be that I like the music you like while not liking Miller's book, but it got me thinking about the connections critics sometimes make to other works, and how it can almost be arbitrary. Like, if you were more into Johnny Cash or Wu-Tang Clan or Stockhausen, you could probably make connections from any of them back to Miller's book or whatever you wanted to, and it could be just as valid or invalid.

Oh, I agree completely that it can be arbitrary sometimes. Just a week or two before I wrote that piece, I was complaining to someone about the pieces you'll read here and there along the lines of "This issue of Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers: Klarion the Witch-Boy is exactly like my favorite Sleater-Kinney album!!!" Now, art is not made in a vacuum, and even when direct influences aren't in play, resonances can be--people can tap into similar ideas or make similar decisions. It's as valuable for critics to be aware of what's going on in multiple disciplines as it is for artists themselves, and I think making connections you can make between disciplines is a perfectly valid approach. That said, making connections between anything and everything is as useless, critically, as making no connections at all.

That's why I made the specific points I made in that review--connecting The Dark Knight Strikes Again to glitchy, glowy music and visual art--and no more. To use your counterexamples, I happen to love Johnny Cash, and the Wu-Tang Clan is one of my all-time favorite bands--I'm certainly more into the Wu than I am into any of the bands I mentioned in that piece. So maybe that's my defense right there: I made a relevant comparison rather than forcing one where it didn't exist. There really isn't any kind of similarity between the RZA's production and Miller & Varley's art in that book, and I'd contest the notion that what I'm doing in making the different comparison I made is so formless and protean that I could have done it with any old music.

Moreover I didn't try to make the comparison complete--you didn't see word one about how Superman and Wonder Woman destroying a mountain while fucking or the bloody vengeance of the Hawkchildren had anything to do with the Washed Out Life of Leisure EP. Similarly, I've compared comics to music many times in the past: How Ghostface Killah's Iron Man-inspired oeuvre, particularly Supreme Clientele, could be an inspiration for Iron Man comics, or how metal like Slayer's "Raining Blood" and Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song" could be an inspiration for Thor comics, or that extended riff on the "Superman sings Darkseid to death" thing from Final Crisis that Shaggy Erwin and I did where I took scenes from Final Crisis and All Star Superman and captioned them with the lyrics to the Animal Collective song "My Girls." But in all those cases the comparison was limited, to tone in the first two cases, and to some lyrical resonances in the third case. I'm not going to make an argument that FC has a lot to do with Merriweather Post Pavilion, because it doesn't. Doug Mahnke does not equal Panda Bear.

And not that I'm making an argument to authority or anything, but several music critics I respect got a lot out of that DKSA post, which made me very happy. Long story short, I strongly disagree that any old musical comparison would be just as valid or invalid.

No offense meant. I just meant that everyone brings their own influences and background to a work of art and there could be someone else making just as valid connection between the book and a totally different kind of music.

If music and films are such an influence on you as they seem to be, have you ever considered completely flipping the script and immersing yourself in different music and different films than you're used to, to see if new thoughts and connections might start appearing in your writing?

Well, musically I'm pretty eclectic in my tastes. I mean, neither my time nor my taste is infinite, so I prioritize and I like some things a lot more than others, but there's nothing I just write off and wouldn't give a chance to. Obviously you can't listen to everything, but I listen to an awful lot. So I don't know if that would change anything.

Film, on the other hand...I've given a lot of thought to the fact that over the course of this decade, the vast majority of the films I've really engaged with have been, to one extent or the other, genre films. Even if they're indie or arthouse genre films, they're still genre films. Meanwhile, if you were to look at my CD shelves or check the sidebar of my blog for the comics reviews I've done, they're all over the map. Whereas if you go back to the late '90s when I was in college, I'm sure genre was still what fired me up the most--my senior screenplay was a horror screenplay, more or less--but I was watching and thinking about and writing about all kinds of films.

So I've thought a lot about that, and what changed. I think it's a combination of factors. My immersion in comics, and also music, has shifted my priorities for other media, so I follow very few TV shows and don't see as many movies and barely read any prose books, God help me. A big part of that is that I'm a married man with a wife who has her own taste that doesn't always overlap with mine, plus I have a day job and a commute, plus I do a ton of freelance writing and writing for fun, all of which limits the amount of time I have to read and watch stuff. Then there's that therapeutic breakthrough I mentioned earlier--shepherded along by the writings of Bruce Baugh, I should mention--and so when it comes to places I find enjoyment, my attitude, to quote Primal Scream, is "Don't Fight It, Feel It." Perhaps also my taste has been refined with time so I'm focusing more clearly on the stuff that interests and excites me.

I'm sure if I started tagging along with my blog-friends Jon Hastings or Jason Adams to the many, many, many movies they go to in the city every month, I'd be seeing more and different films, so of course I'd be making more and different connections. But again, "more and different" doesn't mean that every connection is equally valid or invalid. They rise and fall on the strength of the individual argument.

Art by Matt Rota from "It Brought Me Some Peace of Mind" by Sean T. Collins & Matt Rota.

Many thanks to Sean for his time and insight. I sincerely got a lot out of it, and hope you did, too.

Labels: , ,