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

January 4, 2014

CR Holiday Interview #14—Zainab Akhtar

imageAs I admit scant inches below, I know very little about Zainab Akhtar of Comics&Cola and other sites except that she hasn't been around comics for a very long time. She's written about this; it's not that I simply haven't noticed her. I also recalled independent of the conversation that follows that she does some work in comics retail. Akhtar is one of a new wave of writers about comics, and one in particular that crossed my screen a bunch of times in 2013. Our general interests seem to overlap more than any other newer writer I can name, but there are worlds of difference in those spaces.

I am keenly interested in opinions that break with what I believe important where comics I concerned, and I had a sense when I asked Akhtar to do the alt-/art- comics round-up interview for this series that she might qualify as someone with opinions very different from my own simply by virtue of the radical shift in context which is our comparative experiences engaging with the art form, when we took notice of it and what that meant to each of us when we did. Zainab took a staggering number of questions from me, which I very much appreciate, and engaged with them in forthright fashion during a time of the year that's busy for everyone. I hope that you'll add her Internet presence to those to which you pay attention, as I have. I tweaked a tiny bit for flow and for the sake of a few style preferences. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I know almost nothing about you. This is a very standard question, but I think a vital one. Can you talk me through your comics-reading to where you are now, what was important to you in terms of what you were reading and when?

ZAINAB AKHTAR: I was actually talking to Tim [Hodler] about this the other day. I'm always genuinely interested to know how people came into comics because I think I've had a pretty weird journey to the point where I'm at now -- immersed in certain areas of the medium -- and I think that meandering effect has had a significant impact on the way I read and what I read. A lot of the way I read comics is tied into personal background and context -- the area I grew up in (and still live in) is very socio-economically deprived -- it used to be a very rough council estate with a large immigrant make-up and that identity still exists. It's had a strong Bangladeshi and Pakistani community for the last 30 years or so, which in the last eight years or so has been supplemented by Africans, Europeans, Middle Eastern immigrants. The significant portion of that initial wave of immigrants, my parents included, came from an agricultural background, and their priorities on arrival were more on surviving and building something better for their children. Communities like that are often very insular, with people relying and supporting one another -- those with similar experiences, and shared cultural backgrounds -- it has its positives and its negatives of course (offering this background up as an excuse for not knowing comic book stores were a thing until I was about 19).


My first interaction with comics was at the local library -- one of the tenets of my childhood was my dad taking us to the library every three weeks (the length of the loan period) without fail, and I read all of the Tintin books, and most of the Asterix series. At the same time, at primary school we had The Beano and Dandy (British kids weeklies) which we were allowed to read on "rainy day" breaks. I was always a super-voracious reader -- I'd read anything -- and I never really viewed comics as comics until I was older, they were just another thing to read. I went to a private Islamic school from 11-16, and we didn't have a TV or a computer until I was around 16, so I guess it was a pretty different, almost sheltered existence. I'd been reading trades from the local library still -- probably about six to seven a year -- Batman, Superman, X-Men, and then later on, things like David B's Epileptic, Blacksad, Fables.

imageBlacksad and Fables are the two I clearly remember as having the effect of pushing me out to seek comics to buy and exploring further; I came across Arctic Nation first, which was released in 2003, so yeah, I'd have been 16 then. I remember reading Mean Seasons a couple of years later, which is the fifth trade of Fables, and then buying all the collections that had been published prior to it -- it was the first series I bought and remember waiting for the trades to come out. I still had no clue about comics as a culture -- you know, Leeds has three (!) comic book stores and I wasn't aware of any of them, or what they did. I bought books off eBay initially, just purely on what looked interesting to me and from Waterstones (chain of UK bookshops). Around the time I was doing my undergraduate dissertation, I was looking for a subject that I wouldn't mind spending some time with and settled on the contemporary relevance of the superhero, with a focus on Batman. Over the course of the research I discovered the comics community online and a world of other comics of which I wasn't aware and I've been reading since.

It's a weird journey, right? But I think it shows how I avoided the serialized model -- bookstores tend to carry more of what they consider literary graphic titles (another factor being I like to read in thick chunks, so the idea of chapters is unappealing).

SPURGEON: How does working in comics retail change your orientation towards comics? Are there positives, negatives, even practicalities that those of without that experience might not see?

AKHTAR: I think it's far too early to talk in terms of positives and negatives. I work two jobs -- my main one is at a college library, and then I work at OK Comics on Tuesdays and any other times they need me, for example at Thought Bubble, etc., so it's limited in itself. I'm lucky in that I don't really need an extra job, but I applied because I wanted to know more about the business retail side of things, to be more "in" comics and learn more overall, and I feel I landed on my feet a bit working with three genuinely lovely, very knowledgeable guys. I love it; I love the physicality of being around comics so much. We just had a great Christmas period and it was fantastic to see people buying comics so much.

I'm still taking things in: I've never seen the superhero phenomena up close before; it's interesting to me because so many people when they talk about "comics" that's what they're specifically referring to, and that's not my definition or experience at all. When the job was advertised, part of the stipulation was that they wanted someone who know more about independent/small press comics, but the proportion of regular customers who come in for their standing orders or visit the store want Marvel or DC. So when I first started I tried reading a bunch of X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, all the better to help people who come in asking for issue #001.24 of whatever, but I couldn't keep it up. That might come across as a bit condescending, but in terms of the evolution of my reading preferences, I realized I just can't read that kind of thing anymore. There's regurgitating stories, and then there's regurgitating stories. I don't remember it being that bad -- it's gotten a lot worse in terms of numeration and endless crossovers, tie-ins and emphases on stories being "jumping on points." Nothing has ever been set in stone in superhero comics, but it's ridiculous now. I don't know if my reaction is partly coming back to superhero comics after a period of time and probably with a more critical eye? But, yeah.

I think about superhero comics a lot -- my position, others, the place of the genre. I understand having preferences for genre, but without dictating what should be read, it's difficult for me to comprehend people who read those comics religiously -- I think it's a natural step to want to see what else there is, to extend, to grow -- I guess I assume people want to read good stories and good comics. I get sentimentality -- my reaction towards Batman is hugely sentimental -- Batman comics are essentially what kept me reading comics from ages 7-16, but I don't know that sentimentality is what sustains years of that kind of reading.

imageBrandon Graham said something that resonated with me recently when talking about Batman, where in Year One and The Dark Knight Returns you have a beginning and end (and very definitive ones at that), and everything else is middle. My stronger leaning is that it's hard to constantly be telling the middle of a story. It's hard to care about things that aren't absolute -- characters who are never going to end or die, in a universe where nothing sticks, where almost every story has been told and told and told. I do still believe it's possible to tell a good story, but I don't think there'll ever be another great superhero book. Having said that, I like the idea of having this character and narrative that goes on and on, that lives beyond people, that different writers and artists get to come in and play around with (within certain confines), I just don't know how serviceable it is. I'm sure the comparison's been made before and much more eloquently, but it's a type of fan-fiction almost -- you have this character you love so much -- or who makes you so much money -- that he lives and lives, sometimes young, sometimes old, sometimes good, sometimes, bad, in scenario after scenario until it's pointless.

I hope that doesn't come across as fatalist: it's interesting to me due to seeing it first hand for the first time, and it puzzles me, I guess, because we are currently experiencing such a volume of very, very good and very different comics being produced. I'm glad that seems to be gaining some traction.

SPURGEON: Why did you relaunch Comics&Cola?

AKHTAR: Hmm. God -- I regret my frivolity at times! For instance whenever people say my blog name back to me! I initially started the blog about four years ago with a friend, and we weren't really clear about what we wanted it to be... there was movies, games, a mix of things. I really wanted it to have a regular schedule and it just didn't work out, partly because I have a very fixed notion of how I want things to be and probably don't work very well with people when they don't adhere to that aesthetic. The idea I had for it was to simply talk about any good comics I'd read which would hopefully help anyone who was looking for things to read- I'd had a weird roundabout journey on the internet looking for recommendations and such, and I wanted it to be accessible and easy for people doing the same thing. My comics knowledge, such as it is, wasn't too great either at that point, so the dormant period was probably for the best. Essentially, it's a place for me to indulge in my foremost passions -- reading and writing. I'm reading always, but when I'm not writing in even a meager capacity, I feel itchy and staid. In 2012, I decided to give it another go, this time just to write about any comics and illustration work I found interesting and with the renewed aim of posting when I could, without placing any pressure on myself.

I think that lasted a couple of months -- I was sort of corresponding with Richard Bruton (who writes for the Forbidden Planet blog) at the same time, and he asked me to come and write for them. Many people have misgivings or perceptions about FPI due to the name/association, but it's largely a separate thing, and simply one of the best comics sites, full stop. Richard, in particular, has been formative in the developing of my comics reading, and later my writing. He and Joe were great in introducing me to all their contacts, guiding me through experiences -- "I've had a bad comment!" -- and supporting me all-round. So I started writing for them in June 2012, reproducing that material on Comics&Cola.

SPURGEON: Do I take it from the relaunch that this ends the chapter of your writing life where you were doing work for The Beat? Do you have a perspective on that whole experience yet?

AKHTAR: I got in touch with Heidi [MacDonald] after reading her holiday interview on here last year, where she said she wanted to support and nurture upcoming future writers, and that led to writing for The Beat for a short while -- I was doing my Masters at the same time and still trying to write for FPI -- and I was getting frustrated by all three. I'm pretty ego-maniacal in that I like to have an identity: on FPI, Richard and Joe had UK comics covered, so I was writing more about North American work and beyond, but felt that was falling on deaf ears somewhat. I didn't write for The Beat for long, and now I only contribute the odd pieces -- a year in review and a feature of anticipated titles of 2014 are the most recent ones on which I've been working. Heidi's great but I just kinda felt the things I wrote about and pieces were getting lost on there, it's a bit disparate identity-wise -- none of the platforms that were available felt right for what I wanted to do. Another thing with The Beat is that because it is so strongly -- and rightfully -- associated with Heidi, people assume everything on there is written by her, regardless of whether it's by Steve, or Laura, or myself. It's important to be able to own your work, and it's not helpful ambitions-wise if people aren't even aware you've written it. And, you know, I don't like the idea of adding that biographical addendum "John is a writer, blah blah blah, find him on Twitter here" at the end of every bitty post. I did it with the TCJ Thought Bubble report and really wish I hadn't -- it felt hugely tacky.

Anyway, I had the blog, I'd wrapped up an awful year of academia and felt immensely grateful to be able to write what and how I wanted again, so it made sense to address the frustrations and concentrate my energies in one place. There was a lot of conversation at the time about people being paid for their comics writing, and while that would be fantastic, you could probably count on one hand folk whose job description is "writes about comics for a living." So I thought I could at least make a space writing about the areas of comics I'm interested and passionate about. And Richard, Joe, Heidi and Steve have been instrumental in giving me the confidence to strike out on my own in a more ambitious fashion.

On a semi-related aside, something I don't understand is that if you have your own site and you're producing all this material for free, for the love of comics, is why not focus on the comics you love? I'm probably missing something, but I've heard people say "Oh, I'd love to cover indie/small press comics. But nobody reads about it" -- but then their blog/site isn't monetized anyway? So you're reproducing press releases from Marvel for, what, the clicks? Or the few pennies that brings in? I don't get it. I understand that people want a readership, I want that too, I want a shit-ton of people to read what I write (kind of), which is why I share it on Twitter and Facebook or whatever, but the point isn't to be popular for the sake of popularity, it's to be popular for the thing that you do.

If I have one aim that's it: to write about comics I enjoy, to enjoy the process, and to hopefully build an awareness. Probably in that order! The best thing for me is when someone reads something I wrote about a book and then goes away and buys it. That, and bringing attention to creators or comics that aren't as well known and who I appreciate. I don't think I'm adequately informed, experienced or educated enough to lend to the criticism side. If I'm honest, a factor that plays into that is fear of reprisal -- people jumping onto your back to tell you why you're wrong or why something is this way and not that. There was a lot of discussion around what comics criticism should be towards the end of the year, and frankly quite a but of it fucking annoyed me, because most of it was actually coming from comic creators -- don't tell people how to react to your work, or what they should and shouldn't talk about and how. If people want to go online and talk about a comic, that's their business. They can say the shittiest of shit things about your book, correctly or incorrectly, but they have that right. Unless it's a personal attack on you -- and I understand that your art can feel like a part of you -- suck it up. Comics is a great community, but the gap between creators and "critics" is non-existent almost, unlike in any other field, and that insularity is double-edged.

I mean, that whole women critics in alt/art-comix thing -- I know what Sean and Frank meant, but I still feel it's so insular -- there's such a feeling of "you have to know about this, you have to like this, you have to write this way otherwise you're wrong." You know, I'm a bit of a dick, and culturally desensitized to crap to some extent, so I don't give a fuck what people say -- I don't care that I haven't read Jack Davis or Robert Crumb, but I can imagine how it could affect you to the point where you'd go "why the fuck am I doing this?" Particularly as so often people are making time to write after work, after family, for no remuneration, a couple of hours squeezed out here or there, simply for the love of it. And then someone comes along to inform you that if only you were doing things right, you'd have read so-and-so and thus have picked up on that vital, life-altering reference on page 32; judging people and making them feel lesser for their choices. It's odd -- just saying that -- because that's the life of a lot of comics creators, working around jobs -- you would think they understand, but there's little to no respect for those who write about comics. That's not conducive to getting new voices and perspectives into the field. People should be allowed to learn on the job -- it's what I'm doing now. I think -- I know -- comics can be so much better than that, because I've been a direct beneficiary of that support and kindness. It's wholly possible to be critical without being negative.

SPURGEON: Reading a bunch of your work at once, it's hard for me to nail down anything that's super-specific about your aesthetic approach. That isn't a criticism -- I also have very catholic taste. Is there a way you could describe that? Are there things that you tend to value in the comics that you prefer over other comics?

AKHTAR: Yeah. This probably links back to how I got into comics -- that all over meandering and being open to everything because I wasn't aware of anything: biases, arguments for or against. I'm a big genre reader: I love crime and mystery, sci-fi. But I'll give anything a go, as long as someone has made the premise appealing, or the art looks good. Story -- I'm traditional in that sense, I love when something has been so effectively crafted and realized that you believe in it straightaway -- that feeling of almost instant immersion and investment.

You linked to that article the other day on books becoming a luxury object -- that's something I've always bought into, where books represented knowledge, and knowledge was education and education meant betterment. When I was a kid, my mum and dad used to go to Sunday car boot sales -- my sisters hated going -- it was invariably cold or raining and it meant getting up early to get any of the good stuff, but I used to go because people sold books by the suitcase for 20p a pop. I still have some paperback Garfield collections I got, purely for nostalgia reasons... I bought The Bourne Identity at one when I was nine -- this was in 1997, before the films, and I read it in full but I didn't understand it; I'd never read an actiony thriller like that. We were in Pakistan for a while and it was the only book I had and I read it over and over until I got it -- who Carlos was, what was happening -- all of it. I still have that copy -- the cover and spine tore off, so I made it a new one -- I'm stupidly bloody sentimental! That's one of my favorite books but that position has nothing to do with the way it's written or what it's about. So the physicality of books and sitting down with one, the experience of it is important to me -- I don't think there's anything else like that.

imageIn comics that physicality extends to paper, print process, format, design; I like looking at people who experiment and play around with those -- Ryan Cecil Smith does that really well, and I love things like Brendan Leach's The Pterodactyl Hunters -- that large newsprint, or the Immonens with Snipe. I basically like feeling things up a bit. It's why I like self-published work, you can feel the craft. Steve (Morris, who writes for The Beat) has a running joke where he likes to say I'll pay extortionate sums of money for something that's six pages long if it looks pretty, but that's because he knows nothing about printing! [laughs] I saw this fantastic off-set, multiple exposure, bootleg Batman comic at ELCAF (East London Comics and Art Festival), limited run for £25 -- no idea about the story, but it was amazingly good-looking, and Morris is at my elbow just looking at me with a "you're-not-going-to-buy-that" face, so I ended up leaving it. I'm more forgiving of a mediocre story if the art is outstanding.

SPURGEON: How much do any experiences you might have with other art forms have an effect on how you approach comics?

AKHTAR: I'm a bit of a cultural vacuum [laughs]. I don't watch television, I'm not a huge music person, I'll go to the theater every now and then. Same with cinema -- not fond of film as a medium, although there are aspects of it I like and appreciate. That said, I'm pretty into the idea of media and ideology and presentation: I simultaneously take everything and nothing at face value. Comics are part of literature so you couldn't count that as a separate art form, but I probably look to prose writing and poetry the most.

I understand how references can be formative, but the approach I take is simply to take the thing, look at it, describe it, say what works, what doesn't, why. My friend Andy and I had this conversation about reviewing a while back, talking about when reviewers compare someone to someone else -- "it's very Clowes-ish," "her work is strongly reminiscent of Mignola's," and I remember him telling me about a music reviewer he used to love who would never compare artists or bands or their sound with each other, he would simply try to describe what he was hearing in his own words, what it sounded like to him, what it made him think of. I liked that. I try to do that mostly.

SPURGEON: Do you have any broad observations about the state of the art form right now? Are there any schools or approaches that you ascending? Are there any kinds of comics being made that you see, or even any that you wish you saw more of?

AKHTAR: Not really, to be honest. I think the thing with comics at the moment is the sheer volume of good to very good work being produced, to the point where it's impossible to keep up with it all. And if you take a moment to think about the statement, really. I truly believe that the best, most exciting and challenging work is being self-published or coming from a umbrella of outfits that are usually termed "small-press" or "independent" -- Image, Koyama, Fantagraphics, D&Q, Uncivilised Books, Secret Acres, Retrofit, Boom, Blank Slate, Jonathan Cape, Nobrow, and on and on. And that's without taking into account the amount of work that gets self-published. There's sort of a roster of creators who put their work online and haven't been published, or have published a little that are going to break out in a big way sooner or later: Sloane Leong, Cathy G Johnson, Emily Carroll, Sophie Franz, Sophie Goldstein, Jane Mai, Lala Albert, L Nichols, Madeliene Flores, Sarah Glidden, Mia Schwarz.

imageIn terms of approach there's quite a few folk who do that mix of video-game/comics/animation style nicely: Guillaume Singelin, Valentin Seiche, Zac Gorman, Hannah K, Thomas Wellman, I'd put Brian Fukushima in there, maybe. I personally love the combination of Japanese elements with the European clear line cartooning -- James Harvey and Brandon Graham do that really well, and they often use a similar bubblegum/ice-cream color palette. I love Anatola Howard, too; she's very obviously influenced by Crumb, but also by anime and manga, so you have that bristling viscerality amalgamated with attractive, more cutesy elements which makes for an interesting juxtaposition. I'm a huge fan of Isaac Lenkiewicsz's cartooning -- his self-published Giant Fighters comics are amazing -- I wish he'd do a load more. Like everyone, I think Ronald Wimberly's a bit of a genius, so anything by him I'd pick up. Simon Roy I've liked since I came across his shipwrecked with a gorilla comic -- I think he has a collection of his work coming out soon. Joe Lambert's going to be/already is huge -- Anne Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller is a masterpiece. I read anything Geneva Hodgson does, but like quite a few comic folk, they're all being stolen way by animation -- and you can't blame them, so.

SPURGEON: One thing that I think is undeniably different now in terms of a challenge facing critics is that there seems to be so much accomplished work out that separating all of the material that's good from the few that are great seems maybe tougher than ever -- it's no longer 1985 where a few comics really stood out against a backdrop of mostly forgettable work. I know it's something I struggle with... How tough is it for you to nail down those comics you think are a cut above the rest?

AKHTAR: Yeah, this is bloody tough. I have a tendency to be very effusive about work I enjoy, and then go through a review and think I should temper it in order to be more objective. A week or so later after publication, I'll read it and think it didn't sound like I enjoyed the book very much at all! It's hard, but I think it's more about bracketing good and very good -- I honestly believe truly great work is very, very rare. And then you get into the whole discussion of what defines greatness... I don't really spend much time writing about comics I didn't like -- I don't know if that skews things slightly -- I'm critical and if I can find both good and bad in a work. I'll discuss it, but I don't trash things. Not yet, anyway!

The answer to this question is superlatives: when I get stupidly, unnecessarily verbose, it means you should stop reading what I wrote and go read the thing I was banging on about.

SPURGEON: If I were to pop out of a time capsule from the mid-1990s I think one of things I might find a bit unmoored and unsettling is this recent surge in British comics. Is there a way you can explain the general almost-avalanche of new and interesting comics that are coming out from over there? Why do there seem to be so many all at once? Is there anything we're truly missing out on?

AKHTAR: Well, it's not really happening all at once. It's a culmination of events and people working their arses off for years that's' slotted into a cultural zeitgeist of what seems to be a greater awareness of the medium, propelled to some extent (love it or hate it) by Hollywood. The scene has developed more fully in the last decade, and a lot I think from people looking at one another and being encouraged by what they see and trying it for themselves, coupled with the availability of technology -- printing machines, internet, online stores, which meant that you could effectively write, draw, print en masse, market and sell your comic all by yourself. It also meant reaching wider audiences where perhaps before there was the worry that UK interest alone wouldn't guarantee the success of a venture. John Allison is probably a good example of that. I do think it's also symptomatic of the larger evolution of comics, as people from various creative and artistic backgrounds have entered the field -- whether it be for a one-off or as a career -- and have helped the definition of "comics" progress and evolve. And as that has loosened, it's drawn others in.

So the community grew, organizing events, getting people together became easier -- there are so many comic events, festivals and conventions in the UK now- almost one every month- 2013 saw the inauguration of two new large ones -- the Lakes Comics and Arts Festival and Stripped, the Edinburgh Book Festival's comic off-shoot. I think all of comics knows about Nobrow now and deservedly so, but Blank Slate, Jonathan Cape, Self Made Hero, Knockabout, Great Beast... these companies maturing and making more adventurous publication choices has been instrumental. As to the avalanche of material, I don't feel it's that much (perhaps looking from the outside in) -- I know some people here don't think we have the audience to support it, but I'm hopeful -- I don't think all this interest and growth is baseless.

People who should all be read -- older and newer: Luke Pearson, John Allison, Joe Decie, Dan Berry, Dan White, Kyle Platts, Isaac Lenkiewicz, Vivian Schwarz, Jamie Coe, Isabel Greenberg, Warwick Johnson Cadwell, Robert Ball, Julia Scheele, Rob Davis, Dilraj Mann, Josceline Fenton, Adam Murphy, Kate Brown, Briony May Smith, Josh Shepherd Tom Gauld, Simone Lia. It's interesting how we seem to have produced so many cartoonists, people who write and draw -- I was talking to an artist recently who pointed out to me that it's not a conducive landscape for those who illustrate only, apart from 2000AD, there isn't much opportunity or choice other than to look abroad.

I'm really proud of what UK comics is achieving, but, it saddens me deeply that the make-up of it seems to be mirroring the literary establishment in it's overwhelming white, middle-class majority. I'm British Pakistani and when I go to conventions here the amount of non-white people attending can honestly often be counted on one hand. And you know, I'm not entirely sure why, but I think one of the factors is probably similar to that of literature -- the socio-economic position of people of colour -- if you can't afford to have books in your house and the library's an option you may or may not take, that impacts on your chances of becoming a writer. And let's be clear: comics in all formats now are expensive. That may be changing with second and third generations, it may not, but it will be a long while before we see it reflected in the scene.


SPURGEON: I've seen you write about Peow! and about kushcomiks... how much of you reading do you think is informed by European comics expressions, and is that different than perhaps a same-age peer in North American might see their view of comics develop?

AKHTAR: It's weird, I feel like I've talked about Peow! a lot the past year, to the point where I think "Should I stop? Is it getting weird?" but I'm genuinely excited by them -- I really hope they continue to produce their own work as well as publishing other artists, because they're very talented individuals. My favorite comics creators are all European: Bastein Vives, Lewis Trondheim, Nix, Frederik Peeters, Christophe Blain, Winschluss, Juanjo Guarnido, Juan Diaz Canales, Stepahne Oiry, Thierry Martin, Thomas Wellman, Kerascoet etc. I wish Cinebook were much more widely appreciated -- they do a fantastic job with their titles- a diverse, quality range, whilst retaining the larger album format. The odd thing is I have no idea as to what the community/culture is like because I'm rubbish at languages -- maybe that's one of the reasons I appreciate that work -- it comes largely without baggage or hype. The extent to which my reading is informed by them... probably not much? My preference derives from the artistic ability; to my mind they're the most aesthetically pleasing and technically advanced in that area. That makes it sounds like I just like pretty books -- and I do -- but there's still something about North American/Canadian/British comics that feels early, like people trying out things, and that's part of what makes it exciting, but to my mind there's a barrier that's not been pushed past, as if people go, "this is a comic, and this is the furthest you can go with a comic." European comics often feel a more cohesive whole, and less bound.

In an internet age, I can't really imagine why a North American peer wouldn't be as aware of those folks as I am -- I can only read English, Urdu and Arabic, so there's no distinguishing factor other than awareness.


SPURGEON: Is there a pocket of European comics-making you think deserves more attention?

AKHTAR: I don't know enough about European comics -- that's a pretty wide net you're casting. From what I do know, I would pick the Peow! guys; they're working with some very talented folk around Europe and beyond, and coming to TCAF this year, also. I think that's gonna be a really good opportunity for them to make more contacts and enlist artists. Also Rotopol Press who have published both Thomas Wellman and Sebastian Stamm amongst others. I need to learn more about German comics: I read an amazing anthology called Neufundland which collated animators to make comics, from there, which I've been meaning to write about forever. There's some really cool work coming out from Brazil which I wish I knew more about, too, but language barrier. People buy lots of foreign language comics simply because they're enamored by the visual language, but it frustrates me not being able t read the story with both words and pictures together -- I'm a English lit graduate -- words are my opium.


SPURGEON: I asked you to list a group of comics we might discuss, comics representative in some way of 2013. Godzilla Half Century War was the first one you listed. Why that one, and why did that one come to mind first?

AKHTAR: It probably came to mind because I'd just written an intelligible essay on why I loved it. I wish I could tell you there was a deep reason for it, but it's just James Stokoe doing fucking Godzilla, and to me that doesn't require further explanation. I don't know that anyone would argue Stokoe's illustrative mastery, but I think he can really turn a piece of writing as well. His Silver Surfer short in Strange Tales was perfect, wasn't it? The blend of humor and emotional resonance he does -- he has an ear for character too, which I would think helps when you're writing iconic ones like Godzilla and Silver Surfer. And that's all on top of his towering ability to draw. I enjoyed it specifically because he allowed both the lizard and his human protagonist to be characters, and for the manner in which he conveyed the stature of Godzilla's impact by transplanting it against the whole life of one man. Also: his art.


SPURGEON: The Giant Beard That Was Evil is an award-winner and the one with which I'm least familiar on your list. How much do you pay attention to the various awards? Do you find them useful, important? Are the BCAs the real deal?

AKHTAR: I don't pay a huge amount of attention to awards. I think comics awards can be significant in relation to the industry in that they lend a legitimacy of sorts, whether it's needed or not is a separate issue. Recognition... is nice. Which is what all awards are essentially about-- why else do you need them? Comics being nominated in more mainstream awards is nice, simply because it usually means people picking up the book who normally wouldn't, and more sales, and that's good for everybody involved. In similar vein, the BCA's are important to British comics as a thing, for viability, for an access point, to introduce people to work -- I was tabling at Thought Bubble this year with the shop and people were asking about nominated works and creators, so they have a function in that respect. In a sense, I think it can be important when attempting to build something like we are in UK comics, to have all the trappings as it were, so awards are part of that. Beyond that, I don't know.

SPURGEON: I know how well-crafted that book looks, and I know that it works in really broad metaphors, a traditional strength for comics and an underrated one in terms of making a comic that broader audiences will enjoy. Are the visual here as powerful as the mainstream reviews would have us believe? Is there any detriment at all to kind of working with the sort of whimsical fantasy the story seems to?

AKHTAR: Yeah, I think one of the things that struck me most on reading it was how much page/panel layout and design shifted and changed- that can quite easily be disruptive if it's not done right, but it felt very organic, it was a strength. You could see how much thought had gone into getting that right and what effect each transition would have, and I thought that was a bold choice where the temptation for a first book could easily be to err on the safer side. But if you take into account the rhyming approach, the starkness, the relative simplicity of Collins' style, it needs that visual inventiveness to lift it. And the story lends itself to those elements -- the shapes, the starkness, the space, the black and white. It's sort of like a Roald Dahl comic with the whimsical fantasy and metaphor, although not as biting, the openness of the metaphor makes it more inclusive -- now I consider it, pre-teens could probably read it easily. If there is a detriment to the whimsical fantasy, it's probably that some people dislike that sort of thing very strongly, but then we all dislike certain styles.


SPURGEON: I thought In The Kitchen With Alain Passard was a super great-looking book, but almost no one talked about it. Why was that, do you think. In general, when a book goes under read even by the way we measure those thing in relative terms -- I mean, in a sense all comics are under read -- why is that? Does it just not connect? Are there broad marketing issues?

AKHTAR: Yeah, and translated comics are the most under-read, are they not? I think I'm correct in saying that they don't do particularly well-- even the least well -- for any comics publishers who do put them out -- Fantagraphics, First Second, NBM, Self Made Hero.

With In the Kitchen, it was published by Chronicle, a book publisher rather than a comics one, and I think that affects things. I don't know a comics publisher who wouldn't be extolling the virtues of a new Christophe Blain months in advance. In its original French, it sold past 25,000 copies in the first two months of its release, but comics aren't a niche market in France, and Blain and Passard are names there. Perhaps with the English version they hoped to push it as a cookery book with a quaint twist: it's also a comic! I saw a couple of more mainstream pieces to that effect. They didn't really seem to be aiming for the comics market, and that may have affected awareness.

Those who did come across it, seemed to be disappointed it wasn't a Christophe Blain book a la Gus and his Gang -- the fast, expressive visuals, riots of colour etc. I personally love it when authors change up genre and subject matter: Kitchen is a docu-comic -- it was three years in the making, three years of shadowing Passard while he was cooking, interviewing him in various places, talking to his staff, visiting his various gardens around France, even sitting down with his business people -- and I think it's a superb book. I'm the world's crappest eater and I was interested and invested the whole way through.

I read it before I read Etienne Davodeau's The Initiates and they're very similar tonally, and in the running dialogue approach. I found it arresting visually, too -- lots of white background, a crazy amount of speech bubbles, a lot of text -- the liveliness of his cartooning tattoos to all the hustle and bustle of a kitchen well. There was so much text, it would have been difficult to include it all within panels, it would have given a feeling of intense constraint. The overall lack of background and floatiness lend it an affability and looseness. Somebody on twitter said they felt it didn't play to Blain's strengths, in expressing movement, paciness and so forth, but it worked on a different level -- hell, I don't think it's even necessary for Blain to play to his strengths in order to be good.

In more general terms, I think it's so easy for comics to be under-read. There's this cycle of instancy almost: a book comes out, maybe with some pre-release hype, it gets a few very good reviews over a period of what -- three weeks or so, and then everybody seems to move on to the next thing. And there is so much available now. The pattern of which makes it incredibly easy for things to go un/der-read. There are exceptions- if there's controversy or discussion etc. that period sustains for longer.

SPURGEON: Do you think comics are particularly good at that kind of reportage -- that's a been a buzzword for a while in terms of the vocational possibilities, but I wonder what you thought about comics' ability and maybe even limitations of conveying information?

AKHTAR: I don't think there's a limitation in that sense: it's another form of presentation. All mediums have their strengths and limitations; with comics you can do practically anything- you have words, you have pictures, you can switch from viewpoint to viewpoint, you can do talking heads, you can have almost any form of narration, you can include passages of texts, photographs- it's a bloody strong medium with endless possibilities. if needed As for reportage, there's Joe Sacco, Guy Delisle, Sarah Glidden, Lindsay Pollock's recent comics on Somalian immigrants in Europe, the Guardian's been using them more for editorials, and I'm sure there's a whole bunch more. It's an area I hope grows and grows. One of the best-selling categories in the store and I would say (alert: sweeping statement ahead), the fastest-growing in comics is non-fiction. I also think non-fiction is more accessible for people picking up comics for the first time: with fiction there's so much nuance and choice, but non-fiction is hard and fast in the sense you can say: this is about the Holocaust, this is a biography of Johnny Cash -- it's less geared towards personal tastes, in a manner of speaking.


SPURGEON: I'm not sure I've read a lot about Lisa Hanawalt's My Dirty Dumb Eyes in terms of it being one of the books worth noting for the year. Why did it make your list?

AKHTAR: I picked it as a more objective selection because to me it's representative of the new directions and evolution of the medium: illustrated essays, diagramic drawings, comics, sequential narrative as well as comics (I can't remember, but is there anything in there that's a traditional paneled comic -- maybe one?). I know it's a collection of work, but I like that presentation, it's indicative of the way comics are moving forward in that you have work and people who aren't rigidly comics, from various creative backgrounds producing a diverse range of work. And you know, her art is terrific.

SPURGEON: Do you have a refined aesthetic for humor in comics? Are there definite things that you find funny in comics and things that you don't?

AKHTAR: Well, yeah, humor's very subjective isn't it? It has to flow, and not seem forced, however much thought's been put into it. I was at a panel at Thought Bubble in December, featuring Joe Decie, Donya Todd, Lizz Lunney and Jim Medway discussing humor in comics and most of them were saying they don't consider themselves funny, or categorize their work as humor. I get that to an extent: you think or speak a certain way and that's the way you think and speak -- other people may find it funny or view it a particular way, but it's nature to you. Deliberation for effect is separate, and of course, considered to some length, but I think it's intrinsic in the first instance.

I can never pin down what I find funny -- the last really funny comic I read was the first volume of Ralph Azham, if that gives you any indication, and Nix usually manages to make me laugh. The (ostensibly) kids stuff that D&Q have been releasing -- Pippi Longstocking, and Anna and Froga really do it for me too. It's maybe easier to pin down what I don't get: puns, goofiness for the sake of goofiness, "stoner" humor, out there, crazy, over the top things -- that so bad it's good vibe. But even those can surprise you: there's rarely anything set in stone.

SPURGEON: How much in general are you a prescriptive critic? Do you think there's value in writing about how something could have been done differently? Are there basic accepted tracks for criticism more generally, ways of writing about art, that you have less interest in pursing?

AKHTAR: If something didn't work for me, I point it out. Obviously there's a difference in things that didn't work for me specifically and subjectively -- things I may not have "got" -- and things that didn't really function within the work, or were to its detriment. I do try to blend a bit of both -- it's important to be subjective because ultimately it is a personal reaction -- how you responded to this work. There can be immense value in pointing out something that didn't work and could have been done differently -- it can depend on the thing that you're referring to -- for example, there's generally some discussion around the depiction of women in comics, and where that's done badly it needs to be called out. Funnily enough, I find it hard, and even annoying to do the opposite: to praise when it's done well or "correctly" -- "this female character is written as a person" because to me that feels patronizing, that should be level ground -- that should be normal -- that shouldn't need pointing out. I prefer when people don't make a big deal out of things, but I recognize the value in doing so.

imageThis is something else I've been thinking about: when people use those facets as a focal or selling point, where it identifies the character. Take Marvel's new Ms Marvel. Before a single issue has been released, the focal point of her identity is her religion. With G Willow Wilson and Sana Amanat involved I don't doubt the intentions behind the project at all and I get it's a big deal, but I also sort of resent that that's how it's presented: "Hey look, a black character." Ryan North's new series with Boom, The Midas Flesh, has a black, Muslim, female lead character who wears a hijab: at no point are ay of those facets mentioned, instead the reader knows her via her job role: she's a pilot, her humor and her intelligence. It was perfectly done. And I picked up The Midas Flesh because a dinosaur was involved.

Similarly, in the Indonesian film The Raid which was a global hit last year, in the opening minutes we see a 30 second or less snippet of Iko Uwais's protagonist performing the morning prayer for Muslims. That's it. Totally normal, just a thing he does, part of his routine, something most people probably don't even remember, because it's a great balls-to-the-wall action movie. And that's a film coming from the world's largest Muslim population. It seems to me the thinking is that in order for this character to sell you have to sell it to the associated demographic: "Ladies, here's a strong female character" and yes, you want to read those, you want to support those titles, but you also don't want to be defined by it; we are all human first. So negotiating that. I don't know that any of that makes sense [laughs] I go round and round with it in my head. Someone said until there's equal representation, there's a need for positive stereotyping. I understand that, but it frustrates and saddens me there is still that need after all this time- we should have moved past that years ago.

If there is a basic accepted way of writing about comics -- I'm not aware of it. I think I saw a comics writer/reviewer once state that they didn't talk about the art in a comic, because they write for mainstream platforms. And I guess the un-comicked wouldn't understand what an expressive, loose line is, or how coloring works. We want to keep tricking them into reading "graphic novels." I should really spend less time on Twitter. On the whole, when I write about comics I discuss the art and the writing, the coloring, the lettering, the lines -- I'm slowly but surely getting more pedantic. One of the things that's important to me is transparency -- I really, really hope I'm unbaised as can be. I see so many people writing either about one company, one collective -- hell, even one creator, article after article and I wonder how people can read that, or trust them. There's specialism and then there's... something else. I want people to trust me, not agree with me necessarily. That extends to the type of comics or news I cover: I had a problem last year, where hugely influential comics artist and industry figures were passing away, and I felt I couldn't write anything because I didn't know enough about them so it would be dis-honest, but I think as long as you're sincere in the attempt, that should convey itself.

I know there are people who think I'm perhaps too "rah rah comics," too positive, which I find hilarious. I thought I would address that, but I don't know how to respond...

imageSPURGEON: Where was the primary strength of Chuck Forsman's TEOTFW for you? I've heard literally a half-dozen different answers to that question.

AKHTAR: Primary strength? I think he write the teen characters really well -- the story is rooted in their believability as people so they have to work in order for it to work.

SPURGEON: How much did that strike you as an early work? Do you think Forsman five years from now would have, say, the Satanist pursuer angle in such a story?

AKHTAR: I don't know that I'm well-placed enough to make that kind of observation. The book as a whole worked really well -- you could consider the Satanist angle over-cooking, but in the scheme of things, I don't think it matters. There are people who have been working in comics for years who add threads, plot-lines, characters, that could be considered surplus. It's up to the artist whether he considers something that's been pointed out to him as a valid criticism, or whether he would have left it as it was.

SPURGEON: I have read East Of West... and, well, I'm not sure that leads me into a question. I do get a sense from your writing that you like a lot of the source material that a book like that -- is that a fair statement? Are there certain creators you think do work like that well?

AKHTAR: [laughs] What are you saying, Tom? I went into it without any expectations, apart from a vague notion that it had been well received. It's really good- so much so that I'm reading the issues as they come out. Yeah, it's fair to say it's a combination of elements and genres I like: grandiose, mythic, religion, sci-fi, socio-political -- and romance too! -- it has a lot going on but it doesn't feel convoluted. And Nick Dragotta does a beautiful job with the art, with his use of space. A sci-fi western, ostensibly, but the furthest thing from Cowboys and Aliens that you could imagine... And I love westerns -- my dad passed on his love for them to me -- I love Anthony Quinn, Charles Bronson, those dudes. I love the specificness of location -- most genres you can set anywhere but westerns are very setting specific -- it's part of the iconography. The essence of the central character is also very similar to the PI noir genre -- lone crusader with some sort of skewed moral compass. They can be a tad more fatalist -- the protagonist has a tendency to die.

SPURGEON: Can you identify three books you're dying to see next year?

AKHTAR: There's a ton of good stuff coming out this year, from Emily Carroll, Eleanor Davis, Pascal Girard, Ian Culbard, Fumio Obata, Sam Alden, Rob Davis, Corrine Mucha, Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, Bryan Lee O'Malley, Bengal's being translated into English for the first time -- so much. If I had to pick three books it would be Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet from D&Q, Weapons of Mass Diplomacy by Christophe Blain and Lanzac from Self Made Hero, and Art Schooled by Jamie Coe from Nobrow.

SPURGEON: What about you? Where are you a year from now and what is going on with your writing?

AKHTAR: My writing -- I think I really want to write for myself. I start feeling pressured anytime I do it elsewhere and worrying whether it fits with the tone and aesthetics of said platform. The aim is to manage my time effectively and generate a work ethic of sorts. Allie Brosch did a wickedly on-point comic about motivation and the internal dialogue you have with yourself. You can sit down and say to yourself "I'm going to write for two hours" but there's that part of you that says you don't have to. Or "I'll have a muffin after half an hour," and 10 minutes in the muffin is gone, because you know you can just eat the muffin. I do a lot of that -- my favorite one is "What if I die tomorrow? Nobody will care that I haven't updated my shitty little blog; I should just live in the moment." Living in the moment involves sleeping a lot. I want to be a better writer though, and I recognize the only impediment to that is myself. But I've sorted out a schedule -- I update three days a week now: Mon, Weds, and Fri, with designated features for particular days, so it's about establishing that pattern, I guess and ensuring I write every day.

A year from now? You know I could be dead, right?


* Zainab Akhtar On Twitter
* Comics & Cola


* photo provided by the writer
* Tintin panel
* from the eventual English-language translation of the Blacksad album mentioned
* from Batman: Year One
* from Snipe
* from Giant Fighters
* a panel from a Peow! book
* Neufundland
* from the Stokoe-drawn Godzilla book in question
* from Giant Beard That Was Evil
* from In The Kitchen
* from Lisa Hanawalt
* Midas Flesh cover
* from Mr. Charles Forsman
* from East Is West
* photo provided by the writer; from Thought Bubble (below)



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