On the first morning of FIBD the question arises: Can Comics Reporter's intrepid boy reporter (and his little white dog) capture an image of the most famous cartoonist alive today on planet earth? Yes, yes he can!
Uderzo arrived this morning at FIBD to tour his blockbuster exhibition (queue was about an hour long this morning), give a master class and to have a school named after him (seriously!). His show was thronged while he was in it, but I elbowed hundreds of schoolchildren out of the way to capture these photos of the legendary co-creator of Asterix.
The show itself is a bit of a mixed bag -- a lot of reproductions and limited number of originals, but some of the originals are really key (including the first-ever Asterix page).
Upstairs, the Jano exhibition was really pleasant, including a number of sculptures that he has recently produced, which I really enjoyed. Jano is criminally unknown in the US, which is a shame because he is very talented.
Over at the "new museum" the permanent exhibition has some notes from Jean-C Denis, but is not much changed from recent years. The Baudoin exhibition -- from his book about Salvador Dali -- in the side room is as stunning as you would expect a Baudoin show to be. In the other hall is a show bringing together cartoonists and contemporary French artists that might have been the worst thing I have ever seen at this Festival. Some of the work was just dire.
The best exhibition I've seen so far is the Flemish one, curated by Brecht Evens and featuring cartoonists of his generation. Beautiful, beautiful work on display in a way that really showcases the talent.
Weather has gone from rainy to sunny over the course of the day, and it is much warmer than typical for Angouleme, so that is a good thing. Outside of the Uderzo show the crowds haven't been too bad, but I've also not been to the big tents, so I'm in no position to judge. Midway through the first day, I'd say the show is running better than expectations, which is nice to be able to say.
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Festivals Extra: Comic-Con Pro Registration Rumblings
I was curious about the articles I read here and here about professional registration for San Diego's Comic-Con International, and the tweets I also saw about people's frustrations with the process, some of which made it into the first linked-to article.
Comics culture has this odd but understandable element to it where everything gets processed immediately and through very self-involved mechanisms. I will always remember one convention in particular as the kind of ultimate example of this. At an event where people were being sent home, there was a flurry of "Wow, what an exciting adventure this is" writing from people that either were able to get in or even snuck into the show in some way. This seemed to me at the time to be really ungenerous in terms of what had just gone down. That unnamed show, and people's reactions to other folks' plight, have improved since then. But it's not like myopia is a rare thing for comics. It's no secret that when comics people write about the future of comics, it's almost always through the prism of what they themselves enjoy consuming and perhaps even making. Very few of us see a future of comics without ourselves somehow involved.
Let's be up front that I have a double bias here. Comic-Con International is a longtime CR advertiser, so there's that. I also have no problem registering for that show as a reasonably valuable (to them) member of the press, I think because of our focus on the comics part of the show. So anything I have to say about the way other people react is going to be potentially distorted: I got mine, and more besides. Still, I wanted to check with them on a couple of things, so I exchanged e-mails with their PR point man David Glanzer about what happened, why people got upset. It sounds to me like a case of increased demand and some changes in policy cross-pollinating with a technical failure on that first day to result in some frustrated comics people. My takeaway:
1. Any new hassles in registering are not the result of increased favor to non-comics passes. "We're seeing an increase in all pro categories. So more comics pros and more pros from other fields," Glanzer told CR. This is an important point for Comic-Con, because as comics people -- and they are comics people -- running a comics and media show, they don't want to be inaccurately seen as favoring the media part of their show over the comics part. So the idea that got floated that some studio functionary was going to get a badge at the expense of Joe Comics Pro is something they'd like to see squashed. They are not taking away from the comics side of the guest list and adding to the non-comics side. They're seeing increased demand across the board.
2. They added a category to better facilitate non-creatives, but that new category did not draw any of the number they're placing in the convention center from the more traditional creative professional allotment. Glanzer said the category is called "Trade Pro" and those folks pay for their badges.
3. They don't factor in years you've attended. "This isn't a criterion," Glanzer wrote. I think this is key to know, because I think there's an idea that by attending a show a bunch of times, that show is somehow in a relationship with you that they need to honor. Indeed, some shows function that way, and god bless them. I guess that's fundamentally not the case with Comic-Con, of course. What's ironic, of course, is that many pros complain about fans of their work feeling as if they're owed something for their past patronage.
4. Panel participants are either drawn from the pool of attending pros or are given a pass based on a pool completely different from that of the professional allotment. This is actually a complaint I've heard only a couple of times, but I have heard it: that if you're a pro that isn't appealing to the convention in the way that a big current star might be, the kind invited into programming, you're less likely for that factor alone of being able to contribute to receive professional accreditation. Glanzer assures me this isn't the case.
5. The criteria in general haven't changed. "I'm perplexed by this assumption," Glanzer says.
So things are different only in that Comic-Con has more people than ever in all categories seeing accreditation, and they've altered demands for free guests of professionals from automatic to apply-for status. Pro registration for Comic-Con 2013 remains open, despite claims based on a technical glitch the first day that this had shut down or that people were being asked to wait until 2014. Free passes for guests are gone; paid ones remain a possibility.
It stinks when you can't make cons work the way you want them to. I recently had plans altered because two shows didn't want to fulfill the outer edge of my accreditation requests. It happens. I think Comic-Con is a fun comics show: I get a lot of professional value on it, and I think to a certain extent it's on comics people to make that opportunity work as opposed to kind of grumpily folding our arms and making sure it takes care of us. As I'm sure a ton of people have pointed out, Comic-Con exists as one star in a constellation of really good shows right now. And while those shows may not work exactly as we want them to, either, there are certainly shows that work out more than perfectly for different groups of people. God bless 'em all.
* if you're in France at the big show, you should go say hi to Sarah Glidden. Actually, I put that up a while back. There are a ton of North American cartoonists over there. You should say hi to as many as possible.
* the big news-news of a North American festival variety was a second announcement from TCAF of guests that by itself would be enough to get me to the show, but with the first round seems sort of ridiculous. There's also programming and debut notes/links in there, and it sounds like TCAF is firming up a pretty aggressive satellite-programming schedule for this year and years ahead. One of the exciting things right now is that we not only have good comics shows but good comics shows that have been around long enough to implement majorly intriguing and fun events within their wider umbrellas. TCAF is one of those shows.
* I thought this was interesting: one of the publishers released a convention schedule for the year. Oni Press will go to the following shows:
* Emerald City Comic-Con -- Seattle, WA (March 1-3)
* Pax East -- Boston, MA (March 22-24)
* MoCCA -- New York, NY (April 6-7)
* Los Angeles Times Festival of Books -- Los Angeles, CA (April 20-21)
* Stumptown -- Portland, OR (April 27-28)
* TCAF -- Toronto, ON (May 11-12)
* Phoenix Comic-Con -- Phoenix, AZ (May 23-26)
* Book Expo America -- New York, NY (May 30-June 1)
* Heroes Con -- Charlotte, NC (June 7-9)
* San Diego Comic Con -- San Diego, CA (July 18-21)
* Gen Con -- Indianapolis, IN (August 15-18)
* Small Press Expo -- North Bethesda, MD (September 14-15)
* PAX Prime -- Seattle, WA (TBD)
* New York Comic-Con -- New York, (October 10-13)
Note the mix of smaller and bigger shows. There are three gaming-primary conventions, and two book festivals. But yeah, that's a busy year. That they're doing the reinvigorated MoCCA is an interesting item to note for that show as is, at this point, their presence at BEA.
* something I forgot to make a bigger deal of yesterday, even though I'd mentioned it more generally on the blog before, is that the issue of Hawkeye that will benefit Sandy-related charities went on sale. You can buy a copy from your local retailer, and you can buy a digital copy from comiXology. You can also donate directly (or additionally directly) as described here. That issue features art work by Steve Lieber and Jesse Hamm, both of whom I like very much. It's a generally fun comic, too, the superhero comic I buy when I'm in a place where you buy superhero comics. Anyway, that's a nice thing, and I hope those who need the money benefit.
* wait a minute, jumping on here just after this post rolls out: I think I sent my brother to last night's Burbank comic-shop signing for that Hawkeye comic book. I'll probably have photos later on this morning. There's a reason I do this blog almost entirely by myself: I forget everything now.
* you should go through this Mike Lynch post to the Japanese matchbox cover post which he's discussing. Or you might want to. "Should" is probably a bit strong. It's cool, though. Really.
* here's a direct link to that J. Chris Campbell that I talked about in "Bundled" on Tuesday.
* finally, I forget who sent this my way, but it's swell. T-shirt, please.
For the 40th time, the world of comics turns its eyes to the banks of the Charente, where, under ominously grey skies, the Festival International de la Bande Dessinee convenes today. The grand-daddy of Europe's comics conventions, taking place (for the first time in at least a generation) partially in February, runs Thursday to Sunday, and will host, according to organizers, hundreds of thousands of guests, journalists, artists, publishers, and eager autograph-seeking audience members, filling this small medieval French town well past its capacity.
This year's FIBD is being overseen by an unlikely President, Jean-C Denis, best known as the creator of Luc Leroi (recently collected into a doorstop single volume by Futuropolis). Denis was a surprise selection last year, someone who had not been widely touted for the presidency as he is neither a large-scale commercial success, a critic's darling, nor a generation-defining talent. Lacking the star quality that has defined the vast majority of the festival's presidents, Denis has opted for a small-ish show at the Hotel St Simon, a space that is often reserved for secondary or even tertiary exhibitions.
What promises to be the largest and best attended exhibition at the Festival celebrates the career of Uderzo, selected as the millennial "special" president in 2000, but who has not had a major retrospective here. This is the exhibition that will likely make or break that reputation of this event. The combination of one the art form's all-time most popular figures, the crowd-friendly Asterix characters, and pages that are hyper-slick seems well positioned for a crowd pleaser if it is well presented. There is no doubt that Uderzo is the public face of this event in many ways.
The Festival will host a number of additional exhibitions, and while the total number seems down slightly from some recent years, there is a wide range of material on display, ranging from Disney comics to retrospectives featuring the comics of Andreas, Comes, and Penelope Bagieu. I will be honest and admit that few of these shows do anything for me on paper. The show that I am most looking forward to is on new tendencies in Flemish cartooning, which is pegged around the explosive success of Brecht Evens, who has quickly become symbolic of the new wave of young comics superstars at the Festival (alongside the likes of Bastien Vives and Ruppert/Mulot). In terms of events, the highlight promises to be Thursday's OuBaPo show of experimental comics storytelling, although the Concerts des Dessins will continue again this year, and they are always charming.
For most, the big attraction are the tents, filled to overflowing with fans seeking the opportunity to meet their favorite authors, queuing for hours sometimes to get a book signed. As always, action will be split between the big tent, home of the most commercial publishers, and the Bulle New York, which houses the independents and the smaller presses. One notable trend over the past few years have been national associations buying tables in the New York tent, pooling resources. The Flemish have turned this into a real strength, with their beautifully curated space, but over the past couple of years we have seen it from the Finns, and, this year, from the British. It's a great idea, and it makes the Festival just that much more international.
The biggest change at this year's Festival will be the way that the President is selected. A ballot has been published, with 16 nominees suggested by the past-presidents. These range from major historical figures (Cosey) to international artists (Taniguchi, Simmonds), important French artists of the past two decades (De Crecy, Larcenet) and even writers (Moore, Christin, Van Hamme). The intent seems to be to break a logjam among the electors, although it is not perfectly clear if the artists present at the Festival are directly electing the next president (as Les Inrocks claims) or are merely providing guidance to the jury of former presidents. I'm on the side of those who say that it doesn't much matter, as the whole process seems to have been rendered somewhat nonsensical.
There is a somewhat muted feeling coming into this Festival as compared to recent years. Certainly the Spiegelman presidency had a greater sense of possibility last year, and to some extent this edition seems like "just" an Angouleme, rather than a big event. That said, the hype is still out there. Les Inrocks has an Angouleme-themed cover right now, as does Telerama, which has a Bastien Vives cover (which would be the equivalent of Michael Deforge doing the cover for Entertainment Weekly the week of San Diego). Vives is the star of all things at the moment (he will be performing a concert des dessins at Le Nef on Saturday night), and his new collection of blog comics (titled, simply Bande Dessinee) opens with a lovely piece in which two parents try to come to grips with the idea that their child is a gifted comics creator: says the father, "There's even a festival that recognizes them [cartoonists] in Angouleme"; to which the mother replies "In Angouleme? But that's horrible." Well, for the next four days, let's hope not.
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Those interested in buying comics talked about in Bart Beaty's articles might try here.
I Don't Have A Ton To Offer On The Gerald Scarfe Cartoon
You can read a nice summary of the story of a spectacularly poorly timed and alarming Gerald Scarfe cartoon here. I'm not sure that I have a lot of say about it. It's slightly fascinating, I guess, that the timing of it seems to be the headline hook as opposed to the content; it suggests that this is a public protocol issue, and I'm not certain that's wrong even when the mis-step seems much more tied into eyebrow-raising content. In fact, you're likely to see the timing issue and the content kind of dance like a double helix, the timing adding heat to the depiction but also allowing a discussion of it without censuring the cartoon itself.
I have to admit that I'm sort of sympathetic to deeply alarming content, even in the shadow of nightmarish cultural constructs like blood libel. When you're discussing awful stories, and this one qualifies, it's not like there are a lot of soft visual metaphors that seem appropriate. It seems to me like it should maybe happen a lot. Something like this cartoon seems to represent a more problematic hitch-step than editorial cartoonist depictions of people like Hilary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice in that it's hard to find the human side of these kind of grinding, everyday horrors as opposed to something focused solely on someone's daughter/wife/mother/father/son. And again, a lot of it may have to do with how we talk now. We've reached a point in public discourse where it seems like scorched-earth tactics are the only tactics to which anyone pays attention in the slightest. It's difficult for me to remember anyone doing a new story on a cartoon for being clever and articulate and trenchant: the Matt Bors cartoon about non-white birth rates, maybe, or perhaps one of the post-Obama re-election cartoons.
The paper's response is also interesting to me a bit because not only is running a cartoonist whose views you outright decry a trickier game than one would like to admit, I would suggest that if this is a timing issue that's on the paper even more than the cartoonist.
Angouleme Festival Denies Accreditation To ActuaBD.com Editor?
That's what is claimed here. I don't know Didier Pasamonik at all. I'll admit to hearing over the years that he is kind of super-unpopular with a lot of artists this site covers, but I'm not even sure as to the basis of those complaints. Even if those complaints were twice as bad and 100 percent maintained by all cartoonists everywhere, he seems like a legit journalist in terms of something like simple accreditation -- unless there are issues about which I know nothing or the French have a way of approaching press accreditation with which I'm unfamiliar. I know I've linked to a number of his articles over the years. So that seems kind of silly.
That said, I dream tumescent dreams of being denied press access to a giant comics show; I can't imagine anything any more flattering. I'd stay by the pool and send out press releases and feel really pleased with myself. Way better than any panel or exhibit. Come to think of it, I've been denied press access by comics shows before and just paid my way. I was told not to bother trying to get a photographer to join me at the next show I'm attending. So it happens.
There are related statements on the ACBD site; that's the organization of writers about comics that exists over there.
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.
OCT121059 FREDDIE STORIES HC (MR) $19.95
The great thing about comics is that you can imagine all sorts of satisfying relationships people might have with the art form. One we rarely consider is the set-up where someone buys two or three books a year and it totally happy with what they great. This substantial work form Lynda Barry works on that level. It also is a must have for those of us that power through hundreds of pages a week. I saw the actual book of this; it's super-handsome.
SEP121118 MARBLES MANIA DEPRESSION MICHELANGELO & ME GRAPHIC MEMOIR $20.00
My Mom is reading this right now, and I imagine it might be of interest to a lot of folks given the general attention paid to mental health issues in terms of lifestyle right now. I couldn't be happier for Ellen Forney to have a work out to which a bunch of folks are paying attention.
NOV128168 HELLBOY IN HELL #1 MIGNOLA CVR (2ND PTG) $2.99 DEC120158 BEFORE WATCHMEN DOLLAR BILL #1 (MR) $3.99 NOV120153 BEFORE WATCHMEN OZYMANDIAS #5 (MR) $3.99 NOV120199 BATMAN AND ROBIN ANNUAL #1 $4.99 NOV120433 INVINCIBLE #100 CHROMIUM ED $9.99 NOV128015 HAWKEYE #5 2ND PTG AJA VAR $2.99 NOV120725 HAWKEYE #7 $2.99
Not a ton of stuff jumped out at me from the superhero/genre-adventure pamphlet part of the store. The Mignola is a second printing, but I'm glad for it because I sort of try to catch up with Mignola in big serial-comic gulps so I want that one on the stands. The Before Watchmen material I doubt a ton of you are buying, but this pair of comics certainly counts as first-rate artistic talent working on these book. The Dollar Bill in particular is very, very Steve Rude -- there are are even those weird kind of cartoon-type characters that he does, the bankers that hire the corporate-spokesman superhero. There also a scene were the superhero tosses a dude from his pants during a fight that isn't even a big moment. Invincible #100 is kind of a step-back from that title's usual super-heavy dramatics, although there are both plot developments (the comic's final reveal) and early thematic inquiries (how much the world lets you do things when you're of use to those in power) of significance, I suppose. The Batman and Robin confuses me because I have no idea why DC is doing annuals when their stated goal is to strengthen the line of serial comics book to book for this initial, extended launch period. The story in this one, though, would have made a pretty good stand-alone comic book issue; some of the other annuals I've read have been confusing and sort of dire. The seventh issue of the Hawkeye book is the one that benefits Sandy-related charities. I think that's a good thing, and I've enjoyed that comic book when I've read it.
OCT120441 X-9 SECRET AGENT CORRIGAN HC VOL 05 $49.99 JUL121070 PRINCE VALIANT HC VOL 06 1947-1948 $35.00
The Corrigan has to be beautiful and having just read the Foster, I know that one is. Another way you could be engaging with the comics form right now is just buying old strip collection. That's something I could see myself doing. It's not like there are a lot of stinkers getting the $35-$50 treatment.
NOV120729 SILVER SURFER BY STAN LEE AND MOEBIUS #1 $7.99 NOV120782 X-WOMEN TP $24.99
Marvel comics featuring work by Moebius (I'll leave it to you to guess which one) and Milo Manara (I think).
NOV120827 CALVIN & HOBBES ATTACK OF SNOW GOONS NEW PTG $12.99
I'm really glad these stay in print given that there's a complete hardcover slipcase.
JUN121091 CAVE-IN GN $14.95
Brian Ralph's fun, textured piece gets a new edition and hopefully one that sticks around for a while. This could be a pretty big next couple of years for the Fort Thunder alum and comics educator. I'm a fan and want them all.
DEC121206 CHRIS WARE BUILDING STORIES HC (JUL121170) $50.00
I hear it's been difficult for comic shops to find copies of this to sell, given the demands of bookstores and on-line booksellers here. I would assume that this book's appearance on this list means that's not as big of an issue. I would love for comic shops to sell these the way I've seen such stores sell the Artist's Editions, but I'm not sure in a lot of cases if there's much of an interest in what Chris Ware does just in terms of content.
OCT121333 JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR #60 $10.95
Hey, I haven't seen one of these in a while, so I'd certainly pick one up were I in a comic book store today. Man, stores are great for random encounters like that. Also: sixty issues. Woof.
NOV121316 DEAR BELOVED STRANGER GN $19.95
While stumbling across old friends can be nice, the real reason we leave home even if it's just going to the funnybook shop is to meet new people. This is a Top Shelf-distributed Xeric winner -- of which there can't be a whole lot left -- and the preview page looks compelling enough with art like the image below I'd really love it if my day included holding one in my hands. It won't, but if you're near a great shop, yours might.
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 because I hate you.
* I never buy original comics art, but I bought a page from Jess Johnson's Etsy store sale of work from her mid-1990s Jeff Johnson period. Johnson's pages from that period are really beautiful. I got one of the super-porno ones, in fact my favorite page of comics porno from the 1990s. Anyway, this stuff is super-cheap; consider this a "Comics By Request" extra as Johnson is currently unemployed.
Fantagraphics Launches Peanuts Every Sunday Series This Fall
Fantagraphics Books has announced its intention to publish a series of full-color Peanuts books featuring the strip's color Sunday material.
The first volume, Peanuts Every Sunday: 1952-1955, will drop this November. It should run 288 pages, contain four years worth of the long-running strip, and measure at just under 13 inches by 10 inches. It will retail at $50.
My understanding is that Joanne Bagge is working on the color production for these volumes, so it should be snap-to pretty. There should also be a lot of fun with the early volumes to see things like the original coloring of Charlie Brown's shirt.
The Fantagraphics black and white series of complete Peanuts strips has proven to be a groundbreaking effort for that company (providing an economic ballast that has allowed it to continue its art-comics ways), that title (by making the case for the long-running comic as formidable art), and strip collections generally (by raising the standard for art direction and the general ambition for such projects in a very high-profile way). These color Sunday collections will likely not have the exact same effect, coming as they are in a completely different time for the publisher and for comics publishing more generally, but I have to imagine that they should continue to be good news for the iconic publisher in terms of its overall health. And hey, great comics.
I totally missed this: Portland's Tugboat Press has apparently pulled the plug on its anthology Papercutter, a title I liked very much. There had been rumors of its demise for... I'm thinking about 18 months now, a really long time, but this looks like official word. In fact, checking out the Tugboat Press site indicates that this was posted back on January 1, which makes it really discouraging that I hadn't seen it before now. My apology to those nice folks for not covering that news in a more effective, timely fashion.
I liked several things about Papercutter. I thought it had the usual anthology strengths in that it was a high-quality effort, it seemed to have a role specific to a group of cartoonists out there that benefited from the exposure, and there were some pretty good comics in there along the way. My favorite in the run -- and I've mentioned this a few times -- was a funny and inventive Matt Wiegle comic called "The Orphan Baiter" that appeared in the issue whose cover image appears in the post. I really liked that comic, and wish more people saw it, although I'm worried now that someone might come to it with a chip on their shoulder rather than just being as pleasantly surprised as I was coming to it cold. I really liked the look and feel of the comic, too; it had that "Black Eye" mid-1990s, slightly smaller but higher-quality feel to it that I wish would become a bigger home for comics efforts. This won't help, I imagine. At the same time, none of these things last forever, as much as we pretend this is so in comics, so I'm grateful for the issues we received. Congratulations to all the artists involved and to Tugboat on the run.
Here. It looks like they'll be uploading a lot of material there, which is ideal for that sort of thing. Comics people spend a lot of time on-line, but it's still rare enough to see strong on-line support of an event that I want to note the possibility here in the hope that it not only happens in a timely fashion as I think it might but that it can be duplicated elsewhere. No matter what gets put up, 552 participants is a holy moly figure.
Elisabeth Jaquette at the Arabic Literature (In English) site has word that Magdy Al-Shafee's Metro, is back on the shelves of Cairo bookstores in an Arabic edition. The original 2008 edition of the crime book -- which doubled as criticism of the Mubarak regime's policies through its attention on the conditions facing its protagonists -- was banned, leading to a raid of the publishing house and confiscation of all copies. The author and publisher Mohammed al-Sharkawi were tried and fined under a public decency law in a widely publicized and widely criticized ruling.
Editions were published in other countries, including an English-language edition aimed at North America in late Spring 2012. My memory is that by this time Al-Shafee had become known for his activities during 2011's revolution.
The story linked-to above says that the new Arabic edition was published in 2012 by The Comic Shop, which is a publishing house that specializes in comics for adults. The store carrying the new edition is called Kotob Khan. The story also indicates that a number of volumes and magazines out in that market.
Missed It: Your 2012 Comics-Related DCD Gem Awards Nominees
Dominant distribution business to the direct market of comic and hobby shops Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. has announced nominees for its Gem Awards through a few sites out there, which makes me think it went out in an e-mail I wasn't privy to, or, even more likely, flat-out missed. The Gem Awards are kind of a "good performance" award. I have no idea how they're compiled, but as I recall retailers vote on the winners. Here are the comics-related nominees by category as pulled out by Stumptown Trade Review and double-checked against Bleeding Cool's story from last week. You can hit that Bleeding Cool link for other hobby-shop related categories.
I think they're kind of fascinating in that you get to see how that company views the comics field generally, and what works from the smaller end of publishing for that company in a way that they can throw a bit of a spotlight on it.
Comic Book Publisher of the Year -- Over Four Percent Market Share
* DC has apparently canceled its Hawkman series. I wasn't aware they had a Hawkman series. Let me go look at it. Hm. Okay, they had one of their solid-but-not-star writers on it and then moved it over to Rob Liefeld and it was "savage" in nature throughout. That seems like the kind of book that someone should be able to write effectively: it has the "basic superhero" thing some of DC's better characters have (giant thug that beats on people; this one flies), the visual of Hawkman strikes me as a pretty good one and you can plug into a bunch of different genres. Then again, I don't think I've read a Hawkman story I've enjoyed since... forever? The old Kubert stuff? Maybe a Brubaker/Phillips one-shot? Granted, I'm not the audience.
* there will certainly be some publishing news from Angouleme, although my ability to track said news may be in question. I'm guessing this announced line headed by Louis Delas deserves mention -- the only thing I can't tell is if this is a formal announcement or more of a reminder that this piece of structural publishing news is out there. I'm always personally interested in that kind of publishing news from the French-language market, because my sense is -- and I have a Mendoza-like batting average with French-language comics market analysis, so bear with me as I swing away -- that there's a bit more structural investment in comics publishing from traditional publishers there. So I don't think you're going to see equivalent announcements at a San Diego or a New York.
* IDW is going to take a shot at the X-Files license. I was always confused by the desire for more X-Files because it's the only science-fiction property friends of mine became fans of where literally none of them ever expressed in any way a desire for more of it and most were out by the time the original series concluded. But I guess we're talking such a tiny percentage of those original fans to make something like this work.
* I definitely am the audience for a bi-monthly series of two-color risozine comic line launched by Ian Harker called Sacred Prism. Cartoonists included are Box Brown (February), Maré Odomo (April), Lala Albert (June), Thomas Toye (August), Benjamin Marra (October) and Michael Olivo (December).
* I always get a few e-mails from readers about stories like this one about Marvel's future movie plans, and how this might result in certain characters receiving a comic or two in the publishing line. That's not always how it works for these companies, although certainly characters like that tend to get more of a chance to stick on paper if they're driving people to the box office. I'm not sure why Dr. Strange doesn't work for that company: that's one of the sturdier origins, he has an upper-tier rogues gallery and you can go a lot of directions with the book. I'd always heard he was not a favorite character in-house there, so maybe that was it. I don't think the last few years of his use have won over any fans, although I heard nice things about that Defenders book.
* the frequent commenter-on-comics Sean Kleefeld has commentary on yesterday's announcement that comiXology would be expanding on into the French-language comics market. I think that's a fairly major story, but it's one that depends on the shape of that move's execution and thus bears watching closely.
Hey, It's Been A While Since We've Had A Campus Cartoon Controversy, Although This Barely Qualifies
Alan Gardner has been tracking a very mild race-related controversy at the University of Wisconsin over a pulled cartoon. It's hard for me to wrap my mind around how this might be offensive, other than the fact that when you park a car anywhere near that neighborhood someone out there is going to call the towing company. Cartoon stories like this one are instructive when processing wider media stories like the fake internet girlfriend thing from that one Notre Dame linebacker that dominated talk radio recently. Just as fact-checking a human interest sports story may fall prey to landing right in between a hardcore audience that will accept something as the truth without asking and a wider audience that doesn't care enough to ask in the first place, cartoons that touch on race ignite the passions involved with those issues but also tend to be the kind of content offerings that many editors would rather not go to the mat defending for more than three to five seconds.
Steve Bissette Urges Attention To Nancy Collins' Call For A Boycott Of Ed Kramer-Involved Dragon*Con
Steve Bissette has a post up here about a plea from the writer Nancy Collins on Facebook for folks to boycott the convention Dragon*Con because of how it serves to drive profits to co-founder and accused child molester Ed Kramer. I think that's a request worth considering. I'm in no way interested in that show -- one of the traditional conventions on the calendar -- so anything I'd have to say would be colored by that extreme disinterest. I will say that the way these kinds of issues usually get processed is by stressing that taking a stand like this one is likely to hurt someone who is not Ed Kramer, which I imagine to be true. Boycotts are blunt and powerful tools; there's always some collateral damage.
From my perspective the more interesting take might be whether or not these accusations -- as dire as they may be -- are by themselves worth not just avoiding a show of your own accord but urging that other people do so. I can't all-the-way answer that one, not for other people. I think the lack of a conviction thus far calls for additional scrutiny, but there are no hard standards when it comes to this kind of thing. If it were me, I would likely bail: the best outcome I can imagine from what's been described strongly outweighs any pleasure or professional utility I get from a funnybook show.
As I recall, there are also people that have been less willing to indict Dragon*Con because of the way their financials are set up and feel a good faith effort has been made to sever ties with Kramer, but I'm sure others like Collins disagree.
One of the intriguing things that came out of last month's tidal wave of best-of comics list for 2012 was actually a negative: the apparent almost complete lack of interest by the body of people that read comics with something close to a professional interest in Gary Panter's Dal Tokyo. I would imagine as others have speculated that this was a sign of just how many comics are out there right now, but I don't accept that this has to remain a shrugged-shoulders, "Welp, that's comics!" moment. One positive that might come from a realization that this all-time work dropped into comics' midst without an accompanying reaction is to engage the work now. I'm in the middle of reading it, and Nicole Rudick offers up a nice place for readers and critics to start in the LA Review Of Books. Ifyousomehowhaven'tbeenpayingattention to Rudick's writing on comics, you should correct that, too.
It's Not That B&N Will Close 1/3 Of Its Stores; It's That This Seems To Be A Best-Case Scenario
I'd actually put this into tomorrow's Random News, but since a bunch of the comics sites are running with the announcement that remaining big-box books giant Barnes and Noble plans to close a bunch more stores over the next ten years today, I wanted to move this up. B&N isn't the most lovable of companies, but I don't want anyone's bookstore to close: I like retail spaces, I think they have value and utility and I remember how important they were to me in my teenaged years. Also: book retail matters to comics; since coverage matters to book retail, that will matter to comics, too.
Anyway, what raised my eyebrows on this isn't so much that they made they made this announcement, but that said announcement seems to represent a best possible outcome from their viewpoint. If the former is scary, the latter is terrifying. It could be that they've over-estimating in order to get a boost when this many stores doesn't close, but few businesses use the Montgomery Scott Strategy Of Lowered Expectations that overtly.
* speaking of cartoonists selling things, Dustin Harbin is doing a not-raffle to help allay costs for traveling around and selling his comics. If you're too late for that one, you should check out his store; Harbin's one of those cartoonists that tends to have a lot of material for sale, both published and made just for you.
* Stephanie McMillan is in the middle of a crowd-funder for her Capitalism Must Die! I'm actually blogging this point on Thursday evening, so it might be pretty well-funded by now. You should check.
* not comics: that Jeffrey Catherine Jones film has popped up again seeking some crowd-funding assistance. At least I assume that's the same film as the last time; it could be there are multiple films, and that'd be fine with me.
* Matt Bors reminds of one thing that's wrong with newspapers that's wrong with a lot of businesses right now. As I've written a bunch of times, I think newspapers are pretty screwed as a model and we're really only finding out where things settle as opposed to combatting any of those issues. That many newspapers continue to be saddled with ownership that wants to pump as much profit as possible out of these entities quarter to quarter seems to me like putting someone with a weak heart on a treadmill, but I have basically no business sense.
Calista Brill is Senior Editor at First Second Books. Last week she instigated a small ripple of controversy in art-comics circles for a mini-editorial published at the First Second web site called "When To Give Up." When Gina Gagliano wanted to know if I'd interview Brill for this space, I leapt at the chance. I wanted to talk about that piece she wrote but also explore what it is she does for the publisher in one of the rare, hands-on comics editing positions outside of the mainstream serial comic book companies. I had a really good time conversing with her. I edited what follows a tiny bit for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: The first question, and one I have to ask, is why you hate young cartoonists.
CALISTA BRILL: Oh, because they're just terrible people. Their wills deserve to be crushed.
SPURGEON: [laughs] You guys have been writing more aggressively just kind of in general on the site, haven't you? Or it seems like you have. On various publishing issues.
BRILL: Yeah. That is correct. We've been on sort of a groove on the blog. Gina, our marketing person, has been sort of heading up that front. The rest of us have been chiming in here and there.
SPURGEON: Do you know if there was a reason for that? Was it just you guys wanted to enhance and increase your presence on-line?
BRILL: You'd have to ask Gina that question because it was sort of her initiative to start with. I can tell you why I like it. Having worked in conventional book publishing for most of my career, and First Second in certain respects fits into that category, I'm very aware of how opaque and sort of mysterious the New York City and Boston and San Francisco publishing scene must seem to people that are outside of it. It's easy to get myopic when you work in this industry, because you're surrounded by it all the time. When I speak to authors and artists and students who don't know a lot about it, I'm often shocked by sort of how mysterious it seems to them. That doesn't seem productive or useful. For anyone, really. Us including. Part of what I like about this blog series we've been doing is it's out there to demystify the process a little bit, to make things a little more transparent.
SPURGEON: When you say it makes things easier, do you mean that people come to you with misapprehensions that you then kind of have to pave over?
BRILL: Oh, yeah. We're very interested in signing up new talent and fostering new talent and encouraging people. That's very hard to do if people are coming to us with all sorts of misapprehensions -- some of which are flattering, but mostly not-flattering. So it's nice to be able to have a public venue to lay out some of the realities of our business.
SPURGEON: So this essay in particular... As I recall and as I think you posted on top of it, you have been writing them in response to things you've been hearing from people. Do you know what initiated this specific piece? What were you hearing from people that made you want to talk about this? Did someone ask blatantly how do I be this self-analytical or was it something more obtuse that you then put into this form?
BRILL: I suppose it was a combination. I speak to art students frequently, and am invited to sit on classes or attend professional days at various art schools. In those contexts, when you're talking to young people that are investing a lot of time and money into getting started on a career in comics, the economic question comes up a lot. It's something that people are eager to talk about. So it's something that I've talked about frequently. Nothing in this little piece that I wrote on our blog is a departure from what I might normally say in a classroom.
More specifically, it was prompted by a series of... every now and then these pieces make the rounds on the Internet that basically say, "Stick to your dreams. Don't let assholes tell you to give up. You're the best judge of your own potential." This is actually something I agree with. [laughs] I'd like to make that clear. [laughter] I am, however, kind of a contrarian personality sometimes. Faith Erin Hicks, who I'm very fond of and admire a great deal, and am a huge fan of, posted this really inspiring and lovely essay along those lines. Because I have this contrarian streak, it got me thinking, after I had wiped away tears from my face from having been so moved by what she wrote, it got me thinking, "What are the circumstances under which hearing from a publisher or another industry professional, 'Listen, just get out of the business' would be useful?"
Where I sort of landed is that it's probably only useful under this very specific set of circumstances, which is the circumstances that I'm talking about in this blog piece, which is if you are setting out and your intention is to support yourself by making comics, then there's a number of things you have to take into account when making that decision. One of them is what industry professionals are telling you about your chances. One factor out of ten. It's up to you how you weigh it and up to you whether you give it any weight at all.
SPURGEON: Why do you think there's a lack of dialogue about those issues? Is it just that to keep doing art, people have to have a kind of willful self-identity? Is it that the publishing industry may gain from having people throw themselves after that career? Why do you think we don't have a more rational discourse on those careerist elements?
BRILL: I don't know. Obviously there's been a lot of conversation about this topic over the last few days. Some of it has been sort of painful. I think probably it's a net win, just because personally I think it's something people ought to talk about. Now there's a lot of people out there who have been unhappy with this piece because from their point of view comics is not something you do for money. And art is not a commercial endeavor. That's fine. I have no quarrel with that. The piece that I wrote was directly addressing decisions you have to make when comics is something you do for money. Or if it's something you'd like to do for money.
I think it's a painful conversation for a lot of people. That's probably something that I'm less conscious of than I should be because the part of the comics world that I occupy on a daily basis is a business. We're a business primarily driven by our love of the form, and our passion for beautiful comics, but we're answerable to our bottom line. Conversely, a big part of what First Second is about, one of our loftiest goals, is we would like to create an environment where people can support themselves with comics. We don't succeed always, but it's something we try for. It's a conversation we have with our cartoonists when they're interested in having it, which is not always. I'm always happy to have it when it comes up.
SPURGEON: I was interested in the timing of it. I think you guys are in a place, and talking to Mark [Siegel] a month or so ago I got his sense that he was thinking about those issues, that he was putting together a stable of creators and reusing people and one of the goals of that might be to help people establish themselves in a commercial way as well as an artistic way. The industry is different now. You've been around a while. You must have seen how the way the book publishing industry approaches comics has changed significantly in just the last few years. The nature of the dialogue you're talking about has to be different because of that. I think these are issues people are thinking about in a different way. Do you think it's a different time now when people think of these issues than even three or four years ago when it seemed possible some combination of movies and big-publisher interest would drive a lot more careers?
BRILL: I don't know. That's a good question and I wish I had a better answer for it. I hadn't thought about it. Probably. But I'd have to think more to come up with something useful to say.
SPURGEON: I read an interview with you where you talked about when people find out what you do for a living they invariably say, after being astonished that such a job exists [Brill laughs], "What does that entail?" I'm kind of interested in that question: what your daily routine is like. And I'm also interested in the editing of comics. How much of a hands-on, work-with-the-text editor are you given that it's comics?
BRILL: So that's two questions.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Yes. Yes it is.
BRILL: Which one do you want me to answer first?
SPURGEON: Whatever the first one was.
BRILL: The first one was what is my daily routine.
SPURGEON: Yes. Let's start from there.
BRILL: It's a complete mish-mash. It changes day by day. I can sort of give you the broad strokes of what my job entails. I'll probably forget 50 percent of it. It actually involves a lot. I keep an eye out for interesting talent that I didn't know about before. So I spend a lot of time on Tumblr and on blogs and other social media sites that are heavily trafficked by the comics community. I attend shows where I'm also looking for new talent. I also talk to my cartoonists that I already have relationships with about new talent. I also keep an eye out for people who are established that I didn't know about before, or who are doing things I'd like to get in on that I think make sense for First Second.
I acquire books, and that process can mean someone comes to me out of the blue and says, "I've written this graphic novel and I think you should publish it" and I read it and I think it's terrific and I say, "Hello, unknown stranger. Let me give you this sum of money and in exchange we will publish your book in partnership together." What more frequently happens is that things come to me by recommendation or from people I already have relationships with.
When I acquire those books, I'm juggling two forces, which I think is the core of the editor's job often, which is the uneasy relationship between commerce and art. I'm thinking, "Do I believe in this book? Do I think it's beautiful and important and fresh and engaging and profound and fun?" And I'm also thinking, "Do I think I can reasonably sell enough copies of this book to make everyone enough money on it that it's worth our time." By everyone I don't mean just First Second, I mean the author of the book as well. That's something I have to balance and consider when I buy a book for First Second.
Every book is different. Sometimes I acquire books and I sort of think, "This isn't a good bet for a commercial hit but I think it's important it be in the world, so I'm willing to take this gamble." Sometimes I acquire a book and I think, "If this doesn't do well I will eat my shoe." I'm often wrong with both of those gambles. [laughter] But every time I do it I get better at it. We publish a fairly eclectic list, but it has a unifying sensibility. That's something I have a sense for as well.
When I acquire a book I'll then work with the author and the artist, both as sort of an ad hoc art director -- although Mark Siegel our editorial director does a lot of that work as well and Colleen Venable our designer does that work as well. And as an editor, both on story development and broad editorial work, then further down the line on more detailed editorial stuff like line editing and copy editing. I spend a lot of my time keeping things on schedule, keeping lines of communication with the authors and artists who are currently developing books for us. We have a lot of books that are currently in development.
I read a lot of comics published by other publishers. I try to keep current. Also, I just like reading comics a lot. [Spurgeon laughs] That's a pleasurable activity for me. I attend a lot of meetings. I have a lot of phone calls. I write about 80 e-mails a day.
It's sort of weasel-herding, I guess, but it's very pleasurable weasel-herding so it's hard to complain about it.
SPURGEON: When you said you think there's a unifying sensibility for the line, how would you describe that sensibility?
BRILL: Oh, I don't know! As soon as I said that, I thought, "He's going to ask me to define this." I would say broadly that as much as we're interested in really beautiful and lively and engaging and satisfying art, we are also interested in narrative. And in stories. So it's finding works that satisfy both of those needs that human beings have. We don't publish collections of strips. I'm trying to think. Every time I make a broad statement like that, there's always something that disproves it. I don't think we've published any collections of strips. I've certainly considered it in the past, and there are a couple of strips that if I had the chance to I'd publish in a heartbeat. But it's not our bread and butter.
We look for stories that have something to offer on an emotionally satisfying level. That's sort of a vague thing to say, but it's hard to nail it down any further.
SPURGEON: It seems like you're the one there that engages with new talent on a regular basis.
BRILL: We really all do.
SPURGEON:Tom Hart suggested in his recent interview that younger cartoonists aren't as interested in narrative, in story, as they might have been in the '90s. Do you find that there are competing aesthetics out there that maybe don't fit into what you want to do? Is it hard sometimes to see that? Or are there enough people that want to do the comics that you like that you don't think about those that aren't on your wavelength?
BRILL: I think there are a lot of comics out there that are interested in other aspects of art than conventional narrative. A lot of them are comics I really like. Many of them are comics I wouldn't publish for First Second. I don't know that that division exists along generational lines. That's not a sense that I get. But again, what I should have said at the beginning of this interview is that I can speak only from my own admittedly narrow perspective. So that's been my experience. More broadly, I'm not in a position to judge.
SPURGEON: Another follow-up I had: you talked about a couple of books you've had where you maybe didn't have as strong a feeling in terms of its commercial success as you did an affinity for the work itself. I wonder if there's a book that comes to mind that you were particularly invested in? No matter how it ended up doing for you -- maybe it did well, maybe it didn't do as well as expected. Is there one in which you were really invested in that way?
BRILL: [slight pause] That's a tricky question, because the answer is everything I've ever acquired is something I'm deeply invested in. I'm trying to think if there's one in particular that seemed that it was sort of a risky proposition. It's hard to say, because honestly I feel that way about every book I bring on. I have qualms, always, about whether or not it will do well in the marketplace. And I have great love driving me for them, persuading me to make a case for them. I've turned down a couple of books that came to me that I thought were just beautiful and vital and important, because it seemed clear to me that we couldn't do anything with them that would find an audience for them or recoup the investment we put into them. And also the author's investment. The good news is that this happens very infrequently. Part of that I think is because my sensibility and my tastes tend to line up with the broader First Second sensibility. So the books I get the most fired up about are the books that make sense for us to take a risk on.
SPURGEON: One thing I get a sense of when I read some of the stuff you've written is that you are quite taken with comics' essential qualities. You seem to focus those primary things that comics do really well, maybe over a broader sensibility. I even go back to your being a fan of Wendy Pini's work.
SPURGEON: She has a strong sense of pantomime in her work, and her characters are good actors on the page; these are very foundational comics things. Some of the stuff that you've written about what comics does very well, is that something that's continued to interest you as you've developed as an editor, getting what comics does nailed down pretty well and communicating that to your authors?
BRILL: Oh, absolutely. I love this stuff. I wish I were better at it. I have only my own instincts to go off of, and those get better every year. I envy people that have had the chance to sit down and study comics as a scholarly pursuit. That's something I haven't had the opportunity to do, but I'm interested in that kind of thing. I am someone that enjoys reading prose a great deal. I've also been reading comics since I was a little, wee kid. Some of my first favorites after Uncle Scrooge and Tubby and things like that were Elfquest and also books like Jim Woodring's autobio stuff that he was publishing in the '80s and '90s and Love and Rockets. My mother and my brother were really plugged into the indy comics scene when I was a little kid. So I was exposed to that from an early age. So I've been thinking about comics for a long time. It just seems natural that if you're going to be publishing comics, and if you're going to be working with people on comics, why would you not then be making sure that they can do everything that a comic can do that nothing else can do?
SPURGEON: Is there an element that you like to focus in on, that you think you're particularly adept at communicating to authors? You've written about comics ability to communicate a narrative density; moment-to-moment storytelling seems like it appeals to you, too. Is there a hobby-horse? Is there something you're known for taking to cartoonists?
BRILL: That's a good question. I don't know. Let me think about it. [pause]
I'm going to say a bunch of stuff now that's probably going to sound really obvious and basic. So forgive me for that if that's the case.
I spend a lot of time working with people on creating a dynamic between the text and the art where the text and the art aren't duplicating each other's work, where the text and the art complicate and complement each other. I also work with a lot of people that are coming into comics, specifically coming into writing comics from other fields, that have written in other genres and haven't written in comics as extensively. And one of the things I see with authors like that is they don't know how much they can depend on the art to assist them in storytelling. They try to get everything done with the words. That's something I find myself doing editorially frequently is to get people to create a harmonious balance and also a complication -- what's that word for the harmonics -- overtones! There you go. A set of overtones that arise out of the integration of the art and the text.
SPURGEON: Now in a practical sense, is that just nudging people to cut stuff?
BRILL: Often. Yeah. I mean, it can be much more complicated than that, but frequently that's what it sort of boils down to.
SPURGEON: You know, that's not such a basic thing. I mean, it used to be what we considered comics basics. It used to be that comics were defined a lot more in terms of their verbal-visual interplay: Bob Harvey's definition of comics as opposed to Scott [McCloud]'s definition of comics, where everything is now visual narrative. So you're old school. You're really old school.
BRILL: [laughs] I guess so. I really don't think of myself in those terms.
SPURGEON: I don't know how many writers you deal with... I looked at your next year and I guess it was Jane [Yolen] and Jim [Ottaviani] that are both writers that aren't drawing their own work. I'm thinking I'm forgetting at least one more.
BRILL: I don't know the number off hand, but about half of our books are author/artist works and about half have separate writers and separate artists.
SPURGEON: Do you treat those projects differently? Is it different, just in practical terms, to have a script to work with as opposed how a cartoonist doing both might work? Or do you try to keep that the same no matter who you're working with?
BRILL: The good and the bad news here -- good news because I think it means these books are treated better, and bad news because it makes my life more complicated -- is whenever I acquire a new project to work on, the first thing I do is sit down with the author and the artist, or the author-artist as the case may be, and I have a pretty long discussion about how the process is going to work. That conversation is predicated on probably 70 percent consideration of how their process usually works and what they're comfortable doing, and maybe 30 percent on what's going to work for me.
I try to be as flexible as I can. I've never had good luck in situations where I walk into a new project and I say, "This is how this is going to work. You have to deliver the following stage of this book as such. And I'm going to do this and that's how it's going to be." It doesn't set a tone for a collaborative, creative relationship, which is destructive already. And it also just doesn't work, practically, because people come to this with all different kinds of processes. When I'm working with someone that's very new I will a little firmer with how I guide them. When I work with someone who's been making comics for 25 years, I'll often say, "Okay, how do you do it? I'm going to be involved; how do you want me involved? At what stage is it useful for you to get comments from me?"
SPURGEON: When you work with, say, George [O'Connor] or with Faith, someone you're working with again, the recurring talent, does that help you as an editor to have those comfortable relationships?
BRILL: It's lovely. Yes. And it's not maybe the main reason we seek out these lasting relationships with people. It's certainly an aspect of it. We know what to expect. They know what to expect. And also, the more frequently you work with someone, the more productive and the deeper the creative relationship can become. The more you trust someone.
SPURGEON: Do you have a wish list at all? Are there people with whom you'd kill to work?
BRILL:Jaime Hernandez. His work on Love And Rockets has been one of the most artistic things I've been exposed to in my life. I would love to work with Jim Woodring. He's another person I've been following with incredible admiration since I was a kid. I like Emily Carroll an awful lot. I would like to work with her. I mean, there is a wish list. It has like 500 names on it.
SPURGEON: One thing that came up when I talked to Mark at Comic-Con last year -- I got a sense from him that he was happy with where you guys are right now, that things had settled a bit, that First Second had found a comfortable place in a directional sense.
BRILL: I feel the same way.
SPURGEON: So you feel that you've found a good place and it's a lot about executing what you're doing right now, at least for a while?
BRILL: Yeah, that's well-put. I agree with that statement.
SPURGEON: [laughs] From your perspective, how did you guys achieve that? Was it simply finding out what works in the marketplace? Was it about finding the right talent? Was it becoming comfortable yourself in what you're doing? Was it all of those things? What kind of locked that feeling into place?
BRILL: I don't know. I've sort of wondered that myself. It's probably a combination of all of those things. It also helps that we have had a stable crew for a couple of years. The core First Second gang is Mark and me and Colleen our designer and Gina our marketer and our publicist. We know each other very well and we work together very well. We get along great. That's helped a lot, I think.
A lot of projects that we set in motion right at the inception of First Second are also now bearing fruit, which I think has helped.
SPURGEON: What would be an example of that?
BRILL: Oh, let's see... I'm blanking. There were a few books we've published the last couple of years that were in development for many years. They finally appeared.
But beyond that, it's something ephemeral. It's hard to pin down. I will say, I don't want to make it sound like we're smugly resting on our laurels here.
SPURGEON: Well, that's the next question. Do you have a sense of things you'd like to do there three, four, five years from now that you're not doing now?
BRILL: I have a sense of something I'd like to do right now that I'm not doing right now, which is that First Second consciously tries to publish books for readers of varying ages and also varying sensibilities. I personally am a fan of very young, very goofy comics for kids. I also love serious adult literary fiction and non-fiction and everything. We are a little spare on the youngest end of our list, and I would love to bulk that up. I've been keeping an eye out for really fun, goofy, silly, satisfying books for younger readers because that's something I personally enjoy a great deal.
BRILL: It's sort of a combination. I wouldn't be pursuing it if it wasn't something I was interested in personally. But I also feel comfortable pursuing it because I feel there's a place for it in the market.
SPURGEON: Is there an ideal work, maybe a past work you think of when you think of what you'd like to do?
BRILL: I mean again, I'm exposing how little my tastes have changed since I was 10 years old [Spurgeon laughs]. To me, Carl Barks and Don Rosa's work on Uncle Scrooge is the ne plus ultra of excellent kids comics. It's a great combination of ridiculous gags and really fun, exciting, strange adventures.
SPURGEON: The narratives are really powerful on those duck comics if you haven't read some of the longer stories in a while. It's like inhaling story.
SPURGEON: They can be pretty amazing that way. I would look forward to seeing you put out something like that for sure. [slight pause] You know, I'm not sure how many questions I have left.
BRILL: There's something we dropped that I'm happy to talk about if you think it would be of interest. It's how one would go about editing a graphic novel.
SPURGEON: I am interested in that, the practicalities of it.
BRILL: As I said earlier, it does tend to vary on a case by case basis, at least how I approach it. But there are certain things that always happen. I like to be involved in the broad development of the story. I'm interested in working with people on structure and character development and world-building, all of the fundamental aspects of storytelling. It's something I really enjoy doing. It's something that's when the chemistry is right -- and luckily, it often is -- having a collaborative relationship with an editor can improve that process for people. It doesn't always, but it can. That's a satisfying thing to be a part of. I also do some limited art direction work on the books that I work on. I have a decent aesthetic eye. I generally don't sign up artists whose art I don't already love and trust, so I don't tinker too much. But I keep an eye out for the nitpicky things, like awkward body language, unclear visual storytelling -- the practical aspects an editor can be useful on.
Once the art and the text are finished and are in place together, I generally go through the book with a fine-toothed comb, and do an intensive line edit. Depending on the book that can mean I change three pages or it can mean extensive changes on every page. It's much more common that the former is the case than the latter. Once that has happened, the files come in and they go to a designer. Usually our designer Colleen. Occasionally we send them out to freelancers we trust. We have a number of different copy editors we work with, most of whom we have been working with for a long time and who understand comics and know how to read them and how to edit them. The copyedit stage is more the nitty-gritty: checking punctuation, and grammar and clarity. Then I go over all of that myself as an editor and say yes or no or "Hey, author, what do you think?" then send that off to the author. They make their comments and send them back to me. We do several more rounds of that before the book is ultimately ready to go to the printer.
Once it's gone to the printer, I spend a lot of time during this whole process keeping track of budgets and schedules. Once it goes off to the printer I need to worry about that less because it's in the hands of our production department. My reward after it has gone off to print is when a printed book comes back and sits in my hands. That is one of the most satisfying things I experience in my life.
SPURGEON: Is it my impression that you guys do a lot less translated material now? It strikes me that that used to be a greater component of your line.
BRILL: It still is a component of our line. It's something we actively seek out. We do less of it. Partly because we now have a larger stable of domestic authors, people in the US we work with frequently and would like to work with again. We actually have several foreign projects coming up in the next couple of seasons.
SPURGEON: When you said earlier that you guys have a massive amount of stuff in development, how much is massive? How much is floating out there?
BRILL: I can answer that question, but I'm going to have to count. Give me a couple of seconds. I'm going to do a quick back of the envelope. Right now it's nearly February 2013, so not counting this Spring... somewhere in the range of 50 to 75 projects in development. And part of that is that graphic novels take a long time to make. We like to publish -- what are we at now? -- 20 to 25 books a year. That means having a heck of a pipeline.
SPURGEON: Off the top of my head, I remember in the initial announcement of the company a Brian Ralph book.
BRILL: In the pipeline.
SPURGEON: That's still in the pipeline?
BRILL: Yes! It is! I've just seen some of it; it looks amazing.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Are there books that you give up on?
BRILL: It has happened. The good news is that it happens exceedingly infrequently. Our track record... not our track record. There's probably a sports metaphor that would be useful here.
SPURGEON: Your batting average?
BRILL: Our batting average. There you go. Our batting average has been quite good. That's not on us. That's a testament to the excellence of the people we work with.
SPURGEON: What about Grady Klein? Are you still doing those books at all? I liked those books.
BRILL: I love that series. I love that series as well as anything we've published. It is a source of heartache to me that they didn't find a larger audience. Grady's working. He has a terrific series right now that's non-fiction. It's not from us. It's from a different publisher. I would love to work with him again. That series... it didn't really work commercially in the end. And that's a disappointment because we all love it. We would have loved to have seen it thrive.
SPURGEON: I don't know if this is something you can share, but how do you come to the decision to kind of not do something like that anymore? To drag in another sports metaphor, is there a post-game meeting? Do you assess projects when they're done, look at what worked and what didn't, what the sales are?
BRILL: Here's a terrible insider tip for you. This is more about the publishing industry than the comics industry. I used to work for a different publishing house that was at the Walt Disney company. After every publishing season, there would be a meeting called "the post-mortem" where that conversation happened. Every time I went into that meeting I thought, "Calling this a post-mortem basically makes the tone of it a foregone conclusion."
Yes. The answer is yes. Not in an especially systematic way, we take a look at it and try to make some call about whether or not it was a business success. That is never a conversation that is isolated form "How was it received?" "Did it find fans?" "Did we believe in it?" "Are we glad we published it regardless of how it sold?" It's never an isolated discussion. It is part of what we look at. The fact is, if the first three books of the series haven't sold enough to begin to justify a fourth, then it's very hard to make an argument for the fourth. In certain cases I have tried and failed. In certain cases we have continued a series that we probably should have continued. There's no formula for it. It's a sort of painful and complicated decision that gets made every time on fresh ground.
SPURGEON: There's an art to publishing. And I imagine that this is more an artistic choice than a formula.
BRILL: It's not an algorithm. It is more an art than a science.
SPURGEON: Do you think you're a lifer? Is there a point where you'll know when to give up? Do you have those kind of analytical thoughts about your own career path?
BRILL: Not really. I am a lifer. It's very hard to predict what the future will be. I have no intention of ever doing anything else as long as this is still an option for me.
* photo of Calista Brill hard at work supplied by Gina Gagliano
* the First Second logo
* Brill at TCAF 2011 (photo by me)
* Wendy Pini's work
* three cartoonists with whom Brill would love to work: Jaime Hernandez, Emily Carroll, Jim Woodring
* a Don Rosa page
* from the series The Lost Colony by Grady Klein
* one more of Brill at the office from Gagliano; thanks, Gina (below)
2. Streaky the Supercat
1. Sandy -- probably knows how to clean up after itself, possibly even use a toilet.
2. Snoopy -- who doesn't love a dog with an active fantasy life?
3. Pupshaw or Pushpaw -- the one whose face looks like a steam iron plate. Probably leaves decorative poops.
4. Miss Kitty -- her death hurt the most.
5. Bolivar -- way too big for my house.
The top comics-related news stories from January 19 to January 25, 2013:
1. PictureBox Inc. announces a manga line, cementing the recent boom in boutique and small publishers striking up arrangements through which to publish important manga.
2. The culture surrounding the North American comics industry hashed through an increasing numberofissues as the shape and direction of comics as a business never seemed more up in the air if not outright elusive.
Assembled, Zipped, Transferred And Downloaded: News From Digital
By Tom Spurgeon
* I'm not at the point where I can say with some confidence that this story or that story is the top digital comics story of the week, but I know for sure that few stories have as pleasurable a routine outcome as the cartoonist Kyle Baker making a bunch of his work available on-line for free, with I think the idea being that you eventually pay for a copy. He's a massively compelling cartoonist in a lot of ways, and one that doesn't seem particularly matched up with his natural audience yet. Sounds weird, I know.
* this site has run links to it before now, but it's worth a reminder that Dan O'Neill is posting comics to Facebook. Every so often I get an e-mail from someone going, "Um... did you realize this was going on?"
* not comics: here's word of a new on-line collaborative alphabet-related project. Several cartoonists seem to participate in those.
* the Marvel MAX line is now at comiXology, I guess exclusively. The Marvel MAX line is I think the mature Marvel line, which means mini-series about Nick Fury and/or The Punisher that I'm told I should be buying and never do. Certainly a digital publishing program makes that far easier. How digital settles in as a way to curate perennials should be fascinating to see.
* at his far superior avenue for discussing these kinds of things, Gary Tyrrell breaks down numbers on a digital version of the print comic Skullkickers. As much as that comic book's creator has been vocal about the financials for that print effort, I thought some might want to know about the other part of that comic's publishing life.
* I assume this image is from something planned to be published on-line by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard. If not... well, they're promoting it on-line or something. I liked that Freakangels thing Ellis did, the model of it in particular -- free serialized content driving to pay trades and merchandise. Comics is better when Ellis is tinkering around in its garage.
* finally, it's worth noting that a new Double Barrel is out. That is an experiment and a bunch of comics that could use more attention. And it's now DRM-free, according to an announcement made this week. I sort of thought everything already was, but I guess not. Anyway, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon are both fun cartoonists well-suited to the kind of full-bore comics making these massive on-line issues require.
Please Go Read Matt Bors On Plagiarism, Self- And Otherwise
Here. Bors has been really, really good on this issue, I think: rational, clear, non-judgmental and devoid of any bleed-over from personal feelings or competitive resentments concerning any of the cartoonists in question. It has to be phenomenally difficult to be one of the youngest members in a professional "room" and engaging in this kind of criticism. I wish more people would have his back. That the AAEC released this statement is itself noteworthy if only in that my understanding of that organization is that their making any kind of potentially critical statement at all is like Mister Rogers raising his voice and saying a naughty. I wish it went further, but hopefully this and a more general reinvigoration of the basics paves the way for a new standard.
We can all do a better job at what we do. In a dying profession -- or a troubled one -- to have high standards instead of low ones seems to me wholly reasonable. There is a very, very different context to participating in a profession in the full flush of power, with the legitimacy of that profession either widely understood or ensconced in a way that whether or not people understand what it is you do doesn't matter. That's not what editorial cartooning is like right now. I think it's worth asking how far those great artists can move in the direction of being absolutely, consistently excellent by every measurement, as opposed to discussing how far moving the other way is forgivable.
* Scott Dunbier
* Cindy Fournier
* David Gabriel
* Bill Schanes
* Eric Stephenson
* Shel Dorf
* Will Eisner
* Joe Kubert
* Julie Schwartz
Bios available through that initial link. They are all deserving candidates, and there's no clear favorite in that first grouping that I can tell, which makes it sort of interesting. Everyone loves Scott Dunbier and double-loves those Artist's Editions, and retailers are also grateful for the great year that Eric Stephenson has had at Image. The award will be given out at the forthcoming ComicPro meeting in February I will be told a bunch of times I should have attended.
* the MoCCA Festival named Bill Griffith its Guest Of Honor. That should be an interesting show. I think there was a window for someone else to do a show in the first half of the year in New York, but I also think that window closed really quickly and it would be a lot harder to do one from scratch now with the difficulty only increasing. I hope to be on hand. New Yorkers can be pretty relentless when it comes to putting the best face on their events/happenings and applying informal pressure in that direction, so I'd like to see this year's event with my own eyes. At any rate, any honor that can go to Griffith is a great thing.
* I would say most people are orienting themselves towards Angouleme at the moment, with a significant North American contingent of comics people still ignoring that show altogether even in the collective imagination and kind of splitting their attention between Phoenix and maybe Emerald City even by now. There are a ton of English-language cartoonists that do the giant French-language festival, though, and you see them all over the place posting anxiously about the forthcoming trip. It's still a comics bucket list item if not a do-every-year tradition. Here is a festival preview that looks at one publisher's decision to not do the show for several years, at least not officially, in part because of the unhappiness of their authors there.
* writing that last bulleted point made for the first time I checked out the ECCC guest list from a comics perspective, and it's a good one, comparable to Heroes and Baltimore in terms of a solid group of quality, mostly-but-not-exclusively mainstream comics pros. There are a lot of people in that area, of course, and a lot of people down the coast that make the trip up out of fondness for the show and its organizers. I think that show has settled into a nice sweet spot right now.
* not comics: this guy loves books. There's probably a really good post to be had by someone about how comics specifically works as a pushback against aspects of digital book culture, but it would have to be a pretty nuanced take to be of value. Me, I like to read some books digitally and I like to read some books on paper. The books I value most I continue to prefer to read on paper.
* this is the most difficult comics-related contest I've ever seen, and it's totally legit.
* not comics: I have zero interest in things like television pilots as a thing in and of themselves -- nothing against them, either, but I don't feel they automatically should be included as comics news when there's so much actual comics news to discuss. But there is a construction whereby people who make comics, particularly of a certain kind, are very interested in having media deals. There's also some evidence that the right kind of media effort can indeed drive people to the comics themselves. This may be extra-important because sometimes the deal can be better for the creator or creators to sell 100,000 comics than to have four million people watch an episode of the show based on that comic. So when a company I'm not always used to seeing have stuff in development has stuff in development, that could have an impact on that company. So something like this can be worth noting -- maybe it's not worth an endless series of articles, though.
The cartoonist and increasingly valuable commentator on comics Jim Rugg has a nice post up here comparing the virtues of a recent print/digital release of a Mike Mignola Hellboy comic. It may or may not surprise you that Rugg seems to greatly prefer what the digital version offers. It's a fun post: you don't get Art Spiegelman's thoughts about comics-as-art dragged into too many conversations on Hellboy.
There's a fun essay here from Gary Groth on EC Comics. He's those comics' publisher right now, but he's also a critic, so his appraisal while positive is measured and qualified. The post-alternative comics generation criticism of the EC Comics as occupying too great a place in the overall comics-as-art firmament is an interesting one for all of the rhetorical slipperiness that manages to crop up and the way it comes with a you-are-compromised rebuttal built in. I tend to like those comics, and admire their virtues, but like Groth I think their limitations are fairly obvious.
One aspect of the EC Comics thing that I think gets underplayed is that the myth built around them allowed them to survive in the memory of comics fans that wanted better comics when a lot of similar comics, even comics arguably better suited to this cause, either faded from memory outright or were published in ways that fans of that period failed to make connections between what they were doing and what was possible. It's hard for some people to wrap their minds around this, but it was easier for a lot of folks to think of a vaseline-on-the-lens EC Comics as a role model for what comics of the 1970s and early 1980s might do than to simply see Doonesbury and Feiffer as models that might be expanded. That's what it was like back then. One of the miracles of the comics-as-art movement is that it came out of a period of widespread cultural amnesia and a landscape defined in great part by a massive number of invisible or near-invisible constructs for how popular art like comics might function.
I Don't Have Anything To Offer This "Debate" Except Wisecracks
If you're interested in the kinds of things that professionals and commentarians discuss via e-mail, twitter, Facebook commentary threads and in my case a part of an actual phone conversation, you can read Calista Brill on "When To Give Up" here and Chris Butcher's summary posting that touches on the Internet arguments that followed here.
I don't mean to suggest that the idea of vocation in comics isn't one worth discussing. It's more that I think there's a place for what Brill is arguing, and a place for the reaction from artists and others that don't believe the piece was argued effectively and are worried about some the ideas being floated. It's a "there it is" subject for me. So: there it is.
* here is the writer Warren Ellis being interviewed. I laughed out loud when three seconds in his head went into his hands, but I haven't gotten much further yet. Here is the publisher Annie Koyama being interviewed.
* I really enjoyed this Matt Madden post on the struggles he's had getting down to work over in France. I liked the honesty of that confession, but I also liked the overwhelmingly positive nature of the post. The glimpse into Lewis Trondheim as a kind of friendly instigator is very appealing as well.
* I'm not sure where I found this post about Terry Gilliam's early cartoons, so my apologies to whomever sent it or had it first. Shouldn't we have a giant Terry Gilliam art and cartoons book by now?
PictureBox Inc. Makes Official Their Announcement Of Ryan Holmberg's Line: Ten Cent Manga
While there's been a smattering of announcements out via distributor and the publisher's own web site, Dan Nadel assures me that CR is still able to "break the news" that his PictureBox Inc. is going to do a line of books with Ryan Holmberg called Ten Cent Manga, so that's good enough for me. Actually, just the fact that PictureBox is doing a line of manga, building on some of its previous efforts and Holmberg's own, fascinating work with that aspect of comics, should be good enough for us to take wide notice whenever we can.
There are two books coming out in 2013 from the line, both of which feature the series design work by Jason Booher and Helen Yentus. According to a statement supplied CR by the publisher, the series is designed to reflect the way that mid-20th Century manga was less "an independent world of its own" than in part reflective of a significant influx of American comics and cartoons from the 1920s through the 1970s. The line promises both largely forgotten one-offs and ignored work from various manga superstars.
The first, Last Of The Mohicans, will be out in May 2013. That is a 160-page, two-color hardcover featuring work by Shigeru Sugiura (1908-2000), with editing/translation/essays by Holmberg. Holmberg and Nadel sent along this description.
Sugiura Shigeru (1908-2000) is widely regarded as one of the masters of Japanese comics. Getting his start with short one-off humor strips in high-circulation Kōdansha publications in the 1930s, Sugiura turned to longer stories for a wide variety of youth magazines after World War II. The word "nonsense" is often used to describe his work in this period, characterized as it is by slapstick, non sequitur narratives, and bizarre bodily transformations. A fan of American silent comedies and New Yorker-type cartoons since his youth, his famous postwar work often mashes together American Westerns, sci-fi pulp magazine illustration, and comic books together with ninja and monsters from traditional Japanese popular culture.
Sugiura's break came in 1953. He had been invited to draw for the new "Fun Manga Library," a kind of Classics Illustrated in manga form by youth publisher Shūeisha. Amongst the literary classics Sugiura chose to adapt were Ninja Sarutobi Sasuke and, building on his obsession with Hollywood Westerns, James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. The first selling over 120,000 copies and the second more than half that, the books made the artist one of the most sought-after children's manga artists of the 1950s.
While his popularity had faded by the mid 60s, Sugiura made a comeback later in the decade with a number of highly surrealistic, collage-like works that stand on their own amidst the era's vaunted psychedelic art and design. Amongst these were re-workings of his biggest hits from the 50s, including The Last of the Mohicans in 1974. The book veers constantly from low-brow cartoon spoof to reverent high art adaptation. It combines Sugiura's signature brand of absurd action and grotesque caricature with exquisitely rendered landscapes of the American Southwest (never mind that the story is supposed to be set in Ohio) and detailed images of Eastern Algonquian Indian and Colonial dress and weaponry. Considered a masterpiece of postwar manga, and one of the strongest books of Sugiura's beloved oeuvre, The Last of the Mohicans is as beautiful to look at as it is a delight to read.
The second book in the series, The Mysterious Underground Men, will be out in October 2013. That is also a 160-page, two color hardcover, this time featuring comics from Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) in addition to the support and accompanying work by Holmberg. Nadel and Holmberg sent along a much shorter piece of text in support of this book.
While Tezuka Osamu's New Treasure Island (1946-47) was the first major hit for the "god of manga," the artist himself regarded a later book the first of his signature "story manga." Originally published in Osaka in 1948, The Mysterious Underground Men tells the story of Mimio the talking rabbit, as he struggles to prove his humanity while helping his friends save earth from an invasion of angry humanoid ants. Inspired by Bernhard Kellermann's Der Tunnel (1913) and drawing widely on European and American science fiction, as well as Milt Gross' own pioneering "graphic novel," He Done Her Wrong (1930), this full-color edition of The Mysterious Underground Men will not only introduce to English-language readers a founding monument in modern Japanese comics. It will also offer a rare glimpse at the wide-ranging Western cultural sources that made up young Tezuka's world.
The cover to the first is above and the cover to the second is below.
Bundled Extra: SelfMadeHero Announces Spring 2013 Books
The publisher SelfMadeHero announced its Spring 2013 publishing offerings on January 8 via a small, on-line catalog available here. This includes a single release for February, May and June; three releases for April. March is your month to rest. Details are:
* The Murder Mile, Paul Collicutt, 112 pages, February, £14.99.
* The Man Who Laughs, David Hine and Mark Stafford, 160 pages, April, £14.99.
* Don Quixote Vol. 2, Rob Davis, 136 pages, April, £14.99.
* Rembrandt, Typex, 240 pages, April, £19.99.
* The Shadow Out Of Time, INJ Culbard, 128 pages, May, £14.99.
* The Castle, David Zane Marowitz and Jaromir 99, 144 pages, June, £12.99.
Those are all color books except the last. The Rembrandt is the first in a series spotlighting painters, and is done in collaboration with the Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture and the Rjikmuseum in Amsterdam.
Bundled Extra: Koyama Announces Its Spring 2013 Titles
Koyama Press took time on January 3 to announce its Spring 2013 offerings, news of which was promptly ignored by this site and carried by every other right-thinking individual in the comics world. The announcement was for two books by Michael DeForge (Very Casual, a fifth issue of Lose), a book by Julie Delport (Journal) and a book by Victor Kerlow (Everything Takes Forever. Publishing details are:
* Very Casual, Michael DeForge, color softcover, 152 pages, 9780987963079, May 2013, $15.
* Lose #5, Michael DeForge, color softcover, 48 pages, 9780987963062, June 2013, $8.
* Journal, Julie Delport, color softcover, 184 pages, 9780987963093, May 2013, $20.
* Everything Takes Forever, Victor Kerlow, color softcover, 60 pages, 9780987963086, May 2013, $10.
A few things jump out at me from the descriptions. Very Casual collects "Spotting Deer," the Pigskin Peters-winning story that put DeForge on the map a bit. The new issue of Lose will again featured multiple, self-contained short stories. The Delporte is a diary comic set between early 2011 and late 2012, so we should see a chunk of her time at the Center For Cartoon Studies.
* I don't want to turn this column into a full-on previews link post. Still, I'll admit I'm getting close to that this week, mostly because I'm separating a bunch of publisher-centric news into their own posts. Still, I thought the new Greg Sadowski effort on behalf of B. Krigstein might be worth noting. Sadowski's past work with Krigstein was I think reasonably influential in terms of upping the presentation game on such books, so anything he does with the artist catches my attention. I'm not visually sophisticated enough to really suss out exactly how that element of past books worked, but I think the overall attractiveness of those volumes communicated a seriousness that was extremely welcome and appealing.
* here's a news item about the forthcoming Scott Snyder/Jim Lee Superman comic getting its first market exposure via an appearance of a comic in the FCBD offering from DC Comics. I think what strikes me as a little bit odd about that is the we know this thing will sell well. I'm way overstating things, and I'm not sure how to get at this point, but it's a little bit uncomfortable when projects become desirable without anyone really knowing if it's going to be horrible or not. In other words, I'm not sure a a comic book like this can tank because of the way the Direct Market is set up, which is why when something even slightly underperforms -- like that one "crisis" issue DC did on the eve of a Heroes Con that one time -- it really jumps out at you. It also locks the market into behavior where these top-of-the-line comics assume greater importance because of the PR gains involved. I guess what I'm suggesting is that maybe there really shouldn't be pre-sold comic books to the extent there are pre-sold comic books, but that's about as useful as wishing for a magic ring that makes sandwiches.
* speaking of things I'm not sure why I have them, here's a page that I'm guessing links to a bunch of dubiously-attained scans of the Howard The Duck newspaper strip. I'm not really into giving out links like that, but I must have thought it important for some reason. I will trust that reason.
Go, Read: Slate On Those Sourced-Out Liefeld Comics
There's a fun article here on the recent comic book series that Rob Liefeld allowed younger creators to refashion. It also includes a great Rob Liefeld quote from Rob Liefeld. It's a bit weird to see this kind of thing portrayed as some sort of unique victory for allowing others to work on your characters. I actually don't see how this is either a novel thing or how it relates to more aggressive open-sourcing beliefs and/or practices. I like those comics, though; hard not to if you're generally inclined towards that kind of work.
Go, Read: NYT On The Cartoonists Vs. The Holocaust Exhibit
This is a decent little arts piece in terms of unpacking the approach that the "Cartoonists Against The Holocaust" exhibit has taken on that particular subject, and why it's important in terms of the very specific cultural history involved. The casual lies that we onto which we sometimes clutch with American history don't get much more pernicious than the notion that what was going on in occupied Germany during World War 2 was some sort of completely unheard-of shocker unearthed by US soldiers on the ground. I'm suggesting that story here, though, because it's bracing to read about editorial cartoons for their content and ability to shape opinion. That still happens with editorial cartoons, but nowhere near frequently enough to suit me, and I could do with far more discussions about the specific content of cartoons and far fewer on the political views or even the relative craft chops of the practitioners.
* this one came over the e-mail transom just a couple of hours after last week's column posted: Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher has a crowd-funder going in support of a new book. That should do very well; Kallaugher has a long-established fanbase and is a reliable maker of things. In fact, checking back in on it a few minutes before this post rolls out indicates he's already crushed his goal.
* finally, it looks like the things that fans, friends and peers can do to help Peter David as he recovers from a stroke have coalesced into a single posting here. I believe this is David's first statement. The day to day on Peter's condition I have to imagine are best covered at Kathleen David's blog. She's a very good, reliable blogger.
* Colleen Doran would like you to know that you shouldn't give up, particularly if you think your work is really, really good. I think that's mostly true in comics. I think comics does a better job than most arts industries of finding and using the super-talented people, if not always to their best advantage. Put it to you like this: I'd rather put on a version of Uncle Vanya with the best actors currently not working at all than fill an anthology with the best cartoonists not working at all.
1. Bruce Wayne (He'd pay to hire the best movers.)
2. Izzy Cohen (He'd fix the van if it broke down.)
3. Luke Cage (He's a hero for hire, after all.)
4. The Kingpin (Nobody would mess with your boxes. Also, you don't really have to worry about him swiping any of your crappy stuff.)
5. Trashman (He would just #$% get it done.)
1. Gabrielle Bell's friend Tony
3. Fone Bone
5. The Junior Woodchucks
* Jimmy Corrigan
* Walt Wallet
* Linus Van Pelt
* Big Man from Rubber Blankets #3
1) Alfred Pennyworth
2) Captain America
4) Robin (Dick Grayson)
5) The Thing
Alfred is going to have the whole thing taken care of before you say out loud that you are moving. Captain America is the guy Alfred is going to call to make sure it happens. Beast is going to get to all the hard to reach stuff while making some fabulous interior decorating recommendations. Robin is going to show up with the pizza about five seconds before everyone realizes they are starving. The Thing is going to break some stuff but that's okay because he's going to bring in the couch and refrigerator all by himself.
I haven't been following the French-language comics industry awards this year as closely as this site has in years past. They tend to cluster around the big festival in Angouleme, with a bunch of course coming at the show itself. One of those awards is the Prix Artémisa, which this year went to Jeanne Puchol. That's an award to an album made by one or more women. The album in question is Charonne-Bou Kadir, about the killing of political activists in the early 1960s -- something that occurred in the neighborhood in which Puchol grew up. An article here compares it to place-memory pieces by Robert Crumb and Chris Ware.
Go, Read: Matt Bors On Plagiarism In Editorial Cartooning
I'd recommend everyone with an interest in cartooning in newspaper read Matt Bors' long and anguished post about the continuing prevalence of swiping in editorial cartooning circles. That's a tough thing to have to write for a few reasons. First, Bors is a younger member of that fraternity. Second, it's a fraternity that's under constant assault the last dozen years or so for financial reasons. Third, it's really difficult to formulate a way to frame that conversation that makes for a better field.
An additional hassle is that some of these may not be settled issues -- at least not for everyone. For example, I can see someone arguing that repeating cartoons isn't so much a betrayal of the obligation to produce daily content as a way to build continuity between certain events -- I know I do things that involve cutting and pasting for that reason. Still, it's better to have those conversations than to furiously refuse to have them, or to declare the major thrust of these issues out of bounds because you can chase parts of them to an extreme or to an island of principled disagreement. I appreciate Bors making his thoughts known and hope that there can be improvements across the board in terms of any activities -- egregious or interpretive -- that lead editorial cartooning into these distressing results. The end result needs to change. I hope that the messenger isn't attacked, and I hope that his message isn't worried to death.
Let's Do Another Round Of Reader Comics Resolutions
My e-mail got backed up earlier this week and I failed to notice that folks continue to write in with New Year's resolutions related to comics. The later e-mails were building off of the request and example in this column. I did an earlier readers' post here.
I think I'm done at this point; if you sent something in and I didn't run it, I wish everyone luck with whatever they have planned this year for the comics-related parts of their lives.
Comics resolutions! We were gonna do these over at FPI but then nothing happened... Hmm. Anyway here are mine:
1) Do more interviews this year. By more, I actually mean DO interviews this year. I did my first interview with Sonny Liew towards the end of last year (it's not published yet) and he was the most gracious and loveliest guy ever. I now expect everyone to at least meet that standard. I think interviewing's a very specific skill set and one I'd like to have and hone: asking interesting questions and picking up on what people say and instigating riots. Transcribing and editing is hugely time-consuming though.
2) Read more of the comics canon: I really want to start with Love and Rockets, Ware and all that stuff. I have to be sacrilegiously honest and admit the bits I've dipped into don't appeal to me, but I view it as akin to reading the classics: it's important in that it gives you a larger understanding and grasp of the medium as a whole.
3) Attend and be more outgoing at cons: Between work and university, I don't get the time to go to many cons but I think a renewed effort is due. I'm also pretty awful at introducing myself: 'Oh hey, yeah, so I write for this thing, TALK TO ME.' I would find that person weird. It's pretty rare that you go up to a table and natural conversation ensues- mostly you're uncomfortable, the cartoonist's uncomfortable, everybody moves on and is relieved. This shall be the year of foisting. You have been warned.
4) Try to achieve a balance between writing objectively and having an honest critical voice. I've been thinking about this a lot recently and whilst I'm all for positivity, I think when you take out the other half of that discussion, it beomes dis-honest, or at least disingenuous, by omission. I'm not talking about looking at things solely for the purpose of picking holes in them, but to be able to provide an open dialogue that recognizes subjectivity as a constructive thing. That may all have been rubbish, sorry.
5) Get paid writing work. Hah.
1. Publish a dozen comics by New Zealand and Australian cartoonists, four lined up so far and looking forward to working out the rest.
2. Blog daily, or at least week days. Try and be a bit more diligent in my coverage of New Zealand and Australian comics. Great comics came out locally in the last couple years that I wrote almost nothing about.
3. Take part in a Caravan of Comics, ideally get over to SPX.
4. Make an effort to visit and interview the old-timers I'm aware of, procrastinating does me no favours when folks are in their eighties and nineties.
5. Finish collaborations on various books and articles about the history of New Zealand and Australian comics. Big tasks that require much elbow grease.
My New Year's Resolution is to stay within myself as a creator and publisher. When I totaled up the expenses and revenue for 2012 I found that I was in the hole more or less the same amount that I spent promoting my no-go kickstarter. Basically I was so enamored with what I could do if the dice all fell the right way, that overlooked the possibility of breaking even self publishing... which would've felt pretty darn good.
1. Buy only what I intend to read soon, read what I buy, and catch up on reading what I already own. I have bought worthy comics books at deep discounts in the last few years that are just gathering dust, clogging the shelf. Also newer books at Fanta sales and Amazon discounts. Decades of newspaper reprints. Waste of money, waste of space, unless and until I read them. There's only so much time to read in my life. Planning and prioritizing what I'm going to read should help me be a wiser steward of my limited resources.
2. Encourage my 8-year-old's taste in comics. It's not easy to find good kid's comics at my LCS, but I've found a few that my child enjoys (Adv. Time, Peanuts) and I'm enjoying seeing her read and reread them. For a former bag-&-boarder, I don't even mind seeing them get destroyed as they travel around the house, the car, and elsewhere. They're getting read with pleasure!
3. Attend at least one comics author/artist event. I live just far enough between Meltdown Comics and SDCC that either one would be a lengthy day trip. Even so, there are events around here that I'd love to attend and just need to plan a little better (with CR's help.)
4. Put down the @#%&! tablet. The main obstacle to reading some of these other comics books is reading too much of the daily distractions on this device. I spend several times as many hours per week reading about comics on here as I do actually reading comics. Time to change that habit.
Assembled, Zipped, Transferred And Downloaded: News From Digital
By Tom Spurgeon
* it looks like First Second is going to do that serialization on-line strategy thing with the next Astronaut Academy book. I'm not sure which books they've done that with other than the Faith Erin Hicks efforts, to be honest with you.
* I wanted to mention somewhere what a great thing something like comiXology can be if you're a journalist looking for some sample comics for an interview that you've either scheduled in a way that you can't get paper copies or have to do immediately or simply forgot. I knew that there was a role for digital edition of print comics more generally when I felt myself wanting to read comics and having no way to get them -- like issues where something plot-driven happens in a way that brings with it a wider news story -- and this is just a localized-to-me version of that. Anyway, the Mark Waid interview from a week or so ago couldn't have happened without digital comics availability, or at least wouldn't have happened the same way, so I'm grateful.
* this looked like potentially pretty big news when it happened over the holidays, although how big and in what direction the story develops still seems up in the air. Tokyopop is coming out of dormancy with a relaunch of their web site that looks like they'll be using that to work a POD angle.
* Brigid Alverson has a couple of other pieces of manga-related on-line news here.
* here's another one that strikes me as a potentially big deal, depending on execution: Universal Uclick has put together a program for short collections. The first thing that pops into my head is how much the curatorial element of all of this content plays a role in keeping it financially viable, so I'm interested in how this does. In other words, as a young comic strip fan I was more willing to try a book collection of a strip because a book collection of a strip was being presented to me more than I was a comic strip fan that was looking to enter into a book-type relationship with that material. I'm not sure if that will make sense to anyone but me.
* finally, Dylan Horrocks is your Creative Commons profilee of the whatever time period these happen. I'm all for cartoonists adopting whatever strategy they believe best suits their interests and fulfills their desire, and am willing to meet those artists on the terms they define. That's the greatest thing about comics being available in all of the new format -- not the superiority of the format, asserted or otherwise, but how they may be specifically suited to individual cartoonists.
* nice article at The Beat on the latest goings-on at Platinum Studios, where the current people ostensibly in charge are trying to oust company founder Scott Rosenberg. I don't think that's as weird as the article makes it sound, actually. At any rate, that place has been something of a horror show at just about every step along the way, and the only thing that people ever got majorly wrong with any sort of point-and-shriek reporting it was in saying, as sometimes was said, that Rosenberg was super-loaded cash-wise.
One thing I'd hope would come out of something like this is that this is yet another case where people were going "this looks like bad news" and certain folks hearing that replied that this was their only/best/earliest chance to get some sort of described deal. We need to stop doing that. That response really doesn't cut it. Whenever you do business with a company that fosters dozens and dozens of people actively warning folks to be careful, you're probably going to end up screwed or partly-screwed yourself, and if you personally don't get dashed on the rocks in some way you're taking taking part in a system that is sticking it to others just like you.
A few of you have sent along links to this story about FIBD artistic director Benoit Mouchart being named to a big editorial position at Casterman. Someone moving into that kind of position is always going to be a story, but that Mouchart's standing comes from running the big festival and seeing to some of its recently-praised events makes it worth a special note in the context of this site's home in North America comics, where this never happens. You could do much worse than hiring some of the great festival folks out there, although "guy in the office who really insists they can do this and knows stuff about comics" and "person whose turn it is" are also legitimate strategies.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows, Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* so they've announced Autoptic, which manages a bunch of things roaring out of the gate: 1) the obvious involvement on some level of local art-comics anchor personalities Zak Sally, Tom Kaczynski and Anders Nilsen; 2) putting a show in the Twin Cities, which is a great part of the country and a great comics region; 3) finding a slightly different model for a show, which allows it a unique identity and doesn't obliterate the chances that previous Minneapolis shows could return if they wanted; 4) picking a great time of the year that is both open in terms of small press stuff (particularly with fewer of those folks doing San Diego) and a great time of the year to head up to that region. If they execute the rest of this thing this well, watch out.
* that's a new photo for this column, that one right up top: from the Comic-Con 2012 Los Bros At 30 panel.
* MECAF sold out of its first wave of exhibitor tables very, very quickly.
* finally, here's word on an illustration and comics festival in New Zealand, which if nothing else gives some folks a chance to go to New Zealand, maybe. That's TCAF weekend, but let's hope for rapid growth and a different weekend for future years.
* an overriding comics story of the last 12 months is the perceived coarsening of DC Comics, of which this quote and the concerns driving it make for a sterling example. My first thought when I read this was an oblique one: that they may not have enough talent to cover their line in a way that suggests both stability and growth. This makes their decision-making kind of strange. I think I've been reasonably positive when it comes to things DC has done well, like developing Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire into greater assets, to say that about the talent pool without being accused of anti-company bias. I'm always happy to run dissenting opinions, too.
* I totally missed this SMMA comic. That's going to be a stone-cold terror of a book.
Drawn & Quarterly Acquires Sarah Glidden's Rolling Blackouts
The publisher Drawn & Quarterly announced earlier today that it has acquired the world rights to publish Rolling Blackouts by Sarah Glidden. The book is planned for Fall 2014. The work details a trip to the Middle East Glidden took with friends from a journalist collective, exploring both the nature of that region's wars and the stories of the people that fought, opposed and covered those events.
Glidden was the author of How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, an Ignatz-award winning mini-comic that became a mini-sales sensation in full graphic novel form when published at the end of 2010. She's also won a Maisie Kukoc Award For Comics Inspiration. Glidden spent last year as an artist-in-residence at Maison des Auteurs in Angouleme. Her magazine clients have included Cartoon Movement, Ha'aretz and Jewish Quarterly.
The usual D+Q publishing arrangements seem to apply: 1) distribution in the US by FSG; Canada by Raincoast. 2) Samantha Haywood of Transatlantic Literary Agency will represent international rights. Glidden's representative was Bob Mecoy.
Informal Peter David Assistance Information Now Up
The David Family has updated the posting about how fans, peers and well-wishers of writer Peter David might assist a bit financially with the situation facing them following David's late-year stroke while vacationing in Florida. This includes a donation button, and advice on which comics one might target so that the family may benefit. They've been clear from the beginning that the veteran writer had insurance, but I had insurance the summer of 2011 during my health issues and still racked up $35K in bills, so I can attest to the fact that anything you might be able to do for them will be appreciated.
Accusations Of Plaigiarism Strike Bill Day At Tail-End Of Crowdfunding Campaign On His Behalf
Alan Gardner has a strong write-up on an accusation of plagiarism hitting the cartoonist Bill Day at the tail end of a major crowd-funding effort on his behalf. I'm glad Gardner was on top of that and hope you'll go check out his story. Someone contacted me yesterday about this and I didn't connect Day to the figure for whom funds are being raised, despite my own post suggesting that people think about supporting that effort. In fact, I think I threw ten dollars that way myself.
This is the kind of thing that gets really ugly really quick. Editorial cartooning both takes plagiarism claims super-seriously, and -- I know this may not make sense -- not seriously enough. It can drive someone from a job, but rarely damages the personal standing of the cartoonist or keeps them from awards and rewards. It's also such a fundamental sin in the eyes of so many that to suggest nuance of any sort in processing the issue brings with it sputtering fury, which tends to make the issue less rather than more discussed. Also, because it's a no-nuances issues for so many, people with objections to the cartoonist on political grounds or who just think that guy/gal sucks are sometimes super-eager to use the issue as a battering ram against them. Like I said, ugly.
There are two types of plagiarism that form the basis of such accusations, and they operate a bit differently.
The first is stealing an idea, which is almost universally derided yet kind of difficult to fully prove. There's some crossover with accusations against strip cartoonists in this area, and as someone who wrote 1000 gags a year for a few years I can tell you I likely repeated some I either heard and forgot I heard or that I came up with concurrently.
The second is stealing a visual element, which is where things become a bit weird. This is much easier to prove because of the amount of visual information on-line these days. At the same time, people sometimes don't have the same problems with this as they do with stealing an idea. Bill Day claims that he thought the art reference being used was a photo-piece instead of photo-realistic art, which is deeply difficult to believe given the clear labeling of said art. At the same time, I'm not sure if he had just said that he used a piece of art as reference that some people wouldn't have a problem with this and that others would switch their criticism to one of propriety and degree. I mean, I know some people would still 100 percent object, and it's definitely not something I'd want my editorial cartoonist doing were I an editor and would consider it a warn-able then fire-able offense. Still, I think there's enough swiping of elements going on in comics pretty routinely that some people, at least, would see this as simply more of the same.
I think the editorial cartooning field is much better off having a rigorous no-exceptions, no-gray area policy with this stuff, particularly right now. That's an entire form that's under assault. No matter what happens to Day, and whether or not this has a drastic impact on the crowdfunding campaign, this should remain a pretty compelling issue going forward. Here is the page on how to seek a refund if you contributed and want to go that way.
Your Outstanding Comic Book GLAAD Media Award Nominees
* Astonishing X-Men, Marjorie Liu (Marvel)
* Batwoman, W. Haden Blackman, J.H. Williams III (DC Comics)
* Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Andrew Chambliss, Scott Allie, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg (Dark Horse)
* Earth 2, James Robinson (DC Comics)
* Kevin Keller, Dan Parent (Archie Comics)
GLAAD announced its media awards nominees earlier today -- I think it was earlier today -- including their comic-book category. This has traditionally gone to depictions of gay and lesbian characters in mainstream comic books, the kind of thing where recognizing Dan Parent's work with the Kevin Keller at Archie seems like an out-there choice. At some point, one hopes, there's no finding any comic book of this type that doesn't qualify.
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.
NOV120442 ONE TRICK RIP OFF DEEP CUTS HC $29.99
It doesn't seem like there's a whole lot out this week. In fact, this seems like one of the lightest weeks for works in which I'm interested I've ever seen. I actually went and checked Jog's report -- which I tend not to do, because his column is better than this one and it discourages me to read him -- and he was listing books that he only maybe heard were out. So it isn't just me. At any rate, this book here strikes me as a pretty good choice no matter what week it came out. Paul Pope has had a reasonably prolific 20 years but it's sometimes hard to catch up to his work in formats and presentations that seem bound for the ages. This book would certainly work that way.
NOV120037 BPRD 1948 #4 $3.50 NOV120031 CONAN THE BARBARIAN #12 $3.50 NOV128073 SAGA #7 2ND PTG $2.99 NOV120578 SAGA #9 (MR) [DIG] $2.99 NOV120951 SIMPSONS COMICS #198 $2.99
Here's what popped to me in the serial comics sections, although there's a bunch of stuff that's at least worth a look here, including I think the issue of Creator-Owned Heroes with a Darwyn Cooke sketchbook-style looking piece to which I hope to catch up. I wasn't aware that the Simpsons book would reach a 200th issue this year.
NOV120497 INVINCIBLE TP VOL 17 WHATS HAPPENING [DIG] $16.99
I don't follow the Robert Kirkman-written superhero series in trade paperback form, but I still read the comic books and I think it's an interesting effort given how thin similarly-conceived attempts at single-author superhero universes have been.
OCT120867 BLEEDING COOL MAGAZINE #2 (MR) $4.99
I admire Rich Johnston moving into print, which I imagine in some ways is due to the prestige and access that print can still bring that an on-line venture can't. Maybe not, though, that's just a guess on my part.
OCT121261 JORMUNGAND GN VOL 10 (MR) $12.99
Finally, this looks like the best of the mainstream-oriented manga series to have a volume out this week.
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 because I hate you.
* I totally missed this 2012 sales report post from Floating World. There are some super-funny points made about what comics are worth as publishing items within a bookstore, basically that they're worth what you can sell of them whether they're by Grant Morrison or Lisa Hanawalt.
* this DC executives interview starts out with some fun, anti-Marvel smack talk. It's amazing how quickly that crumbles, though. Still, I always laugh when someone is asked to appraise their position and then appraises someone else's.
* I'm noticing a lot of care and attention in various corners of Facebook to articles like this one, about how to better actualize your dreams of becoming a working writer. I always appreciate sound advice, and the fact that comics is mostly driven by appraisals of finished work at this point as opposed to potential work is something that should every wannabe creator should know almost before they know anything. I'm a little terrified that some folks seem to actually refer to themselves as "content producers," though.
* Brigid Alverson revisits Tokyopop's OEL manga line.
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival made its official announcement for 2013 earlier today, including the naming of its official special guests list: Art Spiegelman, Francoise Mouly, Taiyo Matsumoto, Raina Telgemeier, Blutch, Gengoroh Tagame, Dash Shaw and Maurice Vellekoop.
Programming themes announced are "The World's Stage," "TCAF Turns Ten" and "The World Of Taiyo Matsumoto" in addition to the usual programming slate.
Pretty much everything I say after this you can just find through that first link.
Several featured guests are yet to be announced. It is the show's 10th anniversary year. I hope to be in attendance, and strongly recommend the show.
Here are some comics-related thoughts that occurred to me during or later about a recent trip to Los Angeles in December 2012.
* so I got to see Jaime Hernandez's work area. I've never been to Tom Stoppard's home studio or sat in on Albert Finney doing scene work, so this is about as good as a certain kind of experience is ever going to get for me. The main thing I noticed -- and I'm going to chalk up the banality of this observation to my being super-nervous -- was how all of Jaime's personal-favorite art seemed to be right there in the studio with him. It's not like that's a rare thing for an artist to have what they consume nearby. That's just how these households break down a lot of the time. Still, one thing of 10,000 I love about Jaime's work is its relationship to the idiosyncratic and wide-ranging selection of art that inspires its creator.
* his house was really tastefully decorated, too, in a comics sense, with some rare line art but also a few Jordan Crane prints. Everyone loves Jordan Crane prints. That's not from one of the ones in question, but they're all similarly attractive.
* it was really nice to have lunch with Jaime and my brother and my friend Jordan Raphael, and just talk nonsense, everything from media crossover for L&R, which isn't a place I'd go naturally, I don't think, by myself, to Fantagraphics' hiring habits during the LA years. No better guy in comics than that Jaime Hernandez guy.
* I worked that week about 200 yards from where Comic Book Resources is now headquartered. I saw it first, Jonah. I should have marked my territory, by which I mean peeing on things, by which I mean peeing on things more systematically.
* I don't have the same standards for judging great comic book shops that a lot of folks have. One of the first things that was posted when CR launched was a suggested list of standards for processing which shops are effective ones. I can't find it now! At any rate, I think there are plenty of comic book stores that are great ones, and an even much bigger number that are sort of awesome on some level or another, without ever really serving my own needs as a shopper and fan.
I was always bothered in the mid-1990s by the contempt and borderline rage that some comics fans had for the way certain shops were set up. For one thing, I don't think we get to vote on how someone wants to make an investment in retail. Nor should we. I mean, if you want to open up a shop, open up whatever shop you want. You know? Life's too short, and you're the one that has to go to work there everyday. Another and I think more important thing is that a lot of set-ups for which I have no personal, easy use, a lot of those strategies make perfect sense to me. I can totally see making your small-town store a fantasy hub, for example, with comics at its center. Worrying about what is sold in proximity in comics strikes me as slightly batty, like a film fan slapping movies out of the hands of people that use one of those Red Box things.
So SHQ is a good shop from my point of view because it's an attractive space, there are things it does uniquely that make it a place to visit for out-of-town customers, and the staff is knowledgeable and helpful and never looks down on any kind of request about comics that comes their way. I don't primarily value the niceness in that last thing as much as respect the fact that stores like that, all stores, really, are a gateway into comics for a lot of different fans. One of the shameful things about the history of comics retail is how difficult they can sometimes make it for people that aren't exactly on their personal wavelength to just buy and enjoy some comics.
* I totally missed that SHQ opened up another shop, keyed to a specific neighborhood with a specific, curated look. That's a great thing. If we could get all of the great comics shops to open up one more comics shop, well, we'd end a lot of marriages. But it would be cool there for a while!
* one thing that came up in conversation when I was in SHQ that also came up when I was in Phoenix last Fall, so I want to hit it again: local economic issues have a dramatic and drastic impact on comics retail. In Phoenix it was the general transformation of that region's economy away from a certain type of high-income consumer that really dug into serial mainstream comic book that I think went a bit under-studied. In Los Angeles, I was reminded that the downturn in the US economy came really close to an entertainment-industry guild strike there in town, which compounded problems for those stores that count on a certain kind of customer having cash.
* it should probably be noted that LA is more of a comics town than it used to be for DC moving a bunch of people out there. If nothing else, a bunch of the shops gained several quality customers.
* oh, and by the way, about what was on the SHQ shelves: there's a staggering amount of work out right now. Just generally. I'm not even sure how to better communicate this tidal wave of publishing to all of you, but there were literally 20 books on those shelves about which I had little to no comprehension. There are even entire imprints about which I have little to no easy mastery.
* I still can't quite figure out why LA doesn't have at least one sublime, everybody-has-to-go, small-press show. I'm thinking it might be that the nature of the town makes for destination travel over walking-in traffic, and those are shows that depend on walking-in traffic. Maybe. I seriously don't know. Another thing LA could do that maybe a lot of towns couldn't is a comics-anchored cross-media show for a specific property -- a kind of show that it's be interesting to see someone try, maybe just a one-day thing.
* later that same day I went to eat with some of my roughly same-age peers. It's fun to talk about comics with men and women right around your age because the continuity of perspective is about the same. You don't have to explain someone in the context of an earlier comics effort because those folks were probably around for said effort. Comics has this strange thing where it's at once immediate, encompasses all comics everywhere at all times, and negotiates individual perspectives as if they're really either one of the two.
* I recently wrote some things about cartoonists that emerged in the mid- to late-1990s that some people took as disparaging, but those are my people and I'm happy to be acquainted with so many of them.
* Charles Soule will be the next writer on Swamp Thing. I'm not sure I know who that is, but I gotta imagine that's a pretty fun gig. Over here is word of a creative team change on a title called Red Hood And The Outlaws, which sounds like a Sinatra movie with Angie Dickinson. Here are a few more creative team moves at DC. I'm never quite sure what's going on over there, so I don't know how to read the context on stuff like this.
* here's some publishing news of the staffing variety: a position opening up at Graphic Universe, which is moving from New York to Minneapolis. I have to imagine there are about two dozen qualified people that might consider scrambling over mine-filled landscape for a solid, sturdy position like that one so hopefully they choose well.
* Titan Comics was super busy over the now strangely news-packed holiday season, announcing a creator-owned line and a publishing initiative with Dave Elliott. It's nice to see the Jack Katz First Kingdom material get another shot on the stands; that material might go over well with some of the science fantasy stuff that a lot of younger cartoonists seem interested in doing.
* in case you weren't already super-positive about 2013, Bill Kartalopoulos reminds that a new Kim Deitch book is on the horizon.
* Nix Comics is still offering its all-for-the-year special, accessible here.
* finally, venerable publisher Faber and Faber announced it has acquired UK and commonwealth rights to the forthcoming D+Q-published Gilbert Hernandez book Marble Season. Faber and Faber published Rowland Emett. That book is going to be something special: all the editions, not just this one.
Go, Read: Colleen Doran On Misleading Bookscan Numbers
The cartoonist and artist Colleen Doran put up a post over the holidays here that I'm late on because I wanted to give it its own post and CR is mostly unable to do that during the holidays. Doran focuses on a couple of things through her own example, one I knew about and one I hadn't considered.
The first is that Bookscan numbers can be horribly unreliable in terms of what gets reported. I would hold that this is even more true for the kinds of books that we find in the comics world, books that tend to gravitate towards some of the avenues not covered by that metric. She also, I think, flat-out suggests that the service may even be doing a poor job collecting data where it purports to collect data. This is something I've been writing about for years. The only sales metric that is even halfway reliable when it comes to making statements about certain books is that which is culled from royalty statements or otherwise linked to money. Fudging those gets people in trouble. Although that's certainly happened, too, it's far less likely to happen than the distortion caused in assembling a more abstract number pulled from multiple sources. Doran provides personal examples.
The second focus isn't as overt, but by pointing out that people working in the publishing industry vouch for and apparently use these numbers as if they're wholly accurate or close to being so, the publishing industry is portrayed in a really unflattering light. It's hard to fathom that any business making decisions on bad information is going to treat its artists fairly, let alone do so through a proper appraisal of non-quantifiable benefits like how well a specific book or creative entry acts in terms of developing a property for other media. It's kind of scary, actually, to think that your career could feel the impact of faulty measuring tools: like having your blood pressure checked by something a smart eighth-grade built in the garage. It makes you wonder just how much of the publishing industry has floated along on the stream of cash generated by a pretty sturdy model over the years as opposed to rigorous upkeep of that model. Well, it makes me wonder, anyway.
I think that Bookscan numbers have a purpose, one of which is suggested pretty early on in Doran's piece: as a shot across the bow of over-inflated claims. If a book is claiming 200K readers and show up on Bookscan as having 132, something is probably worth looking into. But as a way to judge midlist? Yikes.
More about the SPACE Prize and its selection process can be found through the original link. I believe this is work collected on the floor of the previous show and then voted on by a combination of exhibitors and a few judges, but I'm not exactly sure of the criteria involved.
1) My partner-in-crime, Mike Baehr, was recently diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, so this year, I resolve to find ways to make working conventions easier on him. Better start pumping iron... or taking iron supplements... both, really!
2) Speaking of conventions, I want to make more of an effort to walk around at those things, instead of planting myself at the Fantagraphics booth the whole time. It's hard, because we do get busy, but I really love getting to see what everyone's up to.
3) This must be the year I organize my mini-comics... Binders and plastic sleeves? DVD storage boxes, repurposed? I will figure it out.
4) Yup, write a dozen fan letters: cartoonist Kelly Froh mentioned the other night that she wrote a fan letter, and I thought, "wow, that's so cool!" and then you mentioned it in your own resolutions. I want to start doing that, too.
5) And finally, I'm determined to finish my own comic by the end of 2013. Dear god.
1 - Write More About Comics on The Cool Kids Table
This one's been bothering me for a while, and now that I won't have the formal requirements of grad school on my back, it's time I start chipping in on the CKT again. Poor Ben Morse is pretty much doing a one-man show at this point, my brief participation in important "Gossip Girl" scholarship aside. Blogging can be silly, but I hope it also makes me a more effective writer in that it's never as dry or perfunctory as CBR news copy generally turns out by definition.
2 - Engage CBR's Readers In a Better Way
I get the feeling that I only really talk directly with CBR readers when they're complaining about something we've done wrong on the message boards, which is pretty much the worst possible way to figure out how to serve your audience better. Trying to remind myself that social media is a two-way street, and that asking people what they'd like to see kindly may yield good results. I have administrator access to the CBR Facebook page, for crying out loud. Should probably use that to do something besides deleting curse words lobbed at X-Men writers.
3 - Keep My Big Stupid Mouth Shut
Conversely, I'm going to make a concerted effort to check myself when I get thin-skinned online. I'd like to think that even when I'm being brutally honest with myself (i.e. drunk) about my public behavior, I can still say that when I engage with people who criticize me online it's because I'd like to get an honest discussion going about how I could be a better reporter. But intent means next to nothing when I always end up making an ass of myself.
4 - Slut It Up In The Comics Community
2012 was the first year I did almost nothing in comics except writing for CBR (the "almost" comes from that one Spider-Man thing I wrote for you, which was at least 37% motivated by guilt from whiffing on your questions). I was on no podcasts, hosted no panels, wrote no major freelance pieces and did no broader advocacy. It's hard to feel like a real part of the community when you don't put any effort back into it, so my new motto is turn no opportunity down regardless of pay or personal gain (though some may do those things too!).
5 - Write A Few Actual Comics, For Myself If No One Else
This one has a really fine line because I think there's a definite conflict of interest when journalist types try to act as creative types in comics. But after I wrote a brief script as part of my graduate studies last year, I realized how much I enjoyed doing such things regardless of whether anyone ever draws it. I think I'll do more of that, and if anything ever looks decent enough to be drawn, I can always give it the "Sean T. Collins special" on Tumblr.
Derik A. Badman
1) I'm reading one week of Peanuts strips a day. I'm 9 years beyond on the Complete Peanuts series and after a year... well, I'll still be behind, but less so.
2) I'm reading one month of Sunday Krazy Kats a day. That should get me through all three of those big fat Fantagraphics hardcovers before the year is out.
In both cases I thought the strips would benefit from a reading pace that is closer to the original syndication (I'm too impatient to really do one/day one/week, though). So far (two weeks in), I'm finding that to be true. A lot of Schulz's week of strips tend to follow similar storylines/jokes/themes, and Krazy Kat is just so dense that taking on more than four in a row is a little too much.
1. Read 1000 comics this year. I've fallen behind on a lot of comics over the last year, especially some of my favorite comics because of my stupid habit of reading things I'm not sure I want to keep buying first and letting the books that I know are good (Savage Dragon, The Unwritten, Fatale, Invincible<) start to pile up. And that's just silly: the best stuff should get read first, and the stuff I can't work up the enthusiasm to read probably shouldn't get bought in the first place. At this point, I am literally 10 years behind on reading Fred Perry's Gold Digger. I mean, come on. I've also paired this resolution with one to watch at least one movie a week for the entire year. I hope between the two that consuming that much new art instead of just watching the same American Dad reruns every night will make me a better person.
2. Related to the above, read the entire run of at least one "classic" that I haven't read yet. I've only read about a third of Cerebus, about half of Strangers in Paradise, and literally none of Love and Rockets. Hopefully one of those things will be fixed by the end of 2013.
3. Also related to the above, read more manga. For being someone who at one point owned something like 75% of the manga available in English at that time, I feel completely out of touch with what's going on in that sector of comics these days. Time to catch up.
4. Write more comics, and get them out into the world. At the very least, I'll have short stories in the war- and romance-themed anthologies from St. Louis-based comics collective Ink and Drink Comics (shameless plug!), as well as in our Free Comic Book Day mini-comic. The hope is by the end of 2013 to get out at least two collections of the various anthology stories I've written over the years, and to finally complete my first graphic novel, which I was really chugging through up until November but got very, very lazy about over the holidays. Time to dive back in.
5. Write more about comics. I only wrote 5 comics-related articles for PLAYBACK:stl last year, and while I'm proud of all of them, that's a pretty paltry figure. At least one a month seems like a much better pace for that.
1) Make some more comics myself. I've always had a habit of consuming art rather than producing it, but the very few times I've gotten to participate in creating comics have been so personally rewarding that I've finally admitted that I need to do that more. I have a couple of amazing opportunities on that front at the moment; I want to make the most of them.
2) Own fewer comics at the end of the year than I did at the beginning of the year. I don't mind having countless boxes and shelves of comics and books, as long as they're comics and books I actually care about. I currently own far too many that are just taking up space. Someone else has to have better use for them.
3) Find another way to respond to particular comics purely as a fan. I've enjoyed the various online projects I've done that have focused on specific series, and I've learned a lot from them; I probably need to take a few months' break from a weekly schedule, but it's important to me to do at least a bit of writing about comics that's entirely for pleasure.
4) Read all of Tintin and all of Garth Ennis's Punisher. The former is one of the peaks of Western comics; the latter exemplifies a lot of what I'm uncomfortable about liking and uncomfortable about disliking in American mainstream comics. I've only read stray volumes of either. I need to rectify that.
5) Get a much better sense of the webcomics landscape. The webcomics I read on a regular basis are pretty much the same ones I was reading on a regular basis three years ago, and I'm sure there are some newer ones I would love if I put a little effort into discovering them.
* Kathleen David wrote a few days back that a donation button would be up today if you want to toss some money the way of writer Peter David, currently rehabbing from a late-year stroke. That might be worth checking. You can poke around on there more generally for advice on things to buy that will add some heft to the David Family wallet to help them negotiate tough days ahead.
* I'm not sure that anything really leaps out at me from the staff-picks page at Kickstarter, but I'm sure all projects like those represent a dream for someone, creator or reader.
* here's one via IndieGoGo from Mark Oakley that's rounding into its final few days.
* finally, I'm always interested in the relative novelty of someone raising money for something comics-related that isn't a comic, although I'm not connected to the part of the funnybook world that is covered by such things so I couldn't tell you if there's an obvious need for a site like that or not.
I hope that you'll consider Given how they break down proportionally, I'm a bit more interested in charitable activities directed at comics causes and people than I am crowd-funding, but I want to hear about them all.
* the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund announced last week that Jennifer L. Holm -- best known for the Babymouse series -- will join that group's Board of Directors. Sean Kleefeld has some related commentary here. That's a good move for the Fund.
* The Comics Journal had a curious and intermittently hostile relationship with the now cancelled Comics Buyer's Guide. Gary details an early encounter here. TCJ parent company Fantagraphics is offering a discount to stranded subscribers here.
Please Send A Stranger On The Internet Your Date Of Birth
We do birthdays at The Comics Reporter. If you're some sort of comics-maker or industry professional, we'd love to do yours. and I've either heard of you or can easily track you down, I'll run your birthday with some sort of applicable art right here on the site. I'm afraid it has to be a date of birth and not just the birthday. I'm not interested in running the birthday greeting without the information as to age. That's the most interesting part to me.
You don't have to make your case as for inclusion. This many years in, I can pretty much figure that out on my own.
So last year I posted a short list of comics-related New Year's Resolutions. I have no memory as to why I thought this was a good idea. As it turns out, it sort of worked. I resolved to:
1. Gain More Control Over My Comics Collection.
2. Write At Least A Dozen Fan Letters
3. Resist Participating In Any And All Comments Threads And Message Boards
4. Learn At Least A Little Bit More About Comics I Don't Know That Much About
5. Be A More Respectful Industry Member
Of those five, I only truly punted on #2. I wrote exactly one respected industry member in 2012, which makes my proposed systemic appreciation program kind of a one-off incident of stalking. One funny aspect of this not-hilarious testament to sloth is that I included #2 mostly because I wanted one that would be really easy.
The others I made at least some progress on. Yeah, I'm surprised, too.
My comics collection has been divested of many of its doubles and hopefully by season's end will be divested of many more. I've completed sets of comics via trade and deep-discount buying (this month: Planetary, Mage, Luba and Volume Two of Love And Rockets) and now have two different comics collections -- one which may stand the test of time (however long I have left, hopefully many years, followed by hopefully going to someone or something I love) and one with various half-broken and incomplete sets where everything needs help before getting to the "test of time" shelves.
As far as I can remember, I did not participate in any comments thread or message boards, although Kevin Huizenga was right to point out to me via e-mail that I cheated a bit by using Twitter at least a half-dozen times as my argument toilet. If there's an on-line equivalent to coming out of an alcohol-induced blackout walking on the side of the highway at 4 AM, barefoot, it's that feeling you get at the tail end of a twitter battle. Still, a few unfortunate limited-character exchanges is progress considering that from 1998-2002 I routinely gave over entire weeks of my life to screaming at people in text form about Starlord.
I feel I'm more familiar with a few areas of comics I was not heading into 2012, including the expressions I discussed in that original post. I'm not an expert on, say, comics from people younger than 35, but at this year's BCGF I felt less like a Dad chaperoning a prom and more like an older brother visiting my sibling's fraternity house. I'll take it.
The be more respectful as an industry member point has been personally transformative, and I hope it continues. I have some work left here to do, for sure, particularly in that I framed my original desire in part by talking about more effectively finding common ground with people. That wasn't always how I executed the matter. I hope I can lean more towards the sustained, clear argument side of my nature and away from the smartass asides elements of my skill set in the months ahead. Still, my life has become a better one for learning how to contribute and give back and work with others in the place in which I've found myself professionally, and I'm grateful for both the opportunities and help I've had getting further down that road.
An 80 percent success rate on anything outside of an exam, by which I mean anything in the real world, is a rate with which I'm both completely unfamiliar and totally thrilled. I have to try this again. So here's a short list of comics-related things I'd like to accomplish in 2013.
1. Write a dozen fan letters to comics industry professionals and/or cartoonists of more than three paragraphs length. 2. Do my job more effectively, and find ways to make it more rewarding. 3. Become a more honest and prolific critic, and a better steward of the free things sent me. 4. Become better at verbally expressing myself in terms of comics, and of representing this site more effectively in public. 5. Become a digital comics consumer.
I'm going to repeat this fan-letter thing. In fact, for every letter less than a dozen I end up writing, I'll donate $50 to Hero Initiative. I missed out on some opportunities to write some people last year that have passed away, so I'll be fueled by a free-floating sense of guilt, but mostly I want to try this again because I think this is a nice thing. I hope that you'll consider joining me in writing one such letter a month, or one every two months, or just writing one right now. It costs like 50 cents, and I have to imagine it would be a nice thing to receive. If 10 people did it, that'd be 120 nice things in the world that weren't there before. I don't know, I'm not very focused on explaining the virtues of this idea, so I'm also sort of interested to see how my opinions develop if I start doing them more frequently.
The second point sounds like one of those horrible New Year's resolutions that I mock when politician and celebrities make them, the kind where they declare they need to spend more time with their grandkids or find more balance in their lives. However, I don't think people in comics -- particularly those of us in (essentially) non-creative positions -- approach their jobs in the same way that an artist might, and I think that's telling. Comics has as much first-rate talent in its creative ranks as any other art form, but I think doesn't do as well in terms of inspiring people in the support and auxiliary positions. I'm lucky enough to work in close proximity to an art form and industry for which I have a lot of affection. I have very specific standards as to what that should entail, and I rarely meet them. I should make a more significant effort to do so. I also need to find ways to funnel money back into the site, so consider this an advance apology for any unseemly efforts in that direction.
As for #3, I get a lot of things in the mail and I honestly treat them more as a hassle than as an opportunity, which has to stop. I also need to write more about the art form, because I think that's a very specific opportunity that I have and that I haven't come close to engaging with the seriousness it deserves. I think that can be its own goal, mostly because it's an area that needs a lot of attention.
I made a few improvements last year in terms of being a better public representative of the industry and profession of which I'm a member, at least according to whatever semi-pathetic assemblage of symbolic gestures to which I routinely assign value. I'd like to become a better panel moderator and public speaker about comics, and I'd like to be better verbally on podcasts and the like. I think those can be important, and it's not something I've engaged directly because of a) fear of failure, b) hiding behind more of the site's direct values, like trying to write well about comics, when these things are not mutually exclusive goals.
I also need to start engaging comics on-line because it's honestly not a natural thing for me to do and I think it's telling how much of a babe in the woods I am in that area as I make summary appraisals of the entire medium. I also think it's important to have a consumption goal because consuming comics is a significant relationship I have with the art form, and it's an area in which I can improve or at least adhere more closely to the ideals I have in general, such as not exploiting artists in part by engaging their work in the manner they'd prefer it to be engaged.
I am very grateful to the following CR Holiday Interview Series subjects, all of whom I thought did a stupendous job answering my mumbled questions. I hope you were able to enjoy some or all of them, and I greatly appreciate your reading this site. Here in one place are links to all of this year's interviews.
I have to imagine that the series will return next December, although it's interesting: we actually launched this at a time when there was no news in the comics field during the holiday season. People used to routinely shut down the week before Christmas to the Monday after New Year's. We didn't even run "Random News" with the series until last year, there was so little to report. Now, though, it's pretty clear that the Internet news economy does not shut it down December 15 to January 10 the way it used to. As a result, I wonder at this point if the series isn't more appreciated than actually read. So we might tweak the series a bit to provide a different contextual experience in future years.
The one thing that doesn't change is how many nice, smart people there are in comics, for which I am endlessly grateful. Interview subjects, people that helped set things up, all of you readers: thanks again.
Joe Sacco is one of the finest cartoonists working, and a category-defining pioneer in the field of practicing journalism in comics form. In 2012 he published two major works: Journalism, a collection of his magazine pieces, and Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt, a book shared with prose writer Chris Hedges. For those of us that had taken the 2009 publication of the colossal Footnotes In Gaza as a sign we'd have to wait a half-decade or more for the next major Sacco effort, getting two books wasn't a surprise as much as a minor publishing miracle. I'll take any chance I can to talk to Sacco, one of comics' most articulate and eloquent representatives to the wider world. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: One thing I wondered about has to do with your unique positioning: you straddle two worlds. How much valuable feedback do you get on your work? For that matter, how much is feedback valuable to you? I ask because I wonder if the journalists know what to do with the comics, and if the comics people know how to process the fact you're practicing journalism. I guess I'm interested in both in-process relationships you might have, but also reviews or other post-publication reactions. Do you get anything from what gets written or said about you, Joe?
JOE SACCO: I have read feedback at certain times, and I have read feedback with the last couple of books. There always comes a point where I feel all I'm getting is my ego stroked or I'm having someone misrepresent the book that I get sort of pissed off and then I decide there's no point reading this stuff. You're catching me in a period where I'm in a moratorium where I don't read reviews or anything.
SPURGEON: And in the process? You come from that alt-comics tradition where there's little to no editing at all, partly due to the lean and mean and close to the ground nature of a lot of those publishers. It's my impression that you've continued on with that, that you're not heavily edited in the process of doing your comics.
SACCO: Not generally, though there have been periods where I've been edited. When I did some journalism for Art Spiegelman -- there's a Details piece in the Journalism book and I did another Details piece that was in the rock and roll book I did. He edited both of those and for the rock and roll piece he had no opinion about how I was approaching it one way or the other. He was fine with it. With the other piece, the one about the Hague War Crimes Tribunal, he was very actively involved in editing and making suggestions with the script. In fact, we basically went through nine different drafts with the script.
SPURGEON: Oh my gosh.
SACCO: Basically he wanted to boil down further -- and when I did some of the drawings he even had suggestions about the drawings to make them more effective. And you know, at that point, I wasn't used to being edited, but I thought, "This is Art Spiegelman. Maybe I can learn something here." [Spurgeon laughs] I sort of gave myself over to the process. And I did learn something. It was very useful.
The other time I was edited, and it was a much more complicated process, was the book Footnotes In Gaza. I actually had an editor. This is for a book publisher, Metropolitan, as opposed to a comic book publisher. The thing with a regular book publisher [laughs] if I might call it that, they're not used to people just having their own way without... feedback. Without inserting themselves on some level. I sort of wanted an editor in this case, because it was very loaded material. Obviously it was about massacres in Gaza. It involved Palestinians and Israelis so right there you're going to get red flags coming up. My editor happens to be an Israeli citizen -- not that we don't have the same politics, because I think we essentially share the same politics, but she was able to look at the book with certain eyes that I might not have had myself.
She was helpful in very practical ways. For example, I drew a picture of a kibbutz and I drew people in sort of conservative clothing. And she wrote me, "Actually, that particular kibbutz is a secular kibbutz." They would have been wearing overalls, not headscarves. That's the kind of stuff I needed to know. You make mistakes, probably, but you don't want to make those obvious mistakes. It was still a very difficult process, because I really thought, and I tried to make it clear, that I wanted the editing to begin and end at the script stage. I usually write an entire script. So there was a lot of back and forth about the script, and I was okay with it, maddening as it was. The more difficult part was that when I turned in the drawings, the finished art, then changes were also suggested at that point, too, to a script element, which if you're changing a caption, if you're increasing or decreasing the caption, you have to redraw some part of the image. Which was difficult. Really difficult. But I have to say, as an enormously difficult task as it was for me to sort of deal with an editor and all that, she was very good, and I'd say about 85 percent of her edits improved the book. The other 15 percent -- and I was clear to say no to anything, she made that clear to me -- but I only put my foot down about 15 percent of the time [laughs] and said, "Nah, I'm not going to change this." Or "I think it's fine the way it is."
I gotta say it was really difficult. Really difficult. Because as a cartoonist you're generally spoiled as far as it goes. I think it can be a really good thing for a book and a really bad thing for a book depending on where you are as an artist. I personally like not being edited just because it's easier that way, and because cartooning is one of the only places that you can get a sort of singular vision. A painter isn't edited in his painting, or her painting. They put down what they want to put down, and that's the end of the story. I think that's how a lot of cartoonists are used to negotiating these sorts of things. Maybe that will change. As more book publishers get involved, it might change. DC and Marvel and all those places have editors.
SPURGEON: The question I have as it relates to the work is that you've spoken in the past in eloquent fashion about your ability to cover a story in-depth, to stay in a place a long time is a benefit to the kind of journalism you do. I wondered if the fact that you're mostly -- mostly -- left alone, or are mostly direct your own projects, as opposed to a journalist that's filing on a regular basis and working with an editor at far remove. I wonder if that's had an impact on the effectiveness of your journalism as well.
SACCO: Yeah, I think it makes a big difference. Getting autonomy -- in my case, I don't know about other cartoonists -- but in my case it wasn't something I was thinking about directly. "I'm going to carve out some way of doing this and do it my way" or whatever. Things sort of developed pretty accidentally in that if no one is interested in what you're doing, or there are no real venues for it... For example, when I went to Palestine the first time, I didn't even tell Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics was my publisher at the time. I thought no one was going to print this stuff. I was worried that no one was going to be interested in this, but I sort of felt obligated to do this work. Because of that, the autonomy comes as byproduct of the fact that you feel like you're so under the radar and so unimportant that no one's going to pay attention anyway.
SPURGEON: Now has that changed for you?
SACCO: It's changed. It's changed considerably. It's gone from that to where everyone is sort of paying attention, people want you to do work for them. Then they want you to do a work like you did before. You know what I mean? The vista is wider, but people are so used to you doing things a certain way that that's kind of want they want. You're a known quantity now, and they want a known quantity.
SPURGEON: You seem properly self-critical and self-analytical in terms of your strategies and you ways of doing things. Is that a constant struggle, given all the other pressures, just to get work done, to stay hard on yourself in terms of not falling into routines or bad patterns or using techniques over and over again?
SACCO: I do try to be pretty self-critical. If you're trying to get away from being edited, you have to be self-critical. You gotta look at your stuff and say, "Can I draw this better?" Or "Just because I invested all this time in writing it this way, maybe I should go back and undo this?" It's very painful to do it yourself. I prefer it. I prefer to come to those conclusions myself. What helps me is that I'm not entirely a perfectionist. My feeling is you have to sort of keep moving forward. Often I look back and think, "I should have done this differently." Or "If I had to do it again, I might have asked this question." You know what I mean? I think all my work, it's not varnished to that point. And I'm okay with that, generally speaking. My main thing is okay, I need to take a bit more time with this aspect. Or I've learned to slow down at this point. Hopefully I'll just carry those lessons forward.
SPURGEON: That might be a good place to start into our discussion of the Journalism book. Did putting that book together engender any sort of review of those works for you? Did you see things that you did in putting that book together that are instructive for what you're doing now?
SACCO: Yeah. You look at that stuff. There are pieces I like there, and pieces I like less. Often each piece has a bit of both. There are things I don't like and things I do like. There are things I sort of think, "Wow, I really got right. I don't know if I could ever replicate that again -- and maybe I shouldn't." [Spurgeon laughs] And then there are parts of everything I've done where they stand out for me if not for anyone else as not being as good. I especially feel this with my drawing. I've never felt I'm a great drawer. I might be a good drawer. That's where I see a lot of things that don't work.
SPURGEON: When something doesn't work for you, what do you mean by that?
SACCO: The thing is, when I'm drawing something, it always seems like it's working. And to me I think it's a good thing that if two years later you look back and go, "Nah, that's not properly drawn." I think that's somewhat good, because if you're never satisfied with your old work you know you can move forward onto something, somehow. You can improve. And I find that a good thing.
SPURGEON: Why the Journalism book now? I ask because you have another book out, and usually when you get a greatest hits, or a collection like Journalism comes out it's spaced between newer projects in part to keep your name in front of the public and in part to help you bridge the gap between projects. So with another work out at the same time, I wondered why you decided to do this collection now.
SACCO: Partly because I had I'd say three or four long, substantial pieces that a lot of people hadn't seen. I felt why not put this out there, otherwise they'd get lost. Who's going to look at some back issue of Harper's. I always thought as a journalist you're kind of documenting the times. What I liked about those pieces is that mostly they're not my standard stomping grounds: Israel, Palestine and Bosnia. There are a couple of short pieces that are about those places. I've actually tried to look elsewhere, and in some ways I've tried to get away from conflict, too. In some ways the book was sort of a signal that I was trying to get away from conflict. When I say conflict, I mean violent conflict. [laughs] You can never get away from conflict.
But then there's something even bigger than that. That's one reason. The other reason is I've been thinking of sort of stepping away from journalism for a while. Adding things besides journalism to what I'm doing. Even the commentary was a way of sort of, in my own mind, saying, "Okay, this part of career -- I won't say 'done' -- but you're moving onto other things at this point." That's what I wanted to do.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask about a couple of stories more specifically. One was a story that struck me different just for reading it in this collection. "Trauma On Loan" I thought was a slightly problematic piece the first time I read it. You seem in the course of the story to be dissatisfied with certain aspects of that story. I wonder if my reaction to it this time around is as simple as the book is called Journalism and the piece has a running critique of a certain kind of story, the difficulties in presenting the story here.
SACCO: I think almost all my stories -- not quite all of them -- but most of my journalistic stories have a critique of what I'm doing and journalism in general. I want to show the ins and outs of getting a story because often the problematic nature is part of the story. Torture is an intimate thing. It's very hard to talk about humiliation, your own humiliation, and partly that's what torture is about. A journalist wants to get to the meat and bones, what exactly happened to you in consecutive order, to be crude about it. That's what you're trying to get to. Then you realize it's painful for them. They have minders that are being very attentive to what it all means to them. It's a very interesting dynamic, what was going on. It wasn't really just about the money shots of torture. Those people are still sort of tortured. And talking about it is a form of torture. I wanted to get to some of that.
SPURGEON: It seems like there's some self-criticism there, too; at one point in the final sequence you confess that you're playing things more lightly than you otherwise would have. Does that kind of observation come at a remove, or does -- ?
SACCO: At a remove. The truth is when I'm trying to get those stories, I am trying to find out what happened to those guys. I want them to tell me exactly what happened. Whether I'll use it or not... I sort of want myself to be the judge of how much information I'll use. I think there's a certain arrogance to that. As a journalist, that's how I behave. I won't say I'm cold to people, but journalism itself is... you're trying to get to something. You're trying to get people to tell you something. What they're going to tell you is going to be difficult for them to say. Usually when I'm trying to get the story, I'm very much trying to get the story.
Drawing is a different process. Even writing about it when you're at a remove from it, you see yourself in a different light. There is sort of a remove. There's a dichotomy between the art of what I'm doing and the journalism itself. One is very cold and calculated, the other is very reflective on that. But I think both are necessary in a certain way. It doesn't mean I'm an insensitive bastard when I'm talking to those people. In many cases, I've shut down interviews when people can't talk. But there's that part of me saying, "God damn it..." [laughs] I know it's the right thing to do; it's more cerebral that it's the right thing to do to shut it down. It becomes more emotional later on when you're thinking about those people. It's easier to think about people as people when you're a bit removed. You think of them as subjects when you're a journalist.
I do. I should talk for myself.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I thought the belle of the ball in this book, and I forgot the title so I went and tried to find it just now. "The Unwanted."
SACCO: The one about Malta.
SPURGEON: I thought that was a great story. It popped for me looking at the collection again because I thought there was a real complexity to it, and an energy that was different than a lot of your other journalistic pieces. It seemed like it took a while for you to find a center to the story, although I'm not sure you'd agree.
SACCO: I'm not sure I'd agree because I wrote the whole thing as one script. I didn't write it bit by bit. You read the story in the book?
SACCO: Because the story The Guardian put out, I thought they were doing an excerpt and I think what they did -- because I couldn't even look at it -- was condense it somehow.
SPURGEON: They did. There's not a lot there.
SACCO: It's one of those things where I'm not a micromanager, so I didn't know they where doing something like that. It didn't even occur to me. I thought they were taking some part of it that would work as a whole.
SPURGEON: I thought that story as reprinted in Journalism had an interesting pace. It felt different than some of your other stories, and I'm not sure I can articulate exactly how.
SACCO: What I wanted to do is start out with the overall idea of what's going on, but at the end of the first half tell one person's story in-depth and then get into the intricacies of government policy and what's going on. Maybe I didn't pace it well. [laughs] I didn't think that, and I guess I don't think that now that I'm -- I didn't feel like it was a mess when I was doing it. Sometimes things do feel like a mess, but that one didn't.
SPURGEON: I didn't feel it was a mess, but it seemed like a very complex story, and there was an uncertainty on your part as a narrator in the story.
SACCO: Oh, there's that. Okay.
SPURGEON: I thought this was the best story in the book, and that it wasn't a mess at all.
SACCO: I thought you were talking about the structure. [pause]
I appreciate your saying that. The reason it was in some ways easy to do this story in Malta is because Malta is so small. And because I'm Maltese, people are more open to me as an outsider. Also because I speak it fairly okay. I wouldn't say fluently, but well enough to get by in conversation. People would sometimes say things I would catch even though they didn't think I understood. The other thing is is that it's kind of a place where you can call up a minister and a day later you're talking to him, which you can't really do in European countries. It's a big rigamarole. Malta is small and you can get the whole thing. You can also visit Africans in their camps or on the street, just talk to them.
It was a complex story. I wanted to approach it going in, not in a knee-jerk liberal fashion. I think it's important to understand. I think migration is going to be the biggest story of the century coming up. Human migration. With climate change, people are going to want to move. And people are going to want to keep them out. This is going to be a real problem. My natural inclination is just to be very sympathetic to the Africans that are leaving. To the migrants. And actually, when push comes to shove that's where my sympathies lie. But I did not want to dismiss out of hand why people are fearful. Unless we start talking about why people are afraid of migrants coming through, we're never going to come up with a graceful way to accomodate migrants. You can't just sort of tell people, "You have to accept migrants, because otherwise you're racist." I mean, racism plays a part, perhaps -- in this case it does play a part -- in how they look at African people, but there's more to it than just that. People don't like to see anything they know change if they're comfortable with what they know. I wanted to address that somehow and sort of get some feel for what people are feeling about migrants and why they are fearful. Not dismiss those feelings out of hand.
SPURGEON: Do you feel you got there somewhere. Did you get an answer, or the shape of one?
SACCO: I think I understand the basics of it. For me, the strange thing is, I think there are human questions we can never put an answer on. That's troubling, but it's sort of honest. I look at my neighborhood. I like my neighborhood here in Portland, Oregon. If things were starting to change quite a bit in the neighborhood, what would I think? I'm comfortable with my existence. What would I think if the park was full of people I didn't know who they were. And there were like cultural things that are different. I look at myself and I'm thinking, "Okay, how much of this would irk me? How much would I try to swallow? Where would I be in this picture?" I began to ask myself that question. And you know, I think people are going to move. People are going to migrate. It's just going to be a reality of where we are. It has to be a reality. The idea is to come to terms with it as gracefully as possible. We were never going to come to terms with it perfectly gracefully, I think. At least we have to be open to being graceful. That's why I really liked this mayor I met. Of Marsa. He has a lot of problems on his hands. He was at least trying to be a decent person. I'm not saying he didn't have some of the prejudices the people around him had. He did. But he was trying to find that decent part of himself that was trying to come to terms with change. That's what it's about. It's coming to terms with change, and change is inevitable.
SPURGEON: You talk about looking at yourself in this sort of situation, and thinking about this happening in your neighborhood. In a couple of interviews you've done, you've talked about your kind of... I don't know that I want to call it rootlessness, but your "citizen of the world" status -- I think it was constructed that way in one of the pieces I read. You have sort of a global, cosmopolitan background at least relative to a lot of folks. For that matter, just the fact that you've traveled a lot and have friends in different areas of the world, might set you apart a bit. Do you ever question that aspect of your background in terms of some of these smaller, conservative communities into which you enter? That the world they live in is much smaller than the world you live in?
SACCO: I'm definitely in communities that are conservative in ways I wouldn't want to live. I'm often around people where I'm not used to their community, but I try to look at their communities -- I'm not saying in a relativist sense, but you have to accept a lot of different ways of living if you want to get by in this world. Also, what you find is that there are great differences but you also find the commonalities. Those really strike me. I mean, most people just want to have a decent place to live. They want their children to go to school. They want opportunities. A lot of concerns for people are very economically based somehow. After that, things begin to widen a bit. I would say, most Americans I know, their concerns are very economically based. Their concerns about civil liberties... how many people that I know that are liberal about economic issues are not that concerned with civil liberties. I'm not talking about gay and lesbian issues, they might be liberal in that regard, but when it comes to the drones or surveillance or things like that -- ehhh, you know. They don't see anything wrong.
You know what I mean? There's conservativism even in liberal bastions like Portland. It's very deep.
You're right. I have traveled a lot. I don't feel great loyalties to places. I feel a certain loyalty to my city in kind of this weird way. I like Portland or I'm pissed off about what's going on in Portland or whatever, but this is the community I live in. And I have more in common with someone I'm around in Portland than I have with people in other cities. Whether it's a Rio De Janeiro or a city in West Virginia, I may have little in common with each of those places. They're both foreign places on some level.
SPURGEON:Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt was your other 2012 book. You know, I thought the drawing in that book was particularly attractive.
SACCO: Thanks. That's nice of you to say.
SPURGEON: Was it fun with some of the tableaux you were dealing with, these landscapes and these illustrations in addition to the comics constructions?
SACCO: I wanted to draw landscapes, and I wanted to give emphasis to landscapes, because I think... I like landscapes. I like paintings of landscapes. I think not enough of it is done in comics. Comics is such shorthand sometimes that people give that kind of thing short-shrift. I think landscape is a major player in people's lives. I think an urban landscape or the rural landscape or whatever it is, it's really striking to me. So I wanted to give the reader a sense of that. It's not photography, of course. Photography can also do this sort of thing. It's also goof for me personally, because when you're drawing you're really thinking about it. If anyone gets a benefit out of those landscapes, it's me drawing them. Probably more than any single reader does. [laughs] It's kind of for my edification. If you're drawing something, you're really thinking about it.
SPURGEON: Did you have as much time with the comics you did here as you have had in other projects? Were you able to settle into the kind of reporting you prefer to do, or were you more in and out.
SACCO: I would say it was more in and out. It was different from my other sort of stories. I was working with Chris Hedges, and were doing things in I think more of newspaper mode. Normally, and it's not always possible, I like to stay in a community for a while, really get a sense of it. We weren't approaching it in quite that way. What I was trying to do is take one single story or maybe two from each place we went to and just trying to tell that person's story. It might be necessary to talk to that person extensively once, twice, three times to get that. It wasn't like I personally was trying to capture a whole community. So I was thinking what was necessary for the book. I was uncomfortable with what was necessary for the book. It's not normally how I do things.
SPURGEON: It sounds like you might have preferred to do it the other way, but the assignment in front of you was this.
SACCO: Yeah. The assignment in front of us, or what we decided to do, is look at four different places. Even looking at four different places it took about a year and a half to do all of the reporting. We visited some places more than once. We went to West Virginia a couple of times, for example. Over the course of a year and a half you're spending just maybe a few weeks traveling. Not more than six weeks out of that year. The rest of the time you're writing and sending ideas back and forth. That kind of thing.
SPURGEON: How did working with Hedges have an effect on the comics, do you think? Or is that just too impossible broad a question? I think if you remove the comics or placed the comics into a different context fans of your might not be able to detect Hedges. They wouldn't think that anything about those comics was radically different. Do you feel the comics work itself was any different for that collaboration?
SACCO: On some level it was different. When we were doing these interviews, Chris was the one asking a lot of these questions. I'd say he was taking the lead in a lot of these interviews. And there was even a case, for example with the Spanish woman: I don't speak Spanish, he does. So he was asking the questions, but Chris has worked with me enough to ask visual questions. [laughs] He would ask, "When you were crossing the river, what was that like?" A prose journalist might just say, "They crossed the river." He knew I had to draw that. So in Spanish, without me prompting, he would ask a lot of those questions to clear things up. So it was an interesting collaboration in that regard.
It wasn't fully planned out how we were going to do it when we did it. At first I wasn't sure I was going to be doing things my general way where I'm also writing sort of a narration to go with what I'm doing. Then we realized if I tell a particular story, I can illustrate it: a story that's going to go back to World War 2, or into someone's mind, or into Camden as it looked in the 1950s. Chris understood my work well enough that even with the best material he could go, "You take this story." He was very generous that way. There wasn't any friction between us. We sort of fell into our roles in a way. It was a smooth machine. What you don't want, or what I think is difficult, when you're interviewing people is to have two people interviewing. You can tell someone is guiding the interview. You have a question and then Chris asks the question I was going to ask. I could jump in at any time, and at the end I asked questions I needed to ask, which frequently led to a new avenue of inquiry.
SPURGEON: The Rudy Kelly sequence -- the old miner. There was something very compelling about your take on him in modern times. That was a great visual. How aware are you when you're doing something like this that a person or a moment is going to look a certain way on paper? That seemed to me a compelling sequence just for his presence: his squinty eye, his large hands.
SACCO: That's how he looked! When I'm looking at things, I often judge them according to how they'll look in the comic. You see things, and they're really compelling. Or this person is visually interesting and it will be fun to draw this person. That's based on photographs, too. I took photographs of these people. Then you model the person in the photographs. The only exception was the woman from Guatemala, because she didn't want to be identified. So I didn't draw her as she looked. I felt comfortable drawing her because there's some aspects in her, but ultimately she can't be identified.
SPURGEON: It might be the last thing you drew in the book. There's a two-page spread of the Occupy people that you encountered. Can you talk a little about that drawing. It looks a little different: it's softer, and there's some dropped details, although the faces still communicate. It's a nice drawing. I wondered why you went to that kind of wide show, if there was something on your mind other than capturing a specific scene or moment.
SACCO: By the time I was drawing that, Occupy was being pretty heavily demonized. What I remember from Occupy is a lot of people visiting the camp. A lot of people, almost suburban people visiting and talking to these kids. It had this really joyful spirit. You could find anything you wanted: you could find the scruffy kids there, you could find the anarchists that are demonized and all that. By and large, the impression that a lot of people had when they were down there, the impression I had was a very positive thing. That's what I wanted to capture. I wanted to capture that positive moment where people were talking, people were making decisions together, and where people actually felt like what they said would be valued on some level. It was the first time I'd ever seen people not afraid to open their mouths, not afraid that what they wanted to say would be shouted down or whatever. Occupy had its problems, and you can go over them again and again and again, but that to me was a joyful moment.
SPURGEON: You had to know that story in particular would continue to develop. It's not like you haven't dealt with stories where you're getting one moment, but it seems like with something along the lines of Occupy, you talked about capturing the moment; you're definitely capturing a moment.
SACCO: It was a very specific moment.
SPURGEON: Is it just about being honest in terms of capturing that moment, or were you worried at all that the story would become something different after you were done with it?
SACCO: The story always ends up being something different once you're done with it. [laughs] I was trying to capture a moment. Then Occupy around the country was chased out, chased out of everywhere for health reasons or security reasons or whatever -- these are the reasons that are given. It becomes something else. It becomes a little more splintered and those people that were heavily invested in it go on to do other things that might be just as effective or hopefully more effective. For other for whom it was just fun, they might drift out of it. It's changed. There's no doubt about it. It's changed from that moment. I'm drawing the human mic. All of that has changed now. Will it return in that particular guise again? Maybe not. But it might have kindled other fires and we'll see how they all play out. I knew that this was a precious moment when I was drawing it, and I wanted that to remain. I'll be honest, it's as close to advocacy as I've gotten in my work, where I'll actually say, "I was all for this."
SPURGEON: Given your intellectual curiosity in archeology and the structure of power, and the things that you're looking at now with the forthcoming work on Mesopotamia, was seeing the Occupy people up close helpful in terms of pushing you in that direction?
SACCO: Completely. I still want to do journalism, because I think journalism is important. But I have other questions. I think you have to approach other questions in different ways. I think I'm more going rely on my side... I'm going to be more of an artist than a journalist. With an artist, advocacy isn't a problem. With journalism, I've always had a problem where I might have sympathies and I have very definite views. Now I'm just at that point in what I want to do that I just want to approach things more directly. Talk more in an essay form about some of the things you're mentioning: power, authority, the state.
SPURGEON: Do you know when we might start seeing that work?
SACCO: I don't. I don't. After I finish this book on World War One I'm getting to it. I've been writing a lot of this stuff over the last few years. Some of it... some of it was things that were circulating in my head about how the state gets people to kill other people. That interested me. Since then, Occupy started up, and it inspired me to think of the state a lot more. Think of how the state even gets its authority, how it maintains that authority, and how it convinces us it has authority. So I've just been thinking in those terms. Even the Mesopotamia project, as far as its inception, it was thought out before more than a year or two years ago, over time it's also been channeled in this direction. It's not going to be a project about, "Then Hammurabi did this. Here's the Code Of Hammurabi and this is what it means." It's going to be a bit looser. We'll see where it's going to go. I'm going to be a big more organic about how I'm approaching things form here on out. I'm trying to get away from structure.
SPURGEON: Is it weird to be your own category, Joe? Although that's not true anymore. If you move away from journalism, it seems like there are any number of cartoonists that are willing to work in that arena. Is that gratifying at all?
SACCO: Yeah, I'm glad. I'm glad. It should be a function of cartooning. Why not? I think cartoonists can show people what things are like. They can get inside things and they can take people back into the past. I am gratified. I'm kind of surprise in a way. It seems there are a lot more people doing it than I thought. In some ways I haven't paid that much attention. There are certain names that have become more prominent as people doing this stuff. There are people that aren't even beholden to the way I've been doing things, not at all. They're doing things in their own way. They have their own politics, and their own way of judging things. I studied journalism so I came out of that with that way of thinking about it. Even if I reacted against what I was taught, they probably don't have those issues. Whether that leads to good work or not, or good journalism or not I can't say, but I'm willing to see where it goes. I'm glad. Good. [laughs] I'm glad younger cartoonists are doing this stuff. [laughter] It takes the burden off of me.
I'm not going to stop doing journalism, because the truth is I love to talk to people. I have ideas, but they will all relate to my larger mood now, which is to talk about the state and state power and human nature and things like that. It will either be really interesting or a complete disaster.
* photo of Sacco from 2010 by Eric Reynolds
* from the Hague story in Journalism
* from "Kushinagar," in Journalism
* from "Trauma On Loan"
* two from "The Unwanted"
* one of the banner-type illustrations Sacco did for Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt
* a character portrait, including some outside background detail
* West Virginian Rudy Kelly, a vivid character
* part of Sacco's study of an Occupy movement scene
* covers to the two books from this year [below]
Mark Waid is one of comics' leading writers, known mostly for his North American mainstream material including current, lauded runs with Marvel's Daredevil and Hulk characters. He's created a lot more of his own work in recent years, for places such as BOOM! Studios and now his own, on-line Thrillbent. Waid has worked for a range of publishers in writing, editorial and consultancy roles. He is as outspoken as professionals come these days. I also think Waid is an under-appreciated figure in terms of his creative influence on his peers, something we discuss below.
I was sitting about two tables behind Waid when he won three Eisner Awards at this year's ceremony. It's that recognition and his general higher profile right now on a variety of fronts that put him in my mind for one of these holiday interviews. I was happy when he said yes. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: About two months ago I came across the photo at the top of this post, which my brother Whit took at the Eisner Awards. It occurred to me that you haven't won a ton of industry awards.
MARK WAID: No. In fact, I've won almost none. Let's look at the shelf, shall we? There's a couple of Wizard Fan Awards from, I don't know, 10 years ago? There's a Comics Buyer's Guide award from about 1997. And that's about it, man. It's funny. Kingdom Come swept the Eisners that year in all of the categories it was up for except for Best Writer. Except for Writer. Or story, or whatever that was. That was one of those moments where the film gets all of the nominations but the director gets dissed. It felt like, "Oh, well. You kind of put me in my place." [Spurgeon laughs] That was the closest I'd ever come.
SPURGEON: It seems like the recognition you're getting right now for those books, that part of your work, is reflective of a period of positive appraisal of your writing. In other words, these weren't surprise wins: people generally like the work you're doing right now. When you have a book or two that people react to in this kind of positive fashion, do you have a sense of why people are reacting to it? Do you know while you're doing it, or does it come as a pleasant surprise?
WAID: It comes as a pleasant surprise. Believe me, if I knew how to make that work, if I had a better sense of what people responded to, I'd be doing that a lot more. It's impossible to tell, because from my perspective I'm not doing anything different. I'm not doing anything I haven't been doing the last 10 or 15 years in terms of how I approach story, how I approach characters, how I approach narrative. At this exact moment there seems to be room in the marketplace for stuff that is a little less formulaic and a little less like what we've seen before. A little less dark. A little less dystopic, without being quote-unquote "fun." Maybe that's what people are responding to. I don't know. That's all I know how to do.
SPURGEON: Is there one of your series in the past that you thought would get a bigger, more positive reaction, that would get over in a way it didn't ultimately get over?
WAID: There's a couple. I actually thought the run I did on Legion Of Super-Heroes a few years ago, I thought we had a home run on our hands. I really did. The reader response to it was really good. In-house, people loved it. At DC. I felt like we were hitting it out of the park. But we were right at that point where the marketplace was deciding whether or not fresh takes on old things or whether it wanted what it read in the 1980s. "Why can't comics be good the way they were when Mommy was still alive?" [Spurgeon laughs] And we lost that bet. It felt to me that we did exactly the right thing, which was, "Look, I'm going to treat this beloved franchise as if it's been a moribund, dead property for 15 years and we're dusting it off and give you a whole new spin on it." There was an appetite for it at first, it seemed like, but then it just... people love their Legion comics the way they were in 1985. I can't fault them, but I thought that would have been over the fence. I really did.
From my perspective, Daredevil was kind of a last-gasp effort. I don't want to be so dramatic as to say if it had not worked I'd have just stopped doing comics the way I was doing them. But it would have been tempting. I went into it with a gigantic roll of the dice, Tom. To say to assembled fandom, "I don't want to do it the way it's been done for the last 30 years." Not terribly historically receptive to that.
SPURGEON: Is there that kind of right-side-of-the-brain aspect to what you do? Do you think in terms of how something will be received, how it might find purchase or not? Or do you work solely from the gut: "This is the way I'm going to do it, and it either works or not."
WAID: It's the latter. I don't have the slightest clue or interest in trying to please an audience in lieu of pleasing myself. It seems to me like that's a losing proposition right down the line. All I know how to do when it comes to the established, franchise characters is look at them, look at what I love about them, look at what I loved about them when I was 10 years old, and show you why I love them. Sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn't. On the whole, it has seemed to serve pretty well as a career.
SPURGEON: Where do you think your skill-set has improved, then, if you're working out of the same set of ideas? Where in terms of execution do you think you're a better writer? Or maybe you don't think this. [Waid laughs] How are you different in terms of the writer you were in the '90s? I have an idea or two, but I'd rather hear from you.
WAID: Only if in turn you share your idea. You said something very flattering in one of your year-end pieces, something to the effect that you could make a case that I was influential in the '90s, and I was gobsmacked by that. I am not so secure or having such a good day that I am unwilling to listen to you pontificate on that. [Spurgeon laughs]
I think I am a better writer... I don't think I'm any better at the craft of it. I think I honed the actual craft of it pretty well in the first 10 or 15 years I was doing it. I think I'm a better writer because as you get older you get more introspective -- if you're smart. You get to a point where you make a choice whether or not to write these characters you don't own at arm's length -- which is a very smart way of writing them if you want to protect yourself and protect your bank account, and protect yourself from being the guy who is walking outside homeless with a sandwich board while your character is up on the silver screen making a million dollars. And I get that. It's very difficult for me at conventions and when I'm doing writing seminars to advise young writers to bear in mind that when you're working on things you don't own you have to protect yourself. You have to be careful how much you put in. I think that's a realistic things to say, and I think that's a smart thing to say and I think that's probably the right thing to say. Speaking personally, I don't practice what I preach. I don't know any other way to do it.
To spin off of your question, as I got into my 30s and I got into my 40s, I really started to understand a lot more about what I have learned both good and bad from superhero comics as a kid. The upsides -- the obvious upsides: do the right thing, and save cats from trees, and be honest to people, help little old ladies across the street. The darker stuff that you learn... I mean, Jesus, everything emotionally stunted and wrong about me I learned from Mort Weisinger. [Spurgeon laughs] That became the entire impetus behind Irredeemable. I brought even more personal issues to Daredevil in terms of a lifelong struggle with depression. How you deal with that and don't deal with that, that's something I get a chance to work out with these characters, both Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock. There's a risk to it. Again, the risk is always... my career at DC has ended. My career at DC, about two or three years ago, ended when I was blackballed and forcibly ejected from the place. I'm not saying that out of any sort of bitterness or anger. It's just a fact. I knew that could always be the case. So that's the case. I look back on the work I'd done there, and I have to make my peace with the fact that these things I put a lot of my soul and effort into I no longer have any sort of claim to or association with anymore. But that's the breaks. That said, I wouldn't do it any other way because I don't know any other way to do it.
SPURGEON: Let me say first that one thing we do in comics when we talk about the content of comics, and I think it might be Stan Lee's overriding influence on the field, is to favor the theoretical or the idea of something over the execution. So with that in mind, I'd suggest that the bulk of what makes someone successful has to do with getting the job done on the page.
That understood, Mark, I suspect your special appeal comes from how what you do stood in contrast to two historical moments. Your emphasis on character was a real tonic for comic books in the 1990s in terms of providing of different set of storytelling priorities, a way of making comics that breaks sharply with the wall-of-narrative plotting that you get from Don McGregor and Chris Claremont and that era of comic book writer. You provided an emphasis on character moments over plot twists or narrative progression, and I think that's how a lot of people who have affection for those characters process comics and how people more generally process pop art. You keyed on these memorable incidents, and after you did it you see people picking up on it. I'm not sure anyone hit that as hard as you did until maybe Grant Morrison in his late-1990s superhero comics.
Where I think you've become once again intriguing to a lot of people is that your investment in, and resulting focus on, character gives your comics a clarity that in this marketplace where people are desperate for a meaningful experience from the art they choose to pay for is a huge advantage. Your comics have much clearer storytelling beats because of your very specific interest in character, in a way that a reader is able to grasp how what they're seeing builds on that ongoing understanding.
WAID: That's interesting. So if I'm understanding it right, we have as pop culture mavens reached finally this saturation point where there is so much empty noise out there we are hungrier for things that give us a little more to digest, a little more humanity.
SPURGEON: Yeah, basically, to the point that I think people in a very direct way want to know what they should buy. They can be told this in two ways. There are overt methods, like the mini-series and event comics that when built up correctly will insist on being purchased by the fans -- "these are the comics that matter." There is also what the reader concludes from engaging with various comics, that there are some that are able to communicate what's at stake and then present an aspect of that thing that's at stake every time out. In a way, it's a different way of assigning value than what you see when comics are broken down by narrative density, as with the idea of "decompression," in that I'm not sure that how much story we're getting matters as much as that whatever one gets fulfills the promise they feel was made to them.
WAID: That to me is always the quicksilver. That's always to me the mercury in hand, trying to seize that. I had a long discussion with readers younger than I am. "What do you expect in one issue of a comic? What is that x-factor that makes you feel at the end of the issue that it was worth the $2.99 or $3.99 or whatever it is?" And I still don't know exactly. I have my gut feeling about what should be in an issue. When I write, I would love to tell you I do it with charts and graphs and a linear outline. The reality of it is I'm much more from the Robert Kanigher school of coming up with a cool image and then blundering ahead and finding it as I go. I have to work by instinct a lot. I don't have the luxury of sitting back and going, "Okay, here are three notecards for this issue of Daredevil, they have beats on them, and I think that's enough." Instead, it's sort of like I get to page 11 in my script and I go, "That feels like 11 pages." And that's all I know how to do.
SPURGEON: I've wondered at times how much of your process is feel and how much is overt mechanisms. Because you've been doing this a long time now. You're telling me it's not that different than it used to be in the formal practice of it. You still kind of feel your way through?
WAID: It's a little looser than it has been. Certainly the first ten years I was doing it, I was a little bit more worried about making sure I nailed my ending before I started and having more of an outline. But like anything you do for any great length of time... it's why most older musicians gravitate towards jazz. You get to a point where the fun of it is less about the construction and the fun of it is more about the exploration. That's the drive that keeps you going. It's maddening and frustrating, but at the same time I like the jazz aspect of it. I kind of know where the story is going, I kind of know who the characters are, but you just kind of lurch ahead.
Let's take today. I'm sitting down to write an issue of Daredevil today. I've got two or three visual images in my head, the key-to-me moments in the story that might be interesting. They don't have any connection yet. So what I really kind of have to do is write ahead and keep turning over the jigsaw puzzle pieces until they start to link up. Then they start to become a narrative. I'm a final draft writer. Which is to say that I do all of my work in my head, and then I put it down on the page. I'm not averse to doing a second draft if an editor decides it doesn't work, but basically by the time I actually go through the process of typing it out it's ready to go. I'm not good on vomit drafts, I'm not good with that philosophy of putting it down on paper and editing it later. I'm editing it as I go. That's the fun part for me.
SPURGEON: One other thing that you do really well now that I wanted to mention. I was trying to figure out what connected your Daredevil and Hulk gigs. You're not a foundational writer. You were a very knowledgeable comics fan, but it seems like these takes are not tied into canon or original conception. It seems like your takes on those characters draw on elements familiar to modern readers, they don't require you to re-read the original issues. I'm not saying they're divorced from that, but they're not dependent on those takes.
WAID: You're right. You always have to start from there, look at the original pieces and see what you glean from there. But I think for these characters to have any sort of verve and life and to be able to have a unique voice to them that is both theirs and yours, you have to be able to take them in logical progressions. Knowing full well how the game is played, the next guy who does Daredevil will either drop a safe on everything I did, or go back because he remember what Ann Nocenti did with great fondness and he wants to do that. You know that going in. It's okay. All you can do, all you have any control over, is what you're writing that day.
The great frustration of my entire career is that to this day I seem to be typecast as "that Silver Age/retro guy." It makes me bang my head on the wall. I don't think that's who I am.
SPURGEON: Huh. Actually, I don't think that's ever been who you are.
WAID: I know. But throw a stick at a convention and ask ten people. [Spurgeon laughs] Ask them for one sentence, and three people will say, "He's the Silver Age/retro guy." As I've said before, I don't need to write Silver Age comics; I've read them all. I don't need more of them. I like the Rolling Stones, but I'm not sure they have anything culturally relevant to add to the 21st Century. You can be fond of Elvis Presley without thinking that everything now should sound like Elvis Presley.
SPURGEON: Since you're writing these comics with at least a sense of how they function in the last ten years, in more current times, do you have a sense of the post-bankruptcy Marvel period in terms of what those creators have accomplished as a group? I'm not the biggest superhero guy, but it seems to me they've had a fruitful last several years, and that they've made a lot of quality comic books. Do you have a take on their output as a fellow writer, and one that's now working within the resulting milieu? Do you have a sense of their collective accomplishment or where that company is at this moment? Do you feel like part of a group when you work for a company like that?
WAID: Not on a day-to-day basis. Certainly there is a sense of momentum and camaraderie during those three or four times a year where they'll put us in the same room and watch us dance and sing for our money. I think that putting a creative guy in charge of the damn place -- Quesada -- was smart money, and a smart move. And I like Joe. I've been his friend forever. I don't agree with everything he's done, and he won't agree with everything I've done, but by and large, I think that that gestalt is the same thing that gave DC its energy in the '80s. DC's driving force in the '80s was Dick Giordano. You put the right guy -- it doesn't mean that every artist and writer in comics is qualified for that job, but I do think it helps when you have somebody in charge, and making the calls, that is the right blend of businessman and creator and understands what it's like to sit on both sides of that desk.
There is an alternate universe out there where I'm doing that job. I'm probably on death row by now. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: What would be the primary attractive thing for you in doing that job? Other than the fact that it's this huge touchstone moment for those that get those jobs and that they are some of the few great gigs available to people in this field. What about the job itself appealed to you?
WAID: I was actually offered this job about four or five years ago at DC. Dan for a while wanted to move on to a different part of the company. He invited me to take the job, and I went up there and had serious negotiations. We talked about it. Unfortunately, it fell through on some counts that had nothing to do with me. For that week I thought that was the next step of my career? Tom, I felt ten feet tall every day. I really felt like, "Man, this is it. I've been watching the Yankees since I was six and I'm finally on the mound, pitching." Not because I felt, "Everything is broke and I have to fix it." Or "Oh boy, I get to play with all of these fabulous toys." It wasn't quite that simple. It was more of a sense of having gotten to a point where I'm almost as good a teacher as I am a writer. I yearn to be able to work with younger creators and pass along what I know. That doesn't mean I have all the right answers, and doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to teach the right things. I'm going to be wrong in a lot of my philosophy, too. That's just the way it is. I enjoy that part of the job. I would have enjoyed the idea of sitting down with that stable of characters and that stable of writers and having a meaningful dialogue about here's what I think you're trying to do, and here's how I might be able to help you accomplish that. I think I have enough experience under my belt that you can take my suggestions seriously.
Dick Giordano was a hero to me. When I was an editor at DC, I worked directly under Dick. Man, he just defined the whole job for me. You hire the right people, advise and consent from the sidelines but basically try to stay out of their way as much as you can.
SPURGEON: You just described that kind of job as a creative endeavor, but I think most people when they think of those kinds of positions they think of the corporate elements in play. These companies right now, the comics exist under this corporate umbrella. You've been through at least two boom and bust cycles in your time in comics, so maybe you can speak to this from a well-earned vantage point. Is it particularly tough right now for comics to keep their eyes on that prize given the pressure of the corporate demands?
WAID: Yes. It really is. It's harder than it ever has been before. I think part of that is because as a medium of a 32-page comics, or 28-page comics, or whatever they are right this moment, the standard monthly issues, I think those sales have pretty much plateaued. You look at anecdotal evidence that sales are up on monthly issues, but I don't know if that's sustainable and I don't know if that's a huge bump up. It doesn't seem to me to indicate a rising trend. Let me put it this way. I do not know this, I am pulling this speculation totally out of my ass based on some informed conversation, but I would not be surprised if DC's New 52 had been a hail mary pass. I would not be surprised to learn that Diane Nelson looked at the figures and the overhead and said a couple of years ago, "All right, boys. Pack up shop. We're going to go reprint." And Dan [DiDio] and Jim [Lee] and whoever else came in to make their case. "Give us one more shot at selling out comics exclusively to 13-year-old boys." Again, that is speculation on my end. That probably isn't true, but it wouldn't surprise me if that were the case.
At Marvel, a little less so, I think. Those people seem to answer to higher-ups that seem to get what they're doing a little more. They seem to grant a little more creative latitude. But I can certainly see it. There's always the need to generate profits, move the next quarter. There's always a need, even more as these companies are absorbed by the Warner Brothers and the Disneys of the world, there's always more of a need to make the balance sheets shinier every year. It's a tough job. A lot of times it means doing corporate stuff.
SPURGEON: Do you get a sense as a creator that it's more coarse than it used to be, that there's a hostility or at least a shrugged-shoulder "well, that's what we have to do" attitude about things? There's a suggestion that this is there to a greater degree now, although it's possible that we just forget how those pressures manifested themselves in the past.
WAID: I think people are looking back with rose-colored glasses. I think those conditions have existed for a long time. I think it's a little bit more coarse at DC than it is at Marvel at this point, but that could change tomorrow. I see one company still thriving in at least a reasonably positively healthy way. I see another company acting like it's positive, but trying to struggle to make itself look positive when it seems they're flailing with desperation.
At some point, and I'm counting on you on this, steer me away from sounding like a cheerleader for the Big Two, because for the last 30 minutes that's what I've sounded like.
SPURGEON: Let's start kidney punching them, Mark.
WAID: I'm a big believer in fair is fair, and I believe in giving props where they're due. At the same time, I'm generally the last guy in the world to be a corporate shill. That stuff rankles me.
SPURGEON: We'll get that in there directly, just like that. Although I have to say I don't think you sounded so much like that. At least not to me.
WAID: I don't want to sound like a Marvel or DC apologist, a mainstream comics apologist.
SPURGEON: Gotcha. Hey, you mentioned Joe Quesada. You said you don't agree with him all of the time, and he probably doesn't agree with you all of the time. That's an act of rhetorical generosity that I'm not sure gets a lot of use in comics.
WAID: [laughs] No!
SPURGEON: The community tried to talk about some things in 2012, including some very important issues. I include myself in this criticism, but it seems to me that we maybe didn't do all that great a job in terms of the shape and direction of the dialogues we were having. Are you encouraged that certain issues still seem to matter, or discouraged that we still have this dysfunctional way of hashing things out?
WAID: Tom, I get a little discouraged. I do think that at the end of the day most everybody I know in the industry on any level is basically trying to do what they think best in the moment. That doesn't mean they're not morons. [laughs] That doesn't mean that there's not some guys out there just actively so self-serving that they're hurting the creative endeavor that I love. But by and large, that old saw about not attributing to malice what can explained by incompetence is something that we don't trot out very much. Everything is a giant, "Oh my God. They're fucking us again." Well, Scott Shaw! You followed that yesterday, right?
SPURGEON: He came out against the Adventure Time set-up, right?
WAID: He came out against the page rate that is being paid, the money being paid for these properties, and the creative people, and he's coming out against the fact that quote-unquote "they surprise you with work made for hire contracts after you do the job."
I was sort of gobsmacked -- to use that word again -- with the velocity with which this suddenly became an us vs. them conversation over one set of anecdotal evidence. Immediately, people were either on the side of "Publishers are rapists" or "I'm happy to be working in comics and I'll work for nylons and chocolate bars." I mean, Jesus. Step back. Take a breath. What are we mad about? What are we mad about? Are the page rates that non-Marvel and DC comics people are paying, are the page rates they're offering sometimes embarrassingly low? Yeah. They are. I've worked at BOOM! I was very apologetic about the rates we paid. At the same time, I knew what our profit margins were. I knew what the realities were. I knew that this is what we can afford to pay people.
SPURGEON: I think the worry is, though, that when people don't use that kind of fiery rhetoric... say Scott had come out with a measured appraisal. "Is this perhaps not as much as they could pay? Should we expect more?" Would we really be talking about him right now? We all respond to people coming out in that firebrand-type way rather than engaging with people's measured rhetoric. I know I get more traction when I'm a smart-ass than I do when I'm a nice guy.
WAID: I think that's true. I think there's nothing more seductive than moral outrage. Did you see the Piers Morgan interview last night?
SPURGEON: With the lunatic?
WAID: Yeah, the lunatic. That's all show. I don't genuinely believe if you sat down at the dinner table with that guy, if you were dating his daughter, that you'd be subject to the same sort of fiery rhetoric. It's a game to get attention. It's a screaming match so you can be heard. As he admitted, they don't really want Piers Morgan deported from this country, what they want is to use that as a platform to get on the show so they can start screaming their vitriol.
SPURGEON: You're reasonably well-connected. Is there meaningful dialogue going on on those issues, perhaps somewhere we can't see, or are we constantly shooting ourselves in the foot?
WAID: I think we're kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. I don't think there's enough meaningful dialogue. Comics is like anything else, Tom. The poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The conversations being held that have any sort of real meaning are being held behind closed doors by people we don't even know by name. It's great to have advocates in there that understand -- at least from my definition, my perspective, you're going to be an editor at one of those companies one of your jobs is to be an ombudsman for the creators. To be sort of a -- not an ombudsman, but an advocate for the creator and for the company and find that fine line where you're serving both. Some people do it well. I think the guys at Marvel do it better because it comes from the head down. I think it comes from and from Axel [Alonso] and from guys that have been around long enough to know that you get your best results when you're not just screaming at people.
SPURGEON: So we wanted to get you talking about things that aren't Marvel and DC. You mentioned your time at BOOM! You've worked at a number of places, actually, and have been around to see your peers do any kind of work that exists out there that you yourself might not be interested in doing. What do you think of these small companies that seem to have found a toehold, that seem to be in it for the long haul? BOOM! seems like one of those companies, it doesn't seem like they're going away. The role the smaller companies play, are you encouraged at all by the potential for companies like that to provide a professional space for people? Or is it just limited ultimately, what they can do?
WAID: I think it's limited in what they can do. I think the system is, in terms of the way we've been doing business, the way we've been doing print business, stacked against them. Unless you're one of Diamond's premier publishers, you're not getting the discounts you really need to make a go of it. I love the fact that guys like Nicky at Dynamite and the IDW folks have managed, by my outside perspective hanging on by their fingernails, to continue to be a viable force. Or at least a voice out there that can make a living for people. Not a great living, but they can get paid for doing what they're doing. I find it kind of astonishing, I think "Oh, my God. How did some of those companies stay in business?" I haven't the foggiest notion how it is that Oni Press is still in business. [Spurgeon laughs] That's not a critical assessment of their company. That has nothing to do with their work. It's that I know how expensive this stuff is. I just don't know, and I'd be fascinated to find out.
This is one of the measured conversations we should be having more of in the industry. I was thinking about this last night. I'm thinking, yeah, if you do this math and you're going to pay this much to print the comic and this much is the overhead and what's left over is the pool of money from which you pay the creators, so you pay the creators this much. That's the way we always do it. I wonder if there's not a little more wiggle room than you would normally think, if instead we started approaching it a little bit more from the stance of "Let's figure out what we need to pay the creators to do work that is good and solid and we don't have to feel like we're chicken-hawking them." And make that more of a priority. Worry about the other stuff -- the printing costs -- a little bit later. Make that a more important part of the overall equation. Does that make sense?
SPURGEON: It does. A criticism I make of the alt-/indy- world of comics publishing is that we don't require publishers to enter into that arena properly capitalized, let alone how they subsequently assign which virtues to what costs. There was a time for that, back when publishing comics like that was such a terrible idea that anybody who wanted to give it a whirl shouldn't have been dissuaded, but I think we're past the point where people should be treated as publishers simply because they want a whole lot to be publishers. Our common ground might be in that the assumed models need to be stripped down and perhaps substitute taking care of creators over making a place for yourself.
WAID: I think that's a conversation absolutely worth having. I think that's going to dovetail into the other big part of the seismic shift we're going to see over the next ten years, which is that content distributors in general are going to become less and less and less important. The new economy is going to be more and more a one-to-one relationship with you and your fan base.
SPURGEON: That's a fine way to transition into your digital comics efforts. One thing I thought fascinating about your most recent major interview about your on-line initiative Thrillbent is that you pick up on the fact there is an on-line cartooning middle class. Maybe it's a lower middle class, but it's there.
SPURGEON: You wanted to counter the perception that on-line revenue for comics is four dudes that got lucky and hit it big and the rest a bunch of sweaty, broke kids.
WAID: That to me is either arrogance or ignorance or both when it's said like that. I find it doesn't serve the medium well to assume that. What that does is it creates an artificial rift. Again, I'll tell you. At any of the conventions I go to, you can hang out with the mainstream comics professionals all day and they won't have the slightest clue what's happening in the world of webcomics. And vice-versa. One of the things I loved about launching Thrillbent was a bunch of webcomics guys coming forth and going, "This sounds interesting. Who is Mark Waid?" Rather than taking umbrage at the fact they didn't know who I was, I kind of delighted in that in the sense of that there really are two worlds out there that need to be connected.
SPURGEON: How are they seeing you now? Who is Mark Waid to them?
WAID: [laughs] Good question. I'm probably to some of them still a stupid-ass dilettante that's slumming. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't know. All I know to say to that is that the most exciting times of the last two or three years or so as a comics professional have been that 30 minutes after every convention panel where I've been talking about digital. That 30 minutes is always out in the hall, immediately outside the convention room, where I've got 20 or 30 or 35 20-year-old kids wanting to pick my brain and ask me a million questions about what I think and how this works. I'm not in any way pretending I have all the answers. I don't have all the right answers. I love the fact that that enthusiasm is there. They want to make comics. Jesus, that's great.
SPURGEON: Where are you most confident? Like if after the convention panel I said, "Mark, I'd love to have the 30-minute conversation with you, but I have to go to dinner." [Waid laughs] What's your best 45 seconds? What are you most confident in in your summary appraisal in digital comics and its implications for your career?
WAID: I'm most confident in the idea that you create the material for the device rather than vice-versa. I'm absolutely adamant on the idea that form follows function, that you're designing for tablets, you're designing for laptops, you're designing for phones. You're designing for electronic media. Devices. Therefore your storytelling, you know it will be a different toolbox. Some of your tools will transfer over, but some of them will not.
The other thing I'm very confident about is that cream rises to the top. Yes, there's a lot of noise out there. And yes, the fact that anybody can go out there and make their own digital comics if they're willing to put the sweat equity into it means that there's a billion bad webcomics out there. The signal to noise ratio is very low. That to me is no excuse to not continue to encourage people to put noise down. [laughs] You know? I always, always get sort of cranky at the notion that there needs to be some sort of walled garden of elites to protect us from bad print comics or bad electronic comics or whatever the next iteration is going to be. That just seem elitist to me. You know what I'm saying. That philosophy that "Well, if anybody can do it, that means there's going to be a bunch of bad stuff out there. We have to be careful about that." Well, fuck you. Who are you to decide?
SPURGEON: What is the next thing that happens that you need to know if it goes one way or the other before you calibrate your orientation towards it? Like I know a lot of my webcomics friends, a lot of them were super-interested in whether or not tablets would gain a toehold with consumers because that would change a lot of things for how they were to proceed. So what is the next one? What's the next one for you? What is that thing -- I know it won't stop you from working in the meantime, but what feels up in the air to you?
WAID: That's a very good question. I don't think this is my lead answer; I'm backing into what my lead answer might be, because I'm thinking about your question. One of my answers is that I'm eager to see whether or not we finally in the next couple of years arrive at what seems to be a fairly standard size for tablet displays. The success of the iPad mini threw me off, because that's not anything I thought about designing for. It's an odd size.
The thing that is most on my radar is okay, how do we pay for this? How do we create revenue streams for this? What's exciting to me about this -- and I've said this in other interviews -- is because we have so much material that's going to be up in 2013, everybody who's doing it has a different idea about how to create a revenue stream out of it. My feeling is "have at." I don't want there to be one standard Thrillbent revenue stream or one standard way of doing things. I think the exciting thing is, "Jesus, you do it your way and I'll do it my way. Let's get together and compare notes and figure out what's working and what's not working?" I think that on the one hand it's easy for me to say it's fairly inexpensive to do webcomics, all things considered. On the other hand, after 45 weeks of it and looking at the invoices stacking up. [laughs] It's not that cheap. There needs to be a revenue stream at some point.
I'm not sure that's the answer you're looking for.
SPURGEON: I just wanted to know where your head is at. One thing that interests me about the material I've read at Thrillbent is that you don't think, judging from the main serial up on the site...
SPURGEON: ... there are some in-frame adjustment going on in the comics there. You see one panel, you click on it or the appropriate arrow, you might get a new panel, or a change in that panel, or an additional panel next to the original panel. It doesn't always move to a new "page." It seems like you think, or that you're at least open to the possibility, that the model going forward may be something other than standard, non-moving comics.
WAID: I like playing at the fringes of that. The north star philosophy I hold to is that you the reader need to be in control of the experience. So this is where I get hinky about things like movement and sound because anything that creates a temporal, that imposes a temporal experience on the material suddenly sort of wrests the pace with which you absorb the material out of your hands, if that makes any sense. It becomes a much more passive experience than the actual reading. So you have to be very careful about that. That said, I think you find out out where those limits are is you strap on your wax wings and you fly towards the sun and see how far you can get.
SPURGEON: I guess there is a chance that none of this stuff ever coheres, right? That's a print way to look at this stuff, that there's going to be a dominant model that settles into place. It might be that it's not just an advantage that there will be different ways to approach these kinds of projects but that the whole model might resist a dominant way of doing things.
WAID: I think that's entirely possible. That's the reason I'm not working towards a specific model of doing it. I'm with you. I don't think there will necessarily be a pat model, the way that comics have evolved themselves into 7 x 10 stapled pamphlets.
SPURGEON: That's not only a set model but kind of a baroque one. A lot of flourishes there. [pause] We're doomed.
WAID: [laughs] You know what? That doesn't necessarily mean anything either. Here's the thing. Remember: this is what media does. Radio up until the 1960s was two or three formats. Now it's a million formats. Television? Same thing. Three channels becomes a hundred channels. Any medium eventually fragments out towards a wider base of people where each individual fragment does what it has to do to survive on its own. It doesn't have to appeal to the wider base. In retrospect, it's kind of amazing and surprising that something that's been around for 75 years like print comics hasn't sort of gone through that same dissolution. Instead it's put all of its eggs into the one basket.
SPURGEON: You said earlier that you're not resentful of but maybe don't agree with the kind of public label you have in a lot of circles. Now that you're more in the business of -- through your own design and the way the industry moves -- the more direct creator-to-reader relationships, what is the North Star for you? What do we go to Mark Waid for? If you're not the Silver Age/retro guy, who are you?
WAID: I think I'm the guy explaining how we try to do this in the 21st Century. Or at least try and define it. I think that's what you go to me for. That seems to be the unique place I'm carving out for myself. I have 25 years of storytelling experience I can bring to the table. When it comes to sitting down across the tablet from you, the creator, we're on the same level. We'll figure this out together. I'll use my experience. I'm open to new things. How do you do this job? How do you do any job? How do you do any job for 25 years without getting out of bed in the morning and wanting to learn a new way of doing it? Otherwise you may as well be selling refrigerators. You bet on yourself. The thing that frustrates me the most about the digital experience, and working with people on digital creation is that we're still at the point where so few creators, so few people of merit and talent, are willing to bet on themselves.
* Mark Waid, Eisner Award winner (photo by Whit Spurgeon)
* from Kingdom Come
* from Waid's run on DC's Legion Of Super-Heroes title
* distinctive panel from early in Waid's recent, well-received Daredevil run
* page from Indestructible Hulk
* three images from the Daredevil run, including the little Daredevil/snow angel image that is probably the one visual most identified with Waid's slightly lighter take on the character
* the Adventure Time series
* image used to promote Waid's forthcoming series with smaller publisher Dynamite
* two from Insufferable, the main serial on Thrillbent
* one more stylish-looking piece of Daredevil art [below]
Big Court Win For The Warner Team On The Superman Matter
If I'm understanding articles like this one correctly, it's been decided that a 2001 exchange between the Siegel family and the corporate owners of Superman is a binding agreement in a way that vacates the surprise 2008 decision that gave significant aspects of the character and its milieu back to the families. It's been that decision against which Warners has been appealing in a very significant way with a crack team of legal ass-kickers since that time -- and this looks like the kind of victory that makes career reputations of the lead lawyers and puts some of the key people working on it on the fast track to partnership. The Shuster family's claim was vacated last Fall in similar previous-arrangement fashion.
The second-guessing is likely to come in two areas: whether or not lawyer Marc Toberoff had led the families away from a benign settlement with the promise of riches, which has been a dominant argument in cartooning circles and late-night convention talk for a couple of years now, and whether or not there should have been a greater push for a settlement in 2008 when that surprise decision came down. I don't know that that would have been possible, but I can't imagine that people will stop criticizing the losing side here.
I've never really afforded the legal back-and-forth the standing to ultimately inform the wider issues involved, as I suspect a lot of people have on both sides of this. I remember being yelled at that I didn't include the families as my "winner of the week" when that 2008 decision went down. I might have changed it, actually, but I remember my original impulse was that the families just won a bunch of new time in court rooms and deposition rooms and the ire of fans. They certainly don't look like they won much of anything now. It could be that I believe this just because I'm a slippery guy that wants to afford myself rhetorical room to win Internet arguments. Heck, it may be a moral failing on my part, that I don't afford enough respect to the way the laws are set up and the advantages that accrue to those protections. I don't know. I could also just be willfully dumb or naive here. But I always think that once you push for a legal solution the legal solution ends up being the one you get, no matter how it lines up with what you want or what the best outcome might be or even what's just. If they don't line up, that suggests that all of those things can be found elsewhere. I'll continue to seek them.
I always thought this would be the basic result -- and I guess it isn't 100 percent yet, just sort of approaching that state rapidly unless somebody convinces me otherwise -- so it's hard for me to be angry or upset about the legal decision itself. That simply is. I have been disturbed along the way by aspects of the case as they relate to what I feel is a culture of exploitation that dominates comics. This includes a lot of things, from the lack of generosity in the way some folks have processed why a family might want to sue for rights they feel they're due, to things like how people see certain motivations or baseline attitudes as being set in stone when I feel they're very much up for discussion.
One nice thing about the original linked-to article is that, again, if I'm reading it correctly, Warners is going to push through that original deal that they negotiated with the families and see that they get those monies. They might have to: they're endorsing it as a binding agreement. Still, that's better than a lot of conceivable outcomes.
I was never a reader of CBG except when I had to for my job, and that wasn't all that lengthy of a period. Certainly the publication was meaningful for a lot of people over the years. I've always enjoyed talking to Maggie Thompson when I've run into her, and like everyone wish her the best. I'm sort of curious if its departure is more about a certain kind of publishing or a certain kind of fan, but I can't imagine there are any clear answers there. That many years of anything is a fine run.
* Strange Adventures is moving. That's one of the best shops.
* here's an article with a bunch of original art scans. If you have some sort of fetish that involves pasted-up logos, this is the post for you.
* the good folks at Robot 6tug at a story about an embezzler that converted some of that cash into expensive comic books. It's surprising this kind of thing doesn't happen a lot given the difficulty authorities might have in tracing such items, although I guess converting comics back into cash would be a potential chore. Also, you can't really count on a same-amount return.
Sean Howe is a widely-published entertainment writer who first entered into wider comics consciousness editing the essay collection Give Our Regards To The Atom-Smashers!. His latest, Marvel: The Untold Story, is as widely discussed and blurbed and positively reviewed as any work about comics in the medium's history. It is a mighty achievement of pop-culture synthesis. I greatly enjoyed reading the book, although I didn't pick up on its unique rhythms until a key firing in the 1970s made everything fall into place. By engaging with Marvel in an almost blow-by-blow fashion, Howe wrings every bit of fascinating color out of the publisher's unlikely journey but also lets the spotlight fall on unique, repetitive factors that soak the culture of the place, and therefore inform the last several decades of comics history. This includes but is certainly not limited to an ongoing cycle of benign creative neglect followed by some sort of practical, business-driven crackdown. We talk about this and more in the following, and I'm happy Howe made the time. That guy is busy. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Here's a pretty standard question. Where do you stand right now in terms of the book's publicity cycle? Are you kind of finishing up with the hardback? I assume there's going to be a softcover, and I also assume that'll put you out there again.
SEAN HOWE: I would say the hardcover publicity is winding down. I don't know when the paperback will be. My guess is probably next Fall. So I'm just starting to get used to having conversations with people that aren't about the book. [laughter]
SPURGEON: What has that process been like? An element of your work here is Marvel's public perception. When you look at all of the questions you've received, all of the questions as a group, is there anything surprising about what people asked you, or what was emphasized?
HOWE: Nothing really surprising about the interviews. It's a little bit unusual talking to people from the mainstream press, sometimes, about comic books. Or doing a radio call-in or something. It's funny to toggle back and forth between talking to people from the comics press, who have just super-specific questions, and talking to other people who are like, "Oh, so this is like Superman and Wonder Woman? Or is this like Spider-Man and Iron Man?" So that's been a constant challenge, to remember which mode I'm supposed to be in while I'm talking about it. [laughs] I would say that there's something inherently polite about most interview conversations, so I'm not getting challenged on things the way I am, say, from Internet message boards.
SPURGEON: Has there been something particularly salacious or damning that I missed? Is there some place the message boards are going? Is there a specific area of concern those fans have?
HOWE: Probably only in my thin-skinned way. [Spurgeon laughs] When you ask if there's been anything surprising about the reaction from people who I'm talking to for interviews, not really, but I am constantly surprised by the reactions that I read on-line, just in terms of people that think I've totally villainized someone, while other people will think I've been way too easy on the same person. There's a weird Rorschach element to that, I guess. I wasn't quite prepared for the range of interpretations of the tone of my book. Some people think that it's real muckraking, while some people actually read the book and think that it's just another round of adulation for Stan Lee.
SPURGEON: I saw it as fairly even-handed, or even aggressively even-handed throughout. Was that by design? Did you go into it thinking that an even-handed approach would work best or were you willing to let the chips fall where they may and this just happens to be how the chips fell?
HOWE: I wanted to be even-handed. Some people think that it's too even-handed. I wanted to do that because there are a lot of inarguable crimes in the history of comic books. I felt by just presenting things as fact and letting people draw their own conclusions that would be the most educational result for readers. I wanted to say, "This happened to this person. And this happened to this person. And this happened to this person." Any idiot can kind of connect the lines and see that there are patterns there. I guess as I was getting more into the book, I started to think a lot more -- I'm going to sound like someone that just came back from their second semester of college [Spurgeon laughs] -- I started to think a lot about the ways in which we go along with corporate culture. The way we take certain things for granted, and the way that working for corporations you're always going to be making ethical compromises.
SPURGEON: This may be an impossibly broad question, but something I've seen you do in interviews supporting this book is to make that general, anti-corporate critique. What do you think that the Marvel story tells us about that? Is there a way it informs in a unique way on the intersection of corporate and creative interests, or is the story here that Marvel is typical in this way? When you were putting things together, when you were figuring out what the book was about, was there a key point or two where you thought, "Okay, that's it in a nutshell. That's what was going on here."
HOWE: I think there's a few. I think Jim Shooter, you can almost use him as a walking analogy. He came in and things were really chaotic and unorganized. The business was not in great shape. I felt like he was a lever. He was the one that tightened things when they needed to be tightened. Jim Shooter embodies the idea that you can't have creative freedom and corporate goals at the same time. [laughs] Your interviews tend to run verbatim and that's making me nervous. [laughter] I'm thinking of all the terrible conversational detours.
SPURGEON: Those are the best parts.
I think Shooter is the key figure in your book. In fact, structurally you can kind of tell. I'm not 100 percent sure this is the case, but Shooter is the only character where you hold his story until he becomes prominent. You don't introduce him in the timeline, you introduce him when he gets hired into that key quality-control position, the "Trouble Shooter" position. He's one of your bigger late-period introductions.
Let me ask you more generally about the book's structure, which I thought really intriguing. You tell Marvel's story through this involved, constant unfurling of comics publishing churn. This book comes out and then this one and then this one. That's a lot of fun for longtime fans of Marvel, but it's also kind of a remarkable thing for other writers to watch you do in terms of what that must have been like to write. You unpack a lot of the month-to-month goings-on at the company. There's not a lot of summary work. There's not even a lot of thematic organization and few cases of descriptive flourish. It's a very rich, extremely detailed narrative. When did you decide the book had to be told this way? What made you think your story needed this much detail?
HOWE: I guess it's maybe a Rain Man tendency that I have. [Spurgeon laughs]
It's 70 years. It's a 70-year history. It was really hard for me when I went back in with a red line and was taking things out. I was worried about being dishonest by omission. I thought the more context that everything had, the more balanced the larger story would be. If you take away Mark Gruenwald as this fun cheerleader of his fellow employees, I think it becomes an inaccurate portrait in that it makes it seem like no one was every having fun at Marvel Comics. If you take away a list of weird, crappy comics that Marvel was publishing in 1976, then... what are some things that struck me as particularly detail-oriented?
SPURGEON: The one that pops into my head because you just mentioned that general time period is that you did five or so graphs on the "women's books" that Marvel briefly did, like Night Nurse and The Cat. That's something that could have been dealt with in a couple of sentences if you'd gone that way.
I think you're exactly right in that it serves your narrative by providing context. I would imagine that it also helps reinforce your thematic points by supplying details. There's a time when you detail writer JM DeMatteis' plans for Captain America, you do a full graph on them, and they sound pretty bizarre. They never came about. It wasn't necessary to your narrative to include them. Getting those details, however, reinforces one of what seems like your wider points about the creative indulgences that sometimes exist at the company. That indulgence and then snap-back cycle that Marvel has settled into.
It's not a critical observation on my part. I really liked it. I just wondered if there was a day -- and maybe this was a depressing day -- where you realized, "I'm going to have to write the crap out of this book. I need the whole story in there."
HOWE: Part of the reason I was having a hard time answering that question just now is that this was the chief anxiety of mine in working on this book. I worried that it would seem like the world's longest wikipedia entry. There were so many things I wanted to include. I had a very good sense of what the narrative arc was. There's a rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall structure here. If I were writing a play, I'd be failing miserably. But you can't allay that stuff, you can't recraft the narrative, without fictionalizing it. Having to get into everything that was going on as Marvel was commercially ascending, like in the early 1980s, I guess that I felt a responsibility to not over-summarize. I constantly worried that I was reciting too many facts as I went. Then I hear from people who are like, "Wow, that was a quick read. I wish you'd done more descriptions." [laughter] Which boggles my mind.
It would have been a lot more fun to do impressionistic riffs on Ann Nocenti's Daredevil or something. The book is twice the length of what I had contracted for.
SPURGEON: Because of the length of the book, and its style, when my friends and I have talked about it, we've talked about the synthesis aspects of it. You do a great job of locking certain events into historical place. For instance, you nail down what period Stan Lee left to write the movie script The Monster Maker, and how that changed the employment landscape at Marvel. So I wonder what you see in here as kind of adding to the historical record that might be harder for us to recognize because of your book's achievement in terms of getting all of this information into order.
HOWE: It's interesting because I feel like you just articulated everything I was stumbling around for ten minutes to say. There are a lot of things in here that a lot of people have already known. You wrote about The Monster Maker, right?
HOWE: What was really educational to me, and when I had real goosebumps while putting together the timelines, is when I could actually see these simultaneous chronologies, different peoples' careers, overlapping one another. The same week that Jim Shooter was arguing with Roy Thomas about his contract renewal, he was also making sure Jean Grey was going to die in X-Men. You know? And they were announcing Marvel Productions. In my memory, this was in the course of a single month that these three things were happening.
I think that when you know the highlights of a cultural history, it can get reduced in your mind to "This happened and this happened and this happened." You forget how much these events are intertwined and how much of an effect they have on one another.
I'm getting a little abstract.
SPURGEON: No, that's fascinating.
HOWE: In terms of what might have been surprising to me that I uncovered, one thing I still can't believe more people haven't commented on is that I was pretty shocked to find this transcript of Stan Lee at a meeting of cartoonists in the 1970s. He was going on and on about how comics publishers were terrible in terms of their treatment of artists. At any opportunity, if someone would ask them about getting into the comics industry, he would discourage them. One of the reasons that's so fascinating to me is that no one ever talks about Stan Lee in that kind of light: that he wasn't just conscious of the unfairness of the set-up there, but that he was vocal about it. He did this on a panel with people like Will Eisner. Will Eisner was trying to get him to calm down, saying that the publishers weren't so bad. That put Stan Lee in a different light for me. It was right before he went on that sabbatical.
SPURGEON: That was a time he thought that he might not be defined by Marvel. He might have felt some freedom then.
HOWE: Exactly. Every time you hear something candid from Stan Lee, it's exciting. [laughter]
SPURGEON: I thought your profile of Lee seemed pretty psychologically consistent and apt. I appreciated your focus on some of his workplace fears, like a repeat of the industry shrink and near-collapse in the late 1950s. You treat this in a way I think appropriate, as something that informs a lot of his dealings for the next twenty years. You brought a complexity to Lee a lot of people don't. You also caught the fact that he was very generous at times along the way, particularly in terms of securing work for people.
HOWE: Obviously the amount of credit he gets in comparison to Jack Kirby is out of proportion. But he gets demonized entirely too much. A lot of people disagree, but I think he was a very important contributor to Marvel Comics. Somebody curated who was working at Marvel, for starters. Somebody decided who to hire. He did a really good job of that.
SPURGEON: He was a highly-skilled comics professional in any number of ways, and his personality was key, too, in that just not being as unpleasant as some of the other comics figures attracted people into his orbit. He's a colossal figure.
HOWE: He was an invaluable ambassador. That is something that people who don't even care about superhero comics would probably underrate. Regardless of how much of a real love he had for the art form, he definitely promoted it as an important and valid medium. I would imagine that our takes on him are pretty similar.
SPURGEON: Were you worried about solving the problem of Martin Goodman? The historical problem of Martin Goodman, I mean. He's this central figure and we know very little about him at the workplace. I found him an extraordinarily difficult figure to get at. It seems like some of your best source work, or at least the moments that impressed me most, came in terms of nailing him down a bit. Was he tough? Was he as tough as I remember him being?
HOWE: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm glad that you liked that stuff. I thought that that was an area where I would have liked to have done stronger work. As with so many things, it became a rabbit hole. Do I finish this book or do I keep trying to find people that might have worked as his secretary for a month? [Spurgeon laughs] I spoke with two of his children, neither of whom had much interest in the comics industry. I got a little bit of color about his early days, and his relationship with his wife.
It gets harder every year to do living history like this. If somebody had been writing this book 40 years ago, think of all the people that could have been on the record.
SPURGEON: I know. I know. Even as late as 1980 or 1985 there could have been a very different and potentially amazing book.
HOWE: It's really extraordinary how quickly everything is vanishing in terms of living records.
SPURGEON: Is there a holy grail for you interview-wise on this subject? If you got a hold of Dr. Doom's time machine and you could only do one interview, who might that be?
HOWE: It might be Goodman. It might be Sol Brodsky. It might be John Verpoorten. The John Verpoorten thing speaks to how my interests are weighted a little more to the '60s and '70s. Morrie Kuramoto. The guys that were in the office. I think that is where the most exciting stories might come from, from the people that were there every day. It almost ends up being, from an editor's perspective, this book almost ends up being the story from the eyes of the Marvel staff. To a degree. It's not as much from the vantage point of the superstar artists. Writers I suppose were more likely to have editorial careers. If I could talk to people who were in there every day, and saw the changes in real time before 1980, that would be terrific. I did talk to all the editors-in-chief, but I would have rather talked to them 30 years ago when their memories were fresher and maybe a little angrier. [laughter]
SPURGEON: You didn't have the reluctance problem, did you? Did you think anyone chose not to talk to you, or changed the way they talked to you, out of careerist or similar concerns?
HOWE: Oh, sure. Tons of people. Tons of people. It's no secret that this book really accelerates in the last ten years, and it has a very sudden ending. There are multiple reasons for that, but one of them is that no one in the comics industry now is really interested in talking about the comics industry.
SPURGEON: Right. Not like that, anyway. Or at least not on the record.
HOWE: Not to someone who is writing a book.
SPURGEON: Was it difficult for you to craft the ending? One thing I liked about the last chunk of the book is you really captured this sense of how the corporate influence over the company almost become disassociated from the company. It seems like a more direct, active influence in the '60s and '70s, these clashes, these lunches where guys are fired. The corporate influence by the 2000s almost becomes an abstraction in terms of how the company works. So much of the company is off in California, for one thing. There's even this really interesting lack of clarity on where the company becomes healed from this wounded, bankruptcy state. It just is, all of the sudden. I thought that was an accurate reflection of that development in real life. Things at Marvel just got better. The movies started to hit.
HOWE: Yeah. Exactly. It reads probably a little bit funny. One of the things I struggled with the most is why the movies started working. I really believe that they just happened to start working. The Spider-Man rights cleared up, and that was obviously their best shot at a big movie. The X-Men movie, that had been in development for like eight years at Fox. That finally hit. It's not like anyone came along and said, "Let's make Blade a hit." I think it was just that the late '90s and early 2000s is when things started to happen in Hollywood. That's the way Hollywood is. Things are in turnaround forever, and then they're not. I think Marvel probably started to heal, at least on the surface, probably around 2002.
SPURGEON: One thing I thought of in terms of timing when the X-Men movie came out is that it had been around long enough to accrue multiple hardcore fanbases. There were old-time Marvel fans. There were '80s Marvel young adults, right around 30. There were teens that remembered the cartoon. And then there were present-day comics nerds. So it was almost like a crockpot effect, a long-simmering effect of staying under the radar for so many years they collected more fans than a newer property might.
HOWE: I think that is the whole thing with Marvel and Hollywood. You had a certain point at which it couldn't miss. If there had been a decent movie in 1994, I would imagine it would have been a hit. There's a huge subculture that wasn't really acknowledged by America at large. [laughs] They were going to buy tickets to a movie adaptation of the most important comic book of their lives.
SPURGEON: One thing that I thought intriguing about your book and something that's come out in interviews done in its support is that you've talked about the books themselves being lost, as these ideas become brand and concepts. I think it was Peter Cuneo that first put that label on the various Marvel properties. You have a very admirable insistence that the comics themselves are a remarkable thing. You remain a fan of the comics, and think they may be underserved.
HOWE: Yes. Absolutely. The Walking Dead comics are at the top of the sales charts, but you don't see the Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four on the charts in the same way. Granted, that may be a bad example because there was not a good movie of that. The Ditko/Lee Spider-Man should be storming the charts. That should be a rediscovered classic literature for people.
SPURGEON: You write in the book about the bullpen concept, how that was used as an outreach to connect with a certain kind of involved fan. If you were enough of a fan you were interested in how the books were done, you might connect to this surrogate family. And yet that idea has not been extended the way Disney has periodically used the "Nine Old Men" concept to reach a certain kind of animation fan. So is this something unique to Marvel, this present-day reluctance to spotlight a way of enjoying these works that brings focus to their creators? Is it just something that they are specifically not interested in doing?
HOWE: What are you envisioning?
SPURGEON: Broadly, I wonder why "Jack Kirby" couldn't be a brand for Marvel. I wonder why there isn't a core publishing program. Or a great books program. Or even specialty product -- an equivalent those Leonard Maltin-introduced Silly Symphonies collections act as a way to present a certain kind of material as "elite" or "canonical" Disney product.
HOWE: That's a great question. I've talked to Dan Nadel about this a lot, about why you can't go and buy a chronological Bill Everett Marvel Comics book. Why does it always have to be by character? Why are they not marketing the artists? I would guess that at some time, someone decided that with these lawsuits with Jack Kirby, we can't celebrate explicitly how much he made this company. That's a total guess. I just throw that out there because there's no good reason otherwise. I do think that there are people that are pretty smart at Marvel Publishing that have probably thought of ways to make this kind of book sell. These are people that love Marvel. So there must be reasons. Personally, what I would give to have the keys to re-define their re-issue program. [Spurgeon laughs] I think it's atrocious that some of the best things they've ever published are completely out of print. I don't think that would be the case with any other publisher. It might be the case with other comics publishers. [laughs] Any book publisher is not going let their Philip Roth line die.
SPURGEON: Was there anyone in the course of Marvel's history that you ended up liking maybe more than you did than when you started? Someone that you worked with, maybe, or someone that once you had the history in front of you struck you as an appealing personality or figure?
HOWE: It's hard to separate the historical record from the charm of people in interviews.
SPURGEON: Was there anyone who was a particularly charming interview?
HOWE: You know who was charming and I really see in a different way? Gerry Conway. I started to see a lot more shading in his work. He came along at a time when it was imperative to ape Stan Lee as much as possible. It was interesting to see how some fairly subversive elements started to creep in, considering he was doing some major comics. Gerry Conway is very candid. He tweeted a few weeks ago that "if I came across as a self-satisfied asshole in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, that's because I was." [laughter] He's very happy to talk about how he was too young to be in a position of power. I find that level of self-deprecation to be both helpful as an interviewer and enchanting. [laughs]
SPURGEON: He's one of the most free of those guys, too, in that there's no perceived financial concern in his talking. He's done well outside of the realm of Marvel Comics.
HOWE: Which tells you a lot. Also, somebody in a blog post or something -- maybe it was you -- somebody was writing about Spider-Man comics and pointed out that Conway was the only one who was the same age as the superhero he was writing about.
SPURGEON: That is weird, isn't it? He's the only guy I know that was Peter Parker's perceived age when he was writing that book, although there may have been others.
HOWE: And I do think that there's something... I think he captures that late adolescence/early 20s. There's something that's so much truer in his comics than most of the other Peter Parkers. You can really sense when you read those comics that "Oh, this is what his dating lifestyle is like. This is the kind of apartment Gerry Conway has." I like it when those kinds of mirrors come into comic books.
SPURGEON: I was unclear when I got to the end as to what you thought -- and it's not a pretty picture, because I think you're up front about the costs of the clash between corporate and creative interests. I thought you might be critical than usual about what's happening right now, that they might not be bringing in new blood to play with these properties. You point out that they don't really need to do this, but there's a sense from what you write that you suspect or at least wonder after this conservative approach coming back to bite them down the road. I know it's a weird thing to ask, by can I nudge you on where you might stand on that issue? It's odd in that I may be asking you to take a stand on Marvel being Marvel, basically. Maybe that's just the way they are. So is it specifically different now. Is this another cycle?
HOWE: That's exactly the kind of thing I would love to know the honest answer from someone that calls the shots at Marvel. I'm inclined to say that it's very different now, because why wouldn't they be going over Kate Beaton to do a Valkyrie comic or something. They have the money. That's a celebrity recruitment tactic. Take something like Matt Fraction's Hawkeye. That has a personality in the way that most superhero comics don't.
In a way, that people aren't bringing their best ideas to Marvel is victory for creator's rights. The sentimentalist in me wants Marvel Comics to continue being good. People now have the opportunity, if they have a great idea, to get it published and own everything. Why would they bring it to Marvel or DC? It becomes like the Free Agent Revolution in baseball. I really miss the days when I would root for a team and there would be guys on the team for five years at a stretch. You would think this was what sports is: it's about team spirit and relationships. That no longer exists. But the reason that no longer exists is that players are no longer slaves to the people that run the teams. Which would you rather have? Would you have the baseball teams of the good old days, or would you rather have players with flashy agents who are going for the top dollar and being kind of mercenary. There's a price to pay with the triumph of the individual. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Something I forgot to ask you. You have this section where you're discussing the 1980s, and you tell this story about someone -- it must have been Carol Kalish -- standing up and saying, basically, "Secret Wars was terrible... and we're going to give you more Secret Wars!" And everyone had a bit of a laugh at this notion. I remember even ten years later, I went to a Marvelution meeting, and there was no levity of that type in the room. It doesn't seem like there's that kind of levity now. It seems like it's a more serious thing now. Is that just the increased corporate influence that you don't have that wacky, underdog spirit the company had at one point?
HOWE: I'm not sure how much I can speak to it, because I'm not familiar with how things might be in that part of the industry right now. When you were talking about the structure of the book, and that Jim Shooter was a pivotal figure, I think one of the reasons for that is that the culture of Marvel started to bisect in the 1990s. You no longer had the same people making art decisions and business decisions. That's how the narrative gets more and more fractured in the second half of the book. It turns into two separate stories. There's the business story, and there's the story of the creators.
Carol Kalish was also a pivotal figure at Marvel. She had original art all over the walls of her apartment. I think that there is no one like that now, no one that bridges those gaps. If there's someone leading a rally of cheering retailers [laughter] it's going to be someone who identifies with the business half of Marvel, and probably came over from a videogame company or worked at Proctor & Gamble before this. I think you're pretty much contained on one side of that bridge.
SPURGEON: The irony is that it may have taken those kinds of people coming to Marvel to get Marvel to realize its worth. There are a lot of self-deprecating jokes, which can be a positive, but there can be a lot of self-hatred, too. The business people did rightly perceive the value of the company, and you no longer had Steve Lemberg-type deals where someone is giving a small amount of money for a ridiculous number of rights. That may be the central irony: who perceived the value.
HOWE: That's true, but I guess if you look at the mid-1980s, comics sales were climbing every single year. Cadence at that point operated with benign neglect. They weren't interfering with too much of the marketing and the content. They were maybe making terrible decisions about giving Jack Kirby his artwork book. I don't see businessmen as heroes of the story.
* classic Kirby
* cover to book
* Jim Shooter in cartoon form; I think Shooter is the book's central figure, really
* Night Nurse
* the death of Jean Grey
* a rough copy of part of a Stan Lee advertisement for I think shirts
* Dr. Doom's time machine
* Lee/Ditko-era Spider-man
* Bill Everett Marvel art
* Gerry Conway-written Spider-Man
* the Matt Fraction/David Aja Hawkeye
* Secret Wars
* Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man (below)
Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty On Changes With This Year's Angouleme Festival Grand Prix
By Bart Beaty
It wouldn't be FIBD if they didn't radically rejigger something. After years of changing the awards, they have decided to fiddle with one of the most important elements of the entire event: the Presidency.
Traditionally elected by the past-presidents who come to the event, the Presidency is a big deal not only because it is an important recognition for those who win it, but because it is the tent pole around which all of the exhibitions are organized. A big name President -- like Art Spiegelman last year -- draws an entirely different crowd and sense of the event than does a much less well known President, like Jean-Claude Denis this year.
This isn't the first time that the FIBD has let artists vote. In the 1990s, artists demanded enfranchisement and in 1996 they elected Daniel Goossens. This dramatically unexpected event -- the election of a cartoonist's cartoonist -- caused them to lose the vote the next year!
The hybrid system used this year seems - from the outside - to be a way of breaking what looks to be about a dozen way tie. Every year when rumors spread from the selection meeting, there are complaints about certain voters who "just don't get it" or who are so out of touch that they ask who Chris Ware is. Of all the names on the ballot, I have heard every one seriously batted as a contender for years, with the exception of Willem (who would be another Goossens pick, and one I could get behind!), but it is odd to see the choices laid so bare. It's also depressing, I would imagine, for names that are absent. Not a great day to be Jacques de Loustal.
I don't think that this change is lamentable -- frankly, FIBD has screwed up the legitimacy of their awards so badly that it would be hard to complain about the undermining of their Presidency -- but I also doubt that it will be permanent. It will be nice if, as I suspect, it helps break some of the lunatic logjam that has kept the award from someone like Jiro Taniguchi, who should have won years ago. It will also be interesting to see if the voters plug for someone who doesn't draw -- an Alan Moore or a Jean Van Hamme. My feeling is that they're still long shots, but without the wider vote they'd likely never make it.
If you just want to see a beautiful exhibition, everyone should vote for Lorenzo Mattotti or Nicolas de Crecy.
Update: Bart sent along this addendum about three hours after his initial note:
"One odd bit that strikes me on looking at the list of nominees is the presence of Joann Sfar. Sfar was announced as the 30th Anniversary laureate in 2004, and I have always assumed that that meant he was considered a past winner. Perhaps not. It is notable that Angouleme has had three previous people given this kind of award (Claire Bretecher for the 10th anniversary; Hugo Pratt for the 15th anniversary; Morris for the 20th; and Albert Uderzo for the millenium) and none of them is back on the ballot. I have no idea what that means, other than if they allow him to win twice he likely will."
Wait A Minute... Attending Authors To Vote For Angouleme Grand Prix?
That seems to be what this says. That would be a drastic change for what is probably comics' biggest prize. There has been a bit of grumbling about the past-winners-in-a-room method the last couple of years. If I'm hearing anything, then there's potentially a great deal of grumbling. (Sarah Glidden had word last year of this open-letter criticism from Lewis Trondheim, so it's definitely out there.) I'm officially firing up the Bart Signal, but I think he may be on the road.
That's a hell of a list of candidates, too. I'm personally super-fond of Chris Ware and want him to win all of the awards. I love Lorenzo Mattotti's work like he's in my own family, and Marjane Satrapi would be the best one from the point of view of a reporter that covers comics, because she's a hilarious, awesome quote machine. Still, the comics geek in me says it's way past time they had a manga creator win that prize, and if you had asked me 10 years ago I would have bet festival-favorite Jiro Taniguchi would have won one by now.
Also, if they want people to talk about the Prize, this works.
Update: Okay, this is still big, but I guess what happens is that the attending authors narrow a list down to three or five and the past winners then select the winner. That's still a big change, in that I can't imagine the kind of momentum for key developmental figures that sometimes happens making it past that first stage.
* the hobby business news and analysis site ICv2.com caught a book-industry analysis post that says store closings for Barnes and Noble accelerated right after Thanksgiving from an already steady clip of lease run-out related closures. I know that a lot of readers hate the big-box stores and will be happy to see the other significant chain from that era go -- as looks increasingly likely -- but I do think they play a role in a lot of reading communities. If I were 14 years old right now and my Barnes and Noble closed, I think there's a chance I'd be bummed.
* here are some watercolor sketches from Colleen Frakes, done over the holidays.
* the wheeze and heave of giant corporations is something comics didn't used to have to worry about, at least not so much. Now these entities roll over in bed and scratch themselves and everyone shudders.
* somehow I never linked to this article in The Economist about Internet comics as a business corrective for the decline of print, and a flourishing of those comics creatively because of the novelty of the platform.
* we're somewhere between 12-24 months from a major comeback in the collective community imagination for Sinner.
Shannon Watters is an editor at BOOM!, the Los Angeles-based publishing company that in its short history has gone through at least two or three soft re-fashionings of its core identity. Watters is the lead editor on the publisher's successful Adventure Time-related comics, the independent/licensed comics of the moment. I stood behind the BOOM! team waiting to board the train from Los Angeles to San Diego for 2012's Comic-Con International, and the dynamics between the mostly super-young staffers on hand reminded me of times past. I was happy Watters agreed to talk to me; it's not an area of comics I know very well. She seemed about as nice as she could be. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Am I to understand you're sick?
SHANNON WATTERS: I think you got me sick over the Internet, because I have joined you on the flu train.
SPURGEON: Oh, no. Do you want to reschedule?
WATTERS: I don't want you to have to miss any deadlines or anything. I wanted to make sure that because this is a holiday series for you I get to talk to you. [laughs] I woke up and I was like, "Oh, no..." Everybody at work is going down. Yesterday everybody was, "I have a headache" and I was like, "No, no, this is not happening."
SPURGEON: That may be a place for us to start. I've not interviewed a lot of folks from BOOM! I don't even know your physical set-up. It sounds like there's a central office where everyone goes to work.
WATTERS: [laughs] Yeah. I think that makes us a little different than a lot of publishers our size. We have an office. Mid-city Los Angeles. We have a bullpen: the more senior editors have their own offices and the rest of the gang are out in these open desk areas. We're all in the office together. It really is a great experience, because you're having a problem with a title, or you're having a problem with some sort of plot thing you can literally say, "Okay, we're going to work this out. Everybody get in here."
SPURGEON: So how many people are in the office, then?
WATTERS: Oh, goodness. I think we're a little bit less than 20 now. We've been growing a little bit, which is nice. We actually moved into this cavern-like space a few blocks from our new office. Our lease happened to run out around Comic-Con this year, while Ross [Richie], our CEO, was busy having a baby. [laughs]
SPURGEON: That was right in the middle of Comic-Con, as I recall. Literally.
WATTERS: We moved offices during Comic-Con, while Ross was having a baby. It was crazy. It was a crazy couple of weeks. The office was kind of half-full for a while because of the timing, but we managed to do it. We have a great office. Everybody comes to work.
SPURGEON: The idea for doing an interview with a BOOM! editor came from that time. I was the guy standing behind your group in the line at the Amtrak Station, on the way to Comic-Con from LA. I took it from watching you guys that it's mostly young people working there.
WATTERS: We're a very young company. The oldest person is Ross, essentially, and he just turned 40. The rest of us, the more senior members of the staff, are in their late 20s and early 30s. The rest of it is a very, very young company.
SPURGEON: Do you think that's a positive?
WATTERS: Oh, yeah. I think it is. A lot of us have grown with the company. I was a copy editor at Tokyopop just about right out of school, within a few months of graduating from college. That taught me the nuts and bolts of how to edit comic books. My real editing experience came in that I was Matt [Gagnon's] assistant editor for a while. I was on Incorruptible and Elric and all that. Because I got into it in my mid-20s, when I was young, I was moulded by the vibe and ideals of the company.
We really are a very, very, tight-knit group of folks. Matt and Ross were in North Carolina at a restaurant, a barbecue restaurant, and on the wall was the code of the west. Matt saw that and was just entranced. "That's BOOM! Right there! Code of the west!" Stuff like "Always watch your partner's back." I think it's been, for a lot of us, coming in young and growing with the company, I think it's been good. Obviously we don't have the pressures and prejudices of being in the industry for a really long time. The company has grown with us and we have grown with the company. I think it's reflected in our ability to move quickly and readjust quickly.
SPURGEON: Is there something specific that comes to mind when you say you had to readjust quickly? Is there a time you had to readjust?
WATTERS: A few years ago, when Disney kind of took their licenses back, we were getting a lot of calls from friends and contacts within the industry... who were obviously worried about us, and worried about us as a company. That had been such a huge deal, and it was a huge game-changer for us as a company. It was one of those things where you had your mom calling and going, "Oh, honey..." [Spurgeon laughs] "Is everything going to be okay?" And I'm like, "It's going to be okay." We had so many people in the company that were open to different things. Peanuts didn't happen overnight for us. It was one of those things where people were like, "Okay: what's cool? What's interesting? What can we do? We are good at this, so what can we do so that we can continue to be good at this?" A different way. There's this perception that once a company has defined itself, they can't do that again. We like to challenge that. The guiding principle at BOOM! is to just do good work. Everything else is details.
SPURGEON: Is there a certain way you define good work? Can you tell a BOOM! book from other books? Do you think readers can?
WATTERS: That's an interesting question. Because we are so... diverse in our publishing, it's not the same as seeing a Marvel book or a DC book, where you know this is a certain kind of a book and a certain kind of superhero. But I think that we, especially with the Ka-BOOM! titles -- and Ka-BOOM! is my wheelhouse these days, so I can speak to that -- that we're trying to cultivate this kind of artsy cool, this high quality that you maybe haven't necessarily seen a thousand times before. I think it's that way across all of BOOM! titles. We take our work very, very seriously. We do a lot of licensed books, but we don't look at these books like, "Okay, how do we do this licensed book and get it out?" We all think very, very, very seriously about how to do the best Planet Of The Apes book we can.
With Adventure Time, it was a vision. It was, "Okay, we have the best writer for this project. We're going to do this thing that not a lot of licensed comics do, and do it right." [laughs] As far as what defines good work is always being straight-forward and upfront and providing the best quality we can with the resources we have available.
SPURGEON: You indicated that Ka-BOOM! is your baby, that that is your particular wheelhouse at the company and it seems like your comics cv kind of confirms that: that's where most of the titles you're crediting for editing are located. Is it correct for me to think that you've been involved with that particular imprint from the beginning?
WATTERS: Yeah. When I'd only been at the company for a year, they asked me what I wanted to do, what my vision was for what I wanted to do at BOOM! That's another thing that Matt and Bryce [Carlson] are great at, pairing editors with the project that they're best for. I basically said, "I want to do all-age stuff. I really want to do all-ages stuff. I have ideas that are bigger than the conventional model. That's where my passions lies." I was on a panel at San Diego, the progressive politics panel, they asked "Who do you make comics for?" Everybody had awesome answers, mostly that they really wanted to make comics for everybody. They came to me, and I was, "When I close my eyes, I see a 13-year-old girl, just getting into comics, and finding one of mine and then going out and getting everything else." You know? I took that as I really wanted to make all-ages comics.
When we got the Adventure Time license, which is something the company had been pursuing for a while, Adam Staffaroni, who was my assistant editor until a few months ago, he and I were called into Matt's office and told, "Guys, we're going to do Adventure Time. Let's do it well." We had this weird vision... luckily, we got on the phone with Cartoon Network and with Pen, our creative call... Pen was onboard immediately. I was like, "I want Ryan North to write this comic." He said, "Ryan North? Great idea!!!" [laughs]
It's just worked. Pen and I have similar tastes in cartoonists. My wheelhouse has never been mainstream comics. I got into American indy comics when I was about 14, through Blue Monday, Chynna Clugston's Blue Monday. Chynna just sent me a page of original art. It's in my office. It felt very full circle. [laughs] I'm 28 now. I was the typical 13-year-old, into Sailor Moon and manga. I had been really, really into newspaper comics. That was my wheelhouse: newspaper comics. So Blue Monday, because of the way it looks, I saw some of the preview images and I said, "That looks like manga, but it's American." As soon as I read Blue Monday, I fell down the rabbit hole of American indy comics. That's just been my passion since then. Webcomics and all of that. It made sense for me to kind of structure Adventure Time with people, these incredibly talented people, whose work I had known and been reading -- some of these people since were both in college. Little tykes. [Spurgeon laughs]
That made sense to me, that there was this huge group of people that weren't necessarily being published in the mainstream comics world, that they would be perfect for this.
SPURGEON: Is there a specific sensibility you're looking for, though? It seems to me that, and maybe that's the nature of the Adventure Time material, that you have a pretty broad range of approaches within this overriding tone.
WATTERS: It's interesting. If you've ever read any interview with Pen about what Adventure Time is, he talks about it being a Dungeons and Dragons game. And in a way it is perfect for that kind of sensibility, it's very collaborative. It's not like when you talk to people working on Gravity Falls, which is another amazing kids show on the Disney Channel. That's a show that I love a lot, but Gravity Falls is a show that's very creator-driven in that the creator still does a lot of it, including the scripting, in this very controlled atmosphere. Adventure Time is more about Pen being able to bring in great, creative, interesting people and letting them do what they do, letting them create this world. That's the sense I wanted to get in the comics as well. You pair people with projects based on their strengths. Adventure Time is interesting because almost anyone can play there and do well. As long as you play by the rules, you can do something really, really cool with it. I tend to hire people I really like and admire and let them do basically whatever they want. Within reason. It makes my job as an editor easier. [laughter] But also really cool stuff comes out of that.
As far as the sensibility of it a little bit, it's my space and it's Adam's space. People that we like and respect, and a lot of people tend to exist in that same sphere as Adventure Time.
SPURGEON: Is there a hire that you're specifically proud of, that you think someone else might not have gone for? I know you probably love them all.
WATTERS: Ryan and Shelli and Braden, honestly. Shelli [Paroline] and Braden [Lamb] and I -- Shelli did work on Muppet Snow White. We had worked with them off and on. My girlfriend and I took them out for breakfast one morning, and we were flipping through these sketchbooks, and they were so good. They were so, so good. They were additive -- it wasn't just mastering a pose and getting ready to draw it. They were bringing something to the table. Braden was working as a colorist and it was like, "Why isn't someone giving you the chance to draw? You're incredible." I put them on Ice Age and they did a great job. Ice Age was a test for them, for Adventure Time.
Ryan was more of an obvious choice. When I found out I was editing Adventure Time, I went basically, "I want Ryan North to write." His sense of humor is incredible. I've been reading Dinosaur Comics since forever. In college I had a radio show and I would use Dinosaur Comics lines to introduce different segment. Ryan, Shelli and Braden were kind of inspired choices. I look back on it now and I can't imagine doing the book with anybody else. Ryan gets it so naturally... his scripts come in and they're flawless. They're beautifully structured and incredible. Then Braden and Shelli get them, and they add things. They add gags. They add interesting asides. It is incredible how they're perfect for each other, the three of them. I can't imagine the book without them. I lucked out. I lucked out.
SPURGEON: It does seem correct that you're using a lot of people that don't have similar opportunities elsewhere, at least not with this kind of project. That brings to mind how conservative comics can be. There's not a lot of market deviation. This one has worked, at least in the face of that general culture, or maybe even because of that. Were there worries on your part that the book might not get a chance, might not find a foothold?
WATTERS: Oh, absolutely. [laughs] When we were putting together the creative team for this book, it was kind of a "trust us" situation. "This is going to be great; trust us." Even then the numbers we were estimating were very, very conservative. We were like, "Well... hopefully people will like this crazy thing we're doing with this book." Because you're right. You never know what's going to take in the market these days. It was a comic that we wanted to see, really. This was the best way we could do an AT comic, the best way we could take that show and get across the vibe of the show and make it right for comics. You don't want to do a comic where someone comes in with their eyes closed and says, "Well, we're going to put together a comic based on the TV show." Uh -- who wants to read that? That's not fun.
We were talking to Breehn Burns, who is the creative lead on Bravest Warriors. "I do not want this to be like a licensed comic from when we were kids." All of those continuity problems, and no one sounds like themselves, they're wearing costumes from two seasons ago. You read it and you're like, "I guess that's all right." But as a kid you wanted so much to be a part of that world. That's why you bought this comic. You want more, more of this world that you love so, so much. We wanted to give the comic a reason to exist. [laughs] If you halfway it with that stuff, it's not memorable. There's no reason for it to exist. Just make another episode of the TV show. Comics is such an incredible, powerful art form. It's beautiful. I love comics. I just love comics. I love what they can do and I love what makes them different from animation. I love animation, too, and for a while I wanted to be an animator but I can't draw. That's the dirty secret of editors. That's why you're an editor. Because you can't draw. [laughs]
I love that comics has this incredible power over people. If you make a licensed comic you want it to have a reason to exist. That's the guiding principle for me: make the comics you want the make and do it the best way you can. Sometimes it hits, and sometimes you're just happy to go, "Whew, we didn't fall on our face with that one?"
SPURGEON: Do you have an editorial style? Are there concerns you have that are important to you when you're working with the pages themselves?
WATTERS: I choose my teams very, very carefully. I'm conscientious about the teams I put together on my books, because I think I have quieter editing style than a lot of people. I tend to be way more big-picture. I tend to choose artists that may not be well-known, but have a really strong storytelling background. When you're drawing 26 pages in a month, you're going to become a better artist, no question. So if you're not exactly there, 100 percent, with where we want the style, that's fine. You've got a really strong storytelling sense, I want you. [laughs] So I tend to pay attention to the script structure and overall arc structure -- Ryan saves me a lot of work because his scripts are beautiful and flawless all of the time. I tend to look at the storytelling when I'm looking over rough pages. I tend to really focus on that. That tends to be my editing style, if there is one. I'm not going to nitpick. I'm not going to nitpick the way a character is posed, unless it really affects the story. You know? I tend to trust people a lot to get it right, and I'm less focused on the details as a result. I'm very detail-oriented, don't get me wrong. You have to be as an editor. But I think when it comes the details on the page, the choices people make, I tend to trust my people with that. It's the other areas that get my polish and my love. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: Putting your teams together and the importance of that. You're still a smaller publisher, and you're working with people that have projects of their own that they might prioritize. Is it hard, ever, from that standpoint of simply getting people on board?
WATTERS: I have been very lucky in that regard, but I tend not to come at people with unreasonable requests. When I came to Meredith [Gran] to write [Marceline And The] Scream Queens, I told Meredith, "I want you to write this series based on an idea that this other BOOM! editor and I have: a rock-and-roll journey of self-discovery. I want you to write it." Now I'm thinking along the lines of what you just said, Meredith has Octopus Pie. That's her bread and butter. That's the most important thing she can be working on. That's going to be there when these six issues are done. She came back to me and said, "I'd love to write it. Can I draw it, too?" "Why yes, I would love for you to do that." I tend to approach people... if it's someone like Natasha Allegri, who is just incredibly talented and incredibly busy, someone we approached when Adventure Time was getting off the ground and she was terribly busy. There was no way. I didn't even consider her for Fionna & Cake. I saw Pen at Comic-Con and chatted for a bit. I got an e-mail a couple of weeks after Comic-Con. "Hey, great seeing you. Nat wants a chance to audition for Fionna & Cake. Would that be okay?" I'm like, "Umm... yeah." [Spurgeon laughs] "She can have it if she wants it; she doesn't have to try out."
If I think someone is going to be way too busy, I don't want to overload their plate. If they can give me more, awesome. Great. If they can't give me anything, that's awesome. We all like to think of our work as the most important work, anybody who's doing anything anywhere, but the people I work with their personal projects are where it's at for them. That's the stuff that brought me to them and that's the stuff that's going to be there when they're done with me. I totally understand if they have commitments to those projects that make their commitments to me harder. I try to work around that. If they have those commitments that need to be met, then we structure the schedule so they have a month and a half per issue instead of a month. It really is... it's a working-together kind of a thing. I want to make sure everybody gets what they need from this relationship.
SPURGEON: That's an interesting way to put it, because there's a line of thinking about editors at comics companies where you're the freelancer's friend at the company. That can be used as a criticism, or as a way to dismiss what editors do, but I think that's an underrated skill. You have to be able to get along with people to do what you do, particularly at the level you're doing it. Is that natural for you, to have that friendly way of acting with people.
WATTERS: I... I suppose. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Do you like working with artists? Not everyone does.
WATTERS: Oh, yes. That's the best part. That's the best part, working with these people. I love that. Honestly, I tend to be a fairly open, gregarious person. My girlfriend is very, very quiet, and she talks about that she only dates so she never has to talk to anybody in restaurants ever again. I tend to by nature to be fairly friendly and fairly open. And I am a problem-solver. If I were doing a job interview, and they asked me, "What is your greatest skill?" I would probably say I just get things done. I want people to have... this is a fun thing. This is a really cool thing to be able to work on, obviously it's going to be stressful, because it's work. But I don't want anybody walking away from this project and feel like they were taken for a ride by the schedule or any aspect of working on it. I like working with artists, and I like figuring out ways that we can make the experience good for both sides. And maybe that does have something to do with my personality and the way that I do things. So maybe that is... I love working with artists. I'm really lucky to get to do this.
SPURGEON: How much is on your plate? How big of a workload do you have?
WATTERS: A lot. Lately? A lot. Let me figure this out. Recently I've had a lot more. My assistant editor left for other opportunities. I have a new assistant editor, just over from Archaia, who is going to be great. But the last two months has been a real wild ride. My workload is pretty intense. I have Peanuts, and then developing new series, and then Adventure Time, and Fiona And Cake, and then Bravest Warriors, and we have some really big-ticket Adventure Time projects. It gets more intense all the time. I'm a little control freak-y, I think. I have this new assistant editor and I'm afraid to stop doing everything. Ross says I need to sit back and give some stuff away, let other people help you. I've got... so I do an issue of month for each of the series, and then the trade collections that come out, so there's that. Then there is the new Ka-Boom! material for 2013. In 2012 there as also finishing out Incorruptible, Irredeemable and Elric. There was a point for a while, only a month or two, where I was doing seven series.
We're all at BOOM! for a reason.
SPURGEON: When did the trigger go off for you, that comics might be something you could do professionally and not just follow as a reader or even pursue creatively? When did having a job in comics become a reality for you? Is that something you were always headed to?
WATTERS: I went to Occidental College and I was an English major there. I was always an editor. I was editor and chief of my middle school yearbook, editor-in-chief of high school yearbook three out of four years and editor-in-chief of my college yearbook for two out of my four years. So I've kind of always been an editor. It's always been this thing I've been good at. I've been good at reading things. I've always been an editor. My love has always been animation and comics. That's really been where my bread gets buttered for my whole life. I knew that I wanted to do something in that sphere. But, you know, I can't draw. You can be animator, and you can't really do comics. I was lucky in college because they introduced a creative writing emphasis at Oxy for English majors. It was kind of like a minor. You took a set amount of classes, and some independent studies, and you structured them in a way that it focused on whatever writing style, whatever genre you wanted to specialize in and study. I chose comics. I had an advisor, who kind of became my mentor at Oxy, who was very intrigued by comics. He was very interested in pop culture as art and intrigued by comics. He allowed me to study comics, narrative structure and panel structure, for two years along with my English degree stuff.
So I came out of college with a really good foundation for being a comic book editor. But I didn't know that's what I wanted to do. I knew that comic book editors were there, and God, wouldn't that be great? Jamie Rich brought his taste to Oni, and his period of Oni defined me as a comic book fan. What a power. What an incredible gift to be able to have, incredible opportunity.
So I got a job right out of school as a content manager at a great e-commerce consulting company. Really nice people. I was awful. I hated it. God, I was awful. Terrible. I've never been worse at anything, except maybe French. [Spurgeon laughs] So every day before work I'd spend an hour on Craigslist and every day after work I'd spend an hour on Craigslist. And one day there was a listing for a copy editor position at Tokyopop. And I wanted that. I spent three hours on a cover letter. My good friend was at the time in HR at Google. She read my resume and tweaked it for perfect resume structure. If anybody knows perfect resume structure, it's HR at Google. She tweaked it and sent it in. I got a phone interview! I did the phone interview, and I got an in-person interview! I stood outside pacing because I wanted it so bad. There were like three interviews. For copy-editor, that was a pretty rigorous series of tests. We had to do an editing test. I passed, I guess. I got a job there. I worked there about eight months. That was the first time I thought it could be something.
SPURGEON: Do you still retain any of that experience?
WATTERS: At Tokyopop? Oh, yeah. The great thing is that we would come in and there was a big rack full of proofs. We would proof all day. When you first start you make dumb mistakes, you skip over things. I wrote a document called "How to be the best damn copy-editor" and when I made a mistake I would add to it and not do that anymore. What that experience did was that it made me very... I don't know if I was detail-oriented the way I am now before Tokyopop. It made certain things second-nature, certain things you'd look for on the page you'd just see them immediately. That has really stuck with me. That skill has been invaluable. You become a comic-book editing machine.
I worked with some amazing people at Tokyopop. Tim Beedle and Paul Morrissey who worked for Archaia a long time, they were my guys; Paul helped me get my job at BOOM! by recommending me for the assistant editor's position when he was working on the Disney books years and years ago at BOOM!. Hope Donovan works at Viz now. She's an amazing editor. It was great to be in an atmosphere where you were editing comics. It was a very different experience than with monthly comics. You weren't necessarily creating the way that you are at BOOM! You're not choosing teams, or tweaking scripts. You're taking content that's already produced and making it shine. It was great just being part of that team. And it really showed me it could be your career.
SPURGEON: You have to remind me before we get too much further along: is Peanuts one of yours? I know you were involved at the beginning, at least.
WATTERS: I was involved at the beginning. Adam Staffaroni and Matt kind of took the reigns on the series throughout most of it. When Adam left, Matt asked me to take it over. I worked on it back when we were selling the Blanket trade near the beginning. At the time I was too overwhelmed to take on another series.
SPURGEON: You mention that you were a big strip fan.
SPURGEON: So you had to know there would be at least some pushback on the idea of that project.
WATTERS: Of course.
SPURGEON: Is that ever a worry, how the project might be seen in that kind of way? With Peanuts, or with licensed projects more generally?
WATTERS: You always want people to like what you're doing with the characters. With Peanuts I think it would be more of a worry if the people that were working on it weren't working on it. Paige Braddock is obviously an incredibly talented cartoonist on her own but she was also Charles Schulz' assistant for years. They were very close. Paige is basically creative director at Creative Associates. She oversees everything. Paige and Lex [Fajardo] are the most passionate people on the planet about Peanuts. The awe and reverence in their voice still about Peanuts, after working on it for so long, is incredible. I think I would be more worried about it if it wasn't Paige and Lex and the Creative Associates team working on it. They approach it with the utmost love and respect.
SPURGEON: Is there any impulse on your part to work more directly with cartoonists' own projects as opposed to licensed products?
WATTERS: The nice thing about the licensed products is that they pay the bills. I would love to take somebody's original project and take it through to the end. Hopefully that opportunity comes up at BOOM! or elsewhere to do that. I think that will happen someday, at BOOM! or elsewhere. There are ideas in the works for me to do that. If anything keeps me in it for life, it will be that opportunity.
SPURGEON: Are you a lifer? Do you think you'll stick around?
WATTERS: Golly, who knows? The dream was always that I get to make all these comics forever. [laughter] That's the dream. I love my job, and I seem to be okay at it. I would love the opportunity to keep doing it. And who knows what life will bring, where life will take you?
SPURGEON: That doesn't sound like the most ringing endorsement, Shannon. Is there something that specifically worries you? Do you wonder after the viability of comics long-term?
WATTERS: I worry about the fact that I don't want to stay in Los Angeles forever. [laughs]
WATTERS: I worry about the sustainability of doing what I do with a family.
SPURGEON: Well, sure.
WATTERS: I grew up in the woods. That's the first thing you gotta understand about me. I grew up in Oak Creek Canyon in Arizona, in the Ponderosa Pine Forest, on a piece of property that's been in my family since the early 1940s. My family is there, and the first 18 years of my life was running around the woods and keeping myself busy. I don't know that I'm suited to be a city girl for the rest of my life. [laughs] You get a little stir crazy in the city. I've been here a little over a decade, I guess. For about a decade. I love LA. I love LA. But I'm afraid my place in comics -- unlike a lot of the amazing artists I get to work with, they get to write and draw for as long as they please. Wherever they are. There are very limited options when you're an editor, as far as moving around. Especially the kind of editing we do which is full-bullpen editing, very collaborative. This kind of atmosphere. I really value that atmosphere, but at the same time, there's only a few places you can do that kind of thing. I would love to keep doing it. I think it's the only thing I've been primed for my whole life.
* a detail from an Adventure Time cover
* photo of Watters provided by Watters
* an alternative cover for the AT series' 8th issue, alternative covers being a series hallmark so far, and kind of a thing that BOOM! does regularly
* from Bravest Warriors
* an early Peanuts issue
* from Meredith Gran's take on Scream Queens [below]
* don't really know what's going on here, but "Fuck My Jeans" strikes me as a pretty good title.
* finally, Tucker Stone picks his 19 best comics of 2012. It's a solid list, although I have to admit I don't get any sense of Stone as a critic through this list. Like this could be the same list any single person of a dozen turned in. I've been really mean about these top of 2012 lists lately, and I'm not sure exactly why. They collectively feel to me like the sign of some sort of critical rot. On the other hand, just putting it that seriously makes me feel uncomfortable, too.
Tom Hart was a very important cartoonist for me to discover in the early to mid-1990s, through his tremendous run of mini-comics and initial comic-book series. His mixture of energetic line-making and lean dialogue cracked through any remaining biases I had about a certain kind of comic book by showing me several that I liked instead of providing me the theory that such a comic might exist. Tom has continued to be a prolific comics-maker, along the way becoming one of comics' most well-liked educators. He has poured most of his recent energy into The Sequential Artists Workshop (SAW), the subject of the bulk of our interview. The passing of Hart and Leela Corman's young daughter Rosalie Lightning in November 2011 remains near the forefront of the comics community's thoughts. It is something we address briefly through Hart's creation of comics art -- one a direct memoir in progress, another a short story driven by parenting concerns the conception and execution of which straddled the event -- that relates in some way to that tragedy, and I mention it here for the necessary context.
I ran into Hart at this year's SPX and asked him to be a part of this series in great part to hopefully spur more regular attention directed at SAW from this site. I'm grateful that Hart took the time on a December day down in Gainesville to shoot the breeze. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I think of you frequently in the context of the group of cartoonists in Seattle with whom you used to hang out in the early- to mid-1990s. I saw a lot of you folks around this year. Dave Lasky has a major book out. Rich Tommaso had a book out this year. Ed Brubaker is doing well. Jon Lewis has a book out. Craig Thompson is a little younger but he has his books going. I was talking about that generation of cartoonists with a group of even younger comics-makers, and they immediately latched onto you guys as a generation that's maybe distinct from the Clowes and the Wares and that group, that maybe you guys didn't make comics in as sustained a fashion for as long that group has. I wonder if you had any reflections on the group of cartoonists with whom you came up, how many of you remained productive but others haven't, and maybe most of you haven't been releasing work as much as we might have hoped, once?
TOM HART: That's a lot of questions.
SPURGEON: Yeah... that's... I can be like that. Sorry.
HART: That's multiple questions, and I'm weeping on the other end that maybe people think I haven't been productive.
SPURGEON: You have and some of your peers have, but not everyone has. And it could be a total misapprehension, too. But I'm interested in the perception -- I overuse the "lost" part of the phrase "lost generation," and it's ridiculously over-dramatic, but I do wonder after the collective identity of that second wave of alt-cartoonists.
HART: It's interesting. Weirdly upon reflection I feel, as a part of that group at this point in 2012, a dinosaur and a never-was at the same time. This is going to be a very meandering answer. I guess you're saying that we became invisible for a while, because we weren't that productive?
SPURGEON: More that I was dismayed by how quickly the younger people with whom I was talking about this went there. I think what they meant was that with some rare exceptions cartoonists now in the late 30s, early 40s haven't had that generational impact, the collective identity that maybe that immediately previous generation did.
HART: Maybe you can tell me if this is accurate. When I said I feel like a dinosaur, it's something that I feel a lot. I think -- and tell me if this is accurate -- that back then in Seattle we were really focused on stories. Starting stories from the ground up and not reacting in the same way that people in front of us did. There were plenty of guys like Peter Bagge and Dan Clowes and Chester Brown where they were riffing on established genres. Superheroes, or the detective genre. We were really interested in story, and I think we were interested in this literary way that has gone out of fashion. That's the point I want your confirmation on. It seems like the things coming through the transom now are so visually stunning and abstract story-wise in many ways that seem like a trend. But also interesting. I could see that the stuff we were focused on is stuff they're not interested in. I think the things we battled with, a lot of us weren't very good visual artists, either. [laughter] Except Jason Lutes, maybe. So we were fighting to render our literary ideas in the best visual language we could. But it was a battle. It seems like like in the decade and a half since then everyone is rising out of the womb with these incredible visual chops and an interesting set of storytelling if not a coherent one. We may be a lost generation in that. I think that's about where my train of thought stops.
SPURGEON: Are there works that you think are exemplars of that approach? Is Berlin a rock-solid example of that kind of sustained narrative?
HART: Sure. Definitely Berlin. When I say literary I don't necessarily mean sustained narrative. Jon Lewis, he was never going to become famous for his drawing skills. [Spurgeon laughs] But for a while he was trying to compress into as few pages as possible as much literary content -- for lack of a better word -- as possible. Even in these things that looked tossed off. Spectacles and Ghost Ship were two comics that he did where he was riffing on on these old DCWitching Hour type of comics, and trying to bring in this Borgesian intelligence to it. [laughs] You can't tell just looking at it! It's dense and off-putting in a weird way.
[David] Lasky was the same way. He was always trying to render things in these formal experiments. Megan [Kelso] -- at least in the '90s -- she's been consistent and gotten better, her interest is New Yorker-style short stories, little slice of character that jumps back and forth. Maybe that's out of fashion. Maybe we just didn't do a lot of work. I don't know. I did a lot of work. I also had rudimentary drawing skills [laughter] and I feel I was covering a lot of ground -- I always feel like I'm making up for lost time. I've never been an exemplary artist, so I always feel I'm covering stuff I should have learned by the time I was 17. Then I spent five years pursuing daily comics, which was a terrible idea.
SPURGEON: Do you regret that period?
HART: No, not artistically at all. It was actually some of the most fun I've ever had. I feel like over the course of that period I finally became comfortable in my own artistic skin a little. What is the quote about forging one's artistic personality on the anvil of daily deadlines? Something like that. Doing the daily strips made me a better artist. I don't regret it all. There are only so many ways the daily strip can be subverted and played with and I went the exact opposite direction. I went to Mutt And Jeff [laughter], and began to emulate what was out of fashion 70 years ago. I wanted to understand it better. I can see that as the DNA of everything that's inspired me as a child.
SPURGEON: Given that so many of you are educators, why haven't your values impressed themselves on the younger generation?
HART: What hasn't impressed themselves?
SPURGEON: You say you felt like a dinosaur, that you simply don't share the values of the younger cartoonists. Given that so many of you teach, I wonder that there isn't a greater continuity -- a lot of these younger cartoonists are your guys' students.
HART: To some degree. The only person of that kind of visionary... the kind of artist that might have no need for our generation, I'm thinking of Michael DeForge and the types of artists that have this visionary, imaginative sense of everything: of content, of drawing, of page composition. Everything. They're breaking through everything. The lack of continuity... when I think about it, I think it's the Internet. I'm not sure if that's right or wrong. Jon Lewis would say the same thing. When I grew up, I was pretty culturally devoid of any stimulus. I went to the bowling alley a lot when I was a kid. I watched Dr. Who once a week, and that was it. [Spurgeon laughs] Every once in a while I looked through my dad's record collection for something interesting to hear. I never found anything. [laughs]
Growing up is so different now. The cultural stimulus we have is everywhere, and the ability to be influence by everything is rampant. Instantaneous and rampant, and if you have this enormous appetite you can cycle through all these styles and approches. I feel like we were struggling at a slower pace. You had to struggle to make interesting work and to be original. It's possible that we were the last generation to grow up without that advantage of access. In the mid-'90s, the Internet starts approach around '98 or '99 -- we may be the last generation of twenty-something-year-olds that couldn't image google search everything. Or look at the Moebius Tumblr. If we wanted to look at Moebius comics, and I'm sure you hear this from a lot of older generations, we had to find them. [laughs] I don't know. I think that's the answer, but I don't have empirical evidence.
SPURGEON: Another thing that struck me this year is how community-oriented a lot of these kids are, in a way that reminds me of how you guys in Seattle related to one another. I wonder if that's something that you have noticed, too, with your students or being at a show like this year's SPX. It hit me at some point in 2012 that these kids are actually going to school together; they're not having a school-of-comics experience in their twenties, they're having an actual school experience at 18 -- many of them, anyway. Do you have a sense of how those communities kind of replicate what you guys had?
HART: It does seem that way. I'm not paying that much attention. We didn't invent the community of artists. Artists have always hung out together at that age and found like-minded others. There does seem to be a lot of groups like that. Do you think they're attached to the schools? I was not aware there were enough schools to do that.
SPURGEON: Maybe that's a way to move into what you're up to. Is there a state of SAW that you can give me? Can you provide a snapshot of what's going on down there right now? How's it going, Tom?
HART: It's going well. We're in the last week of our first complete semester. We've been open since January , but from January until August we've done pretty informal things. We've taught a lot classes in the community, to adult artists, things like that. We've also had a week-long John Porcellino workshop. This September, roughly September 1, we really got going with what it is I wanted to do, which was to have this intense, year-long program. We're just finishing up the first semester. It's great. The kids are super. We just had a long, discursive, free-wheeling discussion about Art, abstract art. One of our teachers, Justine, is older than any of us. I think she's a couple of years older than me. She has the art school experience of having been in art school when all the teachers were students of students of abstract impressionism. And so she still has a lot of anger. [laughter] It's brought up a lot of other conversations. Two of our students have been through art school, one a little more intensely. And then the others come from other places. So we just had this long -- the kind of conversation you have at the end of a semester where it feels like you're done but you want to rant and explore ideas.
These guys are really bonding, also. We had a conversation a couple of days ago where they talked me into something I hadn't thought of yet. They said, "We need to put a bunch of our stuff together. We want people to see what we've been doing here." I naturally assumed that at some point that would happen informally, but they asked me formally. "Can you send a bunch of our stuff out?" And I feel I should do that. These kids want their work to be seen. They know they don't have to throw it out into the void if the school can get behind it. But yeah, the first semester has gone great. We've done all sorts of very traditional things. I've had them working on two-page, tabloid-sized comics, and a couple of smaller-page comics. They've done a lot of stuff extra-curricularly, too. We did a 24-Hour Comics thing. One of the students feels that their best work was that single day. That happens a lot, actually. I have a Friday session that's pretty open to oddball things. I had an acting coach come in with some physicality exercises that I think went over pretty well. Walking, being alert to how you hold your body when you're trying to walk a certain way. We've talked about bring her back and trying a live show, bringing a couple of actors in and the artists will instruct the actors and the actors will instruct the artists... [laughs] We're still trying to figure it out.
Because we're so small and uninstitutional, we can play around with these ideas. It's exactly what I wanted to do, to have a little bit of nimbleness and maybe explore things that are a little non-traditional. I'm not being as bold as I could be. I could have them crawling around on the floor making tiger noises. [laughter] This summer I was writing down all of these crazy exercises that could maybe go into a book that never happened.
They're all planning to go home for holidays. It's going to be weird here without them. We'll have a show here Friday. Gainesville is really, really supportive of us. It's a great, creative time. We're really happy.
SPURGEON: Dumb it down even further for me. It's a year-long course that students of any age can take, and they're coming to class... how frequently? For how long a time?
HART: I say year-long but it's really two semesters. We start in mid-August and we end in mid-April. They're there five days a week. Monday through Friday we have a different class every day. 11-2, although some end around 1. My class is project-based: it's a lot of exercises, a lot of critiquing. Tuesday, you remember John Ronan? John has been giving them the most amazing history class I've ever seen. Some weeks he's come in with just a stack of Puck magazines. [Spurgeon laughs] It's just great. It's really, really great. He's so happy to be teaching what he wants to be teaching rather than all this other stuff he's been teaching.
SPURGEON: I miss John, and some mornings if I'm really quiet I can hear him.
HART: [laughs] He's quieted down a little. He's still incessant, but he's quieted down a little.
SPURGEON: I like him very much.
HART: He's likable, and what he's given the kids is really great. More than I expected. The first ten weeks of the first semester, they didn't get past 1875, maybe. I don't know any of that stuff. I should have been paying more attention. It's an education I don't even have. Wednesday is all drawing. Our teacher's name is Justine [Mara Andersen]. She has a long history in comics, but it's sort of a scattered history of comics.
She's an amazing technician. She lives about a town away, in Ocala, she heard about SAW and walked in one day last Spring. She showed me her portfolio and asked if we could work together. I usually am happy with what I have going, unless I really need somebody. But the portfolio was so stunning that we knew we wanted to work into the curriculum. She has an evening class, and a small following of students that take that class, too. We have an oddball relationship, because she's into beauty for beauty's sake; I like to get abstract and allow for all sorts of ideas. It's a great aesthetic dialogue we have. So that's Wednesday. One student said that one class with her literally changed his life. One two-hour class.
Thursday during the first semester I brought in someone that learned under David Foster Wallace to teach a general course on storytelling, whatever she felt most comfortable with. Next semester that will be Leela teaching an illustration course. Friday it's a grab-bag where we do figure drawing or other things. They're there five days a week.
SPURGEON: Is this mostly college-age kids?
HART: Everyone is around 22 to 25.
SPURGEON: I had coffee with Brendan Burford recently. He said that one thing he admired about you was how doubly committed you were to your art and your teaching, that there was a practical side to you that came out through the teaching part of your life. It struck me that I don't know the original impulse for you to leave the teaching you were doing to do the teaching you are doing. Can you talk about that act of breaking away? It seemed you were pretty established where you were.
HART: It was a lot of things, I think. Being burned out on New York was a pretty major part of it. I loved teaching at SVA, but there was a part of me that didn't want to live the life of the SVA instructor that for the next 40 years taught two or three classes. I rebelled against that idea. I wanted more control somehow. We had a lot of freedom in our classes at SVA. I think we had a lot of freedom. I wasn't rebelling against not being able to teach what I wanted or something. I don't know. I have a need for autonomy. Practically, I did know that pursuing more higher-education teaching would be as complicated as starting my own school because I don't have an MFA. I don't even have a BFA. If there was a point where I said, "I need to go where the teaching jobs are" -- and I don't recall there being a point where I said that -- I would have hit that roadblock.
I don't know. I take the teaching very, very seriously as an artistic endeavor in itself. I'm constantly -- maybe because I have a terrible memory and take bad notes -- but I'm constantly reinventing the curriculum. Or add to it to make it better. Everything is a work in progress. Every book you make, even after you publish it, is a work in progress. The teaching is, too. This is the amount of autonomy I wanted, and part of it was wanting to leave New York. We were really done with it. Had the recession not hit in 2008 I'm not sure we would have felt like that, but I think we would have, anyway. It became overly stimulating, very expensive, extremely stressful... and I really love the community of SVA but I don't think it was enough to keep me in New York.
SPURGEON: How do you think the teaching has changed your orientation as an artist? Or has it? One of your ex-students told me that one thing that impressed him about you was how confident your decisions were in critiques.
HART: Oh, that's nice.
SPURGEON: You were very bold when it came to laying out what you thought worked and didn't work. Has being around so many working artists, having to articulate certain values, had an effect on you?
HART: It's certainly made me a smarter artist and a better technician -- that may be the first time I've ever referred to myself as a technician. It heightened my technical abilities and made me a better thinker about art, for sure. That's true. I could go into detail. When I started teaching, when I dropped out of school one of my first thoughts was I wanted to do this the way it should be done. I felt misunderstood as a student, and I felt the topics were misunderstood by the instructors. So as soon as I dropped out, I thought, "Some day I'm going to do this better." I wasn't sure that would ever happen, but it eventually did. At SVA I realized how much I had yet to learn, and I got pretty aggressive about trying to learn it. I embraced the things I had yet to embrace. I'd been a writer for so long, and not necessarily a good writer, but I'd been a writer so long I began to look at the drawings. It's a school of visual arts. I realized that for me it was all about story -- this kind of goes back to that first question -- but that's not what everyone wanted. They may have other goals. So I had to really wizen up about drawing. I learned it in the abstract first, and tried to get better at it technically. I'm finally learning to draw with a brush. Having Justine has been fantastic. She made me buy a good brush, and do the exercises you need to do to get good with it. The kind of thing I would have hated in my 20s. I would have directed my attention elsewhere. It's been a long road to get better at everything.
SPURGEON: Given that you dropped out of art school, and that a lot of your education was self-directed, at least initially, and that you're in this generation of comics educators that weren't yourself necessarily educated in the kinds of institutions you staff, how concerned are you with making sure that the schooling you provide meets the needs of the students in that very specific way? Because there's a general criticism where people roll their eyes and say you'd be better off buying a house and going to that house and drawing comics for a few years than you are going to school for comics. There's an anti-schooling ethos in comics a little bit, and I've wondered if you've confronted it at all. Are you worried about making what you do a value for the students in that way?
HART: The fact that it's incredibly cheap makes it easier. [laughter]
I really think about that a lot. I see it as one year of your life, and a few thousand dollars, and the worst it will do is make you a better cartoonist. More directly, yeah, it's really important to... I think because I believe that if they're better off doing something else with this money, they're probably going to do that. Then there are reasons -- maybe psychological, or maybe the need for a community. But in terms of the instruction I worry about it all the time. I think that's good. One of the things I was good at at SVA, and I was never David Sandlin or Gary Panter or one of those people that has a long, rich history deep in the arts. I was a bit of an outsider. I think I was good at figuring out each student's individuality a little bit and trying to believe in what they wanted to do. I try to do that here. The thing I worry about the most is I've been on this 10-year, 11-year, 12-year arc of worrying about visuals. I sometimes get overly focused on it [laughs] and it was never my strong point. I catch myself talking about things like light and composition and not talking about the thing that has been most important to me the last 20 years, which is story.
The question is how attentive I am to making sure it's good for the students and a good value? I think I've answered that, but I can keep going. [laughter] I worry about that all of the time. I can go deeper. I worry that... I never want my students and I never want myself to be looked down upon because we had to learn it formally. I've always looked down on my own abilities because it's such a struggle to get good at everything. I try to give students everything that's come to me from better artists. I don't think we're going to attract the artists that are so completely self-motivated and out of the door full of imagination and technical ability. We get students -- we've only had the one year -- that are full of drive, but have to have that guided. I think we're good at that.
SPURGEON: You and I did the institutions panel at Small Press Expo. You expressed some anxiety, maybe awareness is a better term, that establishing the program is going to soon yield to an entirely different skill set necessary to continue building that program. How comfortable are you in terms of taking what you've done so far and making an institution of it? How concerned are you about development issues with SAW?
HART: Extremely concerned. [laughs] Uh. I've done so much of it myself, and I think this is the one place where it would be great to not do it myself. I don't think I know what the next steps are. When I started talking about doing this, 2009 I think, everybody to a person when I said I was going to do a school said I needed a Michelle. Michelle Ollie. Everybody said this. And I said, "Yeah, I know. But I don't have one. And I'm not going to not do it just because I don't have one." [laughs] I did it. I need an administrative/institutional genius to assist me in that way. That person hasn't walked through the door yet. Justine walked through the door just as I needed her. That would be a big help. It's the stuff that frustrates me the most, and the stuff I'm least interested in. I'm not one of those artists as far as teaching goes. I love teaching. But being the administrator of the place and finding the money and all that stuff...? I'm making a compromise with marketing, and I'm trying to find some joy in it. I'm not going to build this into something more sustainable without a lot of help. Gainesville is full of over-educated people with too little to do. I'm hoping that that person's out there.
SPURGEON: I wanted this conversation to be dominated by SAW, but I did have a question about the Daddy Lightning comic you did. The one thing I wanted to ask you about the book, the thing I remembered reading about it the first time is that this specific work didn't speak directly to your tragedy in terms of content, but it's there in the support material because of the nature of how the project developed. That seems like a deliberate choice on your part, to process this thing in that direct fashion. I was curious about that decision.
HART: There were really only two choices to make. That was written ages ago, so the first decision was whether or not to finish it. I guess another decision was to in any way alter it, and I didn't want to do that. The other decision was how to comment on it in the supporting material, and that seemed like an easy decision to make, too. There wasn't a lot of thought that went into it.
SPURGEON: Is the reaction that people have to this and to other art that you've made, is it so wholly different in terms of how people react to it that it seems different that way, or is it familiar to you as an artistic experience like many of your other artistic experiences?
HART: I don't know. I don't know how much I've heard back. A lot of people are sorry for my loss and sort of leave it at that. I know in making that book, I felt like I had a long history, especially in my mini-comics, as being carefree and raw. I wanted to try and do that again. I didn't question too many of my decisions. Since then I've done 20 pages of the memoir.
SPURGEON: Well, sure. And that work would be much more pertinent to that specific question.
HART: I've done another 15 pages since. I get a ton of feedback on that, all of which seems to be that it's courageous and it's heartbreaking. Mostly that it's heartbreaking. So I don't know. I'm glad for that. As far as the reaction, I'm not paying all the attention that I should be or could be. One reason I moved out of New York was [laughs] to not worry about what other people thought. It was definitely a conscious effort to leave the commercial world. I knew what I felt like what I needed to do. I trusted in what I needed to do as an artist, and I knew I needed to be quieter and calmer to do that.
SPURGEON: You mentioned earlier your own development as a cartoonist, and then kind of referenced that just now. I wonder if you could talk about where you think you are. I always think of you as a cartoonist that's worked out of a specific set of values for your work, not just technical ones but across the board. Has moving to a quieter and calmer place helped?
HART: This may sound ostentatious, but despite the political overtones of the Hutch Owen work and some other stuff, all of it, all of it, has been about celebrating freedom. Especially the Hutch Owen work has been about that. Trying to allow people to be free to actualize themselves, express themselves. That's exactly what I'm doing at this school. And it's exactly what I'm trying to do in learning the real techniques of cartooning a little better. The more I learn, the greater my ability to free myself while I'm working. So I don't know -- it's a very, very bizarre turn of fate that I'm working on a memoir. Something that I never in a million years would have expected to do. In fact, what's weird this book is that I'm doing so many things I never would have though I'd be doing, especially referring to other art work a lot. I've always had this love-hate relationship with that. You see a Godard movie and suddenly he's riffing on some genre. I always had this idealistic, young view that art should be self-contained. You shouldn't have to know other pieces of art to get it. I've always known that I didn't understand that well, I've always known that. But I never thought I'd be doing a book that's the exact opposite. The book started when I realized that looking at art was the only way I was going to heal from this. I don't know if heal is the right word. It probably is. Suddenly, the book is mostly about how -- so far it is, anyway -- images, and images that other people have created, have helped me to understand this thing I can't understand. I'm not sure that answers your question.
SPURGEON: An answer that good I'll change the question.
HART: [laughs] I guess I just find myself doing a lot of things I never thought I would be doing. I've always tried to get better as a cartoonist. That means something different to everybody. The thing I've always known is that the act of making comics, the act of manipulating characters and having them interacting in boxes has always been a stimulating and freeing experience for me. So in your question about where I'm at in my development, I've been getting better according to my own values. Another reason for leaving New York is that I feel like I'm on a different rhythm than the commercial world, and other trends. The few times I've tried to adapt to the commercial world -- I thought I was a good cartoonist, and that I should be able to do these things -- but they come much more effortlessly to other cartoonists, and I realized I don't want to market myself as a cartoonist. What I'm interested in is the process of artmaking that is about freeing myself internally. I honestly don't think I've made any missteps that way. I also realize that I'm much slower, and that I'm just figuring out what many younger artists have figured out way before me. [laughs] I'm very slowly getting better, and maybe nobody notices. But that's okay.
* the SAW logo
* Tom Hart's early '90s work
* image from Michael DeForge employed on the SAW site; he's a supporter of the school
* photo from John Porcellino's report on his SAW workshop
* from Justine Mara Andersen
* the latest fundraising video for the school
* from Daddy Lightning
* the memoir comic as released (thus far) by Hart [below]
I always have the best discussions face-to-face with the cartoonist Sammy Harkham, which means the following interview likely doesn't work at all. I'll leave it up to you. It's old, too! I conducted it back before Small Press Expo, so you'll forgive us both our hardened souls that had yet to be exposed to the at-least ameliorative light of the very good small press convention season that followed our talk. I lost the tape, because I'm bad at my job -- and because I still use tapes. I found it during the course of this interview series because sometimes that happens. I hope that's okay. There were a few exchanges Harkham wanted excised that he communicated to me during the interview. I did so. The final edit is mine, as per a wish Harkham expressed at the end of our conversation. I edited solely for flow and hope that this interview captures not just Harkham on the various topics addressed but also the nature of our back and forth.
I first became aware of Sammy Harkham years and years ago at a San Diego Comic-Con where he had set up to sell his work, work which at the time was more influence than influential. That's changed. Harkham has continued on with his primary creative outlet, the anthology Kramers Ergot, to the point where it's one of the premier comics publications of our time. Its eighth issue found its way into most people's hands at the beginning of 2012. The Fall's Everything Together featured a variety of Harkham's own comics, both out of print and rarely seen. I'm particularly very fond of the short, biting humor strips as well as the longer piece about an academic suffering with writer's block, "The New Yorker Story," that reads like a leap forward in the cartoonist's already-assured understanding of narrative. Heck, I liked pretty much all of it. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Where am I talking to you today? Are you at work? Are you in your studio?
SAMMY HARKHAM: Basically, I've been working at my home for the last... two or three years? Time moves so fast now. It might be three years. 2009... I'm not sure exactly. I work from home, which is easier, but it's also getting to the point where I might switch it up and go back to work at the store.
SPURGEON: I visited you at one point a few years back and you were in a small studio space above the Family store, working with John Pham.
HARKHAM: It was useful at first because I wanted to get away from all of the distractions and I needed to finish Crickets #3. I did the right thing, because I had solicited it through Diamond with Fantagraphics. The book was not even halfway done. [laughs] So that's the best way to say, "Let's just draw this. Let's get it done." You know? I'm always one of those people that's overly-optimistic about how long something will take. So I was like, "I'll get a page done every other day." It took longer.
I had become burnt out doing a lot of work for other people, so this was an opportunity to be selfish with my time. I turned this room into a mini-studio and I drew for like five months or six months straight. Which was fantastic. I think it yielded real results because of the consistency and full attention. But it's impossible to do now for more than a week at a time, because I have to do other work.
SPURGEON: That's a pretty traditional lament. Is there a positive to having those outside experiences?
HARKHAM: No. [Spurgeon laughs] The truth is you're going to have them. If you're a cartoonist that makes a living drawing comics, they're going to have outside projects that they want to do: curating a show, working on paintings, working on a movie. Whatever. They're going to do production art for a show. They're going to take the things that are different than their comics, maybe collaborative, that's the one thing you miss being so involved in comics. You miss the collaborative projects. I think you do those things anyway. It sucks to have to do that work, when you want to finish your book or whatever that is. But it's a weird thing to complain about, because it's the usual complaint.
SPURGEON: I want to ask about the PictureBox book right up top. What made you want to do a collection now? Did Dan Nadel bring it to you? Did you go to him?
HARKHAM: I'll try to form an answer. I'm going to SPX, and I'm going to have people asking me about the book. So I'm going to have to figure out how to verbalize these answers. Basically... there's a part of you that gets depressed about all the work you've done. I realized the vast majority of things I've done are in comics that are hard to find. I'd done the Poor Sailor book, and it had sold out, so even that was out of print. I thought, "Let's put all of this together, and make it an affordable, fairly casual collection." That was appealing. I didn't want it to become my focus for the year, didn't want it to become this huge production. It was appealing to me to make a book that felt almost like an annual. Like one of those Western annuals that you get.
SPURGEON: This is one of those questions I wonder if you'll roll your eyes at me for asking, but given the fact that you've put together so many book with a bunch of different people in it, did that inform how you work with your own comics?
HARKHAM: For sure. I developed an aesthetic sense for how I can make a book feel like a comic book. What's funny with this is, when I started thinking about a collection, just daydreaming about it, it was like, "Oh, this is like making an issue of Kramers but with one person." You know? All of the sudden, it got exciting as an idea. As time passed, and I started working on Kramers 8, I started to go in a completely opposite directions about the form of the book. BOOK in big, bold letters. The classic "book." What is a "book"? So Kramers 8 was kind of taking the piss out of the whole idea of the literary book. So it was a little bit about adjusting my thinking, and figuring out how I wanted this to feel, even though lately I'd been getting excited about typset text and white end papers and things like that. [laughs] So it was like going back to repackaging something like a comic.
SPURGEON: It has this flexi-book look to it.
HARKHAM: I'm sorry?
SPURGEON: The cover is a softcover, but it looks like I could spill a drink on it.
HARKHAM: You can! The main influence is Japanese art books. A lot of Japanese magazines and art book have these really thick, thick dustjackets. They don't even score properly on the spine; they're rounded. I thought it would be nice to make a book that looks really different than the other books I've made and look really different from other books on the shelf. I liked the idea of a book that was brightly colored and shiny and looked like a product. I tried to carry that through. PictureBox gave me a synopsis of the book that runs in the inside dustjacket. There's a bio that PictureBox wrote as well. Normally I would throw those things out, and use those spaces for something else. There are quotes on the book, blurbs on the back. I wanted to have all of the elements of a traditional book, but hopefully play with it and make it interesting within that framework.
I hope that makes sense. You work on a book for a couple of months and you think you understand it, but when you actually try to talk about it, it's not the easiest thing to explain.
With the book, before anything else was decided on, I knew it was going to be a softcover book and it was going to have a dustjacket and I wanted it to feel like an annual or a magazine. I wanted the price point to be low, fairly low. I wanted it to be casual. I didn't want to trump up the work as "These are amazing comics that are part of the canon of literature." It's like, "These comics are out of print. I think they're good. [laughs] I want them to be in a handy volume." In my mind, before anything was formed, I was imagining a table at a comic book convention. Everything was there, all the new books are there, and this book looks almost wet because it's so glossy and the colors are so bright. That seemed like an exciting way to approach it.
SPURGEON: The arrangement of the stories inside, my impression reading the book is that the stories at the end of the book were increasingly dense. The narrative density of the works became more and more pronounced. Is that just your own progression as an artist, or was that purposeful in your arrangement here? Because it seems like right after Poor Sailor, it seems like your work becomes a lot more involved page to page. If nothing else, the majority of the time one spends reading this book is spent on the last 25 pages or so. I wondered if that was a purposeful thing.
HARKHAM: Not really. If I wanted to stick to that as a didactic, structural rule, I would have started the comic with Poor Sailor or one-panel gags or something. But I did want the end of the book to feel like the sensibility was changing. The thing that happens, looking at all of this old work and me editing my own book like this, it's like looking at these stories for the first time in a long time the thing that's most striking -- this is very narcissistic -- is that you don't recognize the person that made the work. It was a little depressing in that way. I think I was a more hopeful person and a happier person when I was younger. And the work's not even that old. Most of it is from the last seven or eight years. To me the newer stuff, like "The New Yorker Story," which ends the book, feels very different than Poor Sailor or Somersaulting. So my goal, as we went on, was to show that shift a little bit. So that when you get to the end, you're like okay, whatever book he does next will be more in line with the end of this book than the beginning of this book.
SPURGEON: I'm interested in that you're now worked with Poor Sailor a bunch of times. Did anything strike you about working with it this time? That's a work for which you're very well known.
HARKHAM: People really like that story. I still get mail about that story, which is cool. [pause] Nothing really, to be honest.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I was sort of surprised to see it in there, to tell you the truth. I wasn't aware it was out of print. That little hardcover works really well for that story, so I was surprised to see it again.
HARKHAM: I didn't feel like it deserved to be its own book. As the author. I'm not Edward Gorey. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't feel like my own drawings are so special they need to be individually showcased. The story to me wasn't so great that it needs to be its own object. I feel like this book -- it's probably going to be frustrating for the people that have the Poor Sailor book. I wasn't really thinking about the people that have been reading me the last five years. I was thinking of the readers that are discovering, teenagers now, discovering my work now, as a way they can get my work in one form as opposed to tracking down old issues of Crickets, Vice, Drawn And Quarterly Showcase, whatever. So I thought I'd put it in here. If you already had all of this stuff, you don't need it. [laughs] It's not lime I'm that prolific of a cartoonist, that I've done so much stuff... it's just a handful of things. But this way it's all together. And the way we reformatted it was just the way it ran in Kramers 4 originally, which I've always liked.
SPURGEON: The stuff about about other cartoonists in here, material that gets blended in with some other observational work, that has to be an odd area... that has to be an odd subject to engage. On the one hand, it's all there for you. That's your life. You see other cartoonists. You have these experiences. At the same time, it's also a well trod-upon area, and it must be hard to do comics like that without settling on cliché: "Here I am with my cartoonist buddies." Is there a self-consciousness when you do strips like that. I think they're very well-observed, although I'm not sure how many people will be able to appreciate how much so. Is it tough to work in that very specific sub-genre?
HARKHAM: I think it's kind of fairly easy work to do, in that you're just making jokes about your friends. They're great warm-up exercise, in a way. Autobio, strips about your friends, I think there are holes you can fall into because that's very insular. That's what keeps me from doing more of them. If you go on a book tour with other cartoonists, there are loads of ridiculous things that happen that are funny to you and your friends and people that read comics. I was wondering if I should include that stuff because it's so insular. I thought they were so little, and that they kind of work on their own -- hopefully -- as autobio strips regardless if you know who the people involved are.
SPURGEON: There's an odd thing in comics, and in media in general, where it seems like you don't have a choice to not know at least a little bit about this stuff? It's almost like you're always... we follow Dan's work, and we also follow Dan. The majority of people that read Wilson probably know at least something about Dan, right?
HARKHAM: Maybe. I don't know. I'm not sure that's true at all.
SPURGEON: If the proportion I describe isn't accurate, that kind of reading relationship certainly exists as a construct within comics. That's certainly a way people read them.
HARKHAM: To me that strip was just funny. It was a dream that Kevin had that he told me about. I thought it was funny. I'm sitting there months later just looking for something to draw... you know? I drew that in an afternoon and thought, "That's goofy." I don't know. The truth is, you could do loads of that stuff. I think. It's limited, it's very limited.
SPURGEON: There's not a lot of full color in here.
HARKHAM: No. I'm not a fan of full color.
SPURGEON: You're not a fan of color?
HARKHAM: Yes. [laughs] I hate color. It's so disgusting. [laughter] I don't like my work in full color. I think it makes the work look like it's trying to be more polished and more magazine-ready than it actually is. For the most part, I don't like it when other cartoonists do their work in full color, either. That's just a preference of mine. I prefer black and white or two-color.
The hardest thing to talk about is my work. I'd rather talk about the weather where you are in New Mexico. [laughs] I'd probably have more to say about the weather in New Mexico than this book.
SPURGEON: One thing that connects your longer stories is that many of them involve people in marriages, and in some ways, at least, what's going on in the story seems to encompass some sort of collection of thoughts or extended meditation on marriage. What is it about marriage that interests you as a subject for your comics? Your Kramers 8 story also deals with that kind of central life relationship, albeit in a more arch and depressing way.
HARKHAM: [laughs] It's probably just an automatic writer's response to "what's the setting/what's the world"? Because I'm married, that's the world. Every story that you read, the character has some sort of life. For me, the married world, it still yields so much as a setting, as a way to add even more tension and add more humor to a plot. I don't know if I've done a strip -- actually, I guess "Blood Of A Virgin" is explicitly about relationships. I feel like my other stories use marriage not as the center topic. A lot of this stuff... I don't write a script, I don't do a lot of pre-planning. I just sort of jump into it. So a lot of this is "first thought, best thought," at least initially. I guess there is a lot of marriage stuff.
There are cartoonists that are really good with every story jumping from genre to genre. Tone to tone. There are other people that just re-tell the same story over and over again, just in different ways. That's fine. Maybe I'm more like that. I don't know.
SPURGEON: We mentioned it in relation to how it was placed and the work's overall organizing principle, but "The New Yorker Story," the fact that it's very intense, page to page, very involved: I think it's six tiers, five or six panels across. Since you don't write beforehand, what led you to making that choice with that story? Why tell that story that way?
HARKHAM: With that story in particular, I was contacted by Vice to do a strip for the magazine. They told me I had four pages. I didn't have a lot of time. I had something like two weeks. I hadn't drawn comics in a while, and the comics I was drawing were less panels to page and more realistic -- "realistic" -- looking. I took the Vice gag. With something like that, you need to plan it out, so I wrote it out point by point as a story. It all had to come together quickly. I had to draw quickly. For me, when I make my panels smaller, and there are more panels on the page, it's easier for me to draw. It becomes more about pure information. It's about conveying the idea of a person typing at a desk in an office. When you only have two or three inches to do that in, it takes a lot the pressure off of making a nice drawing and just trying to make a readable drawing.
Doing that strip was a big revelation for me. Because I had a big time crunch, and I had to get it done. I found a mode of working that totally suited me. Working on that strip reminded me of how I like to make comics. I liked to spend one to days on a page. I don't like to be too fussy. It also reminded me of the kind of storytelling I like in film or in literatures. I have a preference for clean, declarative sentences, right? So if the comic can kind of mirror that, and I think that that one does in the sense that it's very unadorned and very straight-forward. Hopefully each panels gives you the information. As you work on that, you start realizing that emotional complexity doesn't necessarily come out of composition or realistic faces. A realistic face trying to convey sadness may not be as effective as two dots and a sad mouth. A downward line. Then you realize that whole idea that Chris Ware talked about in '97 in his Journalinterview of comics as music, all of the sudden you understand what he's talking about in a whole new way, because it's not, if you look at each at each individual panel as notes of music, any individual note isn't necessarily complex, it's the arrangement of those notes that creates complexity. So working on "The New Yorker Story" I started seeing that these were really simple images, really simple ideas, as individual panels. It's the arrangement of these panels, these really easy-to-read images, that creates -- hopefully -- something richer.
Then I realized, "Oh, Charles Willeford." It's totally the same, you know? Or Knut Hamsun. They state something, and they state it clearly, and that's no different than a perfectly round head with two dots for eyes and a downward line to show someone being sad. A writer like Charles Willeford, you couldn't pull out any line. You couldn't pluck one line out of any of his novels as an example of the complexity of his work, what makes his work so great. It's the reading of the entire book. To do that, to do that comic in those four pages in that many days, and have it turn out well, was a really good lesson. When I was done, I went right back into "Blood Of A Virgin," and even thought "Blood Of A Virgin" isn't as dense, I tried to use the lessons learned in that story. That's why the book ends with that strip, too, because I felt that was a big learning curve. There was a big learning curve with that story that I hope has influenced everything since. I think I was touching on those things, and those ideas, occasionally. But when you're constantly starting and stopping, where cartooning becomes a hobby because you have to have a day job and stuff, it's hard to have momentum and to keep the lessons learned. So that was a big learning experience for me.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about Kramers. I talked to you about Kramers a tiny bit on-line this year, about four months after it had come out. My impression is that you were kind of mad about how it was received.
HARKHAM: No, no. Of course not. At this point, how could anyone making comics give a shit about how they're received? You know? I'm not 18 years old. I don't make a living doing this, not necessarily, so it's not... you make the work that you make, and you believe in it. I totally love the issue. As far as the reception for it? It never means anything, if people love something or not. I don't even know how you're supposed to gauge the response to a book. Do you gauge it on what people write you, or what you read? I read some reviews of Kramers and it's the usual thing where I don't relate to anything they're saying. Occasionally you go, "Oh, wow. I hadn't thought about that." But it doesn't really ruin my day if somebody doesn't like Kramers. You hope people like it.
SPURGEON: I thought that our conversation centered around that you thought people focused too much on the inclusion of the Wicked Wanda material.
HARKHAM: Did we talk about this?
SPURGEON: I swear we did. My memory is really, really lousy now, but I think that's what happened. My impression is that you thought people didn't quite get why you included it, and you didn't know why people were making a deal of its inclusion.
HARKHAM: I mean, look. At the end of the day you include material that you like.
SPURGEON: Maybe that's the way to engage it, then. What did you like about that work?
HARKHAM: I think it's visually beautiful. It's not in print. I'd never really seen it before until I stumbled on it fairly recently. I liked it when I read it. I thought the writing was good, too. I wanted to make it feel a little separate from the rest of the book. That's why it's on glossy paper and it's at the end, past the epilogue. I felt the intentions and the whole approach to the work is very different from the approach of all the other artists in the books. I didn't want to say that, "Wicked Wanda and the artists that made it are arm in arm with us in terms of how we approach comics and make comics." I still really liked it. I like it, still.
SPURGEON: It's a weird mix of approaches. There are some panels that are classic humor-comic -- it's a tableau where everyone is acting on a stage in front of you. Like everyone has been set up and it's an applause moment and we should all applaud now from the sheer delight of the new scene. There are also some cartoon-movement scenes. It's a strange, strange mix. I was taken with it, too.
HARKHAM: Did you find it tedious to read? I loved how dated it is, as well. There's a joy in reading jokes about Jimmy Carter. That's part of the charm of reading something like that now.
SPURGEON: That's a comics thing, too. I frequently read comics that I don't all the way understand in terms of who I might know that was reading them and enjoying them at the time they were published. I didn't understand Milton Caniff until my dad told me his sister, my Aunt Barbara, loved Terry And The Pirates. That gave me an in.
HARKHAM: I remember I went and saw an early Nicholas Ray movie, and the person presenting it said they were interested in it because it was the kind of movie their grandparents would go to. All our grandparents would go to. Then when the movie starts, you start thinking about it from that point of view. It can be helpful. To me it's as simple as if I like something, and it's a reprint of something, is it useful for people. Is it useful for me as a reader to have this stuff in print? I really like those comics a lot. I do.
SPURGEON: The other one that kind of killed me when I re-read it, that maybe didn't strike me as powerfully the first time was the Barbarian Bitch story.
HARKHAM: Anya Davidson. I think she's amazing. I think she's fantastic. She does great color comics.
SPURGEON: I think the color is very striking in that story.
HARKHAM: Her color sense is fantastic, I think. She's someone that's unique in comics in that her voice is really smart: I love how layered everything is. I love the drawing, too. She's amazing.
I love that whole book, actually. I'm really proud of that whole book.
SPURGEON: Is there a way to discuss the central mission of that issue at this late date. Was it that you wanted people to tell these genre stories?
HARKHAM: Whatever you start with, conceptually, definitely changes as you start working on the book. Working on a book is very similar to working on a story, if you're a writer. You have some ideas of where you want a story to go, and then it can take a left turn that you don't even realize. The story with this book? I was interested in making a book that sort of adhered to all of the rules of a book. A normal book. The vast majority of people that buy comics are getting them in bookstores, at least the kind of people that buy art comics or whatever you call them. So I thought let's do everything a normal book does, and let's even make it look generic in some ways. Let's invert it and play with it and take the piss out of it. So even having "Other Books By PictureBox" and white endpapers, to me those were fun ways to say, "This is not a unique book. This is not a special book. This is just a book. One of millions." Then hopefully when you start reading, it plays with your preconceptions. It has an introduction. It has a tipped-in artists section. When you get an issue of Granta, there will often be a section of pictures of sculptures, or photographs. On different paper stock around the prose. I liked the idea of doing all of those things and hopefully doing them well and also kind of playing with it. How successful that is, I don't know. So much of making work is about process. I enjoyed the process of making the book. I learned a lot working on the book. That's the difficulty of talking about Everything Together. I got what I needed out of doing those stories when I made them. To collect them and put them in a new book, it's a different experience than releasing a book of new material.
SPURGEON: We've talked about the satisfaction you get out of putting together projects like these. What is it that you think you're providing the artists with whom you work? How much of a concern is that it's interesting to them, or that they're shown off well?
HARKHAM: There's very little money to be made by contributing to an anthology. You're giving a lot of your time and a lot of your effort to something that doesn't pay you very well. I feel that people are only going to contribute if they really want to. To begin with. Hopefully by working with me, they enjoy the process of making that story, in a way that's different than making something for their own comics, or for their graphic novel, or whatever.
SPURGEON: I wonder if you don't have a pretty refined sense of this kind of thing. You've done some outside projects over the last few years, and I think you're an astute guy and you're a working artist that wants to work and place your own material in different places. Do you have a sense of what the rewards of something like that are?
HARKHAM: Yeah. I feel you should never do something because you think it might lead to something else. If I do something for a 'zine or anything, an anthology, I don't do it for "exposure," I do it because I like the 'zine and I like the people involved and I believe in it. Right now I'm doing a comic for Oily Comics, Charles Forsman's thing. He asked me. I like Chuck, and I like what he's doing and why not? I think I get ten cents for every copy sold. [Spurgeon laughs] I'm not doing it for monetary reasons, and I'm not doing it for exposure. I'm doing it because it seems like fun. I think fun is a really good reason to do stuff. That's how I approach something. If someone asks me to be in an anthology, it's a matter of do I have the time for this, do I have something in mind for this, and do I like the anthology itself. So I assume that people apply the same basic ideas for when I ask them.
SPURGEON: There was something you tweeted the other day that you thought that people go through too much hassle for too little reward.
HARKHAM: Oh, yeah. That's just being in comics now, for like ten years, which is fucking scary because I still feel like a tourist here. It's interesting watching how the world of alternative comics has changed since '99. I remember David Boring and Jimmy Corrigan coming out from Pantheon. You start seeing this mad rush of all these cartoonists start getting agents and start getting published by large publishing houses. You see how the vast majority of them are failures. Not as books -- failures as successful business enterprises. I don't understand why people who are happy with their small, independent publishers who let them do what they want to do, I don't understand why they opt to go somewhere else and make middlebrow work and fairly ugly books.
When I wrote that, I was jet-lagged [Spurgeon laughs] and I was getting feisty. It's interesting to see how companies change more and more. Where companies like PictureBox and First Second fit into it all. You know this; you've been in comics longer than I have. You can see... over the last eight years, publishers, all of those publishers lost on advances to books that didn't sell. Cartoonists lost because they had to work with publishers that didn't give a shit about them and tossed their books out as soon as they didn't do well on the first week or whatever. Then you go, "Who won?" Or "Who's winning?" The agents won because they got a big chunk of change for doing next to nothing and they got to sell a mediocre cartoonist to a publishing house that didn't know jack shit but knew they wanted the next Fun Home or Jimmy Corrigan or the next thing they can sell to a movie company.
Who wins? You hear so many horror stories of cartoonists who sign on with a major company, a major publishing house, and it doesn't make sense. [laughs] As comics become more and more like the rest of the publishing world, the only people that are going to become more successful with book sales are going to be people doing sports books, or sensationalistic autobio or political books. That's exactly the same as the regular book world. And that's fine. To me, it becomes a matter of embracing what it is. If you have a compulsion to draw comics, that's something you can't change. That's a fucked-up thing inside you. You're a talented writer and you're a talented artist, and you're now going to spend time making work that's barely going to be seen? You've got to own that, and embrace it and say, "Okay. This is what I do." It's for 500 people or less, or maybe a little bit more. But who cares? It seems... it's kind of ending now, but it seemed people were having these outsized expectations of what comics can give you. It's a niche thing. And that's cool.
SPURGEON: You think it had an effect on the work.
HARKHAM: Maybe the work is fine because these cartoonists were middle-of-the-road anyway. They're just going to make middle-of-the-road work for everybody. But it's definitely bad that these are the ambassadors for comics. Are these the works that need to be front and center in bookstores? Probably not. If it were up to me, Wally Gropius would be that book. But whatever. It's silly for me to even tweet about that stuff, because it's just me being goofy and running my mouth. That's never a good thing. And what do I know about any of this stuff? I just know from my own experiences and second hand from what my friends go through.
As I get older, I get more angry. I'm filled with more disappointment and more bitterness about life in general. The goal is to not let that take over your life. I love this interview that Zak Sally did with John Porcellino in the Journal. It ends with him talking about his subscription list of 2000 people -- maybe it's less, maybe it's 800 people. And he's saying that that's a lot of people to be speaking to directly. I think that's great. I think that's fantastic.
I think you can save yourself a lot of heartache if you stop trying to turn this medium into something it can't be.
* cover to collection
* photo from 2008
* from Poor Sailor
* the cartoonist strip discussed
* Harkham in working in something less than full-color
* page from "The New Yorker Story"
* from Wicked Wanda
* from "Barbarian Bitch"
* two illustration pieces from Harkham, I believe both from 2012
* an earlier iteration of an image that's in the book (below)
Matthew Southworth is one of the best artists working the crime quadrants of the North American comic book field. An accomplished musician with a background in filmmaking, playwriting and acting, Southworth is also a relative latecomer to the comics field, giving him a unique perspective bolstered by experience in other art forms on the rigamarole of the American funnybook industry. His primary creative outlet thus far is the Oni-published Stumptown series with writer Greg Rucka. A fifth, concluding issue in that title's second arc is soon to be released. Where he goes from there is anyone's guess. Southworth is both creatively ambitious and financially realistic. I always appreciate running into this guy at the few shows he does and on-line, so I thought it's be fun to talk to him for this series. I was right. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I want to talk about the theatre and film elements to your background in a little bit, but I wondered first if you could talk more explicitly about your interactions with comics and drawing. You were much too accomplished much too early when you started making comics for this to have been as casual a sideline as you sometimes seem to stress. What comics and artists meant a lot to you? What was the full extent of your training in art, your preparatory work?
MATTHEW SOUTHWORTH: I started drawing when I was three years old, and the first drawings I have are of Batman and Robin. I kept drawing and making comics intermittently all through my childhood and up through my teens, and I wanted to be either a pro comic artist or a flashy hard rock guitarist like Yngwie Malmsteen for several years. I grew up across the street from Joe Casey in the suburbs of Nashville, and we made comics together and played in bands and made Super-8 movies. These were my three big obsessions -- comics, music and movies.
The cartoonists who meant the most to me at the time were guys like Arthur Adams, who drew so beautifully; Frank Miller, who had such a powerful and dramatic sense of storytelling; Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work was so expressive and emotional. When i look back on that period--the mid- to late-80s, the stuff that most affected me was actually work I didn't fully understand yet. I'd gotten Harvey Kurtzman's Jungle Book and devoured that, loved the really loose, handmade quality of the art. It was drawn on ledger paper -- possibly just as roughs for another artist -- and the gray wash Kurtzman used made the blue lines show up in the printed artwork, which was thrilling to me. There was this great book by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor von Eeden called Thriller. Thriller is one of the weirdest, most stimulating comics I've ever read -- the fact that Fleming and von Eeden don't seem to be fully in control of this bizarre, ambitious and somewhat adult thing they've created makes it one of my favorite comics ever. I feel really fortunate to have been reading comics when some of the most exciting things were happening in the mainstream -- Elektra: Assassin, Alan Moore's bold approach to what was primarily a Creature from the Black Lagoon rip-off -- Swamp Thing -- Thriller, Bill Sienkiewicz's unbelievable run on New Mutants.
During middle school my Mom got me into a life drawing class in downtown Nashville. This was pretty exciting and scary--to be a fourteen year old boy in the same room with naked adults was a shock. I remember being very nervous before going to the class, afraid I'd get an erection and get thrown out for being immature. What happened instead is that after the first three minutes of strangeness, I went into a sort of trance and it was pretty peaceful. I also took a cartooning class that was taught by a Filipino political cartoonist named Dani Aguila. I didn't learn a lot in that class, but I remember he called me a "little genius," which was both facetious and terribly encouraging.
When I finished high school -- after spending five years in school as a result of a really shitty attitude, lots of anger and turmoil at home -- I nearly went to art school in Memphis, but I'd just read a biography of Orson Welles and that led me to go to school to study acting and directing, and while I took some comics with me to school, I got so immersed in theatre that I stopped drawing them. I also stopped putting so much effort into guitar and lost the only pick I had with me there; I didn't bother to get another for a couple of years, which led to a strange evolution in my guitar playing.
SPURGEON: You're one of the few comics artists I know of with a background in theatre and in film. Do you see both influences in your work? What do you still keep with you from the Louisville days, reading all those scripts, or in a creative sense from Los Angeles?
SOUTHWORTH: I definitely draw on theatre and film all the time when I'm doing comics. Though I've read several tons of comics, I don't tend to think of panels or even pictures a lot of the time, I think more in terms of blocking and physical bodies. I was an acting student before I went to Actors Theatre of Louisville and worked in their literary department, and so when I read, I sort of "play" the roles. What I was doing, for the most part, at ATL was reading tons and tons of ten-minute plays for the Humana Festival. At that time -- and perhaps still -- ATL was one of the biggest producers of new American plays: plays by unknowns and by established playwrights, including John Patrick Shanley -- one of my big, big favorites -- José Rivera, Tony Kushner, Joyce Carol Oates. They had a competition called the "10-Minute Play Contest". What this resulted in was reading roughly a thousand ten-page plays by unknown writers and deciding whether they were good candidates for the festival.
I learned an awful lot about dramaturgy and how to judge whether a piece of writing is dramatically effective from a man named Michael Bigelow Dixon, who ran the ATL literary department. Michael showed me -- both in conversation about the plays I was reading and about the little plays I was writing -- that clarity was more important than style, and this coupled with my fanatical love of David Mamet's plays and his dramatic theories, particularly the "uninflected idea" -- an idea expressed without adjectives, basically -- really spun my head away from decoration. This would later be a fortunate influence since it turns out I don't draw beautifully the way some more decorative guys like Art Adams or Frank Cho or Adam Hughes or Moebius do.
I wound up in grad school for playwriting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which in turn led to my working at Tom Cruise's company, Cruise/Wagner, in Los Angeles. Again I was reading tons of material and writing little reports on it. Still not drawing, not playing a lot of music, but I wrote and directed a micro-budgeted feature film called Big Wide Empty, shot it on 16mm in Death Valley and out in the desert around Victorville, CA. I was financing it myself, while making $300 a week, so I had to be super-economical in shot selection, and I storyboarded every shot of the film. These were just little thumbnails, but drawing like that -- to communicate an image rather than to prove I could draw! was very liberating, and it led me back to the idea of making comics.
SPURGEON: You told Jason Leivian a few years back that for the most part you hadn't grown disillusioned with comics and still had some of the sort of same affection in terms of being able to make that you had when you first showed up. Is that still true?
SOUTHWORTH: I'm totally in love with comics and with the people who make comics. I withdrew from theatre over time because I got very frustrated with a sort of superiority complex the community had about itself, that because they were doing theatre for no money in front of small crowds they were somehow doing the "important work" and that anyone who didn't get it was an idiot. Comics are simply too difficult, and the gratification is so delayed, that vanity and superiority seem to vanish. It just takes too damn long to get the slap on the back.
I had personal problems that contributed to my disillusionment with Los Angeles and the film business, but the primary reason I got frustrated with it is that it's a business designed to grind down any sort of spontaneity of expression. Films are so expensive to make that there are a gazillion people in between the artist and the camera, between the artist and the public...and so comics seemed ideal to me. You have an idea, you work on it, if you have a way to publish it, it's out there within a couple of months perhaps. And as digital distribution has become more typical and acceptable, that's becoming even stronger.
Like all love affairs, though, my relationship to comics has grown more conflicted and complicated over time. I'm frustrated to see a bizarre addictive buying pattern among readers, that everyone will scream and shout that so-and-so's being killed or the Big Two are doing another event that requires the reader to buy piles and piles of comics they don't even like, but then they go out and buy them, if only for fodder for their critical blogs. There are so many great comics out there: some of them are published by Marvel and DC, a great many of them are not. That there are readers out there who check out comics web sites every morning but still have never read an issue of Love and Rockets or who won't sit down and read something by Chris Ware or Dan Clowes or Charles Burns... that won't read Paul Grist's great superhero comics like Jack Staff or Mudman just because they don't have the Marvel or DC logo up in the corner -- I just think that's downright stupid. And I'm not saying that they should give up Marvel or DC -- I haven't, I still buy things from both companies, and I enjoy working with them a great deal -- just that there's so much else out there that is fantastic and that is withering on the vine because readers and retailers don't try it out.
I'm also disappointed that there isn't a whole lot of experimentation in the mainstream. Looking at Sienkiewicz's New Mutants now is like looking at an alternate reality, it's totally unheard of that they'd do stuff like that now on a major mainstream book. I'm sad to see Vertigo shrinking instead of expanding; I'm sure DC has plenty of market data that's informing that decision, but it's frustrating to see it happen nonetheless.
Frankly, I think the business realities of the Direct Market are fucking terrible for comics, and they're totally self-defeating. That the market is financially remunerative to such a small, small percentage of independent creators, that in order for independent creators to make a book they have to finance it themselves or go hat in hand on Kickstarter is a fucking disgrace. We've built a network of bookstores that cater solely to people who love comics so much they plan their whole week around getting to the store on Wednesday; but that the market is so choked with 75 variations on the same flavor, and that as a result retailers can't afford to stock other types of material is an embarrassment.
SPURGEON: Follow-up: certainly lots of people have become more disillusioned by comics, or more immediately, than you've been. Do you feel like it's a different place now than even when you started? And why do you think in those ways that it is different that comics is different in that way that's driven you here after your other artistic experiences. What is it about comics?
SOUTHWORTH: I think that I may have not become as disillusioned partially due to my having worked in those other fields and in my having been able to work on some material that I really, really cared about. I have been very fortunate to work on Stumptown, which Greg Rucka has written with real heart, with characters that feel like people I know. It's not just cool-looking action scenes and convoluted continuity; that stuff can be fun but I'd imagine it gets pretty monotonous after a while if there's no actual dramatic meat in the sandwich. Then again, there have been plenty of superhero books that did indeed have that dramatic punch. Batman: Year One is in my top three favorite comics ever for that reason. But to pay the bills, you have to draw what comes your way, and they aren't all Year One.
I also read so many different types of comics, from little photocopied mini-comics to those $100 IDW Artist Editions to Mark Waid's fantastic Daredevil to Sammy Harkham's stuff, that I am still really excited about them and where they can go. The game is in trying to find a way to make a living doing them all these different ways.
SPURGEON: Tell me more about this decision to get into comics. First, what were your ambitions when you made a move in that direction? Second, what exactly did this entail? I think if I know your story you worked as an assistant some, but I wondered if this was how you got in or if this was one of many things you were doing.
SOUTHWORTH: My ambitions when I initially went back to doing comics were basically just to tell a story I'd wanted to do as a short film. I never finished that comic, which was going to be called Unbelievable Girl and which was basically about the idea that all superheroes are liars. But I did make a mini-comic of that, and the reaction I got from Erik Larsen and Steve Lieber and a few other kind souls made me feel welcome. Once I moved to Seattle, I was writing tons and tons of songs and leading my band The Capillaries, and that was my primary focus for quite a few years. I was managing an apartment building in Lake Forest Park -- just up the same street Fantagraphics is on, actually -- and I was picking away at comics, thinking perhaps that could be a new career that would indulge my writing and drawing. I worked as an assistant to Stefano Gaudiano when he was inking Daredevil and that helped me get my foot in the door, though what I wanted to do was not be an inker but be a full cartoonist, writing and drawing my own work. When my boss sold the apartment building, I was let go soon after, and instead of getting another day job, I was able to hustle and make a meager living drawing comics.
I was -- and am -- very ambitious about doing comics, actually, though my ambitions are not particularly practical, they're purely expressive or productive. In other words, I have all kinds of things I want to do and am working on right now, but finding a way to be able to afford to do them is a challenge. There's a whole new artform developing right in front of us, a nexus of digital publishing, motion comics techniques, sound, animation, etc.--and it's not as simple or unappetizing as what we've seen in motion comics thus far. I'm excited to be a part of that.
SPURGEON: You say your plans aren't exactly practical, which makes me wonder, and I'm sorry to put it like this, how practical you've been so far. [Southworth laughs] I don't mean that in an insulting way.
SOUTHWORTH: It's not insulting at all.
SPURGEON: It's a tough field.
SOUTHWORTH: That's a totally appropriate question, because no, somehow it's been very impractical. When I was an apartment manager it was somewhat workable because you have a lot of hours in the day when you're not doing anything. You just kind of have to be on alert. It's like being a fireman [laughs] waiting for the bell to ring. When that job ended, I was on unemployment, so I could still do comics. When unemployment ran out, it was like fish or cut bait, or sit or get off the pot, whatever goofy metaphor you want to use. Doing Stumptown was still, it was still my primary focus, but I had to do other comics to make a living. And I liked doing those other comics. It's funny, Chris Ware is probably my favorite cartoonist. He's certainly in my top three. Guys like that are the ones that really thrill me, but I still like Marvel and DC Comics, at least often I like them. I can't say I like them all by any means. But working on that stuff is really fun, because it's short-term, usually -- for me, anyway, it has been. It pays really well. It pays multiples of what doing the stuff for Oni pays, and Oni pays! If I was doing stuff for Image, a lot of the time that stuff doesn't even pay except on the back end if there is a back end. So I guess that's a rambling answer that no, the stuff I've done so far hasn't been particularly practical, either.
SPURGEON: It's not like you find a bunch of short cuts in your art, either. Looking at the Stumptown material, and you've done enough interviews now that a bunch of people have hit on this, but it's really obvious that you're doing visual research and maybe working through figure designs and trying to figure out how to get your reference and sense of reference on the page. This is not you capturing a sensibility: this is not 75-year-old Alex Toth, magnificently seizing on a mood in a few lines. It looks really labor-intensive in a very specific way. Is this a need of yours, to do art in this way? Or is this part of your learning curve? Is it a bunch of bad decisions? [Southworth laughs] It is as labor-intensive as we might guess, right?
SOUTHWORTH: Probably more so. You've obviously been around comics production for a long time, so you might have an accurate view. It's certainly more labor-intensive than a lot of people at shows might thing. That's streamlining to some degree. Some of it is... I'm not sure I'd call it an artist's ethos, but more that I appreciate when person making a comic, making a song, making a movie or whatever really means what they say. So if I find myself doing something in a comic just to get it done. I rankle at moments when I go, "Aw, nobody cares about this." If I'm drawing a record player in the background, there's a bell ringing in my head that nobody's looking at this record player, so it really doesn't matter." And then there's another bell going, "It all matters! It all matters!" [laughter] Which is maybe ethical, and maybe just bad decision-making. That's something I think about a lot recently.
The Stumptown car-chase issue was heavily photo references, although in this case I didn't do most of the reference. Charlie at Oni and James drove around town and shot video of the route of the entire car chase for me. I had driven it before it was given to me as a car chase. Everything in that issue is photo-referenced. Everything. When they take a right turn onto a street, that's what that right turn actually looks like. That was the fun of that. That was the point. If you're drawing Captain America fighting Morbius in a Nazi nuclear sub-station or something, you would pick up photos of nuclear sub-stations and tape it all together in a way. That can be fun, too. What I really try to do is make it mean something to me, just as when my band plays cover, I only wanted to do a cover if I actually bought into the song somehow.
SPURGEON: That's an interesting way to answer that question, because one of the things I wonder about... I read both series -- what's out so far -- and a lot of what I read had some additional material to it, I assume mostly written by Greg. I also read some reviews. One thing they talked about when engaging your intense effort to depict Portland as it actually is... I'm not sure I can articulate this in the nuanced way I need to. I wonder after the nature of that strategy in terms of the wider work. The answer you get in the essays is that it needs to be Portland. I wonder what you think comes out in the story by an accurate description of Portland?
SOUTHWORTH: I haven't thought of it in a positive aspect. [Spurgeon laughs] I have thought about it in a negative aspect. There's that show, The Killing on AMC that takes place in Seattle. There was that movie Chronicle that takes place in Seattle. I don't know if you saw that, but that was a pretty interesting little superhero movie in a weird way. Both of them, they show people in a car and they pull up to a building, and it's pouring gobs and gobs and buckets and buckets of rain. And you immediately, if you've ever lived in Seattle as I know you have, go, "That's not Seattle. It doesn't rain like that in Seattle." I grew up in Nashville, and I saw references to Nashville that never felt right. It would immediately cheapen whatever story was being told. I thought about that a lot when I started Stumptown. I had the good fortune of living three hours away, so I could go down there and soak it up.
The other part of it is that I'm kind of a... I don't know the terms for this, really... I'm fascinated by modern sociological archeology. Architecture-eology, whatever the word is for that. I love going to Georgetown in Seattle, and there's a distinct feeling to Georgetown that has nothing to do with anything anybody says. It's just about the way the buildings are arranged on the grid. There's this tall brewery that was built in 1908 or whatever it is, between you and the freeway. To the south of you there's a small airport, and next to that there's an old, kind of scary film noir apartment building. Trying to capture those things is really exciting to me, more exciting than a good kind of Jack Kirby kick-ass fight scene.
I see a lot of that, too, when people talk about Stumptown. It makes me feel good. It's nice to know that people, "Wow, look at this guy. He works hard." But I wonder if it has any kind of true qualitative thing for them.
SPURGEON: I think you articulated a value distinct from the narrative, but I do wonder after the narrative. What does a detective story mean if it's set in this most accurate Portland we can possibly hope for, this Portland you've given us. That means... what? I'm not sure I know enough about detective narratives to even hazard a guess, although I know there's something about the clash of culture in some classic stories that are set in San Francisco, and the way that class work in New York in others... I wonder after that with Portland.
SOUTHWORTH: It's not just a desire to get it "right," whatever that means. I hope this won't sound like a defensive answer, because I don't mean it in a defensive way at all, but how does the setting of Blade Runner improve that movie? For me, Blade Runner is all about the setting. I don't know if you've read the book, but the book is all about empathy. The movie really isn't. It makes some kind of half-assed stabs at it, but to me they feel like an excuse for a lot of really cool visuals. The character of those visuals, the character of the location to me are the parts that make it powerful. That sounds a little defensive.
SPURGEON: That's a very good answer, I think. Now, you've changed your artistic approach over the course of the Stumptown books you've done so far.
SOUTHWORTH: Big time.
SPURGEON: Your figure drawing in particular strikes me as different. Is there a reason for that? It seems like your work holds color differently, and that there's a looseness to it that maybe wasn't there at first. Where do you think the work has changed?
SOUTHWORTH: It's changed a lot, and it's changed multiple times. The first arc of Stumptown I think is more consistent, partially because it was all done in a relatively sustained burst of starting on Stumptown #1 and working through to the end of Stumptown #4, with little detours to work on five page of Spider-Man here or whatever. In the case of this arc, we decided to avoid delays in releasing it we would bank all the issues. Get 'em all done and then put it out. This mean that there wasn't as much pressure to get issue #3 done right away. Over the course of that, I just started getting... better. I started using tools that were better. By issues #4 and #5, which isn't out yet, I was using these little Japanese markers for the most part, and working two pages on one sheet of paper so I could see the pacing -- they're smaller. I also started working with these gray markers to soften things. I found that I'm not very good at expressing softness, particularly of women's faces and bone structures. That's something that helped me out as opposed to when I was doing it with straight black and white. Then, on top of that, I started collaborating with Rico on the coloring and kind of adjusting. I think the collection of the second arc of Stumptown will show that in issue #1 I was using markers and brush, by issue #2, and certainly issue #3, it was all done with the nib. Issue #4 was done with these markers and a little bit of gray. Issue #5 it's all markers and gray and I was collaborating on the color with #4 and #5. Reading the book may be a little chaotic. I just decided somewhere along the way that I could trap myself in past techniques I wasn't all that happy with or I could keep moving forward and people liked what came out enough to sit with the inconsistencies.
SPURGEON: There's a not-inconsiderable body of crime work now. We're familiar with the superhero provenance, and who the great figures were, and who a young artist might go look at and learn from? Does that exist for the kind of book you're doing? Is there a bible of crime material. Do you go look at Johnny Craig pages the way someone might go look at Jack Kirby pages?
SOUTHWORTH: Not really. When I started the book I had been Stefano Gaudiano's assistant, and so there was a heavier Michael Lark influence because Stefano had been inking Michael and I had picked up on those techniques. It wasn't a deliberate thing, it was just sort of... Gotham Central was something Greg had done with Ed [Brubaker] and the look had worked on that, so I started out thinking in those ways. But I wouldn't look at an issue of Daredevil and say, "Well, that's how Michael solved it. I can use that." Over time... even less. I read about guys who say, "Yeah, I always keep a copy of whatever open on my drawing table." I've never done that. Not because I'm too good for it, I'm just too distractible. I find myself turning more to... I have 30 years of reading comics crammed in my head along with music and movies and they all kind of make a stew. I go, "Maybe I'll do an Alex Toth thing here." I'll do it, and it looks nothing like Alex Toth. If I actually looked at an Alex Toth page, I wouldn't have done it that way.
I found that when I was writing songs, too. When I was writing lots and lots of songs, which I finally started doing again, I would get "Lovely Rita" by The Beatles stuck in my head. I would write a song that was a pastiche of "Lovely Rita" but I wouldn't go listen to it. I would bring it into the band and not tell them it was kind of a "Lovely Rita" thing. Then by the time we got done it bore no resemblance to that but it was a nifty, new little song. I'm a crappy mimic, is basically what I'm saying. [laughter] It works to my advantage.
SPURGEON: The photo I'm running of you is at 2012's Emerald City Comicon, where you're in a tie and sitting at a table. Have you grown accustomed to that end of being a comics pro, the seeking out of gigs and the presenting yourself to the public parts? You have a pretty active social media presence, or at least I see you tweeting. A lot of artists shrink away from that end of things, and some feel like it's a requirement. You seem good at it. Have you grown accustomed to that part of your career yet?
SOUTHWORTH: I think so. I think I'm weird in this regard, without sort of overplaying the mythology of me having been an acting student and then directing and then having band -- particularly having a band -- I got really comfortable with presenting. I like it. It's fun for me to be a miniature public figure in that way. Ever since the Newtown shooting, I've been talking -- arguing with a lot of people -- about issues like gun control. I try not to come across as a dogmatic asshole about it. It's interesting to me when having these discussions... I draw a crime comic with a lot of guns. [laughter] I noticed while carrying on these conversations that my avatar was a picture of me holding a gun that I had taken for reference. I thought, "What kind of asshole..." [laughter] "... says there are too many guns in comics" -- which is an issue I believe in, to totally sidestep for a second. I'm tired of guns in comics not because of any real-world shooting or their consequences. I'm tired of them because I think they're the most boring prop going. It's why I stopped watching The Walking Dead as a TV show. It seemed like twice an episode somebody would stick a gun in somebody else's face and go, "I mean it." And then the other person would back down and that would be a big, dramatic moment. How many times are we going to see that? Anyway... a long digressive answer to say, "Yeah, I'm pretty comfortable with it." I like meeting people and I like arguing with people, I guess.
SPURGEON: The criticism of guns is interesting to me. I know there's a widespread belief held by a lot of people that to ask questions after what effect the media overplay of guns might have is a no-go. And I really do believe as that belief maintains that the entire issue gets used as a dodge to keep criticism away from more pertinent solutions, more pressing problems, and that's it's not the important issue. Still, I'm suspicious when people suggest sexist portrayals in media have a significant effect on our culture but seem to also believe that somehow portrayals of violence don't. I can't help but wonder what values might get inculcated with some people when you constantly show guns as a solution to problems -- if that at least doesn't make more people comfortable with thinking in terms of guns as a potential solution. Do you have questions, or qualms about the kind of material that you work on? The violence of it, or the effect it might have -- leaving aside the small-p political point of engaging that question instead of others.
SOUTHWORTH: I don't think that the majority of people, most healthy people, 99.99 percent or whatever, seeing Taxi Driver go, "I want to be more like Travis Bickle." Taxi Driver may be my favorite movie, and I watch that movie and I go, "Thank God I'm not Travis Bickle." I've been close to being that disassociated from people, and being that lonely. I just wasn't trained to be a killer in Vietnam or whatever. It would never occur to me to buy a gun and make a friend of my new gun. I'm a guitar player, I get that from my guitars. I fetishize guitars and movie cameras.
You said "qualms," and I don't have qualms but I do have questions. I don't play a lot of videogames, but I do play Grand Theft Auto sometimes. That's a very violent game, but it doesn't make me feel violent at all. What it does do is make me a more aggressive driver in real life. I was shocked when I discovered that. I thought, "Nah, that's can't be." Then a couple more times and it was clear that it was true. Or it should say it supports an impulse for me to be a more aggressive driver. If it can do that, and it most definitely does, then I can imagine that if someone has impulse control problems with their anger. I've had that before, I was a very, very angry person for a long time. That it could potentially have an effect. I certainly don't think the effect of Grand Theft Auto anywhere near approaches the threat of the ubiquity of guns, and how easy it is to get one. Not that I even think guns should be outlawed. Many guns shouldn't be outlawed. I just think it should be very, very difficult to get one. You should have to prove competency and responsibility as best as those things can be measured. The same way that you have to get a license to drive a Vespa, you don't have to get a license to own a gun. That seems insane to me.
SPURGEON: You're new to comics, relatively new. Looking back on 2012, there was a lot of back and forth on creators issues, and contracts, and what's fair, and exploitation. Do you appreciate that we're having these discussions, as an artist? Do you appreciate their direction, even if your goals aren't defined that way, are you happy that we're having these discussions?
SOUTHWORTH: [laughs] What I think is that a lot of the discussions we're having are often less informed than they should be and overly simplistic. But, I also believe that generally speaking corporations have no interest in giving their employees a fair shot. I'm not even blaming them for that, I just think it's smart to remember that. If you work for Kraft, designing the new macaroni and cheese product, they're not worried that you might get diabetes and need healthcare, even if you did a great job designing their box. That's not their problem. I think that's fair. I think... I'm sort of more answering your question about the discussion, rather than the issues themselves. I think there's so much hero worship of creators, particularly older creators, because they do this stuff that means so much to us. That when you find out that whatever, Gene Colan is going blind, there's this righteous anger about him not getting a better deal. He wouldn't have gotten a better deal working for Kraft or Ford, either. I agree. I think that it's been a pretty creator-unfair business for many, many years. I'm glad that seems to be changing to some degree. I hope that it continues to change. I just want there to be a little more level-headedness about the discussion.
SPURGEON: Are there people you look to, where you think, "If I'm like that guy in 25 years, that will be okay." Can you point to people like that, role-models in a career-building sense, or is it like your artistic influences in that you just kind of have to feel your way through?
SOUTHWORTH: I wish I could say that there was. The people that I see... I think about this fairly often. I've had health insurance for about six months in my adult life. If I had something happen to me like when you got sick, I'd be ruined. Then again, I don't have that much to ruin. [laughter] I'm not unduly concerned. It's one of the gambles I'm taking. As far as looking at guys who have succeeded, I don't see a lot of guys in comics and go, "Oh, that guy is set for life because of comics." There's certainly Alan Moore and a couple of guys that are the tip-top level of success where you can go, "That's great." There are ton of people who aren't that, guys that were drawing Iron Fist back in the '70s, who are now destitute or nearly so. I'm not answering the question.
SPURGEON: It does seem to be really isolated examples of guys doing well at this point, almost every one of which is divorced from comics to get there, at least in some crucial way. There's no middle-class of not-destitute cartoonists. There a roving free agents, people that escape. There's no group, no class of people.
SOUTHWORTH: If I was going to address the really big and scary thing about comics is that every year it seems to get a little bit more like having a band. Everybody growing up that gets a guitar at 13 goes, "I want to be in a band. I'm going to be like Pete Townshend." Or "I'm going to be in KISS." Or "I'm going to be Kurt Cobain." Or whomever. This ignores the fact that most bands making albums, the albums don't sell. A lot of people are making albums at home -- or used to be, this is becoming increasingly outmoded -- that basically having a band is having an expensive hobby. Even if you view it as an art form. That's what worries me about comics, and digital publishing, and the rise of smaller publisher who I'm really glad are out there. That's the weird thing: I don't want to sound like I'm criticizing Image's model. I think Image's model is fantastic... except that it's basically a self-financed business model that in many cases won't pay off for the artist and/or writer. So you see these guys busting their ass to do their work and it's not sustainable.
To loop back to your question, the guys that I see are guys that have done tons of comic work, like Joe Casey, but who made money by creating a cartoon show. That will permit them to live reasonable lives of comfort. He doesn't have a swimming pool. He drives a Saturn. He's not living the Beverly Hillbillies life. [laughs] What troubles me is that as a kid I read that John Byrne wrote and drew four comics a month. This was when I was big John Byrne fan. I used to think "Man, he must live in the biggest mansion." Now I know that a) he probably wasn't making that much money, although the money from the Big Two is better, but b) there are all sorts of people killing themselves to make less than minimum wage. That's very troubling to me. What's troubling about it is that we're in this era where I can take a month and make a comic at my house, publish it, through Image or on the web, and it's available all over the world. I get messages from people like in Macdeonia. [laughs] That's based on a little Oni comic that sold 6000 copies an issue or whatever. That's great. The problem is that it doesn't pay well enough to make a living -- or you have to pump it out really, really fast. I'm getting relatively quick at doing this stuff now, so it's just now getting to a place where maybe I can make a living doing a tiny, indy book. But probably not.
SPURGEON: So what gives you hope? What keeps you at it? You don't sound to me like a pessimistic guy, or a willful denial-of-reality type, when I deal with you on a more everyday basis. What puts you at the board?
SOUTHWORTH: Part of it is a desire to do the things I want to do that I haven't had the chance to do personally. I've got this thing about this child-criminal in Pittsburgh that I want to tell. I think it's a story that will excite people... it excites me, so I want to do it. I'd like to be able to do it and not sweat over how I'm going to make my rent payment. Part of what keeps me going is, to be totally honest, my girlfriend is in nursing school and when she's out of nursing school our plan is that she'll be able to pay more of the bills and I can do more personal stuff. Assuming I don't fuck this relationship up before that happens. [laughter] My ship will come in, and I'll be able to do it. More is that it's just how I think. I made records with my band and I'm making music now because that's what I like doing. If I can't make a living doing that I'll try to make money doing something else so that I can do it.
One thing I would like to do more of... I'm not sure I referred to this in our previous conversation, but I did this thing for Microsoft that paid me as much for three weeks of work as if I had done both arcs of Stumptown and then a third arc. It was the most fun I ever had. They treated me really well. I worked hard -- I overworked my hours, I was having so much fun. I don't want to make commercials. I want to make comics and I want to make movies and I want to make music. And maybe some commercials. [laughter] If ever six months I could get one job like that I would be set. I could do whatever I wanted, because that would more than pay my bills for the year. I could spend the whole time doing something totally uncommercial. I don't want to do things that are inherently uncommercial, but given the way the market is set up, almost anything but -- this isn't a new idea -- a fairly limited subject matter is all uncommercial.
That's what worries me, and not even in a financial way. I want people to know that when I do this Depression-era story, Day For Night, I want people to know that it exists. Then they can choose to buy it or not buy it. The way the system is set up, it's not really designed for that. I don't blame that on anybody, that's just sort of how it is.
* an image from Day For Night, I believe
* photo of Southworth from ECCC 2012
* recent spread showing off changes in art style over the nine issues of Stumptown done
* panel from very first issue of Stumptown
* portraying Portland accurately may be its own value
* how Southworth has worked on the art, two different stages on a single page
* a page with a gun in it
* a beauty of a page from Stumptown
* a showpiece spread, with a narrative moment inset on a researched backdrop image (below)
* it's much less of a thing for comics fans, but it might be worth noting that Hugo Award nominations are open, too. They do have a graphic story category, but I don't want to conflate their importance to comics folk: mostly I thought the concurrence was interesting. Both of those awards slates tend to get announced in early April.
I met Heidi MacDonald at San Diego in 1995, five minutes before moderating the infamous "Get Larry Marder Panel" after Image had made the decision to throw in with Diamond and change the face of comics distribution forever. We have the kind of relationship where I can run the picture at right -- which she'll probably hate -- and where I check her site The Beat and its twitter feed frequently enough I'll know almost immediately if she makes her opinion known on the matter. I'm jealous of her contacts and the enormous amount of goodwill she's generated over years of working in and near North American comic books. I think she's a good writer, too; she wrote a couple of the more memorable essays I ran while at The Comics Journal in the mid- to late-1990s, and I always enjoy her longer pieces at her site. I was surprised when I looked it up that I'd never had her in this series to talk about the year in news, and I'm happy she agreed to help me correct this massive oversight on my part. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Heidi, one thing that jumped out at me when I was thinking about your site in terms of this interview is that you've both redesigned and kind of re-fashioned what you're doing there. Can you talk a bit about what the site is like now as opposed to a few years back, what made you want to change what you were doing and how you went about making some changes?
HEIDI MacDONALD: The short version is...you can't stay the same on the Internet, although your own site has done an amazing job of proving that isn't always true! The longer and most boring version is that my old installation at comicsbeat.com was done in a hurry and corrupted by database glitches that had crept in from the neglect of the old webmasters. These glitches meant that anytime the site got any traffic, it crashed. Which was, to put it mildly, a little frustrating. It also, in technical terms, hosed my authority. So I had to clean up the database and get a clean reinstall on a new, stable server. Or rather I hired someone to do it, Ron Croudy and Ryan Dickey at SmartBomb, for various reasons, it took a long time... and that was also frustrating.
I don't know if your readers are into this wonky webmaster stuff -- probably not, but I love it. Basically I wanted to build a site that could stand up to traffic surges, and I now have one. I also think the site just looks better in general, and I'm really glad to be off the Woo Themes framework, which was way too fussy for a complicated blog, even though their themes were all the rage a few years ago. I use Studio Press now, and it seems to be much more stable.
The entire history of The Beat has been a battle against the web and finding a responsive webmaster who could solve problems as they arose. I'm pretty happy with where I am now, technically speaking, I can handle 90% of the under the hood fixes myself, and that brings peace of mind.
SPURGEON: An aspect of your site now that people I know talk about when we sit around talking about comics web sites -- which is all the time -- is that you have a lot of different voices on the site now. It seems like the idea there is freeing you up to do the longer pieces you like to do, but I think there are some readers who miss having your voice on the site dominating the way it used to. Is that a worry at all, that you lose something by bringing in different voices? My take is that you kind of prefer being a steward/editor as opposed to a single voice.
MacDONALD: Well, that is also because the web changes and I've changed. I wish I could just sit there and spend four hours a day and write up all the news I thought was important and jot down an essay on the behind the scenes of the industry and throw in a few Gerard Butler ass shots... but there is just too much comics for one person to cover any more! And I am not a passionate, engaged reader of DC and Marvel superhero comics any more, but Todd Allen and Steve Morris are, and they cover DC and Marvel books better than I can. I've long thought that the only way to be more productive was to clone myself, and since that isn't legal yet, I've tried to, at least, find people like Todd and Steve who have an "authentic" and knowledgeable voice. I've had a hard time finding people who were up for the job of writing from the Beat viewpoint -- or at least at the rates that I pay -- but I've been lucky to find a few. Hannah Means-Shannon is another writer I've been so lucky to meet -- she goes everywhere and then just dashes off thesis-like round-ups of what was said and done. Of course Torsten Adair does whatever it is that Torsten Adair does, and Shannon O'Leary and Jessica Lee get the indie stuff. Henry Barajas is another guy who is getting into comics and has the broad based view of the industry that I want the site to reflect. Serhend Sirkecioglu is someone else who is very forward looking whose viewpoint I've been happy to spotlight.
Another thing, Tom, is something I mentioned to you in passing at BCGF. I want to train some of the next generation. There are so few legit sites about comics, and people get so little training in how to do this. I don't have tons of time for hands-on oversight and editing, but I am trying to give my younger writers at least some sense of what is an important story, and how to cover it and professionalism and other things that probably don't matter any more in the era of crowdsourcing. I'm especially interested in bringing along female and non-white writers. Comics are a diverse, worldwide medium and I hope The Beat reflects that in its own inadequate way. Giving new people a chance to establish themselves is a reward in itself.
I do miss being the one-stop Heidi source, but those days are gone forever, both because to the nature of the web and the fact I'm not getting any younger. Mind you, I'm not sure my new model is all that sustainable, but I'd rather go out giving it a whirl.
SPURGEON: Working with as many other writers as you do, and given what we both know are the constraints of publishing on-line, how careful are you not to kind of cross over into the kind of exploitation that sites like ours sometimes criticize? I had a creator express this to me at Comic-Con, that they were tired of being lectured about how they were being exploited by [mainstream comics company] by being given enough money to buy a house, in articles by writers that were being paid $10 for the article, if that. How do you avoid being part of the problem, or do you even see it like that?
MacDONALD: Oh, I'm very cognizant of this, and whoever told you that was spot on. I don't want to get into financials for the privacy of others, but last year I made a conscious effort to put more money into the site, and it definitely paid off. People should be paid for what they do, and that is always my goal. I include myself in that formula, BTW. Even if it's just a token amount.
This ties into a few other things you and I discussed but there is no money in running a comics news site. The category just isn't strong enough to support itself in advertising or other forms of monetization. Lots of entities have tried and failed. Marvel and DC aren't going to pay you money to run your ads just so you can hire people to go poke around in their contracts and disgruntled employees.
So, you work around. I have a few ideas for ways to raise money, and we'll see if I have time to put them into action this year, or if I just live on a single bowl of kale a day. I just ran a post about how readers who don't want to see posts of set pictures from Thor 2 can help The Beat remain viable. But I actually like set pictures from Thor 2. I know you are a purist about not running "media" news on your site, but I like giving comics a wider context, when its appropriate.
SPURGEON: Is the PW newsletter gone now? I know it was being phased out. It's not like you're not continuing with comics coverage, but do you have any take on why that didn't hit harder, that kind of devoted coverage? Was it a disconnect between medium and what's out there now? Was it the focus of the coverage?
MacDONALD:It isn't gone, it comes out once a month -- the second Wednesday of every month. It did almost go away for a while, but the short version is that the newsletter was endangered for a while because it had no ad support. Comic book companies run so lean and tight they just don't have any money for advertising, as I'm sure you're aware. Trade publishing is an ad-supported medium for the most part. I know PW Comics World is thought of as a valuable resource by publishers and librarians and so on, but it needs to be self sustaining as well, and getting advertisers to commit to that isn't as easy as it sounds.
As for your other questions... a monthly -- or even weekly -- newsletter is a little bit harder to manage in the instant news world. There needs to be some kind of snappy name for the ratio between frequency and impact in the media. Call it the Twitter to McSweeneys ratio. The more often something comes out, the more trivial it can be, and the longer between episodes, the more of a satisfying chunk -- or earth, shattering, Internet breaking news story -- it has to be. I co-edit PW Comics World with Calvin Reid and I think he would agree that finding news shattering and stunning enough for a monthly is not always easy.
SPURGEON: I'm going to draw you out on the following, but let's talk about the year 2012. It doesn't seem like there was the kind of dramatic New 52-style publishing event to kind of anchor things, and that we had a mix of trend stories and maybe less dramatic publishing. If you and I were college classmates, and you knew I knew something about comics but maybe not a ton, how would you snapshot the year in comics if we were to have a conversation along those lines? What was important to you?
MacDONALD: I think it's the year that everything worked, or everything found an audience. Maybe the New 52 was the kind of soul shattering, reality warping, Internet cleaving event that needed to get attention to comics -- especially since Batman was somehow involved -- but when the smoke had cleared and the tears had dried up there was a world of amazing comics for a rainbow of tastes available. I think the New 52 also cemented in the minds of comics creators of a certain age that not owning any IP and just working on corporate comics was not the best or only career path -- and the exodus had begun a while ago so you had strong material like Fatale ready and waiting.
There were just so many things that worked in 2012, from Image with Saga, to IDW with My Little Pony to Boom's Adventure Time comics... you couldn't have even imagined the last two being sales hits five years ago. You could have imagined them 30 years ago, though -- even given the long tail audience specialization we have now, we seem to have created a more diverse audience for comics in terms of age and gender.
There are so many creators who had banner years. I was so happy to see Matt Bors get so much attention, winning the Herblock Prize, and he had a defining year in general. The agonizing death of editorial cartoonists at newspapers has been a huge story that you have been covering in detail, but I feel like the election proved there is an intense interest in these kinds of policy cartoons still, and things like Cartoon Movement and Symbolia are helping this kind of comic evolve into their next iteration. I know that monetization is still a concern -- as it really is with all of this -- but a whole aspect of comics that was in danger of dying out is jammed with lively voices and evolving into the next phase.
I think there are several things that made this such a strong year all around. So much of the good stuff is in print and available. If you stumble on some old "Ten Best Comics" list on the Internet, you can probably go to a comic shops, or a bookstore or Amazon and buy it. You can buy a new edition of Kings in Disguise, for crying out loud. The work of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and the Hernandez Brothers is widely available. So is Krazy Kat and Secret Agent Corrigan. Fantagraphics put out strong new editions of classic EC and Carl Barks. (Corto Maltesestill got the shaft, but I guess that's eternal.)
Also, having comics on tablets has definitely increased their visibility. This will be all we talk about in 2013.
Finally, you and I might disagree on this, but Batman, The Avengers and The Walking Dead being three of the hottest media properties of the year helped more people than ever realize that they still publish comic books. I'm a firm believer in the rising tide lifting all boats theory, even if I no longer believe that if you replace a reader's copy of Aquaman with a copy of The Man Who Grew His Beard he or she won't notice. Even if only .05% of the consumers of the filmed editions moved on to the comics, that's still 1000's of people. General visibility and awareness of comics soared in 2012 and luckily -- finally -- there was an infrastructure and quality books to back it up.
SPURGEON: I thought this was a really interesting year for comics culture, which is your specific purview. I wanted to ask first what you thought about the way various issues get discussed now. Twitter has turned into this rolling mega-board, it seems, but you also have people who have dropped out entirely and you also have people that use Facebook, and you also have people that prefer tersely-worded not for publication e-mails. Do you think that the comics culture on-line reflects the wider comics community, and if not, what's the difference? Is there any danger in assuming one is the other?
MacDONALD: I'm really bad at understanding social media and how it works with Millennials and Gen Yers and all that. My use of the Internet stopped evolving in about 2005, and as that recedes behind us I become more and more obsolete. But I do like Spotify.
I dunno. Some people like catching up over brunch, some like to go out for drinks. Some like drinking at brunch. As a writer on such topics, I think it's just impossible to follow everything now and you either need an army or referrers, or just stay glued to twitter all day. I find Facebook nearly useless but I've always despised it, and with their new way of promoting stories, it's more of a crapshoot. The Internet is like Times Square on New Year's Eve... it's easy to get lost in the cold dark shuffle where everyone has a party hat and toots a paper horn.
The Internet creates more level of observation and argument. Is the news just what Bleeding Cool says it is? Or an actual truth? There are obviously so many ways to find out about this stuff and hundreds of Tumblrs and twitter feeds to exploit it. Outrage can roll like a wave, and so can praise. We haven't even mentioned Kickstarter, with its a wave of monetary approbation, I guess. I follow one friend request on Facebook and find a whole nest of new artists I never saw before -- it's like turning over a rock and finding beautiful duotone ants with Wacoms.
As people look for attention, the means of getting it has to get louder and more outraged unless you're Randall Munroe or Kate Beaton, so there seems to be a daily outrage now. I was little dismayed by some of the outrage campaigns this year. I thought the whole James Gunn thing was dumb, but it quickly turned into a judgmental witch hunt -- let she who has never drooled over an English guy on Tumblr post the first tweet -- and a two year old post on a website that no one noticed is a threat that has to be stamped out. If all that energy had been put towards buying books by female creators, you'd have a better industry tomorrow.
As for your question about community... obviously there will always be a silent faction and whether they are the majority or minority depends on whether they agree with you. I like looking at sales charts as a tonic to the Outraged Blog Post, but even those are suspect. Really, comics culture like any culture, is a matter of tribes. Different tribes have different customs. Superhero comics has fostered the Wednesday Crowd with their need to dissect every week's purchases and investigate the motives of the publishers and creators with a waterboard. We live in a world where Dan Slott got death threats over killing a comic book character. That's like getting death threats over the sun going down. Whatever community that is I want no part of.
Indie comics fans seem to like to interact in different ways, whether on Facebook or in person at indie shows. The Internet is like life now... you can't generalize about anything. What is true and what is real? I don't think there are any answers to that. I used to hope for a return to Authority, but all the web experts say crowd sourcing is here to stay and when Buzzfeed becomes the wave of the future, you just want to hide in your Hobbit hole.
SPURGEON: As a follow-up, something that really fascinating is how much brave conversation there seemed to be -- about things like Before Watchmen, for example -- but at the same time how deeply dysfunctional some of that conversation can be. I get the sense more than ever of a real "you're with or against me -- and my brand!" attitude where it just seems like things get divided into really basic advocacy/non-advocacy camps. Like the issues are less important than if you're on whatever person's side or not, and to not be on that person's side first and foremost is some sort of egregious breach. Do you think comics discusses things well? You actually have comments to moderate that might give you greater insight into this, I thought.
MacDONALD: Well, I have fairly well-heeled posters compared to CBR or other places, and I don't allow threats or name calling or that other stuff, although whenever I go away for an hour someone posts something stupid. The larger the audience on any particular post the more incoherent the "commentary" gets, unfortunately. I am probably a lot more numb to it than I think. Peggy Burns tells me I have the worst commenters and that broke my heart, but even on a site like TCJ you have some whack-a-doos. Whack-a-doos come with the territory unfortunately, just like millipedes and tent caterpillars. I would love to be on the message board where Kurt Busiek and Warren Ellis and Shaenon T. Garrity just trade observations all day, but even if such a thing existed, as a journalist I'm not invited.
I'm not a natural at crowdsourcing, so I'm already obsolete. Having seen the crowd that sends death threats to comics creators maybe has prejudiced me. I do know the informed reader often has something to say, and I like to provide a little bit of a town square for readers that I have, hopefully, kept informed.
I don't think I was as struck by the polarization thing as you mention, although maybe I alluded to it with the James Gunn thing. With Twitter and everything you are immediately forced to give the appearance of taking sides. Personally I don't retweet stuff that I don't have at least a general agreement with. I'm all for giving people who shouldn't be blogging a way to make their opinions felt. I want more signal less noise, and to do that you have to fiddle with the radio tuner all day -- and no one I know even listens to the radio any more.
Just to come around to your original question, I wonder if not being a jerk on the Internet will ever be considered a part of general good manners. A big question for human evolution really.
SPURGEON: Where do you think the culture stands right now in terms of those creator rights issues that seemed more important a generation ago? It seems like there's a mercenary attitude, and kind of a relativism, but I was also shocked by how disdainful so many people were when it came to fellow professionals and the poor families of these foundational creators. I get principle disagreement -- Gary Groth is an interesting one to tap on creators rights -- but the lack of generosity concerning what upsets people seems to me indicative of something, and I can't place my finger on it.
MacDONALD: I've never talked to Gary about this topic, but I know he doesn't have any time for Image, and I think he was pretty skeptical about the whole Northhampton movement and creators bill of rights.
Do you remember back on Warren Ellis' Engine forum where all those kids who were being taken advantage of by Tokyopop were saying "I live on ketchup sandwiches and own 49% of my work and I Love It because they gave me a chance!!!!" They are all quiet about it now and because of tumblr and deviant art, they can just get their shit out there without Stuart Levy being involved at all. No one thinks they need a publisher to find an audience any more. You're seeing fewer and fewer of the Radical/Platinum type Foulfellows saying "Just give me your stuff and I'll sell it for you, my fine lassie!" Kids today think having a tumblr is as good as being published by Tokyopop. I speak fairly regularly at local cartooning schools and I have no sense of what the kids are planning, but they don't seem to think the Big Two is where its at.
Meanwhile you have the Wednesday crowd who want their comics at any cost. Sometimes it's a bit gray. I feel horrible for Gary Friedrich, but he helped dig himself a very bad hole. Doesn't mean he was treated right, but he wandered into a bear cave armed with a penknife. At the same time people who think the Siegel heirs or Kirby heirs are greedy are parroting some weird kind of "The corporation is always right!" vibe. I don't think the creator is always right, but... they tend to create most of this stuff. Just to put this in a wider context, during the election, anytime you put on Fox News, it would be talking about how the Obama administration had handcuffed the "job creators" over and over again. It's like that South Park episode "They took our jerbs!"
Meanwhile, a simple reality check and you see corporate profits are at an all time high and wages are at a low, percentage wise. This is a modern version of the feudal system where you must spend your life raising turnips in the shadow of Castle Greybreech so your lord can protect you from the thieves and infidels. And the court jester/grand vizier and everyone wants to keep the narrative fixed. A lot of comics readers seem to think that if Marvel or DC lost a little control, comics would end, or they would be forced to read The Man Who Grew His Beard.
Maybe some of this is the problem with Internet comics news also. I think there are so few objective news sources for comics and nerd culture in general out there. It's like "You gave me a DVD? Okay you own my soul now." This goes back to what I was saying earlier about trying to provide a place for at least trying to investigate things a little or ask a question. I have very little time for doing it myself, but I have to keep trying somehow. Need to do much better.
SPURGEON: Is the second rise of Image as important as it seems in terms of providing an actual place for people to create their own work, which they'll control? Or is it just the latest place that looks like it has something so there's a mad scramble for the buffet?
MacDONALD: The big question for 2012. From a certain viewpoint, you can be sympathetic to the corporate comics mentality -- billions of dollars are at stake and somehow the bigger the media gets, the more interconnected it all is. Whether transmedia actually exists or not, it has en effect on what used to be the joy of comics and finding quirky little takes on half-forgotten characters. Now even Rocket Raccoon will be a Hasbro toy under the Christmas tree. When they say they control 6000 characters, they mean it!
My metaphor for corporate comics throughout the year goes back to my days working at Disney in the '90s. I remember some of my friends working on a lot of branded books for Aladdin or Pocahontas or Mickey or whatever like kids picture books and audio books and coloring books... the gigs usually paid very well, but it wasn't like they went in to the editors' office and said "I have an idea for a Mickey Mouse Audio Book that's going to change Mickey's world forever." They just got a call from an editor and went in and pitched "Mickey Mouse is trying to mow the lawn" and a book got written. There was no ego involved. It's pretty clear that corporate comics are going in that direction. You get the call to write Firestorm or Firestar and the cheat sheet with the event of the quarter and that's it.
So Image has emerged as the both the training ground and the end result of this system. It seems docile young Image writers, thrilled with a paycheck, are the new event shock troops, while more established Big Two writers with something to say are cycled out to create their own stories. I think the success, as usual, will be based directly on the quality of the books, and Image does need to keep an eye on that. I've read a bunch of Image books that I enjoy greatly and some that are filler. The Image creators are mostly self taught, and are learning the marketplace through trial and error. In the writer-artist system that so many Image books use it's harder to create a genuine character/story, I think. Will a Rick Remender or Matt Fraction or Justin Jordan circle back to creator-owned? Eric Stephenson is as dedicated to the comics life as anyone I know, and he's been trying to boost Image's infrastructure a bit this year.
On the plus side, newer comics readers seem open to something that is fresher and less predictable, so there is an audience for good new genre books that Image is producing. The Image publishing model has lasted 20 years, and I think it will last beyond that.
SPURGEON: I thought this was the best year for convention and festival, ever, and maybe it's not even close. I thought San Diego and Brooklyn and SPX in rising order were all pretty great, plus you had Spiegelman in Angouleme and that amazing summit in Chicago. How do you view the rise of the small-press festivals and the changing face of conventions? Again, is that a positive that we can actually bank on, do you think, or is it merely just a diversion from deeper, more troubling issues in terms of the collapse of certain elements of infrastructure. Did you have a favorite moment at a show this year?
MacDONALD: My favorite moment at a show was at TCAF at the Saturday night party which was a freezing cold rooftop beneath the Super Moon and everyone was just hanging out and drinking beer and talking about cool shit. It was kind of like that at the Cartoon House post BCGF after party too, but that was inside and so smokey and loud. Sort of the same feeling outside after the Ignatz awards at SPX. They were all awesome moments though because finally I was surrounded by cartoonists who don't seem to have a built-in certainty that their lives and careers are doomed to failure and poverty. That could be a false hope, as very few indie cartoonists that I know make a living at it, and a lot are very poor. But there is a sense of breaking ground and recognition that fuels enthusiasm and good work and creativity. In 2011 I feel like everyone was concerned with making a living and in 2012 everyone was concerned with making art and getting it seen. 2013 will go back to money, I think.
I thought the con circuit was great fun this year; I wasn't at a single stinky show, and it was a mood lifter. At the risk of projecting, I felt like you looked so much happier and more comfortable at the shows this year. Of course, you had a shitty life threatening 2011, so anything would be an improvement, but I thought you were picking up on the good mood, too.
The small press festival circuit seemed well-established this year, but even there, the vibes are different. TCAF was the closest thing to a "New Mainstream" show I have ever attended; the attendees seemed to be readers of all ages, shapes and sizes. Whether it was Homestuck or Smile, there was a passionate and engaged readership. This seemed like an expression of the LIbrary/Bookstore market forces that have really remade the industry in the last 10 years.
BCGF was a lot more like an "indie music" festival, to use a term I'm sure the organizers would hate. Art Spiegelman is the Alex Chilton, and Dan Clowes is the Steven Malkmus. BCGF to me is very much the end of a narrative that begins with RAW and winds through the art comix movements of the last 30 years, from Fort Thunder to Kramers Ergot. To me there was very much the feeling of highly personal art that reflects an experimental view of comics, while being as far from corporate comics as possible. So yeah, indie comix = indie music, at least in the personal, exclusive sense.
That both these narratives are strong enough to sustain not one but multiple shows and "symposia" throughout the year is another sign of how strong and diverse the current material and creative base is. SPX sort of drew on both these, and we'll see how MoCCA shapes up. They aren't mutually exclusive at all.
Man didn't Bill Kartalopoulos have a great year, in terms of doing the programming for both SPX and BCGF, and co-organizing BCGF and putting together the cultural events surrounding the show, and even launching his own publishing imprint? I thought every panel I attended that Bill put together this year was really well thought out, but he also knows the background of such a wide variety of comics and art history to give it added heft. I think I wrote on The Beat that his panels weren't Comics 101, they were comics grad school, and we're at a place that's ready to appreciate that.
As for mainstream comics shows...it's a formula now that a lot of people enjoy, and while it is definitely a "trend", I don't see it fading away for a while. As long as there is an attractive young woman willing to wear a vinyl suit and call it Catwoman and a former cast member of The Munsters is alive, there will be comic-cons.
SPURGEON: Why isn't there a comic book midlist anymore? Why is it 100K copies and then a steep fall to the 30K and 40K level? Does comics over-publish?
MacDONALD: Well, that goes back to what people want to read. Corporate comics just don't have casual readers and haven't for decades, and this is a sign of that. It's either half the line or none of the line. It's why every comics executive says they have event fatigue and want to slow down and never do. Maybe it is possible with the huge success of The Avengers and Batman and so on that some casual readers are being drawn in and some may like the Rocket Raccoon or Amethyst comic and just keep buying that, but Marvel and DC haven't shown much ability to exploit the audiences for individual titles in a long time. I wouldn't call 40K copies a steep fall, by the way. That's a pretty decent number. It will be very interesting to see how the Constantine comic from the mainline DCU does. The Vertigo edition had wasted away to about 10K copies over the course of 300 issues. The DCU's offbeat titles had middling to cancellation level sales, so this will be a real sign of whether you can rebuild a "midlist."
SPURGEON: Let's end with something forward-looking. Do you read comics digitally? Do you read print comics digitally? Is that a market that changes everything or is it just another market? I keep thinking that we should have seen a comic not a free comic that's a runaway hit in that market by now; then again, maybe I'm just missing it thinking about it this morning.
MacDONALD: I guess you're talking about "tablet comics."
MacDONALD: So far the biggest digital hit has been the Pocket Gods comics from APE that sold wayyyy more digitally than in print, but that was before the iPad even. I'm excited by Aces Weekly and Monkeybrain and Madefire and Thrillbent and all the other digital imprints but I haven't had time to sit down and really explore them yet. I read comics digitally in the form of review galleys I get from most publishers. (Hello, Marvel?) At any time my iPad has 5 to 6 gigs of digital comics on it and it's incredibly convenient to read on those odd moments. Is it a preferred method? Not exactly... because they are lo res watermarked, but it's fine to stay up to date. I am not exactly a consumer of comics although I do buy physical copies of my favorite books from time to time and try to fill in gaps in my collection. I'm going through a personal space crisis however, and digital has really lessened the pressure on bringing home tons of comics I have no room for, and I'm beginning to think, very, very slowly, about the idea of replacing some of my beloved print books with a space-saving digital copy. It's a huge leap of habit however.
As for the digital market, I'm sure it will emerge in some amazing, gorgeous and life changing way that we could never foresee. The next RAW or Kramers will be an iPad app, and it will change the way people think about comics and storytelling again. I hope I am mentally acute enough to appreciate it when it happens.
SPURGEON: To take us out, you've always written passionately about women-in-comics issues, which a lot of the time are just basic human dignity issues and at other times are very specific to comics' unique DNA. I have to admit that even with my own shortcomings in terms of writing well about that kind of thing, I was particularly unprepared to write about something like, say, fake geek girls -- not because I fail to be saddened by the undercurrent of rage that's obvious in some of the statements people were making, but mostly because it's hard for me to wrap my mind around any sort of strong identification mechanism, positive or negative, when it comes to consuming art. I also thought that it was odd that we had a "power" list that seemed design to almost throw the spotlight on clueless, non-inclusive definitions of power, and that seemingly ignored the Jeannie Schulzes and Jenny Robbs that wield that kind of influence even when it's defined that way. So are you hopeful there's progress, Heidi? I think I am, but I don't know that my opinion is all that pertinent.
MacDONALD: Aw , I thought I was going to get away with an interview where I wasn't asked a women in comics question. When that day comes, and Dean Haspiel, Mark Siegel, Tom Kaczynski and the rest are asked about being a man in comics, we'll have true progress. [Spurgeon laughs]
But I did write a lot about this subject in 2012, so it is legit. To get to the heart of your question, there was definitely a surge in visibility and loudness among female genre fans of all kinds this year, and also a surge in the amount of material available for them. The Hunger Games was one of the biggest movies of the year, and made YA movies with female heroines more viable. At the same time, so many female cartoonists are having great careers here they aren't asked what it's like being a woman in comics all the time, like Julia Wertz, Gabrielle Bell, Noelle Stevenson, Emily Carroll, Raina Telgemeier, Lilli Carré... on the publisher side everyone loves justifiably, Annie Koyama, but Emma Hayley at Self Made Hero also deserves a lot of props -- they had an incredible year with The Nao of Brown and English language editions of Kiki de Montparnasse and so on. It's a great year where Rina Ayuyang can start a publishing company and no one is patting her on the back for being a woman publisher and breaking down barriers and all that other externally imposed bullshit. That is true progress, except that I just did it!
Anyway I'm sick of compartmentalization and that has to be fought against still. No more stupid women in comics panels and limiting women's anthologies. Also, women have to help themselves and break out of the "pink" ghetto by getting included in things that aren't "for girls."
When I was young Trina Robbins was my hero but I always thought, "Wow, Trina is so angry, can't she see that me and my generation have solved everything?" Now that I'm older than she was when I first met her I see younger women making the same dumb mistakes and men still being paternalistic jerks. The battle for freedom or recognition is never won, it will go on and on and on. As Trina pointed out, one hundred years ago Rose O'Neill was one of the most famous cartoonists in the world, and yet we've spent 100 years wondering if women can draw comics. Right now, all the male comics purists are jumping up and down and telling us that Rose O'Neill wasn't a cartoonist and her art was too girlie to be taken seriously, anyway. I've heard that so many times. Bullshit!
Now, as I alluded to above, I think outrage can turn into nitpicking frowny face that is ultimately a waste of time. Like I said, if you believe in women in comics, buy comics by women and starring women. It's as simple as that.
* olivier schrauwen
* photo of heidi mac from the 2008 edition of heroes con
* i'm not totally opposed to thor 2 photos
* matt bors cartoon
* walking dead
* kurt busiek
* the gary friedrich era on ghost rider
* from smile
* lilli carré
* rose o'neill could draw (below)
Jenny E. Robb became the curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum almost exactly two years ago, after a long and fruitful stint with Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco followed by several years in a position created for her by her current employer with the 2011 transition in mind. Robb is the point person and leader for a devoted team of skilled professionals devoted to the collection of comics art and the gathering of information about that art.
On November 15 through November 17, 2013, the Library & Museum will celebrate a move into its new home in Sullivant Hall, and with the resources available there and with the attention shining on it they so richly deserve, rightfully assume its place in the first rank of comics-related institutions. 2012 was a very good year for a lot of us in comics to finally wake up to the fact that there are these amazing places and organizations that exist in support of the art form. I got to meet Robb in October during a visit to Billy Ireland in its current location, where she enabled me to hold an Oliver Harrington in my gloved hands and stare over Jeff Smith's shoulder at the sweep and grace of an original Hal Foster. What a great day that was. I was delighted that Robb chose to speak with me, and I hope that everyone reading these words will try to learn more about the museum or even consider a small donation. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: We're talking on December 28, which I assume is between semesters there at Ohio State. Is this an important time for you to catch up?
JENNY E. ROBB: It is a time that is relatively quiet at the library, so yes, I do use this opportunity to catch up on things and clean up my desk and try to figure out if there's anything I need to get done before the end of the year.
SPURGEON: I think we sometimes forget this because we tend to be very myopic in comics, and therefore may look upon Billy Ireland as sort of our institution, but you have that very active and primary life as something that functions within the university. You have classes going through there, academics utilizing your services... can you sketch out what you provide the university, how you exist that way?
Obviously we are here to serve the students and faculty of Ohio State. So we do a lot of specific programming for the university community, including course-related teaching. For example: we have a lot of classes that come in to tour the library, or to get a presentation from one of the curators about our materials. It may be a session explaining how to use a special collection and its primary sources, or it may be a presentation about a specific topic they're studying, such as sequential art, or gender in comics, or printmaking. We tailor our presentations and our tours to fit the needs of that particular professor and that particular class. This past semester, we worked with 16 different classes.
SPURGEON: Am I right in thinking that this is an interest of yours, the use of cartoon materials in other courses of study?
ROBB: Me in particular?
SPURGEON: I'm thinking you've at least written on that subject once or twice.
ROBB: Yes. I'm particularly interested in the use of cartoons in studying and teaching history. I have worked on a project we have here called The Opper Project, and that's actually targeted at K-12 teachers, mostly the higher end of that. We're trying to help educators use editorial cartoons to teach history. It's a partnership with the History Teaching Institute, which is another unit at Ohio State University. We collaborated with them to uncover cartoons from our collection that teachers can use in their classrooms, and then we worked with teachers to create lesson plans using those cartoons. We tried to make it easy for them to access our cartoons since most teachers aren't able to visit us in person.
SPURGEON: How many teachers are out there using that program? I assume it's out there being employed.
ROBB: The lesson plans and cartoons are available on-line. Judging from the number of hits that the images and plans get, thousands have found this resource and are using it. It's called the Opper Project after Frederick Burr Opper, who was an important editorial cartoonist and comic strip artist.
SPURGEON: I do remember The Opper Project, come to think of it, but I think sometimes people like myself fail to make all of these connections we should in your realm of comics. Another question I had is you talked about you guys being one of a number of special collections. I know that the library and museum has grown over the years. Before its current name, it was the... Cartoon Research Project?
ROBB: The Cartoon Research Library was our most recent name. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Is there a development process involved -- were you at one point a subsidiary of another special collection and now are not?
ROBB: Well, it's interesting. We started as one collection: The Milton Caniff Collection. Caniff offered his papers and artwork to the Ohio State University Library, and the Library turned it down. Caniff was an alum, and he wanted his collection to come to Ohio State, but the Library at the time decided for whatever reason not to accept it. It was the School of Journalism that actually accepted it. They hired our founding curator, Lucy Caswell, to organize it and create a finding aid to make it accessible to researchers.
From that first collection, Lucy and Milton decided they would actively try to collect in the area of cartoons and comics. They realized that most research and academic institutions were not collecting popular culture, specifically cartoons and comics. They were afraid a lot of that material would be lost forever, which is what has happened to much of it. They wanted to save as much as they could. They worked through the National Cartoonists Society and then also through the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists to try and preserve materials such as the papers of cartoonists, their original art, and all the other materials related to cartoons and comics.
SPURGEON: Another thing that popped into my head is when you talked about the Opper Project and doing history through comics and cartoons, I wonder why that is exactly. Do you think it's an underrated resource, that comics has something specific to offer history... ?
ROBB: I became interested in cartoons because I think they reflect the particularly society, culture, and time period in which they were created. If you're going to study history, cartoons are a great primary resource. I'm surprised that they're not used more by historians. They can be used in other disciplines as well, but my particular area of interest has been history because I studied it in graduate school. I originally got interested in cartoons for exactly that reason: I wanted to study them as a historical, primary source.
SPURGEON: You went to a good place for that, because you went to Syracuse for the Masters.
ROBB: Yes. They have an excellent cartoon collection, and they have been doing a lot more in recent years with cataloguing it and making it accessible to researchers. When I went there, I didn't know about the cartoon collection. That's not why I chose Syracuse. [laughter] But I already had an interest in cartoons. I did a masters degree in European History and a second masters in Museum Studies. And I was able to use the collection in my work.
SPURGEON: Can you tell me more about the museum studies degree? All comics people greatly distrust academic accomplishment [Robb laughs], but I thought that one was interesting because we're used to library science degrees but I'm not sure I know what museum studies is.
ROBB: It's similar to a library science degree in that part of it is teaching future curators and registrars how to manage collections of historically important objects -- whether it's art, archives or artifacts. So there is that aspect to the museum studies degree. We also covered curating exhibitions and museum education, basically how to engage adults and kids with exhibitions and with museum materials. Other areas of study included museum management and development, including fundraising and collection development.
SPURGEON: This may sound like an absurd question, but I know plenty of people that have almost no professional relationship to what they learn in their degree programs. This sounds like it would actually give you a pretty strong foundation for what it is you do day-in, day-out. Do you still reference back to stuff you learned there?
ROBB: Absolutely. It was a very useful degree. Syracuse University has a great program because it's very hands on. The graduate students in the museum studies program actually work in a gallery, curating, installing and de-installing exhibits, so we really got to do the work that we would be doing after graduation. I learned very practical things that I used later, such as how to write an exhibition label and how to matte a work of art. As I mentioned, they also teach collection management, including what types of data you need to know about each object and how to manage objects from an intellectual standpoint but also from a physical standpoint, such as correct art handling techniques. Through the history degree I learned about how to do historical research which is critical when you're doing the job I'm doing.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about that last thing a little more? How is that a big advantage in terms of you shaping this flagship program, to have that historian's viewpoint? Why do you feel that this is important, to have some rigor in that area?
ROBB: First, some of the materials we receive are difficult to identify so we try to determine where they came from, where they were published, and who drew them. Some things are obvious and are well-documented, but other items are really obscure. You need to know how to do historical research and be able to track down these things, particularly with popular culture, because that's an area that hasn't necessarily been well documented. So I find I use my research skills on a regular basis in this job for that reason and also for helping patrons find what they are looking for. For example, I know what resources to check if you're looking for a cartoon about the presidential election of 1884 or the election in 1984.
SPURGEON: I'd love to hear about something specific. Is there a particular mystery you remember solving, or maybe even one that you're working on right now or recently that has stumped you so far?
SPURGEON: I lose track of you in the late '90s. I want to say that you were in Columbus for a while before you emerged out in the Bay Area at Cartoon Art Museum. Am I right in thinking that?
ROBB: Yes. I did an internship here through the museum studies program with Lucy Caswell. I spent a semester working with her. I knew her and I knew the collection a little bit, and it gave me a taste of what it was like to work with a cartoon collection. I just loved it. I had a great time. I worked on an interesting project; I helped curate an exhibition called Before The Yellow Kid. We explored the history of all the different features of comic strips and how they came together in the early newspaper comic strips of the 1890s.
SPURGEON: So you were locked in at this point. Or maybe not -- were you still up in the air at all about a potential professional path?
ROBB: I definitely wanted to be a cartoon curator. [laughs] I don't know what I was thinking. It's a very obscure thing to do. I think I looked at what Lucy Caswell was doing and thought, "I want to do that." My parents were horrified, although, to their credit, supportive. I'm sure they thought I would never be gainfully employed and they would be supporting me for the rest of my life. My dad wanted me to go into computers. But I just had this passion for history and for cartoons and curating. I was very interested in exhibitions as a way of presenting knowledge and scholarship to a general public. So that's what I wanted to do. And I'm incredibly lucky it worked out for me, because there are not a lot of cartoon curator jobs. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Now is there a personal trigger for the affection with which you hold cartoons? Is there a specific entry point for you and cartoons, or did that come for you solely through the history?
ROBB: I've always been the type of person who reads the comics page in the newspaper. I love newspapers and I love comics. I would always read every single one, but I wouldn't have said I had a particular passion about cartooning and comics until I was a student at Wittenberg University. I was a history student studying Victorian England and also photography. I decided to do a project on how Victorian working-class women were portrayed in the media. I discovered there weren't very many photographs in the media at the time because of limited printing techniques, but there were tons of fantastic cartoons that I could get access to. I came to Ohio State University and used their Punch volumes. I was fascinated by how cartoonists of that time period depicted working-class women. That's really when I decided, "Wow. Cartoons. What a fascinating subject," and they are really under-utilized by historians. I think that's when the spark happened.
SPURGEON: So you got the call after Columbus to go to the Bay Area, right? Did it start that quickly?
ROBB: No. I graduated from graduate school and proceeded to not find a job as a cartoon curator for several years. [laughter] I did several other things, including temp work. I did research for an exhibition for the International Monetary Fund which actually included cartoons, so that was a little bit related. And then I moved out to San Francisco and got the job at the Cartoon Art Museum in 2000.
SPURGEON: That's an interesting institution. The only assumption I have about it is that to curate shows there would be an interesting experience because they all kind of have to work in and of themselves, they all have to be successful -- there's not the institutional bedrock that you might have in academia. Is that a fair albeit incredibly broad [Robb laughs] generalization to make about CAM?
ROBB: That's fair. The Cartoon Art Museum is of course a small, independent non-profit, so they have the pressures that all small, independent non-profits have. They do depend partially on people that come to see exhibitions and the admissions they pay. That's part of their funding. You do have to think about that when you're deciding what exhibitions to do and curating those exhibitions. You have to think about your audience and getting people in the door. I think they've done, especially recently, some really fantastic exhibitions within that framework. Andrew Farago is the curator there now, and he's doing a wonderful job. There are different pressures there than I have here at a large university where the focus is more on academics and scholarship and serving the faculty and the students. So they're very different institutions even though they have very similar missions.
SPURGEON: Was it professionally good for you in any specific way? Is there any way you're better at your current job for having worked at CAM? Maybe a better curator for having curated those shows?
ROBB: Yes. I learned how to do exhibitions with very few resources. [Spurgeon laughs] That's an important skill to have; it really is, because whether you're at a big institution or a small institution, you're never going to have as much money as you want for exhibitions. [laughs] There's never enough funding. It's good to have the skills to be able to do more with less. Now I find I really appreciate the resources I have at Ohio State even more because I have had the experience of having to do shows and programs without much.
SPURGEON: A lot of the CAM exhibitions seem to me co-curated, largely, I imagine, because you're drawing on individual collections to put together something. Did working at CAM introduce you to that network of independent collectors? Because that's a significant part of the overall landscape of how comics are collected and kept...
ROBB: That was one thing I loved about that job, that I got to meet collectors and work with collectors on specific exhibitions. With popular culture it's interesting because for almost any topic you can think of there's probably somebody who has a huge collection of materials related to that topic or that artist or that character or that particular title. Pop culture collecting is very accessible. It's hard to be a collector of Monet paintings [laughter], but there's a much lower threshold for most of popular culture. I did enjoy getting to meet the different types of people that collect and learning about their motivations and the focus of their collecting.
SPURGEON: It seems that could potentially be an area of tension. But I remember you wrote a profile of Bill Blackbeard, and you were very affectionate towards not just his massive contributions but the whole idea of independent collectors and how they've sustained cartoons and other pop culture in that way. I guess that might be something – I don't know if there is tension between institutions and individual in other areas or not, but it seems like that's been a strength of yours, to know and appreciated those people and work with them.
ROBB: I'm incredibly grateful for people like Bill Blackbeard. The reason for that is -- and I talk about this in that article -- that larger institutions like universities and libraries were not collecting this type of material. They were in some cases disposing of the material they did have such as newspapers. If it wasn't for these passionate, sometimes obsessive [laughs] collectors, who decided, "I'm going to be the one that cuts out every Blondie from the day it starts until the day it ends" -- which hasn't happened yet -- if we didn't have people like that, we might have lost a lot of that material. As I said, institutions weren't necessarily focused on collecting ephemera or popular media. They didn't even think it was necessarily something that belonged in an academic library. If it wasn't for these independent collectors, we might have lost a lot of our popular culture heritage.
SPURGEON: You mentioned earlier that there aren't a lot of jobs like yours. There aren't a lot of opportunities to do what it is you do. And now you have like job #1, basically. [Robb laughs] It's two years next month since you assumed the current gig. How intimidating was that? Or were you so busy it didn't settle in? That's The Show, right there, and I wondered if that was an intimidating transition, even though I think you were brought there with that in mind.
SPURGEON: I'm horrible with dates today, but I thought you were there for a few years before the transition occurred.
ROBB: Lucy created the position of associate curator here. It was a new position, with the idea that she could hire someone that she could train and that hopefully could move into her position when she retired. Of course sometimes these things don't work out as planned. But in this case I think it worked out very well. I had a great opportunity to work very closely with her for about four or five years before she went into semi-retirement and I became curator. Definitely following in her footsteps is very challenging. I was very concerned about that because she's so well respected in the cartooning community and with scholars and at Ohio State as well. I certainly lost a few nights of sleep [laughs] over being able to measure up and do the job as well as she did it. But luckily she's still working with us and I've been able to consult with her for the last two years that I've been curator and that's been really helpful as well. It was not an abrupt transition in any way. I hope it's been very seamless.
SPURGEON: What has been the big learning curve for you in that part of your career, specifically that four years leading up to the transition? What did you add to the skill set?
ROBB: I was new to libraries. I had to learn all of those aspects of the job. I understood the concepts of collections management from a museum standpoint. The way museums manage their collections is different than the way libraries manage their collections. So I had a lot of learning to do regarding managing a library collection. I also had to learn how to work effectively within a large institution because that's not something I had much experience with. There's a lot of skill in that [laughs] and it's very different. Ohio State is a large bureaucracy and that's not something I had to deal with at all at the Cartoon Art Museum. So that was a learning curve also for me.
SPURGEON: You knew that when you took on this job that you'd be doing this massive move, the fruition of which we'll see next Fall. I assume that that was pretty far along by then. You're not just accepting this job and being the person that replaces this beloved figure, but you're also doing it in the midst of this massive career-crowning achievement for Lucy and for the library generally. So... yikes. [laughter] I'm not sure there's a question there. How gratifying is it to turn the corner on that last several months, and how crazy is it there with the move so imminent?
ROBB: It's definitely added a layer of complication to everything that we do. [laughter] To put it mildly. There's a lot of work in designing a new space and all of the details involved. Everything from how you want an exhibit case to be designed to what this chair needs to look like that sits in our offices. There are so many details that you have to think about, and pay attention to. And I hope that we get things right. In any kind of a big project like this, you're not going to get everything right. But I hope that for the most part we end up with the facility that we've always dreamed of. It looks like it's going to be that, and we're very excited about it. But it's daunting. I will be very relieved when we get everything moved into the new space. [laughter]
SPURGEON: What is the biggest deal? Is there something you can point at and say, "That there; that will be the biggest difference."
ROBB: There are two things. One is that we will actually have a museum. We are opening three exhibition galleries that we haven't had before. Currently our exhibition space is also our reading room. We can only do very modest exhibitions there. We don't have the space to do anything more. We're also hidden underground. We don't have a lot of visitors because it's hard to find our door. Our new location will be much more visible.
The second thing is that we will have a lot more space. That's always a concern when we are considering what collections to acquire. In the new space we will obviously still be very careful about what we acquire, but we won't have to worry about every square inch. We have a lot of storage space for growth built into the new facility.
SPURGEON: How much will the space increase?
ROBB: Our storage areas will be significantly larger and we'll have compact shelving throughout, which will allow us to use the square footage more efficiently. Overall, we're going from 6800 square feet in our current facility to about 30,000 square feet in our new facility. That includes the new museum and larger office space and a larger reading room. I haven't actually measured the storage space separately and compared it to the new storage space. But that's a good idea, I should do that just to see. [laughter] Instead we told the architect how many running feet of shelving and how many art cases we needed, and he fit it into the available space.
SPURGEON: Do you have an image in your head what the next 5-10 years look like with the new space? Or is this going to be a matter of settling in and figuring stuff out? Does this put stuff on the table for you to do that you haven't been able to do before?
ROBB: Yes. I think the biggest area that we're hoping to focus on is engaging people with our collections. At this point we have an amazing collection. Literally millions of items all related to cartoons and comics. And we've always had plenty of people who use our collection -- students, faculty, people from around the country, people from around the world -- for a variety of reasons. But I think we can do an even better job with this new facility of reaching out to people and really engaging them with our collection and also with cartoons and comics in general. We just haven't had the facilities and the resources to be able to do as much as we've wanted in the past. I see us growing in that area.
SPURGEON: The people that will be reading this interview will be more comics industry type people. Is there a desire on your guys' part to have a more active relationship with independent researchers and comics professionals moving forward?
ROBB: Yes. We strive to serve that audience of comics researchers, whether they are independent scholars, publishers, even just fans, we want to serve the community of people that loves and appreciates cartoons and comics and is using them in their work or hobbies.
SPURGEON: Of special interest to me and some other folks that might be reading this interview is the establishment of a small press collection in Dylan Williams' name. I was wondering how something like that is conceived and then implemented. Is it that you think, "We would like to improve our holdings in the small press; how do we do that?" or is it that someone comes to you with an idea for a collection? How does that get folded into your own, overall aims.
ROBB: It's interesting because it could happen in either of the ways you describe. Sometimes it is that someone has a collection of something in particular and they come to us and say, "Are you interested in this?" We look at our collection development policy, our strengths, and the areas where we hope to improve, and we ask, "Does this fit in with what we're trying to do?" Sometimes an opportunity arises that we hadn't expected, so we might go in a different direction than we anticipated because we realize that there's a need for someone to preserve a certain collection or group of materials. For example, collecting millions of newspaper clippings and tear sheets wasn't our specific focus when we learned that Bill Blackbeard's San Francisco Academy of Comic Art collection was at risk and the opportunity arose to become the repository that would house that collection. It was an opportunity that Lucy jumped at at the time, and she was able to save the collection -- all 75 tons of it. That's the kind of unexpected situation you can't prepare for.
SPURGEON: One occasionally hears rumors of more institutions that might be getting into cartoon collection -- I even heard one about Harvard maybe stepping up their game.
ROBB: [laughs] Yes, yes. There are a lot of academic institutions that have now become very interested in collecting cartoons and comics.
SPURGEON: It was suggested to me that the fact that you might have areas of specialization is a way you all get along a bit. Is it competitive? I'd like to think of you all fighting each other, because that's delightful.
ROBB: [laughs] Well, there are times when I see another institution has gotten a specific collection and I think, "Darn! I would have loved to have had that collection here." That certainly does happen. But in general, it's a very positive thing. It's better for the cartoon and comics industry and for scholarship if more institutions are collecting in these areas. It would be nice if we could all get together and discuss what areas we're focusing on so that we're not competing directly with each other. And we may move in that direction in the future. By we I mean institutions that are actively collecting cartoon and comics materials. I'm sure there will always be some competition, but it's friendly competition and we appreciate the contributions of our fellow institutions.
SPURGEON: One question someone suggested to me is about digital. Both the digitization of what you have, I guess that's one question, but more intriguing to me is the area of digital comics themselves. That seems to me a nightmare in terms of curating or collecting that stuff, because I'm not sure we've even solved how to do that in the most basic of ways.
ROBB: No. And there's an assumption out there that once something is on the web it will be available forever and won't go away. Which is not actually true. We do have to collect born-digital materials. And this is important with born-digital cartoons, but also with the papers and correspondence between cartoonists and other people in the industry. That's something I don't think anybody is really thinking about. I think we're going to lose this first generation of people whose correspondence is all e-mail. We're likely to lose all of that, because as archivists and librarians we haven't figure out how to encourage people to save that material -- how do they transfer it to us, and how do we store it and make it accessible? These are all things that professional archivists are exploring, and that we're trying to figure out. In the meantime, I fear that we're going to lose a lot. Back in the day when Milton Caniff had a secretary and all of his correspondence was on paper, she kept copies of everything and put them into folders. It was easy to collect; the paper files were transferred to us. But given how rapidly hardware and software evolves, and the fact that computers crash and people lose e-mails, or people just delete everything, I fear we're going to lose some great material. I think that will be a shame for future researchers in 50 years or a hundred years, if it's not saved.
SPURGEON: So is that a priority for you guys to figure out a way to collect this material? Are you maybe further along than we realize?
ROBB: It is a priority, and there are different models that archivists are experimenting with. I haven't worked with any particular cartoonists to preserve their born-digital business correspondence but I hope to in the future. It's one we need to move more quickly on.
SPURGEON: I've read some of those e-mails, and I'm not all the way certain the world isn't better off if they're lost. I'm not sure that me exchanging insults with some publishing figure via e-mail isn't an overall drag on society as we know it. [Robb laughs] I'm not sure that benefits anyone.
ROBB: Well, that's the question. Will it? In 50 years, is that going to be something interesting, that some researcher will think, "Wow, what an interesting group of e-mails?" [laughs]
SPURGEON: Okay, that's just terrifying. Now you do have a bunch of biographical files and material like that, right?
ROBB: Oh, definitely. Yeah. Our mission is to document American printed cartoons and comics. So that extends into the culture that surrounds the world of comics and cartoons. That's definitely something that we collect.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about how you're paying for your part of the move into the new building yourselves, that you've raised money, for example, in partnership with the Schulz people. I wonder why it was done that way, and how it's gone, if there are still opportunities for people to give.
ROBB: Yes. We started this project with a founding gift, the naming gift, which was in honor of Billy Ireland. That was a $7 million donation. Then we received the Schulz Challenge Grant, which was a $2.5 million challenge plus Jeannie [Schulz] also gave an additional million dollars. So those two gifts made it possible for this project to happen. Without those two we would not have been able to afford this at all. The university has been supportive, but they did not have the funds to build us this facility without this private money. So we have been working very hard at matching the money Jeannie Schulz has promised. We have raised $2,410,000 of the $2,500,000 that we need. So we need another $90,000 at this point to finish the Schulz challenge. We have until March of 2014. So there is still an opportunity for people to give and have their money doubled by Jeannie Schulz. We have a little bit more fundraising after that to do for the building and then we'll be finished with that project. Our contribution to the renovation from private funding is about $13.5 million total.
SPURGEON: You mention Jeannie, and we've talked about Lucy a bunch, and there's you yourself. One of the things we do with these holiday interviews is kind of look back at the year, and one of the overriding issues in comics is about gender and representation and which kinds of positions and how many have women in them. There's a perceived boys' club of American comics, and it strikes me that we don't always appreciate some of the reality of the women that hold these positions. Amy Lago would be another one, someone you might deal with. Is that something you think about at all, this aspect of male-dominated culture in comics?
ROBB: It's interesting because the world of librarians and archivists has always been dominated by women. So when I go to the American Library Association meetings or the Society of American Archivists', it's mostly women, but when I go to the comics events [laughter] like Comic-Con or the National Cartoonists Society, there's definitely more men. Traditionally, it has been a boy's club. But in the last five to ten years, I am seeing the genders evening out. More and more men are going into librarianship and archives and there are more and more women who are becoming cartoonists or cartoon scholars or going into related fields. So I see more of a balance in recent years. Does that answer your question?
SPURGEON: That's a great point. It's just that we've had a lot of discussions on these issues this year, and it seems like we fail to fully appreciate those women that already hold positions of influence.
ROBB: The focus does seem to be more on creators and executives of bigger companies, a world dominated by men, rather than on the people in support services. One example of a very influential woman in the world of comics is Toni Mendez. She was a licensing and literary agent for many years and represented numerous cartoonists, including Milton Caniff. We have her papers, but I don't think that many people remember her or appreciate her contributions to the business of cartooning.
* photo of Jenny E. Robb and a random piece of treasure from the Billy Ireland foundational holdings; photo supplied by Robb
* frederick burr opper
* photo from the library and museum's current home
* madge the magician's daughter
* portrait of bill blackbeard
* portrait of dylan williams by jesse hamm
* from leisuretown, one of the great digital offerings that should be archived somehow
* from the toni mendez collection there at osu
* video tour of billy ireland (below)
* I would imagine without even having read it yet that the must-read on the comics Internet right now is Matt Thorn's obituary for Keiji Nakazawa. I appreciate the way TCJ has broken into its self-imposed holiday break to run that article; it's a sign of respect to an important industry figure and artist.
* but I might be wrong, because there's a really enjoyable-looking article from Michael Cavna about Richard Thompson here, that I also have yet to read.
* and then it turns out I probably am all-the-way-wrong, as both of these fine articles previously mentioned are joined by the fact that the Bryan and Mary Talbot effort Dotter Of Her Father's Eyes has won the Costa 2012 biography prize. My congratulations to them. It's not like you can go wrong spending time with any of those articles/posts, or, heck, any of the following.
* speaking of the Talbots, Bryan Talbot made this list of best not-new books for 2012.
* here's an interesting blog post on the notion that gets floated in a lot of art forms that it's somehow the responsibility of existing commercial art-makers to discover and develop new talent, which is usually a notion held by people that think they will be one of those new talents if they just get that chance. It's dismissed with even-handed grace. I remember a friend of mine working for a big record company that stopped taking tapes (okay, okay, I'm old) from people and the furor this caused. My friend explained that really, if you wanted to sign with that company, you'd start having the effect locally you wanted to have nationally and they'd notice you that way. You don't need anyone's permission to make comics; it's not easy, and it's not always possible to do so the way you might like it, but it's a very achievable thing in terms of those opportunities across the spectrum of all the arts.
* here are your kids and young adults category nominees in something called the Cybils, which look a collective bloggers' award.
* Robot 6 turned four and instead of doling out the plastic dinosaurs and cake they posted a bunch of content. Since I look at all other on-line efforts as The Enemy, I sort of see Robot 6 as the Legion Of Doom, which mostly means I get to indulge in a fantasy they're all working in some sort of skull-shaped spaceship out in a swamp.
* I love the relative luxuriousness of this article about an artist and a publisher coming to an amiable parting-of-the-ways.
* I don't know if I'm on time for this post, but a charity issue of a comic book is always worth noting.
* mainstream-oriented industry observers Tom Bondurant and Carla Hoffman talk the year in comics (1, 2). One thing that's nice about eavesdropping on that kind of conversation is that Tom and Carla will make more natural connections to things outside of that realm than a lot of us that come at those comics from a place of other comics might.
* here's a master list of comics selections for 2012 from ComicsAlliance. I really want to do a list this year after not having done one for 2010 (various mental health issues) and 2011 (almost a-dyin'), as I find the list-making exercises out there I've read thus far intriguing both for themselves and for what they stay about the state of comics.