January 6, 2012
CR Holiday Interview #17 -- Laura Hudson
is the Editor-In-Chief at the new site ComicsAlliance
. I met Hudson at one of the first couple of New York Comic-Con
s, back when I believe she was either splitting time between Virgin Comics
and the magazine project Comic Foundry
or she had just left the former gig. I mention that only because I remember thinking that it seemed like she'd been around for a while, which of course was impossible -- if nothing else, due to her age. It was more that Laura Hudson seemed like a comics lifer. So far, so good. ComicsAlliance
is one of the few successful about-comics publishing initiatives of any kind to launch these last few years. It employs a significant percentage of the younger, active writers on the comics medium and all of its shared-culture satellite industries. These writers include Hudson
, who in addition to her duties managing the site in 2011 conducted several of its best interviews and penned forceful essays on gender issues, particularly as they apply to mainstream comic books. I appreciate her perspective, and sought her out for an interview in a year where the subjects on which she's done her best writing to date seem even more relevant than usual. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Laura, I don't know much about you, particularly your past as it brought you to your current position. Can you talk about how you initially became engaged by comics as a reader, enough so that you began to orient yourself in a way that led you to the job you have now? Were there two or three important comics that you read that got you thinking about them in a way that was beyond being someone that read and enjoyed comics?
I got into comics when I was about 12 years old, thanks to the X-Men cartoon that aired on Fox
during the early to the mid-'90s. I think the strong female cast of characters like Rogue
, Jean Grey
and yes... even Jubilee
played a big role in that for me. I also realize as I say this that every one of those characters was fully clothed, which I'd never thought about before. The X-Men were also particularly relatable because at the time I had an immune disorder and was missing something like 50 days of school a year, so the misfit quality of the X-Men and the power fantasy of being a mutant had a lot of appeal.
I fell out of comics for a bit in high school but found my way back in during college thanks to my friend Ian, who kept handing me graphic novels. I was an English major at the time, and something about the sequential art narrative format suddenly clicked into place for me in a way that went beyond nostalgia or emotional escapism. Grant Morrison
's run on New X-Men
really grabbed me since it took characters I'd been following since my youth and really pushed them to grow beyond the status quo -- and to grow up, in a way, even if most of it ended up getting retconned away in the end. Powers
by Brian Bendis
and Mike Oeming
also had a big impact on my return to comics, as did Alias
, which was another example of a more mature take on the the superhero genre. Later, I fell in love with both Sleeper
and Gotham Central
, so I guess it's fair to say that noir
was a big part of my return to comics. I'm pretty disenchanted at this point with the more juvenile, grim and gritty approach to "mature" superhero books that seems to dominate the industry today, but those titles handled it so well.
SPURGEON: It's my understanding that you worked in retail, that you worked at Virgin Comics and that you worked with Tim Leong at
Comic Foundry. Can you rebuild the primary experiences that led you to
ComicsAlliance, and how they related to one another?
I taught English in Japan for a while after college, and subsequently moved to New York City to work in book publishing, where I got a job at a literary agency. I was an assistant and an office manager, and pretty ill-suited to the latter role of managing the day-to-day communications and finances of a small business. About six months into it, I realized how much I hated my life and decided that I was going to quit. When I was doing my exit interview with my boss -- who seemed certain that I had failed at life and was now destined to move home -- I mentioned that I wanted to work in comic books, which I'm sure sounded insane. The woman I'd just hired to replace me was sitting outside the room listening to all this, and it turned out she was a friend of Tim Leong
, an art director at Complex
magazine who had recently launched Comic Foundry
magazine. She put us in touch and I started freelancing for him, though we'd never met.
Meanwhile, I applied to work as a cashier at a comic book shop at just about every store in Manhattan, which many people felt was not a great career move at 26, but at that point I wanted to do something that I loved so much more than I wanted to make money. (I feel this is somewhat essential to a career in comics.) I was so poor by the end that I couldn't afford even afford a subway pass, so I literally walked all over the island of Manhattan handing out my resume. Just about the time when I started to think that I might have to give up and leave the city, Midtown Comics
called and offered me a tentative position, which turned into a full-time one. That's where I made a lot of my initial contacts in the business, especially Heidi MacDonald
, who hired me for my first paying freelance gig at Publishers Weekly
, and later took me on as an intern.
Also, one day a customer walked into the store and when I pulled up his customer file, it turned out it was Tim Leong. I'd been writing for him for several months at that point but we'd never met. My involvement with the magazine slowly expanded over time, and when he decided to take it to print, he asked me to play a major role and ultimately made me Senior Editor. Tim is insanely talented, which is why he works for Wired
now, and it's impossible to overestimate how much I learned from him during the Comic Foundry
years. The aesthetics and approach of ComicsAlliance
is directly informed by everything we did together, and I don't think there'd be a CA
While it's impossible to attach a dollar value to my time working with Tim, there wasn't actually any money in Comic Foundry
, and after I'd been grinding out 10-hour shifts for about a year at Midtown, I started looking for something else. Virgin Comics was hiring and I was initially interested in editorial, but I guess they didn't feel like I was qualified so I ended up with a job in PR instead. I find it really, really difficult not to speak honestly, so PR was yet another job I was very poorly suited to doing. It lasted almost exactly as long as the book publishing gig before I decided that poverty was preferable. I quit and went back to freelancing, and at that point I had enough contacts in the magazine world that I was able to eke out a ramen living. I'd been working consistently not only with Comic Foundry
but also Publishers Weekly
, and doing some comics blogging on the side.
SPURGEON: Is there a story behind how you got the job? I don't think of Portland as the kind of place that generates media jobs.
Portland was and is entirely irrelevant to my job; it's just where I happen to be. I moved out to Portland in 2008 in large part because I'd gotten burned out on NYC, and particularly on being painfully broke all of the time and hustling freelance non-stop to make ends meet. The cost of living in Portland is far lower; it's very laid-back, and it has a thriving comics and arts community that made it a really good fit. I assumed, at least, since I packed everything in my car and drove out here without ever visiting, but it's worked out well.
ended up closing shop a few months after I arrived, due in large part to Tim Leong being too damn successful in his day job, but almost immediately afterwards AOL
contacted me about launching a comics blog for them. They're based in NYC, so it was actually less convenient that I'd left, but not prohibitively so. It was a freelance position at first, and just me writing seven posts a day with no staff budget. I brought over a number of writers from Comic Foundry
, including Caleb Goellner
, who is now my Senior Editor at ComicsAlliance
. Every goddamn time I asked for help that guy put his hand up, and it's why I survived and why the site survived. Chris Sims
was also one of the first people I contacted, because I knew that I wanted him on the team from day one.
Initially I was just paying people out of pocket, but after I established how much traffic these guys could generate I got a small budget, and like everything else about the staff, it grew over time in proportion to the audience response. The traffic growth was almost unnervingly rapid, and it felt like holding on to a rocket at times. It was exciting, but kind of scary, and I had no real road map for how to handle it except the one that I made. I kept bringing in people that I felt fit with the tone and vision of the site, and ended up with a really tight-knit staff of smart, funny, interesting writers, all 30 and under. I think we have a great sort of energy, and we've never stopped having fun, which I think is essential to a site as personality-driven as CA
SPURGEON: I have a sense that this is a full-time gig for you, although as I'm not 100 percent sure. Is it? Can you talk a bit about your daily work, how much time you spend on what general tasks and what resources you use to accomplish them?
When AOL merged with Huffington Post
earlier this year it was a pretty uncertain time, because a lot of things were changing. If it hadn't been for Brian Childs
, an AOL employee who got involved and fought constantly to make the site and its successes more visible, I'm not sure what would have happened. In the end, all three editors at the site -- myself, Caleb, and Andy Khouri
-- were hired full-time, which was stunning and incredibly transformative for us. I'd spent my whole adult life taking chances and risking everything to have a job that I loved and believed in, but you know -- some part of you never really believes that it's going to work out.
As I mentioned before, my job was initially to work strictly as a blogger posting seven times a day, but I've redefined it numerous times over the course of my tenure, and now my work is far more managerial and editorial. Caleb and Andy tend to handle the news and the short culture posts, while I tend to manage features like op-eds, original art, reviews by Chris Sims and a variety of freelancers, although Andy contributes long-form interviews and editorials from time to time as well. Just managing the editorial schedule, payroll, and content of my writers could easily be a full-time job, but I can't seem to stop myself from taking on features myself and wanting to have more of a writing presence on the site, even though amps up my stress level exponentially.
The division of labor has been an evolving thing, and again, something I had no road map for. Figuring it out, and figuring it out very publicly, has consumed everything in my life for nearly three years, often to unhealthy degrees. It's been a problem in personal relationships. There were times when I was putting 12 to 14 hours a day into the site, including weekends. I've had to focus really hard on creating boundaries, which isn't easy on the 24-hour Internet, especially for a borderline workaholic. I love writing, and I miss doing it more regularly, but the bulk of my work now is shaping the larger tone and original content of the site, and thus the work of other writers and artists. That's the reality of management at almost any job, though.
Despite many of us living in different places, the work on the site is very collaborative. We're all in constant contact, all day every day, asking for input and bouncing ideas off each other. I find that tremendously important. Just about everything significant that happens on the site is a conversation among the senior staff, and and since I intentionally hired smart people with similar sensibilities whose opinions I respect, I value that so profoundly. I think it makes our content richer and more innovative, and our decisions better and more nuanced.
SPURGEON: How much editorial freedom do you have? Are there edicts in terms of coverage areas, language, expected outcomes in terms of hits...?
AOL and Huffington Post
have been wonderful about granting me broad editorial freedom. When I first started out it took me a while to find the voice and footing for the site that I wanted, and of course contributors like Caleb, Andy, and Chris Sims played a huge role in shaping that as well. They've always let me do my own thing, which I imagine is at least partially a function of our traffic, but has really allowed our more humor-oriented and personality-driven approach to flourish. There are content limitations that apply to all AOL sites in terms of some of the stronger swear words and nudity. I'm not a big fan of black barring indie comics, but considering how much leeway I get in most other senses, I really can't complain. There are definitely expectations in terms of hits, and expectations for growth as there are in any large business, but I wouldn't want it any other way. We definitely want to appeal to a broader audience beyond the niche, but that's something that I think is very important for comics at this point in time and something that I would want to do regardless. I think we should be constantly striving to be better, to try new things and push for next steps, not just sit on our laurels.
SPURGEON: Can you talk to me a little more about Chris Sims, why you wanted to hire him, and what you think he does well? I know you like all of your team, but Sims is the writer I think of when I think of your site. Do you work with him at all on the stuff he does?
I'm Chris's primary editor, although both Andy Khouri and Caleb Goellner also work with him to develop features. Again, we're extremely collaborative, and while Chris certainly generates a lot of his own pitches, we're all going back and forth on a daily basis about article ideas. As editors, it's our responsibility to oversee the balance of content and create the situations that produce the best and most relevant work from each of our writers. Part of the joy of being an editor as opposed to being a writer is often putting a tremendous amount of work into things you never put your name on, and I know that's been true not only for me but for Andy and Caleb.
As for what I think Chris does well... It's pretty obvious, isn't it? Or it always was to me. I was pushing to have Chris do more on Comic Foundry
, and then the second I got the ComicsAlliance
job, I knew I wanted him on board. He's an undeniably funny writer, and aside from our hard news posts, humor is a big part of our editorial tone. I can teach writers how to structure their essays better, or how to interact with publishers, or how to write more accessibly, but I don't know how to teach someone to be funny. I assure you, if I knew I would teach myself first.
If you get to know Chris and read his writing for any period of time, you also realize that he's more than chuckles. He's someone who really thinks about the media he consumes, which is how he produced that amazing essay about why the monsters in Scooby Doo are a great analogy for the quest for truth in secular humanism
. Anyone can say that something sucks, but Chris is the sort of writer who explains not only why something fails but what that means, all while making you laugh about it. He connects what happens in comics to larger ideas, and that's kind of the whole point of site and its culture focus. And he clearly has a great love for the material, which is the primary motivating factor behind most of our coverage. Even when he hates, he hates with love, and that's such a hard balance to strike.
SPURGEON: I feel sort of stupid asking this in terms of how well you've just said the site has performed, but can you talk about its structure and format? It's basically a blog, and stuff gets scrolled offscreen before I see it. I know this is probably because I go and look at the thing rather than take posts off of a feed, but still: are you happy with the way your site looks, how it's organized? Is that where you're going to stay in the long term? How much input do you have in things like the look and feel and usability of the site?
I have very little control over the physical layout of the site. It was a template that was originally used by sites in the Asylum network, where ComicsAlliance
first resided, and as you can see, we're still using it. The scroll pushes new content down the page too fast for my liking, and it's an incredible pain to update the sliders and the other featured content, which is why it doesn't happen very often. It's something we've talked about changing. One thing I do like about the site is that the main well is fairly wide, which allows us to display bigger images. We're very visual and art-oriented, which again is a big holdover from my time in magazines and working with designers like Tim Leong, so the ability to do that is integral to our approach to content.
SPURGEON: I've talked to a bunch of Portland people this series, and I've asked them all some version of this. What is it about Portland that you think attracts so many cartoonists and comics-makers? Can you talk about a specific time when being in Portland was an advantage for you?
Being in Portland was a huge advantage to me when I first moved here as a freelance writer, because I was incredibly poor, and the cost of living is much lower here than New York City. That makes it a much more welcoming place for writers and artists, who are not famous for their riches, and there's a fantastic comics community in the area. We've got Dark Horse Comics
, Top Shelf
, two studios -- Periscope
and Tranquility Base
-- chock full of creators, not to mention talent like Matt Fraction
, Brian Bendis and Chris Onstad
just, you know, hanging out. It's a great environment to be in if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the community. It's definitely easier to stay plugged into superhero comics gossip if you live in New York, but superhero comics is not the whole community. In fact, I think the diversity of creators and projects in Portland is a far better embodiment of what's happening in the medium as a whole and what's exciting about it right now (to me, at least).
SPURGEON: was wondering if you could talk a bit about your initial conception of
CA, where you thought it fit into the constellation of coverage sources out there, and how that's developed. How would you describe your place in the overall landscape of sources for comics coverage? What do I get from your site that I can't get elsewhere? I don't really mean that in a confrontational way, either, I'm just as interested if you see what you do as a unique series of features or an overall experience, for example.
A lot of comics news site approach the medium in a way that is useful primarily for existing fans, but it doesn't do a lot to invite more casual or new readers. The writing I always found most compelling in the comics blogosphere involved personality, thoughtful commentary, and humor. I think CA
is an overall experience, and one that is largely driven by the things we care about. A lot of the tone is funny, conversational, satirical, and in a sense very personal. Part of what we offer is who we are, what we love, and what we really think. And believe me, doing it this way takes a lot more out of us.
The tone and content of our posts can vary widely, but the same is true of a newspaper. The same is true of a magazine. They have hard journalism features and funny infographics and humor columns and original comics and weird news. Original content is a big thing for me, and it's why we have zero dependence on exclusives from Marvel
, which is very freeing. We run a lot of original comics, both by rotating artists and regular features by the "Let's Be Friends Again
" creators. Coming from where I come from, it just seemed natural to cultivate these varied types of content, so I find it kind of bizarre when trolls show up on humor posts and savagely attack them for not being hard journalism. In a way, it reminds me of ludicrous accusations I get about how I'm anti-sex because I've criticized sexism. There's no sense that things can be different ways in different situations -- that maybe sexuality in one situation could be different from another, rather than just being good or bad. There's this knee-jerk sense something has to be true all the time, or not at all. I reject this categorically as a boring and reductive way to look at the world.
SPURGEON: How do you guys divvy up what everyone does in nuts and bolts fashion? I know that you've written some of what I'd call the lead editorials, and I wondered when you did that if you let everyone know that it's hands off because you're covering it.
I've done so occasionally, but then, so has everyone else. As I mentioned, our coverage is very driven by what the editors and writers personally care about and enjoy, and our areas of interest tend to be fairly distinct. Even with something like Batman, who is of special interest to both Chris Sims and David Uzumeri, they both have such different ways of approaching their articles that they rarely seem to conflict. Half of my e-mails to writers involve me asking questions like, "What are you guys really into right now? What's on your mind? What do you feel needs to be discussed?" Sometimes I'll come up with an op-ed angle or issue and toss it out to see if anyone bites, but aside from mandatory big news, unless someone is feeling it and wants to get behind it sincerely, it doesn't happen. If there were a big enough story and two people really wanted to say something about it, I'd probably try to assign different types of pieces to them -- like an op-ed and a review -- or else make it a point-counterpoint. I just can't really recall those sorts of fights happening. We work things out pretty organically, usually by deferring to the person who cares the most and has the most to say.
Sometimes it can be useful to push someone a little bit out of their wheelhouse, though. Caleb tends to be the laid-back guy who just wants to have a nice day and talk about toys and pugs, but he did a fantastically snarky piece recently on the guy that got called out by Penny Arcade that really surprised me
. I know Andy isn't a huge fan of digging into finances, but I think one of the best recent pieces of journalism on the site was the Womanthology article
where he did exactly that. And I honestly don't think I'm that funny but people really seemed to think that Batman: Odyssey piece I did with David Wolkin
was hilarious. I was really nervous about it, especially when we already have someone professionally funny
on staff, but you don't grow if you only do the things that you're good at.
SPURGEON: Did you end up making your coverage comics and items related to comics -- as opposed to being hardcore super-comics people, or covering comics and films explicitly, or any of the other strategies out there -- by your choice? How do you approach what you cover, and what's your thinking in terms of the breadth of your coverage?
The culture focus is very much informed by my time with Comic Foundry
, which very explicitly wanted to deal with comics and the places where what happened on the page overlapped with the broader world both in terms of political and social issues, but also across media like fine art, movies, videos, fashion, toys. If I'm interested in something, I'm interested in how it intersects with the larger culture, and anything else seems kind of myopic to me. At a time when superhero comics in particular -- but realistically, all of comics, always -- is working to expand its audience, I think one of the best way to bring more readers in is by making those connections to the world outside comics side-by-side with more niche content, rather than focusing exclusively on the latter.
SPURGEON: How would you describe the tone of the site? It seems to me -- and I'm not the best reader for your site, I'll admit this -- that you guys will get snarky about some of the material. It further seems to me that there has to be a really fine line between putting on display any kind of attitude regarding the material covered and pissing off people that without irony love this stuff. Do you think you have a consistent tone? Is this a concern of yours at all?
I mean, we definitely do, for all the reasons that inform our general approach to coverage. The way we write really is the way we are as people and a big part of how we talk to each other. More importantly, it's what we ourselves find entertaining in content. As much as we can, as much as is possible, we're having fun, and that makes it fun for the readers -- or at least, the ones on our wavelength. But we're always speaking as people who love comics, and whose lives, every day, revolve around them. I don't understand why people would think that we're coming from a place of derision in the same way I don't understand why trolls come to the site every single day just to say how much they hate it. Why would anyone do that?
I remember one time when I worked at Midtown Comics, a customer came up to the counter and got super defensive with me apropos of nothing about how he thought I must look down on him because he was a nerd or something. And I was like, "Dude, do you not see where I am working right now? Do you not get the nerdiness is coming from inside the building
?" We joke about comics on CA
, and poke fun at aspects of the culture, because it's our
culture and because again, this is part of how we see the world. Caleb and Andy and I sit in chat windows all day busting each other's chops. It's how I am with my friends. This may not be everyone's cup of the tea in the same way that any editorial tone -- or any individual, for that matter -- is not going to be universally appealing, and I'm ok with that. There are plenty of sites playing it totally straight and dealing with comics unironically. Those needs are being serviced quite adequately. But if ComicsAlliance
exploded tomorrow, I'd want to somehow find another comics site that does what we do, which is why I do it.
SPURGEON: You've talked a bit about this here and there, and usually in a very funny, forthright way: how difficult has it been for you to manage active commentary threads? First of all, do you have comments by your choice or is that something you'd do without but need it for the traffic or as dictated to by your employers? Second, do you detect that there's a kind of general throwing-up-of-one's-hands about some of the acting out that takes place on comments thread from comics culture. Because in a way, we're 15-20 years into active on-line comments of some sort, and it seems like comments culture is as acrimonious and nasty as it was in the CompuServe days.
It's been, hands down, the hardest part of the job. The only thing I can really compare it to is probably being bullied. In what other situation do you spend your day constantly being verbally attacked by people who seem laser-focused on tearing you down and letting you know in real time the very specific reason why you and everything you do sucks? It's an incredibly bizarre experience. I think the bullying comparison is apt, particularly when it becomes a daily struggle not to let the constant flow of abuse affect you, the way you think or the choices you make. Because if you are not very careful, it can wear you down and make you feel like the world is kind of a terrible place, because so much of what you see and hear is this very misrepresentative sample of the angry, cruel people who shout the loudest.
There's basically no sane reason why I've received death threats, and yet I have, repeatedly. I don't understand what motivates people to tag me on Twitter and accost me about my perceived sexuality or weigh in on whether I'm attractive or ugly. But this is my life every day, and there's basically no way to step away from it significantly and still do my job. And I love my job. I'm very lucky. But it's definitely been something I've struggled with, and I know Andy and Caleb have as well. It is something we are taking some concrete steps to improve, however, both for ourselves and for the community of readers that actually wants to talk to each other without constant drive-by ragebombs getting dropped in their conversations.
SPURGEON: How much do you consider your own Twitter postings do you consider an extension of what you're doing at
CA? Because you seem pretty unafraid of criticizing elements of your job, and you certainly don't seem to keep certain personal elements separate from your professional life.
Twitter is a public space, and what I do on Twitter is... I guess you could call it part of my personal brand, although that still sounds a little strange to say. It's an extension of who I am online and I think it fits pretty neatly with how the tone of the site tends to reflect aspects of the personal. That's not to say that there isn't a very clear division with part of my private life. Twitter isn't a diary; it's a somewhat performative, curated space where I talk about the things I think and do and like. Everything on there is who I am, but not all of who I am is on there, is that makes sense. If you like my style and enjoy my taste or worldview, it is a place where you can get more of it. I'm honest on there about comics and my job because I'm a pretty forthright person and I have no reason not to be, I guess. There are plenty of thoughts and conversations I have that don't go on Twitter, though. I don't betray confidences, break embargoes, or talk shit for no reason. And I try to avoid drama and passive aggression when possible because that's not very fun for me and doesn't serve any useful purpose.
SPURGEON: Have you ever received any grief at all for most of your editorial staff being male? I may not be looking in the right place, but it seems you have at least one female contributor listed now, and I'm not sure she's been there as long as some of the others -- again, I could be totally wrong. Is that a concern of yours at all, giving writers a chance the way you were given a chance, and does gender play into that at all?
I do think it's important to include female writers on the site, and it's definitely something that I've worked towards. We currently have two regular female contributors outside myself, Lauren Davis
and Bethany Fong
, who post multiple times a week.
SPURGEON: Okay. I did get that wrong.
When I first started the site, before Caleb even came on full-time, the person who helped out the most during that initial awkward period was Adri Cowan
, and Esther Inglis-Arkell
also contributed work for a while. If we're talking about why I didn't hire a female Andy or Caleb in editorial, I assure you that I've looked. The superhero audience is overwhelmingly male, I'd be searching for a writer from within that minority of female readers who has not only a very high caliber of ability but also a fair amount of experience in the superhero comics news realm specifically. And even among those writers, people who aren't quite fast enough or consistent enough or don't quite fit the tone aren't going to be able to do the job. I turn down 99.9 percent of male writers who want to write for the site because it's so specific and so few people fit the bill. It's hard to find appropriate writers for the site, period, and finding women that fit all the criteria is even harder.
But again, we do have several women on staff, and obviously me. I don't think people always understand the role of the Editor-in-Chief and how much what I do shapes the content that gets produced in countless ways where you never see my name. I agree that having and cultivating female writers is important for a host of reasons, but my role also has a fundamental impact that isn't really captured if you focus on bylines.
SPURGEON: Do you think you're perceived differently or that stances you take or editorials you've written or processed differently for being female?
Sure. I talk a lot about how gender is portrayed in comics, and I've been critical of superhero comics in particular for this. It's made a lot of people dislike me, and I've been told both indirectly and explicitly that some people in comics think I want to erase all the pretty ladies because I'm some shrill, prudish harpy that hates sex. First of all, they vastly overestimate my powers, and second, it's kind of weird for me because I have a very sex-positive approach to, well... sex generally and erotica and porn comics creators in comics specifically. Sexuality is not some binary thing where it's always good or always bad. Just because you don't like McDonalds
doesn't mean you hate food. I just think it's really important to consider about how sex and gender are portrayed in media, and what those portrayals are actually saying, and who those portrayals affect -- especially because one of the people it affects pretty directly is me.
But yeah, commenters show up on pretty much every post where I talk about gender and the commentary can get very personal. I've seen people positing that I have these opinions because I'm fat or ugly or don't have a boyfriend or whatever. I find it hard to believe that those comments would be directed at a male writer. (Although conversely, male writers do have to deal with the "you're just pretending to be feminist to get laid" accusation, which is equally bullshit.) I don't know, Chris Sims has written feminist stuff on the site too, and I don't think anyone accuses him of hating sex.
I tweeted during New York Comic Con about a guy on Facebook
who spent days and days talking about how he wanted to see me beaten with baseball bats and comparing my attractiveness to various types of bodily waste, purely because of my op-eds on sexism. It was very, very gender-specific stuff, and still there were people on Twitter being like, "it's not misogynistic; he's just attacking your ideas." No, he's not. You know, there's a reason my Twitter icon is a cat. You don't have to spend very long either on the internet or in actual life as a woman before you realize that the more you put yourself out there in terms of your gender, the more you open yourself up to all kinds of weirdness. Take a read through Fat, Ugly, or Slutty
, guys, and imagine that this is your life.
At the same time, I've gotten the most amazing responses from so many great people who reached out about those same op-eds, both women and men. Some of the most best e-mails I've ever gotten have been from guys who said that something I wrote made them think about women, or women in comics, from a different perspective. That's how hearts and minds change: by talking reasonably to people who have open minds and are willing to consider other points of view. That's what I'm really trying to do when I address these kinds of social issues, but the reality of our society (and the Internet) is that I have to wade through all the other stuff to do it. It's still work worth doing.
SPURGEON: You wrote effectively about the stunted sexuality on display in some of DC Comics' New 52 books. Why is mainstream comics so slow in terms of using female creators and in making comic that have this pathetic take on sex and gender, even at this late date? Is it the culture? Is it just that there's money to be made? How confident are you this will ever change?
I'm not confident at all. I'm probably less confident than I've ever been. I think the problem is two-fold: It is predicated on both institutional makeup of the major publishers, and the fact that they need to make money. The superhero comics audience has some pretty discriminating notions and expectations about what superhero comics should be, but nuanced and fully-clothed portrayals of women are not one of them. It's not something the audience really demands and not something that the publishers really provide, and you can go chicken and egg with that but it seems pretty self-perpetuating to me at this point. If you think of men who make comics and men who buy superhero comics as a closed circuit, there's no real need to change, I suppose. But if you genuinely want to expand the readership beyond people who have been buying comics their whole lives -- and to some degree, lapsed fans who used to buy comics -- you have to start thinking differently about your product. If you want to attract an audience beyond that closed loop, that means bringing in editors, writers, and artists who exist outside of it as well.
And listen, these are difficult economic times, and you're not seeing staff cuts at major publishers because profit margins are so luxuriously wide. I have no doubt that it's difficult to strike a balance between trying to maintain a very discriminating and particular audience that shows signs of attrition and growing a new audience, particularly when the former is such a comfortable and known quantity, and the latter so uncertain and in many ways outside your wheelhouse. But if you want to talk about the New 52, for example, going outside the wheelhouse was the explicit and stated goal. And that is quite simply why I've been so critical of the New 52: because it claimed to have the ambition and the daring to really reach out for that ring, but with a few exceptions, what it gave us was more of the same.
SPURGEON: Other realms of comics -- webcomics, alt-comics -- seem to me to do fine in terms of featuring and valuing female authors. Drawn and Quarterly's lead book of the Fall was Kate Beaton's, for example; Cartoon Movement has been trumpeting the work of Susie Cagle -- whom you interviewed -- and other female journalist-cartoonists; a big recent get for Archaia was Marjane Satrapi. Do you ever share my frustration in hearing people describe some of the worst of these issues as ones facing all of comics rather than choosing to indict this one specific part of the industry? I'm not suggesting that things are great everywhere. Sexism can be found just about any place you look hard enough, and there are areas like editorial cartooning, for example, that offer even fewer creators than mainstream comics does. But do you believe that mainstream comics has a special, specific problem with these issues?
Yes. If it helps, I'm willing to say it: Superhero comics has a very specific problem with these issues. Comics is a visual medium and I feel like it's very difficult to divorce superhero comics from the institutional issues of house style, and the way that women are drawn by default in mainstream superhero comics. If you tell a superhero artist to draw "a woman," chances are you're gonna get an 18 inch waist and double-D cup breasts. It's as automatic as stimulus-response. The way women are drawn in superhero comics is kind of like a bell factory; if you spend enough time in it, you stop hearing the bells. You stop even noticing how weirdly distorted and fundamentally bizarre a lot of the representations are, because it becomes familiar and unremarkable. Even as someone who has been very critical of these things, I've had friends -- male and female -- pick up comics lying around my house and remark on how weird the women look, and it has made me realize that I've stopped noticing in a lot of situations, too. That is the background radiation of superhero comics, as Shortpacked recently put it
. That is the visual reality of superhero comics. The narrative reality of women in comics is a little more complicated since it isn't as visually obvious, but it's also problematic and will continue to be problematic for as long as the gender ratio of creators and readers continues to be massively disproportionate. I don't know what else to say about it except that this is just the way it is.
And yes, this is special problem for superhero comics, although not exclusively so -- stupid sexist bullshit can happen anywhere, it just happens in superhero comics a lot more. Yet "comics" as a medium gets painted with that brush because people are too lazy, superhero-centric or politic to specify the genre. I suppose it doesn't offend me quite so much because my experience of comics is very much dominated by the superhero genre and the reality that comes with that. In a way, that lackadasical characterization really does reflect my personal experience in "comics," so I personally do not feel a massive sense of dissonance, although I recognize that how inaccurate and dismissive it is to every other aspect of comics.
SPURGEON: You did two very interesting interviews with the writer Matt Fraction, sort of back to back -- one about his mainstream comics and one about his creator-owned title Casanova: Avaritia. I thought together they painted a very interesting portrait of that kind of creator, the ambitions they have and the hurdles they face. What was your takeaway from those two pieces? How are things in comics for writers like Fraction right now?
I guess it depends on what you mean by "writers like Fraction." Mainstream comics writers who also have a background in indie comics and significant creator-owned projects outside the Big Two?
SPURGEON: Basically. Yeah.
If you're talented and lucky enough, working full-time as a creator and Marvel and DC is... I don't know, I guess it's like a lot of things. It's the fulfillment of an absurd and unlikely dream, but like any reality it doesn't come without its own share of baggage and constraints. And as difficult as it is to make it as a creator at Marvel or DC, it's a whole order of magnitude harder to make an equivalent living doing creator-owned indie comics. I think it's great to see these guys feeding their superhero fans into indie projects, but -- I can't speak for Matt or anyone else, but I just personally wish guys like him and Ed Brubaker
could sit around making comics like Casanova
all day. I wish the market supported that.
SPURGEON: How far along on the arc of what looks to be a digital comics revolution are we? Do you see the basic model as it started to take shape this year -- same day, same price point, third party distribution -- holding for the next five years? What's the next game-changing development in that field as it pertains to comics? What do you read digitally?
Well, from the numbers we've actually seen there's been tremendous growth, but it's important to remember that very small numbers, even when increased exponentially, are still pretty small. I believe there's a tremendous amount of potential for digital in comics, and that's incredibly exciting, particularly in terms of its ability to reach beyond the users that currently access comic book shops. It's just still very inchoate right now, which is why publishers are so resistant to releasing numbers on digital sales. I remember when Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 came out, Marvel put out a press release about how it Broke Digital Sales Records
! But they wouldn't say what that actually meant, or what the record was, or what the numbers were on the issue that broke it. And I get it; people are trying to nurture this aspect of the market rather than crush it with harsh realities, and so am I, for what it's worth.
I do think the same-day model is going to largely hold over the next five years, but that price point and distribution are going to shake out in different ways as publishers grow more comfortable with experimentation and how digital sales do and do not affect the retail world. Giving digital comics the same price point as print is unrealistic and untenable, in my mind, and ultimately cannot hold, particularly when that price point is $3.99 for around 20 pages.
SPURGEON: To jump back a bit: how surprised were you by the success of the New 52 intiative by DC? Is there an underreported aspect to what they did this Fall? For example, I thought the launch put on display their traditional strengths in terms of DM retailer relations.
I'm not surprised at all that the New 52 did so well after its massive media blitz, in the same way that I'm not surprised when graphic novels that inspire movies sell enormous numbers, by comic book standards. Of course they do. Whether that translates to something more lasting and compels new readers to go back to the shop over and over has always been a dicier proposition, however.
The returnability of the comics in the New 52 is certainly a factor to consider when you're looking at the recent market share dominance, and we've also seen that lead dipping month over month since the launch. I want more people buying comics, period, so I'd love to find out that the relaunch brought in tons of new readers who are going to keep buying not only DC Comics but comics in general, but I'm very skeptical. I had high hopes for the idea of a huge mainstream media push aimed at expanding the audience base for comics that displayed a wide diversity of genre, art style, and character. While there have been a few ambitious and successful experiments, on the whole I don't think DC made the New 52 an accessible enough product to continue to reach a much wider audience in the long-term, and I fear that will be reflected in a continued decline in sales. Maybe I'm wrong, though. I wouldn't mind being wrong on this one.
SPURGEON: To pick up on another thing we talked about in passing, how comfortable are you with the rise of social funding mechanisms for various comics projects, even those with a publisher? The
Womanthology project -- where do you stand in terms of the critique that arose that it might be better to pay cartoonists than give them more exposure?
I'd love to hear Andy Khouri's answer to that question since he did such a great and comprehensive piece on the subject in regards to Womanthology
. Personally, I think Kickstarter can play a valuable role for independent creators, particularly at a time when profit margins are so narrow, and a lot of creators can't expect to see advances that would make their comics projects possible without economic hardship. I do think it's critically important that both creators and organizers helming projects like Womanthology
are prepared to be accountable for large sums of other people's money and transparent in regards to the way that money will be used. Part of the difficulty with independent comics has always been the fact that in many ways, you can't just be a creator; you also have to be a businessperson, and it's a very different skill set. But good intentions aren't enough if you're going to launch a project and accept money from customers and supporters, particularly in the case of anthologies, which are organizational monsters. You can't yell "all aboard" on this shit unless you know how to conduct a train.
The issue of payment versus exposure is a sticky one, and I tend to largely agree with the Should I Work For Free? flowchart
. There's a time and place in many people's careers (including mine, as a blogger) where working for free -- for exposure -- helps you get a foot in the door. When you become a professional, however, it's desperately important that you learn to value your own work monetarily and demand your worth, because it is highly unlikely that anyone will do this for you. That said, there is certainly room for charity and instances where your personal passions, convictions, and relationships make a project worthwhile regardless of money. Most creators are pretty busy and not running around with giant sacks of money covered in dollar signs, though, so those instances really should be exceptional. Your time as a professional is valuable, so value it the way you value money when you give it away.
SPURGEON: You went big behind Duncan, The Wonder Dog last year in terms of a book of the year. What were you most thrilled about after reading it this year? Do you think there was an undervalued book out there?
really was an exceptional tour de force
completely out of left field, and I don't think 2011 had a book with that kind of surprise factor. We did see Finder by Carla Speed McNeil finally get picked up by a major publisher with Dark Horse Comics
, and I continue to think it's one of the most undervalued comics masterpieces out there. Her level of craft world-building is just so tremendous and nuanced, and I'm always struck by how rich and subtle her choices are in terms of narrative and characterization. Everything that happens in Finder feels so fully-realized because of the depth of the backstory, even though -- and especially because -- you never see most of it, unless you sit there and pore through her endnotes. Which of course I do. They're out now in two convenient libraries, and everyone should buy them.
* Laura Hudson on Twitter
* photo provided by Laura Hudson
* an issue of Comic Foundry
* the ComicsAlliance
* one of Chris Sims' features on the ComicsAlliance
* the look of ComicsAlliance
in snapshot form
* the range of subject at CA
* Hudson's corner of the public space that is Twitter
* some of the odd-emphasis sexuality on display in DC's New 52
* wisdom from Shortpacked
* Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Fatale
* the relaunched Flash
* from Duncan, The Wonder Dog
* from Finder
posted 2:00 pm PST
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