I've been dying to interview Todd DePastino since the publication of his Bill Mauldin biography Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front and Fantagraphics' release -- with the writer's involvement -- of the complete wartime Willie and Joe cartoons in Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. I think Bill Mauldin, while a deeply flawed man, was not just an important figure in comics and 20th Century American history, but about as good a role model as there's ever been for a cartoonist -- a role-model for an artist of any kind, really. Mauldin valued his craft, he told the truth as he saw it, and he aimed that truth against those that exploited the common good -- no matter what it cost him.
This year's publication of Willie & Joe: Back Home details Mauldin's astonishing post-World War II run as a nationally syndicated cartoonist. As DePastino describes, Mauldin suffered greatly the effects of the War. This made the young, legitimately famous cartoonist even more sensitive than usual to the various injustices and acts of political acting out that riddled U.S. society in a time of long-awaited peace and relative prosperity. Mauldin refused to be silent about what he felt was happening all around him, despite everything to gain by making a comic strip more in tune with the ebullient parts of the national mood. The overall effect is watching someone slowly set himself on fire. It's one of my three favorite comics-related books from 2011, and, I think, one of the year's best. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Todd, I don't know the exact provenance of the Bill Maudlin work you've been doing, and it doesn't all the way connect with the other writing you've done. Do you have a personal history with Mauldin? What was your entry point into Maudlin in his life -- was he a cultural figure for you, a cartoonist, a celebrity, a veteran for you first and foremost?
TODD DePASTINO: I had only the dimmest awareness of Bill Mauldin until about a year before I started writing his biography. Someone mentioned his work to me as I was working on my first book on the history of homelessness (Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America). That book focused on the huge counterculture of homeless men (tramps and hoboes) that thrived in this country between the end of the Civil War and World War II. Government officials and social workers wrung their hands over this counterculture because hoboes were non-domestic men who seemed to live without the nurturing presence of women and families. During WWII, I discovered, those same officials began worrying that GIs going into the army would become non-domestic like hoboes. Bill Mauldin's Willie and Joe were as non-domestic as could be, and they illustrated perfectly the connections between the hobo jungle and the GI bivouac of WWII. In fact, I saw that Mauldin pretty much copied the ubiquitous "Weary Willie" of the funny papers and put him in olive drab. So, I came to Mauldin as a scholar of American cultural history, not a WWII buff or comics aficionado or a fan. My interest in Mauldin was strictly business. Nothing personal.
Then, I read Mauldin's Up Front. I borrowed an old yellowed copy from 1945. I was stunned by what I saw: edgy cartoons, rendered in exquisite detail. The humor was fresh and the draftsmanship rough-hewn in a way that you could almost feel the mud sucking at the soles of the characters' boots. Mauldin's work revealed a whole side to World War II with which I hadn't been familiar: the everyday lives of army infantry combat soldiers, not men who had volunteered for elite units -- the paratroopers, Marines, flyboys, and the like -- but the drafted warriors from hard-scrabble backgrounds with no enthusiasm for the fight, nor reverence for authority.
I tried to find some scholarly study -- or any study -- of Mauldin and came up with virtually nothing but passing mentions of him in histories of WWII. Why hadn't anyone really studied him? These WWII cartoons seemed to me to represent some of the most important popular art of 20th Century America. It was a nice discovery, untilled soil, and I thought I would write a scholarly article about Mauldin's wartime work and career. But the more I learned about Mauldin -- his adventurous and charismatic life, his mercurial character and tendency to crash and burn before rising again from the ashes -- the more fascinated I became with him. He deserved his own full-scale biography. I felt it important to get his story out and to satisfy my own fascination and curiosity. That decision to write Mauldin's biography changed my life in ways I never could have imagined.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about entering into your work with Mauldin from the standpoint of a writer preparing to do a biography? I know that for a lot of writers, doing a biography depends on there being some sort of angle not explore, or resource untapped, or someone willing to speak that wasn't before. What was your expectation going in in terms of what you could add to the broader understanding of the man and his times? How challenging was the archival work you had to do in order to write about Mauldin? What was the shape and status of what existed out there with his name on it?
DePASTINO: I had a relatively easy time of it as a biographer. It was a first biography, so I wasn't competing against an established interpretation. There were ample archival sources in the Library of Congress and elsewhere. The family was extremely cooperative and helpful. And I had a set of fascinating questions, beginning with these two: what drove Mauldin and his work and why did they fade into relative obscurity in the decades after WWII? Those questions inspired the early stages of my research especially.
Having said that, there were challenges. Mauldin wrote about himself a lot, but he didn't address his demons. They needed to be teased out of the material. A biographer requires an intimate understanding of the subject, but the subject always resists it. I had a recurring dream while I was working on the book. I'd be sitting in a room with Bill -- always a 1950s Bill Mauldin -- asking him questions. He'd smoke a cigarette and say nothing. And he always had a smirk on his face. He enjoyed seeing me struggle to understand him. In the end, who can define a life? You can only render it as faithfully as you can.
SPURGEON: Do you think you've succeeded in altering the perception that people have of the man? Despite the lack of a quality biography, he's not exactly an unknown figure. Is there something you hope more than others that people take away in terms of what he's about, what he accomplished?
DePASTINO: Mauldin had a 50-year career, but he'll always be remembered his WWII cartoons. Those cartoons changed the way we viewed war and the men who fight it. They utterly transformed what historian Andrew J. Huebner calls the "Warrior Image" in America. That image involves a certain nobility, but also a touch of victimhood. Willie and Joe are victims of brutalizing forces beyond their control, yet they endure with dignity and humor. The reason the War Department allowed this new image was because the old romantic image of brave warriors eagerly inviting combat had become untenable in the pulverizing and dehumanizing warfare of the era. Americans had a barely articulated yearning for some flash of truth, some public acknowledgement of the searing horrors of modern warfare. Mauldin gave them that flash with a redemptive touch of Willie and Joe's enduring humanity. He gave Americans what John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie gave them in the Great Depression: a redemptive national story about characters surviving in an unforgiving environment.
I would also urge readers to appreciate Mauldin's brilliant postwar cartoons, especially those he did between 1945-1948. One critic of my biography said that Mauldin's only great work was his wartime stuff, and therefore only two-thirds of my book is really worthwhile. Mauldin's immediate postwar work is to me just as compelling. This work -- captured in the recent Willie & Joe: Back Home, which I edited -- is full of that film noir and film gris sense of isolation and confusion, betrayal and disillusion.
Going through Mauldin's cartoons from June 1945 to January 1949 (when he retired -- for the first time -- from cartooning) is like watching a wonderful film noir serial with a hero (the older and wiser Willie appears more often than Joe after the war) who stands in the shadows, not knowing whom to trust, longing for understanding and sympathy. These cartoons reflect Mauldin's own postwar frustrations and troubles, his disillusionment and vulnerability. They also trace the nation's descent from the idealism brought about by Victory to the fear and paranoia of an emerging Cold War. World War II had radicalized Mauldin, thrusting him into the struggle to raise a better world out of the catastrophe to which he had been witness. He campaigned for civil rights especially. But these efforts only brought him grief. His syndicate censored his cartoons, and the FBI started investigating him, even trailing him on some of his trips to military bases. His growing paranoia was in many ways well-founded, and the drama of his life -- his divorce, his fall from popularity -- is all captured in the wonderful body of work he did before his first retirement.
SPURGEON: Do you have any perception of what the audience has been for the work you've been doing with Mauldin? He was a well-known figure to a lot of people of my father's generation, and of course to those that fought in World War 2. I don't know that the same folks that bought Mauldin's books are buying this one, just from the viewpoint that I'm not sure there are as many of those folks left around. What do you think a younger reader takes away from learning about Mauldin?
DePASTINO: The audience for my Mauldin biography skews older, for sure. My agent got a dozen rejections from young editors, which all said the same thing: "What a fascinating life and work. But I've never heard of Mauldin, and our readers won't have heard of him either. We'll pass." Finally, we found an editor in his 70s at W.W. Norton who all but exclaimed, "I can't believe there hasn't been a bio of this guy."
The morning my book came out -- that very morning -- I got a call from a man named Sol Gross. He was a GI in WWII who'd been captured during the Battle of the Bulge. He called to thank me for writing the book. He hadn't read it yet, but he was calling me to thank me. As he was thanking me, he began sobbing. His wife took the phone. Mrs. Gross told me that after arriving at Stalag 7B, Sol watched as German guards began selecting Jewish-American prisoners for transport to Berga, a subcamp of Buchenwald. Sol quaked as a nasty-looking guard approached him and roughly pulled out his dogtags, which had an "H" stamped on them for "Hebrew." The German lifted the tags over Sol's head and replaced them with those of a GI who had died in Sol's barracks the night before. The guard left without saying a word. Sol looked down at the new tags inscribed with the dead man's name and, at the bottom right, a "P" for Protestant. He never saw that guard again.
I would go out and give book talks. Most of the people who showed were WWII veterans. They'd bring their scrapbooks and tell me their stories. They were the real Willies and Joes. They would shake my hand and tell me how much Mauldin meant to them and thank me for writing the book. One man shook with his left hand because he had no right arm. It had been blown off at Anzio.
I can't tell you how transforming this experience was for me. Before writing the biography, I hadn't really understood what military service, much less combat, was all about. I knew intellectually that combat was scary and life-threatening. But I didn't really understand just how brutalizing, degrading, humiliating, terrifying, and dehumanizing it was. I'm ashamed to say I didn't appreciate what these men really went through at such a young age and then somehow lived the rest of their lives with that trauma.
I eventually quit academia and started a non-profit called the Veterans Breakfast Club which creates public forums for veterans to share their stories of service with the public. Our storytelling breakfast last week drew 200 people, and we heard from World War II, Vietnam, and Afghanistan veterans. I want non-veterans like me to understand what it means to live through that trauma and endure the rest of life with the kind of dignity and nobility that Willie and Joe embodied. Mauldin really got it right. I'm reminded of that daily with the men and women of the Veterans Breakfast Club. Here's a recent article I wrote about the Veterans Breakfast Club.
SPURGEON: Todd, I'd like to talk a bit more about those late 1940s cartoons, because I was blown away by how smart and cynical and insightful they were. I was also struck by the self-immolation that was going on, that fact that he was taking a sledgehammer to the kneecap of a potentially lucrative career. How much do you think what Mauldin was doing was coming from a position of absolute clarity and how much do you think what he was doing was an emotional response from all that he saw that distressed him? Is it even possible to separate those things?
DePASTINO: I've always seen Mauldin's late 1940s cartoons as masterpieces on the level of his World War II work. One might even make the argument that they're more impressive in some ways because they cover such a wide swath of events and experiences, whereas the World War II work focuses on the infantry's frontlines.
When I look at these cartoons, I think of literary critic Dominic LaCapra's claim that some books are good to think about and a very few are good to think with. Mauldin's postwar cartoons are good to think with. They not only provide a window to the times, like, say, good photographs or reporting might, but they also raise fundamental questions and issues that are with us still. How much privacy should we give up in exchange for security? What does democracy really mean in a society riddled with inequality? Can we really claim to be free if we shut our golden door to immigrants? Is it justified to support a dictator abroad if it furthers our national interests? These are just some of the questions that Mauldin raised time and again between 1945-1948. His cartoons operated on a level that no one else's did, with the possible exception of Herblock.
As for whether Mauldin was given some kind of clarity at age 23 or simply reacted emotionally to the world around him, I'm fairly certain these two qualities weren't mutually exclusive in his case. Mauldin was an emotional thinker. He had strong and clear opinions, but even when he was uncertain about his position on an issue, he could lay out the opposing sides in such a way as to clarify the debate and bring it back to the real stakes.
There are two things about Mauldin in 1945-1946 that few people know and should be remembered. First, World War II was traumatizing for him. He saw a lot of combat. He saw a lot of fine young men killed and whole towns and cities leveled. He came home unsure if the catastrophe was worth it, was justifiable. But he didn't have any time off. He kept on cartooning even as he was dealing with his readjustment to civilian life. The second thing to keep in mind was his brief flirtation with the Left. He spoke out in several venues and for several causes, like Civil Rights, where the leading activists involved were Communists. This was a formative experience for him, and it brought him a lot of grief from his editors and readers.
SPURGEON: Some of Mauldin's fans and peers had to figure out what he was doing, even if they thought what he was doing was wrongheaded. Newspaper cartoonists can be very small-c conservative in terms of how other cartoonists treat their business. Do you have any sense of what the reaction was to what Mauldin did in that late '40s run? Did he have other cartoonist friends?
DePASTINO: This is a wonderful question, Tom, and I wish I could answer it, but I just don't know enough about what other cartoonists thought about his work in 1945-1946 to answer it.
SPURGEON: How easy was it to find those comics? You ran some of the comics that looked like they had been worked on.
DePASTINO: It wasn't easy to find all the comics. Mauldin collected some of them for his 1947 book Back Home, and the book contains good copies of those. Others came from the original drawings in the Library of Congress's Print and Photographs Division. I know Gary Groth at Fantagraphics somehow got his hands on United Features coated-stock proofs for many of the cartoons. A handful of others had to come from microfilm copies of newspapers. Microfilm was intended to preserve the words, not the images, so there's often a deterioration of quality when you grab images from microfilm. But I'm astounded that Fantagraphics was able to reproduce the cartoons as beautifully as they did.
SPURGEON: You mentioned his retirement. How serious was the congressional campaign? When I was doing his obituary for The Comics Journal, I remember thinking that there was a bit of bluster to how he approached that run at office, like he wanted to convey this confident personality, but I have no idea what he wanted to do.
DePASTINO: Mauldin retired from daily cartooning in April 1948 (a tumultuous period we'll cover in the next volume), and one of the things he did during this 10-year leave from cartooning was run for Congress in 1956. It's tempting during this year of vanity campaigns to think that Mauldin was somehow trying to remain relevant or make a statement by running for Congress as a Democrat in Rockland County, NY. There was certainly some of this, but Mauldin really had only one speed: full throttle. He ran hard against a formidable candidate and wanted very much to win. By this time, he was a Truman Democrat advocating a strong national defense, support for small farmers and businesses, and a Fair Deal for labor. He had a platform and gave somewhat wonky speeches on policy. He was no newcomer to politics and had campaigned hard for Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and had served as head of the Americans Veterans Committee. He knew what he was doing. But he ran in a very conservative Republican district that hadn't elected a Democrat since 1936.
His opponent, Katharine St. George, was Franklin Roosevelt's cousin on his mother's conservative Delano side. She got hold of Mauldin's raw FBI file, which had grown during the late 1940s, and used the information in it to smear him as a Communist sympathizer. Mauldin's campaign never recovered from that, and he lost by a fair margin, though scored better than any Democrat had in 20 years. He learned a lot during that campaign about politics and himself. One big lesson, he said, was learning that politicians lie to get elected. He himself had told small farmers that he would help them if he were elected, even though he knew there was really nothing a Congressman could do to ease their plight. "I don't trust any of them," he said of politicians afterwards, "but I can't bring myself to hate them either."
SPURGEON: How happy was he at the Sun-Times? I've talked to a couple of people that worked with him, and what they remember mostly is that he was very devoted and very much a drinker. Was there something about 1960s Chicago and its Daley Family hegemony that was conducive to what he wanted to do in the way post-War America wasn't, or had he changed by then?
DePASTINO: Mauldin changed mightily several times in his career. When he arrived at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1962, he was still a Cold War liberal in the vain of his 1956 campaign. His cartoons were very smart, incisive, and witty, but they didn't have the counter-cultural punch that his earlier and later work would have. Marshall Field gave Mauldin great latitude at the Sun-Times. He wasn't edited or given boundaries like he had been at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he warmed to his newfound freedom. He did his best work, as his son recently told me, when he was surrounded by smart, interesting people. He wasn't an intellectual. He couldn't create elaborate and fascinating work in solitude (something he had tried to do during his 10-year hiatus from cartooning). he needed to be out in the mix, on the streets, up front, participating in events and receiving stimuli from outside in order to create. He worked best on a regular schedule, every day at the drawing board and out covering stories, keeping himself at the top of his game. He had to be completely devoted or the well went dry. He was a very high-functioning alcoholic so long as he was surrounded by stimulating people and events.
Mauldin changed utterly in 1968 after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. I don't know if he took on Daley a whole lot before 1968 -- I'll have to go back and check -- but Daley became one of his favorite targets afterward. Mauldin dropped his Cold War liberal attitudes and embraced the counter-culture. He grew long hair and a beard, the whole bit. It really seemed to free him up to be more outspoken in his work. Few men his age found such freedoms in the counter-culture as Mauldin.
SPURGEON: I know that Bill Mauldin's meaning to veterans has been pretty well established. What do you think he has to say to cartoonists? As a writer yourself, what do you take away from his professional example?
DePASTINO: Mauldin talked a lot about what went into a perfect cartoon. A perfect cartoon doesn't need words. It doesn't need stock symbols. It hits you where you live -- in the gut -- sparks a reaction and leaves a mark. Like so many 20th century artists, Mauldin adhered to architect Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" ideal. Make your point, achieve your effect as simply as possible. This isn't just a parlor trick to see how crafty you can be. It's also a way of compelling your audience to do some work, to fill in the space with their imagination and judgment, and to focus on the simple truths. It's a way of engaging your audience with the moment. Think of Mauldin's cavalry sergeant shooting the jeep, or his grieving Lincoln Memorial, drawn on November 22, 1963, or Willie and Joe in an apocalyptic landscape out of which grows a single flower on a shattered tree limb. Willie beholds the flower and says, "Spring is here!" What an expression of hope, a recognition of beauty amidst the carnage. So simple, yet so profound and eternal. It makes one realize the beauty and depth of experience that is all around us, if only we would take the time to notice it, to breath it in. The most important truths are simple ones. Mauldin's best cartoons, and our own best work, whatever the field, reminds us of that.
* cover to the new collection of Bill Mauldin's post-WWII cartoons
* cover to DePastino's biography of Mauldin
* three of the astonishingly sour but brilliant cartoons in the new collection
* a photo by me of a Mauldin original mocking Mayor Daley
* a kick-ass cartoon from the post-War period; my goodness (below)
I've known Chris Mautner for several years now. We shared a comics shop for a couple of years before I headed out to Seattle to edit The Comics Journal: Joe Miller's The Comic Store, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. If I remember correctly, at the time Mautner had applied for the News Editor job. He wrote for me on the criticism side of things instead.
Mautner has grown immensely as a writer since, both in comics -- he's a stalwart at Robot 6 and the on-line iteration of TCJ -- and outside of comics, where he's settled comfortably into a staff position at a major Pennsylvania newspaper. I actually contacted Chris looking for someone to do the mainstream comics interview for this year's series, but he pointed out that other than the New 52 coverage he did he really wasn't reading those comics. I'm happy that he agreed to switch over to this year's overview of alternative and art comics. I think he's an ideal reader for those books. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Chris, I don't know that much about your reading history, particularly when it comes to non-mainstream comics. You told me that what we call alt- and art-comics make up the majority of your reading now. Has that always been the case? How did your reading develop in that direction? What are some of the titles that were important to you along the way?
CHRIS MAUTNER: You know, I can't remember a time in my life when I wasn't reading comics of one kind or another. Maybe six months when I was in sixth grade, but that's about it. I pretty much learned to read via the Sunday funnies, especially Peanuts. The thing is, I was always a very catholic reader and never really distinguished between different genres or styles of comics. I devoured collections of the New Yorker cartoons with as much enthusiasm as I did Superman Family or Amazing Spider-Man or the coffee-table sized book of Dick Tracy strips at my local library. If it involved comics or cartoons, I was interested in it.
As a result, when Maus came out in 1986, and the Read Yourself Raw collection in 1987, I took an immediate interest in both books. That was probably my first exposure to the alt-comics world, though I may have read about R. Crumb or other artists via books like Maurice Horn's oversize encyclopedia. I remember being wowed by both books, especially Maus. I even wrote a paper on it and Watchmen in high school, my own version of those "Pow! Zap! Comics aren't for kids" type stories that were everywhere back then.
It wasn't until I was out of college, living on my own and attempting with a friend to publish a comics anthology that I started tracking down authors I had heard about and seen in the comics shop but had avoided for one lame reason or another -- people like the HernandezBrothers, Chester Brown, Jim Woodring and Peter Bagge. Books like Poison River and I Never Liked You gobsmacked me. I already knew that comics were an art form unto themselves, capable of creating profoundly affecting work. I just wasn't aware how much good stuff was already out there being made. I was stunned by the true breadth of material being produced. The Comics Journal was a big help in this instance. I had picked up a copy at my local Borders (the Neil Gaiman issue) because I thought if I was going to try to publish my own comics I needed to know more about the industry. If nothing else, TCJ convinced me that I had no business making comics. So the comics-reading world owes you a debt of gratitude in that regard, Tom.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I think Scott Nybakken gets credit for that one. Hey, one thing about which I was potentially curious is that you're at the age where you might have read a lot of what we sometimes call indy-comics, comics that are mostly genre comics but originate outside of the Big Two. There are still some of those comics left -- like RASL, and Casanova -- but do you think I'm right in my hunch that that's not as vital a category as it was 15 years ago? Why do you think that is?
MAUTNER: Well, that depends on what you mean by the word "vital," if I can get all Bill Clinton-y on you. I think you're right in that indy comics, or what we traditionally think of as indy comics, are not as predominant or as powerful a critical or marketing force as they were in the days of Fish Police and Boris the Bear (or later Bone and Too Much Coffee Man). Those books, even the most seemingly innocuous and slight, had a slight political aspect to them simply due to the fact that they were published by folks other than DC and Marvel. They, especially the self-published, hardscrabble titles, had a "rebelling against the status quo" aura to them that held a lot of appeal for readers looking for comics that were outside the norm, but not too different from the norm. That might have helped them garner more notice than perhaps some of them deserved. They don't have that sort of cheat anymore and I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's the result of fallout from the distributor wars? I dunno. Or maybe it's just that the signal to noise ratio is so high right now it's harder for non-superhero genre comics to get noticed.
On the other hand, Hellboy and BPRD are still really popular. Chew is one of the bigger success stories in comics lately. People still really like Walking Dead and Invincible. Orc Stain was pretty heavily acclaimed. Dark Horse, Oni and Image don't seem to be in danger of not being able to pay their light bill, at least from my meager vantage point. I don't see as much diversity in these types of books -- they all seem to be horror or sci-fi/fantasy based and many rely on a clever hook of some kind which is useful for making a 30-second movie pitch. But a cursory glance seems to suggest there's still a steady and loyal audience for these kinds of genre comics -- titles that exist somewhere on the line between the mainstream superhero fare and Color Engineering.
SPURGEON: I know that you're also one of the critics that currently has a family with younger -- not all the way young anymore -- children. Has that changed your orientation towards comics at all? Has seeing the comics through your kids' eyes, or maybe their lack of interest in them, altered at all the way you approach the form?
MAUTNER: That's an excellent question, because I've had both positive and negative comics experiences with my kids. My daughter Veronica, who is currently 10, is nuts about comics. She learned how to read by absconding with my copies of Little Lulu. She's devoured Asterix, Tintin, Bone (her favorite), Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Raina Telgemeier's Smile and most of First Second's all-ages line. She spends hours on the weekend making her own multi-chapter, epic comics and while she rarely finishes them, she blows me away with her command of visual storytelling. Obviously because I'm her dad I think anything she does is great, but I'm seriously in awe of her ability. She seems to understand the medium in an instinctive way I never did at her age. I'll have to show you some copies of her work if we get to meet up in Brooklyn.
My son, Liam, who's eight, on the other hand, couldn't care less about comics. He has repeatedly declared all comics to be "stupid." I think this is in part a reaction to his sister's love for the medium -- a way for him to differentiate himself from her. I also suspect he might have come across a panel or story that scared him at a young age and he's reluctant to dip his toe back in the water. Also, he's very stubborn and hates having anything foisted upon him, or even suggested to him. I've tried to think of ways around that -- books I could read with him or gently nudge in his direction. I know there's titles he'd love if he'd give them half a chance, but ultimately I'm not sure it's worth the battle.
I don't know if being a parent has changed my general attitude towards comics that much. I do have more of an appreciation for what makes a good children's or all-ages book as opposed to a lot of the treacly nonsense that's foisted on kids these days or (worse) the crass commercial spin-offs of material from other media. Before being a parent, I tended to critique a book solely on my own personal criteria -- i.e. what pleased me. Now I also find myself asking as I read if the book in question -- especially if it's designed for an all-ages audience -- has a broader appeal for children, probably because I'm always on the hunt for good books to pass on to Veronica.
On a practical level, having kids has made me even more acutely aware of the vulgar excesses found in most mainstream comics these days. My wife has frequently gotten mad at me for leaving certain comics that have excessively violent or sexually suggestive covers, usually from DC or Marvel, lying on a table or next to my bed. Frequently Veronica will come up to me while I'm reading, say, an issue of Batgirl or Justice League and ask if it's OK if she reads it, too, and it pisses me off to no end that I have to say sorry, no. It seems ridiculous that I can't share a simple superhero comic with her featuring characters that appear on the Cartoon Network, but I don't think I would be doing my job as a parent if I did. Why do I have to hide Detective Comics from a 10-year-old?
I think I got a little off-topic there.
SPURGEON: That's okay. Can you talk a bit more about your current consumption of alt-comics? How many comics are you seeing, and where do you get them? For instance, how much of your consumption is due to freebies or being able to go to shows. How much of your consumption is handmade comics given that you live in the not-exactly-a-hotbed part of Central Pennsylvania?
MAUTNER: My budget is really, really tight these days, so most of the comics I get are either review copies or bought at shows like SPX or MoCCA, where I'm allowed to go a little crazy with my cash. The rest of my comics -- let's say about 1/4 -- are bought via Amazon or my local comics store. Most of the serial comics I'm still reading -- Casanova, The Boys -- I buy at a very small (and I mean very small) comics store that's located in my town. More and more, though, I find myself buying comics online, largely because of the discounts I can find through sites like Amazon. I frequently feel bad that I'm abandoning giving the brick and mortar stores in my area the cold shoulder, but like I said, money's tight.
As far as mini-comics or handmade comics go, you're right, I usually have to venture outside the central PA area to get them. (For some reason I rarely order them online. Am I allergic to PayPal?) Most of the shops -- and there are actually a surprisingly large number of comic shops in my area considering where I live -- are relatively indie-friendly -- especially The Comic Store in Lancaster and Comix Connection in Camp Hill. But while they'll carry most Fanta/D&Q/Top Shelf/etc. books, mini-comics are a line they rarely cross. As a result, that's probably one of the (many) areas of comics I'm not as up on as I should be. I should note, however, that I have regularly picked up copies of Mineshaft at Comix Connection, and they also carry back issues of Chuck Forsman's Snake Oil, but that's mainly because he's from the area.
SPURGEON: I get to ask this every year there's an Optic Nerve. Do you miss the serial comic book? Are there talents out there that you encounter, or work that you encounter, that you wish was available to you in that form? With something like Retrofit extolling the unique virtues of that format, do you think there will ever be a revival?
MAUTNER: Do I miss the serial comic book? Honestly, not that much. Since I'm on a tight budget, I'm actually grateful that I don't have an excuse to go to the comic shop on a more regular basis. While I like the pamphlet format and think it has its benefits, I'm not wedded to it aesthetically. And there have been enough good comics coming out in recent years to keep me from mourning its passing too much. I'm happy to consume my favorite artists' work in whatever format they think best suits their material and keep them out of the ramen aisle of the supermarket. I don't really care if Dan Clowes ever produces another issue of Eightball again, so long as he keeps making comics.
That said, I do worry that many young cartoonists are pushing themselves straight into big-ass graphic novels (perhaps because they don't see another way of reaching an audience), before they've had the chance to develop their chops a little. There have been a number of ambitious books out in recent years that would have been great if the creators weren't so obviously unseasoned. Having a regular series -- even if it only comes out yearly -- can give you the chance to really hone your craft. I'd also like to see more creators trying their hands at short, concise stories.
I actually think we're beginning to see the start of a pamphlet revival. Not only did 2011 herald the release of a new Optic Nerve (which, it should be noted, featured two stand-alone stories rather than the beginning of another ongoing storyline), there's also the second issue of Ethan Rilly's Pope Hats, which was quite fabulous. More to the point, publishers like Koyama Press, Pigeon Press (assuming they're still around) and the aforementioned Retrofit seemed wowed by the pamphlet format and have been releasing stellar work by folks like Michael DeForge and Lisa Hanawalt. DeForge in particular is someone who bears watch, not only because he's such an amazing talent, but because he's someone who's garnered acclaim and attention simply by regularly publishing work in a pamphlet format, like they did back when you and I were kids.
SPURGEON: That's a great jumping-off point. If revival of the alternative pamphlet is one story for the year 2011, what are the others? Let me suggest two. When I asked you to list a certain number of alt-comics, you couldn't get anywhere near that number, you gave me a whole lot more. Is this an unprecedented period for very good comics of the non-mainstream variety? Why so many pretty good comics right now? And how many of them are actually great?
MAUTNER: Again, it depends upon what you mean by "unprecedented." I think we've been seeing excellent or at least above-average comics coming out on a consistent basis over the past decade or so. It's gotten so that while I haven't grown blase, I think I'd be more surprised by a year in which there were a paltry number of notable books than a plethora. We seem to continue to be in a growth period, at least aesthetically if not financially.
Looking in the long-view mirror, that certainly is different from how things have traditionally been. The only comparable periods might be the golden age of the comic strip in the 1920-1940s and the underground comix era of the late 1960s (though there was a lot of schlock produced in those times too). I'm not sure what why we're currently blessed with such riches. Certainly no one is getting rich off these comics. Many aren't making any money at all. While I'm no fan of the Team Comics "let's all be supportive of each other no matter what" mentality, It doesn't seem completely ridiculous to suggest there's something about the camaraderie of the small press community (found at shows like SPX for example) that creators may find encouraging and invigorating enough to continue plugging away and pushing themselves to make better comics.
The Internet has helped tremendously in this regard in that you no longer have to rely on your local comics shop or wait until the next big indie convention to get your hands on these comics. True, you had mail order back then, but it was still harder to find out about these comics and purchase them than it is now.
As to how many of these books are actually great, well, I think a lot of truly great work came out this year, but obviously certain books hold up better over time than others and changing cultures and just getting older can alter one's perception. Pope Hats and Lose #3 knocked my socks off, but my opinion of the two could easily change depending on my irascible moods or what Rilly and DeForge decide to produce next.
One thing I think we (and by we I mean readers and critics) should be careful of is confusing the subject matter with the aesthetic value of the work. Sometimes fans and critics get revved up about certain books because they deal with a "big" topic like war or illness or bad parenting and trumpet them as being exemplary merely for discussing such subjects. They aren't. A lot of them are boring in fact. Daytripper is a good example of what I'm talking about. It clearly seeks to make some sort of grandiose statement on the fragility and wonder of life, but it's a very hollow, shallow work.
SPURGEON: A slight spin on the same subject, but I think one that ends up in an entirely different story. Jaime Hernandez's work in Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 is probably the most talked-about alt-comic story this year, which for me puts the spotlight on a bigger story -- the incredible percentage of good-to-great comics coming out from that specific generation of alt-comics cartoonists. Do you agree with me that it seems like there's an incredible number of great works out by that initial Fantagraphics/D+Q generation? Why is that generation defying the comics-history odds and staying productive and continuing to make challenging work?
Is it really against "comics-history odds" to be producing quality work in your middle age years? I'm not sure I agree with that idea. There are a number of underground cartoonists still out there producing great, challenging work, like Kim Deitch, for example. Joyce Farmer's Special Exits came out last year and she's no spring chicken. Whether you like it or hate it, Crumb's Genesis was certainly an ambitious work. Carol Tyler's finally getting her day in the sun and I'm really expecting Spain's upcoming Cruisin' With the Hound collection to be pretty fantastic. More to the point, there are plenty of strip artists and other cartoonists that continued to make great work as old age approached. Tintin in Tibet is arguably Herge's best work and that came pretty late in his life. And wasn't Barks well into middle age when he did those classic Uncle Scrooge stories? Is it really that surprising that Jaime and his contemporaries are still making solid comics? Can you point to other cartoonists that for whatever reason haven't?
Also I think it's worth pointing out that Clowes, Woodring, Bagge and company are really the first generation of alt-cartoonists. I suppose the underground gang are technically their predecessors, but that generation was more a part of the larger counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. They didn't come out of the very narrow, specific comic shop scene the way Clowes, etc. did. So I don't think we really have a precedent for the sort of career the Hernandez Brothers and others -- creating generally non-genre, usually self-contained comics -- have built for themselves. The question to me seems to be does that group represent a very specific place and time the way the undergrounds do will we see careers like theirs reflected in the generations that have follow them? Does that make any sense? I feel like I'm being a bit vague here.
SPURGEON: Now that you've had a few months to take in those comics from Jaime, do you have a fresh perspective on what he accomplished there? I know that a lot of initial reactions, including my own, were sincere but reading them now they seem slightly -- to use a phrase from earlier in this chat -- gobsmacked. What about that work will be remembered 15-20 years from now, or will it at all? Are there any other works out this year you think are particularly built for the long-haul in terms of their overall reputation?
MAUTNER: Well, I actually only just read the fourth volume of L&R the other week, so I don't know how fresh my perspective really is. I think it's pretty fantastic work of art -- gobsmacked is the absolutely correct term to use. For years now I've been thinking while perusing through my back L&R volumes or in the shower, "When will Maggie finally get a happy ending? Will she ever find some sort of peace in her life?" I really actually think these thoughts. That's how vivid a character she's become in my mind -- I think about her in the same manner I might an old college or high school friend. While certainly there's been a lot of breathless hyperbole about this book much of it seems deserved. I do think context does help in appreciating this particular story. I know I could give my wife the first half of "Love Bunglers" (i.e. Vol. 3) and she'd get it right away without any back story and think it was genius. If I gave her Vol. 4 first, I'd probably have to explain Ray and Maggie's relationship at some point, and who Letty is, etc. Whether that's a mitigating factor in evaluating the greatness of the comic is up for debate. Hernandez is very clearly in for the long haul here and has been some time and I'm not sure the fact that you might have to some familiarity with the previous stories to garner the whole "enrichment experience" is a detriment. At any rate, I'm curious to see how "Love Bunglers" will read when its two parts are collected into a whole.
But really, the comic is such a mastery of pacing, how can you not be in aw of it? Look at "Return to Me" and how Jaime completely suckers you in by having Letty talk in the present tense even though it's a flashback, just to ensure that you're completely devastated by those last two panels. And then how that incident allows one more puzzle piece of Maggie's personality to snap into place, and harkens back to her conversation with Angel. Look at Ray's facial expressions when he first sees Maggie. Look at how he's able to convey such a strong sense of place with such minimal backgrounds. If Xaime's work will be remembered at all 20 years from now -- and it seems perfectly reasonable that it will be -- they'll be talking about "Love Bunglers."
I think Jim Woodring's Congress of the Animals makes a nice companion piece to Jaime's recent work in some respects. Both artists have spent a good deal of time building and enriching their unique universes and like "Bunglers," Congress is something of a game changer, as by the end Frank's world and his perception and appreciation of that world has changed considerably thanks to the arrival of a new character. In some respects I didn't like Congress quite as much as Weathercraft, his last graphic novel, perhaps because it didn't play up the big Campbellian mythos as much as the latter did. All the same, it seems like a real touchstone book in the Frank oeuvre and will be discussed again and again whenever people talk about Woodring's work.
As far as other "long-haul" books, I think Habibi is certainly the book that garnered the most anticipation and the biggest critical reception this year, most of it seemingly positive with some perhaps strong negative or at least questioning reactions. It certainly has an eye on being around in its desire to confront issues of sex, culture and religion. I think it's Thompson's strongest work to date which is not to say that I think it's entirely successful in grappling with those issues. I'm curious to see how it is regarded over time, if it becomes as influential and beloved as Blankets has.
SPURGEON: Is there an alt-comic, or let's say up to three comics, that you don't think matched either the hype you saw upon their release or the expectations given the creator involved? What were your biggest disappointments this year as a reader and critic?
MAUTNER: I know I'm not alone in saying one of the biggest disappointments of the year was Chester Brown's Paying for It. It had been so long since Brown's last book, Louis Riel, that I was anxiously anticipating his new comic as I consider him to be one of the modern masters of the form, and was very much interested on his take on such a politically thorny and deeply personal issue. Sadly, the book turned out to be little more than a lengthy polemic, and polemics, even great ones, rarely make for great art. The book is hampered in so many ways -- the lengthy appendixes filled with straw-man arguments, the refusal to genuinely address certain issues, the insistence to take issues to illogical and even ridiculous ends (i.e. his "prostitution utopia"), the sudden third act revelation that comes along so curtly and quickly that the reader wonders if Brown isn't trying to sidestep the implications of that revelation, and perhaps most significantly, the manner in which he draws the women, an act of consideration and sympathy that inadvertently leads to effectively dehumanize them to little more than tits and ass. Brown's "girlfriend" may have wanted to be left out of this book as much as possible, but her omission only serves to hurtle book and Brown's argument. It doesn't help that Paying For It has so many good scenes that remind us why Brown is such a significant author, most notably the sequences with Joe Matt and Seth, which you highlighted in your own review.
I suppose in some respects Habibi was a bit disappointing in only that it was ultimately unable to reconcile or provide some coherence for the thorny issues it raises, especially regarding Orientalism and sexuality. But the book is so ambitious and beautiful and has enough really successful moments that I find it hard to knock it too much.
SPURGEON: Can I draw you out a bit on how you think Craig fails in those two areas, and, if you have one, a theory as to why?
MAUTNER: Ack, I knew you were going to call me out on that. I mentioned this in the Habibi roundtable over at The Comics Journal, but the central plot of Habibi is essentially that of a classic romance story: two lovers, joined together in youth, torn apart by fate, go through individual travails and troubles before being reunited. Seen from that angle, it's tempting to regard the ugly abuse Dodola and Zam face as simply melodramatic obstacles designed to be overcome rather than horrible, life-altering traumas (notice, for example, how all the villains are mustache-twirling types). The stark ugliness of the dangers they face -- slavery, rape, castration -- just raises the stakes and makes the reader long for the couple's eventual reconciliation all the more. Rob Clough in his review called it "overstocking the deck," which is accurate I think, and troubling, given the unsettling (to put it mildly) nature of the type of sexual abuse Dodola and Zam undergo.
Then there's the issue of Orientalist tropes and myths that Thompson utilizes it in the book. I don't think I can do a better job discussing it than Nadim Damluji did at the Hooded Utilitarian so I'll just refer you to that essay. To put it simply, Thompson consciously deals with a lot of loaded symbols and archetypes in Habibi, and I'm not sure he ever fully confronts the dark, colonial, racist origins of these elements fully, lest they spoil the fantasy he is attempting to craft. I think he is very self-aware, mind you, he's not utilizing these tropes thoughtlessly, but I don't feel he's ever really satisfactorily comes to terms with them, either.
SPURGEON: In the 1980s, reprints and translations played a role in terms of the development of art comics by providing a continuity along which the new comics could be presented and enabled cartoonists to see and be inspired by work that had faded from view. I know that you're a fan of some of those books that came out this year. Can you talk about one or two such works that really hit you, and can you suggest how they fit into the overall arts/alt landscape. I know that one writer has suggested that reprints may seem more appropriate than ever right now because so many of the great cartoonists are working in those traditions.
MAUTNER: Two of my favorite books of this year were Garden and Color Engineering by Yuichi Yokoyama. One of the things that I really find striking about them is how far apart they stand from the current comics landscape, whether you're talking about the mainstream, small press or manga. Yokoyama's interest in pure motion and perception is almost clinical -- he removes all plot and character and in Color Engineering he almost moves to abstract forms entirely -- but not only are his comics engaging, they're exciting! I seriously thrilled to see what new, odd structure lay over the next hill in Garden and how the cast was going to traverse it. His work is all about navigation, which sounds utterly boring and befuddling, but it's surprisingly direct and easy to grasp.
Last Gasp put out Winshluss' Pinocchio earlier this year, and I was pretty floored by that book as well. It's very old school in some respects, most notably the jokes about sex, drugs, poop, the clergy and the military/political establishment that keeps you down, man. The kind of stuff that have dominated indie and underground comics for seeming years now. Even the whole "lets ugly up a classic children's fable" seems a bit rote at this point. All that being said, the book is just so masterfully done -- Winshluss' timing is pitch perfect -- that none of that really bothered me. I just enjoyed the hell out of it.
It is interesting to me to see how contemporary artists are adopting and absorbing the styles of past generations based on the glut of reprint projects out now. Chris Ware and Joe Matt revere Frank King, help get those D&Q books out and now we see tons of Gasoline Alley-influence comics. It does amaze me that so many great cartoonists are being rediscovered. I seriously never thought I'd live to see the day when a decent Carl Barks or Floyd Gottfredson reprint project arrived. To get both those books this year, and also Pogo, Buz Sawyer and not one but two books about Alex Toth and an Incal collection makes my jaw slacken. And also worry I bit I suppose at how long this sort of reprint boom can sustain itself.
SPURGEON: What's the strongest work you read this year by a cartoonist younger than, say, Adrian?
MAUTNER: Is Tomine that young anymore? He's in his mid-30s at least by this point, right? (checks Wikipedia) Yeah he's 37. I think if we're talking "young cartoonists" we need to newer enplane than someone who's only four years younger than me. Maybe [Kevin] Huizenga?
But if we are talking "young cartoonists," then Michael DeForge is the person that comes to mind first. I think Tucker Stone hit the nail on the head the other day when he wrote that the most amazing thing about how DeForge is how you can't quite put your finger on his influence and that he seems capable of just about any type of narrative. The story that makes up the bulk of Lose #3 is very different in tone from the creepy-skeevy-riffing-on-strips stuff he had done in previous comics or even from some of the other stories in the same issue. He seemed to come fully assured and producing stellar stuff right out of the gate and just keeps getting better with subsequent comics. The "Kid Mafia" and "Open Country" minis by him I picked up at BCGF suggest a restless, confident cartoonist eager to keep branching out and trying new genres. I continue to be amazed at how talented this guy is.
I get a similar vibe off of Jonny Negron, an artist who I heard nothing about prior to this year, and mainly discovered thanks to the constant blogging of folks like Sean Collins and Ryan Sands. Negron was everywhere at BCGF this year -- the new Studygroup magazine, the Thickness anthology and his own anthology, Chameleon. Though his work tends to lean more towards erotica, like DeForge, Negron possesses the power to create disquieting, disturbing images. I was really taken with his piece in the second issue of Chameleon, a "Final Fight"-style ode where he used ghost-like repeated figures to suggest motion and violence. He's probably the most striking new talent I've seen this year after DeForge.
SPURGEON: You mentioned Kim Deitch, who's an astonishing artist, and I wondered if like me you've given any thought to the age of the underground guys and what that means in terms of how you've grown to think about their overall legacy. My hunch is that we have a developed sense of their cultural contribution and a slightly undercooked impression of their artistic achievements. Can you talk for a little bit about who you think the greatest artists of that generation are -- just one or two of your favorites? Have they been given their full due?
MAUTNER: I'd have to go with the obvious choice and say the two greatest cartoonists of that generation are Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, both of whom, I think it's fair to say, have been given their full due. Both were game-changers in terms of altering how the public perceived the medium and being a profound influence on successive generations. It might seem a tad lazy for me to so willingly go along with the canon, but their works have had a profound influence on me. Certainly Crumb continues to be one of my all-time favorite artists and I find myself returning to his work again and again.
Getting into the larger point of your question, however, I think you're right about people tending to regard the underground generation as a whole lump sum and ignoring individual cartoonists. I think Deitch has a certain critical cachet, but you could make the case that Spain, Gilbert Shelton and others don't. Once you get past the Zap crew, there's a plethora of underground cartoonists that have been unfairly neglected. That's starting to change, however slightly as publishers and critics start to slowly re-evaluate the contributions of Crumb and Spiegelman's peers. There was that Rand Holmes book Fantagraphics put out in 2010, and their attempts to re-release Jack Jackson's work, as well as the upcoming complete Zap Comix collection. Even Richard Corben is going through something of a re-appreciation with his recent work on Hellboy.
But as far as my own personal favorites go, after Crumb and Spiegelman it's a bit harder to pin down. We already mentioned Deitch, but I'll pick up and read anything he puts out; he's a consummate world-builder. I love Spain's work, especially his autobiographical stories; I like his clean, angular style and how well it seems to fit the tone of the odd young adult stories he relates. I've also got a fondness for Skip Williamson, I think he's something of an underrated satirist. His targets tend to be obvious ones -- the military, the government, etc. -- but he goes all in with a savagery that a bit unique among his generation, I think. Some of those stories he did for Zero Zero were phenomenal.
SPURGEON: I wanted to run a few impressions by you that I saw expressed vis-a-vis the Brooklyn comics festival. The first is a classic, that alt-comics has an arty, pretentious thrust that fails to appreciate its humor cartoonists and their more proletarian appeal. The second is that our social media culture has made us a community of artists and writers satisfied to receive the praise of a circle of friends, and that this has stunted a lot of artists' growth. The third is that despite the rapid growth in quality works, we still don't have enough excellent works, works that don't need to be specifically contextualized, to foster a greater appreciation of the medium. Do you agree with any of those thoughts? Disagree?
MAUTNER: Regarding the first: Well, I think we've talked about this before, it's the old "comedies never win an Oscar" thing and I think it remains true to an extent. Did Johnny Ryan's critical cachet, for instance, go up once he started doing Prison Pit because Prison Pit was a considerable aesthetic step up for him (and it was) or because it's a more serious -- if heavily genre-based -- work? And has the series received less than its full due because it's so firmly entrenched in certain "low" genres? Certainly we do seem to have a lack of pure humor cartoonists at the moment. Michael Kupperman and Sam Henderson are the only ones that come to mind at the moment (Peter Bagge publishes too infrequently these days). The cartoonists that are appreciated and do use humor -- again, DeForge is a good example -- tend to combine it with horror or other elements to mitigate the laughter somewhat.
I think the general reading public tends to favor books that have serious, literary content. There's still a stigma attached to enjoying comics and readers that aren't serious comics fans don't want to be seen reading something "silly" or "edgy" anymore than Academy voters don't want to reward, say, a film like Bridesmaids, regardless of how well crafted and satisfying an film it might be. It's a middle-class prejudice that's very tough to break. I think as you get closer to the serious alt-comics fans, you see less of a snobbery towards that sort of thing.
In fact, more than ever, I see cartoonists experimenting with traditionally low genres, like fantasy, horror and now sex. In addition to the Thickness anthologies there were a couple of other recent comics that dealt exclusively with sex, like Julia Gfrorer's Flesh and Bone. If alt-comics does have an arty, pretentious thrust, I don't think it's coming from the people making the comics.
As to your second point, well comics is a very small community -- a fraction of the population reads mainstream superhero comics and an even smaller fraction reads alt-comics, so it's not surprising that like-minded folks would seek each other out and want each other's approval. There is a danger with cartoonists forming a closed-off, self-congratulating circle and it's something I think artists and critics will to legitimately watch out for, though I'm not sure it poses a serious threat yet. I honestly can't think of any cartoonists whose work has been stunted because they're only seeking the praise of their small enclave of friends. If anything would stunt an artist's growth it's by solely draw upon comics for influences and inspiration and not seeking out other forms of art and literature. Is that what you meant?
As for your third question, it is one of the great tragedies of the medium that those who love it have to constantly mitigate their enjoyment of it, holding the superior, worthy elements close to our breast and forgiving or ignoring the less savory aspects. Did you read that Setting the Standard Alex Toth book that Fantagraphics put out? Pages and pages of lovely, vibrant art, holding up dreadful schlock. Too much of comics -- whether you're talking superhero books, comic strips, Golden Age stuff or alt-comics -- has been like that, where you find yourself saying things like "well, the plot is hackneyed, but the art is amazing" or "the guy can't draw decent 3-point perspective, but the ideas the writer is expressing is great." We're too forgiving of the junk, myself included, in praising the worthy.
Having said all that, I do think there's been enough all-around quality comics in the past ten years that we really should stop worrying about whether we've built enough of a canon to garner respect from whomever we're trying to garner respect from. I guess that's the central question, who are we trying to foster his appreciation for? Academia? The general public? My mother-in-law? Those are very, very different audiences with their own set of prejudices. A mainstream audience is going to be more drawn to pap, "respectable" graphic novels that traffic in serious subject matters but are shallow in artistry and delivery than truly challenging material.
Comics is such a fractured audience it can often seem like there's not enough good stuff out there. If you pull back, however, and take in breadth of material that's been done in comic strips, editorial cartoons, manga, european comics, alt-comics, and even superheroes, you can see a healthy pile of A+ material.
SPURGEON: Has the rise of more cartooning schools and courses in same changed the way the art form is perceived and practiced?
MAUTNER: Yes. Certainly the rise of "comics lit" classes in liberal arts colleges have helped foster the sort of appreciation you were discussing in your last question.
I know a professor who teaches a comics as literature class at Dickinson named David Ball. He's been kind enough to let me sit in on a class or two and I've seen first-hand how classes like that have raised awareness and an appreciation in young students for the art form.
But you're probably talking more about schools like CCS and SCAD. I do think these programs are good in developing cartoonists in that they expose them to a wider breadth of work and ideas that would typically take a much longer period of time for them to absorb. In the old days an aspiring cartoonist would only have their own collection and whatever they could dig though the back boxes of their local store to learn from past masters. It think that's at least part of the reason why you're seeing creators like Joe Lambert and Chuck Forsman make such considerable strides in their work so quickly. I do worry for all these artist financially a bit, especially if the marketplace shrinks any further and they're all going to be competing against each other for the potential readers dollar even more than they already are.
SPURGEON: Finally, can you recommend one piece of criticism you wrote this year, and one piece that someone else wrote?
MAUTNER: As much as I hate to toot my own horn (and I really do) I was rather happy with a review I wrote of A Single Match by Oji Suzuki over at TCJ. It was a difficult book to describe, much less take apart, and I felt like I did a OK job explaining the style of the work and whether it was successful or not.
In a similar vein, I was fortunate enough to do a number of interviews with notable cartoonists this year, but the one I did with Gilbert Hernandez may be my favorite, but only because he was so open and honest in talking about his feelings regarding his comics and the industry at large.
As far as something someone else wrote, it probably counts more as journalism than criticism, but I was really, really grateful for Matthias Wivel's two-part examination of what happened to L'Association. He did a fantastic job breaking down the players, what happened when and why it matters. It's the kind of in-depth writing I'd like to see more of regarding various North American publishers.
* photo of Chris Mautner at BCGF 2011 by me
* Death Warmed Over, an oddity for young Mr. Mautner
* people still like Orc Stain
* Casanova, one of the few titles Mautner follows as a serial comic book
* Lose, perhaps part of a new interest in serial alt-comics
* Ben Katchor, one of the many veterans of Alt-Comics Generation One that had formidable work out this year
* Jaime Hernandez in Love & Rockets: New Stories #4
* Jim Woodring's Congress Of The Animals
* Craig Thompson's Habibi
* Color Engineering
* work from Jonny Negron
* Jack Jackson, an under-appreciated underground comix cartoonist
* Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit
* Chuck Forsman colored by Joseph Lambert
* from Oji Suzuki's A Single Match
* Gilbert Hernandez work in 2011 (below)
* Marvel prevailed in the Ghost Rider suit brought against them by Gary Friedrich. It looks like New York is the place to have your case heard if you want the most sympathetic reading of abusive past publishing practices (putting a work-for-hire agreement on a check to be endorsed; a freelance contract that calls for a blanket transfer of rights). I actually thought the check thing had been generally discredited as a valid practice with legal standing, although it looks like that was such a powerful development to this judge that it was a major factor in a decision not to even have to look at the other merits of the case. I'm not sure what to say at this point. Is there any other art form that when a major movie and licensing roll-out arrives on the scene one has a 50/50 chance of getting it right to believe the creators won't profit in any significant way? Do people ever think this when a movie and/or toys based on a prose work or a stageplay come out? Comics: leading the media world in being gross.
* I did not know the DC offices were closed for the week. Everyone should slow down at the holidays. Comics is way more frantic at the holidays than it was five years ago, and I can't quite figure out why.
* finally, the nice folks over at the AV Club pick their best graphic novels of the year, which they split into collected and original books. I swear that Joyce Farmer book came out in Fall 2010, but it's a really good book so nobody complain.
CR Holiday Interview #10 -- Charles Brownstein And Larry Marder
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the organization devoted to fighting for the free speech and First Amendment rights of cartoonists and others in the comics industries. Charles Brownstein is the current executive director; Larry Marder is the current president of its board. Both are comics industry veterans, albeit from different generations. Brownstein first came to the attention of the comics community as a journalist specializing in news and features on the art form. Marder was a independent comics artist of great renown (Tales Of The Beanworld) and hundreds of connections within the comic book industry; he later worked for Image (during its early '90s heyday) and eventually the various companies owned by Todd McFarlane. He has since returned full-time to his drawing board.
The Fund remains a vital force by continuing to fight its battles with ferocity while at the same time reaching out to different elements under the big tent of comic books, both in active fashion and more quietly, sometimes in ways that takes years to bear fruit. It is my great honor to devote an interview in this series to this important institution. I urge you to bookmark the Fund's site and consider a late-in-the-year, tax-deductible donation. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Can each of you recall when you first heard about the Fund, and what your initial reaction to it was?
LARRY MARDER: I'm pretty sure I heard about it directly from Frank Managaracina, either face to face or over the phone. I was talking to Frank a lot at that time because I was doing freelance advertising work for him creating trade ads for his comics distribution business. It was a small account and I got paid in comics. I remember him saying "Denis Kitchen is putting together a portfolio to raise money to help out with the legal bills." It seemed like a heroic and responsible thing to do. But my personal interaction with the Fund didn't come until much later.
CHARLES BROWNSTEIN: For me it would have been in the back pages of Cerebus, circa 1992, 1993 that I first heard of it. I was aware that the Fund protected the First Amendment rights of edgier comics, and as a precocious teenager with an interest in those comics, Lenny Bruce, and heavy metal, the cause was one I felt an abstract affinity for.
But I didn't really understand the Fund until 1995 or so when I was minding Larry's Beanworld Press table and selling copies of Feature, the interview magazine I published back then. It was at a San Diego, and someone must have been flogging a CBLDF party or something, and being a wise-ass teenager I think I asked Larry, "What the hell do those guys do that they always need so much money?" And in that extremely patient, no-bullshit manner that he has, he took me to school. He told me about how Mike Correa and Frank Mangiaracina were violently jerked around by the legal system, and how retailers all over the country were being horrifically intimidated by these awful, backwoods prosecutors who were targeting them because they were small time marks selling art that the community didn't understand. And basically that targeting these guys was a way for electioneering prosecutors to rack up easy wins. His explanation made a big impression on me, because I immediately got the injustice that so many were facing by selling comics. It kept the Fund on my radar as a really important institution.
SPURGEON: What factor or factors led each of you to become more actively involved? Charles, since this is your full-time job, I'm particularly interested in your answer: you took on the directorship at a point when you seemed to be the kind of guy that might become ensconced at one company or another.
BROWNSTEIN: I'd already been involved with CBLDF projects for a couple of years by doing the interviews for their SPX anthology series, and doing a little bit of volunteering at tables in my local area. At the time I was extremely interested in the changing mechanics of the business of comics. I was writing business news for Rick Veitch's SPLASH page, and Calvin Reid's quarterly PW Comics section, along with doing a part-time publishing gig at Last Gasp, and anything else I could hustle.
In the Fall of 2001, Denis Kitchen called me out of the blue and asked me if I'd be interested in going out to Northampton to interview for the job. I'd previously worked with Denis & Bob Chapman in trying to set up a marketing trade association that was designed to combat the cultural stigma against comics that folks felt was holding us back circa 2000 or so. That never got off the ground, but I did a lot of foundational business writing that I suppose made an impression on Denis, and gave him the idea that I'd be capable of doing some good for CBLDF. That, and he correctly surmised that I'd be willing to work for just about nothing if the work was interesting enough.
For me it ultimately came down to: do I want to report on the art and commerce of comics, or do I want to take advantage of this opportunity to help affect positive change for that art and commerce? I already believed in the Fund, and was pretty die-hard in my feelings about the First Amendment. So it was a matter of determining whether I could do more vocational good by writing, or by redirecting the energy I was putting into writing towards building up the CBLDF.
I was really lucky. Denis offered me a shot that very few people get. I was 23 years old and didn't know much about anything, but he convinced the board to take a chance on me,and he gave me the opportunity to direct my energy into building something that I could sincerely believe in. Ultimately, I'm religious about comics, and care deeply about the people who make them and their power as expression, so the ability to invest in that belief with a vocation-facing job like this has been tremendous. I'm still grateful every day.
MARDER: There is no one instance I can look at and remember deciding "Oh yes, I'm going to get more active with CBLDF." It all unfolded gradually and over a span of time. During the eight years I spent at McFarlane Toys, I barely paid attention to the ins and outs of the comic book industry including the Fund. I was totally immersed in the business of making and selling toys.
In the fall of 2007, after almost a decade and a half of being on the business side of comics it was time to get back into the creative side of the business. When I first went to Image, people would say "I can't believe the Beanworld dude is running that insane asylum." By the time I returned to creator status perceptions of me had gone a full 180. Now it was "I didn't know the McFarlane Toys guy draws this comic book called Beanworld!"
Because my books were out of print and my previous publisher had gone out of business almost 15 years before, I needed to start my reentry as a cartoonist somewhere. A few weeks after deciding that I was staking everything on reinventing Beanworld, Charles urged me to attend SPX. He offered me a spot to squat at the CBLDF. I whipped up a handful of hand-colored, matted Beanworld drawings. On my blog I tagged the drawing "Beanworld Orphans." For a donation you could adopt the drawing and give it a good home. The name has stuck.
I also helped out behind the table. I got to know some of the crew over the weekend. It was a pivotal moment for me to just feel so free and unburdened of all of the business pressures. I remember writing what turned out to be page 18 of Beanworld Book Three while sitting at the table during a Jeff Smith signing. My creative juices really started flowing being immersed in the energy of the indie press.
From that point on Charles and I were in a constant dialogue. He was very helpful as a sounding board for Beanworld. And I returned the favor by listening to Charles talk about the Fund and offering advice when he asked for it. As I was drawing "Here There!" most of my Cintiq screen would have a Beanworld page on it but there was always an open iChat window in the lower right hand corner where Charles and I would bounce things off of each other all day.
I didn't set up much at cons on my own until I had new Dark Horse product in 2009. I went to a lot of shows and helped out the Fund at their table and events. I lugged boxes, hand numbered prints, went to Kinko's or Staples and pitched in helping with whatever needed to be done. In the process I got a real feel not only for the lofty goals of CBLDF's mission but also the small details of everyday nuts and bolts operations.
After a few years of that, what seemed to me as coming from out of the blue, I got a call from Chris Staros asking me if I'd be interested in taking his seat on the Board. What an honor! I guess some of the members of the Board had noticed me hanging around and doing stuff and they decided to see if I'd formally come on board.
A year later, as I was in the middle of editing CBLDF Liberty Annual 2012, I was elected President of the Board. Not too long after that, I plunged right into managing [the] CBLDF Liberty Trading Cards. It was a huge project. And it had incredible side benefits that we didn't expect. With the 72 base cards of the set we set out to tell the history of comic book censorship and the birth of CBLDF with illustrations and chunks of copy that were pretty much 100 words or so. Charles wrote the copy. The limitations of space, quite frankly drove him a bit batty during the editing process. But it forced him to be sharp and concise in his storytelling.
For a few months we were immersed telling our story. In addition to our handsome card set, a really useful presentation evolved out of it. I've seen Charles give several variations of the presentation now and I know that we both came out of the project with a sharper focus about the First Amendment work of CBLDF.
SPURGEON: I'm sure both of you have had a chance at some point this year to take a look back at the Fund's history, either formally or informally. What stands out to you? Is there a case or a development that you think was crucial to how the fund developed that might not be one of the big cases or splashy moves? Is there any case or moment in the Fund's history that you have a different perspective on now than folks maybe did at the time?
BROWNSTEIN: For the Fund's first 20 years, police were targeting retailers for the adult comics on the high shelves or back room of their stores and prosecuting them on obscenity or harmful to minors content laws. I think the CBLDF had a win-some/lose-some record on defending those cases in the 80s and 90s, primarily because our budget was so incredibly small, and we had to choose counsel based as much on what we could afford as litigation effectiveness.
When I started at the CBLDF, after studying our history, and presiding over the last unsuccessful moments of the Jesus Castillo case, I determined that the only way for us to advance our mission and rack up real litigation successes was to grow our budget to pay for the best counsel from the start of a case. You saw this strategy come into play during the Gordon Lee case, where we were extremely aggressive in fighting local prosecutors whose case grew flimsier and flimsier as time went by, and ultimately resulted in a win. I think if we were less aggressive there would have been a higher likelihood of Gordon needing to cave. Certainly there was a lot of public opinion against him and us in the beginning, but that turned around as we held our ground and revealed the bogus charges for what they were. That simply wouldn't have happened if we didn't invest so firmly in fighting for a win.
That was a really expensive case -- it ultimately cost over $100,000. But I think it sent a message that the comic book industry is not going to back down when one of our own is threatened. We will fight back relentlessly with serious legal bulldogs every single step of the way. Thankfully we haven't seen one of those comic store cases for a few years, so hopefully law enforcement priorities have moved on, and hopefully our message was heard. But we're ready if they decide to go down that road again.
MARDER:The Mike Diana case in Florida disturbed me then and it still disturbs me now. The idea that an American court of law could stop an artist from creating his own expressive comics work, within the walls of his own home, with absolutely no intention to publish or distribute still makes my jaw drop in total disbelief. Maybe I was a bit naïve but until that point, I really believed things like that only happened somewhere else but not to an American citizen. The additional fact that the Supreme Court of the United States chose to not review the case and let the lower court verdict stand is still unacceptable to me as a citizen and as a comic book creator.
Early on in the creative process of the Liberty Trading Cards I thought I saw a trend regarding governmental attempts at censoring comic books: the targets over time seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.
The first to suffer outrageous attempts at censorship of comics were made against the publishers in the 1940s and 1950s. In the1970s the focus narrowed and the battle lines moved away from prosecuting national publishers who now knew how to defend themselves. The new objects of harassment and arrest started to be small business owners of local comics shops. Additionally in the '90s there were attempts to go after creators like Mike Diana & Paul Mavrides. The Fund did its part to fight back against those injustices. Lately the governmental harassment seems to be aimed increasingly at the readers themselves.
Sure, all those lines are fluid, and retailers have been under constant threat in every moment from the 1970s onwards, but just seeing those chains move further and further down the field over time is extremely chilling.
BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, that's exactly right. And right now I spend a lot of my time thinking about that observation. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means for prosecutors to go after readers, and my attention keeps coming around to young people, and the vulnerabilities they face as a result of the content they're interested in, and the technology they use to access it.
I'm extremely concerned about college and high school students who live in a 21st Century technology environment that's governed by 20th Century content laws. The kids who download huge batches of manga because Borders went under and that's the easiest way to get the stuff they're into. The kids who might know that it's legal for two 16-year-olds to have sex, but don't realize they can be prosecuted for drawing or reading a comic book depicting that same act. Or who have the naive belief that because it's easily found on the internet, it's not vulnerable. I'm not picking on Warren Ellis when I point out one of the central observations of his novel Crooked Little Vein was that if it's on the Internet, it's mainstream -- I think a lot of people under 25 think that's true, but the law doesn't. I'm starting to see the age of defendants in child pornography cases skew younger and younger, and it has me concerned that this generation who's grown up on comics, and manga, and Adult Swim, and cheap access to communications technology, not to mention casual access to sexual content, is in serious danger of getting tangled up in some very ugly prosecutions.
So that's where I want to spend a lot of 2012 -- having a dialogue with those folks about the risks they're facing, and being a force to promote discussion about what we can all do to protect readers, artists and expressive speech in the face of bad laws and brutal prosecutions.
SPURGEON: How was 2011 as a year for the Fund? Where do things stand right now in an institutional sense?
MARDER: We're doing what we've always done: act as first responders for anyone in the comic book community that finds themselves between a rock and a hard place in a freedom of speech emergency.
BROWNSTEIN: It was a tough year. The lousy economy hit us really hard, and it's taken all of our resourcefulness to keep on top of our obligations. Fortunately we've been able to do that, but it's involved a lot of juggling, and some honest, "hey, we need help right now" appeals like the Be Counted membership drive.
In 2009 and 2010 you heard people talking about the "Fantasy Economy" at comics conventions because people were still spending money in those places. But late in 2010, and certainly in 2011, that bubble popped, and we saw that the "Fantasy Economy" people were talking about was really just a delay prompted by the fact that people save their money all year to go to conventions. It takes a year or two, but you eventually get to a place where people move from saving their money all year to go in and buy everything that's cool to saving their money all year to buy a badge to get in the door. Because so much of our fundraising happens in those environments, that's been a hard hit.
But that's fundraising, and we've worked to adjust to this climate, and made some changes in our approach that should lead to greater stability in 2012.
To the larger part of your question, where are we on an institutional level -- I think stronger than we've ever been. We've got a good office team right now, and we've got a very good, hardworking board that's really invested in the mission. With Alex [Cox] getting promoted to Deputy Director and taking on more leadership of the office and fundraising program, I'm going to be doing more to advance our ability to do meaningful program, communications, and education work, which I think helps us serve our mission better, and more broadly.
I'm confident that the Fund is changing at a pace consistent with how comics is changing, and that we're going to be able to do good work protecting the field for a long time to come.
SPURGEON: You guys come from different comics generation, and each of you has I think special insight to at least one other group of cartoonists -- if you break them down by age. Can each of you talk about how the comics folks in your general age group has taken to supporting the fund over the years. Larry, how much did the Image guys and comics makers from the '90s take to the Fund over the years? Charles, do you have any insight on how the emerging cartoonists and comics people might view the fund different than people roughly your age?
BROWNSTEIN: I think for both of us, it's kinda hard to look back on our careers and think coherently about our peer groups by age. When Larry came in everyone he was hanging out with was 10 years younger than him. I came in and had the opposite situation, everyone I hung out with was at least 10 or 20 years older than me. So my comics peer group has, until recently, been more rooted in when and where they are within the field, and less in when they were born.
A lot of the comics generational peer group that I came up with is made up of the folks from the mid-90s self-publishing movement, the turn of the century beautiful object art comics revolution, and the business community that pushed graphic novels into mainstream focus. Those folks who were working in comics in the '90s and early 2000s were already pretty well on-board with CBLDF. Mike Diana was a fresh memory, retailers were being prosecuted, and then Bush was in office, so there was all kinds of concern about what the Justice Department was gonna be cracking down on. And rightfully so -- it was Ashcroft who gave us the PROTECT Act, which is the basis of a lot of the casework we're fighting today.
I think it may be that the generation of folks starting to enter comics may be more inclined towards taking an activist stance on CBLDF issues than the folks in my chronological peer group have been to date, but that remains to be seen. Most folks my age got into the business over the past five to 10 years, so they didn't witness the '90s assaults on the free speech rights of artists and retailers in a first-hand visceral way. I think a lot of the material they were making, whether it was in the alternative or mainstream spaces wasn't as likely to be at risk as the stuff that was being made in the '80s and '90s. I think there's a lot of reasons for this: cultural acceptability of comics was higher, law enforcement wasn't going after speech as aggressively as it once did, and, for the most part, creators weren't really aggressively pursuing button-pushing content. Today we're seeing a lot more explicitly sexual content developing (and some pretty smart stuff at that) and a generation coming in that's been heavily influenced by manga which has much different content values. We're also in a far more divisive environment where speech is vulnerable, which you saw pretty shockingly in Susie Cagle's situation. And, most chillingly, we're seeing a law enforcement environment that's starting to go after people for possession of content, and as that gets deeper into the digital space, artists and readers are both at risk.
I don't know, Tom. I don't find age to be a very meaningful line of demarcation in artistically inclined communities. I think people band together on common interests and common threats. I think that the threats to speech -- sexual, political, violent, and religious speech -- are potentially higher now than they've been in a very long time. I hope that will galvanize people in my generation, Larry's generation, and the generation that's coming up who probably see both of us as old guys to become more involved in the CBLDF's work.
MARDER: Other than discussion between the Image partners about Dave Sim donating his entire check for Spawn #10 to CBLDF, I don't recall any sort of dialogue about the Fund in the context of the Image partners as a group. Maybe we did but I don't remember any. My job was to run the Image Comics manufacturing and distribution efforts of the central office as efficiently as possible. If the partners that wanted to contribute or participate in charitable work they did so as individuals and not as a collective. I believe Image Comics' institutional partnership with CBLDF was something that happened after I moved on starting with Jim Valentino & Erik Larsen and now flourishing under the leadership of Eric Stephenson.
In my experience, since I came onboard, when I tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to pitch in to a project to help the CBLDF almost everyone agrees. It seems to me that when a freelancer breaks into his or her schedule and donates time and talent to CBLDF; that's the best endorsement one can get from any creator.
I want to step back to what you were saying about Image, though, because it raises a larger point about how corporate participation has become a lot stronger in recent years. They may not have talked about it in your day to day, but clearly something made a big impression, because a lot of the Image guys individually and institutionally went on to do a great deal for the CBLDF when I got here. Jim Valentino immediately called me up and said, "What can we do?" and that got the ball rolling. Jim supported a lot of my early fundraising efforts, and did a lot of work helping us develop auctions and other important fundraising program work. Marc Silvestri contributed art to those efforts. Erik Larsen continued that, and got involved in sponsoring our events, like the Comic-Con parties. And Eric Stephenson really deepened the relationship by continuing all of those things, and green-lighting the Liberty Annual. Through their corporate contributions and business activities like the Liberty Annual, Image has contributed well over $100,000 institutionally over the past four years alone.
Image isn't the only corporate contributor to make a measurable difference. Diamond, DC, and Dark Horse have all made substantial contributions to our work in recent years, particularly since Paul Levitz started the Corporate Membership program. During the past five years we've seen a real sea change from the days when it took Dave Sim to contribute his Spawn royalty to keep the Fund alive during existentially important cases, to the current era where we're treated as a significant industry institution by the major companies.
Probably the biggest change in the supporter environment that occurred during my tenure is that mainstream creators and companies became much more meaningfully involved in supporting the Fund. Jim Lee was a hugely galvanizing force in this. He became active in 2003, 2004 and did a lot of work to engage his peers in the creative and business communities with our mission. In the '80s and '90s, the CBLDF was largely regarded as an organization that protected fringe content and its publishers. Jim worked really hard to change that, both in his personal giving, and in his work as a spokesman. Jim showed a strong belief in the need to vigorously defend all kinds of content, even if it didn't look like your taste in content was at risk. (As an aside, it's interesting to look at the edgier subject matter that he and Dan DiDio are publishing in light of this. You don't give creators the freedom to create superhero comics that would air at 10 PM if you don't build a bedrock of support for the notion that comics can speak to all audiences.)
I think Jim's work alongside the rising overall prominence (and general audience sales) for people like Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and Alan Moore, who'd always supported us, helped overwrite the earlier perceptions of CBLDF serving fringe interests. And I think those advances and the rising viability for content diversity in the graphic novel space created the circumstances where it made sense for people like Paul Levitz and Steve Geppi to join our board and get their organizations more meaningfully involved. Paul has always been especially active in that area. And that made a big impact towards getting us to the space where we could really meaningfully raise the funds necessary for the kind of defense that we deployed for the Gordon Lee case.
We're still small, and we still have to work really hard to pull in the cash we need to meet our obligations. But we're no longer that fringe group that stands up for that hard to sell weirdo content that Denis Kitchen and Gary Groth and Tim Vigil like to publish, and makes money passing a coffee can around in a basement while a local metal band plays. The generation of creators and business folks who came up during the Direct Market era decided in the last decade that it was time to get behind our work, and take the Fund seriously, because what we do ensures that they can continue to make a really broad range of content. And that's great, because it helped us face down the ugly challenge that hit Gordon, and I think we'll really need it for the even uglier challenges that I think are coming.
SPURGEON: If you don't see age as a useful demarcation for supporting what it is you do and the issues you believe in, what might be some useful demarcations? How much work is there to do in getting as many factions of the community on board, and where are the holdouts?
MARDER: It's not my direct experience than anyone is "holding out" per se. There will always be folks who find the people and work we defend to be vile and repulsive to their personal tastes, beliefs, and ethics. The battles of free speech are always fought on the boundaries of good taste. Age doesn't seem to be a primary indicator of what one thinks about First Amendment freedoms or their suppression.
BROWNSTEIN: Right. And, like I said before, I think common interests and common threats tend to be the rallying points that draw people together in the service of advocacy work. I think people who find common cause with ensuring that the industry is protected against bullying prosecutions that affect our field's First Amendment rights will show up to support our work.
For the most part, I think we enjoy a strong range of support from most facets of the American comics business. I think there's room to bring more communities interacting with comics more meaningfully into our work, and I want to take steps in 2012 to facilitate that. I think we can do better in the manga, library and college spaces, and would like to get more mainstream book publishers involved. So, there's work to be done, but I think it's less a matter of converting holdouts and more a matter of building meaningful bonds with new stakeholders.
MARDER: A non-profit organization like CBLDF can never have too many members. The more help we get from volunteers and the more donations we receive the easier it is to do the work that needs to be done. The more communities interacting with comics that support the cause, the better we're able to serve their needs.
SPURGEON: This may be a rudimentary question, but it's one that for whatever reason springs to mind this morning: how much has the explosion of social media opportunities had an effect on the Fund? Are there things you'd like to do with the communication possibilities that are out there that you haven't been able to yet?
BROWNSTEIN: It's been mixed, with a tilt towards the positive. I think when we have an urgent need there's no better tool than Twitter. The money we were able to raise during the Be Counted campaign had a lot to do with the ability to spread the word through Twitter -- specifically using it to update people on our fundraising progress in real time and to thank people as their donations came in.
Facebook used to be a lot more meaningful, particularly for populating events, and disseminating information, but people are changing how they interact with that channel, and that channel seems to be changing how it interacts with its users every single week. We still use it, but it's not as easily measurable as Twitter. Google Plus remains to be seen. I started our G+ page, but haven't gotten my head around that channel yet.
MARDER: I find Twitter to be the best way to communicate to the most people when you're in a hurry. Of course, that depends on who decides to retweet you and how many followers they might have. Neil Gaiman's reach on Twitter has been an invaluable resource for CBLDF.
BROWNSTEIN: I think it's even more than in a hurry. I think Twitter is about communicating messages with a sense of urgency in real time. Sure, you can use it to rapidly spread information, but I've learned that for fundraising and message outreach purposes you can also accomplish campaign dialogue that almost behaves like pledge breaks, except that it's two-way. Then that's boosted when you get people like Neil broadcasting to his followers. It's the only social media channel that I can measure in terms of fundraising effectiveness, and that's worth a lot.
Kickstarter is a channel that I'm paying attention to, but I think it needs to be used really deliberately. We had a volunteer-driven effort make the Transmetropolitan book happen and learned a lot about the mechanism from that. My feeling is that going forward we should use it if we have the right program-oriented project. There is a project I want to do that may wind up being funded through that channel -- we'll see.
I'm constantly frustrated by our lack of manpower to expand our communications reach in general. I think our website is fine, but I'd like to improve the architecture so it works better in mobile environments. I'd also like to bulk up the resources area. That's mostly a cash and human bandwidth problem.
On the editorial side, I think Betsy Gomez does a great job editing cbldf.org and populating it with daily content, but I'm not sure how many folks actually read it. So we're rethinking how to best present the blog to increase our readership. I'd also like to be able to get more folks involved in writing different beats for the blog. I'd really like to have a manga reporter, and a library reporter, and a legal reporter, but we don't have the money to pay people, which is the largest part of the problem.
MARDER: Manpower is always a critical factor in anything we set out to do. At the beginning of 2011 things were relatively quiet on the legal front and we wanted to get a library best practices program built and running this year. The Canada case came out of left field, as all cases do, and it had an incredible sense of immediate urgency that forced us to table the library project. It's still a program that I very much want us to pursue but with our small staff we can only accomplish so much and do it well.
BROWNSTEIN: I guess to wrap up the answer to your question about our communications approach, I'd also like us to have a better online newsletter, and we're working on that now, hopefully to launch late winter. We have the platform, now it's just a matter of making the time to launch it.
I also think about whether it makes sense to revert to having a print newsletter of some kind. The web is definitely the cheapest method for disseminating information, but I wonder how effective it is for us in reaching people who aren't already coming to us as a destination. Between the at-risk manga and college communities, and the new people coming into the comic store and library spaces, I wonder whether it wouldn't be a good idea for us to repurpose material from the website in a print outlet of some kind designed to reach potential supporters that aren't coming to our website or social media channels. If folks have an opinion on that, I'd appreciate it if they sent me an email.
SPURGEON: Are there any classic approaches the Fund has used that might be out of date at this point? Charles you don't sound so positive about a central role for smaller benefits -- I'm kidding, but I do wonder if there's anything the Fund used to do that it just doesn't do anymore. In fact, I'm sort of interested if you see a shelf life for the comics anthologies, at least in print form.
BROWNSTEIN: Comics anthologies still work in print, which the Liberty Annual certainly showcases. That's raised well over $50k for the Fund since Eric and Scott Dunbier started it four years ago. I think there's probably some room to grow that model in the digital space. But the tricky part is that these things are always volunteer driven, so you can't ask people all the time, and you can't ask the same people.
We stopped doing the SPX anthology several years ago because it no longer made sense for us to take on the expense of printing, warehousing, and fulfilling a publishing project like that. It also served less of a need because there was an influx of projects like MOME and Kramer's Ergot and several themed anthologies like Stuck in the Middle or Noir that attracted a lot of the same kinds of folks who previously put energy into the SPX anthology.
I think there's still life in anthologies, both as benefits and as useful venues to promote art, but I think they need to be executed with a very high level of quality to be competitive.
MARDER: I edited one of the four CBLDF Liberty Annuals and I was the project manager for CBLDF Liberty trading cards. I was very pleased with the end products but they are very labor intensive.
BROWNSTEIN: I'm still optimistic about small benefits, but more as things that are coordinated in an ad-hoc way outside of the home office. You've been here, we're two full-timers, one part-timer and a lot of volunteers. It makes sense for us to help promote and send tools out for folks to do smaller fundraisers in their communities, and we do that. But it doesn't make sense for us to spend too much time planning small yield fundraisers with our office staff, because the time cost doesn't tend to square with the funds raised. The more efficient use of our time, and hence our donors' contributions is in doing program work and projects that will raise meaningful money for that work.
MARDER: I very much like the idea of expanding our reach by doing small regional fundraisers with a local reach. It can be in a local comic book shop, a public library, or even someone's home. But we're still figuring out how to make that happen properly. One thing I've learned is that the Fund is only as strong as the people supporting us, so if people would like to help take hold of doing something in their community, we'd like to work with them to make it happen.
SPURGEON: Are there specific challenges to on-line media that we maybe haven't seen in terms of a major prosecution?
BROWNSTEIN: I think the current threats have a lot to do with digital delivery of media in ways that are still being figured out. I knew we'd be seeing cases like Handley and Canada Customs when PROTECT was passed, I just didn't know where or when.
I think one of the threats we're dealing with now is how laws passed pre-Internet, or in the Internet's popular infancy are being applied to the more dynamic communications environment we live in today. No one would have conceived of the notion that laws designed to stop the sexual exploitation of minors would be used against actual minors sending racy messages to each other. These laws are blunt instruments that are veering off from their intended purpose. They were designed to prevent and prosecute the abuse of real people, and are instead moving into terrain where they're targeting folks who are consuming art. So, I don't know that there's a big specific challenge to online media that's in the wings, so much as we're starting to see lots of new, previously unconsidered threats to content in digital environments in ways that there's potential for vulnerability to online publishing, social media, and file sharing on one hand, and physically crossing borders on the other.
MARDER: Totally agree. Ever since PROTECT passed I've worried about the blurring of things that aren't real, like cartoon drawings allowed under the the law to be equated with things that are real, like photographs of real life. Young people are growing up in a mash-up world where every kind of media is smooshed up together and put up on something like Tumblr. They may not even have the slightest bit of awareness that what they are doing while having fun on their iPhone or laptop could put them at risk. It's the kind of risk that could affect them for the rest of rest of their life.
BROWNSTEIN: The thing that's scary about the Customs case is that a customs agent determined that a small number of image files containing line art on the defendant's computer constituted possession of criminal material. So someone who isn't trained to understand art, but is trained to suss out counterfeit goods, undeclared cash and bad fruit is making life-altering decisions about the disposition of art that people are traveling with.
I think this prosecution has precedent not just for folks reading material in digital environments, but for artists, editors and creators of all stripes who work in digital environments. Which is everyone.
People have gone to jail for sharing files of pornographic Simpsons cartoons, you know, and they were targeted because those file names set off flags for the FBI's child pornography hunters. The fact that they actually prosecuted and convicted people under child pornography laws for possession of those drawings is scary for anyone who wants to read Potential, or Lost Girls, or Diary of a Teenage Girl, or The Playboy in a digital environment, and even scarier for an artist whose drawings include any degree of nudity or sexuality. You know those books are art, I know those books are art, but to the wrong Customs agent who's having a bad day, those books may look like criminal material, or they may think that you must be hiding the real stuff somewhere since you've got this drawn stuff. This isn't meant to be a scare tactic, it's just a blunt description of what's actually happening right now.
SPURGEON: Larry, I've seen you out on the convention circuit a bit more, so I definitely want to rope your opinion in on this at least in terms of the culture change. It seems to me that in a pretty obvious way that the con and festival circuit has been growing, or that at least there are more sizable and important comics shows now in North America. Has that been a positive for outreach and convention activities? What's different now as opposed to 15 years ago in terms of how the community uses these opportunities to meet, both for the fund and generally?
MARDER: Although I've been an avid comics reader since the late 1950s, I didn't stumble upon fandom until the mid-'70s when I was in my mid-20s. This was before the start of the direct sales, non-returnable comic book marketplace. There were hardly any specialty shops outside of the big cities. All comics were still sold off of the newsstand. Comic book conventions were just starting to find their footing. The first con I went to was a one-day mini-con in the Hartford, CT area in 1975. I had pretty much already decided that I wasn't a comics collector but a comics accumulator. All the guys talking about their scores and finds just didn't attract my interest the way it clearly did that of other fans.
After I moved back to Chicago in 1976 I attended the very first Chicago Comicon held in a ballroom in the Playboy building on Michigan Avenue. This was something new to me. There were panels. Comics professionals talking about the history and making of comics. This was something I could wrap my head around. At about the same time I discovered fanzines. The Comic Reader was the first I started reading regularly. Not too long after I started subscribing to the Comics Journal, while it was still the New Nostalgia Journal. I was a three-day pass-holder to every Chicago Con after that. I only bought hard-to-find new stuff. Mostly I sat in the audience for panel after panel; listening and learning. I learned an incredible amount about the history of the comics and the personalities of the people who had made them and were still making them. The rest of the con had little interest to me.
After I turned pro in '85, the entire convention experience changed for me. I was no longer a fan comics accumulator but a Beanworld comics disseminator. Because I was the creator of a oddball, low distribution, small press alternative comic and not a darling of Comics Buyer's Guide, The Comics Journal or Amazing Heroes, I really had only one way to get my name out to the fans -- comic book conventions. Almost from the get-go I was giving away Free Beanworld Action Figures, real lima beans with eyes drawn on them, as an attention getter. I found if I was doing something unique and different, I could get fans to stop and talk and maybe get them to buy an issue. Then I went one step further, I was one of the first people to give away an entire issue of a comic book as a free sample in like '87 or '88. Some fans treated me like I was a crazy man "This comic book is so bad he has to give it away!" But it worked very well for me. So many of today's adult Beanworld fans report that the first issue they read they received from me when they are a kid.
This is all a very long way of saying that I believe the outreach opportunities presented in the convention environment are as rich with potential today as they have always been. Particularly as the convention economy has been growing in leaps and bounds for the last few years. You just have to try to be more clever than your competition for attendee attention.
Regional conventions have had the greatest growth. Conventions are becoming a tradition like the circus -- it rolls into town once or twice a year and the whole family gets together and spends the day enjoying pop culture together. It's a great opportunity for everyone in the business to meet new people and sell them your wares including CBLDF. People wander by our booth and see our banner. Often the immediate response to our name is "I didn't know comic books needed defending." It's a great launching pad for a serious conversation about freedom of speech with people who are interested in their constitutional rights. Many will drop some cash into the donation cans and boxes. Sometimes someone will join on the spot. They always seem to take our literature. Hopefully they take a look at cbldf.org when they get home and empty their swag bags to look at their haul of the day.
As far as 15 years ago goes, from my point of view the convention environment was already well on its course of change in 1996. The publisher booths were already gargantuan auto-show type extravaganzas. Female fans were starting to arrive. Before that it had often been that a woman at a con was a wife or a girlfriend but it began to change around the time Comic-Con moved into the new expo center. Clearly something new was in the air.
BROWNSTEIN: I've been a pretty serious road warrior for a dozen years, and was steeped in the convention culture in different capacities before that and, from where I stand, I think that the difference between comic book conventions as recently as the turn of the century and today is night and day.
There are at least four basic convention categories that I interact with: the big tent massive national pop-culture show like San Diego and New York; the regional comics show like HeroesCon and Emerald City; the regional art comics festival like SPX and Stumptown; and the anime fan convention like Anime Expo and Anime Detour. Within each category of the current climate I find the audience is remarkably gender balanced, and within each category there's a very high level of professionalism across the board.
I think a lot of credit for this needs to go to Comic-Con International, who set the gold standard for what a comic convention can be in the USA. They do an incredible job serving their mission to elevate awareness and appreciation of comics and popular arts. Although people like to criticize the Hollywood participation at their shows, they parlayed that revenue into supporting a diversity of guests and programming that advances appreciation of comics at all three of their conventions. They also used that revenue to create a high level of professional presentation, and have managed it in such a way that their summer show has captivated the popular imagination. I think before Comic-Con blew up, the standard for a comics show was a lot less polished. I think they showed a model for a kind of comics show that was more of an event that anyone could come to and have a positive experience. And I think that's really raised the bar across the board, and it's reflected in the increased interest in comics conventions across the country, and in the more professional presentation of those conventions.
MARDER: I could not agree more. The complainers and grumblers always crack me up. I like to think that there could have been fans walking around the late '70s floor with t-shirts saying "Star Wars ruined Comic-Con!" Popular culture doesn't stand still, it's a reflection of the people. We are all better off from the swarms of fandom that have come out of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Twilight.
BROWNSTEIN: Well, it's all part of the same cultural conversation. Twenty years ago, comics really felt, and economically existed, apart from mass pop culture. Now we're at the heart of mass pop culture. Part of it is that Comic-Con helped establish a space where that mingling could occur, on both a behind the scenes business level and on a fan level. There are pros and cons that you can argue in hindsight, but the fact is we're here. Comic-Con is one of those tastemaking things like Sundance and E3, but unlike Sundance and E3, there really is space for sincere discussion of the art form, and there really is space for truly DIY creativity to find a berth. And the organizers of that show make it a point of pride to make that space exist. So I think that excitement that developed from Comic-Con's explosion definitely inspired interest in comic book shows all over the country, and it developed a rising tide that raised all of our vessels.
Unquestionably, conventions are a vital component of the CBLDF's fundraising and program activities. The community of convention organizers is very generous to us and donates the space that lets us fundraise, and give us programming time to perform education work. And it's good, because at every event there's a new burst of people that have no idea that we exist, and that we get to make contact with. If I'm being optimistic, I think that's because more and more new people are coming into the comics culture as serious fans at these events, where they started as casual consumers. If I'm being pessimistic, I think that's because we need to do a better job reaching these folks where they live with our messaging. The truth is in the middle, I'm sure.
But I also think that speaks to the heart of your question, Tom. Fifteen years ago the conventions I went to were predominantly male affairs where there was a feeling of marginalized tribalism that permeated the proceedings. Conventions today are bright, enjoyable popular events that people come to because it's cool, as opposed to being the only place that you'll find others of your own kind. That's good for our fundraising, and I think good for the overall culture of comics.
SPURGEON: Given the fact that the economy has been such a nettlesome thing for the Fund and monies are tight, how would you currently answer the criticism that the Fund should focus solely on coordinating the legal cases that come to its attention, as opposed to its education and support-of-free-speech-litigation-generally activities? What would you point to as specific, solid successes for comics fan in your work with general free speech and anti-censorship litigation, something that has an effect on the comics fan?
BROWNSTEIN: Our mission has always been to defend cases and provide education about First Amendment rights, so I haven't heard much criticism about that particular element of our work. But from my experience, I'd say that it's not possible to maintain a mechanism that can defend and win cases like the Gordon Lee case if it's allowed to go dormant in between cases. Maintaining a full-time office that is constantly fundraising and constantly active in the programmatic environment means we have a knowledgeable team that can leap immediately into managing cases when they arise. We have a team that knows how to identify legal talent, how to manage the messaging, and how to raise funds to support the case. If you're building that from scratch every time, I think you lose a lot of program effectiveness.
In terms of wins that have directly helped the comics fan -- sure. This year our arguments were cited in the Supreme Court in a case that sought to make violence an unprotected area of speech, and Justice Scalia cited our industry's history as part of the reason that content prohibitions of this type are harmful to Free Expression. If that case had gone the other way, it would have been open season not just on violent video games, but violent content of all stripes. Last year we knocked out an Oregon harmful to minors law that had provisions that were over broad would have made it very easy to entrap retailers who sold constitutionally protected speech to minors. Maintaining a profile in the First Amendment community and doing coalition work of this type helps prevent cases, and helps get rid of laws that can affect fans' access to the material they enjoy.
SPURGEON: Larry, when you take on an assignment like the position you have now, do you have specific goals in mind? What would ideally you like to see happen before you might feel like moving on. Now that you've had some experience there, what do you think your unique contribution might be in terms of the Fund's history?
MARDER: Generally when you get hired for a job, whoever employs you gives a set of goals to pursue. That hasn't been so true for me. I've pretty much set my own agendas after arriving by looking around to see what I can contribute. No one really told me at Image Comics or the McFarlane Companies exactly what I was there for. A big part of why I'd been hired was to take my skills and apply them to the current situation and see what I could come up with to make the various parts of the organizations mesh and communicate with each other better and more efficiently.
By nature, I'm a marketing and advertising guy. When I came on board CBLDF I can't claim to have had an specific agenda beyond protecting the First Amendment rights of the comic book community. Well, that's not exactly true, one of my direct observations that came from hanging around the Fund for a few years and constant dialogue with Charles was that people weren't particularly well informed about the specifics of the First Amendment. Freedom of Speech was something that was talked about a lot on TV and the like but barely ever explained. People didn't seem to get the idea that freedom of the press is about being able to own and print on your own press. That when an editor changes the work you were hired to do for the company that hired you; that that is editing and not censorship. You are free to create, own, and self publish your own comics elsewhere.
I've said at more than one meeting that I though we ought to go back to basics in our outreach. I'm always reminded of Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers. They might have been the most dominant team in football, winning championships year after year, but the first meeting at training camp every year started with Lombardi lifting the pigskin and saying "Gentlemen, this is a football." My goal with the Fund is to make sure that everyone understands where the First Amendment starts and stops. That everyone in the creative community understands that the freedoms of the First Amendment are our rights guaranteed by the constitution and not a privilege granted by the powers that be.
Like all the jobs and positions I've undertaken over the last two decades. When I'm done, I'll know. When I don't believe I have anything more to contribute I'll make way for someone who does.
SPURGEON: The fund is in New York, the home -- as much as there is a single home -- of the Occupy movement. Have either of you paid any attention to that and see connections to the kind of work you do, or the spirit behind the kind of advocacy you support?
BROWNSTEIN: I'm not going to voice my personal opinion, beyond saying that I empathize with the points of view for and against the protests, and think, fundamentally, that they represent an important display of the First Amendment right to assembly. I don't think it's appropriate for the Fund to take a political stand beyond the one that says we protect the rights of speech and press affecting work in the comics medium.
When Susie Cagle was arrested I reached out to see if she needed help, and fortunately she had already secured good counsel. So in that case we weren't needed, but I would have certainly have been willing to do what was needed to ensure that her First Amendment rights as a cartoonist-reporter were upheld. But that's less about Occupy, and more about the rights of reporters using the comics medium, and the CBLDF's moral and functional obligation to protect their rights.
SPURGEON: Has there been any difference or any special challenges in working with the manga fan communities and those publishers? How is your support amongst the North American manga publishers and those fans?
BROWNSTEIN: We're really at the ground level in that environment. In the early days of the corporate membership program, the First Amendment challenges didn't track with the Japanese parent companies. I think that's starting to change. But for the most part we're largely a new quantity in that climate and we're working with some good people to try to make better inroads. And the goal is to create a dialogue where we can learn about the concerns people in that environment have regarding Free Expression, and to educate them about the current issues we're dealing with affecting manga, and the work we're doing to help protect the field.
I think, to tie back to Larry's earlier point, we're at that Lombardi "This is a football" moment in that community. We're the CBLDF, we protect the First Amendment. Here's what we're doing right now to help this community, and we'd like to find ways to work with you, we want to learn what your concerns are, and we want to develop mutual goals that serve our mission in this community.
SPURGEON: How big a deal is it for the Fund to have international support or have like-minded organizations with which to work on cases that involve material being shipped from outside of the country?
BROWNSTEIN: Allies are important, and there's two pieces of your question -- international allies and like-minded organizations. The CLLDF, who came out of dormancy to fundraise for the Customs Case, is doing important work by taking possession of the issue for their fellow citizens. Working with them I think is a lot better than being the Americans coming in and visiting our agenda on the Canadian system.
Like-minded organizations are vital to the information sharing that helps win cases, and helps advance missions. Our association with ALA helped us combat the challenge against Stuck in the Middle in Maine this month. Our association with Media Coalition led to our relationship with ABFFE and ALA, which led to us becoming sponsors of Banned Books Week. All of these associations, and the CBLDF's standing as an important member of the First Amendment community mean we're not just a strange organization off to the side, but are a vital organization working as part of a community that defends Free Expression.
SPURGEON: If I'm seated next to you on an airplane, and I'm actually pretty aware of the Fund, that you can have a membership or buy items, say, what is one thing that you would convince me is worth doing in support of what you do, perhaps something that most people don't think about as a possibility? Are you able to accept estate bequests, for an overly dramatic example? What tools in your tool box maybe don't get used as much as others?
MARDER: I won't kid you, if you're sitting next to me on an airline, I'm going to talk up Beanworld before I ever get around to the Fund. [laughter] It's not my nature to sell until I know who I'm selling to. I'd listen to you and your ideas about comics, the constitution, and the Fund first. Then depending on your interest and talents and an eagerness to help the cause we could find a way that best suits both our interests.
BROWNSTEIN: We actually have worked out bequests on a case-by-case basis, and would like to establish that as a mechanism. The truth is that our small staffing has probably limited our ability to pursue more traditional fundraising avenues like that, but we would like to pursue them. So I guess the way that I'd say you, or anyone, can help is if you see opportunities that we're missing that you're able to help us open up, we'd love to work with you. We're a small staff, but we're always happy to work with people who can lend their expertise to making this organization even better.
SPURGEON: Is there anyone in the Fund's history, from either of your perspective, whose contributions have yet to be properly assessed?
BROWNSTEIN: I don't know that anyone in the Fund's history has had their contributions property assessed. Certainly Denis, as founder, is due a wealth of recognition for his 18 years of labor making the organization a reality, and I think that's happened. I think Frank Mangiaracina is appropriately recognized for standing by Michael Correa, his employee and our first defendant . But I'm not sure that anyone else really gets their full due, because so many of the important people who make the Fund a reality are doing it with a volunteer spirit while they're being recognized for the other things that they do in life.
I don't want to make a laundry list of people who deserve a full appraisal because those things invariably lead to accidentally omitting someone who worked hard. But we've had some incredibly important rainmaking donors over the years, some of whom sought public recognition, and some who actively shunned it. I think the contributions of past Executive Directors brought us to where we are. I think the board has always been a working board and put in more sweat than comparable boards of directors.
I think a really cool comic could be made about the communities of volunteers who have kept us advancing, from our earliest roots to our current work. Over the years there have been so many smart, hard working people who have stepped up to help us spread the word about what we do, and take us to the next level. They truly are our real life's blood. We currently try to acknowledge those folks in our Good Fighters series on CBLDF.org, and did a bit of that in our old Busted print newsletter too. I can tell you it's a privilege to work with all of them.
MARDER: Freedom of speech is our guaranteed right but it seems to always be under assault somewhere. I know it sounds corny but I'm grateful to everyone who donated a bit of their time, their energy, their income to CBLDF in the past, the present, and the future.
* photo of Brownstein
* photo of Marder
* cover image for Feature
* Beanworld Orphans
* Mike Diana
* Dave Sim's issue of Spawn
* classic CBLDF logo
* Spawn #10
* classic logo
* from the Transmetropolitan project discussed
* Larry Marder at a convention
* the CBLDF at a convention
* storage room at the CBLDF offices
* from Marder's Beanworld
* the Fund's current logo (below)
* J. Caleb Mozzocco and Christopher Allen comment on the possibility of more Watchmen from DC Comics. One thing I find interesting is that if this stuff doesn't hit artistically and sales-wise, the reputation of the book and its primary mover Alan Moore have in recent years been damaged enough in fan circles that there should be something of an opportunity to place any under-performance at the feet of the original rather than placing blame on the idea to try and do more work or even the work that results.
* finally, there's some discussion about the loss of the Comics Journal message board roughly one year since it took place in the comments thread of a post about the Journal going on hiatus. Kim Thompson's comment is the funniest.
CR Holiday Interview #9 -- Barry Matthews And Leon Avelino
I met Barry Matthews and Leon Avelino earlier this year when James Sturm invited me out to his Center For Cartoon Studies for their annual Career/Industry/Depress-The-Crap-Out-Of-The-Students Day. I was impressed with how forthright and eloquent they were about their publishing enterprise, Secret Acres -- both their ambitions for it and how while the day-to-day reality of negotiating the boutique press comics business may fall short of any ideals one may bring to the work, it doesn't have to without a fight. Since then I've paid way more attention to that business as a publishing operation as opposed to the place where individual books I always seemed to like were coming out. I've even fallen a bit in love with their occasional, rambling blog posts, particularly the post-show pieces, the best of which have made me come as close as I get to believing in a comics community.
Secret Acres published Mike Dawson's Troop 142 this Fall. Dawson's one of the last remaining straight-ahead narrative humorists in comics, which sets him apart in an age of impressive comics-makers of the decorative, evocative variety. He's also been published by others, which makes him a different beast in some ways than the largely unknowns that have found their way to an ISBN number through Barry and Leon's efforts. I thought this a good time to get into what makes Secret Acres -- a jewel in the present, rich world of small-press enterprises -- go. I was happy they agreed to participate. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I know almost nothing about your backgrounds -- sadly, this seems to be the major connecting element between this year's interview subjects -- so I was wondering if we could walk through that with each of you. Because of what you do now, can each of you talk a little about your history reading comics, what books or kinds of books were important to you and why in terms of getting you to where you are now?
LEON AVELINO: The first comics I read were Tintin books. In fact, I didn't read them. My mother, a Mexican raised mostly in Paris, had several albums in French and she would read them to me in English. When I later met other kids who had read Tintin, I had no idea who "Snowy" was. She also a had a book of Pogo comics, and while I liked the drawings, I was clueless as to what the hell Pogo was talking about. When I was eight, my cousin, I believe, introduced me to Captain Carrot, which got me going to the corner headshop to keep reading them. At some point in third grade, I picked up a copy of X-Men, mostly because Storm (as I would later find out she was named) happened to be on the cover and was turning into some creature that looked a bit like the alien from the movie Alien (which remains an obsession, after seeing it six times in theaters when I was six years old). Another kid in the headshop told me to check out Funny Business, which was the local comic shop on the Upper West Side. I was a latchkey kid and I hung out there every day after school until eventually, Roger, the owner, gave me a job. I made three dollars worth of comics for every day I worked shelving and pricing comics after school. I even got to meet Joey Cavalieri, the editor of Captain Carrot, who was kind enough to sign my books.
MATTHEWS: I grew up reading DC Comics as a kid in the '70s. I loved the superhero books along with all of their ridiculous continuity lapses and patches in as time went on. I was a huge Green Lantern fan. I would hoard comics and I had stacks and stacks of them. When I was around seven, my mother and I lived with her boyfriend in a house that he rented out to students at Johnson State College in Vermont. Somehow, one of college students got a copy of Zap Comix into my hands, and it was a mind-blowing experience for me. The idea that comics could be "scary" (overtly sexual, sadistic, irreverent) left a huge impression on me as a kid. To me, it was mildly terrifying that someone could come up with these twisted storylines and then draw them and have them published. I saw that comics had the capacity to be subversive and naughty. The format seemed to be a perfect conduit for the fantasies and fears of the artist, with the illustration allowing for expressionistic impact that words alone could not convey.
AVELINO: Roger and my mother started dating and I made out like a bandit, grabbing a ton of comics that I would later sell to keep myself in ramen during college. I started reading back issues of everything and, later on, comics like Ronin, Akira and Saga Of The Swamp Thing led me to look for more sophisticated comics and books from independent publishers like Comico and First. This changed what I thought comics were about (mainly slugfests). They were darker, more thoughtful and artistically way ahead of the Big Two superhero books that brought me to Funny Business in the first place.
I was also drawing space epic comics with my friend, Jordan Worley, who would later go on to work for World War 3, but I stopped drawing altogether when he started reading RAW and became a real artist, revealing my crappy robot drawings for what they were. I stopped working at Funny Business, too, and stopped reading comics regularly through junior high and high school, but in college, a friend of mine who was studying film at USC discovered Eightball. I picked those up on his recommendation and I started reading Hate and Love and Rockets and I became fairly obsessed with Tony Millionaire's comics as well. Maybe it was the USC connection, but I always thought of those books as West Coast comics.
MATTHEWS: I dabbled in comics in high school, following Watchmen issue by issue, and reading Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. I discovered Frank Miller's work (Ronin, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One, Elektra: Assassin) and devoured all of it. I loved seeing the super hero material being transformed into well-thought out, socially relevant, intellectually challenging storylines, but I drifted away from comics in college, except for syndicated strips that appeared in the alt-weeklies.
When I first saw Al Columbia's Pim & Francie, it scared me and thrilled me in a way that Zap Comix did all those years ago. There is something thoroughly unique to the medium of sequential art, and I have never lost my fascination with the ability of comics to charm or enrage the reader. It is a medium that elicits strong reactions from its readership.
SPURGEON: Am I right in that you both worked in comics at some point? I could be totally spacing on this and it could be just one of you. How was that experience as preparation for what you're doing now?
AVELINO: After grad school, between jobs, I went back to Funny Business -- not to work, but because I had somehow gotten it into my head that I needed to reacquire the comics I sold to get though school. The store had moved and was on its last legs, but I volunteered to help Roger build a website. While working on his computer at the store, Joey Cavalieri came in and actually remembered me and my Captain Carrot obsession. He told me to send my resume to DC, which I did, mostly on a lark and because the nine-year-old me would never have forgiven the adult me for not doing it. A year later, I was hired by Jack Mahan, who would be a father figure of sorts for the rest of my life, to work in the Editorial Administration department. There, on my first day, I met Heidi MacDonald, then a Vertigo editor, who correctly told me that the best writer in comics was Dylan Horrocks. Pickle opened up the floodgates. I started reading all the Drawn & Quarterly books and going through the mini-comic racks at Hanley's with the gang that had quickly adopted me: Axel Alonso, who had just moved to Marvel, Vertigo editors Will Dennis and Tammy Beatty, artist Cliff Chiang and Peggy Burns, DC publicist. This was the first time I ever felt conscious of being part of a comics community.
MATTHEWS: I had never worked in comics or publishing prior to starting Secret Acres with Leon. I worked in business and finance for most of my professional life.
AVELINO: After Peggy seduced Tom Devlin, Highwater Books publisher, at the San Diego Comic-Con International, she introduced me first to his books and then to Tom himself. Those books, and Tom, would pretty well define my tastes in comics for good. I'd never seen or imagined comics that looked like them. Every book he published was so unique and weird and gorgeous. I remember the first time I read Skibber Bee Bye and Non #5 and being overwhelmed by it all, at times forgetting to read and just staring at them. They were everything comics should be. I still read all kinds and genres of comics, but those books will always be home base for me. Like many others, I got sucked into working for Tom, trying like hell to make financial sense out of Highwater, getting tax returns done, paying off debts, and ultimately, incorporating the company. The board consisted of Tom, Jordan Crane and myself. A few months later, Highwater shut down, Peggy got a job at Drawn & Quarterly and she and Tom split for Montreal. I did learn what to do, and what not to do, from all that, but it was heartbreaking to say the least.
MATTHEWS: I think my practical business experience was a huge boon to us when we were starting out. I felt very confident that I knew how to balance our books, submit taxes, plan and budget, manage AR and collections, etc. I've also worked in the internet for most of my career, so my basic knowledge of web technologies came in handy as well. Leon did a terrific job coming up with the design for our site and stationery -- it's one of the aspects of Secret Acres that we've gotten the most compliments on, and I think that the artists we initially contacted were impressed that we had such a refined "look" to our materials. Leon's concrete comics experience was invaluable and he did all of the legwork in figuring out what we'd need to do to get our print production ups and running. For two people starting out from scratch, our combined interests and talents worked really well together and allowed us to get started very quickly.
SPURGEON: Tell me more about the decision to initially publish and the lead up to your first work. Because your first book was I think 2006, which means it was probably in the planning stages for a little bit, and that would put you back during a time when publishing comics seemed like a crazier decision than it is now.
AVELINO: It was crazy to even consider publishing comics when Barry and I decided, in 2005, to start our company. Crazy is an appropriate word. I'm pretty well educated in psychology, but even I have a hard time identifying what was wrong with me back then. I had grown up poor with parents who once had money, and I'd gone to private schools on scholarships most of my educational life with some of the richest kids on earth. I was always conscious of the fact that I was broke. I got so used to it that when Barry and I started to make a little money, wiped out our debts, had a commitment ceremony and bought an apartment together, I was shocked at how comfortable my life had become. We were talking about adopting then, but it wasn't long before it was crystal clear I was in no way ready for that. I started to lose interest in just about everything. I am worthless, depressed and angry without a plan, if I ever feel uninspired. Barry was quick to see that one of the few things that would temporarily halt my slide into severe depression was the time I was spending with Tom and working on Highwater Books. Randy Chang, another Highwater draftee, had started Bodega Distribution. Barry put two and two together, and suggested we start a comic company. I believe Barry was trying to save me from myself in starting Secret Acres. It worked.
We sold our apartment to bring down our expenses. We obsessively read many hundreds, maybe thousands, of mini-comics. I even started making mini-comics to trade for more mini-comics. Around this time, Sean Ford, one of our dearest friends (whom I'd met at DC when he was one of Peggy's interns), had gone off to the Center for Cartoon Studies. John Brodowski lives in Vermont, so during our visits to Sean at CCS, we made time to meet with John. He was the first person we ever talked to about publishing their work. At CCS, we met Sam Gaskin, Joe Lambert and Gabby Schulz. When we were satisfied that we had read everything there was to read, we made a list of artists to contact. We did a lot of traveling to meet with everyone. Theo Ellsworth and Minty Lewis claimed that our stationery was what put us over the top. It was nearly a year before we heard back from Edie Fake, who hadn't checked his mail for eight months. Ultimately, all but one accepted our offer. We launched the site and the distro in 2007. We published our first books in 2008, Sam Gaskin's Fatal Faux-Pas and Eamon Espey's Wormdye.
MATTHEWS: At the same time that Leon was having difficulty arriving at a plan for himself, I was interested in having my own business pursuit. From tagging along with him to MoCCA, I had been exposed to a ton of minicomics and realty exciting small publications. Jamie Tanner, Eamon Espey and Tom Kaczynski all produced work that got me excited about comics again. Leon had experience from working at DC Comics and hanging around with Tom Devlin from Highwater, so I thought that dipping our collective toes in the water of comics publishing would be a natural fit for both of us at the stage of life we had entered.
We created the company "legally" in December 2006 and started contacting artists in early 2007, knowing full well that our first book would not appear until 2008.
SPURGEON: So definitely 2008 is when your first books came out. My bad.
MATTHEWS: There was an extended period of saving every dime we had to fund the first few books. We launched the site and the minicomics Emporium in the fall of 2007. The first two books were debuted at roughly the same time, at MoCCA 2008, when the festival was still at the Puck Building in the toasty month of June.
We knew that the margins would be slender and that the first few years would be a tremendous struggle, financially. We also knew that there was a chance that one of the titles might take off, sales-wise. We made tons of mistakes, but were quick to rebound from every last one of them.
SPURGEON: As a follow-up to that more nuts and boltish "this happened and then that happened" question, how did you initially conceive of Secret Acres in terms of mission, maybe, if that's appropriate, but also just in terms of where you saw a place for yourselves in the overall constellation of publishers working that same general terrain? Did you see people not being published? Did you see a kind of book you wanted out there. Did you think in those terms at all?
MATTHEWS: In my recollection, we really wanted to have a small group of artists we could champion, publish and support. For everyone that we've published, it was inconceivable to us that they didn't already have homes for their work, and I don't mean for that to sound like hyperbole. The books that we publish seem essential to us, the epitome of what comic art can accomplish. Whatever we've published, the books always struck us as absolutely necessary.
AVELINO: Our fantasy was to find a dozen unpublished artists and publish everything they did and that would be Secret Acres. Mike Dawson, who had books out from Bloomsbury and AdHouse before coming to us, forced us to break that rule for good, because the alternative of skipping his book was not a real option. We tried, and continue to try, to avoid having a mission statement. A big worry for me was that we would turn into something people could pin down. I think we've been pretty successful in that regard. It would be a difficult thing for someone to put together a Secret Acres book. Our tastes are fairly broad, but I'd be surprised if anyone managed to cater to them. This is where I part company with Tom, who had a manifesto and a real agenda with Highwater. It was easy to get the sense that he was looking to fix comics and that he knew exactly what it would take. We are nowhere near that specific.
We do, however, need to be able to identify an artist at first glance. The comics we were drawn to were distinct. They couldn't possibly be confused with the work of anyone else. They also had heart, no matter how disturbing or abstract they might be. The proof of this was in meeting the artists. They are some of the best people I will ever meet. I'm honored to call them friends. Funnily enough, before we went diving headfirst through every self-published comic we could find, the one artist Barry and I both agreed we'd love to publish was Jamie Tanner. I'm sure his name was mentioned the night Barry first suggested starting a company. Jamie was the lone artist to turn us down, having found a home at AdHouse Books. We were right about Jamie, too, he's a great a person, as is the AdHouse captain, Chris Pitzer.
MATTHEWS: I think we hoped to always work with the same group of artists instead of being a stepping stone for people to go on to work with more established publishers, but the reality is that we will have some artists that outgrow us and go on to do larger-scale projects. I still expect that we will be able to grow to meet the needs of artists that stick with us. It makes me extraordinarily happy that everyone still wants to do books with us and we're beginning to do our second (or third) books with the artists.
In terms of content, I think Leon and I are proud of the fact that the work we publish is varied. We don't subscribe to any kind of aesthetic guidelines that dictate whom we work with. We expect the comics to be distinct and identifiable and compelling.
AVELINO: Our place among other publishers was determined by other publishers. Randy Chang has been always been our friend, was at times a mentor and makes a great confessor. We might have gone mad were it not for the fact that we could bitch and moan to Randy. Through Randy, we met Dylan Williams, whose love of our books and constant encouragement were critical for us. Both Randy and Dylan let us pile on to their events. They sent us to Tony Shenton, our sales agent. They helped us find printers. A lot of what I do as part of Secret Acres is new to me, and I have to have blind faith that somehow I'll figure out what it is that I'm doing along the way. Without those guys to lean on at the start, I don't think Barry and I would have made it this far. Over the years, other people have found us. Chris Pitzer has been a great big brother to us. Being around Annie Koyama is like finding out Santa Claus is real. Much like the way we fell in love with the artists behind the comics that we wanted to publish, so it has been with comics publishers. The people who publish the books we adore are just what you'd expect them to be. Our place among publishers is with our friends. We're happy to keep earning our spot among Bodega, Sparkplug, AdHouse and Koyama Press. We're a good fit. I hope.
SPURGEON: Are you the same publisher you were five years ago? How are you different? Do you see the company differently, even?
AVELINO: Five years ago, Barry and I were on the road to splitting up, I felt like the man who had everything and was losing it, and we were both of us still following our convictions that Secret Acres was a good idea. I must really love regrets to have so many, but years of therapy later, I feel pretty good about myself and my life. It would have been nice if it hadn't cost me so much, though. Secret Acres has kind of been our kid, Barry's and mine. It's the last thing I would give up. I'm a better human being now, due in no small part to taking care of Secret Acres. When we started, I was focused on making something out of nothing and in a near constant state of quiet panic over what I couldn't do. Now, I'm focused on the the fact that there's nothing I wouldn't do for Secret Acres. It has not been smooth sailing. We've had to cancel books. We've printed too many of certain titles. We screwed up our pricing. These are mistakes we won't make again.
MATTHEWS: Since we were in our infancy five years ago, I think it's impossible to be that same publisher. That said, we are infinitely wiser about the business than we were five years ago! Print costs, print run sizes, cover pricing, sales: we have learned so much over the past five years. When it gets into the business specifics of publishing comics, we are savvier and a little more conservative than we were five years ago. But we're also more innovative and willing to roll up our shirtsleeves to get projects into the hands of readers.
AVELINO: We were profoundly affected by Dylan Williams' death. We were at the Small Press Expo when we heard. After a very difficult year in 2010, which saw the company nearly grind to a halt, we'd been having our best year by far through 2011. We were debuting Troop 142, which was off to a great start. Gaylord Phoenix and I Will Bite You! were about to win three Ignatz Awards. When tragedy is sandwiched between triumphs like those, it's impossible not to stop and consider what it all means.
For me, it was clear that Dylan was right about most things. There are a lot of us, these comic-loving weirdos and cartoonists that Dylan lived for, and our numbers are growing. Dylan was fearlessly devoted to doing only what he loved and he insisted that should be our goal, too. I'm still a little divided on that thought. I worry that if I quit my day job, or even if I allow that to be my goal, I'm going to start making decisions with Secret Acres in terms of how it will pay my bills and not in terms of making books out of what these supremely talented cartoonists are producing. They're taking an astonishing risk, handing their art over to us. After SPX, I was determined to find ways to honor that commitment. Caroline Small wrote about this year's SPX as an education in comics as a spiritual pursuit. She's right. Comics is as much of a religion as it is a medium, maybe more so.
MATTHEWS: Content-wise, I believe we are the same publisher. We are still committed to all of the artists we started out with and we still believe that their work should be published and lauded. We might be working with a couple of more established artists, but we feel the same about their comics as we do the comics of some of the more fledgling artists we work with. We still carry a large number of minicomics that we believe represent the the very best self-published books available now.
I am a much more confident person than I was five years ago, as a person and as a publisher. Starting out, it was easy to second-guess decisions we were making, but nowadays there are fewer unknown variables for the business. We know how to market books, manage print run timing, troubleshoot production issues, discuss editorial input with artists. The stress of looking out for the business and trying to ensure its longevity is plenty reduced, and a lot of that comes from a renewed sense of self-confidence on my end.
AVELINO: As a publisher, I'm no longer thinking of what Secret Acres is or is going to be. The artists we publish will determine that for me. I'm trying first and foremost to protect the company, so that we don't have those stretches like the middle of 2010, where we wind up wondering if we're done for. I believe we have finally crossed some line where we will never again have to entertain those thoughts. We're learning how to print our own books, like our latest, Curio Cabinet #5. We're learning how better to control print runs, without sacrificing quality. We're looking at what works for other publishers, we're trying to figure our way into digital publishing and we're working on restructuring the way we handle whatever money we do make so that our artists can take home more of it.
I'm reluctantly coming around to wanting to do this as my job and not just as my religion, but it's more important to me that the people we publish have that opportunity, too. They may make things that only a very lucky few will appreciate, but I'll be damned if they're going to miss out on being able to make things all the time because we're eating whatever profits there might be. From the start, we've always put the cartoonists and their art ahead of every other concern. We have to make good on the promise that, no matter what, the artists we publish will always have a home for their art with Secret Acres, even if they outgrow us. It's always seemed strange to me that other publishers passed on the people we publish, whether the books were hits or not. If publishing something beautiful that is defiantly uncommercial is crazy, then we're still crazy. In a lot ways, Secret Acres hasn't changed at all.
MATTHEWS: To be honest, I see Secret Acres as a little scrappier and more DIY than I anticipated it being when we started out, and I consider that a very good thing, because it shows me that Leon and I have created a publishing entity that can evolve and mature. It seems as though the print publishing world is changing daily. The growing pains of satisfying a digital readership are beginning already, even for small publishers. Secret Acres is lucky in that it has a small, flexible infrastructure that allows us to adapt to industry changes far easier and more quickly than larger publishers are able to. Our decision to bring some of our smaller printing projects in-house is an example of this. We're finding that we need to be as self-reliant and resourceful as many of the artists that we work with. We're developing along with the indie comics market, and I am actually pleased that some of the decisions that we make can surprise me and don't match the expectations I had five years ago. In my imagination, I think I thought that we would be slicker and glossier than we ended up, but five years into Secret Acres, I couldn't be happier with where we've arrived -- in many ways, it seems perfect to me.
SPURGEON: Talk to me about satisfying those digital customers. Are you talking about digital comics, or just those people that find you on-line? What's your digital footprint now and where do you want to be in, say, three years? Are you worried at all about finding your way in what seems like a completely different way of publishing?
AVELINO: We are talking about digital comics, though there really aren't many digital customers to satisfy. We've yet to make the leap into digital publishing. We've flirted with other publishers about developing digital comics together, but those conversations have so far gotten us nowhere. We keep a close eye on the digital comics marketplace. There are several players jockeying for market share leadership, all of whom seem to be following the iTunes model, which works well for Apple and sucks for just about everybody else.
Digital comics don't sell very well. The numbers (and, yes, we've seen actual numbers from publishers great and small) are minuscule. Even among record-breaking titles, sales of print comics average out to something above one hundred fifty times that of their digital counterparts. This may change, and rapidly, considering that the two major eReaders, Kindle and Nook (and really, Kindle), are now comics capable, but I'd be shocked if the folks looking to be the comics version of iTunes are currently operating at a profit, no matter how big a cut they take, and they take a huge cut. Again, behavior might change now that comics aren't trapped on the iPad, a device that only a small percentage use for reading. Maybe the Kindle Fire will save comics, but that seems unlikely, too.
The readership seems thoroughly confused by all this. Digital comics being priced identically to their print edition seems to piss a lot of people off, but they don't seem to understand what costs go in to making a comic and it's difficult to grasp that a digital anything might have a price tag of any kind. In much the same way that a self-identified liberal progressive will shop at Whole Foods, an extremely conservative company that hates them, because organic and heirloom just sound progressive, the same is true of the free internet. Free sounds egalitarian. Free killed the terrible music industry. Free also means monetarily worthless and it has pretty well killed the financial prospects of every kind of creative professional, musician, writer, artist, journalist, filmmaker, publisher and, of course, cartoonist. Personally, I'd rather see webcomics as strips in alt weeklies so their creators don't have to rely on the generosity of an audience that doesn't think they should pay for what other people make (and yet they have no problem with ISPs and tech giants taking their money hand over fist). It's contagious, too, as even publishers and the few remaining alt-weeklies expect to get their comics in exchange for probably worthless exposure.
We're not crazy enough to think digital comics and eBooks are going to save us from anything. The truth is the current dominating digital publishing technology, ePub, makes comics look like absolute dogshit. We will never put a comic on a phone because you can't really read a comic on a phone any better than you can watch a movie on one. If you can't comfortably see a whole page, you're not getting a whole comic. Just imagine reading Jack Cole's Plastic Man or Theo Ellsworth's Capacity on an iPhone, or better yet, don't.
We are interested in developing the highest quality digital comics possible and it appears technology may be catching up to us. It's worth doing if it expands the readership of the books we publish, but we're not kidding ourselves. Secret Acres' digital footprint, even if it's growing, is tiny. The finished work is the printed book. The same is true even for the cape crowd and their monthly chapbooks. Digital comics never made anyone fat. Comics aren't text. Form matters in this medium more than it does in any other. I used to say that the technology that's killing the creative professional is what made Secret Acres possible, but now I realize what a crock that line was. It did make for a nice sound byte, though.
MATTHEWS: As Leon indicates, the digital sphere is not going to have an impact on our sales, but there's no doubt in my mind that future comics readers will be reading comics on devices in dominant numbers. Watching various companies and publishers jockey for market leadership in the digital book realm is exhausting, but I think the market will establish itself eventually. We're hesitant at this point in time to just go with one of the established digital players.
We do want to offer our books digitally, but we haven't come across a format that really works or that capitalizes on how beautiful comics can be. To read a book on comiXology using "Guided View" is to experience the worst of what digital comics reading can be: the images are zoomed and oftentimes blurry, the panels are cut into odd pieces that seem disconnected from the narrative, and each other. It is clearly an aberration, but at the same time, it isn't very comfortable to read a comic book on a Kindle Fire. I've begun reading submissions we get on the iPad as pdf's, and it's the closest I've come to feeling comfortable reading a comic digitally. However we experience comics in the future, I think it will either be a larger ereader than a Kindle or Nook, or the format itself will morph into something that is easier to consume on a small ereader.
I believe that the digital format presents a fantastic opportunity for creators to introduce their work at a low price point to an interested audience. I am surprised that the big digital players have not tried to create some kind of self-publishing gateway for creators. It's a missed opportunity. There are so many talented artists that most people don't get to read unless they attend conventions or are able to mailorder minicomics. A digital minicomics marketplace could really help a lot of artists get their work seen and enjoyed.
At this point, I think whatever Secret Acres does digitally, it's going to be a very controlled, self-reliant experiment. If the new ePub specs truly make comics more digitally friendly, we will probably jump in, but we have yet to have a single customer ask us if any of our books is available digitally, so I don't think that there's a rush, but we plan on getting involved in the near future.
SPURGEON: When we did the CCS career day this year, both of you spoke forcefully about the failure of Diamond to provide basic service in terms of what your company requires. What is your relationship with the DM right now, with that company and with comics shops? Is it mostly through Tony? How big a component is it of your business, to have work available through these shops. For that matter, how many shops carry your work, period?
MATTHEWS: Retail sales are the bulk of our business, and orders that come through Tony tend to be the majority of those. One of the reasons that Baker & Taylor and Amazon are valuable is that they don't need to accept or reject books. They simply make the books available to customers. All of our books belong in comics shops, even if Diamond deems them to be too low-volume to suit them. There are a large number of shops that ordinarily order through Diamond that have begun to order whatever they can through Baker & Taylor so they can return items that don't sell. Leon and I are perfectly fine with this because we never get returns, and Baker & Taylor offers even small publishers more competitive rates than Diamond. This is an arrangement that works better for everyone (the small publisher, the retailer, the distributor) except Diamond. As near as we can tell, Diamond has turned its back on any kind of long-tail business practice and is wholly engaged in being a life support system for Marvel, DC and a handful of larger publishers. No matter how much we love the mainstream comic book, we believe that the majority of inspiration and potential for growth in the medium lies with the independent comics industry.
AVELINO: At this point, I'm not sure whether the problem is with Diamond or us. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't think we've ever shipped a Diamond order without some kind of catastrophe of lost books or books that were never marked as received or some other kind of administrative nightmare. Diamond is wildly inconsistent when it comes to our books. Wormdye, one of the top 25 books of the last decade per The Comics Journal, was rejected because Eamon's writing wasn't up to professional standards. Then it was accepted. They flatly turned down PS Comics, classified the Eisner-nominated Monsters as porn and listed it in their adult catalog, while books like Lost Girls and Paying for It were totally okay. They rejected the winner of the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel, Gaylord Phoenix, then ordered large numbers of I Will Bite You! and small numbers of Troop 142, which they then followed up with a huge re-order. I have no idea how seriously they take us. Diamond is like a box of chocolates.
Though it would be nice if we had any idea what to expect from Diamond, at the very least, we don't depend on them all that much. The porn orders for Monsters, for example, only represent about seven percent of that book's total sales. Most of our presence in the Direct Market is a result of Tony Shenton's efforts to shoehorn us in there. Our books are carried by 60 or so comic shops and independent bookstores via Tony, and who knows how many via Diamond and Baker & Taylor. Not every one of these stores carries all of our books, of course, but we do depend on them to stay in business. We also depend on them as comics fans, too. As big as Amazon is for us as publishers, and it's a huge sales channel, we do go out of our way to support independent bookstores and comic shops. Along with conventions and libraries, they're the core of the comics community, and the reading community and maybe the community, period. Their importance to me, personally and professionally, can't be overstated.
SPURGEON: You mentioned Troop 142, this last Fall's release. That is a different project for you guys for reasons other than that Mike had previous publishers. Did he bring specific experiences to the table that you felt helpful? Did the fact that it was serialized on-line and through mini-comics help the book at all? What's been different about shepherding this book through?
AVELINO:Troop 142 started strangely in terms of how Barry and I got to it, which was individually, not as Secret Acres. I'd been reading it online, and had recommended it to Barry several times, though he rarely listens to what I have to say. Barry read the mini-comics that Mike sent as submissions for our web store. Though we'd both read Freddie & Me, Barry never made the connection to that book. He was excited enough about the minis to want to publish Troop 142, but when I pointed out to him that this was Freddie & Me Mike Dawson, we both abandoned that thought. We're not poachers, and it appeared Mike already had a publisher, so we were happy to carry the minis and leave it at that.
We only met Mike at last year's SPX. Barry actually did most of the talking, but Mike got the message that we loved Troop 142 and had given that story a lot of thought. About a month after we got back home, the three of us went out to dinner to discuss publishing Troop 142. This still seems weird to me, in all honesty. Not because of the content, since our books are all over the place in line with our tastes, but because it was the first time we'd picked up anyone with a publishing history. Everyone else we'd published was still figuring things out when we'd met them. We really had no idea what we were doing back then, either, so it was also the first time we'd picked up a book as a somewhat-fledged company. The whole thing felt very adult to me.
Everything moved a little faster with Mike, like we'd all gotten a head start on publishing Troop 142. The editorial process was a breeze. Nobody really had to explain where they were coming from. It's difficult to say whether or not the book being serialized online or in mini-comics has had any impact on how it works as graphic novel. I do get a little frustrated that some people think they're getting the same story online as they would in the book, which is way better. That's not my opinion, it's a fact. I was also a little nervous that Mike would be disappointed by us, because we're a much smaller company than he'd ever worked with before. I must have forgotten about that somewhere along the line, because he feels like family to me now. The family thing is a very big deal to me. We don't publish books so much as we publish artists, so it's important that these folks enjoy being a part of whatever Secret Acres is, because they are going to be a part of it. Really, they don't have much choice.
MATTHEWS: Several pages into Troop 142, I knew that I wanted Secret Acres to publish it. We get a lot of fine submissions that make us excited to give the artists more exposure, but Troop 142 was truly thrilling and surprising. Since it was a submission to the Emporium, I did not think that Mike was looking for us to consider it for publication, particularly since he had worked with larger publishers. When we all met and discussed the project, it was so flattering to discover that an established artist was interested in working with us.
As Leon mentioned, I think the serializing ended up being misleading since the final book had tweaks and enhancements that made it substantially different than what Mike had originally posted. People felt that they had read the book, when really they had only read parts of the book. The edits that Mike made were thoughtful and significant to how the story reads. In years of editing comics and fiction, I don't think I've ever seen someone respond so positively and productively to editorial suggestions. When he submitted the final book, it was thrilling to read all over again, and I couldn't be happier that Mike trusted us enough to let us give him comments.
SPURGEON: You talked about SPX, and I saw you at Brooklyn's show... how many shows do you do a year? Are they important to your bottom line? Important in other ways? Is the current convention/festival set-up close to what you need from shows like that, or could you use certain changes?
AVELINO: We do somewhere between eight and ten shows a year. These conventions, art fests and fairs are huge for our bottom line. I'm not sure if it's a coincidence or not, but this year it seemed as if sales at shows and through our site were riding a seesaw together. We saw a huge increase in convention sales over the year go hand in hand with a steady decline in online sales. I suspect attendees are going to cons with a shopping list in hand. It's a bit annoying to me because we're so devoted to carrying and distributing self-published comics and mini-comics and, unlike our books which move through stores, we can only sell them at shows and on the site. We carry some great comics by some very talented people and I'm not sure that many folks think of Secret Acres as a place to get those minis, and they should. Two artists we love who are not, at this point, part of Secret Acres, took the time to e-mail us after SPX and tell us that we were officially their favorite publisher, because we still rep minis so hard (their phrasing). I like watching folks discover stuff at the Secret Acres table, especially when it's one of the artists we publish finding a mini they'd never heard of before.
The shows are where we get the encouragement that we need to keep this ball rolling. When your heroes come by to pat you on the back for a job well done, it's tough to be bummed out by the mistakes you make and the grind of building a comics publishing house. Like cartoonists, the majority of what we do is done alone. This is probably what leads lionized cartoonists to become frothing Libertarian lunatics. Outside of shows and signings and other odd events, the only time I've ever gotten to see Secret Acres in action is when I notice some beautiful person reading one of our books on the subway. We need that direct contact. I suppose we could hang around in comic shops and wait to see someone buying a book, but that's a little too stalker for my liking. The shows are also the only way we get to hang out, all of us, together, which is priceless for me.
Really it all goes back to what Dylan was talking about, how, at this point, indie comics can grow along with the increasing number of freaks who love this stuff. His argument was that we don't have to reach across the manga or superhero or Hollywood aisle to thrive. We can all keep making and publishing the stuff we believe in. More and more of the right readers will find us. You can actually watch this expansion happen, standing behind a table at SPX or BCGF or TCAF. It's not a fad, like the coming and going of major publishing houses through the world of literary comics. It's a constant.
MATTHEWS: I have nothing to add to Leon's response!
SPURGEON: [laughs] I'm taken by the statement made earlier about the tremendous amount of trust involved for an artist to turn their work over to you? We have so many publishers that exist for so many reasons, that I wonder how much that is part of the ethos anymore. What ideally are you able to do for someone that you publish? What do you think you'll be able to do better as Secret Acres grows and flourishes?
AVELINO: Sometimes it seems to me that publishing, of any kind, is under attack. We are the evil gatekeepers, depriving the world of great and unusual work with our focus on profits. Looking at the behavior of some publishers out there, we may deserve the bashing we get. I'm a little sick of arguing about Kickstarter, but I will say that it should be completely unacceptable for a publisher, meaning a publisher with an office and interns, to find funding through charity. Yet there they are. A certain comics publisher once said, aloud, during an interview, that they wouldn't publish creators who weren't good at promoting themselves. I thought this was vile, but the interviewer never even came back to that. The fact that that comment wasn't met with a spit take was both demoralizing and energizing, in the sense that I felt compelled to offer Secret Acres as a counterpoint.
One thing technology has done well is open the doors for self-publishers. There are plenty of cartoonists out there who don't need us or any publisher, and that would include some of the people we publish. I've supported more than a few Kickstarter projects, personally and through Secret Acres, but it's as much a popularity contest as it is a resource. I also despise the idea of comics as charity. The work of a cartoonist has value, even if it only provides a living wage for a handful of creators. If, as a cartoonist, you can do this on your own, without the support of a publisher, by all means go ahead. However, I don't think expert self-promotion should be a requisite for being a successful cartoonist. That drives me nuts. Making comics is tough enough without that pressure.
MATTHEWS: I'd like to think that we provide a real and necessary service for the artists that we publish. Producing, printing, marketing and distributing books is time-consuming. Not as time-consuming as making those books, of course, but that's kind of the point. When someone gives us their book, we're taking all of the other responsibilities on our shoulders: negotiating with the printer, storing the book, sending out review copies and press releases, nagging journalists, submitting materials to distributors, filling orders, invoicing and collecting, etc. We know for a fact that our contracts are close to the most artist-friendly agreements in the industry. We only want to work with people we like, and we're pretty confident that the feeling is mutual.
As Secret Acres grows and flourishes, all of the artists we publish will grow and flourish right beside us. I think we do a great job garnering reviews and attention, and I think we're able to handle our sales adeptly. Continuing to be able to publish everyone that we want to is still the end goal for me. I'd also like to see us get more books into more hands -- I believe unquestionably that everything we publish needs to be read and enjoyed by as many people as possible, and that is always what I want to help accomplish.
AVELINO: Before we really got off the ground, Tom Devlin, interviewed on this site, said that we were starting a company with every great mini-comics artist you'd never heard of, and that we'd succeed where others had failed in making money off of publishing and distributing mini-comics. We're not all the way there yet, but we're close. More to the point, these mini-comics artists aren't exactly unknown anymore. I wouldn't say they're rich and famous, either, but they've garnered awards and honors and an increasing audience for their work and they've done it by working together and with us. They participate in Secret Acres in ways they simply could not at bigger houses.
The artists we publish work in a medium that is the toughest and slowest going and, more often than not, not very financially rewarding. We can promise them a home for their work, our unwavering admiration and respect, the best convention snacks in the industry and maybe some decent pocket money. Secret Acres isn't perfect, but I submit our catalog as evidence that we can do some great things. It might not be obvious that there's a connection between Gaylord Phoenix and Troop 142, but that synergy is real. The more they produce, the more we publish, the better we all do. I think we're getting to the point where people trust to put out good comics, even if they don't look alike. Though I don't think we're in this to make stars, maybe in the future the oddball stuff we do won't be such a hard sell.
SPURGEON: Did you make the right choice?
MATTHEWS: It seems impossible to me now that it ever felt like there was a choice to be made.
* photo of Barry
* photo of Leon
* an issue of Captain Carrot
* an issue of Zap
* action from Ronin
* from Pim & Francie
* Highwater's inspirational Skibber Bee Bye
* Wormdye and Fatal Faux-Pas, the first two books
* Mike Dawson
* from Gaylord Phoenix
* cover image to I Will Bite You!
* Curio Cabinet #5
* from Theo Ellsworth's Capacity
* from Monsters
* from Troop 142
* Sam Gaskin's 2012
* from the very professional-looking web design material (below)
* some of you have been nice to send along some news links this holiday season. Sarah Morean e-mailed this Huffington Post piece on places Tintin traveled. (I don't know if everyone can see it, but I think this photo is of Tintin and Captain Haddock themselves.) James A. Owen sent along this piece about the Phoenix comics retail scene adjusting to the loss of Atomic Comics.
* at the top of one of his "new comics arriving posts," the Direct Market retailer Brian Hibbs points out that Marvel has stacked its various Captain America comics in a way that makes it difficult to sell them. They should have more discipline than that at this point.
Kim Thompson is one of the smartest men I know and is certainly one of the most capable to ever work on the editorial side of the comics industry. He's a former employer of mine, and I consider him a friend. In 2011, Kim was one of the busiest editors working, continuing to spearhead Fantagraphics' vast array of European books and strip offerings as well as enough domestic comic book series and stand-alone to challenge any comics company employee. This is all in addition to his duties as co-publisher at the art comics institution.
I became fascinated this year by Thompson's work with those European comics. Not only does Fantagraphics have two successful series of such books going -- in the form of consistent author series with Jason and with Jacques Tardi -- they've added all sorts of interesting stand-alone books in the last 18 to 24 months, including potential book of the year candidates The Cabbie and The Armed Garden. In what follows, I try to touch on some general issues facing the art-comics publisher, but the bulk of it is more squarely focused on the translation work Thompson does both for his company and the occasional gig elsewhere. If at times I read like a fan that just wants to hear about what's coming out next, believe me, that's a big part of why I wanted to have this conversation. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Kim, I want to talk to you mostly about the translated work you've been doing, but I was hoping you'd let me ask some questions about Fantagraphics right up top. I don't know that we do publishing news very well, but it struck me thinking about the other day that you guys ended your 35th year by starting major series with Pogo and Carl Barks' duck comics, two all-time top ten works. Did that strike you at all, just the position you happen to be in right now? Is the company in general going as well as those two gets would seem to indicate?
KIM THOMPSON: Yeah, although since we've had the Pogo license for five years now, it was more the one-two combination of Barks's duck stories and the acquisition of the EC material that gave me a sort of "holy shit" moment of realizing that if you take, say, the Comics Journal's Top 100 list of yore and go down it, Fantagraphics is now so dominant it becomes almost ridiculous. I think the current Fantagraphics list is unambiguously the greatest list of cartoonists ever to be assembled under one publishing roof, period. I'm open to rebuttal, but, y'know, c'mon.
Financially, of course these two will be helpful for our bottom line, but I do want to emphasize that there has not been one year since maybe the first flush of Eros 20 years ago that hasn't been a struggle for us, and every time we get a big windfall (like say Peanuts) the market or business has a way of readjusting itself so we're always racing to keep up, like your asshole college buddies pulling away from you just as you're getting ready to hop into the car... over and over again, for 35 years.
SPURGEON: I know that you and Gary Groth share the publishing responsibilities pretty thoroughly, but when I think of production at Fantagraphics I think of you mostly. It seems to me that you have a really good thing going on there the last few years in terms of the nuts and bolts of making your books -- a really fine crop of art directors, good people supporting those art directors. Could I nudge you into talking a bit about what it's like for a publisher on that end of things these days as opposed to ten, twenty years ago?
THOMPSON: Certainly the digital revolution has made editing and production ten times easier. I think it would be inconceivable to anyone under 40 working in the industry to imagine what it used to be like, when any piece of color art had to be photographed and four negatives individually stripped into a page that itself had been photographed from typesetting that had been manually pasted into shape, like a craft project. The increased sophistication of lettering fonts (and our designers' skill at wielding them) has made it far easier to do foreign comics, both in terms of cost and in terms of editorial flexibility -- and they look good. And so on. But I'm old enough that the idea that you can actually buy a copy of your favorite movie and play it on your TV still amazes me.
More specifically, yes, I was just thinking about this... We do have a fantastic team. Three great full-time designers, the legendary Paul Baresh on production and digital cleaning of classical material for starters. Jason Miles has been a boon as a printer liaison and editorial assistant (and it's been great to have Eric Reynolds take a more active part in things on an editorial level), and we have an increasing galaxy of freelancers I know I can summon at will, like Gavin Lees, a former intern who turned out to be a fantastic calligrapher (he did all the special Tardi lettering we've needed); Jim Blanchard, who can do any logo you want (see the Cabbie "license plate" logo); Rich Tommaso, who's doing both coloring and re-lettering (his Peellaert relettering is even better than Peellaert's and he's now my go-to guy for any translation lettering that can't be font-ed out); and my Charlie's Angels-style trio of translators and co-translators: Helge Dascher, Katie LaBarbera, and Jenna Allen. (And Matt Thorn for the Japanese stuff.)
So yes, in terms of being able to produce the material and being able to produce it well, things have never been better.
SPURGEON:Usagi Yojimbo celebrated its 200th comic book issue this year. You were its original publisher back during a time when Fanta seemed more cleanly split between nurturing the post-underground alternatives and publishing high-end, idiosyncratically created genre comics. Given that history, and given your essay from a few years back about the need for more populist material in the marketplace, do you think comics still evinces a need for those kinds of books? Because what we used to call the "indy comic" seems like it's in a slight recess.
THOMPSON: I don't know. I think a solid core of high-selling mainstream-y genre comics would be nice, but it really hasn't happened (except for arguably the manga phenomenon, and I don't get the impression that the success of manga has bled back into non-manga comics) and "art comics" have achieved enough big successes now (Persepolis in particular) that we may be stuck with the image of book-sized graphic novels as being serious literary work... or archival collections of initially mainstream work that have since acquired the patina of art. (It's weird to see the Onion AV Club list reprints of comic strips like Peanuts and Popeye in their "art comics" review section given that these strips were originally read by an audience two or three orders of magnitude larger than whoever is reading the "mainstream" comics. But that's one of the paradoxes of culture for you.) I don't think American comics will ever have a Stieg Larsson or Stephen King. I know even Art Spiegelman is now pining for more vulgar, populist fare to shake out some of the graphic novel stuffiness (which he realizes he himself is to a large degree responsible for!) but it may just not be in the cards. We may be stuck with comics as art.
SPURGEON: The last general thing I was hoping to talk to you about, is I wondered if you had any reflection on what it's like to publish with so many rough if not exact publishing peers in the marketplace now. When I was younger you and Kitchen Sink had some overlap, but now it seems like there are a number of publishers that do some of the same things you do. Do you feel a rivalry with any of these publishers? Are you friendly with them? Does having so many folks interested in the cartoonists you're doing have any advantages?
THOMPSON: Well, it's been an interesting ten years, that's for sure. We're almost exactly a decade from when Pantheon swooped in and basically grabbed every major cartoonist they could think of, starting with the double whammy of Dan Clowes and Chris Ware. For a while there was, in the alternative press, a certain defeatist sense of "Well, shit, if someone the size of fuckin' Random House is going to come onto our turf there's not much we can do about that" (or W.W. Norton being able to throw a quarter million dollars at Crumb for Genesis) but I've got to admit that Drawn & Quarterly has managed to turn that tide around to a degree by signing Clowes, reminding all of us that size isn't everything. So I'm thinking the 'teens may see a return to a more even playing field in that regard, as alternative publishers (including us) re-discover how to beat the big boys at their own game by being cleverer and more committed, and willing to take bigger risks.
Obviously if I could wave a magic wand I would love to return to the halcyon days of cartoonists signing on with one publisher and sticking with him, but there's just too much money in the mix now. And as uncomfortable as that can make things for us on a case by case basis I think it's ultimately a net plus for cartoonists, and for the medium, for there to be this competition. Anyway, it would've been naive to think that commercial success for graphic novels wouldn't result in something along these lines eventually, and enough cartoonists who started elsewhere have ended up in Fantagraphics' basket that it would be a little whiny to complain too much when the tide runs the other way.
Now, this is in terms of new work by contemporary cartoonists. Classic comic strip reprints haven't really been much of an issue because it's only us and IDW for the most part, and fortuitously our tastes are divergent enough that we rarely intrude on one another's turf. Also, Dean Mullaney (who runs most of the IDW classic-strip stuff) and I are such ancient friends (going on 40 years) we do make an effort to stay in touch and not step on each other's toes. In any event, most of the truly, monumentally great strips have now been spoken for so I don't see any big potential wars out there. In fact, in some cases there are strips that I feel a sort of obligation to reprint because they're great but worry that a reprint would not be financially doable, so when Dean announces, say, an Otto Soglow collection, I'm pleased both because I'd love to read and own that, and because now I don't have to do it myself. And Dean really has been doing stellar work.
Foreign comics, same deal: Terry Nantier of NBM and I have fairly different tastes, so with one or two minor exceptions it's never been an issue. (We both like David B.; we also both like Lewis Trondheim, but Lewis produces more books than any three publishers can absorb.) I did kind of want the Smurfs, but NBM's done a genuinely superlative job on that project, and it does seem to fit into their program better than ours. But, look, there are so many great foreign books to do that if I told you my top 20 books to do next and you told me NBM and First Second had grabbed them all, I could pull out another 20 without blinking and still be happy.
There have been and I'm sure will be some bruised feelings and conflicts as part of this brave new world but I see it as ultimately part of a healthy, thriving field.
SPURGEON: Given the number of people relatively interested in the translated work right now, has there been a corresponding up tick in terms of the quality of production? How much of a struggle is it to do right by these books; do you consider them more difficult than some of the other things you supervise for Fantagraphics?
THOMPSON: More labor intensive, yes, but probably not more difficult. I don't know that I'd use the word "struggle." If you're good at it and work hard at it, they'll come out good, and my team and I have gotten better and better at it. NBM's production and translation have sometimes been on the iffy side in past decades but I think they're doing better now too, and Diana Schutz's Manara books are gorgeous. Last Gasp did a great job on that Winshluss Pinocchio book. So I think everyone is stepping up their game, yeah.
Part of it is, to return to what I said earlier, that the digital revolution has made it so much easier to do quality work. You can go back and look at the Catalan and Dark Horse/NBM releases of the 1980s and 1990s and feel smug, but working with negatives and hand lettering was a fucking bear. If we were still working under those technical constraints our current books wouldn't look half as nice.
SPURGEON: Let's talk about Tardi. Why was Jaques Tardi poisonous to the North American market for so long? Or was that even a fair description?
THOMPSON: Not really, I think. From 1990 to 1992 NBM released three Tardi books (collected from serialization in Cheval Noir) and they were, I gather, not successful. Around that time we'd serialized Tardi's Léo Malet adaptation Fog Over Tolbiac Bridge in Graphic Story Monthly and announced a book collection, whose advance sales were so feeble we cancelled it. Between that and the death of Catalan Communications, reprints of European material in general just didn't seem to be doing very well, so we all sort of stepped back for a while, except for Terry Nantier doggedly putting out more of the self-consciously "literary" books, and Lewis Trondheim. iBooks released a Tardi book in 2004, The Bloody Streets of Paris, but the publisher died in an accident shortly after that and his company fell apart, so who knows how it would have gone? So it's really hard to say whether the American market had any particular reluctance to embrace Tardi. I thought the time was ripe to try again, in any event. I'm a little surprised D+Q didn't follow up the partial serialization of War of the Trenches in their anthology with a full-on book edition, but no, they weren't interested. Trenches has since become one of our best sellers, so there you go.
SPURGEON: How did this specific round of Tardi projects come about, and what is it you aimed to do differently with the books this time out? I believe that you didn't even start with one of the big-name projects.
THOMPSON: It came about because I thought it was silly that one of the two or three greatest cartoonists in the world wasn't available in English, so I went ahead and did it. I didn't so much decide to do anything differently as just really work hard to make them great -- I guess maybe the fact that we imposed a consistent visual format on the non-Adèle books. But I did decide not to back away from the European album format, which we all had been thinking was a problem, and instead embrace it unapologetically.
In terms of picking material, I had a couple of different agendas going in. I didn't want to start with It Was The War Of The Trenches because that one is such a monument I was afraid everything we did after it might be read as a bit of a disappointment. I wanted to do You Are Here first because that's a keystone of Tardi's career. I wanted to avoid treating Tardi as a "classic" by focusing on his decades-old work, which is why I also started with one of his recent Manchette books. And so on. But I always figured we'd be in it for the long haul, and since we're getting ready to solicit our tenth Tardi book now, I guess we are. We'll hit all the big ones!
SPURGEON: We know his reputation as an artist, but the prose in the books he does, either his own or taken from somewhere else, does it pose any specific challenges to a translator? Does the oddness of some of the material, or its specificity, make some things a challenge?
THOMPSON:You Are Here (written by Jean-Claude Forest) was quite a challenge because it had a very discursive writing style and was full of wordplay. (Even the title, and the protagonist's name, comprise a pun which caused me endless headaches until I solved it.) The other books are actually easy for me in different, and radically opposite, ways. The Adèle books (and the Adèle spin-off The Arctic Marauder) are written in a purple, antiquated language that just rolls out of my (figurative) typewriter, doubtless because of a childhood spent reading P.G. Wodehouse; it's just a very natural style for me.
Conversely, the efficient, stripped-down, sardonic, hardboiled language of the Manchette books is also something I can do very easily: I instinctively understand it, on a mechanical level. Most of It Was the War of the Trenches was simple descriptive narration, which is easy; I just had to not screw up the period dialogue. And the next book we're doing is set in more or less contemporary New York, which should by definition be easy. I can see possible future projects that could pose problem, like the mammoth Voice of the People which is all written in this juicy mid-18th-century Parisian slang, but so far so good.
SPURGEON: How has the Adèle material been received? It strikes me as one of those graphic novels where so much has been taken and re-used from them it might be hard to see those books in the same light as the first audiences for it did. What do you like about them, specifically?
THOMPSON: They're the only fictional graphic novels written by Tardi since his earliest beginnings, so I like the pure Tardi-ness of them. It's a really fun world to be immersed in; obviously as a Tintin fan, I like that aspect of it too. They've been received quite well, critically speaking; I was a little concerned that coming after War Of The Trenches the Adèle material, and in particular The Arctic Marauder, would be taken as too frivolous and silly, but that hasn't happened. People seem to dig them.
SPURGEON: Was there any bump for the movie? Because I remember the trailers and I don't remember the movie.
THOMPSON: No, the movie was never released in the U.S., not even so far as I know on Pay-Per-View. An all-regions DVD release snuck out but may have been on the margins of legality in terms of territories and doesn't seem available any more. So no bump. The funny thing is that I hurried out the first Adèle book expecting a U.S. release of the movie, which didn't happen, but then Adèle sold really well anyway.
SPURGEON: You've done at least two of Tardi's crime books and I know there's at least one more on the way. Is that because there's a context for crime work now for American comics audiences? How much of a passionate interest is there in that material in the French-language markets?
THOMPSON: Well, there is a huge interest for what Tardi does generally, and a huge appetite for crime fiction in comics, so the two together are definitely gold back in France. I honestly don't know much about Tardi's sales in terms of one book relative to the other but my guess is that the Manchette books are among his best-sellers (along with Adèle, especially after the movie).
As you indicate, between Sin City, 100 Bullets, Ed Brubaker, and the Parker graphic novels by Darwyn Cooke, there does seem to be a market/appetite there for that kind of material in the U.S. Note that several of the original Manchette prose novels have actually been translated to English, one of them quite recently, and Manchette's son tells me there's a consistent buzz of interest from Hollywood. If he was Scandinavian we'd really be cooking with gas, I suspect.
SPURGEON: To tie a couple of things together: First, when you say that the first Adèle book sold well, can you ballpark what that actually means, even if it's just in comparison to another type of book?
THOMPSON: Well, not huge. I honestly don't expect the vast majority of the foreign books to sell more than 2,000 or 2,500 copies, so having to go back to press on a 3,000-copy print run is a success by our standards but puny by most other standards.
SPURGEON: Second, do you have any sense of who's buying the Tardi books? Are there Tardi fans? Is there a difference between the crime books and the rest of them, for example, in terms of how they're moving?
THOMPSON: Honestly, I don't see any clear trends. I suspect there are Tardi fans who buy everything, and there are those who like the turn-of-the-century goofball Adèle stuff (there turned out to be more of those than I expected, in fact), and there are those who like crime, and War of the Trenches has sort of imposed itself as a "must-have" masterpiece that supersedes Tardi, so to speak, like Maus for Spiegelman. I expect the same breakdown occurs in France.
SPURGEON: Talk to me about The Armed Garden. Do you have a specific interest in that material besides the obvious quality of the visuals?
THOMPSON: No, not really. All that myth stuff isn't one of my interests. But I always like it when an artist whose work I love drags me into appreciating and enjoying something for which I have no intrinsic interest. I'm not a World War I buff either.
SPURGEON: Is there something about David B. working that mythological stuff that you think works really well?
THOMPSON: It seems to me, if you read Epileptic and in particular Babel, that David had a very real ability to use myth as a way of processing and dealing with his own life, which is what it was always there for. But it's also just something he digs, and it works great with his graphic style.
SPURGEON: That book has a very specific tone... does tone stand in the way of a translation ever, trying to capture a book's unique qualities in a different language?
THOMPSON: Not if the translator is any good, harrumpf. [Spurgeon laughs] Less glibly and smugly, there are times when it's tricky, but I don't find it to be the case at all with David's mythological stuff. Every culture in the world has some similar literary/mystical tradition, so it's not that hard to find an equivalent tone. And in most cases David, as a Frenchman, is already stretching to communicate Asian or African myths, so the stretch for an American is pretty equivalent. It's been some of the easiest translation I've done.
SPURGEON: A mutual friend of ours told me that he thought Stigmata was as close as Lorenzo Mattotti might come to that one big book that everyone points to for the remainder of his career. Were you as taken with the material?
THOMPSON: Well, the fact that I chose it to kick off our Mattotti reprints should give you a hint. Yeah, it's my favorite of his books. I don't think the writing is on quite as extraordinary a level as the artwork (though that may be because I'm not religious), but the combination of the two is really something. It may in fact be that if the writing was as as rich and accomplished and evocative as the artwork, it wouldn't have needed to be illustrated: a script for a comic needs to be unfinished in some way.
In terms of how it compares to Mattotti's other work, I think Mattotti's more abstractly conceived and drawn stories like Fires are fantastic but they don't hit me on quite the same level, and I respond to Matttotti's black and white work as comics more easily than some of the color artwork, in terms of being drawn into it, in terms of reading it as comics. But Mattotti has been working on an enormous new graphic novel for a number of years now, so that may end up being The One.
SPURGEON: Is there a back story to how you started publishing Gil Jordan and Sibyl-Anne? Because of all the packages I received from any comics company this year, I think that was the biggest surprise. Were those projects related in some way to your own comics consumption as a young person? Is that a kind of material you'd like to see Fantagraphics pursue more explicitly?
THOMPSON: It was more or less pure indulgence. Stuff I love I wanted to share with everyone else, the global equivalent of walking around the office with a book in my hands saying, "Isn't this great?" That simple. Yes, we'll be doing more of it (I've just signed for the second Gil Jordan book, and I'm pursuing some other material) but probably not a huge amount, unless they start taking off sales-wise, which sure hasn't happened yet. Two or three a year, tops.
Look, as far as I'm concerned the 1950s/1960s Franco-Belgian comics are one of the supreme bursts of creativity the field has ever seen. That I grew up on them may be coloring my view of them but I don't necessarily think so; especially since some of my very favorites at this point are ones I didn't read at the time.
SPURGEON: How long was The Cabbie in the works? That one also surprised me. I can't tell if that would be a completely accessible book or if that would be strangely unfamiliar to all but a few folks. How would you describe that one to someone who only reads a few comics a year?
THOMPSON: "Dick Tracy on crank" works for me. I actually think that to a reader who can deal with the grisly and gross subject matter, it's very accessible and doesn't need any real familiarity with comics to enjoy. (You might think the hyperstylized graphics could be a tripping point, but hey, tens of millions of regular middle-class Americans read and enjoyed Chester Gould on a daily basis, didn't they?)
It's been in the works at least since 2007, when the Ignatz Calvario Hills book appeared. But Martí has always been somewhere on my vast map of desired projects: I loved the Catalan edition and the two RAW stories, and we published a Martí story ourselves way back in Pictopia. By the way, if the first Cabbie is successful we'll have at least three more Martí books coming, none of which has been translated into Engish before and only one of which comprises further Cabbie material (the other stuff is even sicker than The Cabbie).
SPURGEON: How close are we to getting the Joost Swarte book?
THOMPSON:It's printed, we just got our advance copies, and it'll be in the U.S. in late January or early February. (First Pogo and then this! Chew on that, those of you who'd given up on both!)
SPURGEON: Can you talk about that project a bit? because he, like Tardi, seems to be someone with a recognizable visual imprimatur that could be argued hasn't ever really gotten over with an American reading audience. How are his comics different than his static images? How much material were you working with?
THOMPSON: We were working with pretty much the totality of Swarte's "adult" comics, of which there's barely about 120-130 pages' worth (the title of the book isn't entirely ironic): His famous two books Modern Art and Cultuur & Techniek, and various anthology short stories (RAW, et al.) in the 1990s and 2000s. I don't know that his comics are different than his static drawings insofar as his supreme narrative and visual intelligence carries over into the sophistication of the panel progressions, and his wicked sense of humor flowers even more fully.
SPURGEON: What is Milo Manara like as a translation project? We see the images, but it seems like that might be playful prose with which to work.
THOMPSON: Well, as with Tardi, Manara isn't just Manara. I've more or less worked on translating at least five original writers on this so far: Hugo Pratt (who from what I understand provided full scripts, so I really am translating Pratt), Federico Fellini, Silverio Pisu (who did The Ape), the "satirical/serious" Manara of some of his shorts and the upcoming "Giuseppe Bergman" material, and the "porn" Manara... and some of his earliest journeyman material had other writers as well. So it's really like half a dozen different translation projects in a sense.
It's fun. I took this on in part because Diana Schutz asked me to and I've always wanted to work with Diana, in part because a little extra money never hurts, and in part because I like a lot of the material and I thought it would be nice for it to finally have a genuine first-class translation. (Dark Horse has also done a scrupulous job with the production and packaging. There's something nerdishly satisfying about having some of my words, even translated text, lettered by Tom Orzechowski.) I mean, it may be my only shot at translating Pratt, and I'm pretty sure my only shot at Fellini. I expect some of the porn may eventually become a slog, but so far it's been fun.
SPURGEON: Is it fair to say that your interests have helped drive Fantagraphics' new commitment to European work?
THOMPSON: To a degree. If I weren't around I'm sure Gary would be pursuing it regardless. We've always both been interested in European work, but the difficulty of producing it and limited popularity tended to circumscribe the degree to which we pursued it. The "new" commitment is mostly a matter of it being easier to do, and the market opening up, however slightly.
I end up doing almost all of it just because I have the knowledge and the language skills -- it's like being the six-foot-seven guy in the office who ends up changing all the ceiling lightbulbs -- but Eric drove the Man Who Grew His Beard project, Jason Miles is working on something, and Gary has pulled in a couple of projects.
SPURGEON: How do you see your work on those titles in terms of your overall responsibilities in your job?
THOMPSON: On the chore-to-fun scale it's definitely on the "fun" side, on the profitable-to-indulgence scale "indulgence." If we were really hurting financially and/or I had to pick and choose projects based on the degree to which each could help the company's bottom line, most of the foreign work would have to go: Sibyl-Anne is utterly unjustifiable as a wise expenditure of my time or Fantagraphics' printing dollars from a corporate viewpoint. But Eric and Gary have a similar set of judgments to make on their projects, as I guess any publisher does. And of course it's great when "fun" and "profitable" sync up: It's hard to imagine a more fun project than doing the definitive repackaging of Peanuts or Barks, and it's definitely profitable.
SPURGEON: It's my understanding that you've picked up the rights to Lewis Trondheim's Ralph Azham, and that you'll start publishing it in 2013. I know that's a fantasy title, but I don't know much else about it. What can you tell me about that series -- how big a project is that?
THOMPSON: It's very much in the same vein as the Dungeon series, but focusing on a single character, and with Lewis working solo as opposed to with Joann Sfar and a raft of other artists. Solo except for the coloring, which is by his wife Brigitte [Findakly] and is stunningly lovely, her first work in watercolors on Lewis's work if I'm not mistaken. Lewis intends the series to run for at least six volumes, and has finished the fourth (the man is a machine). Standard 48-page European albums which on Lewis's recommendation we're breaking in half for 96-page landscape-format books. So by that standard we're talking a project that will run well over 500 pages. I'll send you a sneak at the first volume's cover (pre-color). Again, the final books will be landscape format so this isn't a wraparound, it's the full front cover image.
SPURGEON: Finally, one of the things you listed on your sheet of current responsibilities was Love And Rockets?
THOMPSON: Purely in the mechanical terms of getting it from the Bros. to the printer, but yeah.
SPURGEON: So did you know how good "Love Bunglers" was upon first reading it?
THOMPSON: I know how good everything the Bros. do is, but yes, both parts of "Love Bunglers" fall into the category of my emailing everyone in the office and saying, "Holy shit, you've got to read this, Jaime really knocked this one out of the fucking park." Never any doubt on "Bunglers," from the minute I finished reading the first part. Instant classic. Of course nobody expected the second part to be ever better, a year later.
* photo of Kim Thompson by I think me
* Fantagraphics is publishing Carl Barks
* that Cabbie license plate logo
* Otto Soglow
* Dark Horse is doing Milo Manara
* It Was The War Of The Trenches
* You Are There
* from one of Fantagraphics' Adèle collections
* Tardi draws crime
* David B. draws myth
* from The Cabbie
* cover image for impending Joost Swarte volume
* pictures by Manara; words by Pratt
* a Lewis Trondheim fantasy series to be published by Fantagraphics beginning in 2013
* Kim had no doubts about "Love Bunglers" (below)
* so apparently some art slipped out from a Watchmen 2 project? Something like that, anyway. I'm trying to think of a project in another medium that has that combination of publishing-news intrigue -- the amount of poorly-defined stance-taking for or against this thing is going to be pretty awesome to behold -- and in-advance critical disinterest if not outright disdain for the object itself. I guess that one Gone With The Wind sequel book comes close. Maybe something like the Odd Couple sequel stuff that Lemmon and Matthau did works in the same way, on a reduced level. I know people that like The Two Jakes so I won't go there. Return To Oz, maybe? Although I sort of like that one.
* speaking of iconic 1980s comics making a reappearance: some Nexus work will run in Dark Horse Presents. That's a totally different thing in ways that matter, of course.
* Graeme McMillan points to a Paolo Rivera Daredevil cover and a video about its making.
* Heidi MacDonald of The Beat sent along a link to this article from Torsten Adair about generic advice for comics publishers in their web site efforts, saying it was "surely worth a link." I don't know that I'd link to it otherwise, but I always find it interesting when site producers ask for links and for which articles they make this request.
* it's best-of-comics season. CBRhas started their top 100 list. Brian Truitt at USA Todayprovides a best-of list of artists and writers that from my initial scan completely ignores any and all art comics. I think that's deeply weird at this late date, but everyone can make their own list and certainly lots of people in comics still only see comics as extending as far as the offbeat genre material from Image Comics. That same publicaton's top graphic novels lists here, including Truitt's, are a little more inclusive. Glen Weldon at NPRhas a list up, and that's worth pulling out the individual choices:
* A Bride's Story, Vol. I
* Animal Man
* Anya's Ghost
* Big Questions
* Casanova: Avaritia
* Criminal: Last of the Innocent
* Demon Knights
* Hark! A Vagrant!
* Locke and Key
* Mark Twain's Autobiography, 1910-2010
* Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths
* Pogo: Through the Wild Blue Wonder
* Stargazing Dog
* The Drops of God
* Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man
* Wandering Son
* Wonder Woman
The bad news is that Weldon goes the "most memorable" route instead of really sitting down and making some hard choices. I say that because I personally find the latter exercise much more valuable. The good news is that it's a thoroughly linked-up piece. Also, that Mark Twain book Weldon lists is pretty clearly an illustrated work of prose. It's really good, and I'm a big fan of loose definitions, but that's a book with pictures. Here's one last list for the day, from Comics Bulletin.
* if you're still in the mood, there are two nice Christmas-related links from Sequentialhere and here. Daryl Cagle showcases some editorial cartooning of the season here.
* Chris Mautner praises the virtues of Sweatshop. You can find the individual issues for less than a buck a pop with a little looking, so I'm not sure it needs to be collected. It really works in that format, though, and is worth a tag-on purchase if you're comics shopping.
* finally, congratulations to Levon and Lila Jihanian on the birth of their daughter, Olympia Laurel Jihanian.
I've known Jeff Parker for years as a friendly, engaging convention presence and skilled writer of the most mainstream of mainstream comics. He entered into the funnybook business as an artist during the tail end of the 1990s sales surge, performing work for take-you-back publishing names like Caliber and Malibu. Parker re-emerged in 2003 with the self-published stand-alone graphic novel Interman. It was stylishly designed and executed, and I remember Parker from that period mostly for the work he did on-line writing about then-mysterious elements of self-directed bookstore distribution.
Parker is in many ways the living embodiment of Marvel's deep writing bench from the last decade, a period where the publisher has been the mainstream's dominant player and not by a small margin. It's hard not to like him or fail to wish him well. I was thankful that the busy creator agreed to talk to me, if only to get what I assume will be reputation-destroying dirt on Parker's frequent convention running mate and occasional collaborator Lieber. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I don't know all that much about your early background. I assume that you had some experience with comics and superhero comics growing up, although I could be terribly wrong. What about your comics-reading past lives most directly in your writing experiences now?
JEFF PARKER: I learned to read on comics -- my dad owned Chuck's Curb Market (the Chuck was his dad) and when I wasn't doing my chores like racking bottles and sweeping the parking lot, I was camped on the Coca Cola cooler by the spinner rack reading everything there was. My earliest loves were the Fawcett Dennis the Menace comics, and I read tons of all the Harvey Comics -- which thanks to the Dark Horse compilations, my kids are enjoying now. And of course I read all the superhero stuff. Whatever distributor my dad bought from mostly carried DC, so those were the heroes I was most familiar with. I'd also read the Warren Magazines like The Spirit and Vampirella. I didn't think of the books as being on any hierarchy, I guess since they were all available to me they were all "comics" and more or less equal in my eyes. Colleen Coover and I have this discussion a lot; she always saw it the same way. Batman wasn't any more legitimate than Hot Stuff; they were just either good stories or they weren't.
SPURGEON:So it's the ecumenicism of your early comics reading experiences that sticks with you?
PARKER: I think so. I think it's why I can enjoy making comics aimed at children and tawdry adult stuff like Bucko equally. My comfort zone is nice and broad.
SPURGEON: Is it fair to say you first found some work in the mid-1990s with people like Caliber and Malibu and then didn't work for a significant after that? Why such a brief early period in comics? That was an interesting time for comics generally; what stands out about those experiences now?
SPURGEON: I did some no-pay work for Caliber, like most everyone has to. Free work, I mean, starting out. I was still in college at the time. Shortly after that I joined Artamus Studios in NC, with Mike Wieringo, Chuck Wojtkiewicz, Richard Case and others, and I kept drawing sample pages and putting them in everyone's Fed-Ex shipments so their editors might take a look while getting the pages they were actually waiting on. I got a couple of Wonder Woman fill-ins, as that was the book where DC tended to try new artists out. It sold the same no matter who drew it, so it was perfect for that. Some Fantastic Four samples stuck in inker John Lowe's box landed at the right time on Hank Kanalz' desk at Malibu when he needed an artist.
I had a productive but short run at Malibu drawing Solitaire and other stories for them, and had sold some that I wrote and was going to draw as well -- then "Marvelcution" happened, if you remember that. It's when Marvel bought the company and shut it down. They played hardball with competition in the '90s! Because the books were all still selling well, the companies would never cancel books selling that much now.
That's was my first experience with making real, livable steady wages in comics. I was getting used to that! And then poof. From that point I would pick up an issue or short piece here and there, I couldn't find much. The comics industry's famous bubble had burst from speculators leaving the market, and it was shrinking fast -- not unlike it's doing now. My most regular work in the mid-'90s was drawing stories in the Paradox line's Big Book Of... series. I liked that because I like doing research-based material, and editor Jim Higgins kept trying to get something going with me in the other books his office worked on, mostly the Elsewords titles.
But ultimately Andy Helfer would always shoot down my pitches, saying they were too complicated. And they kind of were. I was not good at the art of the pitch then; I couldn't keep anything short with a strong hook -- even if I had one. I kept writing these sprawling outlines and pitches because I liked figuring everything out to the ending so I wouldn't screw myself with a half-baked idea. What I didn't understand was that you can write all that, but then start over with a simple, boiled-down summary that invokes and teases all the possibilities; let their imaginations contribute so they get excited.
If there was work in comics, I couldn't find it with a telescope. I worked for a while as a delivery driver, and started working on my Interman graphic novel after hours. That would interest publishers for a few months, but nothing ever developed. But I slowly kept working on it, because I wanted to create a book like the kind I wanted to read. Ultimately, I felt like comics just wasn't going to happen, I had crossed the 30 mark, and my mom needed help with bills. I wrote to Phil Crain, who used to be one of my editors at Malibu and now worked for Sony Animation, to see if they were hiring. He sent me a storyboard clean-up tryout, which is the entry point for working in TV cartoons. I jumped on it, sent it back, and they hired me to work on the Big Guy And Rusty The Boy Robot show -- that was in '99. I finally uprooted, packed everything I needed in the back of my little truck, got a camper shell for it, and headed west, sleeping in national parks most of the way.
SPURGEON: This is a very standard question, for which I apologize, but it's one of continuing interest to me. How different a writer are you for that artistic background? It's actually a pretty common thing for someone that makes a living as a mainstream comics writer, but it's hard for me to figure out any connecting thread between those that are, or, for that matter, those that aren't.
PARKER: I go into every project thinking about the final execution -- drawing is the second half of writing. I don't like writing a script without knowing who the artist is, I like to look through my collaborator's work, and ask them for a wish list of things he or she likes to draw or has always wanted a chance to draw. Often I work with artists who also write, like Kev Walker on Thunderbolts. And because he has strong opinions on what makes a good story, he'll push my scenes around, break them down differently, suggest new dialogue. Some people will change things without giving you explanations, but Kev always gives his reasoning, and makes it easy for me to amend the script for the letterer to not get lost. I think that all helps make the story take on life, become a breathing creature.
Some writers will try to tailor a story to the artist but typecast that creator based on what they've seen before -- not necessarily what the artist wants to be known for. I asked my editor Mark Paniccia if I could work with Tomm Coker when he gave me a western story to do in a Marvel special, because Tomm was always getting moody stories set inside brick warehouses, and he was sick of it. So I wrote a story in the outdoors with lots of horses, and he killed on it. It was beautiful.
I tend to approach every story thinking about the visual possibilities, and I just assume the character conflict/challenge will present itself next in the brainstorming. That may sound backwards to many, but I think sliding the visual aspect down the line puts you in the position of finding set pieces for your story that might be artificial. And what I want out of most comics is for them to transport me, show me something I can't see every day. Saying "Let's see Superman spend months walking around ordinary people and not interact as a modern mythical hero" sounds interesting, but when it's actually drawn, it's not. That's the kind of thing you can do as a single issue, to break up a lot of high-action stories and cleanse the palate for the next big thing.
SPURGEON: You wrote very eloquently in some different places about your experience shepherding Interman through the marketplace of its time. Does that experience continue to inform how you approach the industry, this nuts-and-bolts experience that not a lot of people have?
PARKER: Yes -- publishing your own work makes your realize the true lay of the land. You won't waste time with notions of "close-minded retailers" or "habitual readers"; you'll understand how you need to take every chance to make overtaxed buyers and sellers aware of your books. It's probably why I do way too many interviews and podcasts; you never know which thing is going to break through. And you never know which reader is going to be the one who will champion your books in forums or blogs and convince others to give it a try. Or which retailer will be the one who follows you and says, "Hey, Parker always swings for the fence and he never ships late. I'm going to offer a couple of his books to readers with a buy-back guarantee." And I've known retailers to do that; it's immensely moving to me. I'm so grateful to those people. That's what Charles Lawrence of the Nostalgia Newsstand would do for me when I was in college. He profoundly informed my tastes.
SPURGEON: It's interesting to me that you formed your answer around the direct market paradigm, because I know you also had experience with bookstore distributors. What is your sense of that market these days? Does Marvel do everything it can to maximize its bookstore saturation? Because that's not their reputation.
PARKER: Well, it's what I deal with mostly at the moment. We'll see when I have my next complete GN out, which should be next year. I don't mean to sound all on top of things, because I'm not. To me, the bookstore market is a bigger mystery than ever, as so many have gone away. Similarly, I really don't know what Marvel does to that end; I deal with completely different offices. I need to try to do more appearances at stores, but now I've got this whole family I don't like to abandon for weekends.
SPURGEON: To your point about working with artists... how much time do you have for that kind of collaborative effort the way that mainstream comics are created? How much of what you're able to do in general writing a comics title feels the impact of these very rigid and demanding publication schedules?
PARKER: You're right that there's monthly deadline pressure, but there's plenty of time for quality interaction in the process if the editor makes it possible and the creators make it clear they're open to it. Typically we keep everyone involved in a book in an e-mail loop so everyone sees each step as it comes in. Color notes are thrown back and forth, suggestions are made, and inevitably someone points out that I wrote two page tens. [Spurgeon laughs]
Once in a while some special or event book happens where you're thrown together with new people that no working rhythm has been built with, and yes, it can all get sad real fast. But luckily, that's been infrequent for me. That reminds me: I like working with someone at least a little bit before embarking on a big project with that person. I wish a warm-up or trial for new teams were possible all the time.
SPURGEON: Unpack that a little bit. With whom have you worked that you had a tryout period? How did that change what you did in the not-tryout portion of that relationship?
PARKER:Gabe Hardman and I worked on a "Hulk meets Frankenstein" story for our first assignment together, and that made us working together on Agents of Atlas pretty smooth because I started to realize: I can say almost anything and Hardman will somehow read my mind and get it. A big part of the job is that Vulcan mind-meld, getting the artist, writer and editor to all see the same story before it starts becoming graphics. (That nerd ref is on the house, by the way). I often work with artists from other countries, so with them I drop idioms that won't translate well, and speak very directly -- "Cyclops looks frightened. Gorilla-Man is confused and turning to look to foreground." I realized with Gabe I could refer to things like classic or obscure film and never lose him. I didn't have to overwrite a description to get what I hoped for, he's going to sell a scene as hard as he can. Also I could use understated humor like I prefer because he'll play it straight, no hamming it up. All of my jokes fall apart when the character is obviously joking. Except maybe with Spider-Man, because you can't see what his face is doing.
SPURGEON: How did you end up working for Marvel in 2005? As I recall, they put you to work on a variety of titles, including a lot of the Marvel Adventures stuff. What did they see in you as a writer, do you think?
PARKER: The main thing I believe was that I could do a story start to finish in 22 pages. I had done some work for Mark Paniccia at various companies, whereever he would end up, because he liked my art. When he came onto Marvel, he looked at a book I'd given him, a Lone Star Press comic put out by Bill Williams that had "Ape Company" in it, a short homage to Joe Kubert where apes fight in World War 2. It was a story that came to me one night and I laughed and felt compelled to get out of bed and go lay out the entire thing in my sketchbook. Then Bill was kind enough to pay me for it and run it in his book. I still have the whole thing online in a dusty corner of my webspace.
Mark had just been placed in the Marvel Adventures office and the mandate was that continuity could not matter, all of these books had to stand alone. I think he reasoned that if I could write an entertaining 10-pager, then twice that much space should work fine, and gave me a fill-in on MA: Spider-Man. I don't know that I thought, "This is an important showcase for me." I think for once I went in thinking purely of entertaining myself, which took away any second-guessing and worked wonderfully. I wrote a story where the Human Torch and Spidey accidentally bring the Kirby monster Goom to Earth, and because of other Johnny Storm hijinks, Goom only speaks hip-hop lingo. I heard that it made all the editors in that office laugh and read several parts out loud to each other. That, for writers starting out, is a Good Sign.
Then the current writer of MA: Fantastic Four just sort of dropped off the radar, and they had to scramble to replace him. I was offered the chance to finish a script he had begun, which I did immediately. A couple of weeks later they gave me the whole book, and later that led to launching the Avengers title of that line. If I had to wring a lesson out of this, it is follow your muse -- if you're inspired to do something, do that thing even if it looks like it will not amount to much. You never know where your career tree will branch from and continue. MacKenzie Cadenhead, who I worked with on those books, went to work for Virgin which led to me talking to Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and making "Walk-In," a sci-fi story I'm very proud of. I kept coming in to pinch-hit whenever Paniccia needed an extra Hulk book, and now I write Hulk. Also: your openings in work-for-hire books are usually created by someone else dropping the ball.
SPURGEON: Hey, I don't think I've ever talked to anyone that worked for Virgin. What was that experience like; what sticks out for you now? Did you perceive of anything that might have indicated they would be around in a drastically altered form rather than their original, coming-on-like-gangbusters conception?
PARKER: Yes, they had the classic enigmatic gameplan that never gave the key part of the equation to show where money would come from. They did almost nothing to promote their books, not even providing links to solicits so I could spread them -- they didn't think (in my opinion) the comics were important beyond being a thing to then base other media off of. I think you have to make the comics profitable as a foundation, even if you're trying to be a multimedia entity.
They would line up interviews that had nothing to do with the books. Like when I followed Andy Diggle on the Gamekeeper book, some sleazy British tabloid journo called me to talk about it, to which I could only say I never talk to Guy Ritchie, etc, before we finally got to his objective, which was asking me who would be a good choice to play the Gamekeeper in a film? I don't remember who I suggested before he asked, "What about Vinnie Jones -- he'd do, wouldn't he?" I said something like, "Oh yeah, sure; he's good," and the next week, bam: these sound-bite articles pop up everywhere VINNIE JONES EYED FOR GAMEKEEPER FRANCHISE! [Spurgeon laughs] So that's really all that mattered there, trying to make movies and stuff happen. Mackenzie and everybody else good bailed on the company, and I was soon done with my parts.
SPURGEON: I think they were in many way concurrent projects, so unless you correct me I'll ask about the X-Men work you did and then I'll ask you about Agents of Atlas. It seemed to me that you started to find your level with the X-Men stuff -- it did not seem the work of a newly-minted writer. Would that be a fair characterization? Was that a difficult gig on any level?
PARKER: Everyone thinks that was probably a simple job for me, and it was the toughest of all that I've done for Marvel. Because it was a "dance within the raindrops" thing where you couldn't contradict established continuity. Which is tough because there are whole decades where I never read the X-Men and had no intention of going back and reading all those books. So I tried to find things that would work, like having them run across The Lizard, my favorite Spidey menace, meeting up with Thor, and so on. Agents of Atlas stories were more complex but much easier to write because I didn't have those continuity restraints. Roger Cruz brought a lot of energy to the book, and I think we did create something that was a good entry point to the world of the X-men.
SPURGEON: Do you have any insight as to why those characters didn't get all the way over the way that other early-era Marvel characters did? Why was it more effective in its later incarnation?
PARKER: I don't want to commit comics heresy here, but I don't think Jack and Stan related to teens as much as they could say, ex-fighter pilots in terms of characterization. And gods, of course. It was easy to see why they wanted it to take off: make this mutant thing work and we never have to come up with bizarre incidents for origins again. As I kept examining it, I wished more and more they had made Angel a girl so you had more possibilities other than everyone fawning over Jean Grey. And Jean could have a buddy -- which I eventually did with Scarlet Witch when Colleen Coover started doing shorts for the book. Honestly I feel they had some good stuff that just needed more fleshing out, but they were doing so many books at that point that X-Men was last at the end of the day.
Then in the next incarnation, [Len] Wein comes in making everyone just angry as hell at each other, I wonder if that was because Dave Cockrum was drawing angry faces and Len had to make the dialogue match up -- and that was what the readership was ready for. Bickering teams that didn't feel like the stoic old Justice League Moose Lodge. Also, Dave's costume looks were really wowing the fans; they loved drawing all of these Legion heroes and mutants he was designing. Then it got more soap operatic, which fits a concept set around a school. I think the thing that may have kept Marvel trying to arrange the puzzle and make it work was simply the cool name. "X-Men! It's a great title and we have to make it work!"
SPURGEON: Are you far enough away from Agents Of Atlas to kind of walk us through why that series is no longer with us? Because it seems like it had a pretty remarkable run for that kind of off-brand property. Is it frustrating to work on a title like that in these very stratified, sales-rigid times? I imagine there can't be much hope that something like that will stick around in perpetuity.
PARKER: Yeah, and I still don't get what makes it off-brand, but I usually followed creators on titles once I hit a certain age. I never understood when I would read a fan discussing why we'd have a talking gorilla. Why is that more silly or left field than a guy who sticks to walls or an orange rock man? We had more high concept story and big action scenes than most Marvel or DC books, and top level artists and colorists. The Fantastic Four also seemed kind of weird when it debuted, as did Spider-Man and Hulk. If you don't try something different every now and then, you'll never find out what might work.
Yes, it was frustrating in the sense that if this book had come out in the late '80s when it looked like the market was open to comics tackling everything, it would probably have become an institution. But we still got away with a lot of entertaining stories, so I see it as a win.
SPURGEON: From your perspective, what does Marvel get out of working with a property like that? Is it just out of an ethos of managing certain properties, being good caretakers of the overall library, maybe, or hoping that lightning catches in the bottle... ?
PARKER: Sometimes editors and creators have to try to indulge their own tastes and whims, or what's the point of working in escapist stuff like this? Mark Paniccia really loved the book, as did I and most every artist who worked on it, from Leonard Kirk to Carlo Pagulayan to Gabe Hardman. Also many people at the offices were fans and wanted to see it exist. It's the ideal way to do it -- let's create this thing and try to figure out how it can make money, instead of, "Hey, I bet this will make money." As you know, it's not the usual way it goes.
SPURGEON: You were talking last night -- last night as we're having this exchange, which would be several days now -- on Twitter about layering into your work certain kinds of structural or thematic conceits, like showing the number three in various ways around the Agents Of Atlas character 3-D Man. Can you give a couple of specific examples of that kind of thing, either with Agents of Atlas or another title? Do you feel that readers can sense that kind of effort when it's done right, or is that something solely for your enjoyment?
PARKER: Yes, we kept putting threes around 3-D Man, details you'd probably never notice: like he drives a Maserati because it has the trident badge. He subtly shapes his own reality.
There are lots of rules imposed on characters, though most are about keeping them being themselves. Not just so they sound right, but because they need to shape the plots in the way only that character can. Venus is always relentlessly sweet and very pure, even when she's making everyone want to have sex which, as a siren, is what she does. To her sex is natural and healthy and everyone should have plenty of it, and because we don't show it as dirty we never caught flack for objectifying characters. When Atlas probably showed more near-nudity than any other Big Two book rated T-Plus. She always affects the story by trying to stop fights, which seems like a no-no in an action-adventure book.
I also have this meta approach that probably only makes sense to me, but it helps me keep characters on point, like the way I see Luke Cage in Thunderbolts. To me, Luke understands on some level that he's rooted in blaxploitation movies of the '70s and has a very dry sense of humor about it -- not to the extent that he knows he's a character in fiction, but it's a practice that keeps him feeling like Luke Cage when I write him, though he never says "Sweet Christmas" or wears chains and a tiara.
I think anyone who writes a lot and wants to keep the inspiration coming has to develop arcane systems that wouldn't make a lot of sense explained to a fiction writing class. Another of my things is to actively work in whatever bits of culture or environment that are present in my life at the time of each piece. Like a recent issue of Thunderbolts had Centurius and Troll adopting an on-the-nose, teacher-pupil relationship from My Fair Lady, which is on often in my house as my kids like musicals. Similarly in Atlas I used the Maria in the Convent setup from Sound of Music for Venus' origin. I make a woman prisoner say an Aziz Ansari joke to Luke Cage about licking a tattoo.
This stuff could be in-jokes, except I go to the point of including it in daily process. The Life Model Decoys in Hulk are described as 200, 700 and 900 series by MODOK: a reference to old models of Volvos, which I like to work on. By doing this constantly, it keeps me taking in details around me differently -- it's all story material. And my hope is that it keeps me from falling into routine. I never, though, refer to the culture directly, like name-dropping a band or movie -- I don't think I do, anyway. That feels forced and doesn't work; it always reminds me of Batman referring to a Janis Joplin album and impressing Robin in a '60s issue of Detective.
SPURGEON: A couple of follow-ups spring to mind there. First, you mentioned Venus and sex. How much are sex and sexual motivation available to you as a writer on Marvel's books right now?
PARKER: You know, I don't get a lot of notes on the sex stuff. I think if anything, I'm the one who errs on the side of prudishness. On books where I've been teamed with European artists, and I know it sounds like generalization, but many of them go into Milo Manara territory when drawing the women and I've sent lots of "reign it in!" notes.
SPURGEON: Why do you have that impulse, do you think? Is it just that you want to be mindful of female readers? Is it something about the juvenile nature of the genre? There's occasionally a lot of focused attention on female readers and whether or not superhero material in general is a friendly place for those readers. I know we're walking in The Land Of Broad Generalizations to even talk about this, but how sensitive are you in general to gender-based criticisms of your work and superhero comics generally?
PARKER: I don't mind someone thinking the women characters are hot, but I generally don't want them vogueing and acting like scenery instead of being characters. Not objects. Feedback from female readers suggests that I'm on the right track, but it's likely due to working around a lot of women cartoonists at Periscope more than me having magnificent judgment.
SPURGEON: Another follow-up. When you're talking about some of the ways you try to keep the work fresh and interesting to you, how not to fall into certain bad habits, it makes me wonder how you approach telling these kinds of story more generally -- what is your particular enthusiasm for a story in Thunderbolts or for your version of Hulk? Is it an intellectual exercise for you: telling the best kind of story of its type you can? Do you find the process enjoyable divorced from the material you're doing? Do you find specific value in the thematic or metaphorical power these characters can have? Where do your specific creative interests align with books like the ones you're doing now? What intrigues you about working with this kind of material?
PARKER: When these books are working at their best, it's because the tone is right. When I began Thunderbolts, it kind of was an intellectual exercise, how I could make the kind of stories that the book was expected to -- the artist and I didn't synch up well. He was in this photo-realistic vein that the book had gradually gone to, and didn't do much in the way of the emotive acting I was calling for because I wanted this dark comedy tone. Since I tend to go to artist's strengths, I backed off of what I wanted and did what worked with the drawing. I think it worked, but it didn't have a particularly strong voice.
Then Kev Walker was placed on the book and I had more say in the cast, and boom. Kev was a 180 for the art and with his Jamie-Hewlett-Meets-Mike Mignola style he pushed every moment. Now I could not only do the dark comedy, I needed to go even further with it to match Kev. Instantly the book found it's strong voice -- as Kev has said, the concept as we do it works when it's skating the edge of absolute ridiculousness. That tone wouldn't work for everything, but it fits a group of comic book supervillains to a tee.
No matter the tone, though, I firmly believe in that approach of walking the edge of ridiculous or ludicrous for key story beats. If you don't, if you play it safe, you just won't create anything memorable. But the tone you establish is what backs you up on those chances you take, allows them to be pulled off.
SPURGEON: This may dovetail a little too close into that last question, but it occurs to me you're working on two of Marvel's rarer commodities: post-1980 concepts that have hit for the company. Do you have any sense what others enjoy about the two titles you're working on, why they work when so many other characters and concepts they've introduced fail to catch hold?
PARKER: I constantly try to figure why Thunderbolts gets that pass it does where it's okay to not have headliners. It's like the readership came to a formal accord in Geneva and said "Okay, on this one book, you can have B-listers. But we will not tolerate it elsewhere." But maybe it's as simple as being the place you don't have to wait so long for favorite villains to cycle back through, you can go get their version of things regularly.
Red Hulk got onto the radar in a way that's hard to do now because previous writer Jeph Loeb knows how to make people mad, and that was exactly what got them to turn out for the book. And you know, it was still the thing [Walt] Simonson lured readers into Thor with when they saw Beta Ray Bill smashing Thor's logo and jacking his book. "They can't get away with this! I better start buying this title and keep an eye on it!" The Red Hulk was rampaging through, disrespecting the other big heroes, and got loud attention. Then Loeb and Ed McGuinness had the character finally get beaten by classic Hulk, his big fall.
When I came on, my assessment was that the dynamic couldn't continue like that to sustain the character and I wanted to explore a man who has lost his old life and is gradually learning that's it not all over for him. But he's got to reap the whirlwind of all the sins he sowed. And of course there must be big sci-fi and lots of fighting because this book is called Hulk. Big moments and quiet personal ones all together, and it worked because artist Gabe Hardman can sell all of that, his drawing makes it believable.
My tiny attention span also works for me on this stuff, because unless something's going down, I lose interest. I'm very big on the Raymond Chandler rule of if it starts getting too quiet, someone needs to come charging in with a gun.
SPURGEON: It sounds like a lot of what you're getting back from your work comes down to feel -- how you think you've engaged the artist, for instance. Can you name a couple of things you've done the last, say, five years where you really felt you'd done a good job, that the work achieved what you wanted it to achieve? For that matter, how much do you reflect on older work at all?
PARKER: I've finally worked with two old friends who are both heavy-hitters in the world of visual storytelling, Steve Lieber and Tom Fowler. And of course with both I worried that I might strain friendships by jumping into a direct professional role with them, but it didn't, both resulted in all of us making books we were insanely proud of. Steve and I indulged our love of naturalistic adventure material with Underground, which required a lot of research and let us touch on some very human interaction along with it.
Tom and I created Mysterius The Unfathomable as one of the last books Wildstorm put out, thanks to Ben Abernathy inviting us to do something we wanted. Like Underground, it's an art tour de force, but more in the direction of Jack Davis. And I was able to explore having an unlikable, nearly amoral protagonist because being interesting is really what counts with characters. In both books we did a lot of collaboration and back and forth, and came out with nuanced stories that worked on multiple levels. That is really the kind of experience I have always hoped for with making comics. Now if I can just make it wildly successful on the money end...
SPURGEON: I haven't heard a whole lot from Marvel's creators in this very tumultuous year, either on the slide the wider industry experienced in the year's first half, or DC's New 52 rally and how that might be a game-changer, or your own company's cutbacks. I suspect you have to tread carefully talking about that stuff at all, but I wondered if I could get you to speak on this: how positive are you about the arc of your mainstream writing career? How satisfied are you with the way things are, both for yourself and your peers generally? Is comics a good place to work?
PARKER: It's pretty tumultuous, as you say, and I'd be lying if I depicted myself as cool and calm about it. I just hope I've built up enough of a loyal readership at this point that they'll advocate for me and support my projects. I wish I could assure everyone that this mainstream ship is going to keep steaming on, but I only have so much control over that. As for output on my part, though, I'm extremely positive. I feel like the sheer number of works under my belt have given me a confidence to craft bigger things, and ideas are coming to me every day. And more original properties are on the way, like a book that Oni will be putting out next year.
SPURGEON: How much common ground do you have with your writing peers? Does that extend to creators of generations past? Do you feel part of a continuity, considering the kind of work you do?
PARKER: It's weird, sometimes I feel surprised that I do this for a living, like I'm from some other industry or background entirely and am looking at the comics scene remotely. Then other days, usually in the middle of writing or drawing, I feel like Milton Caniff and E.C. Segar or Wally Wood were not-so distant relatives of mine, and I'm stepping on their shoulders and bracing my own for other cartoonists coming up.
I love talking with peers on-line via Twitter -- the limited space available it makes it easy to stay short and not disrupt work life, and I see that I have lots in common with artists who work in completely different ends of the medium. I'm glad comics folk have embraced it; it's a great equalizer, properly used. It's cut the largely perceived divide between indie and mainstream material down to the mere crack it really is.
SPURGEON: Do you find that you share common ground with other comics-makers on various industry issues? The conventional wisdom is that the current group of creators of which you're a member is both highly mercenary and in many basic ways largely satisfied with the current business landscape as it pertains to creators. Is that a fair assessment? Do you feel like a group like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is specifically important to what it is you do? Are there other issues in which you're personally invested?
PARKER: Really -- that's the perception?
SPURGEON: I think so.
PARKER: I think creators are more worried than ever and want change, and feel nearly powerless to do much about it. It seems to me that many comics people sympathize with the Occupy movement, as I do. Almost no publishers currently invite artists to create new properties that they don't at least have media rights to for a while. The biggest companies are really concerned with their trademarks now that they're subsidiaries, and when there's less opportunity for creating original material, we're all more expendable. If my peers and I seem highly mercenary, it's probably because everybody is as we head to this event horizon where comics either becomes less relevant or makes a sustaining breakthrough.
Maybe you're getting that take from a lot of people putting up a brave face in tough times? Because this is still the entertainment industry, and one of the main rules of survival is never show weakness. And yet I still see creators bare that chest when they don't have to, letting the world know that things are dire. Which usually leads to things becoming really dire, because nothing scares away business faster than looking like you need help. It's a sad fact, but I've seen little to contradict it. Sometimes I message people and advise them to take down needy posts, and try to explain it. You might get a lot of supportive comments, but you won't get work.
The Legal Defense Fund... Historically, the CBLDF has been more focused on trying to hold the line of censorship at the retail level. That is important to what I do, if further along on the line. Obviously the other topic of the day is digital distribution, which I don't want to hear anyone expound on much more at this point, much less myself. But to not slip away scott free, I will say that I don't think it will work until we make 22-page units available at the .99 cent price, and not categorize books by publisher, which makes no sense to anyone outside the comics world.
SPURGEON: You mentioned this in oblique fashion early on, but how important has it been for you to work at Periscope, and have the continuing exposure it provides to other comics-makers? In general, do you still feel like you're adding to your skill set, that you're still influenced by other artists despite being a working professional? Can you talk about one thing you feel is different about your work now than, say, two years ago and where that change came from?
PARKER: I'm probably more open to being influenced by other creators than ever. I can come in and see Jonathan Case painting a beautiful cover or Ben Dewey completing another hilarious gag panel for his Tragedy Series tumblr, and get completely inspired. It always reminds me to entertain myself first. Some recent addition like Natalie Nourigat may bring up a question about the industry and Ron Randall or Karl Kesel will give the perspective of how it was when they broke in in the '80s... and then go on to show how to ink a page like a badass. Or David Hahn will bust somebody hilariously for using a tired trope and make us all think about the mechanics of scenes.
It's about as healthy a work environment as you'll find in comics or any other field. Also, going back to my sageness about not complaining in public, it lets all of us vent about whatever is eating us at the time, get that out of the system instead of saying it somewhere so Rich Johnston will play it back at you ten years later. The studio turns big problems small, and keeps us focused on the process, and making deadlines. I wish every artist or writer who can be around people had an environment like this to work in. Of course it didn't just happen, we had plenty of email debates, meetings, good and bad choices until we finally figured how to manage and cultivate such a diverse group.
SPURGEON: Even though we're focusing on your mainstream work for this piece, you do have webcomics experience, most notably your current project Bucko. Let me ask you this. You and Steve Lieber had a very interesting experience with your print comic Underground -- totally creepy book, by the way, I'm still twitchy about a couple of those claustrophobic scenes -- in terms of how you approached and interacted with those that uploaded it for free on-line consumption. I read an exchange where you indicated that even though you were able to sell some books right then -- something that was widely discussed -- you were saying you didn't do what was necessary to build on that exposure. What could you have done to use that experience to sell books over the long term, and why didn't you?
PARKER: We would have needed advertising to pick up the ball from that point on, I think. And that would require money, which wasn't something we had lying around. Or, I think had it been more of a genre book, that internet attention could have been enough for the lightning-in-a-bottle reaction that turns underfunded original works into something with legs. It's hard to explain the appeal of the book in a pitch, which translates to "it's these people being chased through a cave." As you say, the key is that we went to great lengths to put the reader in that position so they can get as tangible an experience as possible while reading, at least as much as Steve and I were capable of. By nature it's not as sexy as "zombie apocalypse soap opera."
SPURGEON: One through-line to this chat, as well as some others you've done, is your desire that people follow creators rather than creations and your tendency to do so without thinking. I was actually surprised that this isn't the norm, or at least isn't common enough you wouldn't feel it necessary to comment on it, but you'd know before I would. Do you get any sense that anyone out there is following you, specifically, and if so, what they're responding to? Is there someone whose work you follow that I wouldn't believe you if you casually mentioned it over coffee?
PARKER: Not long ago at Seattle's Emerald City show a guy came up and looked thoroughly through every pile of books I had on the table, and then asked, "Is there anything else you've done? I have all of these." He had become a dedicated reader of mine, and I was kind of caught off guard by it. I've been that way to several creators over the years -- Roger Langridge has something in print? Buy. Kyle Baker? Buy. Mark Schultz, ring that up. And I was surprised to discover people doing it with me. It made me very happy, to be sure, but I was still unprepared. It's because during all those times no one is paying attention to you, you have to come up with other things to drive you, you get into this mode of thinking, "No one may ever really notice me, so it can't matter to my process." But of course it does, it's everything.
I'm having a hard time thinking of someone who'd be a surprise to you that I like. Of course I like Chris Onstad and Kate Beaton, doesn't everyone? It would be more interesting to list people whose work you'd assume I like that I don't, but there's no way I'm going to create internet drama like that. Remember in the early '00s when no one had any money for advertising so everybody kept picking online fights for free publicity? I hope that never comes back.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I don't know that you'd agree, but it feels to me like we could be due for some significant changes in how mainstream comics are made and oriented towards an audience, from directions discussed or perhaps not-yet-discussed. What do you foresee as specific challenges one, two, five years from now? For instance, we've just come off of a very writer-centric period, and now more people are playing with Marvel-style scripting or something similar.
PARKER: It feels like it to me, too, based purely on the cyclical nature of the industry. Some other genres have to get rolling again soon. I take every chance I'm offered to write a horror or sci-fi story, for the most part. You never know where the running vine will find the right conditions and bloom. I wish we could drop caring about continuity, but people have been saying that for 30 years or more. Superhero books work best when they accept cycles and start over more often to clean the slate.
SPURGEON: Seriously, what's wrong with Steve Lieber? That guy... I told people we'd get to the bottom of Steve Lieber in this interview, but I'm afraid that might be another 10,000 words... so I think we might have to Seal Team Six it. If you had to tell just a couple of Lieber stories, what would they be?
PARKER: Man, don't get me started on him. We don't have enough room here on the internet.
We became friends years ago when both of us were trying to get work in the early '90s and we both cared about traditional drawing, which wasn't really in style at the time if you remember. Steve was walking around at a convention seeing who was doing what and saw a page on my table where I drew somebody's hands well, so he introduced himself. Isn't that a shitty team-up origin story? That's why bio comics don't rule the industry. There you go, Bluewater: that one's on the house. But it does remind me of a Lieber practice from a few years later.
In the mid-to-late '90s at a lot of the shows you'd be trying to talk over music blasting from one of the nearby small publishers doing Bad Girl comics like London Night or Chaos!. Inevitably some young artist would drop a portfolio of horrible drawings on top of all our art and comics asking how and when he could start doing covers, etc. and Lieber began this evil routine where he'd flip through their half-drawn, indecipherable pages and look really interested. This was after years of throwing pearls before swine, giving all this hard-earned storytelling and drawing advice that they wouldn't listen to, you'd glance up and notice they're not even paying attention to you trying to break down their work and formulate strategies. So Lieber started killing double birds with single stones -- he would tap on the portfolio like someone just laid a real treasure map down in front of him, and then say in a confiding tone: "You don't don't want to waste time with me, I'm just another freelancer. You know whose going to want to see this? Chaos Comics." And then he'd point them over to the loudest table -- sometimes he'd switch it up depending on who was bothering us the most but it was usually Chaos, and the young artist would then jet over there. They almost always name-dropped Steve, which I could tell because I would keep seeing heads look up and search around with that Who The Hell Is Steve Lieber look on their faces.
That just reminded me of an actual anecdote, maybe his greatest moment at a show that I witnessed. Because this was at the time the industry was really hitting the depths, right before I went to work in animation. At a Heroes Convention in Charlotte, this one art dealer was coming around and taking advantage of all the desperate artists and buying up pages at one flat, abysmally low rate. Something like "I'll take this whole stack for ten bucks a page." It may not have even been that good, it might have been like seven bucks per. And goddamn his wretched soul, he was getting pages because people needed the money. He came up to me and laid out his sweet deal, and it's the kind of thing so incredulous I often don't have time to get mad. To make it worse he even detailed how he would later take the art and put it in a nice frame with a matte and make a real presentation out of it. Like I gave a shit how he would present the art I practically gave him and then make a thousand percent profit. Of course Steve is listening to this next to me and had gotten angry on behalf of some other artist who did sell out to him. There was no danger I would sell, and I'm pretty sure Lieber would have dived between the guys hand with money like a slow-mo bullet interception, but I just said simply, "If I sell just one of my pages for the price I have on it, then I'll get the same thing, so no thanks." He tried a little more hard sell, pointing out that the show was almost over, and so on, but I returned to the sketch I was working on.
So the dealer then moved down one space to start presenting his sack of beans to Lieber, who immediately put his hand out cop style and said very authoritatively, "Step away from my table, you bottom-feeder." Tom, it was such a magic moment. I remember Chuck Wojtkiewicz' wife Marc with her mouth agape because she had never seen Steve be anything but friendly to people at shows. The guy moved on straight away.
SPURGEON: Is there a story from this year where you thought your own contributions were particularly strong?
PARKER: I was very happy with the Omegex story in Hulk, where we examined General Ross' past. Gabe Hardman as usual sold the hell out of these moments that were pure golden age Americana and big sci-fi battle. And in the middle of these titans clashing, we have three women characters observing and influencing the whole thing, acting as The Fates. I felt we pulled of a lot of neat stuff with that.
And for that story I got to introduce Uravo, a young lady Watcher, of the bald omniscient aliens who always claim not to interfere with Marvel history. I was afraid my favorite exchange went unnoticed because it was a back up story, but bless his heart Chris Sims called out the moment where another Watcher tried to put the moves on her. Ralph Macchio suggested we take that out, but there was no way I was losing that bit, it was maybe the best thing I wrote all year.
SPURGEON: What's the last great comic that crossed your desk?
* photo provided by Jeff Parker
* Hot Stuff is just as good as Batman
* Malibu's Solitaire
* Parker writes a western for Tomm Coker
* those Agents Of Atlas, post tryout period
* Goom smashes things, lays down rhymes
* Jean Grey needed a girlfriend, got one in Scarlet Witch
* Red Hulk
* Luke Cage, Thunderbolt leader
* Mysterius cover, by Tom Fowler
* sketch by Periscope studiomate Colleen Coover for a forthcoming project
* from Underground
* from Bucko -- Parker working in another genre
* Jeff Parker with Steve Lieber
* a Watcher macking on another Watcher
* more Thunderbolts (below)
First Week Of 2011-2012 CR Holiday Interviews Concludes
There will be no interview today. Our traffic drops on Christmas Day enough I decided a few years ago that putting someone in this slot would be unfair to that person. Plus I'm a great believer in slowing down a bit on the holidays themselves. I wish you the merriest of Christmases, or an equal amount of enjoyment derived from your holiday of choice.
If you're on-line today, and you're stopping by this site, thank you for making me enough of a part of your Internet experience that it would occur you to make this a stop on a day like this one. I greatly appreciate it. I hope that in lieu of a new interview you'll enjoy the comics and the link-tos and perhaps try one of the six interviews that you may have missed.
Steve Duin is that still-rare creature in the comics world: a full-time, established, working journalist with a sophisticated interest in comics as an art form. He's now a comics-maker as well. Oil And Water, featuring Duin's writing and with fellow Portland comics community fixture Shannon Wheeler providing the art, hit stands late this Fall. The handsome Fantagraphics volume details a trip in which Duin participated where a coalition of community members from one part of the country were brought to another part of the country -- in this case, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill -- in order to bear witness to what they see and assure any locals with whom they come into contact that they're not isolated or alone in terms of the discomfit and discombobulation they're experiencing. I was impressed with its light touch and laid-back rhythms.
I've been wanting to talk to Steve for about three or four years for this series, and I'm grateful for the chance to do so now. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Steve, two things I know about you is that you have a degree in English and you're right at that age to have experienced the 1980s surge in more sophisticated comics. Are you a comics child of the 1980s? Has your interest in comics ever clashed with your interest in prose, either academic or more generally?
STEVE DUIN: I only wish I were a child of the '80s [Spurgeon laughs]. The comic book that changed everything for me was parked on the spinner rack in 1968, at Dawson's Pharmacy in Severna Park, Maryland. Amazing Spider-Man #68. I was 14, and hadn't read a comic in years, but Stan Lee's storytelling so engaged me that I spent the rest of that fall sweet-talking friends out of their Marvel back issues at a nickel apiece. The power of the best stories has kept me reading comics and writing for a newspaper all these years, but I don't know that my taste in fiction is all that academic. I wrote my Masters' thesis on Vladimir Nabokov, but I love Stephen King and Alice Hoffman, and I argue, interminably, that Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is the great novel of the 20th century.
SPURGEON: Since 1/7 of the comics world seems to live there, I think this a fair question. How did you end up in Portland -- or back in Portland, I have no idea -- in terms of your career as a journalist and columnist? Were there other stops along the way? What makes Portland ideally suited for so many comics-makers, do you think?
DUIN: After graduating from Wake Forest, I spent almost three years writing sports for the Winston-Salem Journal and picking up that graduate degree in English. I quit the Journal in 1979, lest I fall in love with NASCAR, and came looking for a new job in the Pacific Northwest. I landed in the small pond that is Portland for the same reason, I suspect, that so many writers and cartoonists do: the mellow pace, liberal politics, desolate beaches and Powell's Books.
SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that the first time most of us saw your byline in relation to comics is with Comics: Between The Panels? That's a fascinating book on a lot of levels, full of anecdotal gems, and possessed of the kind of irreverent approach we see all the time now on-line, but also kind of chaotically assembled in some ways. What was that experience like? How were you brought into the project and do you think that book did what it set out to do?
DUIN: In the beginning, Mike Richardson was convinced we could write an entertaining history of comics if (a) we collected the stories that were told in the hotel bars after Comic-Con shut down, and (b) we didn't retell them in a linear fashion.
His instincts were right, but that doesn't full explain why the Comics: Between the Panels came together the way it did. When I write the newspaper column -- which I've done now for 27 years -- I'm invariably looking for a unique voice to carry the essay or rant; if none is available, my voice will suffice. I spent five years researching CBTP, and I think the book is largely, if haphazardly, shaped by the compelling voices that were available to me, the likes of Alex Schomburg, Bob Lubbers, Bob Fujitani, George Evans, Bud Plant and, of course, Mike.
Someone once criticized the book for featuring Hames Ware, a collector/historian from Arkansas, and ignoring Chris Ware, and the critique is fair. But Hames Ware was willing to talk to me about comics and Chris Ware wasn't. Jim Shooter was more forthcoming than Jim Steranko. Gil Kane was anxious to set the record straight about Stan Lee. There's probably too heavy an emphasis on Golden Age artists in the book, but Mike and I believed someone had to collate their stories before those pilgrims died. And knowing we couldn't include everything in 500 pages, we went with the best stuff that we had.
SPURGEON: For a length of time, and my memory says this was particularly true mid-decade last decade, you were a reliable reviewer of comics. It also seems you're doing less of this now. Interacting with comics is very different for a regular critic than it is for people that only write occasional pieces. Are you still writing about comics? What have you been able to take away in terms of your understanding of the art form and the medium by that kind of writing about it? How were those article received when you started doing them?
DUIN: For several years, I blogged frequently on comics and graphic novels at The Oregonian's web site. My editors eventually decided, however, that the blog couldn't support the weight of both comic reviews and political commentary. Fans of the column would arrive looking for rants on former Gov. Ted Kulongoski and trip headlong over "Matt Baker Mondays." Comic enthusiasts couldn't figure out why I was carrying on about Randy Guzek, one of the more manipulative creeps on Oregon's Death Row.
SPURGEON: This is mostly a not-comics question, but it seems silly to pass up the opportunity to ask these sorts of questions of a longtime working journalist. How were the last few years of precipitous decline and chaos in the newspaper industry perceived by working pros such as yourself and your direct peers? What happened, Steve, do you think? Was it just a loss of a monopoly on certain kinds of advertising and the panic of newspaper no longer hitting their yearly profit margins? Was it really as fundamental a shift as things seem to suggest? Most importantly, is there an aspect to that general story that you think media sources have covered lightly or not at all?
DUIN: The last five years have been brutal; The Oregonian has lost, easily, half of its reporters to layoffs, buyouts... and our embrace of assisted suicide. When you're giving your product away, as we do, why would we expect anyone to buy it?
Earlier this week, I interviewed Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, the online radio service. Westergren is one of the guys dedicated to redesigning and monetizing a new delivery system for music to an expanding audience. Journalism has been severely wounded by the loss of its major revenue stream -- classified ads -- and the eroding faith that we still believe, like Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, that we are duty-bound to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But we also need our own Tim Westergren to rise out of the ashes with a unique delivery system for our best investigative reporting.
SPURGEON: I liked your piece in that early issue of The Escapist. Have you done a lot of fiction writing, a lot of writing that's essentially comedic like that? Were you a fan of the Chabon book?
DUIN: I'm more comfortable with the non-fiction essay than I am with the novel. While I've now sold six books, I haven't found a buyer for either of my two novels. As one of those novels is entitled Action 1, and deals with the murders of several Portland-area comic collectors, that may not be a bad thing.
I was a huge fan of Kavalier & Clay, less so The Escapist. When Diana Schutz at Dark Horse asked me to do that collecting riff, however, the source material in Chabon's novel was so rich that I had a blast doing it.
SPURGEON: Tell me about Oil and Water, why you thought this would work in comics form and, if there's a story to tell, how it ended up at Fantagraphics. It seems noteworthy to me that you'd see this story in comics form, particularly in that I'm not sure you have comics writing credits.
DUIN: In the months following the Deepwater Horizon spill, a guy named Mike Rosen -- who worked for the city's Bureau of Environmental Services -- assembled a group of 22 Oregonians and arranged for them to spend 10 days on the Gulf Coast and "bear witness" -- whatever that means -- to how locals were coping with that man-made environmental disaster. Rosen invited a videographer along to produce a documentary on the trip, and he asked Shannon Wheeler and me to join the troupe because he believed we could somehow collaborate on a graphic novel.
I thought Rosen was nuts. And I made clear that while I was covering the PDX 2 Gulf Coast odyssey for The Oregonian, I wasn't signing on for the graphic novel. Weeks after I returned from the Gulf, I had no vision for how to construct a narrative about the trip... until I wrote the opening vignette on Jack Jambon, the 73-year-old Cajon proprietor of "Daddy's Money," a Grand Isle bar.
"Rewrote," actually, because I'd earlier blogged on Jambon, as indelible a character as you might find in Louisiana. Because tar balls had replaced the tourists on the beach at Grand Isle, his bar was deserted that summer. So, Jambon adapted. He brought in a half-dozen strippers from Slidell, dipped them in Johnson's Baby Oil and set them to wrestling. When I figured out that kicker for that scene -- "You think oil is the problem? You ain't from around here. Oil is the solution" -- the shape of the book began to come together.
Fantagraphics is the only publisher we approached. I'm a fan of Eric Reynolds, the Fantagraphics catalogue and their design team. I think they took a chance with us, and I'm still thanking them for it.
SPURGEON: Had you known Shannon before working together? He's an interesting Portland-area figure, I think. What do you think of his work generally? What suggested he would be a good partner for this book, considering it's kind of outside his perceived range of interests?
DUIN: Shannon is a trip. Before heading to the Gulf, I don't think he and I talked since April 2008, when he invited me to the revival -- or "refill" -- of the Too Much Coffee Man Opera, and I panned the sucker. ("Let's put the latest incarnation of Too Much Coffee Man Opera in terms all Portland coffee lovers will understand: It's Starbucks, not Stumptown. And that ain't good.")
I'm too new to all of this to fully grasp how the perfect union of writer and artist is formed. I was handing a screenplay to a single-panel cartoonist, and there were times when Shannon and I struggled to find common ground. But a great deal of my understanding of what we were dealing with in the Gulf owes to Shannon's perceptions and his sketchbook. He was refreshingly aggressive in dealing with the BP clean-up teams disinclined to give us access. His original poster for the group -- a naked woman starring incredulously at the oil derrick in her bed, and saying "What do you mean, it broke?" -- is brilliant. And it was Shannon who insisted that Oil and Water needed the half-dozen text pieces that serve as scientific sidebars in the graphic novel.
SPURGEON: One of the intriguing through-lines in Oil and Water is this general criticism of the overall effectiveness of what the Oregon observers are doing in the region. Was that something you encountered, more, or is that something you internalized and wondered about yourself? Is this book an expression of the kind of thing you find valuable about that witnessing experience?
DUIN: We were met with gracious hospitality -- occasionally coupled with wry amusement -- almost everywhere we went. When four of us drove down to Grand Bayou to visit a subsistence fishing village devastated by the spill, our prearranged "tour guides" never showed up. Brian Gainey, however, did. A 20-year-old crabber who works 16 hour days to keep the business going, Gainey took us out onto the bayou for several hours and provided me with a voice to die for.
All of us were wary, however, of the potential arrogance to be found in 22 Oregonians jetting down to the coastal communities of Louisiana and Mississippi and lecturing the hostages of this country's addiction to fossil fuel. We were naive voyeurs. I played that up as much as I did in Oil and Water for two reasons: I wanted to direct the readers' attention to the locals' more nuanced reaction to the oil spill... and I wanted the book to reflect the doubts that stalk all of us when we try to make a difference.
SPURGEON: Something that intrigues about this work as coming from someone that hasn't done a lot of similar work -- if any -- is how light a touch you have. There are some all-text bridges, but the comics themselves are almost sparsely written, to be honest. Can you talk a bit about the style choices you made, what comics writing you may have looked at in terms of some of the choices you've made?
DUIN: On the first draft of each chapter, I not only wrote the dialogue and voiceovers but also designed the pages, if only to provide Shannon with some comic relief. As I was conscious of the tendency of rookies to overwrite and over-explain, I was forever searching for that fragile point where words ferry the reader to the end of the pier, but the illustrations, the view -- of the sunset, the Gulf or the oil-stained pelicans -- speaks for itself. That approach, however, may owe more to my experience with the newspaper column than my history with comics. Words are much more powerful when they are used sparingly.
SPURGEON: What used to be an island of Joe Sacco and another island of memoir writing you could see from the beach of Sacco Island but was a different body of land entirely has recently become kind of a thriving archipelago. Having just completed a work in this sudden cottage industry, what do you think the strengths of comics as journalistic form might be? And what are the detriments? Was there anything you wished to convey in this book that you then backed away from, or went a different direction based on the form? What do you think the strongest parts of the books might be?
DUIN: I'm much more impressed with the possibilities of comics journalism than I am by the onslaught of comics memoir. Two years ago, I wrote a piece on the limits of autobiography after reading Drawn to You, by Erika Moen, and Lucy Knisley's Pretty Little Book. Both cartoonists were willfully boxed in by preoccupation with their own lives. As I wrote at the time, they are young, with plenty of time to experiment and mature, and they may yet "stretch the boundaries of autobiography in ways I can't imagine. But I hope they also come to understand that while the unique details of their own lives is the best place to begin making that vital connection with readers, it isn't necessarily the best -- or only -- place to end."
There are several balancing acts in Oil and Water, and one of them is between memoir and journalism. I wanted memoir -- the narrative of our trip -- to serve as the vehicle that introduces readers to the victims of the Deepwater Horizon and encourages them to wrestle with issues of social justice. And I believe comics have the power to engage readers on that level because Joe Sacco has taken us to the Gaza Strip; because Didier Lefevre and Emmauel Guibert found a way, in The Photographer, to use photos and comics to tell the story of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan; and because cartoonists like Matt Bors and Sarah Glidden would rather dive into the war zone or the refugee camp than blog from the local Peet's.
SPURGEON: Were you ever worried about balancing the story of what you were seeing with the story of the people seeing it? You spend ample time with both. Why spend that time with the witnesses in terms of their character issues and narrative arcs as opposed to a more straightforward presentation of the facts as you encountered them?
DUIN: Of all the balancing acts in the book, Tom, this was the most problematic one for me. No, I didn't go the Guy Delisle route. For whatever reason -- inexperience? -- I decided the book needed a narrative arc, one in which the alien visitors to this strange planet are changed by their interaction with it. The enduring dilemma of life on the Gulf Coast is that residents are economically dependent upon the very industry that savages the local environment. The most compelling personalities, all of them real, are the 20-year-old crabber; the cocaine-smuggling shrimper; the shark-fishing head of Homeland Security in the parish; and the coastal ecologist who doesn't know how long the mix of oil and dispersants will poison the waters. But I also hoped readers would find, in the interaction of the witnesses, additional reasons to consider their personal stake in all of this.
SPURGEON: I assume that these are real people that you're talking about. Did you get feedback from those people as you did the book? Did they know a book was coming? What's been the reaction thus far from the people most directly involved?
DUIN: The characters we met in the Gulf are all real, with the exception of the two black women in "Miracles." The ten Oregonians are, largely, fictionalized composites of the 22 folks who made the trip. Not all of them have seen the book yet. I've had several beers with those who have, and they seem reasonably entertained by what Shannon and I memorialized about the trip and what we abandoned on the beach.
SPURGEON: One of the concluding moments in the book involves someone who just stays there, almost as if they've received a calling to do so. You present that in a pretty matter-of-fact way, but I'm not sure if you felt that was a genuine reaction or just someone bailing out on their life-as-lived as becomes a possibility when you take a trip like that. What did you feel about that person making that decision?
DUIN: In the "Miracles" chapter, there's a sermon board outside the church where we stayed during our first three nights in New Orleans. The board borrows a line from theologian Frederick Buechner that I've been quoting for years.
In Wishful Thinking, Buechner writes about the "work a man is called to by God," and suggests that we are called, in the end, "to the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." I think the search for that place is the quest that defines us. It's the Francis Schaeffer question: "How Should We Then Live?" And we should be wrestling with that question, as Massimo does when he elects to remain behind in Oil and Water, when we are watching the collapse of the Deepwater Horizon, standing on the beach at Grand Isle, filling our gas tank or turning down that plastic bag.
SPURGEON: What are three memorable comics you read this year not your own?
* cover to the new book, Oil And Water
* Amazing Spider-Man #68
* Comics: Between The Panels
* I firmly believe this photo to be the greatest bio photo of all time. Not only do I immediately trust that guy, I want to elect him commissioner of the Gotham City police force.
* an arresting image from Oil And Water
* Duin (far right) and Wheeler (middle) on a panel in support of Oil And Water
* the running criticism from Oil And Water
* Duin's light touch
* the drama of the participants in Oil And Water
* the two fictional characters in a sea of those from real life
* another dramatic image from Oil And Water (bottom)
I knew going into this year's Holiday Interview Series that I wanted to talk to at least one younger art-comics cartoonist. Of all the choices out there -- and there are happily any number of young, interesting comics-makers to choose from -- I decided to ask Ethan Rilly because of all the folks in that category that intrigue me, I know the least about him.
Rilly showed up on my radar like he did for many people, with a comic-book issue of Pope Hats #1 that apparently grew phoenix-like out of a previous mini-comic that also had many folks excited. Rilly has a commercial illustrator's craft chops and a sense of comics storytelling that feels restrained, studied and elegant. A Pope Hats image in an advertisement on this site set one prominent comics person on a mini-Twitter quest to find out who Rilly was. His publisher described him to me as "trustworthy." Rilly also seems to have some comprehension of the art-comic as an object: the slightly absurd title that can't be anything other than a comic book title, the one-man anthology forma of the individual issues, the kinds of stories being told... I was happy Rilly agreed to talk to me in this, the year AdHouse Books published his Pope Hats #2. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Ethan, you're kind of mystery to a lot of us. Can you walk me through your relationship to art and comics that got you to the point where we saw that first Pope Hats mini? Were you a comics reader? Were there comics that made an impression on you that linger to this day? What made you finally decide to start making them?
ETHAN RILLY: I definitely was a comics reader as a kid. A friend introduced me to Marvel Comics when I was about 10. I gravitated toward the X-Men titles. This was right before Image Comics started, and I followed all that stuff because Jim Lee was my hero at the time. So that's what I grew up with. Much earlier there was Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes in the weekend newspaper.
My comic book memory is spotty because I had at least a couple phases as a teenager where I vowed to quit buying comics forever. I can't remember why. Obviously, there was a lot of amazing stuff out there that I was unaware of. I was lucky enough to read Love & Rockets early on, because the public library had it. I'm the same age as Love & Rockets.
SPURGEON: Okay... huh.
RILLY: Comics as a medium really clicked for me when I moved to Montreal for school in 2000. I started to notice all those moody Drawn & Quarterly comics. Dirty Plotte and Optic Nerve and Chester Brown's work. It was such a relief to discover all that. And Jimmy Corrigan came out around that time. I read that book instead of studying for an exam, very late one night. It was so moving.
I originally started making comics as a temporary escape from the bubble of being a university student. I made strips for the campus paper because they would publish anything under the sun. It was actually the ideal publishing experience. I would draw a strip, slip a photocopy under the door of the editorial office and just walk away. Within days it would be all over campus. And I eventually collected those strips for the early years of Expozine, Montreal's small press fair. Montreal has always had this vibrant DIY culture. The whole attitude is, "Just make the thing, don't worry about anything else." That has always appealed to me.
Years later, on a whim, I applied for a Xeric Grant for the Pope Hats mini-comic I was working on and was completely surprised to get it. It forced me to release something in a semi-official capacity. It was a great boost, but also a strange experience. I guess that was a turning point.
SPURGEON: Was getting into a relationship with a publisher something that was even on your mind when you were distributing that first mini-comic?
RILLY: Definitely no, if you're talking about the photocopied version.
SPURGEON: I was.
RILLY: I only made enough copies for friends and for the Toronto store, the Beguiling. But also no to the final version of Pope Hats #1. I didn't have the confidence to seriously think about publishers then -- I was mostly just absorbed by my day job. My entrance into the world of comics has been a total comedy of errors.
SPURGEON: What appealed about working with Chris Pitzer on the new one? What does he do that you can't -- or choose not to -- do yourself? Do you use him as an editor, as a designer...?
RILLY: Chris is such a supportive and hardworking guy. We met at TCAF right after I had the first issue printed and he offered to help me out with distribution. It lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. The Diamond order minimums policy was fresh at the time and there was all this doomsday talk. Being able to bench off Chris' Diamond relationship was reassuring.
I'm always amazed to see Chris work as a publisher. He's smart and pragmatic, and entirely focused on solutions. He's decisive and moves quickly. I totally lack all those great qualities. And as a designer he appreciates the importance of details.
Chris was very generous with me during Pope Hats #2. He gave me a wide berth and focused on the publishing element, on making it available to the public. He didn't ask for any editorial changes. I'm a bit obsessive with my comics, so I like to design the entire package, even when I have no idea what I'm doing. Chris handled all the logistical business details that no one ever gets any credit for. That Chris agreed to publish Pope Hats #2 at all, as a finicky comic book, is a really big thing to me.
SPURGEON: The current comics culture loves a new face, and certainly the AdHouse-distributed issue of Pope Hats #1 got a lot of that specific kind of focused attention. How did you process so many people saying nice things about your work at that time? Was that a good experience? Did it help in terms of wishing to continue to work on comics?
RILLY: I think you're greatly exaggerating the response. [Spurgeon laughs] I remember reading a couple negative reviews and totally agreeing with them because they were well written.
I was never crazy about the first issue. Bear in mind, most of that book was intended for no one at all. I was the intended audience. Probably the main reason why I applied for a Xeric Grant in the first place was because of its rich history. Knowing there was this common ground between Adrian Tomine and David Choe and Tom Hart and all those guys who got the grant. It was just my dumb vanity. But I also really liked the idea of it -- the fact that this foundation was financed by the Ninja Turtles franchise. It's goofy but significant. There aren't a lot of people who would actively give back the way Peter Laird and his volunteers have, for so many years.
Anyway, I am really happy whenever I hear that someone likes my comics.
SPURGEON: I have a hard time tracking influences with you, which I think is to your benefit. With someone your age, where things have exploded in terms of what's available, I don't know for example if you're influenced by someone like Seth, or by the same people he was influenced by, or both, or if you're arriving to some of the same conclusions all on your own. Can you talk a little bit about how you arrived at your current style, if there were significant influences, and what you want to achieve through the visual tone of what you do?
RILLY: I really like how you presented this question. It's tough, because I don't spend time alone defining my influences. It's probably the usual suspects in alternative comics. Certainly Seth is in there. It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken and Chester Brown's I Never Liked You are books that I go back to. A lot of art outside comics probably seeps into my stuff.
I'm not a good comics historian; I'm not really aware who Seth's influences are. One figure I am curious about is Richard Taylor. He was this Toronto guy who went on to become a successful New Yorker artist, but I only became aware of him last month. He was an amazing visual artist. Still, I don't think there's any meaty personal work of his for me to find, so I might forget him soon.
I can't judge my own case, but your idea of "arriving at the same conclusions" seems like a really apt way to view things in general. Art is always a crazy mixture of influence and personal experimentation and cross-pollination. It feels like every cartoonist has to re-invent the grammar of comics from scratch. It's not like there's a law on how to draw multiple word bubbles in one panel, for instance. That would be dumb.
For my visuals, I just try to keep them accessible and in tune with everything else.
SPURGEON: You've talked about a failed graphic novel project between the two issues of Pope Hats. Why that project after #1? And what specifically wasn't working for you? What did you take away in terms of lessons learned that you applied to #2, beyond just getting more pages drawn and all that comes with that?
RILLY: I can't recall why I wanted to do a graphic novel then. I probably thought it's what people wanted. The market isn't exactly welcoming new alternative comic books. They don't make much financial sense. In any case, what happened was I started working on this graphic novel with a number of new self-imposed rules that I thought were sensible, and every one of them backfired.
One really stupid take away lesson was I can't draw in perfectly square panels. A lot of artists do it well, like Chester Brown and Gabrielle Bell. And the underlying principle was to increase the capacity for editing the art. I wanted to try this format where all the panels have the same dimensions, so I could do future editing like in the filmmaking process. I wanted the ability to swap panels, add new panels, or switch out a whole scene even if it began halfway down the page.
What I discovered is I can't balance a composition inside a square panel. I don't know why, it just isn't natural for me. It took me dozens of finished pages to realize this. I tend to work better when I envision the page in its entirety, with varying panel sizes. Also, I discovered that editing finished art is a slippery slope. It's dangerous. Once you begin re-drawing and expanding and shuffling sections it's easy to lose sight of what's important.
That's only a couple examples. I'm glad I was misguided enough to make a great number of mistakes rather than just one. I learned more that way, I think.
SPURGEON: I guess that leads into a natural question -- and kind of one that's been bandied around a lot, so I apologize -- but is the comic book format specifically satisfying for you? In a sense, Pope Hats is a one-man anthology of the kind that was at its most popular 20 years ago, and the lack of fellow travelers on the stands really kind of sticks out. What do you like about publishing that way? Calling it "Pope Hats" would seem to indicate that you at least have some awareness and affection for comics like that -- because that just sounds like a comic book title.
RILLY: That's a totally fair question and I'm happy to answer it. Yeah, the comic book format absolutely works for me. I have real affection for it. I occasionally fear that people might think I'm trying to be forcefully "retro" or something, which would be obnoxious. The format alone is smart and flexible. There aren't rules for what goes on between the covers.
I really appreciate being able to see artists grow through their work and switch gears over time. The single-artist comic book is a window into that author as a person. It has a weird weight.
Also, some of my favorite work in the recent past has been in the comic book format. Sammy Harkham's Crickets and Michael DeForge's Lose, to name a couple.
Graphic novels are great, too, though.
SPURGEON: Is the short story "Laughter" something that survived the aborted project?
RILLY: No, that page was conceived for Pope Hats #2. I actually had to do that page twice because I screwed up the drawing and inking the first time around.
The sole thing that carried over from the aborted project to Pope Hats #2 was the ceiling fan on the inside cover. I liked it too much, apparently.
SPURGEON: [laughs] What interests you most about the core relationship between your two leads? Because I think that's at the heart of what you've done -- more than their gender, more than the vocational aspects, more than the whimsical parts. Is this a kind of relationship you've observed that's intrigued you? Is it placing onto two character a dichotomy you've thought through in terms of a single person or even yourself?
RILLY: Well, friendships can be complex. Sharing a sense of humour and point of view, depending on one another, feeling strongly about what the other person should or shouldn't do at certain times. I don't know, I'm just trying to capture it, a portion of it. I'm drawing both from dynamics I've observed and experienced.
SPURGEON: When I've talked to a few people about the latest comic, all of them mentioned how well-observed the law firm stuff is, at least the feel of it. What specifically interests you about that setting? Because you convey that wonderful sense of accomplishment, but also the bewilderment of being in those workplace situation, and it also seems you have a nice sense that young people have in a job like that of wanting to improve and move on in their jobs but also seeing these examples in front of them that are not exactly welcoming, these exhausted lawyers, or former assistants.
RILLY: Thanks. I sort of wish you weren't so observant. I'm still working on this story and it looks like we'll have nothing to talk about in the future.
The corporate law firm is a really unique environment. I hope you'll let me refrain from spelling out exactly what interests me about it right now... Sorry to be dodgy. It'll probably become clearer as this thing progresses.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about the design on Castonguay? Because in a sense it was really striking; it looked like something Drew Weing or Michael DeForge might use in a more fantastic tale -- and it reminds one of Daddy Warbucks. How much do you work with character design before bringing one into your work? How much of the fanciful elements reflect the way the characters are perceiving something?
RILLY: I haven't read Little Orphan Annie yet, so I wasn't thinking about Daddy Warbucks. I need to set aside some time for Harold Gray; I've been kind of putting that off. I originally planned to model Castonguay after a famous Canadian figure who was quite slim. But the design changed over some sketching. I was just aiming for a general feel, anyway.
I rarely do much if any character design, which can get problematic. Often when drawing I have to refer back to the first panel that a character appeared in just to remember what they look like.
Your question about the fanciful elements reflecting the way characters perceive... no comment. You're an interesting reader.
SPURGEON: One thing I thought was very well done in this latest issue is the way you took care of sequences of dialogue. How do you break a sequence like that down in the creation of it, say the scene between Frances and Vickie talking, what becomes important to you about the scene entire and what gets conveyed? Are you merely trying to keep up the reader's visual interest in the scene, or is there something to the framing of it that you want to convey to the reader?
RILLY: Sometimes it's haphazard, but usually the characters are staged and framed in such a way to help communicate the scene. Or that's the idea. The way Vickie moves around in that kitchen where Frances is working -- all that movement is important to me... I don't know if it conveys anything worthwhile, though. I have no distance from the comic to be able to read it.
When I'm drawing a page there's mostly this persistent feeling of dread --of trying very hard to not screw up the important information. Because it's so easy for everything to go off the rails. Readers seem really forgiving, though.
SPURGEON: "Gould Speaks" is very pared down in terms of the effects employed -- it seems almost as much about the main narrative technique as it is about the content of what's being conveyed. Why include that short story here as opposed to using it someplace else?
RILLY: I wanted to include some breathing room that would be different from the first story. "Gould Speaks" is basically one confined environment, for many pages, and with a much narrower time span. I really love all this about comics. That you can modulate all these key aspects.
SPURGEON: What did you find intriguing enough about that kind of character, always watching himself, enough to do a story about one?
RILLY: More than the character, I think the environment or the situation of the bus was the thing I hoped to depict. That's probably the main character of the story. This space where time passes and nothing changes, except the outside surroundings. Whether it deserves a whole story? I have no idea. I sometimes find it hard to justify these things I find interesting even to myself.
SPURGEON: Is there any tension when dealing with a story that is observed from real life that applying the conventions of story to it works at odds with any kind of naturalism you're hoping to convey? Because that seems a tension in your work, these fanciful flourishes placed up against very emotionally and tonally realistic moments.
RILLY: Maybe there is some tension. That would be a good thing.
SPURGEON: How much are you interested in crafting a narrative and bringing to the forefront certain effects as opposed to just documenting certain emotional states and situations?
RILLY: I'm definitely interested in all those things, and for whatever reason, I don't view them as being too much in opposition. The comics that I do are categorically fiction, and that sets certain limits. But you can play with those limits. There's a lot of room for realism and so many other things.
At the end of the day, I'm just trying to weave a bunch of stuff that interests me into a conventional fictional story. And I have this delusion that it might actually entertain some people.
SPURGEON: I've asked this a few times of a few people, so it must be on my mind. But how ambitious are you? Will we see more issues, eventual collections? Is there a plan for five years down the road, or even hopes?
RILLY: I'm working on a third issue. After that there will be a fourth. My focus for the next while is this longer story with Frances and Vickie. Main ambition is just to have more time and space to make more comics.
* panel from Pope Hats #2
* photo of Ethan Rilly from BCGF 2011
* cover to the comic book version of Pope Hats #1
* panel from "Gould Speaks"
* panel from "Smokey's Journey," which we never discuss at all
* sequence from "Laughter"
* law firm interactions
* a dialogue sequence
* two from "Gould Speaks"
* an illustration pulled of Rilly's site (below)
20: Godland #34, Tom Scioli, Bill Crabtree, Joe Casey, Rus Wooten. (Image)
19. "Dit Dit Dit Dah Dah Dah Dah Dit Dit" from Casanova Gula IV, Gabriel Ba, Cris Peter, Matt Fraction, Dustin Harbin. (Marvel)
18. Orc Stain #6, James Stokoe. (Image)
17. Daredevil #3, Paolo Rivera, Joe Rivera, Javier Rodriguez, Mark Waid, Joe Caramagna. (Marvel)
16. 20th Century Boys, Naoki Urasawa, Akemi Wegmuller, Freeman Wong. (Viz)
15. Hellberta, Michael Comeau, Seth Scrivner, Tara Azzopardi. (Koyama)
14. Spaceman, Eduardo Risso, Patricia Mulvihill, Giulia Brusco, Brian Azzarello, Clem Robins. (DC)
13. The Land Unknown, Gary Panter. (United Dead Artists)
12. Uncanny X-Force, Jerome Opena, Esad Ribic, Rafael Albuquerque, Billy Tan, Mark Brooks, Scot Eaton, Rich Elson, John Lucas, Andrew Currie, Andrew Hennessy, Dean White, Jose Villarubia, Chris Sotomayor, Matt Wilson, Richard Isanove, Paul Mounts, Rick Remender, Cory Petit, Clayton Cowles. (Marvel)
11. Lose #3, Michael Deforge. (Koyama)
10. Color Engineering, Yuichi Yokoyama, Ryan Holmberg. (Picturebox)
9. Various issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, Marcos Martin. Muntsa Vicente. Javier Rodriguez. Dan Slott. Mark Waid. Joe Caramagna. (Marvel)
8. Gangsta Rap Posse #2, Benjamin Marra. (Traditional Comics)
7. Thickness #2, Angie Wang. Lisa Hanawalt. Michael Deforge. Mickey Zacchilli. Brandon Graham. True Chubbo. Jillian Tamaki.
6. Weird Schmeird #2, Ryan Cecil Smith. (Self-Published)
5. Congress of the Animals, Jim Woodring. (Fantagraphics)
4. Prison Pit Book 3, Johnny Ryan. (Fantagraphics)
3. Hellboy: The Fury, Duncan Fegredo, Dave Stewart, Mike Mignola, Clem Robins. (Dark Horse)
2. Ganges #4, Kevin Huizenga. (Fantagraphics)
1. Love and Rockets New Stories Vol. 4, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez. (Fantagraphics)
+ Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
+ Incognito: Bad Influences, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon)
+ League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (Top Shelf)
+ Neonomicon, Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar)
+ Daredevil, Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera (Marvel)
+ Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, Rick Geary (NBM)
+ Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance, Lewis Trondheim (NBM)
+ Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight - Marshall Rogers (DC Comics)
+ Avengers Academy, Christos Gage, Mike McKone, Tom Raney and others (Marvel)
+ Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes, Carl Barks (Fantagraphics)
Tucker Stone came to the attention of comics readers the old-fashioned way: by writing about comics in a unique voice on a homemade platform with enough energy and vigor people started to notice. The actor-by-training and comic shop employee may be the only comics critic as known for a series of review videos in which he once starred as he is for his writing -- which has since trickled out to a number of web sites, most notably a column at comiXology. I've read other bloggers linking to Stone the way old-timey radio hosts introduced segments from war correspondents. Stone is out there engaging with the art form -- all of it -- as it arrives on comics shelves every Wednesday. It's been a fascinating year for mainstream comics, and I thought Stone might provide a perspective that was valuable yet divorced from my own. He did not disappoint. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Before we get into the year in mainstream comics, I have a question about the way you write and a question about the way you read comics. The first is that I always get a sense of performance out of your pieces, as much as I do from anyone this side of Abhay Khosla. Is that a fair characterization, do you think? Do you think that your reviews are different in any substantive way by the very aggressive style you use?
TUCKER STONE: I think that's a fair characterization. I hear it, I don't read it, if that makes sense. In a lot of ways, I've come to think that the best way to deliver most of what I put on the web site -- with the exception of the few things I've written for The Comics Journal -- would probably be best experienced if they were being performed in some capacity, because they really are... they're written to a cadence in my head, and that's a spoken cadence. In response to your second question, about them being different in a substantive way? I think they'd have to be. I'm trying to capture my own personal relationship with the text in reviewing comics, but I'm going about in a way that's primarily designed to entertain, and that places limitations on what I can accomplish on an intellectual or serious level. At the same time... I don't care. Funny beats serious every time. That's not even a contest.
SPURGEON: My second question comes from that I realized it's been a while since we talked. At that time, we talked a bit about your writing as a kind of active hobby, meant to entertain yourself and your wife. What we didn't talk about was your reading, and what motivates you there. Do you read in order to write, or are you a voracious reader of comics generally? Is it harder to read comics now that you're a few years into writing about them than it maybe was when you started?
STONE: I was all set to say "I don't read in order to write," and I don't think I do. But I do read a lot in order to keep up, which is sort of the same thing. I feel a sense of obligation -- in part because of the writing, nowadays because of the store -- to know what's going on in contemporary comics publishing. I don't feel it's necessary to express my opinion about every new thing that comes out, but I do feel a responsibility to have one, even if it's one I keep to myself.
It is a bit harder to read as many of them now than when I started. I find myself less enthusiastic about new material as time has gone on, and while that makes the high points that much better, there's a wide expanse of tiresome comics that has to be plowed to get to the good stuff. I know I would not have inhaled a lot of the crap that I have over the last year if it wasn't for the store and the relationships that have sprung up out of that. However... I say that stuff now, and there's been plenty of moments where I haven't minded. Participating in that Hooded Utilitarian round-up got me back to late night marathon reads of [Jack] Kirby comics and Lone Wolf & Cub, and I was happy to be tired the next day. Sometimes it does feel like abandoning new comics for a while would not be a huge loss. It would be a loss, but not, necessarily, a life-changing one. To just sit around and re-read Kirby and Love and Rockets or whatever, Judge Dredd and Peter Milligan's Batman comics. That sounds attractive to me.
I was talking to [critic Matt] Seneca about Harold Bloom recently, whether comics has produced enough greatness that a guy could dedicate his life to them the way Bloom did to Shakespeare... I think it's easy to say yes to that, it's an attractive ideal. But I don't know if it's true, if there's enough in Little Nemo to re-read the way a guy like Bloom goes back to Hamlet.
So much of comics -- and I'm thinking the whole industry, not just Marvel/DC -- is dedicated to hyper-consumers, you know? It's all about buying this stuff immediately upon release, amassing these tomes and libraries and archives alongside the weekly installments of whatever genre stuff there is. Nobody can keep anything in print, there's so few people qualified to cleave the wheat from the chaff. It's just buy-buy-buy, X-9 hardcovers and 26 volumes of Peanuts and another re-release of Prince Valiant and 16 newly-translated softcovers from wherever [D+Q Publisher Chris] Oliveros went on vacation. I get sick of trying to play the democratic catch-all who gives everything a chance, sick of that feeling where I'm constantly staring off into the next few months, waiting to see what comes next. And it doesn't do service to the work, either. It just becomes an ingestion process, this thing where you're constantly shoveling comics into your head like an old school meat grinder. Reading years of work in days, binging on the stuff, and just checking it off and moving onto the next thing... it's gross.
Shouldn't there be stuff that I'm re-reading yearly?
So yeah, it's harder. I don't know that I have a point here. That question opened up a can of worms I'm struggling with. Comics used to be a part of my life, now they feel like they're too much of it, and yet the only positive force I find in them is when I read good ones. But getting to that is becoming a situation where the cons -- dealing with the scum that publish them, the sub-mental idiots who want to "break in," the rampant hate so many have for the few genuine artists, the constant assault on integrity and ethics from all sides -- sometimes it makes me want to bail out and divorce myself entirely.
SPURGEON: I hear what you're saying about the mental stress of having to put up with some of the cultural peculiarities that comes with consuming a certain kind of comic book. I'm not suggesting I had the answer to this when I was more immersed in them, either, but to put the same question to you that was always put to me: why do you have to have those experiences to read the comic, do you think? Why do you have to encounter those people, say, scrambling to break in if you're reading and reacting to those books? Why do you subject yourself to that?
STONE: I'm subjected to that because that's what makes up the lion's share of on-line coverage, Twitter, Facebook, my email inbox, New York City's convention circuit, etc. Let me be absolutely clear: It is my choice to participate in these things -- to read shitty web sites and get irritated by what people promote online and how they promote it -- but the only alternative, the way I see it, would be to quit the job I currently have and have a consumer-only relationship with comics. If you write about this stuff -- and I think you can take the modifier "certain kind of comic book" out of the equation, because art/alt comics people are as bad (if not actually worse) -- you're going to end up bumping into that part of the industry all of the time.
(And in case you're wondering, part of my lessened output in the last year is due exactly to this struggle, this sense that I'm just using the comics review model to criticize the people, audience and industry behind it, and feeling that's an unnecessary, unhappy place to be. I've had to pretty much abandon writing at all about alternative comics, as their publishers and their conventions have gotten me far angrier in the last few years than Marvel and DC's idiocy combined, because at least with Marvel and DC, they have the excuse that they're just supplying corporate products and advertisement.)
You've got your own list of specific examples, but the feeling I get is the same as the one that has you using your brain and talent and maybe even sacrificing a bit of your health (?) to keep The Comics Reporter going strong. I don't pay attention to a bunch of the comics Internet the way I used to, but when a situation comes up that is somewhat deserving of attention, there you are, responding in an intelligent fashion. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you have to be doing that in some small bit because you think it matters to do so, whether anyone intelligent is paying attention or not. Your motivation -- which I perceive to be that business and ethics and simple decency matter, even if you're only talking about them with people who only care about comics as a way to get their shitty movie pitches taken more seriously, even if the only response is somebody like Torsten Adair going "at Barnes and Noble, we put comics next to green signs" -- is the same thing that keeps me going, although it's definitely in a matter of degree.
I will say this: if you're not struggling with the ethics of this business, then you're either completely unaware of how toxic they are, or you're a shitty human being. You can be ignorant for a myriad of reasons, but after you find out how this works -- how low-rent the gatekeepers are, or how much has been invested in catering to the sickest, worst parts of the audience -- there's only one ethical way to respond, and that's with disgust and anger. Anybody who just shrugs it off or buries their head in one corner of the medium's various genres immediately becomes a part of the problem, and they should be treated as such. Anybody who pulls the "Well, that's all fucked up over there but at least this corner is clean" -- they're maintaining the sickness as badly as the guys who screwed over Kirby. At least the guys who fucked Kirby had a financial motivation that makes some kind of dark sense. I don't know what this current crop of apologists gets out of it.
SPURGEON: How broad is your personal definition of the mainstream comic book? Is there still any market force behind genre comics, even superhero comics, from non-top two publishers? Do things like whatever Conan series that Dark Horse is doing and those Mark Waid superhero comics from BOOM! function like mainstream books, or do they function in an entirely different way?
STONE: For me personally, I use "mainstream comic book" to define just about anything that's genre-based and comes out regularly in comic book form. The only thing I really make exceptions for are things like King City or Uptight or Crickets or Lose... and I couldn't even tell you why. Serialized genre entertainment versus, you know, stuff. But that's really an after-the-fact explanation for the way I react to them. I don't think I always thought of them with that distinction, but it seems that way to me now, especially now that Image has moved so heavily into the failed Hollywood pitches production market while at the same time Dark Horse has amped up their status into a licensed production facility. They're a much classier version than the shit that Dynamite pumps out, but still -- it's a lot of Star Wars comics, a lot of Conan shit.
It's very difficult for me to ignore how very "product-y" all of that stuff is. It's stuff for people to buy and kill time with. I'm not going to criticize it solely for that, but there comes a point where I'm no longer going to pretend that discovering the differentiations between the "good" and "bad" versions of product out there. I'm sure there's a "best" one-hour television program, but finding it -- be it through my own research or any study of television criticism -- is a job I don't wish to expend any effort upon. I just want something to watch while I'm trying to put Nina's new desk together. That's what "mainstream" is to me -- the comics you read on the side. I make a space in my life for those kinds of comics, the same way I make a space for stuff that I don't think of that way. So yeah, I think of quite a few of those non-Big-Two, non-superhero comics as the same basic thing. That being said...
I have no idea about the market force question. Wasn't there a bunch of freaking out about Image's bank account this last year? Am I making that up? Hellboy stuff and Star Wars stuff still must turn a profit, and things like Locke & Key and The Walking Dead clearly make a good bit of money... but Dark Horse fired a lot of people this year, and I can't fathom to whom IDW is selling all those horrible horror comics it produces. Who can? I know of a lot of Image books that were complete financial failures, books that get dumped on the remainder market and disappear, and yet the creators still get work, there's still a public attitude towards them as being successful creators, with careers worth emulating. It's an impossible area to figure out from my perspective. I hope somebody is figuring it out. There's a lot of dreams hanging on those companies. I think comics would be the poorer for us if they were gone. They aren't for me, but that doesn't mean I think they need to be put down.
SPURGEON: Are there any quality books and/or solid performers in that genre books from non-Big Two sub-category of comics, to your eye? What do you like about them?
STONE: I love Hellboy and BPRD, and I'm keeping up with books like Butcher Baker Righteous Maker and a few others in that same category. I think Locke & Key is a pretty compelling series in a similar fashion to the way Walking Dead used to be, although it's better in a lot of ways because it's a more satisfying single issue experience, with stronger art. It's not something I'm ever going to be super enthusiastic about -- I think it's success with me has a lot to do with it being a competent, classically structured story amongst a sea of lesser imitations of serialized television shows.
Books like Casanova, Gødland and Butcher Baker Righteous Maker will probably always hold some interest to me, for as long as they're around. They just feel so unusual, and while neither of them feel like they've completely achieved whatever it is they're shooting to achieve, they're always gorgeous to look at, and there's something exciting about the fact that they exist. I love true indie/art/non-genre comics too, and I think the best of those works that get coded with those classifications are unquestionably "better," but I feel like you can look at Casanova and Butcher Baker and see where a lot of what we call the "mainstream" would have gone if superheroes hadn't taken over genre so completely. These are the steps -- ungainly, maybe -- that should have been taken years ago, if only so that the majority of the entertainment side of the business didn't get tilted so heavily in one direction.
I like things that are a little bit messy. Besides all that -- BPRD, Hellboy, Casanova, Butcher Baker -- what else looks as good as these comics? Color alone, there's nothing. There's no DC or Marvel book that's colored as audaciously as Butcher Baker; DC and Marvel can't lay claim to somebody like Dave Stewart. Casanova -- they're beautiful, messy books. I'd like them even if I hated them.
SPURGEON: If books like Casanova and Butcher Baker represent baby steps... why are we still taking baby steps in that direction? You may be able to argue me out of this, but as an older reader I connect a book like Casanova to a book like American Flagg! pretty directly. If you're describing them as correctives, why didn't earlier correctives take? Why do we need to reinvent this idea of genre comics with a creator's personal investment and unique creative contribution? Why can't the mainstream be broader than it is, you know, being the mainstream?
STONE: You could link to that Gary Groth thing, "Time of the Toad" here, I think. I found that an interesting piece of writing, and while it's pretty broad and wide-ranging in terms of what it's interested in, I think there's some stuff in there that has infected the way I'm feeling about some of these questions.
First things first: why didn't the earlier correctives take? Maybe it did, maybe books like American Flagg! helped posit the idea in those '90s superhero superstars that they could do it on their own. And they did: but they were still a group of idea-less dummies, and the best they could offer was tiny remixes on stuff they were already doing. WildCATS, Youngblood, Spawn, Savage Dragon -- I don't think this is the same kind of thing with [Matt] Fraction or [Howard] Chaykin. When those guys are free to play, they do other shit. Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, [Rob] Liefeld, whoever else from back then -- those guys weren't waiting for the doors to swing wide so that they could release their own West Coast Blues or Color Engineering or Dungeon Quest or ACME Novelty Library or whatever else. They weren't even waiting for somebody to let them do their own hyper-contemporary editions of Nick Fury and David Bowie references. Jim Lee wanted his own X-Men, and he got it. Erik Larson wanted Savage Dragon, and he got it. There was a lot of opportunity in those moments, and while I might think it was ideologically squandered, I don't think it was realistically squandered. None of those guys had -- or have -- anything else to bring to the table. Todd McFarlane didn't get into comics because of Love and Rockets. He does shit the way he does shit because that's all he wants, which neatly dovetails with the fact that it's all he's able to do in the first place. That's fine, it just sucks those were the guys who had the clout at the time to do whatever they wanted.
I don't think you should neglect the way some of the current "correctives" have worked, though -- Walking Dead, Preacher, Y The Last Man -- those books are proof to a whole generation of creators that you can have a (relatively) ethical career doing genre shit you like outside of superhero comics, and mainstream comics will embrace you. Didn't American Flagg! lay some of the groundwork for that? I think it's possible that it did.
On the question of "why are we still taking baby steps" and "why we need to reinvent this idea"... because it still hasn't taken, I guess? Because there's still grown men whose only ambition is to draw or write a specific set of corporate characters made famous by far more talented people than them who are now dead. The other reason -- although I honestly think I don't need one beyond that first one -- is that comics would be a hell of a lot healthier and more diverse if there were 40 books like The Walking Dead and Criminal then there are now, where we have 40 books featuring Wolverine or Batman. Find that old Kim Thompson thing: "We need more crap." I'm not going to try to write a new song when the old one is still spot on, and the song where the comics industry is all fucked up because there's too many superhero comics about the exact same fucking thing that appeals to the exact same bunch of people proves itself truer and truer every single week. They should come out with a new Casanova/American Flagg! type of comic every week until it does take off. Say it were a baby: you have to give it time to learn to walk. Comics just keeps showing up and going "Nope, these are still baby steps" and then they throw the baby out the window.
This is actually a decent one, let's go with it: and each time comics says "Nope" the creators have to go back and have sex and take the baby to term and birth it and all that -- and the whole time they keep having to face the same bunch of people who have killed their last 16 babies, and they're on their way again to judge the new one, and if they don't like it this time... well, shit. Think about that: all the work that goes into coming up with a new, creator-owned, non-superhero type of genre comic. And think about how it feels to have that work ignored over and over again, while the guy down the street -- who is usually a nice guy -- has a semi-decent paycheck coming in, and all he has to do is come up with shit for Batman to do, and it doesn't even matter that the shit isn't that interesting and the comic looks like it was drawn by somebody with broken fingers where their working fingers should be. That guy doesn't have to deal with the struggle of having a baby and raising a baby and paying for a baby to go to college and get braces -- he just babysits other people's kids. And sure, eventually he'll be too old to babysit and he'll be all alone with nothing but memories of other people's children (children who have forgotten about him completely), but he will have been safe and okay for a while. Of course, that other guy -- now he's got real memories. Now he's got something he can look back on that belongs to him, and if he's lucky, maybe it'll take care of him a bit too.
On that front... if I knew why it doesn't work, why the superhero thing wins the day -- I'd tell you. I don't know. I think it's always worth mentioning that the guys who buy superhero comics aren't as fickle as the fans of quality genre tend to be, and comics just isn't big enough to severely mistreat the people who keep it alive through thick and thin. Vertigo books wax and wane in quality, and their audience numbers reflect that. Batman's a more stable base, his readers don't mind if he falls apart for five years at a time. We have the industry we have because that's the industry the majority of its audience wants. DC and Marvel are too fucking stupid on a general basis, and they always have been, to do anything to pilot the ship. They do what they're told, and when a bunch of people open their wallets and say "We'll buy Preacher," you get Preacher. When they say they'll only buy Catwoman if her tits are plastered across every page, then you'll see Ed Brubaker get teamed up with Paul Gulacy. Why is Marvel currently serializing Northanger Abbey? Because the Pride and Prejudice hardcover outsold Spider-Man collections, that's why. DC and Marvel are the easiest companies in the world to control, and if all of the bloggers and bitchy twitter people could get over their petty bullshit, they could dictate that entire portion of the industry tomorrow. That's how small this is: the Internet could actually matter! [Spurgeon laughs]
I'll probably say this again, but here's my current feeling: we have the industry we deserve, because it's the industry we made. There aren't more Casanovas and American Flagg!s because people choose to buy Invincible Iron Man instead.
SPURGEON: While we're on the subject of Matt Fraction, can you explain to me the negative reaction to Fear Itself? Someone I think of as smart flat-out described it to me as a "failed event series," and while I bet the numbers don't quite support that negative an assessment, I have seen the cutting remarks out there and it certainly didn't perform ahead of expectations. I read most of it, and it seemed to me perfectly fine -- I liked it better than any of the other Marvel event series core issues except for maybe World War Hulk. Stuart Immonen's art was pretty, too. It came out on time, even. So what's the basis of the reaction, do you think? What am I missing?
STONE: I'm not sure what it is you're missing, but I think you're probably missing something. The only person I know who liked that book was Benjamin Birdie, and I listened to a lot of people talk about that book. (At the store, I mean.)
It just wasn't what people wanted. Maybe it's because it was so Thor-centric? We're talking about a character that was dead for however many years, and was then resurrected by J. Michael Straczynski in a title that, from the little I know about it, never seemed to intersect with the rest of the Marvel universe in the way the rest of them do on a regular basis. All the last few years of cross-overs, even World War Hulk -- aren't they all, at their core, New Avengers related titles? Fear Itself was a Thor-heavy thing with a story so basic that most of the people reading it (me included) thought we were missing something because there was no way it was as simple as "Evil hammers have upped and crazified people's powers, also watch out for being scared."
That "on time" thing... that has to be bullshit, right? Civil War was a fucking insane success, it created this entire model that they've been dicking around with ever since, and that book was 15 kinds of late. DC's being crowing about being "on time" ever since the 52 thing showed up... come the fuck on. The kind of Green Lantern reader who quits Green Lantern because it's a month late is also the kind of reader who is going to quit Green Lantern the second he has to look at a fill-in issue by Philip Tan. "We put it out on time" is a loser's marketing ploy, it's another way for DC and Marvel to threaten the people who freelance for them.
And you know what, I like Stuart Immonen, too, but let's not pretend anymore that it matters how superhero comics look. Ninety-nine percent of the people considered critics pride themselves on some variation of the phrase "what matters most to me is that the writing is good," and they're just following the behavior pattern laid out by superhero comics readers. I'm surprised every time I see decent art in a superhero comic, because I can't figure out why the fuck the guy is working so hard in a genre where the audience almost universally would trade [Frank] Quitely for [Salvador] Larroca in a second if it meant All Star Superman would have gone on for another 60 issues.
Real quick: I doubt my Thor theory is correct. I'm just fucking around and wondering about it. I read Fear Itself in its entirety, and while I didn't like it, I'm not supposed to like it. I like superhero comics that are bombastic and more than a little ridiculous and uninterested in being taken seriously. The best version of Fear Itself probably wouldn't appeal to me. But there is an audience for these kind of cornerstone, deep-continuity comics, and it was Marvel's job to provide them with the thing that they wanted. That doesn't seem to have happened.
SPURGEON: The reason I mention the timely nature of Fear Itself's publication is because that tends to be an avenue through which fans start to complain, and it didn't apply here. To a lesser extent, that's also true of art on a series like that -- it may not matter in the way you describe, but if the art is off-key or not well-crafted, that provides an avenue for fans to gripe.
Let's do a couple of the other Marvel series before getting into DC and maybe Hellboy. The Rick Remender-written Uncanny X-Force seems to my untrained eye kind of the opposite acceptance-wise to Fear Itself. It doesn't seem like there were any expectations to it going in, and the reactions are pretty effusive. I've only read a couple of issues, and it seemed perfectly serviceable, but I'm surprised people are listing it as one of Marvel's best. What's interesting to you about that title, what makes it emblematic of this year?
STONE: First up, I don't think it's emblematic of this year at all. I think it's an at times very funny action comic with exceptional coloring and strong, unusual art choices. It's densely packed in a way that many of Marvel's comics currently are not, giving it a sense that it's "worth" buying in single issues in a way that so many of these comics are not. Shit happens in those comics -- most of it is just people dying, but there's an actual love triangle as well, and it's been proven time and time again that superhero comics can do pretty decent love triangles. It's the X-Men book you can read that practically prides itself on not interacting with any of the five other X-Men titles that exist.
But emblematic -- no. If anything, Uncanny X-Force is emblematic of The Teen Titans and older Marvel X books, those sorts of comics where there's always a massive world-destroying affair going on and all of the big dogs (the Supermans, the Captain Americas) aren't even in the picture. It's all up to the smart ass, the creep, the tortured girl, the rich kid and Wolverine. You remember how in Teen Titans, it always seemed like Trigon was about to annihilate all of humanity, and yet there was no sign of Superman on the horizon? They'd never do that now. They'd use Trigon in an event series, and Batman would somehow be involved, and there wouldn't be any time to find out if Donna Troy was going to break up with that bearded creepozoid.
SPURGEON: Another talked-about Marvel series of 2011 is the revamped Daredevil, which I've just read. I liked it just fine, and I think Mark Waid is a smart guy who writes with a lot of integrity. That said, there's a bit of that "just a good ol' solid superhero book" feel to it, where it seems like that because it's well-crafted and has a point of view that runs against the grain, people are fainting in its presence. I'm not sure to an outside reader -- and I tried a couple -- it stands out. What works about it for you?
STONE: It's well-crafted superhero comics, that's it. I apologize in advance for being presumptuous, but I think you may not realize how rare that is right now. I think if you parse down those reactions -- what you're describing as "fainting in its presence" -- a lot of that is coming from people like Matt Seneca (people who barely read any superhero comics) and fellow creators (people who have to read a whole lot of shitty ones). The guy I work for -- he feels the same way you do about Daredevil. It's good, he likes it, but he's not as hyperbolic about it as I am. I doubt if it would stand out to an outside reader at all.
You know what would stand out to an outside reader? Nearly every other superhero comic book. They'd stand out because they look like shit, don't make any sense and aren't interesting when they do make sense. Daredevil gets to be special because it's an exception to all of those things. It's a good superhero comic that's drawn well, colored well. It doesn't take any cues from the Saw film series, it doesn't try to imitate [writer Brian] Bendis. It's a satisfying chunk each time... I think you would have always had to search for a comic book that was well-crafted, they were probably only available in great abundance during the first few years of the [Jack] Kirby Marvel comics. But right now, there's almost none.
I do think -- and I'm maybe a little surprised that you haven't mentioned it -- that the mere presence of Marcos Martin pushes this one ahead of the pack. Martin is such a fascinating artist, and there's so little opportunity (and I believe, there will not be any again) to see Martin draw superhero comics. This is a guy who loves the form, he's in love with sequential storytelling -- not genre. He loves the actual art form. Come on! When those kinds of people make genre comics, it's always worth looking at. [David] Mazzuchelli? [Alex] Toth? Those are dudes who dig drawing comics, they dig fucking around with how a page is set up, how you compose a sequence so as to manipulate a reader's eye across the page while manipulating the way they experience a story as well.
One of the reasons that I get exasperated with comics artists is because you meet so many of them who behave as if they're baby birds getting food pre-chewed and spat into their mouths, people who act like this Holy Writer bullshit is what makes comics awesome. And then you meet people like [Brian] Azzarello or Waid, and they describe how they figure their shit out and then let [Eduardo] Risso or Martin do whatever-the-fuck-they-need-to to make it work, it feels like a revelation, even though it shouldn't be. When Azz describes the way Risso works, or when you see how [Cliff] Chiang treats superhero scripts like a list of challenges and problems to figure out -- that's the way comics are supposed to be made. This other thing, where dudes sit around waiting on pseudo screenplay bullshit that they can storyboard, with all the shots pre-planned for them by a bunch of wannabe Vince Gilligans -- fuck those comics.
SPURGEON: What were you expecting to happen with the New 52 initiative at DC? What are you expecting now?
STONE: I was expecting there to be a bunch of lousy comics that weren't much different from the lousy comics they were publishing in the prior months, except that now there was going to be more of them. I figured it would be a more extreme version of that thing that Marvel did, where that Onslaught character ate all of the Marvel heroes and Rob Liefeld drew Captain America for a while.
I wasn't expecting was for the first issues to do as well as they did, sales-wise. I figured they'd do okay because DC was offering such a good deal on them and making it so easy to return unsold copies -- there was really no good reason not to take a shot at ordering a bunch of them, you had very little to lose -- but I still didn't think they'd do that well.
What am I expecting now... I don't know, DC's choices don't make a lot of sense, do they? I expect them to stick with this for a while, but I also wouldn't be shocked if they cancelled a bunch of them tomorrow. You know what I mean? DC makes a lot of choices that don't make sense to me, and I've kind of gotten to the point where they feel like anything goes, all of the time. Why did they do this so quickly, you know? Why did they shoehorn it into Flashpoint? Why didn't they work harder at getting more books in the can in advance? Why does everybody who works there who isn't a bottom rung freelancer complain about the place all of the time? And honestly: why hasn't Time Warner licensed the production of these things out to somebody like BOOM! or IDW? They could keep the movie deals and pass the making of these things out the same way they do with the pencils and stickerbooks and wash their hands of the mess entirely. I don't get that place at all.
Sorry. I figure I have to say something, because you asked. I'm expecting that some people will get fired, but there will still be monthly Batman comics. Also they will probably do some randy shit that will offend people.
SPURGEON: So what happened? Who bought these comics and who enjoyed them? I've heard everything from restless existing buyers, to just-dropped-out buyers to 30-somethings that remembered the Image excitement and wanted an excuse to jump back in. The dozen or so series that I've read do kind of remind me of more sedate version of Image books.
STONE: They wanted to get back some of the people who bought stacks of comics in the '90s for speculation purposes, and they totally did, for about a month. The anecdotal bullshit I have is this: a guy came in and grabbed five copies of each issue, and since I'd never had anybody do that before, I wasn't totally prepared and just said "Oh... uh, let's not buy this many, okay?" Not to be an asshole, it's just -- that was the third week, by that point I knew well enough that there were a lot of strangers coming in, that all the stores in New York were selling out and DC was dragging their heels with reprints, and you would rather please five people than one dude, right?
And he said "No. No. No. I'm giving you a lot of money." And then he takes one issue of Catwoman off the stack and that's it, he's going to buy this many comics.
Now, I'm looking at this guy -- he's early 30s, he's wearing stained sweatpants pants and he looks kind of unhealthy, he's twitching a little bit, and you know what, he shouldn't be spending this kind of money on multiple copies of superhero comics that everybody knows are going to be worthless except him. But you know what? I'm not going to fight with him. I'd rather apologize to four strangers than argue with somebody like that, and I'd rather apologize to four strangers than make a fucking sign and police this shit, and hey, I can always just quit if this is the way the industry is going, if every week some lunatic is going to freak out because I'm standing in the way of him making a bad decision involving Judd Winick comics.
Now, that guy was a super-extreme version of that kind of buyer, a lapsed '90s speculation buyer. He was the crazy asshole version; most of the rest of them were just nice guys who had room in a safe deposit box to chuck some trash into. But none of those people -- the crazy dudes and the normal dudes -- stuck around for second issues. A couple of non-DC people that were already regular Marvel 'n' Indie readers added DC books to the things they buy, and most of the regular DC buyers kept buying DC books, and that's it. As far as I can tell from where I sit, there was huge success with the number ones, and none of that success carried over to the next few issues. And I'm sure it's different all over the place -- although it shouldn't be ignored that those first three issues of the new 52s are all returnable gimmies -- but I can't see why there would be a major general shift from the way things were before the whole thing happened. It's the same general group of people who were making the same general type of comics with the same general group of characters that people weren't interested in buying before.
For the New 52 to work in the long term, there would had to have been a bunch of people who wanted to read Johns n' Didio comics that were holding off because the numbers were too high, or because they wanted to pay to read them on a computer of some kind. That's it. There's nothing special about these comics that you didn't have before. The new ones aren't any less "confusing." The Green Lantern and Batman comics are essentially unchanged. This is the same stuff they were doing before. Any difference is cosmetic. Any additional money DC might be making has to be getting annihilated by the amount they're losing by increasing their output in this fashion.
SPURGEON: From a purely creative standpoint, what are the six best books in that line now? Can you talk a bit about the best of what they're doing? Is there a book that was really, really wrong?
STONE: I'm going to respond to this question, but I think you're buying into something that you probably don't want to by implying that there's six "best" books here. [Spurgeon laughs] Due to their production capabilities and the amount of money they have, DC is able to produce a bunch of professional looking products. But across the board, there's a general struggle in these comics towards simple competence, and it's become standard for the moments when they do achieve competence to see the books get ladled with praise they've done nothing to deserve.
The only DC books I'm regularly reading from cover to cover are Wonder Woman and Hawk & Dove. Hawk & Dove I'm reading for completely prurient, eyes boggled entertainment -- I haven't read enough Sterling Gates comics to know if it's him that's making this comic as funny as it is, or if it's just the way Liefeld sets up a comic page, but there has yet to be an issue that hasn't startled me with how weird it is that the comic is seeing publication. It's not a huge gross-out trainwreck comic like The Rise of Arsenal, but there is a similar "how are so many adults signing off on this" quality going on. I took a look at that The Infinite book -- the one Liefeld does with [Robert] Kirkman over at Image -- and there's no carryover there, that book is just confusing and boring. Meanwhile, Hawk & Dove features Rob Liefeld drawing Barack Obama getting choked out by a guy named Condor and Deathlok rip-offs? It's not an art comic, but it isn't a superhero one, either.
Wonder Woman I read because it is genuinely engaging. Azzarello seems to be trying to play it straight in the only way he knows how, leaving behind his word games and sleight of hand plot reveals (both of those are components of his writing that I really like), and I can understand why he's making those choices, even if I might not particularly prefer them. Cliff [Chiang] is doing some really interesting stuff, especially with the way he's doing sequential action scenes and spotlight panels. It's a good-looking comic, but it's not a pretty comic, and I think that's a purposeful distinction that Cliff is making. All that aside? I don't find Wonder Woman an interesting character in the slightest, and so there's a part of me that wishes this same team was working on a different character. I'm certainly going to follow Azzarello and Cliff wherever they want to go, but there's an ceiling to how engaged I can be by the limitations inherent in a Wonder Woman comic.
Otherwise, I can tell you that people seem to really like [Jeff] Lemire's Animal Man comic, and I think I might as well if I hadn't read all of the [Grant] Morrison/[Jamie] Delano issues. To me, it just reads like an abbreviated version of their work, and while I'm glad to see DC is willing to publish superhero art that's not as cookie cutter as the rest of their line, I find a lot of what [Travel] Foreman's doing to be off-putting. On the same front, I think Morrison's Action Comics might be something I could genuinely enjoy if it wasn't so fucking ugly to look at, but that's exactly what it is: ugly. It's too bad, because that seems to be kind of the perfect situation for Morrison -- he's off in a cave somewhere, doing whatever the hell he wants, and nobody has to wait on him to do their Green Lantern comics.
Then there's the [Scott] Snyder/[Greg] Capullo Batman... I can't do it. I really thought that was going to be the comic for me, you know? Not because those two guys are my favorite creators or anything, but just because it seemed like it was going to be the comic where a hungry young writer got teamed up with a cocky motherfucker who was being parachuted in like Seal Team 6 to show DC how they do it in McFarlane Town. Instead, it's just turgid nonsense -- the first issue opened with this corny bullshit about a column in the newspaper, with one of those weird meta-criticisms where Snyder revealed he doesn't know what "shock value" means, and then Capullo drew 115 versions of miniature Bruce Waynes. Now they're just playing around with "new villains," most of whom dress like Snake Eyes and have names like "Ammo" and "Reload". Again: people like that comic. I see them online, liking that comic. They come into the store, and they buy that comic.
That's one of the ones people dig. It might be because the other ones are so bad -- Detective and Dark Knight do suck a tremendous amount -- but I doubt that could count for all of the goodwill that comic engenders. And if I'm being honest, I would love to be alongside them. My first comic was an issue of Detective, I've bought and read more issues of Batman than anything else, and I was really hoping for something here, because I want to love that comic. I know how that sounds. I know how old I am. I know I can read the ones I already have. And maybe I'm a little hypercritical of Snyder because of all that personal shit, because I'm outside this thing I enjoyed, watching everybody else have a good time. Everything else, I can be objective about, but this is the series that I'm just a fan of, you understand?
This is a stupid tangent to go down. I should kill myself for even having those feelings. I hope somebody kills me for having those feelings, and when my funeral happens, I'm going to ask my wife to read a short speech about how I deserved to die for being a grown adult man who wished that he still enjoyed new Batman comic books. And then I hope she goes and marries somebody who isn't a complete piece of shit.
What have I brought up, five books? I don't have a sixth one. I think Green Lantern has been very funny in the issues I've read, I think Aquaman is probably ridiculous enough to entertain a certain kind of reader, and Justice League will be a big deal as long as Jim Lee draws it, for obvious reasons. (It is a weird, tired comic though.) The Flash book is really pretty, and I think Francis Manupul is doing a great job writing, considering he's got less experience at writing comics than the five-year-old who does Axe Cop.
Very few of these books are out and out "wrong" or "horrible." They just aren't very good and special, and with so much else that is, I don't know what one gets out of them beyond the forward momentum of the overall soap opera that is the DC universe. Visually, all but the most boutique of the books are clearly being rushed along. Are some of the books more offensive than others, in terms of the way they depict women? Yes, of course. But at the same time, I think that focusing one's outrage on the specifics of that gives the other books a free pass they don't deserve. The reason that some of these comics are sexist has very little to do with women, it has to do with the entire culture in which these comics are made, with the company making them, and with the people in charge. The only reason there aren't more books doing things like Catwoman is that DC doesn't have more female characters to make comics with. This attitude of "fix Starfire" or whatever else implies that I should trust [Dan] Didio or whoever else is responsible over at DC, and I think that's fundamentally a misinterpretation of what should be done. It's a toxic environment. If they could do Starfire right, they wouldn't be fucking up the Blackhawks as well.
Superhero comics is a funny business, because the reality of the situation is that their fanbase, if properly motivated and well organized, could actually make a change in the way these things are published. The numbers really are that small, and the retailers really are that dependent upon pleasing their customers. But the audience continually refuses to do that -- instead of actively using their spending dollar to dictate the content they want, they choose to buy things that offend them and talk shit on the internet. If you could convince Midtown Comics or Lone Star -- just those stores -- to purchase fewer copies of books like Red Hood and the Outlaws, they'd cancel those books overnight. That's how big those stores' accounts are. And to convince those stores, you merely need to organize, the same kind of organization that people do for a thousand other causes, some of which are as of little importance as the content of superhero comics.
That won't happen, though. Being part of a group is the last thing that comics fans on the Internet want. Change is anathema.
SPURGEON: How much of the New 52 books depend on fan service, do you think? I was surprised in the few I read how many of the moments weren't exciting in and of themselves but could be seen as exciting if you knew the background of the character in question, or the relationship two characters had in the old universe.
STONE: I would say quite a few of them. Take a look at the Batman/Green Lantern family of books... you could pretty easily enjoy the Batman stuff (if you like those kinds of comics, the ones that those guys make) without any knowledge of what Morrison or Snyder were doing before the relaunch. Some of it would be bumpy, but overall, you'd be fine. But the Green Lantern stuff? That seems impossible to comprehend, much less enjoy. Who those people are, why Hal doesn't have a ring, where they're going or why they're going there, the history of these various Lantern Corps... it makes for a laborious process of googling and wikipedia reading. I think that's the catch-22 of a lot of this though -- if you're somebody who is willing to do that kind of work, to do the kind of investment required to make sense of the first issue of Green Lantern, then you must already really like that comic, you must see something in it that really sparks your interest.
That's the thing about all these sorts of problems -- the ones you're alluding to under the umbrella of "fan service" -- it takes a rare breed of person to even get to the point where these specific problems can occur. First, you have to be a comics reader: okay, that eliminates the majority of the population. Now, out of that minority, you have to have an interest in mainstream, continuity-heavy, superhero comics. Okay, that's an even smaller group. And you still have one more step to take, and this is where it gets even more specific: you have to have not read those kinds of comics yet, or in such a long time that you have only the most basic knowledge of what they're about and who appears in them. You have to want really badly to do something that very few people want to do, and yet you have to want it without ever having done it before. And then you'll have ended up with the kind of person who goes "why isn't Hal Jordan the Green Lantern anymore?"
You see what I'm saying? It's never going to be John Smith, the carpet guy, who is having these problems. It's somebody who is already invested in a very particular kind of genre, in an art form that's already very niche. And at this point, it's brutally obvious that the majority of people with a passing interest in superhero stories are getting their needs better met by film, television and video games. This is only going to get more niche from here on out. These kinds of stories are never going to be for Joe Average ever again, and that brings us to the next part: I don't know that DC has any choice but that fan service you're talking about. They certainly don't have the talent to offer anything else. As good as I think Azzarello is, he's always going to be at his best doing stuff that isn't superheroes. Grant Morrison is on record as having given up on doing anything with spandex but cashing checks. Fraction, [Ed] Brubaker... the difference in aesthetic quality between their superhero work and the work they actually care about is night and day. There's no Alan Moore waiting in the wings. The audience who was looking for The Winter Men or Watchmen or Batman: Year One... those people are gone, they got the memo; they know that nobody wants them around. The audience who has stayed, the audience who pays the bills, pays for fan service, and it's DC and Marvel's job to provide that. They aren't in the art business. They're in the business of producing more episodes of the soap opera. There's nobody else left.
SPURGEON: Was the DC line really as dreary and sleep-inducing before the re-launch as people and some of the publicity material right now suggests it was? I think you wrote me that you liked the Batman, Inc. books they were doing.
STONE: No, that wasn't me. [Spurgeon laughs] I liked one or two issues of Batman Inc., but the Morrison Batman had long run its course for me. I loved those comics when he first got started -- my initial unwieldy blog posts were on those comics -- but something must have happened after Final Crisis, because it just felt like the wind got taken out of him. Batman & Robin had all these brilliant moments, but as a whole, I had trouble giving over to the whole thing. I know a lot of people like them. I wanted to be there with them. I'm looking forward to seeing how he's going to resolve it, now that he doesn't have the umbrella of continuity hanging over him. I hope it's good.
The PR thing -- that's just DC. They'll admit to the truth when it serves their interest, and it serves their interest today to pretend that they think their previous work wasn't very good, that it was of the upmost importance for them to try something new. You can talk to DC guys right now about Mark Waid -- this happened to me after that interview I did with him -- and they'll tell you how lousy Kingdom Come was, and how they all hated his run on Flash, and blah blah blah his contributions to the 52 series weren't up to snuff. Jeph Loeb is the same to them: a traitor. I bet they talked shit about David Finch until they get him under contract. That narrative, the PR narrative that you hear from the actual staff (most freelancers don't seem to care) spit in public is the same one they spit in private.
To some extent, I honestly think that they really do believe this shit. If this New 52 stuff gets bad enough that they have to make another big change, I'm sure the narrative will change then as well, and they'll talk about all the "lessons" they learned from publishing shit like Legion Lost and Mister Terrific. It's the same mentality as a crazy person, or a disease: whatever you're doing right now has to be correct, and all that excess feeling that comes up from your brain saying, "Wait, everything i'm saying is total bullshit" gets dedicated towards these venomous rejections of the previous lie. Remember when everybody was making fun of DC for that "Superman Walks The Earth" story, and they just kept saying, "It's really awesome, bloggers are snark factories, Tom Brevoort should grow up"? You're not going to see that conversation turn out that way now.
On the question of whether the books were as bad as they're saying... I don't know, yes? No? The previous books were the exact same books that they're publishing now! There's an offbeat Grant Morrison book with a key character, there's some internet favorites doing some C-list characters, there's some Scott Snyder Batman books, Dan Didio is pretending to be a writer, Geoff Johns and his acolytes are playing a role-playing game called Green Lantern that you're allowed to come watch... it's the same stuff as before. Instead of a Great Ten mini-series that five people want, there's a Stormwatch ongoing that six people want. I don't see anything having changed that much. They seemed pretty pleased with themselves when they relaunched The Flash right before this new relaunch of The Flash, you know?
SPURGEON: How much of their success so far has been due to DC's relationship with comic shops, and their ability to execute a campaign like this? And where are they one year from now?
STONE: It's huge. It wouldn't have worked without that relationship. For this to work, DC needed every store in the direct market to have enough money to buy way more issues of DC than they'd been buying. Common sense applies here: obviously, there had to be some stores that couldn't afford increasing their orders by that much. But when DC says "all of these comics will be returnable" and then they start goosing around with all the other goofy discounts and shit, that changes everything. That means stores aren't bearing all of the financial risk, and that means they can get on board. Without that, the store is the one who is on the hook completely for the success or failure of this whole thing.
Where are they one year from now? I assume by that point they'll have more information about who is buying these things digitally, whether they're getting the new readers they're going to need to survive. They'll know if this worked to bring in more customers for the physical comics. They'll know if they have built up some of these new creators they've pulled from Image (or out of retirement) have a fanbase that will support them. What they do with that information... who knows. It's not like they have a track record for great decisions. From a corporate standpoint, all of the best financial choices they've made in the last 20 years involve stealing from Alan Moore. This is the company that killed off Bruce Wayne the same year that [Christopher] Nolan's Dark Knight made more money than Apple, you know? I think it's a little silly at this point to pretend they're going to do anything that remotely approaches an intelligent decision.
SPURGEON: What should Marvel be doing that they're not doing now? How odd is it that they cut staff and titles at just the time they took it on the chops in terms of sales? Is the fact that they're 10 years into this current phase of serious, super-spy comics a hindrance to their getting back on top?
STONE: Some of that "they cut staff" stuff is sort of bullshit though, isn't it? Didn't they just move that Pond Scum guy to his house? Maybe that's just hairsplitting, but I got the sense that some of Marvel's moves on that front made sense -- they changed the way they pay people and changed the way their jobs are described so as to decrease their overall expenditures and increase their overall profits. Some people got fired outright though, so I'm probably just being an asshole by getting stuck on that.
What should Marvel be doing... I don't know, are we really sure they're getting their asses handed to them? Do we know they aren't making any money selling comics online? Have their numbers gotten that bad? I don't know any of that stuff. I know they've cut down on the amount of titles that they sell on a weekly basis, but that's a good thing, they were flooding the market with a bunch of low-end mini-series that nobody seemed to like. It's good that they're cutting back on the number of titles. But you can't buy into this too much -- Marvel may be publishing less individual titles, but they've ramped up production on what remains. Books like Thunderbolts, X-Force, Secret Avengers, one of the X-Men books, Amazing Spider-Man -- all of those books come out way more often than monthly, and they're planning to increase the amount of titles that do that. They've been pretty upfront about that.
History tells us that Marvel can beat DC in single issue sales regardless of quality, doesn't it? I'm not saying that to be funny, but my understanding on it was that Marvel generally wins the day in terms of single issues, and DC wins in the graphic novel department. I mean -- this whole thing that's been going on lately, where DC crows about their single issue success with the New 52... that doesn't count, at all, okay? It's totally meaningless. The New 52 might have outsold Marvel, but that's only because stores were buying without the normal amount of risk, they knew they could get 80 percent of what they paid back in credit if they couldn't see the comics before December 9th. None of that applied with Marvel's books. Until the returnability factor gets back to normal, it's not a competition between equals. There's zero conversation to be had about it beyond that. Zip.
On your super-spy question... I don't know how much that matters, I'd guess the more general problem is just that Marvel is now hitting the same wall that DC hit first, which is that the current audience has been around for so long that there's nothing new to show them. I like your theory that they're sick of the Bendis heroes-as-Delta-Force thing, but wouldn't they have gotten sick of something else? It stands to reason that superhero audiences are pretty well immune to "getting sick of," you know? It isn't like they'll stop doing superhero swat team comics tomorrow and replace it with Johnny Negron comics. It's still going to be Wolverine versus shit. That's the point of Wolverine.
I feel like I'm giving Marvel a pass after riding DC so hard, but the truth is that Marvel just makes more sense than DC. They make mean, cold-blooded decisions based off greed. I don't like them for that, but I understand them for that. DC makes choices based off things like "Eddie Berganza feels you betrayed him" and "Dan Didio ran his mouth about women at a convention." Marvel just does shit for money. They're easier to predict.
SPURGEON: What's your orientation towards reading comics digitally? Because it seems like if you see mainstream books as the comics you read while you're waiting for something else to happen, digital iterations would work pretty well for you.
STONE: My personal orientation is this: I have more physical comics than I need, and I already spend too much time with those. I like books, movies, going outside, my wife, my friends, Tony Horton and working. Reading comics digitally may someday be something that saves me time, but right now, today, it would only detract from my life. I already waste too much time on computers. I'm not saying never, but right now, it doesn't interest me in the slightest.
That aside -- if you only like the forward momentum of superhero comic soap operas, or you only get a boner for gag strips, I don't know why you aren't gorging yourself at the trough of digital comics. They have nothing to offer in terms of aesthetic pleasure -- modern DC/Marvel comics just aren't sexy items -- and keeping up with those universes would fill up five longboxes a year, at minimum. Unless it's the collection of a physical object, why not just read it on your computer? It doesn't make sense to me why one wouldn't do that. Detective Comics #3? Justice League Dark? What's the physical attachment to those things? What aesthetic pleasures are provided by the physical object? Hell, everytime I see somebody complain about the price tag of a digital comic, I start to imagine that there's somebody else out there who is happy to pay three bucks for the privilege of reading the story and not having to deal with the physical copy.
SPURGEON: Let's wind things down with Mike Mignola. I know one old-time comics fan, the Mignola-verse comics are the only comics he reads and buys. Is it possible to just spend time with that group of comics and get the old-fashion pulp entertainment scratch satisfied? How good are those comics, really, do you think?
STONE: Honestly, I think they're wonderful comics. For my money, I put what Mike Mignola has done with Hellboy and BPRD up there with Kirby's comics, and for me, that's the highest praise I have to give. I'm certain that a part of that is that they sort of belong to guys my age -- I was one of the kids who bought Seed of Destruction when it was in single issues, and that was one of the first series I came back to after my comics reading hiatus in early adulthood. Those are comics I've kept up with, comics that I've grown up with. Watching an artist develop over time like that forges an emotional connection, and it's one that has never been broken by substitute creators who aren't up to snuff, I've never had to struggle with the ethics of the thing. You don't read Hellboy and have to rationalize away the way the creators get treated. It's just a clean experience with a comic that only comes out when its creator has a story to tell, a comic that's progressively gotten smarter and better at what it does as the years have gone by.
If you can't get your "old-fashion pulp entertainment" scratch satisfied just by Hellboy and BPRD, I think that's because of some requisite attachments to something else, like specific characters or specific relationships. There's no superhero type comic that can promise the clean relationships that the Mignola-verse can. This is his house, it won't continue on forever after he shuts it down. There's nobody at Dark Horse who gets to come in and make Mignola do shit he doesn't want to do. In this kind of entertainment, he's singular in that respect. (If you want to make a case for Robert Kirkman and Erik Larsen, I won't stop you, but... let's just not. Let me have one response that isn't ladled with hostility.)
SPURGEON: You mentioned fans that disparage creative talent, and I think one thing to see as a through-line in recent events at those companies is a really aggressive stance reducing the money paid to these creators despite the billions of dollars these intellectual properties can generate. Is there a time when those companies may go too far? To put it in terms they might appreciate, are these companies leaving money on the table by trying to figure out ways to do Watchmen 2 rather than figuring out how to facilitate the closest thing their current talent might be able to do to Watchmen?
STONE: I think they've already gone that far. You look at the state of Vertigo, the books they're shutting down and the creators who have abandoned them... why would any creator give them anything of substance? I don't mean that as a way to sidestep your question, I'm trying to be as direct as I can: why would you trust DC or Marvel with your best ideas? The last few years are a constant horror show of their bad behavior. They undercut everyone they can, they humiliate people, they degrade them. CB Cebulski tells hopeful creators to bring him Five Guys at the New York Comic Con, for christsake, and nobody thinks that's fucking weird. Those are Marvel's gatekeepers. That's their public behavior. If you're that exploitative in public, I can't imagine how you treat people when you're indoors.
The thing is this: does it matter? What are we losing here, if DC or Marvel never publish another Watchmen? It isn't the '80s, it isn't even the '90s. The best 2011 Kirby comic is Prison Pit; it's being published by Fantagraphics. The best long-form serials are Hellboy and 20th Century Boys; they're being published by Dark Horse and Viz. If I met somebody tomorrow, and they told me their dream was to do a book like Watchmen for DC, I'd think they were out of their fucking mind. Look at Alan Moore, look at Jack Kirby. Look at the guys who helped this industry make more money than it's ever made since.
And then ask yourself if you're half as good as they were. Because those two guys got up on the cross so that no one else has to, and if you aren't 10 times the artist they were, there's no doubt in my mind what is going to happen next.
SPURGEON: I was fired this year from a small freelance gig doing work for Marvel's web site -- a gig I'm not sure why I took other than I was super-flattered to be asked -- because, I'm told, I said something that wasn't totally on board with the company for a piece someone else wrote that appeared in the New York Times. I also occasionally have a hard time getting any cooperation at all from certain companies contingent on something I wrote at one time or another. So I know such pressures exist. Am I to understand you've felt pressure related to the content and tone of some of your comics pieces?
STONE: Oh, totally. There's a dude at DC whose tried to have me fired twice due to a Paul Levitz joke in one of the comiXology pieces. There's one of those other low-rent companies... I honestly can't remember what they were called, although I bet I could ask somebody, and they got pretty ranty about getting a negative review. D&Q spent the entirety of the last five years ignoring every mention I made of their products (which were all positive) until I participated in that Paying For It roundtable at Savage Critics, and then all of a sudden it turns out that making fun of my wife is fair game. CBR was going to be the initial home for that [Darwyn] Cooke interview about The Outfit.
It doesn't keep me up at night, but I'm not going to pull that card that people like Ivan Brandon or Brian Wood pull where you say "isn't it funny how ________ " and the blank is something that somebody is doing that you don't like, and what you're really saying is that your feelings are hurt. Fuck DC, fuck Drawn & Quarterly, fuck CBR. Fuck Marvel for doing that to you.
It's all on me, though; it's Charlie Brown kicking at the football. Pieces of shit act like pieces of shit. That's what they're supposed to do, it's why they're put on the planet. You don't get to be mad at D&Q for acting like D&Q, or at DC for acting like DC. It's the same rule for us as it is for creators: comics fucked Kirby, and it'll fuck you, too. I'm just a half-ass blogger with a small audience whose posting schedule got cut down by about 75 percent in the last year. I'm getting the exact treatment I deserve. The only difference is that I really don't care. I don't want to make comics, ever, and I don't ever want to have a professional job in comics past the one I have right now. They have nothing to threaten me with, nothing they can take away from me. I don't need review copies or advance previews or insider access. I don't need to be liked by people with no talent. I don't need to hear the gossip about who is sleeping with Paul Levitz' ex-girlfriend or the latest Scott Snyder office meltdown. Those are the things they try to ply you with: "Here's a story, the real story, about why Mark Waid doesn't work here anymore." Go away. Tell Rich Johnston. I don't care about any of it. Everything I ever hear about these people only convinces me further that I want nothing to do with them.
I would hate to lose the opportunity to write for comiXology, although the writing is clearly on the wall for that... but otherwise, I don't care about anything but the art form itself. As much as I love comics, that's also the amount of hate I have for the industry that makes them.
* photo of Tucker Stone provided by Stone
* Kirby's Fantastic Four
* Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol
* a Conan cover
* Butcher Baker Righteous Maker page
* Casanova page
* Stuart Immonen's art on Fear Itself
* Uncanny X-Force (may be from 2010, actually)
* Marcos Martin and Mark Waid on Daredevil
* from the New 52 Justice League
* cover for the New 52 Catwoman
* Rob Liefeld's Hawk & Dove
* the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo Batman
* Aquaman is goofy, Stone swears
* Red Hood And The Outlaws cover image
* from one of the Green Lantern titles
* a forthcoming Legion Lost cover image
* a Secret Avengers page
* from the Mignola-verse
* from 20th Century Boy
* what it's like reading comics (below)
* A Kiel Phegley letter objecting to the characterization of CBR in the above interview can be found here
* cartoonist and mega-successful hybrid kids book creator Jeff Kinney and his lawyers (I'm assuming creator Kinney is at the heart of Wimpy Kid, Inc. -- I could be wrong) are suing the parody bookDiary Of A Zombie Kid from Antarctic Press. It's always tough to see a parody get sued, although I can envision scenarios where this is a more than justified course of action. I guess we'll see.
1. Finder: Voice, Carla Speed McNeil
2. Page by Paige, Laura Lee Gulledge
3. Anya's Ghost, Vera Brosgol
4. Hark! A Vagrant, Kate Beaton
5. Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse: Race to Death Valley, Floyd Gottfredson
6. Criminal: The Last of the Innocent, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips
7. Picket Line, Breena Wiederhoeft
8. Americus, MK Reed and Jonathan Hill
9. Love and Capes: Wake Up Where You Are, Thomas Zahler
10. Amelia Rules! The Meaning of Life... and Other Stuff, Jimmy Gownley
* P. Craig Russell apparently has copies of a nice-looking Sandman-related pro-reading poster for sale.
Peter Birkemoe is the owner and operator of The Beguiling, one of the dozen great comic book stores on planet Earth. His store is the primary sponsor of the wonderful and still-growing Toronto Comic Art Festival, a combination of the best of small press comics shows and the kind of bustle and excitement that comes with the big conventions. You may have seen Birkemoe at the Drawn and Quarterly table during Comic-Con International, facilitating his store's original arts sales program. That so many artists trust Birkemoe with that part of their living, and that so many of his store managers seem to have remained loyal to him and the store over the years, I think is a sign of how he's conducted himself since entering the field and buying the store. I've long been a fan of Peter's, and, having had the good fortune to visit his phenomenal store for the first time earlier this year, am now equally a fan of The Beguiling. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Peter, I never know quite how to start an interview with a prominent retailer, but the way your store is set up makes me think that how you read comics, what you find valuable in comics, might be a a place to begin. Can you describe what your comics reading was like, growing up and as an adult? Can you name a few comics that were maybe more important to you than others, just in terms of how you engaged the medium and what you thought about it?
PETER BIRKEMOE: Newspaper comics and pocket editions of Peanuts were key texts in my learning how to read. I very specifically remember a frustrating conversation with my mother trying to get her to explain the word "sigh," which I couldn't sound out or even really comprehend after it was explained.
Childhood neuroses about getting only part of a story and not having any friends that read comics meant that I didn't end up getting hooked on superhero comics as young as most. I came to know super heroes mostly through the Super Friends cartoons and a sizeable gang of Mego action figures. MAD magazines and pocket books dominated my cartooning consumption for many years followed by a brief Marvel obsession in the mid-'80s. Again, a jumping on point is what I needed, and [John] Byrne's Alpha Flight fit the bill. His leaving the book also provided the first and very late dawning for me that I would some artists and writers better than others.
Around this time I started working for Harry Kremer's Now & Then Books in Kitchener. This was an hour away from where I lived, but my uncle had known him growing up and I ended up spending most holidays staying with my grandmother and working for Harry. The launch party there for High Society, the first of [Dave] Sim's Cerebus phonebooks in 1986 provided the perfect indy comics introduction for me and the first step to quitting the superheroes. While working there I bought many of the comics that would map out my future tastes in the medium, particularly a starter pack of Yummy Fur #1-3, my first Love & Rockets issues and the Frontline Combat box set.
Harvey Kurtzman ended up being the first and only figure from the past where I would end up being a collector as well as a reader/appreciator and was at the center of most of my comic hunting until I bought The Beguiling in 1998.
Running a store meant I had to read a little more widely, but as our staff grew we have taken a divide-and-conquer approach. As the only one here who reads French, that area is most specifically my responsibility and one I enjoy immensely, particularly the more formalist authors like Francois Ayroles and Rupert & Mulot.
SPURGEON: You just kind of showed up on my radar one year, and I was never quite certain how you ended up with The Beguiling. 1998. I know that it might be a boring story to you at this point, or maybe even one where you wouldn't care to share certain details, but how did you end up with the store? At what point did that kind of major life decision, that commitment to The Beguiling, take final form in your plans?
BIRKEMOE: I was shopping at The Beguiling from soon after they opened in 1987 and dove in head first to the world of comics they presented at the two big comic shows they put on in 1989 and '90. In the mid-'90s I started picking up a shift every once in a while, just to feed the habit. I was just in the process of staring up a web venture to sell original artwork on-line, and was using my chemical engineering degree to help adapt some more esoteric paper conservation techniques to comic book restoration with a restorer who lived in Toronto. Both of previous owners of the Beguiling were having their first kids in 1998 and were finding more success outside comics retail than in it.
Before being offered the business, I had never really considered making comics retail a career even though I enjoyed working in shops, largely because The Beguiling already existed. I was then faced with the opportunity to buy it, but more importantly the fear that if I didn't, someone else would ruin it. I have now been running it longer than the previous owners did, and never considered at the time how all-consuming it would become. Although I have a large staff, I still work six long days a week. Running the shop revealed a workaholic in me that had never before been seen.
SPURGEON: How ambitious are you? I know that a lot of comics retailers -- a lot of comics people generally -- react to the day-in, day-out realities of the marketplace. But I wonder with how well the store has done if a) this is part of the plan that you've had all along, b) if this allows you the relative breathing room to act rather than simply react. How much of what you do is executing a plan, either generally or specifically? How far along are you in the plans you've had for the place over the years?
BIRKEMOE: I wish I could say that there was more long-term planning involved in what we do here. It is so easy to get distracted by the daily mini-crises of running a shop. We do try to think in terms of larger principles and attitudes as to why or how we do things and in any reaction to the marketplace try to step back and ask how it would fit with those.
Throwing our lot in with "graphic novels" as the focus of the store years ago as opposed to "pop culture," "superheroes" and associated merchandise seems to have been a winning strategy for this past decade. I don't know if it was motivated by market insight so much as the fact I am passionate about comics as a medium but have limited personal interest in contemporary pop culture or toys, etc. With an e-book future ahead, I'm not sure if this will continue to pay off.
SPURGEON: A couple of follow-ups. First, can you talk about making the decision to invest in the growing graphic novel movement, what the basic factors involved with your decision were and what that did to how you operate the store?
BIRKEMOE: The store had an art-comix focus before I took over, and I maintained the "look at what other comic shops do -- do the opposite" attitude that had worked well for them. In the store's present location, where it has been since the early '90s, the product was split over two floors with the second floor being clearly a more traditional comic shop and the main floor being an arty bookstore. When it opened, the main floor, in addition to key art comix, contained general art and photography books, fiction, poetry, cultural theory. One by one these sections were shrunk as graphic novel publishing expanded. The second floor operated exactly like a neighborhood comic shop, albeit with a little more artist/author rather than character-focused filing and a much heavier indy ordering. For example, we've had dedicated author sections for creators like [Neil] Gaiman and [Alan] Moore for more than 15 years now, whereas I feel other comic stores only really clued into that in the last four to five...
I had come around to the idea that comic collecting was not a growth area, but that comic reading was. While I love a new pamphlet as much as the next person who grew up with them, I still see many of the people coming to comics now for the first time as being just as ready to buy a $20 book as a $3 pamphlet.
Investing is a strong word here. Where you are dealing with such small unit costs, and relatively cheap fixtures, it is easy so shift your ordering and display focus from one to the other in the tiniest increments, and adapt as the product mix offered and your clientele changes.
SPURGEON: Second follow-up: what exactly is it that worries you about the e-book future? Do you think you're at significant risk of losing readers? Do you not think, as growing conventional wisdom seems to want to stress, that comics has enough of a following for the work in print to negotiate a digital-oriented future better than other forms of publishing?
BIRKEMOE: We are lucky in comics to have a couple years of grace period to be able to watch how things shake down in the rest of publishing before the effect of e-readers hits us substantially. The future doesn't bode well for any middlemen, be they booksellers, or perhaps even publishers. I'm reasonably confident with all that we do here in terms of events with authors, original art sales, foreign product and rare and out of print books that if there is any future in comics retail, we will find a place in it. The Beguiling now occupies an important role in the comics community in this part of the world, and I hope there is more to that than simply providing a physical location for that community to come together. Losing customers, be it to on-line discounters like Amazon or Thwipster, chain bookstores and downloading has always been a source of worry, but one that we have always been able to balance out by working hard and finding more readers. We pretty firmly believe that the burden of comics outreach -- actually building new fans -- has always been on comic book retailers, and I have seen little to change my mind from these other outlets on that front.
We have been able to thrive and grow even in very averse markets, but I can see a future where larger and larger parts of what constitute the vital comics community will pass retail by completely. I've already seen projects available in digital forms that I would be carrying if a print version existed, [Chris] Ware's Touch Sensitive and Taiyo Matsumoto's No.5, for example. I don't see any point in getting angry about advancing technology. I seem to be one of the very few people of my generation to have been glad to see vinyl LPs disappear and bewildered to see them come back. It just makes it harder to see what might be coming a few years down the road.
Of course, there is a place for antiquarian bookstores now, and I feel I'll be able to make a living selling books as long as I want to pursue it, I'm just not sure how engaging that will be.
SPURGEON: The physical set-up of your store is fascinating to me, for a couple of reasons. One is that like other great comic shops you seem to be in kind of a hip neighborhood, with natural access to potential readers or at least a kind of "I don't mind going to that part of town" appeal to people outside the area. How big a deal is it in terms of what you're able to do where the store is in the city, the kind of setting in which it exists? Are you a neighborhood institution as well as an internationally renowned comics shop?
BIRKEMOE: We definitely function as both a local comic shop and destination for comics fans nationally and internationally. It is amusing to have longtime customers come in after having gone on a trip and say, "I was just in 'X-large city' and there weren't any book shops like this." Obviously if you live in this neighbourhood, and don't shop anywhere else, you have no idea how low the bar can actually be.
I wish I could take credit for the selection of the neighborhood, but this is where the store was when I bought it. For a destination shop like ours the location is perfect in every aspect except room to grow. We are walking distance from the country's largest university, we are right by a subway stop and surrounded by great bars and restaurants for when we need to hold off-site events. The neighborhood is curated by The Mirvishes, an arts-interesed philanthropic family. Until recently they operated one of the world's most impressive art book stores down the street. Sadly it and an architecture book shop have both closed.
SPURGEON: Inside your store, it's not like a lot of elite, newer shops in that it's not classically lit, or a big, handsome space. It's more like an older shop, a Larry's Comics or a Village Comics, with material stuffed everywhere. Is that just what you've ended up doing, or does kind of hitting your customers over with the maze of great material part of the store's appeal, do you think? Would you ever want to move to a more classic "eight rows of comics in one giant well-lit room" set-up?
BIRKEMOE: I guess not being much of a shopper or consumer is one of my big weaknesses as a retailer. I always think that doing everything I can to have the book any customer will want whether they know what it is or not, at a reasonable price, is what will make this the best comic shop. I don't think in terms of lighting, aisle width, signage etc. What I look for when shopping, and what I try to provide, is knowledgable and helpful staff.
Soon after buying the shop I made trips to Europe and visited Lambiek and Un Regard Moderne which did inspire some of tendency toward exhaustive and overstuffed. Ideally we do try to keep our shelves organized for the customer that wants to help themselves.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit more about other stores from which you maybe found inspiration, or even stores whose owners you consider peers and contemporaries?
BIRKEMOE: It has been years since I have had the chance to visit other comic shops in North America and I have never been to any of the new and notable shops. A visit to Quimby's shortly after I took over was encouraging to see someone else with clearly a similar taste and philosophy yet still with a very unique feel in the shop. Any time I go into any book or comic shop, all I look for are books I've never seen that I might be able to sell; sadly in any other kind of store, I just look at their fixtures.
I always enjoy talking to other like-minded retailers, usually at Comic-Con or those that visit me here. If it weren't for the costs of cross-border shipping, these discussions would likely devolve into what-can-we-sell-each-other even faster than they do.
I should point out that my manager, Christopher Butcher, has been travelling the world for the past few years trying to steal as many of the best retail ideals as possible. It pains me that it makes more sense for me to send him shopping in Japan than to go myself, but being able to delegate an odious chore like reading the Previews catalog means that occasionally you have to give up a trip to Tokyo to balance that out.
SPURGEON: Tell me about 2011 from your perspective. Was the first half of the year as rough for you as it was for a lot of stores? What do you think led to that North American industry extended shudder and partial collapse we saw the first eight months of 2011?
BIRKEMOE: 2010/2011 saw several stores close in Toronto, but even beyond that we have strangely seen an influx of new single-issue mainstream comics buyers. I have never been a numbers-oriented businessman, so I don't have any real data to back up these assertions, but for us, things haven't been bad at all. I look around and all of my staff is busy, perhaps even too busy, and all of the bills area getting paid, so I don't worry beyond that. I could put my energy into my bookkeeping and sales-data analysis, but instead I put it all into buying and selling.
SPURGEON: How has a store like yours -- with a reputation that's not based on selling comics of this type, although you certainly do that side of the business well -- dealt with the surge in mainstream comics floppies that came with DC's initiative? Are you confident it will have a lasting effect? Is there anything about how that's developed that could work better for you or for you and your peers, do you think?
BIRKEMOE: We decided to go heavy on the DC52 and pursue it as a way to get new customers. If it hadn't been for local creators Jeff Lemire and Francis Manapul, doing two of the books, maybe I wouldn't even have bothered, but it turned out very well for us. I wish more of our superhero ordering wasn't based on wondering "what is everyone else in the city going to under-order and drive their customers to us" but that has worked well over the years, too.
In the larger sense, we did take a much more significant position than we might have otherwise because of the returnability and enhanced discounts. Continuing that through to the fourth and fifth issues, at least in part, seems like a smart business move on their part. We're strongly in favor of more publishers offering returnability, with a significant restocking fee to protect themselves.
SPURGEON: As a graphic novel-based store, do you expect to do well with DC's trade version of this initiative? What's the key to making that work for The Beguiling?
BIRKEMOE: We typically order everything DC produces, and with the sales of the pamphlets to judge from, we should be able to gauge our orders pretty closely. Some of those numbers will vary even more that with the launch of the issues. I think it will be a while before I go to any of these for a new customer that walks in with the "I've decided I want to start reading superheroes (again)" which oddly happens at least once a month. If I'm recommending something it is with the intention of having them come back for more, so I'm going to lead off with Batman: Year One, or DC: The New Frontier.
SPURGEON: I was kind of astounded by TCAF, having attended for the first time this year. I know that you're maybe not as directly involved with the details of organizing and running the show as Chris, but could you talk a bit about the decision to start and support that kind of show? What does your shop get out of having a close relationship to a growing festival?
BIRKEMOE: I'm still very involved with the show on a macro level, but I've been much more ready to delegate any of my responsibilities there than with the store. Christopher Butcher relates the genesis of the show very much in terms of a dare, him observing that Toronto could have at least as good a show as the SPX we were driving back from, and me challenging him to do it (with my money.) In many ways, the festival was an extension of the many author events we do each year, and worked to get a critical mass of attendees together for all of those creators at one time. Sure, we lose some sales, but we gain an enormous amount of publicity and good will. In terms of media, we not only get our name mentioned, but we also get to influence how comics are discussed. It's nice to have an alternative show experience to juxtapose with... well, you've been to contemporary comic book conventions, right?
SPURGEON: [laughs] Right. Another major move for you this year is the opening of your kids-oriented shop, Little Island Comics. I remember hearing that this was based on your success selling kids-oriented comics and visual books to libraries and schools, but why a physical location? You're in your first holiday shopping season -- how would you judge how the store's done so far? Where can you improve?
BIRKEMOE: The decision to open Little Island was not made by perceiving how badly the city (the world) needed a dedicated kids shop, though I'm very glad it has turned out that way. We needed more space for our library services division to work and this space that came available came with a store-front on a main thoroughfare. We could just have easily created a manga-annex, or dumping ground full of 50-cent bins, and I'm thankful that we didn't. The staff that works there is so well-versed in the comics that we have been selling to elementary schools that if made perfect sense to give our kids section a couple hundred square feet to breathe in and let these folks interact with actual kids instead of just the school librarians. Again, I haven't been checking the numbers, but every time I walk over there, people are buying books, so I'm very happy with how it has worked out.
At opening we had a huge surge of interest on the internet and within the Toronto comics community, but news is now slowly trickling out to parents and grandparents who are hearing about the store, many of whom have never been to The Beguiling.
Our events in this space so far have been very successful, but programming for and reaching an audience of 5-12 year olds is clearly different from what we have been doing all these years at The Beguiling. I definitely have had to reign in my own instincts because I would likely have already crammed in another thousand titles and dangerously unstable piles of books.
In terms of what the store can improve? It's perhaps a bit too early, at three months in, to call. I'm very proud of the store and the staff, and while they are still finding their feet to a degree they're also very aware of what's happening on a day-to-day basis, and have been making their own changes and improvements as well.
We still don't have a proper sign for the location, but that should be ready in the next few weeks. That would be an improvement.
SPURGEON: I wanted to jump back to something you said earlier. I wasn't aware retailers sold each other things anymore; I thought that was something that happened in the '80s. Can you describe what kind of things you buy and sell? What would a typical deal look like?
BIRKEMOE: Most of what I'm talking about is local -- we're lucky in Toronto to have pretty collegial relationships with some of the other comics retailers. This allows us to swap accidents in under- or over-ordering back and forth. Anyone in this business long enough knows that anything that they can do to level inventory... it's worth being friends with the competition.
Generally the material involved isn't the kind of stuff that we're known for -- the other stores don't generally order alt or art comix. It's mostly superheroes stock, and the major publishers, and we'll just offer it at our Diamond discount, give or take. This can be anywhere from a couple of issues needed for a customer to thousands of dollars worth of trade-paperbacks at time. We've done a little bit of trading online, but usually the shipping makes it prohibitive so we don't usually bother.
SPURGEON: How involved in more formal retailer-to-retailer work are you? Do you belong to any of the retailer organizations or participate in any retailer-focused on-line chat rooms? How much value does that kind of thing have to you?
BIRKEMOE: Generally our aims, goals, and geographic location do not at all dovetail with the American superhero retailing hivemind. Christopher follows some of those forums, but always seems angry after spending time on them so there isn't much to incline me to join. I'll acknowledge that there is a definite benefit to a retailer organization like ComicsPro comprised of some major accounts getting together to bitch at Marvel and DC on the behalf of the entire industry -- I know we see a benefit to that and I'm happy to see them continue. Beyond camaraderie, the tangible benefits of membership are very American-focused and therefore not of interest to us. Beyond all of that, though, to actually engage those issues myself where, Marvel, and DC are concerned, I'd need to more fully immerse myself in the goings-on of those companies and start reading their product, and I'm not about to do that.
SPURGEON: You're a younger retailer. Does the graying of the direct market concern you at all? I know that with a lot of the stores -- we saw this with Rory Root, actually -- the personality of the owner is so ingrained in the store that when the retailer goes the store goes.
BIRKEMOE: I was wondering if having recently turned 40 I was still one of the "younger retailers" -- my staff assures me this is the case. [Spurgeon laughs]
I think you're absolutely right that the personality of the owner is ingrained in the store -- but I think that's true of any good, interesting shop, not just in the world of comics or books. I do take your point, though, and I've always seen the benefit of incorporating the personalities and interests of my various employees into the store. Depending on what you buy and when you shop, you can come away with a very different idea of what personality imprints this store.
It's difficult for any retail store of size to pass along to new owners whether the owner passes away, retires, what have you... I'd like to think things would end up differently for us than they did at Comic Relief; the shop has already successfully changed hands once. The Beguiling as a business has value to me, but only because I put everything I have into it. I'm not sure I realized that would be the case when I bought in, or if I would have done it if I had, but I'm glad I did.
SPURGEON: How has Diamond's performance been for you over the last 12-36 months? I'm told there were some minor snafus in terms of resupplying New 52 books, but they've handled that whole initiative reasonably well. At the same time, I hear some scary stories from smaller publishers about mistreatment. How are things from your end? Where could they stand to improve?
BIRKEMOE: If you've been dealing with Diamond for a long time, you know what they're good at, and you can keep your sanity if you rely on them for what they're good at. If you try to build your entire business around that one supplier, though, any time you (or they) need to step out of a comfort zone, it all goes to hell.
This year has seen us go to mandatory two-week wait on replacements for shortages and damages, for example, unless we're willing to pay basically quintuple our shipping costs to get them quickly. This year has seen fulfillment rates on publishers that Diamond doesn't represent in the book trade (plus DC & Marvel) slip to 20 or 30 percent? Fulfillment times have also increased dramatically. We don't expect reorders for at least three weeks, we've stopped giving customers estimates altogether on that material. It's frustrating for everyone.
In 2011 we are working with more product distributors than we ever have before, and I want to remind you we don't really bother with toys, trading cards, gaming, or t-shirts like most comic book stores do.
To be succinct: Due to good discounts and exchange rate and brokerage issues, there is a significant impetus for us to order from Diamond, but we are relying on them less and less.
SPURGEON: Non-Diamond distribution was a general issue this year as one of those players left the field. There also seems to be a greater willingness from publishers to sell directly to stores, although I could be imagining that. Is direct buying from publishers a significant part of your business?
BIRKEMOE: Flat out, it makes sense for us to consolidate our orders into distributors rather than work with publishers directly. Less paperwork, fewer ordering systems to work with, less time required to put it altogether. It's only because adequate distribution channels don't exist for some very good material that we deal directly with publishers or small distro outfits.
For example, with Top Shelf and NBM -- particularly for their Papercutz line -- we can get the order volume up high enough to make it worthwhile in terms of shipping, brokerage, etc. We still love working with Last Gasp in California; they're an excellent distributor and it always mystifies me that more stores don't work with them. Last Gasp is particularly great at carrying a great array of material that never makes it into the Diamond catalog, or disappears right after initial orders, and they go out of their way to source great books and product.
On that note, initial orders, Diamond is still primarily a frontlist distributor. We know for a fact that a lot of their book distribution mechanisms are still locked to the comic distribution mechanisms, and again, unless a publisher is distributed by Diamond to the book market with Diamond warehousing their stock, books are disappearing from their warehouse within days of release and never restocked. The whole system is set for frontlist sales, the whole industry -- and particularly how new readers encounter comics -- is moving in the other direction. Availability of key backlist is absolutely what a shop should use to engage new and lapsed comics readers, and the system isn't set up for it. I feel like most retailers aren't set up for it -- they don't have the capital to invest or the product knowledge to keep key comics backlist on hand outside of what DC tells them is their "top 20" or whatever trade paperbacks Marvel has been allowed to keep in print this quarter.
SPURGEON: You said you were involved with macro issues concerning TCAF, so let me get really macro. What do you feel the dangers are with developing TCAF? You seem to have gotten past that growth stage to where the show is a big, paid-attention-to hit, but where do you go from here? What does that show look like five years from now?
BIRKEMOE: Part of TCAF's recent success is having found a perfect venue -- the Toronto Reference Library -- but that success would also allow us to instantly outgrow that venue should we, for even a moment, loosen our grip on the reins. We are artificially keeping TCAF smaller, less-advertised, and as under the radar as possible, preferring to grow based on word of mouth and letting the right people know about it. It's our belief that we could double attendance next year, if we wanted. Our efforts are only going to buy us so much time, though, and the addition of more venues this year should hopefully ease some of the congestion this year.
One of the things I've joked about, with TCAF, is that it allows me not to have to travel to the shows I like. The creators come here. If it gets too much bigger it's going to be like the shows I have to travel to but don't like, coming here to Toronto.
I asked Chris. We don't know what the show is going to look like in five years. Given what he has accomplished so far, I'm pretty sure it'll look like whatever he wants it to look like, and I will have to learn to like it.
SPURGEON: How has your art sales business performed during this extended recession? What sells? For that matter, how big a business is that for you?
BIRKEMOE: Art sales is a very modest portion of our overall business, but a large portion of our presence online, at conventions that we attend, and interacting with the creative community. It's something that we are always looking at devoting more time and attention to, and have begun working with a number of new artists this year.
The recession was very noticeable at San Diego. The last two years of exhibition were still decent, but I have never discussed the economy more, all year, than I did those weekends.
SPURGEON: You mentioned above that you decided to turn DC's New 52 program into an outreach program for your store. Are there publishing initiatives you feel that are missing from the options set in front of you? For instance, could you make use of more aggressive alt-comic books? Could you make use of more aggressive book tours? Is there something you feel you could sell that you just don't see out there?
BIRKEMOE: As much as getting more people to read these comics is nice, and the DC 52 stuff was again very successful in that regard, I'm much more interested in better comics coming from the major publishers.
But, really, the DC 52 thing worked because people outside of our clientele and outside of our regular sphere of influence were aware of these books -- we worked to capitalize on that new market by actually having the books when they came out. DC made it easy for us to do that with aggressive discounts, returnability, and even variants. Our DC reps did everything they could to get us to stock deeply on this. Our sell-outs were quite unfortunately driven by other stores in our geographic area drastically underordering and unintentionally sending their customers our way. The sad thing is, we'll never really know how many gave up once we were finally out...
For the most part though, new readers are coming into our store through media coverage of comics and graphic novels. Reviews, interviews, and of course book tours. For the art-comix and graphic novels, of course we appreciate any and all publisher support but we will almost always make use of more. Times are tough, budgets are tight, we respect that, but we're willing to meet most publishers and projects at least half-way.
We want more of everything as long as it's good. We're participating in Retrofit for new alt-comix monthlies, in two or three Kickstarter and indie distribution campaigns, all of the superhero and genre publisher initiatives and discounts, and we try to be a friendly face to all of the book pubs who manage to send their graphic novelists out on the road.
We've been around a very long time, and have built up great relationships with people throughout the industry. But if you look at our list of events for the past few years, you'll see that D&Q is easily the most-represented publisher, thanks to the efforts of Peggy Burns and her team. Part of that is that developed relationship and our proximity, but really Peggy has learned how to plan touring and promotion of the perfect scale for a given author and book, especially with a comparatively smaller budget and team than many much larger publishers.
But, yes, always more.
SPURGEON: You know, I probably should have asked this much earlier, but how big a ship do you run in terms of number of people on staff? What kind of manager of other people do you feel you are? Is there a culture to The Beguiling?
BIRKEMOE: We just sat down for our "Holiday" dinner last night, with everything from myself and the full-timers right down to the most casual of "specialty" helpers, and that topped out at 18 people. There's always been a "culture" at The Beguiling -- we've grown enough that there are now sub-cultures. Generally, the staff is friendly and hangs out together, the store is considerably more convivial than in the past... Little Island is downright warm and welcoming.
I'm pathologically even-keeled, and since I rarely get upset myself am not always the best at reading other people's emotions. Fortunately I have learned that people skills are something that you can delegate. I tend to hire people who are very good at individual things -- some numbers, some creative, some lifting -- and let them go. My managers are better multi-taskers. I provide general direction, and then ultra-specific direction when necessary.
I'm sometimes astonished when I walk into stores and see whatever staff or owner that is on-duty sitting around fully engaged in some role-playing game. There is a pretty constant hum of activity here and the mountain of work never seems to diminish. I have no objection to someone running a laconic workplace, I just don't see how you can stay in business doing it.
I'm child-free at 40, and I'll say that employees are much better child-substitutes than cats.
SPURGEON: What's the last book that crossed your desk that you really, really liked?
BIRKEMOE: We had a fantastic event with Marc-Antoine Mathieu this year. His works in English are Dead Memory from Dark Horse and The Museum Vaults from NBM -- he's a fantastic comics formalist, relentlessly inventive. He sent me a copy of his new book, 3" (3 Secondes), which he had tried to describe to me during his visit; "Imagine following a ray of light as it bounces around countless reflective surfaces over a three second span, and reveals a story as it does so." It's largely wordless so I look forward to hand-selling the fuck out of it when I get copies of it from France next month. It's nice to have something people haven't heard is coming, oops I guess I fucked that up.
It's also nice to have books that other people don't have, and can't get. Christopher just brought me an anthology of Tsuge (Screw-Style) stories from Japan, and despite owning several volumes of his work it's almost all new to me. I look forward to using what little Japanese reading ability I have left to struggle through this volume.
* photo provided by Chris Butcher
* young Peter's three comic books; images assembled by Chris Butcher
* from Sim's High Society
* Francois Ayroles
* outside The Beguiling
* inside The Beguiling (from Chris Butcher)
* photo of Christopher Butcher by Charlie Chu
* Francis Manapul
* TCAF's main room in 2011
* from inside Little Island (from Chris Butcher)
* a little suite of books (from Chris Butcher)
* The Beguiling's set-up at TCAF
* a Retrofit comic
* from Marc-Antoine Mathieu's 3 Secondes
* one more of the storefront at The Beguiling (below)
* Calvin Reid reports for PW that Drawn and Quarterly has taken its first steps into digital publishing, releasing two works by Chester Brown (Louis Riel, Paying For It) with a company called Kobo and their Vox Reader. The publisher's post on it is here. This is worth noting for the news itself (Chester Brown books in a new format!), the fact that D+Q is an influential boutique alt-comics house and it's the alt-comics houses with the most room to maneuver in this area, and for the 50/50 split that D+Q is doing with its authors. Pay attention to that last one, because people are really going to begin to question basic publishing arrangements in the digital age. The author Michael Chabon has apparently just moved every book he can to a company that offers that same deal.
* big discovery in 1940s sales numbers; start with John Jackson Miller's analysis here.
* Brian Bolland on the work of someone that used his art for another piece of art. More on Sharon Moody from Scott Edleman here. Edelman keeps prodding me for my opinion on this, in a way that makes me suspect he want me to agree with him rather than really wants to know my opinion, but as I said a couple of days ago I really don't have much of one beyond the basics. I don't know the Bolland example, and certainly there are plenty of ways art can be re-used that cross the line (see this year's tracing debacles in editorial cartooning, for example), but at least concept-wise for me I totally get the value of making imagery and totally get the value of re-utilizing imagery, and in general think both are legitimate avenues for art. I'm slightly baffled that a lot of folks seem unable to fathom this, and I suspect without knowing that it's the comparative valuation/pricing element of it more than the conceptual element that tends to get people worked up. As far as that goes, I'd rather have a Jack Kirby page than someone's painting of a Jack Kirby page by a factor of 10 billion to one, but what people want to pay for whatever they want to buy is pretty far outside my control.
TOM SPURGEON: Is it possible to get a progress report about how things are going from a practical, planning standpoint for Sparkplug's future? The announcement you were going to continue with Sparkplug came in I believe mid-October, and I wonder how things have progressed since then.
TOM NEELY: Right now we are looking to the future. We are in good shape to maintain things at the moment, and are looking to begin publishing some new work in 2012. Beginning with Katie Skelly's Nurse Nurse graphic novel. Her Nurse Nurse mini comics were a big hit at BCGF and we're really excited to bring her work to a larger audience. We are also working on a comic book for Free Comic Book Day, reprinting some of Dylan's Reporter comics, and continuing the Reich series, which still has four issues to go.
VIRGINIA PAINE: In terms of day-to-day operations, I think we are as back to normal as possible. We're still filling orders and adding new books to the online store. We're getting started on publishing new books as well -- their release dates have been pushed back, understandably, but they are in the works.
EMILY NILSSON: A lot of what's been going on is organizing business paperwork and deciding what form this business is going to take. Now that there are three of us running things, we are figuring out as we go along how to divide up the work. Virginia has had the most in-depth experience working side by side with Dylan in the publishing matters, so she is teaching me a lot. We have conventions lined up to and we've already been to a few in the past couple months, so we've been very busy.
SPURGEON: I was also wondering if you could talk a bit -- just to characterize it -- the support received this Fall. Are efforts still ongoing? Did they help Sparkplug make the transition to this new stage? Did the comics themselves emerge on the other side of any estate dealing safely in your hands? How did you feel about the community support in general?
PAINE: The community support has been wonderful! People have been doing everything in their power to help us; we've received support in so many ways. It's been really encouraging. I'm going to let Emily field the estate dealing questions, though, as I'm not really sure what is going on with that.
NILSSON: Without the support we received from friends and members of the community, Sparkplug wouldn't be able to plan and move forward as we have been. I can't express the gratitude I feel about the art auctions and donations and other kinds of fundraising that our friends have helped us with, and the moral support has been fantastic. Knowing people are so excited to see Sparkplug moving on and ready to do new things really helps. As far as estate matters are concerned, they take months to resolve, and that's all I can discuss right now.
NEELY: We've received such an enormous amount of support, both emotionally and financially, from the comics community at large. It's overwhelming and humbling and we are very grateful to everyone for that. Our immediate plans were to stabilize the company, keep Virginia employed, and make it through the Fall schedule of comic festivals. Those were all a success and also a great catharsis for us to be able to spend time with so many people that were touched by Dylan and Sparkplug. Again, thank you to everyone along the way.
We hope that the efforts are ongoing. We do still need help keeping things going. Virginia is our only employee, but she's also a partner. The partners aren't taking anything out of the company. Every sale that we make of our current line of books goes directly towards publishing new work by new artists and continues to help us travel to festivals to promote these works to new audiences. So, the support we want to continue, is we want people to continue buying Sparkplug books. If you want us to keep putting out new books, keep spreading the word about the old books. Keep them in stock at all the stores.
SPURGEON: Will the new Sparkplug be as supportive of the comic book format as it had been in recent years? Is that form important for the future of the company as you see it moving forward.
NILSSON: Dylan had always liked the pamphlet format of comics, but he also realized that the market seemed to be favoring the square-bound format. Sparkplug's had pretty good luck selling pamphlets, even though there's some prejudice about them.
NEELY: Yes, I'd like to keep doing comic books! Reich #9 and our Free Comic Book Day books are on the slate. Dylan believed, and I think we all believe, in spreading art through a well produced, affordable format. Comic books are still the best way to do this regardless of what the fickle market is trying to predict. We still want to work with new and young artists, and it's a much more feasible way to start out. Producing a graphic novel is a huge project for anyone to undertake for both artist and publisher. But with shorter comics, artists can put their best foot forward in a shorter format. But we still intend to work on graphic novels, too. Really it's up to the artist what kind of book they want to make, but we encourage the comic book as a good first step.
PAINE: We haven't really talked about this; right now we are just focusing on finished the publishing projects Dylan had in the works. I think that the next year will be the time for us to examine Sparkplug's goals in regards to format.
SPURGEON: In terms of new, potential work, do you see the company concentrating on continuing its existing relationships with certain cartoonists, or will there be more of a clean break as you figure out what's to come?
NILSSON: Dylan envisioned Sparkplug as a place for unpublished comic artists to have a place to get their work in print and distributed, before they move on. Some of our artists have naturally just progressed onto other publishers just as Dylan foresaw they would, but some have published multiple works with us. We want to continue all of our relationships with the artists we've represented, we might not be publishing all of them but they are all friends.
PAINE: We have great ongoing relationships with a lot of our artists and plan to continue honoring them. I think our emphasis for right now is going to be continuing Dylan's work with them.
NEELY: We decided we had to remain committed to projects that were already contracted -- Nurse Nurse, Reich -- After that, we wrote to our artists and told them that we hoped to continue working with them, but the future is uncertain and they are free to look elsewhere if they wish. Dylan often felt that many of his artists deserved to be picked up by bigger publishers after he'd put out their first books. Many have gone on to great success at some of the larger publishers. It will kind of work on a case by case scenario. We also want to continue looking for new work by new artists.
SPURGEON: Particularly in that that this year's tragic circumstances built on an earlier set of health problems, did Dylan ever talk about or plan for the future of Sparkplug with any of you? Do you know what he thought about the company moving on after he passed?
PAINE: Not really, and no.
NEELY: He was always a little vague about any definite plans and health concerns, I think because it was so uncertain. A couple of years ago, he was beginning to look for a partner. We talked for six months or more about different possibilities. A few times we talked about merging Sparkplug and I Will Destroy You, but with me in LA and not able to help with the day-to-day stuff, it didn't seem to make sense. He eventually found Virginia and hired her as a part time employee, but immediately made her his co-publisher, because he's awesome like that. He searched extensively to find the right person to be his co-publisher. I think he wanted and needed a partner. I don't think he was planning on any of this happening, and he didn't leave any instructions for us. But I think he always wanted to remain loyal to his artists and keep their books in circulation. So, we're really just going with our own instincts of wanting to keep Sparkplug alive. Wanting to keep Dylan's legacy alive.
NILSSON: All I want to say about this is that Dylan and I firmly believed he would still be around to do his work.
SPURGEON: Tom, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about your own DIY efforts this year, particularly your aggressive touring in support of your latest book. Are those experiences something that you think will be helpful in helping Sparkplug go forward? Are there things you think you learned this year about how to get work into people's hands that you think can benefit other cartoonists?
NEELY: I think I've learned a lot in the last six months. I've aged a lot, too. My beard is getting a lot greyer. One of the things I've experienced, and I think it was something Dylan always loved about going to new places, is at several stops on my tour, and a couple of the new shows I did this year, probably 80 percent of the people that came to my table had never seen my work before or heard of me at all. Sometimes I feel like the usual comics circuit of regular festivals is too insular, and you see the same people every year, which is nice, but here I was reaching a whole new audience at almost every stop. And that's a great thing for spreading the word about my own work as well as Sparkplug. I'm already planning an East Coast tour for the end of Spring, and I hope to take some Sparkplug with me along the way.
I think the thing for most cartoonists to consider is just getting out there however it's possible. As for touring, I am trying to do it as cheaply as possible: I took my own car, I carried all my own books, I slept on floors and couches at friend's places along the way. My only expense was gas, food and the time away from freelance work. If you don't have the means to travel all over the place, then do as many local shows as you can. I just did a local DIY craft fair last weekend and it was a total bust for sales, but I met some awesome people and I made a couple of new fans, so that's worth it to me. That's something Dylan and I always talked about, and tried to do. Just make the best of it if you can. So you only sell two books at one stop? But that's two new people looking at some art that you brought into the world. That's worth something.
Right now I'm also working on expanding my own I Will Destroy You publishing efforts beginning with co-publishing (with Teenage Dinosaur) Levon Jihanian's Danger Country series and the new Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever comic book mini-series (co-publishing with Cantankerous Titles). As well as some other stuff. If I've learned anything from Dylan or all of my DIY experience it's just to keep following your dreams and obsessions and finding a way to make it work. The main thing I took away from this year is this all I wanna do with my life -- make art and spread art to the world.
SPURGEON: Do you have a rough division of labor in mind at all? Are there certain things some of you will be doing that others won't as much?
PAINE: Right now, Emily is mostly handling the financial/logistical aspects of the business and I am doing most of the basic operational tasks -- maintaining the website, blogging and packing orders. Tom is our advice guru and is tabling shows for us.
NILSSON: My part right now is largely financial and administrative-oriented, I'm getting that all sorted. I'm getting our workspace organized. I've helped out Dylan a lot over the years but I have a lot to learn, especially from Virginia who has had such an important role in the publishing work with Dylan. I'm figuring out how my past experience with small press, retail, admin and DIY can integrate here and be useful.
NEELY: Since I'm in LA, I'm mainly a consultant on projects right now. And part of the traveling arm of Sparkplug. But I'm beginning to do some distroing and will be taking a more active in making sure Sparkplug has a presence in all the LA stores.
SPURGEON: Now that you're moving forward, does each of you have an idea about what Sparkplug's unique contribution to the publishing landscape is? You must think there's something valuable there because you plan to continue it. What are your individual conceptions about what the company does well and any ways in which it can remain vital and necessary?
NILSSON: We have ties simultaneously with the small press, comics, and DIY communities so I think that will help us as we pick new projects to take on. We've been involved in our immediate community, with local events and non-profit organizations.
NEELY: To me Sparkplug has always represented a different voice. Dylan never followed trends. He wasn't interested in the big name rock star talents. He wasn't even that interested in whether a book would sell or not. He was, and we are, interested in putting out new work by interesting artists and giving their art a chance to be seen in the world. I also feel like that Sparkplug represents a different way of doing things based on art and ethics above any other goal.
But I was thinking about this a lot lately -- look at how many of the top players in the indie comics scene got their start through Sparkplug in some way. Look at who is in Orchid, Sparkplug's first non-Dylan book. Sparkplug contributed a lot to the landscape as it is. I don't know if we can live up to that, but I know that we want to try.
SPURGEON: How do you strike a balance between honoring Dylan's legacy and contributions and moving the company into the future? Is there a fine line between keeping Dylan's memory and not moving forward the way the company might need to?
PAINE: I think this is one of the things we are going to have to examine a lot in the next year. Dylan and I had very different taste than I do but I think that together the three of us can achieve the balance of art and entertainment that he did when he chose who we publish and distribute.
There is a fine line, but I feel like Dylan would want us to do things the way we think is best. Not to say that we will abandon Dylan's vision entirely; just that it will take some restructuring to make it work now that there is not a crazy genius at the helm, haha.
NILSSON: We'll probably look at that question a lot as we go into the future. Dylan cared a great deal about emerging artists and writers, because he had acute memories of what it was like to struggle and get come recognition and respect. I don't think that will ever change for us, because Virginia and Tom and I have been in those shoes. We know we can't do everything the way he would have, but we're doing everything with genuine love and sensitivity for the artists and the projects they bring to us.
NEELY: I think we all want to honor his legacy, but we are different people and we need to find our own way to make this work. Which, I think is in the spirit of Dylan because he always encouraged me and many others to carve their own path. Some things may change or evolve as we take control and move forward, but we all learned a great deal from Dylan and will always have him in mind as we move forward.
SPURGEON: Are you keeping the distributorship part of the business going? Will that part of the business be expanded or changed? How does that part of the business fit into your general conception of what it is Sparkplug does? Is it a sizable effort in terms of mini-comics sold, or the labor involved in keeping that going?
NILSSON: Distribution will probably expand slowly -- we're currently not taking new titles in order to simplify things, but that's only a temporary change. We're distributing mostly self-published work (outside of distributing the comics we publish), so it's a huge part of our relationship to the small press community. The labor, expenses and paperwork involved are small compared with what we do on the publishing side.
PAINE: Yes, we are. I would like to expand it! I think it fits well with the Sparkplug goal of giving relatively unknown artists an audience. While we get back on stable financial ground we have stopped ordering minis, but our distro stock sells well and requires relatively little effort. We pick stuff based on submissions and browsing at conventions, so that's pretty easy too.
NEELY: Dylan was always a huge supporter of self-publishing and that was what he focused his distribution on. He wanted to only carry works that were published by the artist. He always encourages artists to self publish their work. So many people have submitted their works to him and he turned them down because he believed they'd do better self-publishing. I'm sure many artists have had the same conversation with him that I had when I pitched The Blot to him. That I didn't need a publisher. I can do it myself. I'm not sure how the distro will work out as we continue. I hope we continue to do that. I've begun distributing some of my friends at shows in recent months and it's been a great side-project for I Will Destroy You. I've begun with some of my LA friends who don't make it to as many shows around the country as I do. I love getting to promote my friends' work that I believe in, and it helps pay for part of my table at the shows. I think it's a good way to help make ends meet, and the mutual benefit of spreading the works of other artists is rewarding in its own way.
SPURGEON: One of the nice things that happened in the wake of the tragedy is that there seemed to be a renewed interest in the comics that Dylan himself did over the years. Are there any plans for his work as a cartoonist? Are there plans to keep his existing work in print?
PAINE: Tom and Emily have plans. We still have plenty of stock of the entire Reporter series except #2, which is going to be reprinted soon. So, yes.
NILSSON: We want to keep his work in print, in fact we have to re-print Reporter #2 because we're out of it and there are orders that keep coming in for it. He was working on Reporter #7 in the last year of his life, but it only was about halfway finished. There are plans to create an archive of his past work too.
NEELY: As for his other works, we plan on building an archive and having many of his friends contribute to it. We are asking several of his close friends and partners throughout the years to collect everything Dylan has done over the years from comics, minis, zines, articles, interviews, pictures, memories… everything.
SPURGEON: A year from now, and, say five years from now, what would you like to have accomplished with the Sparkplug? What is something -- a book, a presence at shows -- we can look forward to seeing that might indicate you're getting to the place you want to be?
NILSSON: We do have plans to publish specific books in 2012. We have other graphic novels planned and I'd personally like to publish other printed work such as art and novels. We have to take things very slowly. I'm reluctant to say what I think will happen five years from now. Last summer I would never have predicted this outcome to Dylan's life and mine. I'm optimistic, but cautious, and I'd prefer to leave some surprises for people to discover later.
PAINE: I'd like to have four new books out in the next year, and continue to add to our distro stock. We're doing a bunch of shows in 2012 and continuing Dylan's tradition of going to smaller or new conventions, including Staple!, CAKE and Derby City Comic Con.
Five years from now, I'd like this to be a full time job for both Emily and I. In five years Reich will be finished!
That's nuts. I want to continue publishing 4-6 books a year, continue doing conventions. I'd like to see us doing more promotional stuff -- signings, tours, etc.
As for indications, I'd say me getting a new laptop would be a pretty good indicator that Sparkplug is doing well.
NEELY: Hopefully we'll be in a position that Emily and Virginia can make this their full time job. But I think if we're still doing this five years from now, then we're where we want to be.
* an image from the Dylan Williams Reporter blog. I really want you to follow that blog.
* one of the Katie Skelly Nurse Nurse minis
* an image from Elijah Brubaker's Reich series, an early commitment for the reshaped Sparkplug
* an image from Tom Neely's own work; he brings the experience of promoting it to Sparkplug
* Neely manning the Sparkplug/I Will Destroy You table at the just-past BCGF
* one of the many comics distributed by Sparkplug, Amy Kuttab's How Dry I Am
* an image from one of Dylan Williams' non-Reporter comic books
* the friendly Sparkplug web site opening image (below)
* Alan Gardner over at Daily Cartoonist has two solid news catches in the editorial/newspaper realm. The award-winning cartoonist David Horsey is moving to the LA Times; Piers Baker's syndicated strip Ollie & Quentinis set to end. Horsey switched his employment from the now-defunct-in-print Seattle Post-Intelligencer to Hearst Newspapers a couple of years ago, so in a way this is less about someone switching papers than someone switching to a newspaper. Sort of. Anyway, Horsey's pretty much the living embodiment of a crowd-pleasing cartoonist, and I'm sure that any newspaper will do well to have him on board. The Baker strip dying, on the other hand, is just too bad; that was a pretty good feature. It had to have been a tough sell, though. I think King Features did right by that one, as much as it's always easy to blame the syndicate when any strip fails to get over.
* congratulations to Chris Pitzer on nine years of publishing at AdHouse Books. He talks about some of the highlights here. The book whose cover image is at left was their first one. Like nearly everything Chris has published, that was an admirable book and it's hard to figure out who would have done it if Chris hadn't. You can't ask for anything more.
* via the FPI blog and Bryan Talbot comes word of the short list for the First Graphic Novel award run by Myriad Editions. They are: Adam Blackman & Dylan Shipley (A Rat's Tale), Gareth Brookes (The Black Project), Konstantinos Chrisoulis (Dryland), Hannah Eaton (Naming Monsters), Tom Eglington (Amber Sands), Thom Ferrier (The Enlightenment of Iwan James) and Paula Knight (The Facts of Life). The judging panel is Steve Bell, Hannah Berry, Ed Hillyer, Corinne Pearlman, Ian Rankin and Talbot. The winner will be announced January 21.
* the blog at D+Q runs an excerpt from Guy Delisle's Pyongyang about the recently deceased Kim Jong-Il. I know that my thoughts went first to Delisle's work when the North Korean leader's passing was announced, although that may be because of my lack of prose reading on the subject.
TOM SPURGEON: Can I ask you about France right off the bat? You've had a crazy last month, I know, being over there and putting the finishing touches on some of the exhibits and participating in their publicity cycle.
ART SPIEGELMAN: Sure. Actually, it's more like it's been a crazy year-plus. The last couple of weeks were especially nuts. You can ask me about either.
SPURGEON: I was wondering about the direct build-up to the Festival. You're the Grand Prix winner, which puts you square in everyone's sights as the Festival gets closer. How has that experience been in terms of all the attention, and how are your preparations going for your contribution to the show?
SPIEGELMAN: I'm finally beginning to see light at the end of what seemed like an endless tunnel on that stuff. Actually, when I was first invited in, I was trying to figure out how to get out of it without creating an interational freedom-fries like incident. [Spurgeon laughs]. Because it's very nice to be made the maharaja of comics or something. Either too soon or too late, you know? It should have happened either 15-20 years ago or maybe 15-20 years from now where they could wheel me in on a respirator. But right now it wasn't good timing.
The way it was presented to me was, "Call this number in France at 10:30 in the morning to say thank you to Frédéric Mitterand, the minister of culture, when he names you the president" -- whatever it was, the grand prize winner, the grand marshal -- "of the next Festival as he announces it to a tent full of a thousand people." So it was sort of like a fait accompli. It wasn't like I was being asked would I consider it. So I had to call up, and all I could really do as a kind of caveat -- because I was flattered, of course, but I also am aware that various other presidents I've met as friends fall into a black hole once they've been given this honor. In France, if you live in France, it makes a lot of sense that you do it. From far away, I'm not so sure. So my response, short of one of those kind of jingoistic "You crazy, cheese-eating surrender monkeys, go peddle your pornography elsewhere" or something, I had no clue as to how to wriggle out of what I knew was going to loom as a big deal. So I just promised to try and do as good a job as the last American president, Robert Crumb.
SPURGEON: [laughs] As I recall, Crumb didn't show up much at all.
SPIEGELMAN: He was considered kind of a disaster. [laughter] They vowed never to give it to an American or maybe even a foreigner ever again. I was annoyed they had broken their promise.
Crumb was friends with Jean-Pierre Mercier, who worked in Angouleme and was able to put together a great retrospective show of his work. I was there that year. I haven't been there that often, but I was there that year. I hung out with Crumb in the tent that functions as a green room for the major celebrities where no press can get in and so on. And he just never went out. They'd come by with dispatches saying, "Would you go on Arte-TV for an interview? Can Le Monde talk to you?" The answer was always, "Nah." [Spurgeon laughs] That lasted for one afternoon where people he knew were hanging out with him back there. The next day I think he sort of said, "Screw this," and went off record hunting in old flea markets in that region of France. And that was the end of it, except I think he made a brief appearance at the judging. I wasn't there for that, so I don't remember for sure, but somebody said he did. The rest of it...? He had to make a poster, and his poster was considered so lurid that the metros and buses wouldn't put it up [Spurgeon laughs] and they had to come up with a last-minute other poster. So I figured that was a low-enough bar, to try and match that.
SPURGEON: I worked with you years ago on a couple of issues of The Comics Journal, where we ran a long interview you did with Gary Groth. I remember how specific you were about certain artists, how strong and idiosyncratic your curatorial sense was. Now, am I to understand you're putting together a retrospective of RAW for the festival?
SPIEGELMAN: Well, there's different things, different aspects to this. Bit by bit, my obsessive-compulsive controlling self got involved. So that instead of just going, "They do what they want, I do what I want" from the get-go, they were trying to make it easier on me and I made it harder on myself to do this somewhat well. Although there are certain areas where it's just not reasonable for me to get involved. I'm just not there.
My involvement had to start with this retrospective show of my work. That was one of the main obligations. That was the first thing I said "no" to, as soon as I had a private conversation with somebody. That created a problem off the bat. I just can't spend whatever it would have been, four months, going through all of my old art, to fill a large exhibition space. So I suggested they blow up some cartoon work I've done and put it up. But they then came back with one of those offers one can't refuse. So I was then dragged into that show. The offer one couldn't refuse was to have the show then travel to the Pompidou Centre.
SPIEGELMAN: First time for any contempo comics artist, I think. Although as I found out, it's in a venue that's unorthodox. It's in a bathroom on the way to the Matisse show. [Spurgeon laughs] But nevertheless, there's a show, rather large, 400 square meters is now what it looks like it will be. I don't even know what it is in feet [approximately 4300], but it's large. So it can contain it. That made it all something I had to consider and deal with even though the main theme of my life is that I've just been hijacked. The cartoonist Art Spiegelman has died. I've been reincarnated as the executor of his estate. And now I hope someday to die and be reincarnated as an underground cartoonist. But I can't quite get there yet. So that show will now happen. And I was able to work with Rina Zavagli, Lorenzo Mattotti's wife Rina, who has a fantastic gallery in Paris. She was game to take this on. That made it possible for me to do the show. I trust her with my life, let alone my work. She had a very attractively arranged show of my work in her then brand-new gallery a year or two back.
So that was in place. So I was doing that. Then I made my life more complicated by saying yes to something that has its real complications. There's two museums in Angouleme. There's the festival's building, which I think used to be the old regions museum, I think it's called the Castro building. That has my retrospective. I haven't been back in Angouleme to see it, it's only about two or three years old, but now there's another museum. The Angouleme museum that's connected to the school that's there all year round. It's not administered the same way. I was interested in that museum and going there as soon as I got to Angouleme, because it's the museum of the French patrimony of comics. So that has really obscure -- for us certainly -- comics by Gustave Doré and other 19th century proto-comics that are very interesting to me.
So there was an overture. They needed to get a photo of me because I was president and they needed it for the CBIDI museum, and then I said, "It'd be easier for me to come out and visit," and eventually what it led to was [sighs] the second museum exhibit in Angouleme, which is basically, it's being called "Art Spiegelman's Private Museum" -- "musée privé" or something. I get to hijack their museum and put up an American patrimony. That will include the RAW artists. It starts with the 19th Century material I'm interested in, because I wanted to see it. Then it moves primarily toward the American comic strips, comic book, underground comix.
It allowed for several things that I really wanted to have happen. One was to pay tribute to Bill Blackbeard, who died last year, because without him there's not much of an American patrimony. That will be part of the early Sunday pages. The museum has some, I have some, and I was able to kind of arrange for other material that's going there as well. Jenny Robb of the Ohio State University collection was willing to help this thing happen. That meant access to Blackbeard's actual pages that are in the Billy Ireland collection, which is an airplane hangar sized collection. Also, Glenn Bray was indispensable. He has an airplane hangar-sized collection of original comics art, mostly in the alt- and underground comix category as well as EC Comics. So a bunch of things are being borrowed from him. I'm working with Thierry Groensteen as my lynchpin in France. And being helped by Bill Kartalopoulos. But in record time and with a lot of friction in some ways, because the two organizations aren't smoothly turning gears. The second show will allow for the RAW work to be shown and the early comics work to be shown, all of which I consider as something that should have been part of my retrospective. But just to keep it more focused, there's one that's the retrospective and one that's the "roots and peers" show.
I think I answered a question in there somewhere, I'm not sure. [laughter]
That show will have for instance Binky Brown's original art, all of it, from Glenn's collection, in a separate little room at CIBDI. And my work in my retrospective, I think there's something from when I'm 12 years old. It's a scary retrospective. Certainly from the age of 17 to now there's a lot of work, most of which hasn't been seen in Europe or here.
SPURGEON: Let me ask you this now instead of later. You referred to yourself as an underground cartoonist. I think of you that way. You're one of the younger underground cartoonists, but...
SPIEGELMAN: You've put me in among these old geezers. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Well, that group of cartoonists is aging. And some have passed away now. Do you think we have a proper grasp on the artistic legacy of the undergrounds? Do you think there's still work to be done there?
SPIEGELMAN: If this kind of museological patrimony of American comics style book keeps coming out, eventually we'll finally get that part as well. In this corner of publishing, there are the most astounding books of old comic strips, like -- the most impressive one, but there's so many, is probably the Forgotten Fantasy book from Sunday Press, which made feel like I'd died, or was in a dream I wasn't waking up from, and saw this book that can't possibly exist. But then also the complete runs of everything from Peanuts to Dick Tracy to Little Orphan Annie and now coming up Barnaby and so on is an amazing zeitgeist shift. There is a history. That's happening for comic books as well, whether it be Mort Meskin or Alex Toth or the EC stuff or Little Lulu, the comic book thing is coming together. Oddly enough, there's no real equivalent for underground comix.
Back in the day, there was this movie called 2001 and humanity passes through a monolith and changes and evolves? Basically, underground comix was the monolith for comics.
SPURGEON: Is it that we don't have a grasp on how much things have changed, or we've just kind of forgotten?
SPIEGELMAN: Boy, is that for sure! I feel so far outside the loop at this point, you know [laughs], even though it's a loop I guess I helped make. Yes, at the moment. things feel so comfortable. Even if there's not a lot of money associated with being an alternative cartoonist, you can go into any club or bar in the world, hold your head up high and say, "I draw comics." And that wasn't the case. It was better to say you were a plumber.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I guess that kind of leads to MetaMaus, in a way, in that the new book serves as reminder how far ahead of its time Maus was and how much the context of how we look at it has changed in the years since. I know you've talked about a little bit, but one of the remarkable things about the appearance and success of Maus was that it jump-started a publishing interest in comics that the material wasn't there to cover.
SPIEGELMAN: I think the phrase I was using when that was part of my sound byte repertoire was "Comics have to achieve to critical mass," meaning there have to be enough comics for critics to actually care about. So the first attempt at making a graphic novel section really got filled with Dungeons and Dragons books quick. After enough time passed people were able to make enough books that were clearly substantial: Chris Ware and Charles Burns and beyond and around, that the section started to stick. Now it's beginning to get Dungeons and Dragons books back in it, but they're much better produced.
SPURGEON: What I thought was interesting is that that you've also talked about the toll this had on you as an artist, trying to put this together out in the wilderness without a guide map.
SPIEGELMAN: I like that moment. Because of a question I've been asked a couple of times -- I'm just an interview victim these days [Spurgeon laughs] -- is "What would you do if you were starting to make comics now" or some variant of that question. And I wonder if I would at all. Because part of the lure for me was traveling through terra icognita that most people didn't know about or care about. There was no cultural demerit given for not knowing who George Herriman was, for example, back in the day. So part of it was the struggle of seeing what could be made in a medium that had no pejorative in my mind as a medium. But that wasn't the norm. The shift is so radical is that it's really hard for 20- or 25-year-old cartoonists to know what the frontier days were like. It had its advantages. There wasn't a hovering critical presence. It allowed for comics to retain a certain kind of vitality that arguably could be said to under threat in the environment we're in right now.
SPURGEON: Do you wonder about the limiting effects that Maus might have had simply in terms of being first out of the gate? In that beating a path for people through the wilderness you're denying them the possibilities of having worked these things out on their own?
SPIEGELMAN: Of course. I mean, certainly Maus was gestated in and continued with RAW Magazine, which was an attempt to make it as clear as possible that there are many paths to making comics that aren't mired in commercial consideration. So that was a given from the get-go. On the other hand, one of the things that happened with Maus -- just to address the first part of your question, the context was so different. MetaMaus does go into that. The Holocaust wasn't a subject matter, a trope, a genre as it was just described in the Times for a movie by Agnieszka Holland -- the Holocaust genre -- and that wasn't the case when Maus was being made.
It was good subject for a story for me not because I wanted to make the world a better place by indicating that one must never do such things again, but because it was a story worth telling for me. It was a story that wasn't that known. I was interested in making a story, and I draw slowly and with some difficulty, and that was the right thing to do to fulfill the vision of "a long comic book that needs a bookmark and has to be re-read." That was the phrase I used before the punchier "graphic novel" took hold as a phrase. So in that context, the subject matter, without much context even in prose books until about the time I was in earnest making pages for Maus. The late '70s. At that point, there was a zeitgeist shift. And the for comics, there wasn't much of a context, outside of maybe some things in underground comix when people discovered that work in Arcade or whatever.
Within that zone it was very, very different than what it turned into. Even now I find that what happened was Maus on the one hand opened a door, and [laughs] frog-marched into the culture on one side by The Dark Knight and the other side Watchmen, but it's the one that was sort of the odd man out in that group of three by not even having any basic connection to comic books as Americans knew them. So there was that. Maus, on the other hand, created a situation for me and I think other comic artists that came in its wake, which is Holocaust trumps art every time as a subject. So I've gotten perceived as kind of "You're the guy that wrote the Auschwitz For Beginners book." On the one hand, by people that have no interest in comics, Maus was sort of a crossover hit with people that just don't read that kind of thing, thank you. On the other hand, it also created a situation for other comic artist as well as for me. The Holocaust is a hard act to follow. What do you do you to make something that people will tend to? And like we were just talking, it took a while for that kind of work to come to the foreground.
SPURGEON: Is there any element to MetaMaus that's critical of subsequent works that have been created? A lot of folks' initial reaction has been to be staggered by the amount of material and amount of research and sketches you've included. That's not always the case with books that have followed. Is there anything about what you've presented that you wanted to put out there in terms of the seriousness and amount of work involved in your putting together that book?
SPIEGELMAN: No. One of the three questions that always was coming up was "Why did you do it in comics form?" To me, it was just built from the ground up, the answer is essential. It's not because there are mouse heads on these characters. That was something that's now made available, something that can be understood: that there's a comics grammar, a way pages are put together that's just basic to what I understand comics are.
I'm not saying that other artists have to do it my way, not by a long shot. All that I would say is that there is work that is thoroughly grounded in understanding the grammar that one works with. It's something I like in literature, too, when a writer can make a decent sentence, as opposed to another writer who I admire with all my heart, Phil Dick, who couldn't get from subject to predicate [laughs] without a lot of side trips. I love what he does, but he's not a great writer. I think he reads better in French, probably. But he's a great philosopher.
Okay, end of parenthesis. There's not one way to make something important, except that it be urgent. I would say that's much more important than are you willing to read a library full of background material, or travel around the world to do the research for locales that are specific to specific projects.
SPURGEON: So do you see a lack of urgency from some of the work that's followed?
SPIEGELMAN: Yeah, some of it seems like knitting. But some of it seems amazing. I think we're living in a time where there's probably more great comics art coming out than at any time in my lifetime, certainly.
SPURGEON: I looked for a critical reappraisal of Maus through the publication of this new work. There wasn't a lot of writing like that, but one idea struck me. Someone -- I think maybe David Ulin, although now I can't remember -- suggested that a central idea in Maus is that an event like the Holocaust makes closure impossible.
SPIEGELMAN: I haven't seen the essay. This is about Maus, not MetaMaus?
SPURGEON: Yeah. And I think what hit me about the idea of the book engaging the inability to find closure is that it goes right to what a lot of the broader discussion of Maus over the years has concerned itself with: your decision to include your story as an artist working with this Holocaust narrative and these relationships you had right next to the narrative itself.
SPIEGELMAN: That comes to the urgency part of this thing. I wasn't as aware of it consciously. I remember back to when I was in -- I'm not sure this made it into the final interview that ran in MetaMaus -- at the time, all I knew was that thing about wanting to make a comic book that needed a bookmark and could be re-read. I had a few projects in mind, and one of them I left behind because Maus seemed harder, and I wanted to take on something that would test my mettle. The other book was to be the life of a fictional cartoonist who lived from the beginning of comics to the then-present, when I was working. It was made up of artifacts of his work, and a history of comics sort of sewn into that. I think somebody must have done it by now [laughs] or variants of it, but at the time that was an alternative project I was considering. Part of the unconscious pull of taking on the thing that was hardest was to stare down the family legacy and the way it kind of distorted me and my relationship with my dysfunctional family, of course.
Closure, on the other hand, may only be possible in fiction and ten-cent therapy. It's not unique to the Holocaust, but the Holocaust is the example writ as large as it can be writ. But it's built into the actual structure of the Maus book itself. It's sitting on this tombstone, and the past and present are kind of blurring. One ending that indicates a happily-ever-after kind of ending as delivered by my father, and then the compounded ending that lands on that tombstone. I think that's indicative of what closure is. Closure is probably just a tombstone.
SPURGEON: You mentioned early on in this conversation about wanting to get back to being a cartoonist, and it's something that's come up several times in your sound byte activities over the last several months. [laughter] You expressed that you hoped this book would have a positive effect on you as a cartoonist. Do you still think it will?
SPIEGELMAN: I sure hope so. I sure hope so. That was the bet I placed, I will say. The problem for me is that this has become... what I'm thinking of is that if I get to have another chapter in my life of one kind or another, I'd like to finish with this chapter, which is The Great Retrospection. It was a period where first I went and looked at Breakdowns again. Oh, that's a book I can put out, my publisher is game to let me, I'll just do an introduction... two years later I deliver myself of a book, an introduction half as long as the book, and a postscript explaining the introduction. That was a two-book arrangement with Pantheon that also included MetaMaus, which I think was supposed to come out with the 20th anniversary. And I put it off because it was harder.
Then just as I was sort of like finally getting to the end of what was a much more difficult project than I ever let myself know -- I now understand why I was putting it off -- "Okay, MetaMaus. I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel." And then bam, this great art retrospective falls on my head. And that means looking back at any piece of art that I've made that wasn't a part of Breakdowns [laughs] and Maus as well as looking at it in a different context in terms of what could be part on a wall and make a good show. It's been very intense. And now until the other side of that show, which as I said is going to the Pompidou and as of last week has made my life even more complicated because now I have to do a catalog for that show before it opens at the Pompidou. So I don't quite know exactly when I get my life back, but I'm hoping when it does I'm kind of not going to expect myself to have to draw mice.
SPURGEON: Let me ask you one last thing. Looking at the book and hearing you talk about the retrospectives in France, it occurs to me how much collaboration you do. You listed that all-star team with whom you're doing these exhibits. That's very, very different from the perception of cartoonists as people locked away in their rooms, working alone. Has your collaboration been beneficial to your work as a cartoonist?
SPIEGELMAN: It's definitely been beneficial to the world of comics. I think. It's just how I understood the career option, to use a word I don't like: career. Because Harvey Kurtzman was such an inspiration, I thought, "Oh, cartoonists are supposed to write, they're supposed to draw, and they're supposed to edit." It was just part of the job description. So early on that's how I entered into it. I became more interested in shaping books than making comics that didn't go anywhere. So that kind of collaboration, of being an editor -- although I find some times when there's an editor and I'm the cartoonist it makes my head explode [laughter] -- nevertheless, when it's done well, editing has a real function. So there was that kind of collaborating.
Here, on this particular book, on MetaMaus more than any other book I've done, yes, it was built on an interview with Hillary Chute. She was indispensable while working on it. To me the strongest two pages in the book are built on something my old cousin Sy Spiegelman made which was this geneology which included the pre-War and post-War genealogical tree. This amazing infographic, placing the people in Maus in the context where they're a fractal of what happened. The corner of the family tree showing the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of a patriarch, and then after the war the very few names that are left and a lot of blank boxes, peole that died during the war years. That is a totally collaborative thing that is the essence of what this book offers in terms of answering why the Holocaust. So there's that kind of thing.
In the last few years, I've been more overtly collaborative. I don't like collaborating on my own comics. I don't want to write for somebody else to draw, because other people can't draw badly just the right way. [Spurgeon laughs] I certainly wouldn't want to draw for somebody else's writing. So that's out. On the other hand, it gets lonely here in the studio. When projects come up, I'm at least willing to entertain them on a certain level. Over a long period of time I was involved with something that never quite happened but someday still may, which is the Drawn To Death: The Three-Panel Opera musical theater thing that made me realize how lucky I was to be trapped in a studio where you didn't have to interest bankers in every step of what's going on.
The past year or so I did a project that used some of the ideas from Drawn to Death, working with a bunch of dancers who came over to the studio and invited me to collaborate on a dance. A medium that has no special interest for me, but I loved collaborating with them, making a comics dance piece with shadows and drawings interacting, drawings of dancers. The only drawing poster I've done in the last year outside of a poster for Angouleme was what will be an eight-foot-high by 50-foot-wide glass window for what had been my old school, the School Of Industrial Art and the High School Of Art And Design. As they move into a new building, there will be this large kind of stained glass window that overlooks the cafeteria from above -- how do I describe it? -- it overlooks the cafeteria and upstairs there's a corridor where you can the image from behind. This thing that I've kind of built works with what you see from the front, what you see from behind, and what images are on this window, which in some ways is comics stuff. That involves working with master craftsmen in Germany; it's being fabricated as we speak. I'm going to see it right after Angouleme to approve what they're doing. That will be installed when the school opens next Fall. So that's also a kind of collaboration. I have to make something that I wasn't going to do hands on. I have no idea how to make a stained glass window as a craftsperson. But I made something that's now being translated. That's another kind of collaborative work, I guess. I need both.
Right now what I need is the non-collaborative work. I really need it badly. I hunger for it.
* photo of Art Spiegelman from a MoCCA Festival from a few years back
* RAW will be a part of one of the exhibits with which Spiegelman is involved at this year's Angouleme Festival
* Gustave Doré
* underground-era work from Spiegelman
* the new book
* some of the sketchwork that went into Maus
* that astonishing Sy Spiegelman infographic
* from the MetaMaus introduction (below)
* Stuck In The Middlewill remain in the middle school/high school library where its status had come under fire. Good.
* this essay starts out being the worst thing retailer/advocate Brian Hibbs ever wrote, but rallies at the end. For some reason, Hibbs continues to insist there was a bunch of bookstore triumphalist punditry back when bookstore accounts started to grow. I don't recall writing that essay, and I don't think anyone of lasting import and influence (such as it is in the world of blather) ever did. More importantly, even if it existed, none of this punditry ever took hold as working opinions by those that make actual decisions. Neither the Bob Wayne-ensconced DC nor the still mostly bookstore oblivious Marvel -- the market's dominant leaders -- could ever be said to be bookstore focused to the significant detriment of the shops. Not rationally. However, it's pretty undeniable that a number of the alt-comics companies we have now -- companies I think are valuable, and full of people like me that love comic shops -- would have gone out of business if left to depend on the DM as it was developing in the 1990s. They were dying until deeper bookstore interest came along; one of those companies was crushed by the peculiarities of the DM right before our eyes! I just don't understand this kind of revisionism with the comic book store owner as primary victim. It's weird. It's also not a very convincing springboard through which to denounce a still also relatively non-impactful and isolated on-line triumphalism. However, I do agree with Brian in his end point that more attention should be paid to fostering the opening of brick and mortar stores, wherever and however possible. I've been advocating for it for years, in between my "Bookstores Will Crush You All" jeremiads, I guess. One thing that might be helpful is if more of Brian's peers would stop automatically treating new accounts as competition.
* Scott Edelman defends the honor of comics-makers in the face of a new artist that is reproducing their work in a specific context and selling that reproduction as art. Edelman sent me an odd message linking to his post, tweeting "This bothers me. I wonder if it will bother you and what readers might think, should you care to share." To be honest, this kind of thing has never bothered me. I mean, I get how what the comics artists do is art and how what the pop artist using that art as the basis of recontextualized commentary is art. Further, I understand that how people might place value on those different instances and expressions won't have anything to do with one another. I'm slightly baffled that except in rare cases anyone sees as much value in the latter to pay millions of dollars for some of it, and in some cases I'm confused as to why it deserves any attention at all, but I totally get how these are two different and legitimate things.
Luis Eduardo Barreto, a Uruguayan artist who did several years of work at DC Comics in addition to stints in the South American comics industry and the North American newspaper strip world, died on December 15 after a long battle with meningitis. He was 57 years old.
Barreto was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. He was influenced early on by North American adventure strip stalwarts such as Al Williamson and Alex Raymond. While he stressed in later interviews that every artist should receive a full education in the humanities, his own training in the arts came less from academia, where he felt frustrated by the routine many of his teachers stressed, and more in the forms of learning from colleagues such as Jose Rivera and Carlos Federici. He also assisted Ricardo Villegran for a time.
In his early days as an artist, Barreto worked freelance gigs for several South American advertising companies. According to different sources his first gig was either work on a series of newspaper comics for an Uruguayan newspaper or on a science fiction comic strip that was distributed by United Press International to several markets in South America. He soon found an established place in the South American comics world, first with a strip for the newspaper El Dia, then working with Hector German Oesterheld on Kabul de Bengala, and then on a run of the feature Nippur as part of a number of gigs for the Argentinian publisher Columba. During this period, basically the heart of the 1970s, Barreto would travel once a month to Buenos Aires to deliver artwork and pick up scripts.
After a few inking gigs from Marvel in the late 1970s (including the Battlestar Galactica and Jack Of Hearts properties), Barreto began a lengthy and fruitful relationship with DC Comics. He would become known primarily for his work on the Teen Titans franchise, because of a lengthy stint on the serial comic book, but also made strong comics featuring the Batman, Superman and Martian Manhunter characters. Some of the biographical material indicates that when Barreto was initially seeking and doing North American comics work, he and his family had moved to the Phoenix area. They would later return to Uruguay, where Barreto once joked he was closer to Manhattan. The artist also provided work for a series of stand-alone Superman-related graphic novel efforts at a point where the publisher was seeking to supplement its monthly comics with one-shots and longer comics spotlight a specific character or promising storyline. The 1989 effort Lex Luthor: The Unauthorized Biography was probably the most high-profile of this assignments; Barreto also did the art on Speeding Bullets (1993) and Under A Yellow Sun (1994).
Barreto provided work for Archie, Big Entertainment, IDW, Boom!, Crossgen, Claypool, Dark Horse and once more for Marvel with its Marvel Knights line. In one of his stronger stand-alone efforts released in North America, Barreto drew the 2005 western The Long Haul for writer Antony Johnston and Oni Press. On news of his passing, Johnston described Barreto as "an amazing talent, a thorough professional, and a kind, generous artist who possessed a deep love of comics."
The artist took over duties on Judge Parker from longtime artist Harold Ledoux in May 2006. A serious car accident near the beginning of his run left Barreto unable to draw the strip for a period, during which Graham Nolan and John Heebink substituted. When Barreto contracted meningitis in 2010, he found himself unable to handle to arduous task of daily strip making, and the job went to Mike Manley in March of that year. Manley told Comic Riffs how much he appreciated his predecessor's work on the strip. "He was the type of artist who did the hard things well and the great things great -- his dynamic figures and layouts, sexy women, bold blacks and brushwork added a dramatic splash to the often tepid comic page and revitalized the strip." Barreto began to do the Sunday episodes of The Phantom in July of this year. He was also working on an undefined number of projects intended for different publishers, including a mixed-media effort called Schizo.
A final work for DC appeared in September of this year as part of their "Retroactive" promotion, where artists made work in the style of the line as it existed in the 1970s. Barreto worked on their Superman-related effort. That or perhaps an issue of Irredeemable released that same month featuring a cover and then inks over his son Diego's pencils, would have been his last comic book assignments.
Barreto is survived a son, Diego, and daughter, Andrea, both of whom have worked in comics.
The top comics-related news stories from December 10 to December 16, 2011:
1. Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat appears via video to accept his share of this year's Sakharov Prize.
2. November 2011 Direct Market numbers are enough to convince analysts that 2011 will be bigger in 2010, reversing a recent downward trend. The New 52 initiative and a Lee Bermejo Batman graphic novel drive DC to another big month. Marvel's gains on DC derided in some corners as numbers stunts.
I thought this a fun and encouraging profile of Martin Rowson, one of those cartoonists whose skill with editorial imagery has seemingly bled into an ability to put together awesome quotation bombs. It's hard to imagine that anyone could come up with a funnier summation of why it's important to make disrespectful cartoons about the rich and powerful than this statement from the piece:
"I find it totally outrageous and disgusting how these people act. All this hierarchy, these hypocrites and parasites, pretending they bear some great wisdom and are somehow better fitted to rule than the rest of us. They deserve anything that I can possibly throw at them."
I'm thinking that even if I were one of those elites, say my name were Lord Drearyton, I'd want to high-five anyone else sitting in the reading room of my club after seeing that in the paper. It's so spot-on and confident.
Rowson's also interesting to read concerning the camaraderie that exists between British cartoonists (and how this wasn't always the case) and why he believes that the freedom of speech defense used to justify the original Danish Muhammad cartoons doesn't hold a lot of water once examined -- that's a stance with which I wholeheartedly agree.
Philly Media Source: Two Tony Auth Cartoons Cut From Inquirer
There's not a lot in the way of details, but a site that seems to cover Philadelphia media reports that two cartoons drawn by Tony Auth were killed by editorial rather than appear in the Philadelphia Inquirer. I can't speak to the post's claim that Auth has been given a notable degree of latitude over the years, but the one cartoon described sounds completely innocuous to me. Because of the lack of information, though, I wouldn't jump to any conclusions.
It Looks Like That Was Recent Ali Ferzat In This Video
The artist Michael Netzer wrote in to give us a rough idea of what Ali Ferzat was saying in this video, posted yesterday on this site and a few days ago on his own. I had guessed from contextual clues that it was recent video, and in fact the video submitted by the artist and gallery owner in accepting the Sakharov Prize from the European Parliament for his role in the Arab Spring protests. It looks like my hunch was correct. Netzer:
In the video you posted, Ferzat first says that he wished he could be with his friends at the awards ceremony and thanks the Sakharov Prize committee for their award of the prestigious prize for freedom to him and his colleagues. He laments the rising number of Syrian martyrs falling and being wounded in every hour, in the effort to gain their freedom. He tells a story about one of his friends who participates every day in the demonstrations, when he asked his friend: "Aren't you afraid you could be killed there?" His friend answered: "Surely I'm aware that I could become martyred at any moment, but maybe you don't know how valuable freedom is. For 50 years I've felt that I've been unable to speak and my voice has been silent. This is the first time I feel my voice is being heard. So, now, at least I'm enjoying some of my rights in this life and it is God who gives us this new freedom." He closed by thanking everyone attending the ceremony and everyone who bestowed this honor on him...
Netzer wrote a second note agreeing with my statement yesterday that Ferzat looks good in this video, which is a relief given how severely he was injured when pro-government Syrian thugs beat him in an attempt to silence his cartoon-making, critical of the current regime.
Go, Read: The Late Christopher Hitchens On Safe Area Gorazde
Here. This is a very minor piece in the oeuvre of the late writer, of course, but like most of Christopher Hitchens' writing it bristles with intelligence and there are a couple of phrases in there that one is immediately jealous of anyone not immersed in the comics world making. Obituary for Mr. Hitchens here. "He could throw words up into the sky, they fell down in a marvellous pattern."
* Chris Butcher makes the smart point that sometimes it's the reaction in the comments thread that gives you insight into an issue about which someone is blogging.
* maybe this will be a great comic, I don't know, but I'm always surprised when comics companies do these initiatives that are supposed to rope in new readers or something similar and the end result just looks like a random comic book from 1996. My hunch as to why the original Batman: Year One series did so well is that it had Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli working on it. Also, Marvel already seems to have origin series galore; they just don't seem very interested in keeping them in print.
* not comics: Alan Gardner links to various predictions that the newspaper business is going to die. Norm Feuti makes a very funny point in the first comment. I think a positive take on the future of the newspaper business can be had from the fact that all of the factors that can be said to make the newspaper business a tumultuous one right now also apply, in greater force, to any of the models that might replace it. This suggests a slower wind-down, or at least it does to me. I also think there's a different picture today than there was in the throes of 2008-2009, even from my most cynical friends in that business, and a lot more anecdotal evidence about newspapers surviving or even thriving now. On the other hand, I'm pretty much Nostradumbass when it comes to any predictions about anything. And I do think it's possible newspapers could go away. There's a kind of ingrained corporate expectation that newspapers make a certain level of profit I don't think they'll ever make again, which is going to make it really hard for a lot of newspapers to make necessary adjustments quickly enough to find whatever new level of advertising revenue may be available to them. I also think if you take the basic exercise of "how would I staff a newspaper from the ground up" and compare it to what currently exists town to town, there's such a huge discrepancy in the two models that it's generally worrying. I tend to find these kinds of arguments more convincing than low-grade, on-line triumphalism, which tends to employ a logic so shallow that applying the exact same model on decades past would have seen the elimination of both newspapers and radio around 1952.
* Corey Blake profiles Mimi Pond. John Hogan talks to Larry Gonick. Kristy Valenti talks to Tom Neely -- that one's pretty massive, and full of interesting material; I'd read that one if I only had time for one today.
I'm making a guess here, but I think the above is the video that the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat sent in lieu of being able to attend the formal, physical giving of this year's Sakharov Prize. It's on his web site, and it was only uploaded recently by a Syrian news portal. If it isn't, he accepted with a different video. In the video that he sent, Ferzat was thankful but also expressed grief at the number of his fellow Syrians that have died in this year's unrest. Two of the five Arab Spring figures honred were able to attend in person. The cartoonist and gallery owner became an international story in August when he was assaulted by pro-government thugs who attempted to break his hands for drawing cartoons critical of the current Syrian regime.
I really hope that's a recent video of the cartoonist, as he looks good and sounds strong of voice.
Missed It: IDW Goes Same-Day Digital; Apps Through comiXology
Michael Cavna has the best, most succinct story on IDW's announcement yesterday that they'll be releasing digital efforts the same day as their print comics -- at the same price -- and will be doing some devoted Apps for various line-driven offerings through comiXology. This is a key story for a few reasons. One is that IDW is a major publisher, so everything they do in the digital realm is important. A second is that they have probably been the most aggressive of the major publishers when it comes to making work available through digital means, so these specific moves can be seen as a validation of the strategies involved. A third is IDW was able to make these decisions in a way that kind of walks back earlier strategies and partnerships, and was able to do so without a lot of fuss. That last should give an idea as to how unformed these policies are as of yet, and how much leeway the publishers have in finding their own paths. I expect we're going to see every name publisher with some sort of comprehensive strategy by this time next year, and in terms of publishers with market influence we basically have that right now.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows, Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* Chris Butcher informs that the Comics & Medicine will be held in Toronto in July this year, after stops in Chicago and London in previous iterations. Bunch of information about the show through that link.
* this was a huge year in festivals and conventions. The biggest story for 2011 actually came in 2010: a resolution -- for a few years at least -- of the drama surrounding Comic-Con International and whether or not it will stay in the city of San Diego. Similarly, the biggest story for the year ahead looks like it will have its genesis in an announcement this year: CCI placing its WonderCon in Anaheim in 2012 as its most recent home, San Francisco's Moscone Center, undergoes renovations. Art Spiegelman at Angouleme -- just weeks away -- should be another story worth watching, just in terms of how an American Grand Prix winner is perceived and what that says about the show. Spiegelman has an idiosyncratic and forceful curatorial sense, so I bet his two exhibits will be pretty good. I think we're getting near an almost perfect saturation point on conventions and festivals, at least in North America, according to the rough measuring stick of dreaming up places or seasons that sort of feel like they need conventions. Granted, that's a really rough measurement. I'm also not sure if the Wizard suite of shows is due for a settling-down period, after the excitement of the company taking over so many smaller shows and venues that haven't been paid a lot of attention. I hope to attend a few shows in 2012, starting with my first Emerald City Con in late March. I could happily attend up to 20 shows had I the resources and energy, which is a good place for the convention circuit to be.
* exhibitor registration for the 2012 Chicago Zine Fest has opened.
* PictureBox has restocked their store with materials acquired at the Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival from a dozen days back.
* a bunch of event-related reports have been popping up here and there: here's one on the quiet release of Kolor Klimax, here's one calling our attention to Thursday's New Zealand year-end drink-up and here's Dan Nadel on the Destroy All Monsters opening.
* Jen Vaughn profiles Max de Radiguès' White River Junction-related comic that was named on the Essentials list for the upcoming Angouleme show.
* the BCGF 2011 collective memory has been archived here. If you have links that you haven't send in yet, I'll always take them and be grateful for your effort.
Go, Read: Drew Friedman's Jack Davis-Focused BCGF 2011 Report
The artist Drew Friedman has written up his Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival report with a special focus on the Jack Davis-related stuff he did over the weekend -- Friedman and Gary Groth moderated his spotlight panel, for one. It's a good report in that you get a sense of both Davis at and away from the table, and a peek at the unique programming space. It's a fine report all around, actually. I've said this a couple of times now, but the great thing about a festival arranged in the manner of this one is that a special guest like Jack Davis not only benefits from simply being on hand and signing books and meeting fans, but their reputation is deservedly enhanced by the appreciation that comes from smart people like Friedman paying attention to him and his accomplishments, in many cases sharing that with many of their readers who didn't come within a hundred miles of the show back on December 3. We all had Davis on the mind that weekend, and that's a great thing.
Go, Look: UK Artists Draw For Molly Bruton And Her Broken Arm
Molly Bruton is prolific reviewer Richard Bruton's daughter. She has contributed to several reviews on the UK's kids' comics scene over at the essential Forbidden Planet International blog where her father makes his on-line home. The young lady recently broke her arm -- she's apparently doing fine and is on the mend -- and in response some of the artists whom she's reviewed are contributing art to wish her the best. Here are the pieces by Adam Caldwell and Neil Cameron; over here is the Sarah McIntyre, also show above. I bet this link bookmarked would take you to any more that are added as they're added.
You don't see a lot of lists like this one, and there are probably only a half-dozen people able to put something like this together from the reading end, so Robert Kirby's list of self-published and handmade comics is a very welcome thing. It's all linked up, too, for your further exploration.
* this interview of Shaun Tan by Paul Gravett is about as good as you'd expect given the participants. It's always interesting to me to read an interview with a comics-maker where the interviewer and not the comics-maker is the one more comfortable with the ideas and nature of the comics medium.
* Ben Morse talks about a period where he basically left comics behind. That's a pretty common circumstance in the history of a lot of fans -- I had one, at what age I couldn't tell you but because I'm a nerd I remember that it spanned X-Men #103-125. I still maintain that for the hardcore readership that being forced from the hobby entirely is just as common a reaction as transforming one's reading in a certain direction.
* there's been a bunch of brief, off-hand commentary from comics folks about Louis CK's selling of a comedy show using a direct-via-online-methods model, but Gary Tyrrell probably digs into it best in terms of what it might mean for people hoping to fund art through the Internet in the future. What's interesting to me is that both the comedian and Tyrrell are up front about the show not yielding as much as having it sponsored would have, but suggest that this may not be a bad thing depending on one's orientation towards the work. There are no easy answers in something like this, but it definitely needs to be tracked -- in almost every conceivable case it would seem that the more options art has when it comes to being funded, the better off that art form will be.
Baran was Tintin creator Hergé's private secretary and was the point man for the initial discussion 30 years ago about Stephen Spielberg adapting the kids comic classic to film. He's very enthusiastic about the film, making the point that of all people Hergé -- who didn't want the comics to continue without him -- knew full well that liberties in terms of tone and approach would be made by anyone adapting the work to another medium.
Missed It: Jeff Stahler Resigned From Columbus Dispatch On Friday
The cartoonist Jeff Stahler resigned from his position at the Columbus Dispatch on Friday, according to reports gathered over at Daily Cartoonist. Stahler had been accused of plagiarism including using an idea from a New Yorker cartoon; he resigned in the middle of a suspension from the newspaper so that they could investigate the charges.
I'm relatively sympathetic to ideas being occasionally re-used, at least in terms of acknowledging it can happen. My own experience coming up with a daily gag was that I found it tremendously difficult to discern what I was figuring out on my own and what I might have seen elsewhere, a gag or notion that might have settled into the back of my brain. I'm less sympathetic to incidents of tracing because of the extended deliberateness of that act, and I'm similarly discouraged by reports in this case of potential multiple incidents of gag swiping. We do live in gag-happy times. If you've ever tried to make a joke about a current news story, it's probably already been made by someone on Twitter -- try it; it's depressing. Still, the paper's concern is a very real one, particularly if there were several incidents, and I think an investigation was more than warranted. I'm unclear as to any possible motivation in quitting during the middle of something like that.
Sam Adams has a nice interview up with the great Jack Davis. A bunch of stuff jumps out at me about the piece: Davis' reluctance to repeat stories he's told several times over, the kind way he speaks of Harvey Kurtzman, the cartoonist's clear delight in the new book, what illustration he considers his favorite (it's the one above) and how relatively kind and effused with praise the comments section is. I'm happy that people are not only enjoying the new book but reconsidering Davis' place in the constellation of 20th Century cartoonists. Since Groth's apparently massive interview for the biographical piece in the volume was plowed back into the writing in a way that makes me think we won't see the transcript-based text for a long while, all the outside interviews with the artist should be treasured.
Mario Miranda, the longtime, popular cartoonist at The Illustrated Weekly Of India and in the Times Of India newspapers who also published in MAD and Punch, passed away on December 11 at his home. He apparently died of natural causes. Miranda was 85 years old.
Mario Joao Carlos do Rosario de Britto Miranda was born in the western India coast city of Daman to Catholic parents in 1926. He remained a lifelong member of the Goa community of Indian nationals living in the former Portuguese colony, and became a frequent chronicler of their way of life. Like many cartoonists, Miranda was a child artist: drawing at home in a book of blank pages given to him by a supportive parent, drawing figures at school in a way that got him into trouble, selling custom art to friends. Miranda studied at the St. Joseph's Boys' High School in Bangalore and then received a history degree from St. Xavier's in Mumbai. He had originally been pushed towards architecture, but ended up taking a first job in an advertising studio. He would stay there for four years.
While still at the studio, Miranda published his first work with The Illustrated Weekly Of India and also placed cartoons and illustration with The Times Of India. He later expanded his freelance market to Femina and Economic Times. An international scholarship allowed the artist to work in Portugal and then London, where he spent a total of five years. While in England he worked on television animation in addition to finding jobs with newspapers. He subsequently met Ronald Searle, a major influence on his adult work.
Returning from England, Miranda joined RK Laxman as a staff cartoonist at the Times Of India. He married artist Habiba Hyderi, with whom he eventually had two sons. A trip to North America made possible by the United States Information Services allowed Miranda a chance to promote his work to international clients and to meet such cartooning luminaries as Charles Schulz and Herb Block. Miranda's work remained consistently focused on the life of similar Catholics in Western India, although he did a wide variety of portraiture and humorous cartooning as well.
Among book illustration gigs featuring other authors were Inside Goa (Manohar Malgonkar), A Family In Goa and The Open Eyes (both by Dom Moraes). His own books included Goa With Love, Germany In Wintertime and Impression of Paris. A museum was devoted to the display of his original works; I believe the same group runs this elegant web site.
Miranda's art was exhibited in multiple countries on four continents. He won several civilian awards: the Padma Schri in 1988, the Padma Bhushan in 2002 and a lifetime achievement award from the All India Cartoonists's Association in Bangalore. Miranda was a prolific mural maker, a late-in-life painter and an illustrator of several children's books. He spent his retirement still placing freelance work wherever he could, and doing as much travel as possible.
As per his request, the cartoonist's body was cremated Monday after a memorial service.
This Isn't A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
SEP110754 SIGH HC $10.95 MAR110858 SECRET HISTORY BOOK 17 (MR) $5.95 JUL110825 A TALE OF SAND HC $29.95 JUL110835 STORYTELLER HC $19.95
I'm guessing this is the single best week in the history of Archaia in terms of what's hitting stores, and I'm not saying that to be funny. They're doing a Marjane Satrapi hardcover, which seems to me a great last-minute stocking stuffer and I have no idea what it's about. They're releasing the latest issue of Secret History, the daffy, gods-among-men maxi series that I'm very fond of reading, and they're releasing not one but two of their nicely-packaged Jim Henson-related projects, including the comics adaptation of an unproduced screenplay that's received a certain amount of press attention.
SEP110423 NIGHTLY NEWS ANNIVERSARY ED HC $34.99 OCT110470 RED WING TP $14.99
Two books from the independent comics career of well-regarded mainstream comics writer Jonathan Hickman.
OCT110517 WALKING DEAD NOVEL HC DLX SLIPCASE ED (MR) $74.99 OCT110518 WALKING DEAD NOVEL HC DLX SLIPCASE S/N LTD ED (MR) $124.99 OCT110502 WALKING DEAD TP VOL 15 (MR) $14.99
The latest in Walking Dead related offerings, including two for gifting. A lot of what Robert Kirkman and his artist partners have been able to accomplish with the title is based on the concept and the crossover television show, of course, but you can't really overlook what being so consistent with the series' production has allowed them to do in terms of having material on hand.
OCT110022 BALTIMORE CURSE BELLS #5 $3.50 OCT110601 AVENGERS 1959 #4 (OF 5) $2.99 OCT110691 MAGNETO NOT A HERO #2 (OF 4) $2.99 OCT110940 ROGER LANGRIDGES SNARKED #3 $3.99
This week's comic book series of potential interest. The Chaykin Avengers thing is the sort of book that because it has "Avengers" in the title most people believe will be collected, while another group even more cynically believes that copies might be available for $1 a pop six months from now. (I won't tell you what group I'm in.) Still, I'm dying to look at it, and I forgot to when I was in New York and near comics shops. I throw the Magneto book in there because the title cracks me up. I'm all for any comic that suggest the reader's primary interaction with it will be disappointment.
OCT111120 SAME DIFFERENCE SPECIAL ED HC $16.99 JUL111062 ITS A GOOD LIFE IF YOU DONT WEAKEN TP (O/A) (MR) $24.95
Two fine re-release, although it's only the Derek Kirk Kim that's a new edition. Same Difference is so appealing it's hard to believe that everyone that might like it doesn't already have the book, but they wouldn't be doing a new edition if everyone felt like me.
AUG110053 FLASH GORDON COMIC BOOK ARCHIVES HC VOL 05 $49.99 JAN110419 ABSOLUTE PROMETHEA HC VOL 03 $99.99 AUG110254 TALES OF THE BATMAN DON NEWTON HC VOL 01 $39.99 SEP110344 CHUCK JONES DREAM THAT NEVER WAS HC $49.99 SEP110274 ROCKETEER ADVENTURES HC VOL 01 DM EX ED $24.99 SEP111178 MISS DONT TOUCH ME SET VOL 1-2 $27.99 AUG111394 DILBERT HOWS THAT UNDERLING THING WORKING TP $12.99
Here's a big chunk of the gift-style books (I include the latest Dilbert book in this grouping, maybe counter to how most people consume it) available this week. I love the fact that we're getting a Don Newton collection of Batman, although I have very little desire to own that book. I'm most intrigued by how they get that many pages (250+!) out of Chuck Jones' failed Crawford strip. It's from Library Of American Comics, so the supplementary people should be compelling.
SEP111288 HOUSE OF FIVE LEAVES TP VOL 05 $12.99 SEP111289 NAOKI URASAWA 20TH CENTURY BOYS GN VOL 18 $12.99 SEP111269 NATSUMES BOOK OF FRIENDS TP VOL 10 $9.99 SEP111263 NO LONGER HUMAN VOL 02 $10.95 SEP111277 SLAM DUNK GN VOL 19 $9.99 OCT111270 TEZUKAS PRINCESS KNIGHT GN VOL 02 $13.95
Great, great week for manga volumes of interest, ranging from Tezuka to Inoue to Ono. If you could only buy one, I'd get the Tezuka. If you needed to drop one, it'd probably be the Slam Dunk volume. But they're all worth a look.
SEP111098 500 PORTRAITS HC $22.99
Finally, an event on any week it was released, and one of the few that doesn't seem like it's being put out before Christmas on purpose: an art book featuring Tony Millionaire's portraiture. If this one works, they need to do a book of his house drawings.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
NJ Politicians Blast Thomas Nast Hall Of Fame Nomination
There's a bit of stuff on the wires this morning about a pair of New Jersey assemblymen seeking to bar Thomas Nast from inclusion in some sort of state Hall Of Fame because of his anti-Irish Catholic illustrations. I think it's a fine thing to discuss. I've always personally believed that people can achieve greatness and in the course of doing so make some distressing art, but when you're talking about something completely made-up like a hall of fame, I feel the folks involved should be allowed to apply any standard they want, and people that aren't should be allowed to suggest different standards if they want. Why not? It's all an exercise in values. I also have to admit that my personal prejudices are such that the politician that chose to describe Nast's work as "so-called" art gets a nomination for my own Hall Of Fame, the Hall Of People That Say Stupid Things. I mean, some of that work is troubling, and depending on the standards this is the kind of thing that may indeed disqualify someone from entry into a hall of fame. It's clearly art, though, born of craft and specific intent. In fact, it's because it's art that it still holds the power to disturb.
I honestly have no idea if Nast's drawing table yielded the occasional anti-Irish illustration because of a laser beam hatred for Tammany Hall politics, or if he dipped into the larger anti-Irish and anti-Catholic zeitgeist of his time. I look forward to finding out.
* Charles Yoakum on the recent Jason Pearson-inspired look at the loss of craft-related gigs in mainstream comics. Yoakum points out that it is indeed nuts for all this money to be made based on things done in comics and for a general response to be for companies to choke a few nickels and dimes out of comics for short-term margin sheet games.
* over at the group blog Robot 6, Sean T. Collins recommends Eleanor Davis' sketch blog and Brigid Alverson recommends a look at Rich Tommaso's kickstarter campaign for his first Sam Hill book. I approve of both recommendations.
* here's a few bits of good news if you're a DC fan. A launch of four debut series from Vertigo, would seem to knowingly recall the New 52 launch and makes proper use of the company's still under-appreciated inducement arrangements with their DM retail partners. Their mini-series strategy looks like it will be a place where fan favorite properties and creators might cluster, and I think that company has an interest in keeping that audience happy with new works -- if nothing else, they want to keep them as an audience for collected and archival works. This interview with John Rood is sort of interesting for some of its potential reveals of mindset. For example, I always get the impression there's a significant element at DC that sort of resents the $2.99 price commitment despite the fact it's probably a huge factor in their favor right now. I have to say once again, though, that the lack of frank talk about numbers remains frustrating. Without numbers, the characterizations of those numbers are worthless except maybe as used to facilitate really, really broad comparative analysis.
* Augie De Blieck, Jr. suggests that mainstream comics companies stop giving away free copies of book to those contributing and instead pay them extra so they can get digital copies. Not sure I'm following, but I have to offer a tip of the hat to anyone that puts extra thought into comp copies.
* there were a couple of pieces of analysis on November's sales number that were much better than anything I had to offer yesterday. Kevin Melrose points out just how inflated the numbers were for some of Marvel's top sellers. This is actually a pretty standard play on Marvel's part -- when you're bleeding in the short term you do short-term things in order to bolster your rankings, sales and dollar numbers. I continue to think they're in a bit of trouble, though, because while I like their current strategy of throwing the spotlight on specific, easily accessible storylines in its franchise titles, I'm not sure they have enough of those kinds of titles to anchor the line. In other words, I can see how "X-Men Vs. Avengers" might work for them, but it also takes the X-Men and the Avengers sort of off the table for a bit for other focused story-lines. The second piece of analysis I liked was also bad news for Marvel: a hideous drop on a Fear Itself spin-off series that Graeme McMillan points out takes place in the same month.
* I'm sort of fascinated by this discussion of digital led by Brian Hibbs at his Savage Critics site. For one thing, I don't know how Hibbs can state with a straight face that bookstore distribution hasn't changed the game. I believe it has for DC, and I believe it really has for the smaller companies. When Fantagraphics depended on DM distribution, we had dire, scary meetings about the company's future. When Joe Sacco made comics first for the DM, he deeply considered leaving comics altogether. Neither horrible outcome ended up taking place (although a bunch of people were fired from Fantagraphics back then), but neither is an issue since bookstore distribution and the opportunities that came with it kicked in. Hibbs also uses that weird, anecdotal math he likes where his store's numbers are asserted as some sort of sample of the Direct Market where because Comix Experience sold X copies in Y window, the companies and creators are somehow leaving money on the table by not making this happen across the DM, I guess by really wishing it were so. It's silly: no matter how well Hibbs did with Eightball as compared to Wilson, that just isn't the same as proving that Dan Clowes or D+Q would benefit in similar fashion were they to return to the strategy that Hibbs preferred. The reality is that the numbers for the industry entire suggest a market-wide rejection of even the best alt-comics, a rejection that started twenty years ago and intensified about ten years after that. Most comics companies aren't run by corporate veeps and mogul wannabes that are trying to make a name for themselves backing the latest, cool initiative: they're run by hardcore comics people desperate to stay in business. If the math really worked the way Hibbs asserts, it seems likely someone in alt-comics would have taken advantage and be killing it right now with the older model. The thing is, all those guys are pro-comic book shop, and so are most of the mainstream folks in key positions. It's only a few, strident dopes that ever proclaimed that the DM should be left behind in favor of doubling down on bookstores; it's a similarly dopey few that are digital publishing absolutists. Anyway, it's difficult to launch into a discussion of digital with that extended bit of weirdness as a lead-in. That's a shame, because I really am super-sympathetic to the idea that the mainstream companies in particular are entering into their digital era after a period of abusing and exploiting their print markets in a lot of ways, and that this is one of many factors that may make for bad decisions when it comes to things like comparative price points.
The CBLDF On Why A School Library Shouldn't Remove The Ariel Schrag-Edited Book Stuck In The Middle
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund joined the American Library Association's Office For Intellectual Freedom last night in asking the book allowed to stay on the shelves of a junior/senior high school library in library; their letter is presented in this thorough post on the CBLDF site. Any school that has time to worry about some swears and naughty behavior in a book on the library shelves has to be one awesomely-run school.
The comics business news and analysis site ICv2.com has offered up their usual array of lists, estimates and analysis regarding the performance of comic books and graphic novels in the Direct Market of comic and hobby shops, this time for November 2011.
I'm an amateur when it comes to staring at sales estimates and making shoe-banged-on-the-podium arguments about what it all means; I'm not sure those are admirable skills even if you do have them. It does sort of look like the market is beginning to return to earlier structures. Marvel has nine books in the top twenty-five comic books and Miller says more comic books in the top 300. The overall market share charts that last month probably caused Marvel executives to see if they could fire a few more people are competitive once again. DC is indeed continuing to outpace Marvel at the top end with the best-received of its relaunched titles. If you get to about comic #25 you still look at the sales level and go, "Huh." Well, at least I do -- 58,000 for a strong-selling comic book doesn't seem like a ton of books to me.
DC's strength with trades sees the Lee Bermejo Batman book Noel do well. There's a big difference between being able to report "DC also wins..." as opposed to "DC's sole bright spot..." I would think. Anyway, I find that cover super-odd, but that Joker book Bermejo drew that came out the summer of the last Batman movie sold I think ten kabillion copies.
In the PR he sent out alerting folks to his sales analysis, Miller suggests that the dollar boost in trade paperbacks remains a mystery: "I can't quite find where the dollar boost came from in TPBs this month -- units remained the same -- so either there are some big ticket items moving in the long tail, or, more likely, there's some promotion with heavy discounts on hardcovers -- that would show up in the dollars, but not in units..."
* there was a pretty big item of mainstream comics-related publishing news last week, in the form of word that the writer Brian Bendis is ending his close association with Marvel's Avengers franchise. Bendis confirmed his A-list mainstream comics writing status on an extended, relaunch-heavy run that brought Wolverine and Spider-Man into the fold and served as the anchor for the company's various, successful, mid-decade mini-series. Pay attention to anyone new that might settle into some of those titles for more than a few issues as a potential next major Marvel guy, although for some reason I bet they let those books settle into a number of hands for a while.
* this nice person asked me to pay some link attention to their Kickstarter campaign. And so I have.
* another mainstream comics note of interest: Joe Harris in, Gail Simone out on the Firestorm property. Simone leaving the title was rumored from almost the exact second the first issue of that relaunched title hit. I couldn't possibly tell you why that is, or even if the rumors preceded actual movement in that direction.
* if you're only going to read one linked-to article today, you should make it Patrick Rosenkranz's survey article focused on a small set of excellent comic book shops. The main idea that gets floated is that with people now comfortable with a casually predatory orientation towards buying retail -- seriously, anyone that openly scans in an item at a bookstore to buy it from Amazon later on in a way that the bookstore staff can see you, that person, yikes -- you need to carry material and inducements for going to the shop that aren't things that can be copied by those bigger, price-cutting sources. That makes sense to me.
* Gabby Gamboa pens a scene report on San Francisco for Frank Santoro recurring series on various comics scenes.
* Rob Tornoe takes a look at the cartooning plagiarism scandals hitting newspapers this Fall.
Susie Cagle In "Gray Area Waiting Stage" Regarding Charges
Susie Cagle has penned a story for her father Daryl Cagle's popular blog that she has not received official notification that charges she received in the course of covering the Oakland Occupy events have been dropped, and instead just received word from a public information officer that the misdemeanor would not be pursued. She has not received verbal confirmation, either, on the matter, so does not consider it as closed as was suggested here and in other comics-related web sites. CR regrets any misleading information that gets propagated through the site.
The source of the information used was apparently an e-mail Cagle sent to Mediabistro's Fishbowl LA, an e-mail she says in this morning's piece was selectively quoted.
Your 2011 Le Festival De BD De Turnhout Prize Winners
The French-language industry news clearinghouse ActuaBD.com listed the winners of prizes from the festival in Turnhout this weekend. That post, which is basically an extended show report complete with photos, is here.
L'Adhémar de Bronze Steven Dupré
(prize includes 12,500 Euros)
Prix de la Communauté flamande Merho
(prize includes 20,000 Euros)
I'm not all the way certain how the top two are differentiated, but the award named after Willy Vandersteen is for younger comics-makers. As always, I remain a fan of massive cash prizes for cartoonists.
Go, Read: Gerry Alanguilan On The Decline In Comics Inking
Gerry Alanguilan talks about a future for comic books that requires fewer and fewer people doing craft work that was once necessary for production and cost-efficient besides. He has some practical advice for his fellow artists. It's all very melancholy to be talking so frankly about this kind of stuff, and I have more contempt for the degree to which people will strive to save money by whatever means necessary than I think Alanguilan may be, but it's good to have the conversation. One of the reasons it is so very important for creators to secure proper compensation for what they do is that opportunities are much more rare than an artist of any kind will typically allow themselves to believe.
It completely missed my attention that Don Markstein, who created the Toonopedia site, has been ailing this year. I link to that site quite a bit in terms of its character histories, and my encounters with Mr. Markstein have all been pleasant ones. I'm going to write him a letter today. If you're a fan of that site or have used it before -- it's one of the comics Internet classics -- maybe please consider doing the same.
* so I guess there's another round of Watchmen prequel rumors out there. I don't really have any opinion on that, other than I'm not at all interested in seeing what results. Artists I'm not interested in means they'll make art I'm not interested in; artists I'm interested in I'd rather see them doing their own stuff. I never in my entire life thought about Watchmen and had a desire for seeing more of those characters or that world, let alone versions not involving Alan Moore. I guess I can just remain glad they never made a tone-deaf movie adaptation featuring Rorshach doing spinning kung fu... wait. Shit.
* seriously, though, wouldn't a company like DC be better off just investing in their top talent in a way that gave them a shot at another cash cow like that? Like one prestige series slot a year they developed with care and promoted with fervor? It feel broken and cynical more than usual in comics this holiday.
* the writer Paul Tobin is doing another one of his site series about various favorite things, this time about favorite female characters like Mary Jane Watson and Scarlet Witch. Those are almost always entertaining.
* a few folks sent me a link to this squabble between a mainstream comics writer and a mainstream comics editor over a crack regarding sales numbers. It feels very CompuServe circa 1994 to me. I guess it's refreshing now that I no longer spend time on message boards to see that grown men will still argue things like "all I posted was the fact; it wasn't a criticism" and "you never refuted the fact" with a straight face. The value system suggested is sort of interesting, too -- one of the intriguing things about editing a bunch of Journal interviews from the 1970s like I once did was how seriously some of the mainstream guys took numbers as the last word on so many things, despite what would seem massive contextual evidence that might not make whatever point they favor as clear as they'd like it to be.
1. The Death-Ray
2. Forming Vol 1
3. Love & Rockets Vol 4
4. Darkies Mob
5. Sensitive Creatures
2. Finder: Voice
3. Night Animals
4. Zombo: The Day the Zombo Died
5. Oglaf Book One
I apologize if yours didn't make it. I asked for a specific format, and if more than 1/2 of your list deviated, I automatically deleted it in the course of compilation. It wasn't personal, I didn't even look at the names as I did it. I hope that you'll continue to participate.
The top comics-related news stories from December 2 to December 9, 2011:
1. November 2011 sales were enough to ensure that 2011 will see an improvement in DM sales over 2010, the first increase in a couple of years. This brings to mind any number of related stories, including but not limited to 1) the overall shot in the arm DC's relaunch gave those retailers, 2) how bad things were in the first half of the year that a reversal seems a surprise, given that 9 of the last 11 years saw sales go up and 3) how some of the chaotic cuts at the biggest companies the last couple of years could be seen as corporate maneuvering over a plan for long-term health, as it's flat-out weird to drastically cut the biggest players in an industry showing improvement.
2. Charges were dropped against Susie Cagle, who was arrested while covering the Oakland venue of the Occupy movement as a credential reporter.
3. The Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival ends the convention/festival year spiritually if not literally. The show seems to be aging well so far, with a ton of folks in attendance and special guests ranging from Jack Davis to Lisa Hanawalt.
Quote Of The Week
"I was dressed pretty generic adult-prep at the event -- white button-down oxford, black sweater, tobacco khakis -- and was kinda stunned to find out that all the sartorial stereotypes about Williamsburg hipster guys were true: the trucker hats, wild facial hair, chunky eyeglasses, flannels, skintight jeans, Converse, etc. I had assumed this stuff was an exaggeration, but it was a veritable uniform for the men at the festival and in the neighborhood." -- Gil Roth
today's cover is from the great comic book series Four-Color
John Jackson Miller's 1st Look At November Says 2011 = Growth Year
Here. This would be the ninth year in the last eleven where the market grew. It always makes me suspicious when mainstream companies makes severe cutbacks as both Marvel and DC have over the last 24 months when the market has shown general growth over a long period of time.
Daily Cartoonist: Charges Dropped Against Susie Cagle
Alan Gardner has a fine write-up post on charges being dropped against journalist and cartoonist Susie Cagle for her assembly-related supposed crimes in relation to the Occupy movement's doings in Oakland. I think the frustration people feel isn't some sort of alarmist, thump-the-podium rhetoric about the awfulness that a credentialed reporter would get arrested in the first place but more of a low groan that it took this much fuss to have the charges dropped when that should have been the result just as soon as everyone was thinking more clearly.
I got an interesting e-mail from someone that didn't wish it published or to receive attribution, where they expressed something odd I hadn't thought of before and not sure I agree with at all -- that a takeaway from this could be that Cagle's case received more attention than other because it fit more traditional narratives. We understand the essential wrongness of a credentialed reporter being interrupted in their work far more, perhaps, than we understand what other actors are doing on the ground with the Occupy folks. I don't think that's a criticism, either, although I guess you could process it that way. It's just sort of worth noting, plus it also makes it a little more worrisome that dismissing the charges immediately or simply not arresting Cagle wasn't the outcome.
* Sandra and John of Metaphrog have penned a nice "year in the life" post for the FPI blog. Speaking of that site, they've begun their Best Of 2011 recurring feature, which I think is a nicely executed one and can be bookmarked here.
* speaking of things definitely not fan art, not comics but all Tolkien: I had no idea the last couple of official calendars featured paintings by Cor Blok. This would have freaked me out when I was a little kid and wanted my Tolkien art all "realistic" and, as I recall, slightly orange, but those are some pretty cool images if you're in a mall shop somewhere and get the chance to take a peek. Here's an interview about the 2011 edition.
* Johanna Draper Carlson uses the springboard of Top Shelf's recent digital comics announcements to pursue a question about reader preference. I would imagine that the answers are along the lines of "nobody really knows yet" and "it's not all that difficult to do multiple avenues," but I'm working out of my depth on that stuff.
Drawn And Quarterly To Publish Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season
Drawn & Quarterly Creative Director and Acquiring Editor Tom Devlin announced today that his company has acquired rights to Gilbert Hernandez's Marble Season graphic novel, a work described as semi-autobiographical. The work will be released in Fall 2012. D+Q also announced that Hernandez will tour in support of the work, the distribution will be handled by their partners FSG (USA) and Raincoast Books (Canada) and international rights will be represented by Samantha Haywood at Transatlantic Literary Agency.
The work will be set in the suburban southern California of the early 1960s, the milieu in which the award-winning cartoonist was raised.
Seriously, almost no one e-mails this site these kinds of links anymore; I get about one or two from random people, and maybe a dozen from the organizer of a specific show, but that's about it. It would be really helpful for this one if you did, and it's always super-, super-appreciated.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows, Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* I missed this twopart review of the Leeds Thought Bubble Festival from the reliable, prolific Richard Bruton. I missed most of the UK festival stuff this year, actually. I will endeavor to do better in 2012.
* if you're a convention organizer, a fan of a specific show or someone with 20 minutes to blow before the office gift-exchange, you might want to take a look at next year's initial listing of show dates to see what hasn't made the list yet. All help is always appreciated. Most long-range listing works pretty okay in comics, with the exception of Wizard shows, which I may not list until week-of after various instances of uncertainty this year.
* speaking of that general endeavor, is there a good site out there for a basic listing of European comics festivals?
* WonderCon announced more guests this morning. You'll have to poke around for a link to the PR. I have the e-mail right now but can't find anyone that's posted the PR itself, not this early. Newly announced are Jim Lee, Mark Waid, Marv Wolfman, Arthur Adams, Ernest Cline, Joe Hill, Richard Kadrey and Richard Starkings.
* finally, Charles Hatfield sent along a couple of posts related to the comics programming at the MLA Annual Conference in Seattle in early January: this "Sessions In Brief" post, and this post about other comics-studies related events. It sounds like a very good time.
* Marvel is apparently thinking of offering $5 off in a funnybook store to readers that spend 99 cents on some digital stuff. As has been the case with most of these efforts lately, I'm partly glad that people are trying new models, and partly impatient for the major players to settle into a general set of strategies so that we can continue to move forward.
* I didn't track that Dark Horse clarification of digital pricing strategy story very well. I guess what happened is that retailers complained -- one, or perhaps a few (depending on who's saying) openly -- about the idea of the Oregon-based publisher offering digital comics at less than the price of the print comics, and that this then led to the clarification, which wasn't as much a clarification as an attempt to do some damage control and to adjust the policy in the direction the brick and mortar retailers tend to demand. Brian Wood has a nice summary post here, including a bunch of thoughts of his own. I'm sort of distressed about the picture Brian paints of everyone bleeding, because it seems to me that at the end of the year the number guys are predicting sales roughly on par with last year. This makes me suspect that we may have finally made the shift from a system where if the sales go down the profits go down to a system that no matter what happens the profits must go up, even if the powers that be have to cut the shit out of someone else's piece of the pie to ensure the sanctity of their own. Why the hell are we so frequently talking about drastic reductions and sacrifices in a year where the sales look like they'll be roughly the same, merchandising and licensing revenues continue to surge and whole classes of comics are doing better than ever? The austerity on display doesn't match the reality of the situation.
The Library Of American Comics To Tackle Complete Skippy
IDW Publishing and its imprint the Library of American Comics have announced their latest hardcover series of comic strip archives: The Complete Skippy by Percy Crosby. A first volume, to be released Summer 2012, will run the dailies from 1925 to 1927.
Dean Mullaney and Jared Gardner are co-editing, with Gardner contributing a biography of the cartoonist that will run across several volumes.
This is the first systematic collection of the material. Crosby debuted the feature in Life and then moved to a successful syndication run until his involvement ended in 1945. It was one of the first great kid strips; to many eyes the first. A film adaptation won an Academy Award. The Crosby estate will participate in the person of Joan Crosby Tibbetts, a decades-long crusader on behalf of her father's name and legacy.
This Isn't A Library: New And Notable Releases To The Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
AUG111426 RED RASCALS WAR DOONESBURY COLL TP $19.99
As much as I've kidded some of the recent Andrews McMeel books for their less-than-inspired art direction, I thought this book and its slightly confrontational covers was pretty nice-looking. It's also worth checking out if you're in a store -- you may not be familiar with the title character at all, meaning this could be a way to access later Doonesbury in a way that the continuing adventures of Zonker, say, might not allow.
SEP110691 GLAMOURPUSS #22 $3.00
Twenty-two issues! There's no publication like it, and what's interesting to me is that I think it would have the same audience even if it were published in a milieu where tons of indy-type, creator-driven comics and publications came out every week.
OCT110288 IZOMBIE #20 (MR) $2.99
I also noticed the issue #20 on this one. Did it end up being good? I'm always a bit confused when it comes to book that receive a lot of attention in for the first pair of issues or so, and then you stop hearing about them.
AUG110250 JACK KIRBYS FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS TP VOL 01 $39.99 MAY110258 WATCHMEN THE ABSOLUTE EDITION HC NEW PTG $99.99 OCT110450 CHEW OMNIVORE ED HC VOL 02 (MR) $34.99 SEP110401 GIRLS COMPLETE COLLECTION TP (MR) $49.99 SEP111015 GUTTERS ABSOLUTE COMPLETE OMNIBUS VOL 01 $39.95 JUL110710 ART OF SPIDER-MAN CLASSIC HC $49.99 OCT110741 X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST TP NEW PTG $19.99 SEP111179 P CRAIG RUSSELL LIBRARY OF OPERA BOX SET VOL 1-3 $44.99
Here are the week's gifty-type comics, including two smartly-timed releases from Image. I wonder after the Days Of Future Past work now, which seems to me to have benefit for how it subverted the drama of the regular storyline. When we talk about stand-alone works, we focus on plot details more than we do how that work was presented in terms of theme and tone.
OCT110587 DEFENDERS #1 $3.99
This is the new Matt Fraction-written superhero title, which looks to be sort of a team-up of all the characters that don't have a high priority with Marvel right now. I get it, although I think of characters like Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange and Iron Fist more as the kind of characters that might do better in ongoings, only that's just not in the cards right now.
OCT110659 THOR DEVIANTS SAGA #2 (OF 5) $3.99
I never understand mini-series on top of ongoings, or at least I don't understand them right now. You get a bit of a market share bump, I guess, but the idea of a mini-series running the same time as an ongoing would suggest a greater general strength to the audience than seems to exist.
AUG110922 I THOUGHT YOU WOULD BE FUNNIER HC (MR) $17.99
I thought this was already out -- and I just might be right -- but in case it doesn't ring a bell this is gag work from Shannon Wheeler.
OCT110751 INDIE COMICS MAGAZINE #4 (MR) $6.49
I can hardly wait for Komiks Reporrter.
OCT110760 SKYSCRAPERS O/T MIDWEST HC (O/A) (MR) $19.95
This is a lovely major first effort-type comic book, by Josh Cotter.
JUN111145 JOHNNY HAZARD DAILIES HC VOL 01 1944-1946 $49.99
I have no idea if this has been out before. In fact, I'm not even sure who's out there to buy Johnny Hazard collections for $50 a pop. But I guess it happens, because there it is.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
Jeff Stahler Suspended To Allow Plagiarism Investigation
Steve Myers at Poynter.org probably has the best summary story on the Columbus Dispatch suspending its cartoonist Jeff Stahler in light of general accusations that the cartoonist is swiping ideas from New Yorker gags. Unlike wholesale copying, which seems to me a slam dunk when it's discovered and an obvious, deliberate no-no, the idea of someone using someone else's gag concepts is a much more slippery thing. Unlike copying, cartoonists can stumble onto the same gag, or series of gags, as another cartoonist or cartoonists without doing anything dubious at all. We live in a world where for every subject that raises its head a thousand different tweeters and bloggers share commentary. On the other hand, it's good to see a newspaper take these kinds of allegations seriously and confront them with forceful alacrity.
Seriously, almost no one e-mails this site these kinds of links anymore; I get about one or two from random people, and maybe a dozen from the organizer of a specific show, but that's about it. It would be really helpful for this one if you did, and it's always super-, super-appreciated.
The prolific manga creator Shinji Wada, best known for the Sukeban Deka comics and cross-media adaptations of same, died on on July 5. The native of Kure in Hiroshima prefecture, on the southern coast of Japan, died of causes related to ischaemic heart disease.
Wada's first published comics work was Ai To Shi No Sunadokei, which was serialized by Shueisha starting in 1971. Wada had a slightly bigger hit with Waga Tomo Frankenstein for the same publisher starting in 1972, but it was Sukeban Deka with Hakusensha, launched in 1976, that became the career-maker when it hit hard with audiences a couple of years in. It would go on to facilitate a TV series that ran for three years, two live-action films and a smattering of related comics projects.
Other long-running serials for the creator included Asagi Iro No Densetus and Ninja Hisho, the latter of which appeared over more than two decades for a pair of publishers. On his passing, Wada was involved with the series Crown and Kugutsushi Rin. Crown was a collaborative work between Wada and artist You Higuri.
A post at Crunchyroll on Wada's passing suggests that the yo-yo wielding lead character of Sukeban Deka -- an undercover police officer posing as a student -- has worked its way into the realm of pop culture reference.
Chris Pitzer Had Items Stolen In Brooklyn: List + Rewards
The AdHouse Books publisher Chris Pitzer, a great supporter of this site and an all-around upstanding guy, had several items stolen from his car on Saturday night last weekend while he and his wife were in Brooklyn. There's a list and more information here. Please tweet or post that link (not this one; Pitzer's) if you can.
* Jeffrey Renaud comments about the rumors of a Watchmen 2via a takeaway from a recent interview with the artist Darwyn Cooke. I like the idea of Watchmen 2 because it's so wrong in a lot of ways it's sort of compelling, like a lot of what Marvel's done well with their line over the last ten years but much, much bigger and much, much uglier.
* Todd Allen notes that massive numbers of Marvel's Essential imprint -- that's their cheap, tons-of-pages, black and white collection line -- have gone out of print for the holidays. As Allen notes, this is a likely outcome from Marvel's general policy of keeping costs done by not keeping a portion of their trades reliably in print.
* finally, the guys at the webcomic Ace Kilroy sent a very nice e-mail asking that I maybe take notice of their strip and so I have.