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

December 22, 2011

CR Holiday Interview #4—Tucker Stone

imageTucker Stone came to the attention of comics readers the old-fashioned way: by writing about comics in a unique voice on a homemade platform with enough energy and vigor people started to notice. The actor-by-training and comic shop employee may be the only comics critic as known for a series of review videos in which he once starred as he is for his writing -- which has since trickled out to a number of web sites, most notably a column at comiXology. I've read other bloggers linking to Stone the way old-timey radio hosts introduced segments from war correspondents. Stone is out there engaging with the art form -- all of it -- as it arrives on comics shelves every Wednesday. It's been a fascinating year for mainstream comics, and I thought Stone might provide a perspective that was valuable yet divorced from my own. He did not disappoint. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Before we get into the year in mainstream comics, I have a question about the way you write and a question about the way you read comics. The first is that I always get a sense of performance out of your pieces, as much as I do from anyone this side of Abhay Khosla. Is that a fair characterization, do you think? Do you think that your reviews are different in any substantive way by the very aggressive style you use?

TUCKER STONE: I think that's a fair characterization. I hear it, I don't read it, if that makes sense. In a lot of ways, I've come to think that the best way to deliver most of what I put on the web site -- with the exception of the few things I've written for The Comics Journal -- would probably be best experienced if they were being performed in some capacity, because they really are... they're written to a cadence in my head, and that's a spoken cadence. In response to your second question, about them being different in a substantive way? I think they'd have to be. I'm trying to capture my own personal relationship with the text in reviewing comics, but I'm going about in a way that's primarily designed to entertain, and that places limitations on what I can accomplish on an intellectual or serious level. At the same time... I don't care. Funny beats serious every time. That's not even a contest.

SPURGEON: My second question comes from that I realized it's been a while since we talked. At that time, we talked a bit about your writing as a kind of active hobby, meant to entertain yourself and your wife. What we didn't talk about was your reading, and what motivates you there. Do you read in order to write, or are you a voracious reader of comics generally? Is it harder to read comics now that you're a few years into writing about them than it maybe was when you started?

STONE: I was all set to say "I don't read in order to write," and I don't think I do. But I do read a lot in order to keep up, which is sort of the same thing. I feel a sense of obligation -- in part because of the writing, nowadays because of the store -- to know what's going on in contemporary comics publishing. I don't feel it's necessary to express my opinion about every new thing that comes out, but I do feel a responsibility to have one, even if it's one I keep to myself.

imageIt is a bit harder to read as many of them now than when I started. I find myself less enthusiastic about new material as time has gone on, and while that makes the high points that much better, there's a wide expanse of tiresome comics that has to be plowed to get to the good stuff. I know I would not have inhaled a lot of the crap that I have over the last year if it wasn't for the store and the relationships that have sprung up out of that. However... I say that stuff now, and there's been plenty of moments where I haven't minded. Participating in that Hooded Utilitarian round-up got me back to late night marathon reads of [Jack] Kirby comics and Lone Wolf & Cub, and I was happy to be tired the next day. Sometimes it does feel like abandoning new comics for a while would not be a huge loss. It would be a loss, but not, necessarily, a life-changing one. To just sit around and re-read Kirby and Love and Rockets or whatever, Judge Dredd and Peter Milligan's Batman comics. That sounds attractive to me.

I was talking to [critic Matt] Seneca about Harold Bloom recently, whether comics has produced enough greatness that a guy could dedicate his life to them the way Bloom did to Shakespeare... I think it's easy to say yes to that, it's an attractive ideal. But I don't know if it's true, if there's enough in Little Nemo to re-read the way a guy like Bloom goes back to Hamlet.

So much of comics -- and I'm thinking the whole industry, not just Marvel/DC -- is dedicated to hyper-consumers, you know? It's all about buying this stuff immediately upon release, amassing these tomes and libraries and archives alongside the weekly installments of whatever genre stuff there is. Nobody can keep anything in print, there's so few people qualified to cleave the wheat from the chaff. It's just buy-buy-buy, X-9 hardcovers and 26 volumes of Peanuts and another re-release of Prince Valiant and 16 newly-translated softcovers from wherever [D+Q Publisher Chris] Oliveros went on vacation. I get sick of trying to play the democratic catch-all who gives everything a chance, sick of that feeling where I'm constantly staring off into the next few months, waiting to see what comes next. And it doesn't do service to the work, either. It just becomes an ingestion process, this thing where you're constantly shoveling comics into your head like an old school meat grinder. Reading years of work in days, binging on the stuff, and just checking it off and moving onto the next thing... it's gross.

Shouldn't there be stuff that I'm re-reading yearly?

So yeah, it's harder. I don't know that I have a point here. That question opened up a can of worms I'm struggling with. Comics used to be a part of my life, now they feel like they're too much of it, and yet the only positive force I find in them is when I read good ones. But getting to that is becoming a situation where the cons -- dealing with the scum that publish them, the sub-mental idiots who want to "break in," the rampant hate so many have for the few genuine artists, the constant assault on integrity and ethics from all sides -- sometimes it makes me want to bail out and divorce myself entirely.

SPURGEON: I hear what you're saying about the mental stress of having to put up with some of the cultural peculiarities that comes with consuming a certain kind of comic book. I'm not suggesting I had the answer to this when I was more immersed in them, either, but to put the same question to you that was always put to me: why do you have to have those experiences to read the comic, do you think? Why do you have to encounter those people, say, scrambling to break in if you're reading and reacting to those books? Why do you subject yourself to that?

STONE: I'm subjected to that because that's what makes up the lion's share of on-line coverage, Twitter, Facebook, my email inbox, New York City's convention circuit, etc. Let me be absolutely clear: It is my choice to participate in these things -- to read shitty web sites and get irritated by what people promote online and how they promote it -- but the only alternative, the way I see it, would be to quit the job I currently have and have a consumer-only relationship with comics. If you write about this stuff -- and I think you can take the modifier "certain kind of comic book" out of the equation, because art/alt comics people are as bad (if not actually worse) -- you're going to end up bumping into that part of the industry all of the time.

(And in case you're wondering, part of my lessened output in the last year is due exactly to this struggle, this sense that I'm just using the comics review model to criticize the people, audience and industry behind it, and feeling that's an unnecessary, unhappy place to be. I've had to pretty much abandon writing at all about alternative comics, as their publishers and their conventions have gotten me far angrier in the last few years than Marvel and DC's idiocy combined, because at least with Marvel and DC, they have the excuse that they're just supplying corporate products and advertisement.)

imageThe question of "why I subject myself?"... same reason you do. When comics work, when there's something new from Johnny Ryan, Jaime Hernandez or Kevin Huizenga, or when Fantagraphics digs up something like The Cabbie, or when somebody like [Michael] DeForge drops out of the sky... there's very little I find that can compete. When James Stokoe puts out an Orc Stain, or when [Mike] Mignola and [John] Arcudi and [Guy] Davis pull off a BPRD cliffhanger? [Naoki] Urasawa? Marcos Martin? Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol?

You've got your own list of specific examples, but the feeling I get is the same as the one that has you using your brain and talent and maybe even sacrificing a bit of your health (?) to keep The Comics Reporter going strong. I don't pay attention to a bunch of the comics Internet the way I used to, but when a situation comes up that is somewhat deserving of attention, there you are, responding in an intelligent fashion. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but you have to be doing that in some small bit because you think it matters to do so, whether anyone intelligent is paying attention or not. Your motivation -- which I perceive to be that business and ethics and simple decency matter, even if you're only talking about them with people who only care about comics as a way to get their shitty movie pitches taken more seriously, even if the only response is somebody like Torsten Adair going "at Barnes and Noble, we put comics next to green signs" -- is the same thing that keeps me going, although it's definitely in a matter of degree.

I will say this: if you're not struggling with the ethics of this business, then you're either completely unaware of how toxic they are, or you're a shitty human being. You can be ignorant for a myriad of reasons, but after you find out how this works -- how low-rent the gatekeepers are, or how much has been invested in catering to the sickest, worst parts of the audience -- there's only one ethical way to respond, and that's with disgust and anger. Anybody who just shrugs it off or buries their head in one corner of the medium's various genres immediately becomes a part of the problem, and they should be treated as such. Anybody who pulls the "Well, that's all fucked up over there but at least this corner is clean" -- they're maintaining the sickness as badly as the guys who screwed over Kirby. At least the guys who fucked Kirby had a financial motivation that makes some kind of dark sense. I don't know what this current crop of apologists gets out of it.

imageSPURGEON: How broad is your personal definition of the mainstream comic book? Is there still any market force behind genre comics, even superhero comics, from non-top two publishers? Do things like whatever Conan series that Dark Horse is doing and those Mark Waid superhero comics from BOOM! function like mainstream books, or do they function in an entirely different way?

STONE: For me personally, I use "mainstream comic book" to define just about anything that's genre-based and comes out regularly in comic book form. The only thing I really make exceptions for are things like King City or Uptight or Crickets or Lose... and I couldn't even tell you why. Serialized genre entertainment versus, you know, stuff. But that's really an after-the-fact explanation for the way I react to them. I don't think I always thought of them with that distinction, but it seems that way to me now, especially now that Image has moved so heavily into the failed Hollywood pitches production market while at the same time Dark Horse has amped up their status into a licensed production facility. They're a much classier version than the shit that Dynamite pumps out, but still -- it's a lot of Star Wars comics, a lot of Conan shit.

It's very difficult for me to ignore how very "product-y" all of that stuff is. It's stuff for people to buy and kill time with. I'm not going to criticize it solely for that, but there comes a point where I'm no longer going to pretend that discovering the differentiations between the "good" and "bad" versions of product out there. I'm sure there's a "best" one-hour television program, but finding it -- be it through my own research or any study of television criticism -- is a job I don't wish to expend any effort upon. I just want something to watch while I'm trying to put Nina's new desk together. That's what "mainstream" is to me -- the comics you read on the side. I make a space in my life for those kinds of comics, the same way I make a space for stuff that I don't think of that way. So yeah, I think of quite a few of those non-Big-Two, non-superhero comics as the same basic thing. That being said...

I have no idea about the market force question. Wasn't there a bunch of freaking out about Image's bank account this last year? Am I making that up? Hellboy stuff and Star Wars stuff still must turn a profit, and things like Locke & Key and The Walking Dead clearly make a good bit of money... but Dark Horse fired a lot of people this year, and I can't fathom to whom IDW is selling all those horrible horror comics it produces. Who can? I know of a lot of Image books that were complete financial failures, books that get dumped on the remainder market and disappear, and yet the creators still get work, there's still a public attitude towards them as being successful creators, with careers worth emulating. It's an impossible area to figure out from my perspective. I hope somebody is figuring it out. There's a lot of dreams hanging on those companies. I think comics would be the poorer for us if they were gone. They aren't for me, but that doesn't mean I think they need to be put down.

imageSPURGEON: Are there any quality books and/or solid performers in that genre books from non-Big Two sub-category of comics, to your eye? What do you like about them?

STONE: I love Hellboy and BPRD, and I'm keeping up with books like Butcher Baker Righteous Maker and a few others in that same category. I think Locke & Key is a pretty compelling series in a similar fashion to the way Walking Dead used to be, although it's better in a lot of ways because it's a more satisfying single issue experience, with stronger art. It's not something I'm ever going to be super enthusiastic about -- I think it's success with me has a lot to do with it being a competent, classically structured story amongst a sea of lesser imitations of serialized television shows.

Books like Casanova, Gødland and Butcher Baker Righteous Maker will probably always hold some interest to me, for as long as they're around. They just feel so unusual, and while neither of them feel like they've completely achieved whatever it is they're shooting to achieve, they're always gorgeous to look at, and there's something exciting about the fact that they exist. I love true indie/art/non-genre comics too, and I think the best of those works that get coded with those classifications are unquestionably "better," but I feel like you can look at Casanova and Butcher Baker and see where a lot of what we call the "mainstream" would have gone if superheroes hadn't taken over genre so completely. These are the steps -- ungainly, maybe -- that should have been taken years ago, if only so that the majority of the entertainment side of the business didn't get tilted so heavily in one direction.

I like things that are a little bit messy. Besides all that -- BPRD, Hellboy, Casanova, Butcher Baker -- what else looks as good as these comics? Color alone, there's nothing. There's no DC or Marvel book that's colored as audaciously as Butcher Baker; DC and Marvel can't lay claim to somebody like Dave Stewart. Casanova -- they're beautiful, messy books. I'd like them even if I hated them.

SPURGEON: If books like Casanova and Butcher Baker represent baby steps... why are we still taking baby steps in that direction? You may be able to argue me out of this, but as an older reader I connect a book like Casanova to a book like American Flagg! pretty directly. If you're describing them as correctives, why didn't earlier correctives take? Why do we need to reinvent this idea of genre comics with a creator's personal investment and unique creative contribution? Why can't the mainstream be broader than it is, you know, being the mainstream?

STONE: You could link to that Gary Groth thing, "Time of the Toad" here, I think. I found that an interesting piece of writing, and while it's pretty broad and wide-ranging in terms of what it's interested in, I think there's some stuff in there that has infected the way I'm feeling about some of these questions.

First things first: why didn't the earlier correctives take? Maybe it did, maybe books like American Flagg! helped posit the idea in those '90s superhero superstars that they could do it on their own. And they did: but they were still a group of idea-less dummies, and the best they could offer was tiny remixes on stuff they were already doing. WildCATS, Youngblood, Spawn, Savage Dragon -- I don't think this is the same kind of thing with [Matt] Fraction or [Howard] Chaykin. When those guys are free to play, they do other shit. Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, [Rob] Liefeld, whoever else from back then -- those guys weren't waiting for the doors to swing wide so that they could release their own West Coast Blues or Color Engineering or Dungeon Quest or ACME Novelty Library or whatever else. They weren't even waiting for
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