Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 28, 2010

CR Holiday Interview #8 -- Kiel Phegley

imageKiel Phegley is one of a tiny handful of people whose primary job is writing news related to the making of comics, which he does for the dominant North American comic book industry news source of the day, Comic Book Resources. It's not a gig I can fathom. My two forays as a newshound whose nose was aimed, in part, at the crotches of the North American comic book industry, came in what are now completely different and far-removed eras. In my first gig I was required to write six or seven stories over a four- to five-week period; in the second I was encouraged although not required to file a story one or twice a week. Phegley seems to post articles all the freakin' time, and from the outside looking in seems to spend a significant majority of his work week playing catch on publishing news stories with heavy-hitters on their home turf -- an easy gig to criticize, a nearly impossible gig to maintain with aplomb. I'd say Phegley makes it look easy, but I'd be lying: it looks hard. It's more than worth our attention that the former Wizard employee and current Chicago resident makes his job look achievable and honorable. I thought 2010 was a transitional, slippery year to understand in terms of comics news, and I'm happy Phegley agreed to explain some things to me. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Kiel, I'm aware of your work story to story but I'm not certain that I know exactly what it is you do on a comprehensive scale. What is your actual job title, and what does that entail in terms of how much writing you'd doing and what kind of writing you're doing? What's your comics-related workday like?

KIEL PHEGLEY: My title is CBR News Editor, which I'm not sure is a new job, though site owner/executive producer Jonah Weiland is fond of blowing smoke up my ass by telling people I'm "CBR's first true News Editor" whatever that means. Basically, I'm the lead writer for the News section of the site, which encompasses a lot of what you see on the front page, and I help to coordinate our News staff for product, arts and event coverage. I spend most of my days e-mailing the other staffers (too many excellent talents to name without forgetting someone and feeling awful about it) to make sure we're hitting the major releases with interviews and new stories, and when things like conventions or Hollywood events come up, I'm helping Jonah divide the labor amongst whoever we have on hand and chasing embargoed stories.

As for my own writing, I try to turn around at least one meaty feature with comics talent each and every day, though sometimes I'm off that pace. In between conducting and transcribing interviews, I'm responsible for writing the copy that goes along with any breaking news we feel is relevant to our audience. For example, is Mark Millar declaring that he's purchased Australia to turn it into his own media empire/Hit Girl-themed amusement park? I'll write that up. Has Marvel just announced that Alan Thicke has been cast as Dr. Strange? I'll write that up. Did some asshole just stab a kid in the eye at San Diego? I'll... etc., etc., etc.

I should also note that while people who follow the journalism side of the comics equation may be passingly familiar with my name or Jonah's name, the real unsung hero of CBR is Senior Editor Stephen Gerding who deals with most of the design and posting of stories on the site. Damn near every feature, preview, video, review and miscellaneous piece of text that makes its way to the front page goes through Stephen's hands at some point, and overall, I think his job is much more stressful and vital than mine, so it's a shame that his name only gets published to the site like three times a year.

SPURGEON: A couple of quick follow-ups: first, where does the writing you do about comics fit into your wider career? If someone asks, is there enough comics work that this can be said to be your full-time job? If it's one job among many, how much of your time is spent writing about comics? Is there a job or a gig that if it materialized you'd do less writing about comics -- is this a gateway to something else for you?

PHEGLEY: Though I do freelance for a few assorted pop culture sites and magazines, CBR accounts for at least 85 to 90 percent of my income. So when I meet people at the dentist's office or wherever and they ask what I do, I say "Comic Book Journalist" and let them try and figure out what it means. Usually, they just want to know what I really make my money from because they don't believe anyone would pay to advertise on a site about comic books. However, I should probably note that I'm in the very fortunate position to call this a full-time gig. I know that the majority of people who work jobs like mine work day jobs and do the journalism gig "for the love." I'm one of the lucky ones.

In honesty, journalism only accounts for maybe 30 to 35 hours of work on an average, non-convention week, so I have some leeway to work on other projects. I was just recently accepted into Hamline University's M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in St. Paul (I start my first residency in January) so I think that qualifies as something that I view as eventually taking me away from what I'm doing now. I actually have a degree in English with a focus on prose fiction and never worked for so much as a high school newspaper before starting the comics journo gig. Still, the M.F.A. is a distance-learning program where I'll still be working from home, and time-wise it looks like this just means I'll be doing a lot more fiction writing during nights and weekends rather than doing less CBR work. I'm really happy with my job now and figure I'll stay in it for a few years yet, and I doubt I'll ever leave comics behind entirely.

SPURGEON: I probably should have asked this right off the bat, but how did you score your current gig? I think of you as someone who was around before that, but I can't for the life of me remember where that is or what caused you to move from that position to this one? I'm thinking your relationship to comics has been a lifetime, but you've actually worked in comics most of your adult life, haven't you? What is something that you might use in this current job that you learned or developed in an older one?

PHEGLEY: I worked at Wizard Magazine for a few years before this. It's funny. There are far more former Wizard guys kicking around the industry in jobs from journalism to editorial to marketing to creative than most people would ever suspect, and I've taken to joking that being at Wizard comes in three phases. First, there's the phase where you meet someone at the bar, and they say, "Oh hey... don't you work for Wizard?" Next, you bump into someone and they ask, "Didn't you used to work at Wizard?" Finally, people respond to the news by going, "You used to work at WIZARD?!?!" I'm not quite sure I've hit phase three yet.

imageThe CBR gig came almost immediately on the heels of that job. I was let go from Wizard for... I'm not sure I've ever been able to divine all the specific reasons as very little were given to me at the time, but driving home that day, I called some of my contacts at publishers to let them know the news. By the time I'd gone from my office to my apartment, someone had informed Jonah what happened, and he'd already sent me a Facebook message offering work. I started as a CBR freelancer a few weeks later -- my first gig being live coverage of Wizard's Philly convention -- and after a little over a year freelancing took the News Editor gig.

Before that incredibly long-winded series of events, I was an editorial intern at DC Comics back in college, and I couldn't talk about my work in the industry without mentioning that I pretty much owe my entire career to the insanely rad Ivan Cohen at DC who picked my paltry resume out of a stack of blind submissions and gave me the gig sight unseen (Ivan's since gone on to work for DC's Hollywood wing, recently getting a producing credit on that 75th Anniversary DVD Ryan Reynolds narrated). So yes, aside from some scattered teaching work, I've pretty much been in comics career-wise since I got out of college.

Overall, I think what I being most from my past work into CBR is a preference for magazine-style writing in general over the day-to-day news stuff, but I'm not sure how much anyone who reads the site will see that. I'm constantly looking for ways to plan out our coverage in a way where we're not just scrambling to get the news out but are bringing a bit more thought and time to feature writing. In some ways, we've been successful with more "column-style" interview series attached to specific publishing lines and with the news burden being shared on some fronts by our excellent Robot 6 and Spinoff Online blogs. Still, my broader goal on CBR for 2011 is to build a space in the staff's scheduling where people can make time for longer, more in-depth writing on what interests them about the medium and the business.

SPURGEON: You mentioned that you were part of the slow, grinding, terrible crash to earth that was Wizard Entertainment's downsizing a few years back. I find it kind of remarkable given what must have been a distressing time that you immediately reached out to comics folks and found purchase rather than fleeing comics with all deliberate speed. Do you have lingering memories how things were at the end for so many of you at Wizard? Also, I find it interesting that so many of you are still working in different areas of comics, it was kind of like there was a Wizard diaspora -- is there a fraternity of ex-Wizard people of which you're a part?

PHEGLEY: It's strange to look back at that. Wizard was in many ways a great place to work because creatively, editorial was filled with a lot of people who were very passionate and dedicated to making comics (or toys or anime or what have you) really fun and engaging for a general audience and for the hardcores. But there was also a real divide at that company between the folks making the editorial content of the magazines and the people in charge of things like conventions or the online store that Gareb Shamus' brother ran, who were all placed on a separate floor at Wizard's offices. Not to say the people who worked "upstairs" at the company were necessarily bad people or anything, but there was a definite disconnect for a lot of us between what they did and what we did. I hardly ever spoke to anyone upstairs outside of chit chat at the bar at cons, and even people in editorial who had to interact with them in the general course of business seemed to get handed weird requests and edicts from on high.

imageWhen the layoffs started rolling through, I think what sticks most with me was a kind of total uncertainty about what was going on with the company in general. For example, I remember after Editor-in-Chief Pat McCallum was fired they held a meeting for us where we were told that overall, we were doing a great job. Despite a lax market for print magazines in general and a migration of a lot of comics news to the internet, we'd apparently done a fine job of making Wizard a magazine that did well in bookstores. Covering Hollywood superhero movies had kept circulation up. Pat's firing should not be taken as a sign that things would turn bad financially for the company. And on and on. Within a year, the staff had gone from around 17 or 18 people to less than a dozen, and by now I think there are three editorial and one researcher putting Wizard out monthly (guys who, I should add, are a talented, smart bunch whom I wish the best for). How could we have done such a fine job and also have gotten laid off in such big numbers? Who the fuck knows, man. I doubt anybody really has a clear picture of that company's finances and choices outside of Gareb, and it certainly was tough to work there never knowing when the other shoe would drop. Although, in retrospect I'm not sure that's much different than any company entering a tailspin.

As for a fraternity of ex-Wizard people, I'm not sure there's anything as organized as that. I certainly talk to a lot of folks from that place -- maybe as many as 20 or 25 -- but I don't think our connection is built on anyone trying to keep industry contacts going or doing networking. Like I said, the editorial staff at Wizard was full of some of the smartest, funniest, most comics-loving people you can imagine, and the people I still talk to I consider my close friends rather than my former co-workers.

SPURGEON: I think it's fair to say -- let me know if if you disagree! -- that a lot of CBR's news is tied into promotion cycles. You get the access you get in part because somebody has a specific agenda in terms of getting a product or an idea over with your audience. I know you've probably heard the accusations that come with a job like yours. How do you keep your journalistic skepticism alive when dealing with what are sometimes charismatic, convincing people that want to get you on their side? Have you ever done a piece where you think that maybe the subject thought you were coming on a bit too strong?

PHEGLEY: No, it's fair to say that a lot of our coverage is driven by product being released, and a lot of the product covered has its basic information dolled out in bits and bobs by publishers trying to maximize their PR potential. At the same time, I'm not sure that's very different from any entertainment field from movies to books to theater or what have you. And yes, I've heard plenty of accusations or criticisms of what we do ranging from the simple, "Your line of questioning is uninteresting to me" through to the wildly mean-spirited, "Fuck you, you obviously-paid shill for Marvel and DC... you're nothing but a Goddamned liar!" And honestly, I think those kinds of responses from my readership (well, the reasoned ones) affect how I approach my job far more than the charms of publicists and publishing executives do.

To a large extent, I feel that way because Jonah is fiercely independent with how he runs CBR and how we generate our content. Surely, there are times when publishers release promotional items -- teasers or limited product information or solicitation copy -- where we feel the information is still newsworthy and of interest to our audience. But at the same time, there are plenty of things we turn down or opt not to cover as much if we don't feel it has an impact on the readers and the business. And if ever a publisher tries to tell us that there are questions we have that we "can't ask" or a story they want us to kill otherwise we won't be granted access to things like previews or even interviews with company representative -- in other words, if they ever try to strong arm us into playing news to their advantage -- I have 100 percent faith that Jonah will tell them to take a walk. He's done so before with companies large and small, and working in an environment where you know that telling a story in an honest way is valued over weird backdoor business deals is a great relief.

But that doesn't really answer the question, does it? I'm not sure I can recall a time where I upset an interview subject, though there are a few occasions where people would have preferred I switched to a different line of questioning -- a run of "Cup O' Joe" columns where we continued to come back to the $3.99 price point comes to mind. Generally, I think people find me kind of non-threatening -- mostly because I sound like the world's wimpiest 12-year-old on the phone. There are times I wish for myself that I would've pushed harder on a question or two, but usually I find that getting better information from people comes from having more specific questions on hand that don't allow for PR hand-waving responses. Still, some people are going to give you the answer they've decided on no matter how you phrase the question, which you learn to deal with.


SPURGEON: Before I start asking you about specific 2010 news stories, I wonder if you would step back and tell me, as honestly as you can, what kind of year you thought it was for comics. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Trouble on the horizon? A transitional year? If you had to sum the year for your industry for an interested person at a cocktail party, what would you tell them?

PHEGLEY: I don't think 2010 was so hot for comics, but it wasn't the kind of major downturn a lot of people have been fearing for a while. It's hard to take the shape of the business side of comics as so much of the hard information is locked down like state's secrets by the publishers, but my best guess would be that people sold less comics than in 2009, even when you factor in the abstract idea of digital sales. The direct market certainly seemed to wither ever so slightly while manga continued to spiral through its first "post-craze" crash. Although I think the former may be more an effect of the long tail of the recession while the latter is more of a cultural shift. At the same time, I don't think there were any massive hits for comics in 2010 -- no new series or ideas that took off in a way that screamed "this is the thing" either on the superhero mainstream side of things or in the broader graphic novel category. My best guess would be that the last major hits on either end of what I'm thinking would still be Blackest Night or Crumb's Genesis, which both really belong to 2009.

In cocktail party terms, I'd say that print comics respectably limped their way through what's been a much tougher period for other retail segments (most notably general book stores) while digital comics grew quite a bit in a lot of ways that I'm not sure people have a real grasp on or that will even remain this way by the end of 2011.


SPURGEON: I'm sort of generally confused by DC Comics, and as someone who has both written and editorialized on the company's recent spate of moves, I wondered if for following them more closely you have any insights on some of the things that confuse me. For instance, what does Diane Nelson do? I don't mean that in a confrontational sense, I'm just slightly baffled as to her unique contribution. What DC thing have we seen that feels to you like it has Nelson's fingerprints on it, even if only something that is different than could have happened three years ago? I mean, for example, I could have sworn when she was hired that someone with her famous people skills would have meant DC would reach a better place with Alan Moore, and the opposite has happened.

PHEGLEY: Search me, Tom. Actually, that may be a bit too dumb of an answer to give. I'll say this: I find myself generally perplexed by what executives at big media companies do period aside from oversee massive budgets and look for weird opportunities to exploit tax breaks in Australia or whatever. I know that in the past decade or so we've seen a rise in so-called "Creative Executives" who are supposedly better at coming up with story ideas on the company end, but in practice just seem to end up pissing off talent. Diane Nelson doesn't strike me as doing either of these things.

imageOnly having spoken to the woman twice on the phone and having met her once for about 12 seconds in a gaggle of people at C2E2, I think I've inferred two things about how she's approached her job as DC President. For one, she's spent the majority of her time since coming in focused on building up DC as a "new media" company. That involves a lot of the stuff we have seen -- hiring or rather promoting new department heads, setting a mandate for an across-platform digital push, playing Solomon with the company's core offices in terms of the "so certain it's not even worth speculating on" Burbank move -- and I'm sure stuff we haven't. Aside from lots of administrative and budgetary stuff, I look at that Blue Beetle test footage that DC released on their blog a few months back as the kind of thing that she greases the wheels on -- setting up mutually beneficial relationships inside and outside of Warner Bros. to see if anything sticks, initiating production on bigger media campaigns like all the Green Lantern tie-in stuff we're doubtlessly going to see by next summer, what have you.

The second read I've gotten off of Nelson comes on that much-heralded "legendary talent relations" front. While I haven't the first clue what the fuck happened with DC and Alan Moore, I can say with some certainty that Nelson has been on the beat getting to know some of the current DC talent. I've heard from a few creators that she's taken the time to meet a lot of them and see what their job is all about, and she definitely seem to have a rapport with Geoff Johns who even from his critics gets credit as being DC's best idea man when it comes to building these brands up for media exploitation. So I'd say that at least on a surface level there's a concern at DC towards making the company seem like a place where good ideas are allowed to rise, which depending on how you look at it can be a lot more important for the future than patching up relations with a talent legend who, let's face it, in the best case scenario would still never write for the company again.

And sure, all of this could be written off as either glad-handing with the unwashed masses in terms of being a well-liked boss figure or drawing up relationships that allow for a fall guy should something crazy happen like the GL movie tanking hard, but I generally find that kind of speculation to be schoolyard trash-talk bullshit more so than an honest appraisal of someone's motivations. Ultimately, I think Nelson will never have the kind of deep understanding for or real credibility in terms of the traditional comics publishing game like Paul Levitz, but she's certainly taking a more public stance in that direction than someone like Jeff Robinov, who I'd say she's expected to act more like in terms of the big picture.

SPURGEON: Fifteen months into regime change they seem to have finally done a lot of hiring and promotions but they seem mostly in-house -- this leads me to ask: what do you feel is so successful about where DC is right now that doubling down on that current strategy seems like the best idea? What successes is DC building on?

PHEGLEY: I think the better question for the people making these decisions would be "Has DC done anything wrong that necessitates a change?" I mean, a lot of us watching these moves -- from the people covering it down to the generally plugged in fan -- came in to DC's shift from "Comics" to "Entertainment" expecting a real break from the past because we all see DC (rightly so) as a leader in the industry. We want the top players in the direct market to publish stuff that makes a big splash in the mainstream media, helps build more profitable formats across the board, take on unexpected creative challenges and generally not use their position as lords of market share to squeeze the diverse range of material that never sell anywhere near Batman numbers out of the shops and out of business. When the focus of new management didn't seem to sync up with these goals in some big, bold ways, I think a lot of people felt let down as much as bewildered.

imageBut! Think of this all from a theoretical Warner executive's point of view. Someone comes in one day and says, "Hey... we've got a creative unit over here pumping out some weird, anachronistic product. It's consistently if unspectacularly profitable -- always coming in #2 to the decades-long leader in its market. It has a few hundred thousand die hard fans who were rolling to Comic-Con in droves before we ever decided to market there. Oh, and they also run Superman. What do you want to do with them: exploit their assets for more cell phone apps and movies, or reorganize them in a way that will make them #1 with a consumer base who likes to wrap paper products in little plastic baggies?" Anyone high up the chain of that massive, multi-billion dollar entertainment company isn't going to think so far down the line as comics publishing when looking at DC. They're going to think "Superman. Batman. Movies. Licensing." In a way, DC Comics is lucky that so much of the successful exploitation of its assets in bigger media has been attributed to keeping the core fans happy.

And that's not to say that DC's done nothing successful that deserves to be kept in place. The way Levitz and company built their trade and OGN group in the book market is still impressive as hell, and that's even when you don't consider over a million copies of Watchmen in print. And let's face it... being #2 in a niche market isn't bad when #2 means you've got damn near 40% of sales month-in, month-out. I take Dan Didio and Jim Lee at their word when they give lip service to wanting to "beat Marvel" in the DM, but it's not really worth their time and effort to shake things up in pursuit of that goal when their bosses obviously have other ideas about what's most valuable in DC.

SPURGEON: So where do you think the future is for them as a publishing company -- what creators, what characters, what directions?

PHEGLEY: I think that talent management is going to be a big deal for DC in 2011. Regardless of what the sales number remain or what your opinion on the quality of the final product may be on either end, I think that one way in which DC has "lost" to Marvel over the past few years has been in recruiting and retaining new talent. Everyone in this business knows who C.B. Cebulski is. Can you name anyone close to being in a similar position at DC? I can't. But despite there not being a lot of recognizable changes to the final products, I think there are signs that DC is ramping up to change that in some significant ways. Heidi MacDonald had a great catch the other day with that letter stating that Editorial Administration would get re-branded as Talent Relations & Services -- a move I doubt was made for the hell of it. And aside from having a rep for being able to crack the whip on getting product out in a timely fashion, you've got to think Bob Harras was called up to the Editor-in-Chief spot because he can keep big-name talent happy. To me, that all says, "We want to be the place where the best talent comes to work and feels they get the most freedom to tell their stories." And if that holds true, it may be something to point to in terms of the Diane Nelson people skills we were talking about earlier having an impact on the corporate culture at DC.

Still, I'm betting most of the names they'll be putting on big titles and initiatives in the coming year are still going to be culled from the "proven assets" segment of the creative community. By that I mean, the writers are going to be people who have made their bones outside of superhero comics but who are ready and willing to play in the sandbox -- Paul Cornell, Scott Snyder, Jeff Lemire, Nick Spencer, Chris Roberson, JT Krul, etc. -- and artists are going to get developed in house until their style connects with fans enough that they be given a primo gig -- Ivan Reis, Shane Davis, Rafael Albuquerque, etc. It's not always the most daring way of making comics, but that doesn't mean it can't make for some good comics.

imageDirection-wise, I think you'll see the publishing division taking a cue from the Warner Bros. approach to DC movies. Right now, Marvel is staking their claim to superhero media dominance by introducing the old "Marvel Universe" chestnut to a general audience -- every little detail in each movie links up in a way that matters to the whole. Warners has pretty definitively stated that their plan is to go in the opposite direction. Superman and Batman will never share the screen together as each exists in their own unique world. It looks to me as though publishing is adapting that idea to its own ends. No, DC will never abandoned its more dedicated readers by breaking up the DCU on the page, but they will try to take as many characters as possible and expand their corners of the DCU out as solo brands. The Batman line and particularly Green Lantern stuff is a great model for what I think you'll be seeing them go for. GL has three ongoing books right now, and if the movie works out at they hope could easily head towards a fourth or fifth. Geoff Johns has already stated his plans to make the Flash into a similar franchise where multiple characters and multiple titles can all link into that concept. They attempted the same last year with the whole "New Krypton" story in the Superman books, but even though that didn't catch on with readers, I think they'll try again once this whole JMS "Grounded" debacle is over. Blowing out those core components of the DCU into their own franchises is a great way to capitalize on what they already know their audience likes while giving it back to Marvel in another way the House of Ideas is consistently beating DC: number of comics published each week.

The one area I'm going to be watching with a worried eye over the next 12 months is Vertigo. I think that brand is something DC's executives care about in an abstract way, but the chances of the imprint continuing to grow in the ways it has been for the past five years or so are slim to none. I'm betting we'll see fewer and fewer initiatives like the oddly under the radar Vertigo Crime push and even a lot fewer OGNs from them coming up. I mean, if you really think about it the biggest hit for Vertigo this year was American Vampire -- a horror-focused genre series that'll probably run for 50 or 60 issues all together, will have a good shelf-life as a series of trade paperbacks and has a shot at multi-media adaptation. That sounds far more like the Vertigo of 1998 than of 2008, and I can't see there being a real groundswell at DC to get more first-person comics narratives about visiting Israel or the Cuban Revolution on the stands in this economy, in this marketplace or in the company's brand-driven mindset.

Oh, and digital will loom large in DC's future, but I'm sure we'll get to that piece of the business in its own time.

SPURGEON: Indeed we will. Here's a question about all the big companies -- do you worry at all that the big influence of these companies becoming successful across media is that publishing is ultimately neglected? That creators are distracted by the idea of using their comics as a springboard into other areas of creative entertainment, that the infrastructure needs of a publishing business will be ignored because the money from the movie side of things patches most wounds? Are the comics people as focused on comics as they need to be?

PHEGLEY: Oh my God, I worry about this shit all the time but maybe not in the way you mean. What I worry is that these massive media companies that have finally taken a shine to comics as a category -- to whatever extent you can ascribe emotions or motives to corporations -- are going to tire of worrying about publishing anything as soon as there's the slightest downturn in the cultural cache that surrounds superheroes now. Hell, Disney already shuttered its American comics wing once, and even though they have an in house graphic novel unit in the corporate hierarchy, it's hardly something their trying to build up as a massive market force. And does Time Warner even have a book publishing house anymore? I've got this weird feeling that I read they sold all that stuff off. Once upon a time when I was just starting in New York, I got taken out to lunch by a senior editor at Tor Books who told me that everyday business people he met would constantly tell him, "We don't understand you publishing people. Why do you do what you do?" Can you even imagine what executives will think of our fucked-up little industry if they look at it without the rose-colored glasses of Comic-Con?

On the other hand, I'm not so sure that the creators, editors and publishing execs more closely associated with making comics each month are going to be jumping ship in any significant way. Sure, plenty of folks at DC and Marvel will shrug their shoulders at the prospect of dropping a few tens of thousands of sales in the Direct Market so long as they feel the company is making its money back in other areas. And yes, lots of creators are being and will be drawn off a book here or there to chase the prestige and paycheck of Hollywood, but I don't think they'll walk away from comics or "phone it in" or whatever. Look at Grant Morrison. Guy's been hailed as a legitimate genius for his writing for decades now in our field, but in Hollywood all he's been able to do is write multiple screenplay adaptations of books and video games that never, ever get produced. He might even make more money off that unseen work than he does in comics in any given year, but do you think he'd ever give up his audience? The thrill of making something and having it in the hands of eager readers weeks after completion? Even if you take the most cynical track and feel like these creators have no personal investment in comics as a medium (which I think is a pretty fucking stupid way to look at anyone who opts to chase a career in comics), they won't want to give up the community and adoration the work provides.

No, the real worry is that one day the big media companies will up and decide to pull the plug on 90 percent of the funding they have for serial comics, and those of us invested in that market and that medium will be shit out of luck.


SPURGEON: You've done some fair show reportage this year -- why are conventions so popular right now? Do you think San Diego made the right decision in the right way? Will C2E2 gain enough traction this year to survive a sophomore slump and continue moving forward?

PHEGLEY: I think the con craze or whatever you want to call it comes down to a few basic factors. For one, the general "geek culture" that shows like CCI traffic in has grown by leaps and bounds for all the reasons people point to -- more high quality effects-driven films, DVD sales for even the most cultish of TV shows, the internet and so on. With more people being into this stuff and wanting to discuss it, it's only natural that those online communities are going to spill over into real world interaction. Getting drunk and talking about She-Hulk on a message board is for whatever reason way fucking sadder than getting drunk and talking about She-Hulk in a hotel lobby. Beyond that, San Diego's growth on its own terms clashed perfectly with the movie studio hype machine's real discovery of it, and that's made the show as much of a destination event as something like Coachella Music Festival or Sundance or Burning Man are for other subcultures. People just know what Comic-Con is supposed to be like as this big, crazy event. I have a cousin who tells me every year she wants to go, and the last time I remember her reading a comic was when she borrowed my copies of "Reign of the Supermen" in middle school. And just like any big crazy cultural event, it shouldn't be any surprise that lots of people are trying to replicate what works in San Diego elsewhere to varying levels of success.

All that considered, I think it's a bit strange but also kind of endearing the way CCI as an organization has gone about deciding its future course. If you look at it purely from a business standpoint, I don't see any reason why they wouldn't have just moved to Los Angeles -- a move that the wealthiest and most powerful of their exhibitors would have been perfectly happy with. But the Comic-Con staff, at least to me, generally wanted to stay in San Diego if there was any way to possibly do it, not just because they live there but because as comics people at heart they're a bunch of softies who are suckers for tradition. They didn't want people who've come to the show for years to give up the unique experience of what Comic-Con has become, and from the outside it sure looked like the show was the city's to lose if they couldn't find a way to let staying make sense for the show's the bank accounts. Then again, the show's only been extended to 2015, so I'm betting we'll have the exact same "Will they/Won't they" drama in about three years, and maybe the business side of things will win out then.

imageYou're right to pick C2E2 as the show to watch for 2011. Despite a lot of aggressive moves in the pop culture space, I'm not convinced that Reed is raking in money hand over fist on these shows. Anecdotally, NYCC wasn't drawing profits its first few years, right? Maybe that's all hearsay, but even stepping away from those assumptions I think any objective watcher would say that it's going to take a few more "hits" like this past October's New York show to cement that whole tour of cons into place. With their Chicago show, Reed's biggest challenge has little to do with how they put the show on as much as it has to do with how what they put on is presented and received by fans. The first C2E2 had a great floor, great exhibitors and great atmosphere (programming could have used some tightening up, but a first year show is a first year show). The problem was that the show was promoted like a destination show in a city that's been known to support the biggest regional con in the country. I don't think Reed should be trying to give fan in general a reason to fly cross-country as much as they should be giving fans in Illinois and Indiana a reason to want to pay $18 to park at Soldier Field (seriously, I live in Chicago, and McCormick Place is a pain in the ass to get to even compared to Rosemont). If they can draw in some legit Hollywood talent to supplement the publishers and creators who are already signed on for this March and find a way to convince locals the weekend fun is worth the price of downtown Chicago, they could have a solid long-term event on their hands.

SPURGEON: My perspective is that pricing issues are important, that the discussion about them is a bit warped because people buy serial comics in $20 or $30 chunks and a $1 price kick is really a $5-$7 price raise. Further, I think that moving away from the $3.99 price point is a good thing even if it won't show up in anyone's bottom line because the market is shaky enough that chasing away even, say, 2000 devoted customers could be felt industry-wide. Where do you stand? Do you think this is an important issue? How could comics companies better orient themselves on print comics pricing issues?

PHEGLEY: I'm honestly having a real hard time these days taking the shape of how the price increase is affecting comics sales. Yes, sales are down slightly on the year, but aside from the price issues you mentioned we've got a number of factors that no one seems to have a great handle on: There's a giant recession affecting the entire world. Marvel and DC have swung slightly away from an event-driven model that they all but primed the market to thrive on for the past five years. Digital comics are up both legally and illegally. Generally there don't seem to be as many stories catching the consciousness of the fans like wildfire these days. But I DO feel like pricing is an important issue if for no other reason than that readers seem genuinely upset about it and that level of anger isn't going away. If anything it's gotten worse.

Like I said before, I was fielding a record number of questions about $3.99 comics from our message boards for the Cup O Joe column over a year ago. Since then, I've seen people asking after it on blogs, in e-mails and most dramatically at convention panels pretty much non-stop. The issue came to a real head at NYCC where the combination of DC's "all $2.99 comics at 20 pages each" versus Marvel's sedate I.V. drip of news on their "some comics, some times may be $2.99" initiative just seemed to rile everyone up further.

Moving forward, I think that this is an instance where the competitive edge between the Big Two is actually serving to help readers where it counts. I know Marvel will characterize this completely differently, but it sure seems like they were shamed into dropping some price points, even if that's not true. If anything, I think what they could do better is putting all the information that's not related to contracts out in the open from the start. For example, I was at and reported from the panel where David Gabriel announced that Marvel would drop some prices, and it was as vague and confusing an announcement as I'd ever heard (I don't think the words $2.99 ever left his lips). When I later asked for clarification from Marvel, I was told they'd be making no more official statements on the matter as they weren't trying to focus on the issue just then. Later, I got word from Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso that more books would indeed be coming at $2.99 and that said books would fall into the specials and limited series category, but then said books didn't materialize in the time frame most folks were expecting -- caused in part because no time frame was given. Finally, Marvel sent out PR about a week ago announcing what products would have a lower price and when they would ship. A near three-month lag time for some basic information on the price and format of five or so comics strikes me as the wrong way to get readers on your side of a hotly debated issue, you know?

SPURGEON: That brings up an interesting point. I think there's a big danger in wanting to backseat drive the big companies -- something I think is nuts, because they've made millions and millions of dollars doing what they do. At the same time, there are these moments -- like the dissonance of Marvel's price-point announcements -- where it does seem like they operate with a kind of contempt for their audience, or at least they're working without wanting to pull their pants up all the way. Comics companies have never been more valuable to the real world -- why do you think they still operate on many levels as scruffy mom and pop businesses? Why does comics still have fundamentally screwy shipping habits, why do they make announcements of creators on projects and then have those things collapse and get mad at the media people reporting it, how is it that we had a ten year period not too long ago where stuff from a major company was getting pulped at the printer? What is about comics that they can't seem to take that last step past seat-of-pants, not-the-boss-of-me posturing?

PHEGLEY: Two things come immediately to mind. For one, comics not just as a culture but as a business is built by people who are fans -- people who get into the business for their passion rather than their pocketbook. There are a lot of wonderful byproducts of that fact -- mostly that people in our business are more willing to take risks on material that they think has value even when it's not focus-group proven or even when it's outright subversive. But the downside to this passion is the fact that comics professionals have en mass absorbed the worst, most defensive elements of fan culture into their business models. For two, comics spent decades as a niche market whose name was unfairly synonymous with juvenile ideas and cheap, inarticulate craft, and the fear that we'll either be burned at the stake by the general public or just forgotten about seems almost unshakable even in this day and age when comics cultural cache is the highest it's been maybe ever.

imageThose two ideas play off each other in all sorts of spectacularly bizarre ways on any given Wednesday. Recently, Paul Levitz did an interview with TCJ where he cited as part of the reason he believes women don't enjoy superheroes as much is because at some point in the '70s DC had a woman edit books like Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane and it didn't help sales. I know that was an anecdotal point he was making, but it does betray not only the kind of fanboy factoid method of discussing comics but also the "they hate us!" doom-saying we see so much in comics. Seriously, how often can people cite Fredric Fucking Wertham as being super relevant to the modern marketplace? There are censorship issues to be dealt with, surely, but to hear some tell it, any day now the concerned moms of America are going to come with pitchforks and torches towards your local comic shop.

At the same time, it doesn't help that the most vocal elements of the core readership seem to be just as concerned with these imagined threats to our public perception. Fans are always asking after why publishers don't do X, Y or Z to grow the readership or bring in more kids or make books that are more appropriate to this group or that -- concerns their buying tastes never seem to back up. I think the biggest problem here is that no one from the publishers on down the food chain has a real keen idea of who they're selling their product to. One of the things I've grown to believe -- to strongly believe at that -- over the course of my time working in comics in general and at a supposedly reviled company like Wizard specifically is that there is a silent majority of readers in comics who we rarely ever hear from in a direct way. The people I mention above? As loud and noticeable as they are to publishers, they're the minority. Most comics consumers don't post mean and stupid comments on message boards. They don't dress up at conventions. And they don't hold grand, sweeping opinions on the business in general. The things that we as professionals take deadly seriously is a hobby to these folks. They don't care about silly things like Spider-Man's marriage being "ruined" and they don't care about important things like fair payment and royalties for creators. They just want the comics and characters they like to hit the stands out in a timely fashion and at a decent price point.

If there's one broad shift I'd like to see in how mainstream comics publishers operate their business in 2011, it'd be for them to start treating the creation, release and promotion of their product to a wide range of receptive, normal consumers rather than niggling over the finer points of the insider culture that sustained the business in its darkest hours. But I hardly feel like I'm saying anything revelatory or controversial with that wish.

SPURGEON: Digital. Is there anything about digital as it's developing in comics that maybe you see that hasn't been given enough play yet? Staying away from pie-in-the-sky projections, what would you think are two or three things that could fall into place by San Diego Con that would most benefit comics -- strategies, emphases, orientations, concrete moves?

PHEGLEY: I think the thing most people seem to miss about digital is that that market is currently in no shape to support the serial comics industry, and honestly, I don't think it's even on a path to support the serial comics industry any time soon. Most of the talk we see around digital is that kind of "The Future Is Here!" boosterism that you'd expect any time people find themselves capable of making some money off of something that they used to lose lots of money to. But with all due respect, maybe 80 percent of news made on the digital front these days are what I'd expect to be the basic functions of any realistic platform: increased accessibility and visibility on devices that are most popular with the general public, basic tools for self-publishers and independents to submit their work to the marketplace, searchable categories for specific areas like kids comics or science fiction...what have you. And worst of all are the endless announcements of specific releases being made available. Seriously, did anyone think that books like Dark Knight Returns, The Sandman, Civil War and The Ultimates weren't going to be put up for sale online at the first possible opportunity? Would people feign excitement over a press release from DC that said "Hey, we're going to keep Watchmen in print as a trade paperback for the foreseeable future," instead of "We're going to make it available to download at a reasonable price"?

Generally, it seems to me that everybody -- from publishers to content providers to creators to app developers -- is asking the readership for way too much credit for a slow, confusing dribble of product released on a very limited number of platforms. And there are so many questions that need to be answered before anyone who's a dedicated reader of comic books will shift their Wednesday money to the computer let alone before any new people will invest enough time and cash to be considered regular consumers of this product. For example, when you pay to read a comic on the iPad, are you really buying it like you would an MP3, or are you paying for access to a company's database that you may someday lose if they decide to not renew the contract they have with the third-party provider? They certainly talk up sales through places like comiXology as though it's the former, but I'm pretty fucking sure it's the latter. I think it's great that publishers are earning profits off digital and maybe gaining a few readers here or there, but that money is additive to their core business right now. It's gravy money.

And yeah, a lot of these questions can't be answered yet because the business infrastructure for publishing sales just isn't there yet in the digital space. General interest magazines have no dedicated marketplace either, book companies are threatening to pull their product off of the #1 book sales website with alarming regularity of pricing issues for digital content, and legal movie and TV downloads are barely ahead of the "print" industries in terms of making their customers happy. But if people really want digital to be a workable long term alternative to print for the companies, the creators and the fans, then they need to start addressing some of these concerns yesterday.

One area I'd really like to see movement on in 2011 is any kind of industry-wide motion towards a basic file format for comics sold online. Simply put: What is going to be the MP3 of comic books? I did an interview last spring with Micah Baldwin who runs the platform where he talked about creating an open standard for digital comics. Even the little bit of talking we did on the subject betrayed how hard it would be to please all parties involved, but I think that's the kind of discussion people should be having moving forward and in public, too. Right now, if you asked any comics consumer what their preferred format for digital comics would be, I bet anyone giving an honest answer would say a .PDF or .CBR file. Publishers need to offer a product that people like better or as much as those illegal options to grow the market the way it needs to be grown. Because really, I can't imagine that Apple's completely closed and highly regulated marketplace is the best option for pushing all digital comics sales in the 21st century.

SPURGEON: 2010 was the 20th year of the propagation of The Creators Bill Of Rights, an anniversary that came and went with yawns and blank stares. As a younger person covering the various comics fields, do you feel like there's any residual common cause amongst comics professionals about what's acceptable and what isn't in terms of business dealings? My sense is that people can explain away just about any abuse by arguing that people have the right to offer and to take bad deals if they want to and that there are actual positives to doing so, such as promotional, getting one's name out there. This seems bizarre to me, flat-out crazy talk. Do you think creators think the same way they did 20 years ago, and if not, would it benefit them to try that way of thinking on for size?

PHEGLEY: I think the problem here is that the intent and benefits of The Creator's Bill Of Rights have been absorbed by a lot of my peers, but there's no institutional support behind those ideas to make sure that they move forward to subsequent generations of comics professionals. I came up reading comics during the explosion of Image where part of the cool factor of the comics I read was that they were made by guys whose ethos was "Fuck you, pay me." For example, as dopey as it reads today, that issue of Spawn Dave Sim wrote had a pretty powerful effect on the way Middle School Kiel viewed what it was to be a comics maker.

I can't speak for everyone, but I do think there's a significant number of folks in my age range who hold similar views, though most of them probably aren't trying to work in the mainstream per se because the commonly accepted knowledge is that if you want to work for places like Marvel or DC or whatever, you're looking to work on something you won't ever own anyway. And really, while there are plenty of side areas which we could point to at the big publishers and say, "This doesn't work in the way it should" (particularly royalty issues on things like foreign reprints and now the big question over digital payments), I generally feel like the work-for-hire contracts offered by big publishers are as fair as they've ever been -- even better than ten years ago or so. These are good things.

I think the issue that you're speaking to specifically though is that of newer companies trying to ape the "comics-to-Hollywood" model that the big boys now rely on -- Bluewater, Toykopop and Platinum all come to mind -- and the people who pitch endlessly to them with the mind that "getting your foot in the door" is more essential than almost any other piece of building a comics career. While a lot of hay gets made each and every time one of these crooked contracts gets brought to light, that seems to have little impact on the people who are making the mistake of signing on the dotted line. And as sad as it is, I really don't think a lot of those people are going to change. Even if you know all about the Creator's Bill of Rights and are familiar with the wealth of stories that tell of comics creators getting fucked over on fair treatment and payment swirling out there, if your entire dream is to work on a character like Spider-Man who you will never own any part of then you're probably still going to sign anything that brings you one iota closer to that goal. That nostalgia-driven mindset is a powerful one that makes so many people a lost cause on this front.

The people who should absolutely be thinking about creator's rights and how important they are are the massive amount of young people coming into comics through manga. I'm wary to ascribe any motivations or judgments on that generation of potential creators since they're so young we don't know what their specific contribution to comics will look like yet. However, one thing I do think marks that social group is that their fandom is so invested on characters and roleplay rather than creators or craft. Fan art and cosplay are huge in that world, even more than in dedicated superhero readers, and that kind of marks them toward thinking away from individual rights issues, I think. Combine that with a publishing mentality that so far has focused solely on getting reprint rights for other material, and it feels like the Tokyopop talent search contest is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of shitty deals we can see coming if original material done in the Eastern style picks up in any way shape or form over the next decade.

Personally, being born and raised in Flint, Michigan, my #1 answer for what the best way to combat these issues is going to be "union," but let's face it... there is never, ever going to be a union for professionals in comic books. Not in the way we understand that word. The business has been built on over 70 years of artist exploitation, and anyone who makes even the most meager moves towards organizing is going to get blacklisted before they take the idea out from bar conversation and onto e-mail. I do however think that a professional society along the lines of the National Cartoonists Society could exist for comic books and graphic novels -- the kind of organization that could give aspiring and established creators legal advice on things like contract negotiations and standard pay rates. Right now, we rely on the press or word of mouth to be the sole repository of these ideas, and I think it's insane to believe that a young person curious about how they can build their work to their benefit wouldn't rather hear someone say, "There's an organization that can help you with that who have lawyers and a web site" than "You know, at some point before you were born the dudes that made up Ninja Turtles said some shit about all this." [Spurgeon laughs]

And if I could add something on this front that I've noticed that we should all keep an eye on, it's the idea that not only are the good works done by comics creators of the past being forgotten in the 21st Century, the worst practices of comics companies are being picked up by other industries. That New York piece about James Frey's scummy Young Adult fiction factory scared the shit out of me because it reminded me so much of every comics business horror story I've ever read. And traditionally, in book publishing not only did you own your rights, but you walked into every negotiation with an agent or lawyer at your side. With the rise of licensed material being the driver of all pop culture, I think you're likely to see a huge shift in any area of the business not already protected by unions like the Writer's Guild in Hollywood whereby anyone who walks into a creative endeavor with the minimum seed money is going to expect to own the lion's share of rights whether they do any of the creative work or not. Frightening.


SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about a couple of the prominent comics charities, both of which had compelling 2010s. Do you have any take on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's new direction, its tendency to see its mission as one of proactively working against certain kinds of legislation as much as defend comics industry folk from the application of such law? How much confidence do you think the professional and readers communities have in the CBLDF?

PHEGLEY: I'm not sure I see the CBLDF's change in tactics as a necessary change in mission, although I may just be splitting hairs there and we're in total agreement. They do certainly seem to be going after "bigger fish" these days, though I'm not sure that means they're unwilling to help creators in need. God, it's sad that I can't recall how involved the CBLDF became in the recent multiple cases where web cartoonists saw their work stolen and used on t-shirts. There's a possibility here that the organization just hasn't been promoting the one-on-one work they've done of late because they think the broader fights against legislation will pull in more donations. I'm sure I view everything about the CBLDF's work differently now that the info I have on them comes in the form of e-mail blasts rather than that monthly "Busted" newsletter I'd get mailed to me in high school that offered to sell me "Fuck Censorship" t-shirts drawn by Frank Miller.

As for the pros and the readers, I think their opinion of the organization is strong. Although, like I said above, I couldn't even guess as to how quickly most people these days would immediately think to reach out to them for help if they had a legal problem personally. I feel like I'm not being much help here, but overall my impression is a vague one that folks are happy with the group in general without necessarily being plugged in enough to donate heavily or involve themselves in any way.


SPURGEON: Are you worried as I am that the work being done by The Hero Initiative is going to be outpaced by the need of a generation of comics people growing old that never experienced the benefits of working in a more traditionally composed industry? That the needs of someone that worked on five Eclipse comics from 1982 to 1985 are going to be more dramatic than someone that worked at Marvel for 40 years?

PHEGLEY: I've seen you talk on this a lot, and yeah, it seems troublesome, but how do you prepare for that problem? The Hero Initiative has booths, charity events and special cover sales at damn near every major and mid-size convention in the country. They've got a board chock full of some of the most respected and well-known names in the industry. They've got the fiscal support of some of the biggest publishers out there. And generally, they've got a very strong brand and good PR fighting the fight against apathy and irrelevancy. If there's something they could be doing better to raise awareness and money, I sure can't think of it. Still, with the shape of retirement options for the Baby Boomers in general being kind of shitty, I'm not sure any one organization can serve as the safety net for an entire generation of older professionals. I'm at a loss here except to say I'd love to see more special sketchbook and reprint projects organized by The Hero Initiative and some enterprising publisher that could help raise money for some specific creators before they reach a crisis point, but generally, I have faith in Jim McLauchlin and his team to help the folks who ask for assistance whatever state they're in.

SPURGEON: Is there a story you've covered that you think has been underplayed, maybe even just an insight or a statement within a story, that you think of which more people should have made a bigger deal? My own suspicion is that we haven't quite grasped the exact nature of the changes in translated manga publishing.

PHEGLEY: I don't know that there are any specific stories that have been under-covered. Most of what you'd consider the really important, driving trends of the year -- pricing issues, digital releases, the recession's effect on various segments of the business, the ongoing drama surrounding various conventions and the general plan and outlook for Marvel and DC after some seismic changes -- have been covered across the board by the various news sites and blogs with a range of opinions on what it all "means" being shouted at the loudest possible volume.

imageWhat I feel sometimes is that there are certain stories that get too much coverage. Comics has a real strength in that its community is so passionate, but I'm not really blowing anyone's mind when I say that that community can become really insular really quickly. This doesn't just apply to the stories produced by publishers or the general atmosphere of the retail segment. It's evident in how we members of the press talk about the industry, too. How many stories did I read this year that went out of their way to make some crack about The Rise of Arsenal? How often has a random case example like the Steve Lieber Vs. FourChan thing dragged out as irrefutable proof that everything online should sold for pennies and be DRM-free? And did we really need to spend so much time trying to crack the case of why an all-ages comic like Thor: The Mighty Avenger that was released in a glut of related product into the adult-heavy direct market failed? [Spurgeon laughs]

I don't mean to take shots at my peers because so much of what gets written about comics online is done from a place of passionate dedication -- especially considering how little most of us get paid to do this if we're paid at all. And I completely cop to having segments of CBR including my own work that focuses on the staff's own pet interests so it's not like I'm trying to be the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. What I'm trying to get at is that I wish I saw more writing in addition to the insider talking points that opened up our collective coverage to a wider potential audience. I'd love to see more multi-sources, evergreen features on artists and issues affecting comics as a whole that could be read by the casual Barnes & Noble trade shopper as easily as by the hardcore Wednesday crowd. For my own work, I'm always feeling that I could be placing the things I'm talking about -- even in the more promotional product interviews -- in a better context. One of my goals for CBR in 2011 is to work in more coverage that's not so tied to and tied down by the ever-churning, ever-cannibalizing blog commentary cycle. But then again, I feel like I say that every year so please don't hold me to it.

imageAnd you make a fine point on the flux in the manga market, but every time I try to look at that segment of the business from a logical standpoint my head hurts. As best I can understand it Kodansha is now paying Del Rey to do a job Del Rey was previously paying for the privilege of doing. The fuck?!?! Combine moves like that with Stuart Levy's teenage fangirl-recruiting bus tour and the fact that I'm still having as hard a time figuring out what's changed in Viz's publishing line since the layoffs as I am figuring out who my PR contact there would be (though thanks for continuing to send me the occasional review copy, mystery person!), and understanding the general direction of manga seems almost impossible. Thank God I've got Brigid Alverson's e-mail saved to my contacts. But I think the real question we should be looking at moving forward for manga is how big the audience is. That format has moved past its initial phase where nabbing up volumes of Naruto was as cool for fourth graders as Pokemon cards were ten years ago, but I think quite a sizable chunk of the young people who came into manga as a fad may stick around. My hope for the future is that those people and their fandom don't separate themselves from comics as a whole but grow closer together with Western comics as a community and a readership.

SPURGEON: When you said earlier that there was no major, industry-defining hit this year, do you think that's an outcome of the way the industries have operated -- a move away from a model that brings us a Blackest Night or a Genesis, or a way of processing those works that makes their 2010 equivalents feel less important -- or do you suspect this is cyclical? I know people that think we'll never have a major comic strip hit, for example. Could the same be true of other areas of comics?

PHEGLEY: Unless there's some kind of catastrophic worldwide breakdown of the general social order, I'll never be one who believes that comics of any stripe are done producing big hits that read across to a wide audience. As far as the lack of more noticeable hits for the audience we already do have, I think it is cyclical, but the cycle is much longer than most people seem to think. The relaunch-happy, event-driven flooding of the direct market phase that we're in now seems the capper on a wave of changes that came as a result of the late '90s crash. We're talking about a nearly two decade-long cycle of publishing initiatives and public interest that in many ways is still cresting as much as it is tapering off. And it's a credit to the people who've been in charge at the big companies for the past few years that they rebounded from the speculator boom-and-bust with a more workable model of doing business on the whole. Ultimately, it's harder to shake things up and excite people when you're producing the same kind of material year on end with no reason to take big risks, but I think another shockwave will hit the market eventually for sure -- just hopefully not one that's necessitated by a major market meltdown.

One area I think worth watching with a bit of a worried eye is the book store market for comics not just in terms of book stores being hit hard but in terms of the traditional book publishers giving up on the graphic novel category. Five years ago, everyone seemed to think that the future for young cartoonists was to release a few mini comics, find an agent and then sign a fat, juicy publishing contract with someone like Scholastic or Simon & Schuster or Random House. But really, First Second is the only major dedicated graphic novel imprint at any of the major houses, and a talent like Hope Larson -- whom I respect a lot for both her work and her no-bullshit attitude towards that industry -- is more the exception to the rule than the textbook example of a career path. My suspicion is that "graphic novel" as a book business concept has lost a lot of its sex appeal over the past few years, and the comics community didn't get enough of a foothold in the infrastructure of the New York publishing world to sit back and assume they'd always want to help our medium succeed.


SPURGEON: What was big for you, comics-wise? I know there's a different kind of reading that gets done when you have your face smashed up on the glass of the industry than, but is there a comic or a few comics from 2010 that you'll remember? What would you recommend to anyone out there reading this piece?

PHEGLEY: I spent quite a bit of the past few years totally enamored of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series, and movie ticket sales be damned, I had a great time riding along with the madness of the final volume's release at San Diego this year. An excellent finish to a work that's going to have legs for a while and a release that celebrated the best aspects of the work. I also think that despite a lot of complaints to the contrary, there are an awful lot of high quality serial comic books being produced for the market right now. People are right to point to the kind of cornerstone works from the biggest publishers as peak genre entertainments -- Grant Morrison's Batman stuff, the Hellboy titles, Ed Brubaker's Marvel work including the strong-starting Secret Avengers, Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man and Robert Kirkman's continued double threat of The Walking Dead and Invincible -- but I think there are a lot of other books out there that demand attention in the comic book form. Image is really killing it of late with support for projects like King City and Orc Stain on through to standbys like the still excellent Jack Staff or new pleasures like Nick Spencer's Morning Glories or Bulletproof Coffin. And there are a handful of "indie" pamphlets out there still including RASL and (finally!) Greg Rucka's Stumptown which I can't wait to read whenever they make it to the shops. Combine that with a year of jaw-dropping work from everyone from Los Bros. to Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, and I've been a very happy comics reader in 2010.

SPURGEON: How worried should we be by the closure/trouble faced by key retailers like Comic Relief and the possibility that comics shops are headed into what might be a tough winter. How positive are you about the continued viability of comics shops one year, five years, ten years from now?

PHEGLEY: I'm honestly shocked that more stores haven't closed in the wake of the recession. Two years go, my hometown store in Flint (also called Comic Relief) announced its closing right around the time the stimulus bill was being debated, but it was saved in the end when the folks who owned a local gaming shop bought the store and combined the businesses in one location. If a shop like that can stay open right now, I'm less worried about massive closures in the next year, despite the seeming impending end of some foundational stories. I had someone comment to me this year on Free Comic Book Day that usually when a comic shop owner retires, he finds someone to sell the business to rather than seeing a lot of young up-and-comers start their own shops from scratch. In a model like that, you've got to expect some longtime stores to fail as one generation passes to the next, but I think if a lot of stores take an approach that reformats their businesses as book store-like places focused on trades and graphic novels over floppies and back issues, there's plenty of viability in the market yet.

SPURGEON: Finally, I suspect I know the answer given your responses up until now, but is yours a good gig, and if so, what makes it so?

PHEGLEY: My gig is totally great! This is in part because I have a boss who trusts my opinions and my ability to work independently (I haven't yet let him down too much, I think) and partly because I get to work on my couch all day. But yeah, I get paid to talk with some highly creative and very smart people about comic books all day, and I can make a decent living at it while I ramp up to the next phase of my career, whatever that may be.

Feels good, man.


* Comic Book Resources
* Kiel Phegley At Comic Book Resources
* The Cool Kids Table


* photo of Kiel Phegley provided by Kiel Phegley
* CBR logo
* two covers from Wizard that I'm 98 percent confident come from Phegley's time there
* one of those 2010 series that didn't quite seem emblematic
* one of those 2010 DC series that baffled me
* the Green Lantern corner of the DC Universe works
* Superman is a license
* Batman is a franchise unto himself now
* we maybe just like cons now (photo by Whit Spurgeon)
* the C2E2 logo
* would you buy a new Heroes For Hire comic at $3.99 a pop?
* a comic during the Dorthy Woolfolk editing run at DC
* do you think this A stands for "Avoiding Digital"?
* that Dave Sim issue of Spawn
* logos for CBLDF and Hero Initiative
* from Thor: The Mighty Avenger
* hey, it's Naruto
* from Scott Pilgrim
* cover to Stumptown
* for no particular reason, some Orc Stain (below)



posted 9:00 am PST | Permalink

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