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

January 7, 2008

CR Holiday Interview #14: Sean T. Collins on The Year In Mainstream Comics



imageIt's been a long year in North American mainstream comics, as DC and Marvel continue to do battle for the largest portion of the Direct Market revenue pie, the market for books and trades of that work continues to grow in significant fashion and have a greater say on how comics are published (although most of that success fails to match the heights reached by popular manga), and event book after event book primes an audience that is beginning to show signs of Armageddon Exhaustion. Having started as one of the prime forces behind the comics interested articles in the Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly, having most recently worked for Wizard before being let go this year, and being an adult superhero comics reader who came to them with almost no experience with them as a child and therefore maybe the only writer-about-comics out there lacking the nostalgia gene, the writer and one-time anchor of the on-line comics commentary world Sean Collins offers what I think is a unique perspective on events in the costumed corner of the comics world. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Sean, I don't know a whole lot about you before you showed up on-line.

SEAN T. COLLINS: Ha, I like the way you phrased that. Sort of like how one fine day a ship arrived at the Grey Havens and off hopped Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast, and those two blue wizards who would be my lead characters if I ever wrote Tolkien fanfic.

SPURGEON: Bonus points, then, if it involves being sent East to combat Sauron, but is there a cocktail party version of how you went from reading comics to writing about them at Abercrombie & Fitch? How did comics gain a foothold there in the first place?

COLLINS: Actually, before I worked at A&F I was barely reading comics at all. I'd only started reading them in high school and mostly stopped in college, except for anything by Frank Miller and the occasional thing by Alan Moore and eventually, thanks to a roommate's donations, ACME Novelty Library and Savage Dragon. Then one day I flipped through a copy of Wizard that was on the desk of my boss at A&F, Savas Abadsidis, a fanboy through and through. I forget which issue it was but there was a piece on the upcoming Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely/Joe Casey/Ian Churchill relaunch of the X-Men franchise. I remembered Morrison's name from Arkham Asylum and decided to swing by the store, which was Jim Hanley's a couple blocks from Penn Station into which I commuted every day, to pick up his and Casey's first issues. The rest was history. Being in Hanley's on a regular basis exposed me to the whole panoply of alternative comics, and since I was spending Abercrombie's money I vowed to buy one book a week by someone I'd never even heard of before. That's how I picked up The Last Lonely Saturday by Jordan Crane, which led me to Non, which led me to Highwater, and blammo, comics nerd.

So comics got a foothold at A&F simply through Savas and I being readers. He'd already been running reviews of graphic novels pretty much one per issue when I got there, and I just brought another voice saying things like, "Hey, let's interview Brian Michael Bendis or Art Spiegelman" to the table. He and I also liked to use comics artists as illustrators, which led to guys like Jordan and Nick Bertozzi working for us.

As you can tell, I am for shit at cocktail parties.


SPURGEON: Why did you end up leaving A&F and how did you end up with the gig at Wizard?

COLLINS: The Quarterly came under regular fire from Christian conservatives for its, oh, let's say relaxed attitude toward sex, as evidenced by both Bruce Weber's racy photos of naked collegiate types and by the editorial content, which was my bailiwick. Right around the time that Joe Scarborough did a segment echoing the Catholic League/Concerned Women for America line that the Quarterly constituted "porn for kids" or whatever the fuck, I believe the company's bottom line was taking an unrelated and ultimately short-lived downturn, and the Quarterly was canceled, I think mostly as an effort to show the shareholders, "Hey, we're doing something." To quote Shogun Assassin, it was a bad time for the empire.

While I was at the Quarterly I made the acquaintance of X-Men and Transformers producer Tom DeSanto. He had a relationship with Wizard for obvious reasons and put in a good word for me there. They liked the freelance assignment I did for them, an interview with Geoff Johns about Green Lantern: Rebirth, and brought me aboard to work in their Special Projects department.

SPURGEON: How would you describe your specific interest in comics? What core elements drive your interest in the art form?

COLLINS: Wow. You know, those are hard questions! It's like asking me what drives my interest in rock and roll or movies. I honestly couldn't tell you why I'm so focused on comics as opposed to, like, prose fiction. I guess it's the sense that comics is the last Wild West medium. You can pretty much do whatever the hell you want, be as weird as you want, and still be published and find a passionate audience for it. That makes me feel passionate. The feeling I get when I crack open a comic is pretty close to that feeling I get when the lights go down in a movie theater or the opening notes of a really great record come on, only if anything I think I get it more often and more viscerally from comics than I do from movies. Comics are fun, even or especially when they're really just brutal and dark and awful.

imageLately there are two sort of vibes that get me going in terms of comics. In genre comics, it's what I've come to call "the art of enthusiasm" -- a creator taking all sorts of stuff that they find awesome about the art they enjoy and presenting it for your enjoyment as filtered and expanded through their own imaginations. Things like Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's Immortal Iron Fist, Geoff Johns's Green Lantern, Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim.

In art comics, I find the way I interact with them getting closer and closer to the way I interact with music. So I like the short story format because it's like listening to one good song. I get fired up by the tension and rhythm of repetition. I like the elements to sort of jangle against each other at angles, almost in abstract fashion, so that the impact is primarily emotional rather than intellectual, which is how I listen to music -- I mean, I can really really love a song and not be able to tell you what it's "about" at all, maybe not even be able to sing more than a lyric or two, but I really really love that song. I'm thinking of Anders Nilsen's comics in Mome, The End, and Monologues for the Coming Plague, Kevin Huizenga stuff like "Sunset" or "Untitled," John Hankiewicz's Asthma. I can't even tell you how much all of those excited me this past year. And yet I also loved finding out that there's a whole rainbow of Lantern Corps floating around the DCU. It's still rock 'n' roll to me.

SPURGEON: How have your comics reading habits changed by the kind of work writing about comics that you do? How has writing about comics changed the way you read comics?

COLLINS: My reading habits I'm not really sure about, but my buying habits definitely have, because I've been fortunate enough and successful enough in writing about comics to be granted free access, in one way or another, to around 75 percent of anything I'd want to read. This has decreased somewhat since Wizard let me go, but I'm still better off than most. So I tend to only buy alternative comics at cons like MoCCA where I'm coming across books I didn't have access to before, and I never buy pamphlets at all if it can be helped. I buy trades from the big superhero and manga companies at

I don't know if writing about comics have changed what comics I read or how I read them. I think it's like Jog told Chris Mautner -- when I write about comics, or anything else, I'm basically just jotting down thoughts I'd have had anyway. I do feel like the more I read comics the more I understand what I like and don't like about them. And there are a handful of critics who've unlocked pathways in my brain toward understanding such things better than I did before.

SPURGEON: I've never talked to anyone who worked at Wizard before. What was the atmosphere like at Wizard? What was the office culture like? Was there anything that linked all of the employees there -- say a certain age, or a love for a certain kind of comic -- or drove employees into various camps?

COLLINS: The thing that linked every person I knew there on the creative end of things -- editorial, design, and research -- is that they loved comics. I think there's one exception and he knows who he is and probably wouldn't mind if you knew who he was either, but he dug the pop culture stuff we covered just as much as the rest of us dig funnybooks. No one on the creative end was there for a paycheck. Heh, to a fault.

imageThat said, definitions of "comics" varied wildly. There were and are certainly people there who fit the stereotypical Wizard-fan mold in terms of viewing Vertigo as "indie comics" and not reading anything black and white, who love Identity Crisis and early-'80s Marvel but think Jack Kirby's Fourth World books suck because Granny Goodness is a silly-sounding name. Then there are the people who you've probably heard about because they'd write things that'd get linked to by yourself and Dirk Deppey -- the Brian Warmoths and Kiel Phegleys and David Paggis and Rickey Purdins of the world -- who like independent comics, alternative comics, and webcomics and fought to cover them. And then in between you have people who are predominantly superhero readers but tackle them the way a normal critic would tackle art, rather than the weird insular approach where they're only ever judged against other superhero comics and by some standard of "accuracy" in terms of whether or not Wolverine would actually say that or what have you.

Those are the creative types. Then there was the business end, advertising and conventions and the online store and production and finance and marketing and the head honchos, or what we referred to amongst ourselves as "upstairs" because they occupied the second floor of Wizard's two-story office building in semi-upstate New York. Discretion is the better part of valor here, methinks. It is safe to say that upstairs is a culture unto itself.

I think in terms of the way Wizard's internal culture affects its coverage, the biggest problem is an unwillingness to look or fear of looking beyond the direct market comics buyer for potential Wizard buyers and readers. That leads to a self-fulfilling mandate in terms of what kind of books are covered and what isn't, even when the folks making the call would just as soon cover something that they're saying no to. It's not just non-superhero comics that are affected by this, by the way. This mindset kept the magazine from really covering broader non-superhero nerd-culture phenomena like Lost until a couple years ago, too.

But it's obviously changed in that regard, and it's possible it'll change further under Scott Gramling, who's a bright and talented guy. I always defended Wizard's coverage by saying it's basically just a mirror to the DM with, if anything, more coverage of non-Big Two stuff than sales merit, but I'd obviously love to see the magazine and website set a new agenda. In part it depends on whether there'll be a new crop of alt-comix people to take the place of guys like me and Brian Warmoth and Rick Marshall so that there's a critical mass of voices speaking in favor of that material.

SPURGEON: Now that you've had a few months to reflect, how do you think you're going to look back on your time at Wizard?

COLLINS: I will mostly focus on the friends I met there. I've never ever worked with a better class of people. I could rattle off a dozen names easy of co-workers who are among my favorite people on earth.

SPURGEON: Did you enjoy the immersion into American mainstream comics culture that you received at Wizard?

COLLINS: Oh, yes and no. So much of it is garbage, obviously, just soul-deadening crap that makes me angry and hateful inside. My big catchphrase while I was working there was putting down some terrible comic in a huff and gritting my teeth and screeching the word "RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGE!" But then there's a lot of great stuff that I'd never have read if it weren't for having an enormous pile of weekly comics from the big companies to go through every week.

SPURGEON: Did you notice things about those kinds of comics that you may not have noticed before, simply by virtue of having so many pass through the offices?


COLLINS: Definitely. I think it helped me figure out what superhero comics do well, and then note how to do them well. So for example, everyone knows that superhero comics are full of fights, but I really grokked how important it is to root combat in a described physical space, and give each stage of that combat palpable physical consequences. It's the difference between the big throw down with Bullseye at the end of Bendis and Alex Maleev's Daredevil run and any given X-Men comic from the '90s where a bunch of squinty-eyed people with poorly defined energy powers in purple and blue costumes shoot lasers out of their bodies in random directions. Example number two: Superhero comics use costumes and powers as an exciting metaphor for the liberation of your secret self, so having costumes and powers that make a visual and mental impact on the reader aren't just gravy, they're part of why a character works or doesn't work, and there's no shame in that game. To use Bendis as an example again, his work on Ultimate Spider-Man suffered once he'd cycled through the major Lee/Ditko/Romita bad guys plus Venom and Carnage, all of whom are really marvels of concept and design, and then tried to build story arcs around the likes of Silver Sable and Deadpool. And I'm more sure than I ever was that superhero comics are like operas where the fighting takes the place of the singing -- an ecstatic, spectacular representation of dangerously powerful emotions. Most of the dreary superhero comics that the internet makes fun of these days have superheroes shouting or crying where they should be punching, and that's where they go wrong.

Reading a double-digit number of superhero comics every week for three years also exposed me to some specific things I wouldn't have seen otherwise. For example, I reappraised Geoff Johns. He's obviously the online whipping boy for modern superhero excess -- I think Alan David Doane has threatened to stab him with the arctic shit-knife. Now, not everything he's done is to my taste, but I
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