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

December 22, 2010

CR Holiday Interview #3—Matt Seneca



I hadn't heard of writer and artist Matt Seneca before this year, and getting to read his critical writing on comics over the course of the last several months has been one of 2010's happy surprises. Seneca's work exhibits a mental agility that takes some writers decades to develop and is always thoroughly engaged with the material at hand. I wish we had a dozen like Seneca, writers out there grappling with great works and new ones with equal, considered passion. On the other hand, I think he may be up to the job all by himself. Seneca supplements his more standard single-work reviews with posts on individual panels, samples of his own comics work, and critical crossover team-ups, two of which we talk about below. I really enjoyed how he answered the following barrage of questions, the vast majority of which were on the state of the art form 2010. I think you will, too. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Matt, you're a 2010 Internet discovery for me, where a reader had to ask "Why aren't you linking to Matt Seneca?" before I went and found you. Can you talk about when you started to write about comics in the way you currently, what drove you to start posting considerable reviews on-line?

MATT SENECA: Let's see, I started writing about comics online almost exactly a year ago, in late December 2009. It was something I'd been thinking about doing for a while -- I almost started a blog at the beginning of that year but decided not to -- and I guess I finally took the plunge because it was the end of what I had found to be a really interesting decade in comics and I wanted to participate in the summing-up that was going on around the comics internet. Of course, the flip side of the end-of-the-decade thing was that this year was also the first of a new decade, and I figured if I was going to be part of the 2010s in comics it couldn't hurt to start at the beginning.

imageIt was also just a really inspiring time for me personally with comics. There was about a month there where it seemed like every week was pulling me way deeper into thinking about the medium than I'd ever been before: first it was reading the 300th issue of The Comics Journal, with all the creator back-and-forths on the brass tacks of making comics, then a few days later it was getting the Collected Doug Wright book and having the life of a comics artist presented to me in the most aesthetically satisfying way I'd ever seen it. That and the Dash Shaw/David Mazzucchelli Journal interview got me drawing my own comics again for the first time since I was a kid, which in turn got me focused much more intensely on what the medium is and what it does than I'd previously had cause to be. Just a bit later I read Flex Mentallo for the first time, which I think is probably all anybody could ever need to convince them of the comics medium's importance, then it was the Unclothed Man collection and Afrodisiac one Wednesday after the next, and after that I couldn't have looked back if I wanted to.

It might not seem like there's much of a common thread to all that, but for me it was all part of one big motion: comics finally proving out as active engagement to me after I'd spent years using them as passive entertainment. Discovering those particular books, all of which I think have a common denominator in the way they offer comics as vital, incredibly fun, and artistically accessible, just set me on fire to be coming at the medium as more than just a reader, to be out there doing something in it. It was like that one Paper Rad story in Kramers Ergot: "Now I must make comics." The blogging started as almost an afterthought -- I wanted a place to show the pages I was drawing to some kind of wider audience, and I figured the best way to get it was to offer the same thing I like looking at on the internet, namely long-form comics criticism. It took me a while to really get into writing-about-comics as a creative act, but as far back as I can remember I've wanted to say things about the stuff I read. Encountering a print copy of Josh Simmons' Batman mini-comic was another big moment for me around that same time; as an artistic inspiration but even more so as my first explicitly critical one. I really wanted to write out what's in that book, so I gave it a shot, and from there it was just scanning in images and posting the articles and deciding not to stop.

SPURGEON: I get the sense from some of your interview introductions that your was a life filled with interactions to comics, that you're not one of the newer breed of people getting into comics at a later age. Is that a fair statement? Can you unpack your relationship to comics a bit, how far back it goes?

SENECA: The volume has varied, but yeah, I've had comics around me for a long time.

imageI learned to read really early, and neither of my parents had any interest in the medium, so it wasn't there quite from the start, which I think might be somewhat unique among comics lifers. I'd been reading prose books for a good two years by the time I remember really encountering comics and the way I read was already quite fully formed, so I didn't come to comics as a step toward "real" reading, but as a totally separate experience. Maybe that explains why I like to focus more on the visual aspect of them than the story part, I don't know. Anyway, yeah, I was maybe five or six when I got the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told book with all the Curt Swan stories and a Calvin and Hobbes collection one right after the other, and they totally blew my little mind... my strongest memories from that period are all asking whatever adult I happened to be with at the moment questions about comics-specific visual devices. Stuff like why the balloons got all spiky (they were shouting) or why there were lines coming out of the characters' backs (they were moving really fast). Having to figure out that visual language for myself intellectually, rather than in the instinctual way I'd imagine it comes to most young comics readers, really got me focused on the way comics construct what they construct, and that remains as much an aspect of reading the stuff for me as parsing the story is even now.

imageSo I was pretty big into comics all through my childhood, but I was big into a lot of other stuff too, and it wasn't until I was eight or nine that they started to take on a more significance for me than any number of other things had. The public libraries in the Bay Area where I grew up tend to have really strong comics sections, and my parents, to their eternal credit, were never at all interested in overseeing what I was reading, so by the time I was a teenager I'd pretty much absorbed all the classic "grownup genre" stuff that so many adult readers seem to get stuck on, the [Frank] Miller and [Alan] Moore and [Will] Eisner and [Neil] Gaiman mainstream canon. I was making my own comics and selling photocopied issues at school there for a couple years too. I also got hooked into the Diamond-distributed, every-Wednesday swing of things when I was ten or eleven because of the X-Men movie, which drove me into a specialty shop and a waiting copy of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's first X-Men issue. Yes, superhero movies actually do create new comics buyers, folks, even when their allowance is a dollar a week.

When I was 14, I was lucky enough to walk onto the staff of what at the time was easily the Bay Area's best comic shop, Comic Relief, owned by the minor local legend Rory Root (one of the most passionate people about comics you could possibly meet, if a completely impossible man to have as your boss; he died in 2008, long before his time) and managed by now-Image Comics executive Todd Martinez. It was about the best place a teenage comics enthusiast could possibly end up: surrounded by comics, working with people who loved them as much as I did, and I got paid in comics for the first year or two, long before that stopped sounding like a really good deal. I guess that's kind of my origin story: I managed the back room, which was a massive, incredibly dusty, back issue-encrusted archive of goddamn near every comic to have come out in pamphlet form since 1955 or so. I filed new books away, I reorganized when the need arose, but mostly I sat on piles of old Diamond boxes underneath a few tacked-up light bulbs that would totally set your hair on fire if you weren't extra careful, and I read. Took about a year on post-1980 genre comics, another year on the Silver Age and the undergrounds, another year on classic newspaper strips, and I was starting Eurocomics and alt-comix when the girl I was dating decided she was born to be an actress and we ended up flat broke in LA, which is about the worst thing that can possibly happen to you as an American citizen.

I worked a comics-industry job here for a while, realized it wasn't for me after a few months of anxiety attacks and anorexia, and when I quit I finally went back to comics as pure reading, not an outgrowth of my job but just fun and edification. After a while I got into the comics internet -- I'd looked at reviews when I worked retail to keep up with the product, but never blogs -- and I went from Tim Callahan and Chad Nevett to the TCJ site and Comics Comics to Jog and Tucker Stone to deciding yeah, I'm going to do this too. Which is about where we came in, I think.


SPURGEON: Can you describe in broad terms the relationship of your creative work to your critical art? Does either provide a different viewpoint that's useful in making and/or articulating thoughts about comics? Has there ever been a time when the approaches have been at loggerheads with you?

SENECA: Oh man... well, in a lot of ways it's like they're totally separate, and in a lot of other ways they're really the same thing. Drawing comics is like candy to me, like doing drugs or something. Just pure transportive bliss. Once I've roughed out a sequence and I know what I'm doing with it I get taken over by a part of my brain that never comes into play when I'm writing anything. It's the same part of myself I use in playing music: I've gone past the ideas and concerns involved in the larger "piece" and I'm just swimming in the surrender/control dynamic of my hands moving, producing creative work as soon as they've touched tool to page. There's nothing of that immediacy in comics criticism (I'll very occasionally get it in my fiction writing, but even there hardly ever), where the process is all about developing an idea. It's a lot like the process I go through when I'm reading comics in a foreign language, actually: I look at the book, I digest what it's saying, then I try to translate that from comics-language into text and draw conclusions about the whys and wherefores of what the book is telling me. Both things are based in reading comics -- that's where I get the inspiration -- but with drawing the fully-formed idea is just the beginning whereas with criticism it's the end goal.

imageIn terms of the two things informing each other, oh yeah, happens all the time. As soon as I can define what an artist's doing in words I have the option of telling myself "okay, now in your next comic you should do that." The kind of close, craft-based reading I do when I read a book knowing I'll be reviewing it later on is the place where I engage with whatever items from the comics-making toolbox that are being brought to bear, and studying their use in search of understanding is like artistic research. In that way my comics criticisms are almost like a diary of what I'm learning about the form, the ways I'm comprehending it and filing it for future use. And of course, drawing comics makes you so much more aware of what's going on with the pages of the stuff you read. I never used to notice things like visible brush grain or anatomical distortion until I was making choices about whether or not to use them myself. You read a page, a panel even, way deeper once you're making them too. So they flow in and out of one another, I guess. Both things go into how I see comics, into my interactions with the medium. Both things bring me closer, make me think about it more. Maybe it's because I started doing both right at the same time, but I can't imagine one without the other.

As for the two conflicting with one another, only when I realize I have to go to sleep at some point. Honestly, I would've liked to have drawn a lot more comics this year, and there's also stuff I wanted to write about but couldn't get to. It's always tough when I have a set amount of time in which I know I can lay out a page or write a review but not both. Blogging's so addictive, too -- when I can slam out a finished product that I know I'll have a few hundred people reading by the end of the day in the same time it takes me to make one incremental step forward in drawing something nobody's going to see for a week, the slow path is a tough one to take.

SPURGEON: Because of your limited window as an active blogger, you may be the most qualified person to whom I've ever asked this question. How do you characterize 2010 for comics as an art form? Did we have a good year, a bad one, an indifferent one? When someone asks later on about that first year of you doing this in devoted fashion, what will you tell them about the times in which you landed?

SENECA: I thought this was a great year for comics. We got some individual books that I think are going to stand the test of time and become classics of the medium (ACME #20, Powr Mastrs 3, X'ed Out, Afrodisiac), we got a few up-to-this-point missing gems reprinted (Captain Easy, more Nipper, Art In Time, a solid chunk of the early, and in my opinion the best Krazy Kat), and on a broader level I think a few really appealing trends surfaced. We got "fusion comics," to chalk a term from Frank Santoro, proving that the Diamond-distribution, specialty shop warhorse still has some kick to it. We got Seth and Charles Burns moving to the serialized-book format, which with its mass-market appeal and increased accommodation of design I think is a pretty swell future for mainstream comics (not superhero comics, mainstream comics). We got two gorgeous straight-to-book-form collections of high-end anthology work in the Unclothed Man and Wally Gropius collections, which is really something new and exciting -- like, if I want to read all David Mazzucchelli's anthology shorts from the past 15 years or whatever it is there's no way to do it but to comb the internet, but with Shaw and Hensley it got put right there. And we got a few artists doing little patches of absolutely brilliant work here and there, from Michael DeForge's appearance-by-appearance takeover of the alt-comix scene to Paul Pope's single, beautiful THB pamphlet to Brendan McCarthy's appropriately bizarre return to the medium.

I guess if I had to characterize it as one thing, 2010 felt like a beginning, with a lot of great new talent emerging, the Golden Age of Reprints moving into real esoterica, the pantheon of old dogs putting out books that had some bracing new tricks to them, tons of disparate influences flying this way and that through a lot of the best material, and a good amount of experimentation with new ways of getting the stuff to its market, from AdDistro to Picturebox's presales to (what seemed to me) a rise in essential books that were sold mainly through their creators' websites.

The one thing that I thought was really disappointing this year was superhero comics. There were some definite bright spots, and I think some of the most beautifully drawn hero comics ever came out this year, but by and large I think there was absolutely no feeling of excitement or forward pull at either Marvel or DC in 2010, and honestly that's always been their biggest selling point for me. Much as I hated the big "event" comics that dominated the genre from 2005-2009 or so -- much as I didn't even read a one of them except for Final Crisis -- the illusion of change they fostered kept the stuff from crashing down under its own weight. It seemed like both Marvel and DC were trying to make this year a back to basics thing to some extent, stripping away the massive marketing platforms everyone's gotten so tired of and just telling simple superhero stories again. But the thing is that the culture that produced those event books -- the fragmentary, elliptical storytelling, the de-emphasis of art, the dependence on one vague overarching plot instead of solidly written scenes and characters, the treatment of the comics as pure product and not as creative work or hell, even entertainment, cause it doesn't need to be entertaining if the fans are buying everything on the checklist, it just needs to come out on time -- it's all really, really poorly suited to telling simple superhero stories.

imageA good superhero comic is, in my opinion, mainly an artist who's passionate, who's experimenting, and who's drawing the whole issue, paired with a story that just makes sense, that doesn't have any obvious holes. And for Christ's sake, it's short and satisfying, it doesn't dunder on and wait for the value of the money you paid for it to prove out in six months and a hundred more pages. It's immediate gratification, it's a hit of populist art that gets you back for more. Since the big Miller/Moore/Gaiman boom a lot of ideas about being more and aiming higher have crept into the hero-comics culture -- both in the way they're produced and in what the fans ask from them -- and that's not a bad thing, I mean we wouldn't have gotten Grant Morrison or JH Williams or Frazer Irving or a lot of what's great about the stuff these days without those lofty ideals. But honestly, if I wanted to read smart comics I wouldn't be reading the kind with Batman in them, and if I wanted to read an intricate, finely crafted story I'd pick up, yeah, a "real book." By the very nature of what they are, all-ages corporate-owned superhero comics can never break through to even ground with the rest of the higher-art material, and when they try it's only good if all the hyper-action, done-in-one, Kirby/Ditko basics are already in place. In my opinion, superhero comics that set themselves up to be epic sagas -- which pretty much everything people got excited about in that genre this year did -- are starting from failure, because that's just not what they're supposed to be.

Boy, I didn't mean to get that far off track... yeah, this was a really great year for comics, despite the minor blemish that the hero stuff turned out to be.

SPURGEON: When we talked briefly about comics that were interesting to you this year, you paired Batman: Odyssey and Deadpool: MAX together. Why? Because I think conventional wisdom would be that the former is representative of a way of doing comics that's lost and the latter may be best seen as a way of doing comics that's never caught on. Is it just their being out of step that unites them in your mind?

SENECA: Ah, some good superhero comics! Those two books being out of step with an incredibly tepid mainstream definitely does make me put them together to a certain extent, but I think there's more to it than that. I guess it's that both seem so aggressively different from what's selling right now, so not part of the multi-issue tapestry approach, and are done in styles that come off really differently from the prevailing mode of over-naturalistic, TV-sitcom-meets-TV-drama superhero comics. They exist as property-driven moneymaking schemes, yeah, but they also seem like legitimate vehicles for artistic expression, places where t
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