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

January 2, 2011

CR Holiday Interview #12—David Brothers



David Brothers is the third of this year's interviews with younger writers about comics to see publication. Unlike Matt Seneca, a devoted critic, and Kiel Phegley, whose day-job is covering comics as a reporter, David Brothers is that wonderful, increasingly-common hybrid that does a little bit of everything. Actually, scratch "little bit." Like many of the younger writers, Brothers writes a lot, for a variety of publications, at a degree of output that matches his variety of interests and entry points. (In contrast, a decade and a half ago one could become a writer about comics that was known within the field simply by penning nine 600-word columns a year for The Comics Journal.) He is in no way a writer about comics in the old-fashioned sense of someone focused on comics that may take the occasional sideways journey into another art form or industry: his interest in a variety of pop culture expressions is present at all times, including when he turns his attention to comics. Brothers' range hasn't kept him from putting his comics time in: there have to be a dozen, maybe two dozen issues on which Brothers wrote lengthy essays this year. I enjoy the way his mind moves to the facts at hand as much as it does to an expressive, thoughtful point of view, something you'll see in the back and forth below. I'm grateful for his taking the time to talk to me this holiday season. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: David, you seem to me to be way in the upper percentiles when it comes to active, prolific writers about comics. Can you break down in explicit fashion for those folks that aren't familiar with your work how much you're writing about comics in an average week, or even a month if that's a better vehicle for understanding what you do?

DAVID BROTHERS: At the moment, I regularly produce content for three different sites. On my own site, 4thletter!, I try to do a minimum of three substantive posts a week, with maybe one or two goofy or low content posts thrown into the mix if the mood strikes me. For ComicsAlliance, I'm working on a pretty good schedule of three to five posts a week. Finally, for MovieFone, I do a single post a month as a columnist, for lack of a better word. It tends to work out to, on average, 20-25 posts a month.

The posts on each site are a little different. MovieFone is by far the most commercial, with lots of lists and mainstream appeal, while ComicsAlliance is geared more toward analysis and critique. On 4thletter!, however, anything goes, from meandering think pieces that probably don't have a real point beyond thinking out loud to the punchy and mean type of writing I do sometimes.

SPURGEON: How are you oriented towards this writing in terms of your overall work, whatever else it is you might do? Is your writing about comics the bulk and brunt of what you do, do you see it as something you wish to do more of, something that's a diversion, something that is a sideline? Do you have goals -- say writing comics -- the reaching of which would probably see your writing about comics decline?

BROTHERS: Writing about comics is more or less a night job for me. My day job is -- boiled down -- video game consulting, which generally means a lot of technical writing, evaluating games and essentially doing detailed reports on them, and behind the scenes marketing-type work.

I'd love to do more, and the only thing really holding me back is time. I've gone daily on 4thletter! before, usually during February for Black History Month or as part of a series of posts that share a theme. I have a text document that I keep ideas for posts, lines of dialogue, or half-thought out theses in and I add to it or pull a post from it often.

As is, this is a fun hobby for me, something that lets me flex something like a creative muscle when the day job comes up short in that regard. I'm not sure what would make me stop writing about comics, other than a catastrophic drop in the quality of comics. I've been trying to get into the habit of writing fiction on a regular basis, with an eye toward writing a full novel at some point, but even that can easily be balanced with writing about comics.

I briefly thought about writing comics a few years back. I hooked up with a writer's group here in San Francisco, Writers Old Fashioned, and hammered out a couple of scripts. I realized fairly quickly that the part of comics I enjoyed the most was the reading and analyzing, rather than the creating. I ended up getting a lot of nice advice and a few compliments, and it sort of adjusted the way I approach talking about comics, so it was also a great learning experience for the kind of writing about comics I've been doing. But as far as writing about comics for fun or for pay--right now, no thanks.

SPURGEON: I'm usually able to pick this up from the writing itself, but I have to admit I can't from your work: is your interest in comics a lifelong interest? Or is it something that came along at a very specific time in your life, or even something that developed concurrently with another interest? Can you map your relationship to comics over the last dozen years? Would the David Brothers of five, six, seven years ago be surprised by the role comics plays in 2010-2011 David Brothers' life?

BROTHERS: It isn't lifelong, exactly, but off and on over a long period of time. I was always much more into video games than comics, but that's because games tended to be more rewarding in the long run than books were. Of course, I owned more comics than video games, simply due to price, so maybe it was about even.

imageI don't remember exactly when I started reading comics, other than that it was somewhere between 1989 and 1991. It's fair to say that it started early in my elementary school career -- kindergarten or first grade for sure. My first two books, thanks to my uncle, were a couple of David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane Amazing Spider-Man back issues, #s 316 and 317. I never had a pull list as a kid, or a subscription to any book, and actually going to a comic store involved a lot of negotiation with my mom, so my collection was spotty.

I know that I bought X-Men #1, with the full gatefold, and X-Force #1, which came with a Cable trading card, but the majority of my collection was due to the fact that I used to trade comics as a kid. I stayed in comics for a while, up until around 1996, when the one-two punch of Onslaught and The Clone Saga derailed my two favorite franchises and made them massively unpleasant to read. I would've been around 13 or so there.

That put me off new comics entirely, barring things like flipping through something I recognized at the grocery store or idly wandering into a comic shop because I happened to be nearby. I kept what I had, but wasn't paying attention to anything new until I moved to Spain in 2000 and picked up Frank Miller's 300 in hardcover format. It was on sale at a grocery store that had a surprisingly robust books section. It was in Spanish, but I recognized Miller's name from an issue of Sin City I must've read hundreds of times as a kid (Big Fat Kill #5), so I picked it up and used it to practice learning Spanish on. It didn't reignite my lust for comics, but I did end up remembering that they exist, for lack of a kinder phrase.

imageWhen I came back to the States a couple years later, I tripped over the graphic novels section in a Books-A-Million and found the Daredevil Visionaries that Marvel put out collecting Miller's run on the title. I picked those up, and that was the point when the floodgates opened. They kept the comics and manga in the same place, so pretty much every time I got a paycheck, or some student loan money, I went and bought an armful of whatever looked nice.

I think the David Brothers of seven years ago would definitely be surprised. I was just getting back into comics then, and had predictably awful taste. Several of my loves and hates from that period have completely switched positions. The David of five years ago would've found it surprising, but not odd. At that point, my site was just a way for me to talk to my friends in public without the hassle of a message board. I read this site, ¡Journalista!, and The Beat regularly in an attempt to keep up, but I never thought it'd be more than yet another hobby. I was doing video game journalism at that point, hence the fact that it wouldn't have been odd to me to make money off something I enjoyed, but I didn't even know that you could make money writing about comics.

SPURGEON: I'm going to ask you about some of your specific articles, but first I hope you don't mind if I take advantage of having access to the variety of perspectives your coverage has allowed you to ask you the impossibly broad question, "What do you think is particularly memorable about 2010?" How might we look back on this year going forward? What stands out to you, and is there something you feel wasn't played up -- a creator, a format, a news story -- that's going to have a bigger than conventional wisdom suggests impact in the years ahead?

BROTHERS: I think we're going to look back on this year as the year that digital comics became a reality, rather than a pipe dream. Two major players, and comiXology, came onto the field in a big way, and Marvel and DC both hopped on board the train. Since 2010 was the year that we, meaning the press, played cheerleader for digital comics and helped raise awareness, 2011 is the year that we need to start aggressively questioning publishers about their digital comics practices.

Regarding something I feel that wasn't played up... that one's tough. There are a number of censorship stories (Christopher Handley, Tokyo's anti-lolicon bill, California's war on video games) that I wish we could have covered more thoroughly and clearly. I'm good at solving puzzles, but not so great at judging laws or figuring out how Tokyo's ban on certain content will even be enforced. Another story is that Marvel and DC both changed last year in terms of ownership or, for lack of a better word, scope, and have changed since last year. I want to know how they have changed, in terms of both content and organization. I think that that could end up being a very big deal.

You've stumped me. There are several things I wish the press had covered better or more thoroughly, myself absolutely included, but as far as things that will have some kind of impact in the long term, I've got nothing. I'm sure I'll remember something really obvious once this goes live, but nothing is leaping out at me right now.

SPURGEON: You've written about digital comics initiative, particularly recently, noting in one CA article the breadth of issues left to be resolved. You seem alternately pessimistic and optimistic about how comics moves more fully into that arenas. One thing that hampers the discussion is its wide-open nature, so I wondered if you'd let me put some severe parameters on this speculative correction If you were the czar of comics, what concrete moves by what actors would you want to see by summer 2011 that would help ensure the most positive outcome for comics' digital future? Are there program that you would like to see initiated, scuttled, specific price points or packages you'd want to see hit, certain decisions you think comics should make before it's made for them?

BROTHERS: This may be minor, but I'd like it if release dates were a little more transparent in digital books. Either a note at the end of the book ("Pick up the next issue on ____!") or anything even resembling a schedule on the purchase page would be great. Right now, if you pick up a digital book that isn't complete, you don't know when the next issue will be out.

imageOn a major note, I'd scuttle DRM right off the bat. I understand its appeal for publishers, but I don't trust them with it at all. My suspicion was proven earlier this year when Marvel and comiXology mistakenly sold Ultimate Thor #2 a week early. Rather than just pulling the comic from sale and taking their lumps, they deactivated the comic on the devices of people who bought it. I consider that the first and last strike as far as DRM for comics goes. It doesn't matter if it's one person or one hundred thousand. If you bought it, it should be yours. If the publisher makes a mistake and later removes it from sale, that's fine, but actually deactivating the comic is absurd and shows how easy it is for publishers to behave poorly with regard to consumers.

Two dollars is a pretty reasonable price point for digital books, and I'd cap the equivalent of your average floppy at that price. Two dollars is easy to justify and makes the average six issue arc of mainstream comics twelve bucks, roughly on par with the price of a trade on Amazon. Bundles of books should be offered at a discount. OGNs shouldn't cost more than eight to ten dollars, depending on length and release date.

Classic books, like Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four or Levitz-era Legion of Superheroes should, at this point, really be offered for cover price, or maybe 50 cents. Marvel and DC have made their money off these comics thousands of time over at this point, so taking a hit on price here would lead to a boost in good will. Not to mention the fact that scarcity is irrelevant in the realm of digital comics.

I'd also push Marvel and DC in particular to be very aggressive in their day and date publishing programs. Marvel's still dipping its toes in the water, but DC has been simultaneously publishing one of their tent-pole books, Justice League: Generation Lost, in print and digitally over the past few months. One book at a time isn't good enough. If they want to roll it out slowly, they could take it line by line, or perhaps push their mid-tier books into simultaneous release before moving onto the big guns, but pussyfooting around is no good.

imageMarvel and DC get a lot of attention for digital books, but they're the ones we need to watch and analyze the most. Dark Horse clearly has their head on straight, with what seems like the strongest ideas in terms of digital distribution, and there are dozens of indie publishers who are already doing the right thing, whether Red 5 with Atomic Robo or Evil Twin with Comic Book Comics, to name a couple random examples.

The crux of the issue with Marvel and DC is that, without the recognizability that they'll bring by simply being present, digital comics may not have the legitimacy in the mind of the mainstream consumer to be worth it. I think that what'll be crucial in terms of making digital comics a success will be getting Marvel and DC to shift gears. They're big companies, and set in their ways in a way that indies or smaller companies aren't. At the same time, they have the clout and the ability to open certain doors that a lot of other publishers don't. If we can get the Big Two to break away from certain negative practices and sign onto to positive ones, I think we'll be in business in a big way.

SPURGEON: How sympathetic are to the notion that one thing that's forced comics companies to drag their feet is that their current model seems to be put into risk by just about any formulation of how digital comics are going to behave, and that they don't want to risk killing this magnificently fatted calf for uncertain future reward? What is it about comics that it's been able to delay these moves where other media haven't -- is it the nature of the transfer into digital, the price of doing so?

BROTHERS: I think the delay has been due mostly to the technology simply not being there. The rise in use of digital music and movies were both greatly aided by the parallel rise of something to play it on. While mp3s were cool on computers, being able to play them on the go is what made them a household name. Digital movies required a certain level of bandwidth and accessibility before they took off. I remember downloading fansubbed anime in '99/2000 -- it sucked and was in RealPlayer format. But no, once Netflix hit home video game consoles, and then set-top boxes marketed to the general public. Now I watch television, play video games, and rent movies all from the same place.

Comics needed an iPad. The fits and starts that came before were just testing the water. Motion comics aren't a new thing. Malibu was doing CD-ROMIX in the '90s with 256 colors and voice acting. When I was getting back into comics, Marvel and Crossgen were both producing more or less the same product on DVDs. With an iPad, though, you could finally read comics where you wanted and at the pace you wanted, with only a little bit of adjusting. It's the closest thing we've got to an iPod for comics.

In addition to that, though, comics companies have managed to ignore the transition due in part to how the comics industry is structured. The Big Two, who are generally who I mean when I speak of "dragging their feet" or "pussyfooting," have what amounts to a captive audience. They've trained this audience to like a few specific types of book, to purchase according to in-universe importance, and most of all, to vastly prefer their work over anyone else's. That may not be the goose that laid the golden egg, but it's almost certainly the next best thing.

That's a big thing to have to give up. Doubly so, with the news that the demographic for digital comics doesn't line up 1:1 with print books. I've done a few interviews with publishers over the past couple weeks, and I've found that most of them say that their non-Direct Market digital books, the game or novel tie-ins that nobody in "comics" seems to like or purchase, do very well. It's entirely possible that digital comics will go mainstream and Marvel and DC sharing 90% or more of the market may not even happen.

imageCase in point: comiXology just announced that issues 12 and 13 of John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew are the top in-app sales for this week in comics. While this is entirely possible in a Direct Market shop, userbase and hand-selling depending, comiXology is seen as the digital market, for the most part, and that makes Chew's success worth paying attention to. Is it a brief fad or does the digital market want something other than capes?

I'm sympathetic to the notion that the rise of digital comics might visit every retailer in the country like the tenth plague of Egypt... but I think it's more likely that digital will end up serving a different audience, with a certain measure of overlap between the two. I don't want to call the slow digital switchover cowardly... but it is definitely over-cautious.

SPURGEON: Let me jump back to something you mentioned earlier. What are you seeing on the stands or through their statements that makes you suspect that DC and Marvel might have changed along with their change in scope and ownership? One thing I find remarkably odd is that neither company seems to have changed much, at least not yet, and I thought the change in ownership would bring more aggressive approaches to the comics market just in terms of general energy if nothing else. Do you see signs of change? The comics looks much the same to me, David.

BROTHERS: There's definitely something going on. DC's begun clearing out old inventory stories at a rapid pace. Batman Orphans (cover created in 2002!), Hellblazer: City of Demons is nearly two years old according to Sean Murphy, Teen Titans Cold Case is a tie-in to DC continuity from three or four years ago, and Warren Ellis's banned Hellblazer tale about school shootings finally made it into print. There's been a strong push to put this material in print over the past few months, and it's been tied in with what they're calling DC Comics Presents, where they collect out of print or fan-favorite material in 100 page mini-trades.

imageWhy the sudden push? I'm not going to complain about getting to see Bernie Wrightson inked by Kevin Nowlan, but is there really a demand for Green Lantern stories from the '90s or a reprint of Warren Ellis and Gary Erskine's Jack Cross? That's weird to me, if only because DC is a company that is strikingly conservative with their choice of what to release in collections. Clearing out old inventory stories, no matter their quality, and reprinting tales with presumably small commercial viability is something DC didn't do a year ago.

It makes me feel like something has changed behind the scenes, in terms of both personnel and publishing philosophy. Maybe it's because I can't quite make sense of the choice to present this material again. It's easy to make sense of publishing Teen Titans, which has been thoroughly awful for several years at this point, simply due to the fact that people will buy it.

Marvel hasn't changed much, but I think that even that is notable. You get bought out by one of the biggest corporations on the planet and nothing changes? Not even a little? I'm with you on that point: What's the story there? There's no way that Marvel was a little perfect diamond that Disney wanted to add to the collection sight unseen. What do they get out of it?

The content of the comics at both companies hasn't changed much at all, but I don't really expect it to. I did (do?) expect a change in the way they do business and present themselves to potential audiences. More books for more markets, quicker floppy to trade paperback turnaround, better PR outreach to enthusiast and mainstream press, and things like that, rather than a more mainstream take on Batman. Has Joe Quesada been having meetings where people say things like "toyetic" with a straight face? Is Dan DiDio having to explain to suits that no one actually wants another Swamp Thing movie?

A really thorough and frank state of the union from both companies would be fascinating, no matter how unlikely that is to happen. I wish I had a relationship with either company that could support that, because I'd do it in a hot minute.

SPURGEON: David, you wrote a compelling piece early in December about piracy as a commercial force, as a way of loosening up and enacting policy on behalf what are very conservative companies. What I thought was interesting about it is that you concentrated not on the virtues or demerits of the piracy itself but the positives of the reaction to piracy. How much do you feel that what we're going to get in terms of digital policy is a reaction to outside forces, and how comfortable are you that this will result in positive digital policies for these companies? Because I'm pretty chicken; I tend to think someone that's shoved shoves back and eventually I'm going to fall down and it will hurt.

BROTHERS: We have companies that are already pushing positive digital policies. The indies seem to understand how this new world is going to work. I thought this essay from Brian Clevinger was particularly right-headed. The only problems in my eyes are Marvel and, to a lesser extent right now, DC. We need those two to behave just so that they don't set idiotic precedents that we'll then be stuck with, like region locked DVDs, unskippable piracy warnings, and exploitative business practices.

Marvel in particular is extraordinarily willing to behave poorly with regards to digital comics. I did an interview with them where they essentially confirmed that the Marvel Vault, where they lock away digital comics for however long to goose sales, is a sales ploy. It's exactly what I thought it would be, but it's still incredibly disappointing that Marvel has misread the appeal of digital books to that extent.

imageIt's like they don't understand what it is they're fighting against. If I wake up one morning in a cold sweat and realize that I haven't read everything Gene Colan did at Marvel in the '70s, I can have significant chunk of it after maybe half an hour's sustained effort.

The policies of the current digital landscape is a result of the (absolutely valid) reaction to widespread comics piracy and a hope to maintain their old media relationships. "Our works are being violated, so before we step into this new arena, let's bring some protection. Also let's not piss off our retail friends." That protective stance runs counter to the appeal of digital comics ("I can have everything? Without leaving my couch?!"), and it will hurt them in the long run. It won't even protect their books from being pirated. People pirate print books, not digital comics.

We're stuck with licensing agreements, and that's fine, as long as the terms are more or less fair. But, the problem is that the protective stance (manifested through DRM, exclusivity, sometimes absurd pricing, etc.) is an old media idea that has no place in this new world. They have to loosen up, perhaps sacrifice a few points in favor of greater market penetration and goodwill, and then leverage that toward making money. I hope that the market will show them that this is true, but I'm not too hopeful on that point. But right now, a company reacting to piracy, rather than consumer demand, is absolutely the wrong way to go.

The thing about shoving is that, at some point, we don't have to be the ones who fall. Apple didn't introduce DRM-free tracks because they wanted to. They did it because there was a clear demand for them. Comics just needs the same kind of push, and maybe someone to crouch down behind the comics companies to be sure that the push is properly felt, schoolyard recess-style.

SPURGEON: One of the things that comes in your writing every so often that I enjoy is your attention to design and, maybe as a subset to design, fashion. Can you talk about how you look at some of the visuals that way? Do you think it's an under-appreciated aspect to comics? Writing about comics has a history of focusing on story as if the visuals themselves don't matter. Do you think it explains why certain kind of comics that some feel are baffling -- certain kind of manga, the Image revolution -- get over?

BROTHERS: I'm going to break this one into two separate, but related, answers, if that's okay.

There's probably no way to say this without denigrating the appeal of the writing in comics, but I'm gonna give it a try and trust that people know I love both halves of the comics equation. The appeal of comics for me are, right now at least, 60% art and 40% writing. They both have to work in concert, and if one is awful, it brings the other down, but the visuals are extremely important in creating a good comic book. I quit reading JLA when it was being written by Dwayne McDuffie, one of my most favorite writers ever and probably a huge influence on how I think about certain things, because Ed Benes' art was beyond subpar.

The attention paid to fashion is both a side effect of trying to pay more attention to the art in comics and a result of paying attention to fashion in real life. I follow a fistful of fashion blogs (mostly sneaker blogs, to be fair) and have a few friends who try to pay attention to what they wear. I try to keep up, if only because part of being an adult is wearing a shirt that has buttons on it every once and a while.

The lack of attention paid to fashion in comics is baffling to me. We all pay a certain amount of attention, time, and money on what we wear, but you wouldn't know it when you look at mainstream comics. Guys still wear Solid Colored T-Shirt and Latex Tight Jeans, with maybe a loose, formless leather jacket on top. Women wear Solid Colored Belly Shirt/Baby-T, Low Rise Jeans, and Visible Thong Straps. Belts, jackets, suspenders, and even something as simple as logos tends to be almost nonexistent, barring the relatively few artists who take the time to do it right.

The art in comics is meant to create a world that we believe to be real, if only for the run time of the comic itself. It doesn't have to be realistic, exactly, but it has to create a world that we believe in. It all comes back to verisimilitude, really. The more you see that reflects life, the more likely you are to believe the tale. Seeing characters who only ever wear clothes that you can find in the one dollar bin at a grocery store harms the believability of that world, whether subconsciously or consciously. It's like having a book where characters go hundreds of issues without eating or sleeping.

On your last point... discussing comics without discussing the art is incredibly shortsighted, and I generally don't read people who d
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