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January 6, 2011

CR Holiday Interview #16—Dirk Deppey

imageWhen I left Fantagraphics in early 1999 after four and a half years on the job, I spent a month in an otherwise empty Indiana lake house staring at the horizon followed by five weeks leisurely moving couch to couch following horse racing's Triple Crown as best as my tiny bankroll allowed. Emerging on the other side, I was still exhausted, beat up and burnt out.

Until his late December layoff, Dirk Deppey worked for Fantagraphics for more than a decade. He spent much of that time on a project -- the ground-breaking comics news link-blog ¡Journalista! -- with a deadline looming five days a week. I am grateful beyond words that the one-time print Comics Journal editor, whose accomplishments in that particular gig included an honest-to-goodness Shôjo manga issue and managing to place many of today's top writers about comics into print for the first time, agreed to talk to me about his long, strange trip through comics industry news' migration into on-line media. You'll find him every bit as cogent and forthright in our conversation below as he was on his best days of blogging. I have no idea how he manages it.

I wish Dirk every last bit of luck on his future projects, and was relieved to hear in what follows that he'll take some time getting to them. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Dirk, as I write this, it's been only a few days since the announcement you were laid off. What was the experience like of receiving this outpouring of gratitude that came with the news? Did any of it surprise you?

DIRK DEPPEY: I didn't see it coming at all. You have to understand: for the most part, I've done the last four years of ¡Journalista! in something of a void, with few comments or reactions. So I've never been too sure about the website's relative popularity. The reaction came as a complete surprise, and was very, very humbling.

SPURGEON: I thought your last post was interesting in a couple of ways. First of all, what made you go with kind of a ¡Journalista! 101 link round-up? Was that to encourage others to pick up on some of the sources you've used in putting together the column?

DEPPEY: I knew that x-amount of people were using the blog to get a quick summary of the morning's news, and didn't want to see them left in a lurch is all.

SPURGEON: The other thing that a lot of people noted is that there was almost no acrimony on your part. I'm not going to ask you if that was genuine, because I know it was, but I wondered if you could talk a bit more about what it is you valued about the whole ¡Journalista!/Fantagraphics experience. What about the kind of work you did most appealed to you? What were your best days?

DEPPEY: Oh, they were pretty much all "best days."

Before my adventures at Fantagraphics, I'd spent a good dozen years in various graphics-related jobs for seemingly half the print sweatshops in Arizona, followed by a two-year stretch running websites for a sporting newspaper that turned out to be the most dysfunctional workplace in which I'd ever set foot -- I'd kind of lost track of what it felt like to have a job that I actually liked.

The amazing thing about Fantagraphics is that the management's default response to anything remotely resembling an interesting idea -- so long as it doesn't involve any real cash expenditure -- is, "Why not? Go do it." Start digitizing all those cassette tapes in the basement and post excerpts online? Start a weblog that eventually eats up all the time I was spending making porn mailers? Yes and yes. "Hey Gary, I know a guy who wants to start a manga line. Can we talk?" It felt a bit like I was making up my job as I went along. It didn't pay for shit, of course, but it was still the coolest gig in the world.


SPURGEON: I don't know that you'll be able to answer this, but you said in your initial announcement that you were surprised that the announcement had been put off as long as it had, which I think led some people to believe that there were financial considerations involved in your departure. Fantagraphics' statement on the matter is that the magazine is going in a new direction. Why were you let go, Dirk? Do you know anything about their future plans?

DEPPEY: Fantagraphics' statement is as much a mystery to me as to anyone else. If there's some grand new editorial strategy afoot at the Journal, nobody bothered to tell me about it.

imageI'm reasonably sure that they just couldn't afford to keep me on. I mean, the Journal has been losing money for at least eight years. Prior to the rise of the Web, the magazine was pretty much the only place where you could get bullshit-free reportage and commentary on comics as a medium and an industry, and the Direct Market therefore tolerated its presence. The Internet changed that, and rendered The Comics Journal essentially superfluous. The fact that it took Gary as long as it did to finally suspend its publication as a magazine demonstrates his love for the Journal.

Advertising revenues on the website have never brought in enough to support my salary, and, after a year, it's become clear that if was to continue as a functioning entity without bleeding cash left and right, I was going to have to be let go. I mean, it's been obvious to me for months, so it has to have been obvious to Gary as well.

SPURGEON: Dirk, you moved to Seattle after I stopped working at Fantagraphics, and I'm not sure I know that much about your background. Am I right in remembering that you went there for a kind of production/tech job centered around the making of their catalog? How did you end up working on their on-line efforts?

DEPPEY: As I once told Tucker Stone, I basically took the Fantagraphics gig on a whim, after making fun of the TCJ website on its message board. I was hired as Catalog Editor, with initial duties involving the design and production of various mailers and such, mostly for Eros Comix. I'd also discussed Web-related work with Gary Groth, but we hadn't really identified specific duties in that regard.

I quickly discovered that I was the only person at Fantagraphics who knew anything about the Internet. Shortly after I arrived in Seattle, I told then-Comics Journal editor Eric Evans that I knew how to produce and maintain websites and, without another word, he pulled out a sheet of paper containing the admin log-ins and passwords to and told me, "Here you go, it's all yours." [Spurgeon laughs] After redesigning the site and folding its various permutations into a more coherent structure, I flailed around for a few years trying to figure out what to actually do with it, before finally settling on the audio archive and the blog.

SPURGEON: Was there a model for ¡Journalista! in its initial form, such as one of the early media aggregators like Romenesko? What was your initial thinking in putting the column together?

DEPPEY: Actually, there was a model for me in the early days: Shortly after 9/11, a Tennessee law professor named Glenn Reynolds began obsessively blogging the War on Terror, or whatever it was called. He began linking widely, and the people to whom he linked began linking back to him (and each other) as well. Within a year he was at the center of what would eventually become the conservative blogosphere. I suspected that the model could be applied to comics as well, and so I set about doing just that. And it worked like a motherfucker.

Basically, the comics blogosphere is the product of a right-wing plot, is what I'm trying to say.


SPURGEON: [laughs] One of the nice things said about you in December came in the form of a few of the long-time bloggers chiming in to make people remember that you were an essential figure in that early comics blogosphere. What do you remember about the first run of ¡Journalista!, and the context of conversation and blogging about one another in which it took place? Is there anything we're missing today that was good about those days, do you think, in terms of the kind of coverage that was being provided?

DEPPEY: Mostly I remember my surprise at getting away with it. When I started ¡Journalista!, I was working on catalogs and mailers for eight hours a day and doing the blog for four. Within six months, I found myself blogging for eight hours and doing the catalog for four. When I informed Kim Thompson that this was the case, he gave it all of 15 seconds' thought and informed me that henceforth, ¡Journalista! would count as "half time," and that the eight hours I was putting into it therefore made up for the four that I no longer spent doing, you know, the job that I was originally hired to perform.

As for the "good old days," I have an allergic reaction to rose-colored glasses, and they wouldn't do any good anyway. There are more and better writers covering the medium now than at any point in history. I suppose I had a larger role in setting the initial terms of the debate, but that's far less important than the degree to which the comics blogosphere has taken the ball and run with it. Reading about comics is far more entertaining and informative now than it's ever been, even if, like me, you hate seeing ass-kissing and product news passed off as "journalism."

SPURGEON: To take a further step back with that same line of thinking, what do you think changed most in terms of covering a field on-line as you've done it? It seems to me, for example, that the emergence of social media outlets has really changed how people write on-line, and that the companies themselves are generating way more content now, but I'm way more interested in your perspective.

DEPPEY: I don't think that the conversation has changed so much as there's more of it now, and it's more informed. I'm tempted to say that people are far more likely to call bullshit on some of the comics industry's uglier practices now, but that's not exactly true either -- there are simply more voices now, so it sounds louder.

SPURGEON: Your statement that you wanted to get the Comics Journal twitter feed over 1000 followers seemed to come with some regret about maybe neglecting or not making use of those avenues for getting the site over. Is there anything you might do differently in terms of site development if you had to do the whole thing over?

DEPPEY: Nah, I just wanted to get the count up past a thousand for the symbolism of it. Frankly, I'm still getting the hang of social media myself; I use Twitter as my personal link-blogging service, but really don't put in the effort required to build a huge fanbase there. I have a Facebook page as well, but solely to keep track of ten people that I've known for over a decade or two -- I have an ironclad policy of not "friending" anyone outside that small circle.

As for site development, I think that Kristy [Valenti] and Mike [Dean] have done about as good job with as anyone could with the available resources. It's a nice little site. You should visit sometime.


SPURGEON: You were an early proponent for manga within art comics circles, and this year saw the publication of the Moto Hagio collection A Drunken Dream. It's my understanding you helped facilitate that book's publication, first by introducing Matt Thorn and Gary Groth, and then again by showcasing Hagio's work for American audience during your run on the print Journal. Was that a good experience, seeing that work finally published, seeing it received so well? How satisfied are you generally with the state of translated manga, and where would you ideally see it go in the next two, three years?

DEPPEY: Holding a copy of A Drunken Dream in my hands was satisfying, no question, but there's so much more to do.

I first got into manga thanks to two things. The first was Ai Yazawa's Paradise Kiss and subsequently Nana, two of the best comics I've ever read in my life. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Yazawa's comics are the closest I've ever come to reading a Pedro Almodóvar film on paper. They're trashy, emotionally resonant stories that leave you with the feeling of life being lived. She's like the Gilbert Hernandez of Japan.

The other was a small handful of scanlation sites -- Mangascreener, Kotonoha, Lililicious, a few others that I'm doubtlessly forgetting -- that gave me access to the sort of manga that I'd hoped existed, but weren't appealing enough to teenagers to be a good fit in the then-developing bookstore explosion. To this day, the amount of absolutely gripping comics that can only be found in the English language on those sites is positively heartbreaking. Virtually all of the recommendations that I made to Gary Groth and Matt Thorn when we were brainstorming the manga line via e-mail were comics I was only aware even existed because of these scanlators, and there's so much brilliant work yet to be licensed that it beggars belief.


SPURGEON: You were also early in on on-line comics, which is a field I'm not sure I understand and certainly hasn't developed in any of the 18 ways predicted for it five or more years ago. Was this a good year for that field? Was it a better year for those comics that have sprung up as a distinct culture around or a better one for digital initiatives for print comics publishers? Do you remain bullish on that publishing platform?

DEPPEY: I'll be damned if I know. With the nascent emergence of tablet computing, we're really talking about two completely different scenes, and it's anyone's guess how it's all going to work itself out. At this point, anyone who says they can tell you otherwise is lying.

For the Web-based comics scene, I don't think 2010 was a spectacular year so much as a year to keep building and exploring. With pamphlet comics essentially dead unless you've got Batman, Wolverine or a bunch of fucking zombies on the cover, webcomics have become almost the default place for serialization for most cartoonists not being subsidized by a publisher, and 2010 was more of the same -- not so much retrenchment at this point as further trenchwork. Does that make sense?


DEPPEY: With the exception of a few group sites like Act-I-Vate, it's all a bunch of creator-driven works scattered around the Web, so it's really hard to get a handle on how the scene's doing in the aggregate... at least for me, anyway. Gary Tyrrell and Xaviar Xerexes are the people you really need to talk to here.

As for tablet computing, I think we're still waiting for the technology to go mass-market. Right now, tablets are still too expensive to be more than a "creative class" affectation. This year's Consumer Electronics Show is about to get underway in Las Vegas as I write this, and I'll be interested in seeing what gets debuted there. Everyone's expecting an explosion of iPad killer wannabes, and if even a few of them get a foothold, I think we'll see a race to bring prices down without sacrificing too much in the way of capability. Once the price point drops down to $200 or thereabouts -- once these things become competitive with videogame consoles and the like -- then the potential to infiltrate the marketplace in a big way will be there. Until then, all this talk of tablet-oriented comics replacing floppies is just that: talk.


SPURGEON: Dirk, it seems to me there came a point with the second go-round at ¡Journalista! where you really kind of hunkered down and focused on your link-blogging. There weren't as many personal jeremiads or as much essay writing. Is that a fair assessment, do you think? If so, was there a reason behind that shift: for instance that's where you thought your work time was best spent, covering the explosion of news and criticism out there?

DEPPEY: It had less to do with some grand dedication to link-blogging, and more with having simply run out of things to say. There are only so many times you can keep repeating the same seven opinions on various facets of the industry before you start worrying about boring the audience.

Okay, there's a bit more to it than that. When I originally began writing for the blog, it was with the understanding that I was representing The Comics Journal on the Web, and that this meant something specific: that I was supposed to be the person who pointed out that much of the rhetoric being thrown around the comics industry was essentially glad-handing, bullshit boosterism, and that this was actually harmful to the industry insofar as it helped people to ignore things that would ultimately harm the business of comics. I still think that was the right approach -- especially in the early days of the blog, when there were few other dissenting voices -- but about two years into my second run on ¡Journalista!, I finally got sick of arguing all the time. It started to feel like I was just posturing for public attention, and that realization effectively killed any desire to keep being so shouty and belligerent. I began to have nightmares in which I'd turned into Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly or some other pompous ass. I just lost the heart for it.


SPURGEON: Is there an ideal follow-up job out there for you? Do you think you'll keep writing about comics?

DEPPEY: Having spent the last ten years obsessed with comics from a critic's and/or journalist's perspective, I really haven't given much thought to what comes next. My first order of business is taking a month or two off and see what strikes my fancy. At the moment, it really feels like I'm done with industry commentary. That could change, I suppose -- maybe after eight years of writing about comics, either online or in print, I just need some time away from the subject.

Actually, it's kind of funny: Shortly after I first signed on with Fantagraphics, you came up to Seattle and a bunch of us went out to lunch. During the course of the meal, you asked me how long I intended to work for Kim and Gary, and after thinking about it for a moment, I replied "For as long as I can afford to keep doing so." You called that a good answer, but in hindsight I think it was the wrong answer. I did just about everything for the Journal that I wanted to do. I think the correct answer was, "When I'm done." I'm done now.


* Dirk Deppey
* Dirk Deppey on Twitter


* Dirk Deppey bearing arms
* Deppey's most remarkable contribution to The Comics Journal: issue #269
* TCJ logo
* the older logo for Deppey's column
* Moto Hagio at CCI 2010
* A Drunken Dream
* from Paradise Kiss
* from Achewood, an on-line strip Deppey frequently championed
* from Nana
* the newer logo for Deppey's column (below)



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