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

March 7, 2011

CR Newsmaker Interview: Dan Nadel, Tim Hodler Of TCJ



It's my understanding that venerable industry news and criticism magazine The Comics Journal let the world know today that Tim Hodler and Dan Nadel will be taking over the magazine's web iteration. Hodler and Nadel are best known as an editorial team in terms of their work on the magazines The Ganzfeld and Comics Comics. Nadel has also written two lauded books for Abrams collecting artists that worked in mainstream comics that might have been alternative creators in modern times, and is the driving force behind the art comics publisher PictureBox. Tim and Dan are among my favorite writers about comics and favorite comics people generally. I look forward to what they bring to the Journal, and I greatly look forward to their long overdue attention to a proper on-line archive.

I was happy the very busy pair agreed to talk to me on the occasion of their re-launch. I wish Tim and Dan all the luck in the world, will be surprised if they need it, and look forward to being a beneficiary of the great writing about comics they are going to help facilitate. -- Tom Spurgeon


imageTOM SPURGEON: Can you tell me how the deal came together? Whose idea was it, and what were some of the talking points getting from idea too goal? When did the deal become finalized? Was the departure of Dirk Deppey part of the plans to move in this direction? For that matter, why keep it a secret?

TIM HODLER AND DAN NADEL: Okay, we'll answer parts of this in the third person, for convenience's sake. Gary Groth sent Dan an email last October and asked if he wanted to take over the Comics Journal site. Apparently there was a rumor about that he'd joked around about doing just that, so Gary just kinda called him on it. Dan immediately contacted Tim, and we agreed to investigate it a bit. We met up with Gary in early November in NYC to talk about our ideas for the site, and shortly after that, finalized an agreement.

The initial goal was and remains the creation of a genuine on-line comics magazine (as opposed to blog, or series of blogs), with all of the long-form essays, interviews, reviews, and visual features that come with it. In other words, yes, we're attempting a counter-intuitive web site strategy, in the hopes that quality content will draw people in. We're interested in making a magazine that has a place in the larger visual culture, and can be a go-to source for people seeking insightful writing about comics.

The legacy of the magazine obviously plays a huge role in all of this, and specifically its archives. We are launching with the table of contents for each issue, a few complete issues -- as readable images, a la The New Yorker site -- and a handful of particularly noteworthy interviews available in full as texts. Every week we'll post more compete issues, and we aim to have the entire run up very soon, by the end of 2011 at the latest. Each issue will be tagged, so if, for example, you want to find all of Carter Scholz's pieces, you'll be able to pull up a list of all the issues he appears in. Or all the Gil Kane interviews. Etc. It'll all be there. Now, aside from the classic pieces we pull out to highlight in text form on the site (there will be many of these -- at least a hundred eventually), the complete archives will be fully accessible only to the magazine's print subscribers.

As mentioned earlier, we knew from the start that we wanted to start fresh and produce a unified site. Sub-domains didn't work because we didn't see any reason to carve up the site into fiefdoms. So yes, the departure of Deppey's Journalista!, as well as the other previously existing sub-blogs, can be tied to our coming on board. Also, in regards to Journalista!, in these days of RSS feeds, there seems to be less need for that kind of comprehensive link-blogging than there used to be.

We wanted to keep it a secret because, frankly, we wanted to work on it without a spotlight -- it gave us a free hand to conceptualize and think without the pressure of expectations, etc. Also, we were asked to keep it quiet for PR reasons.

SPURGEON: To provide some context, can each of you talk about your relationship to the magazine over the years, where you encountered it, if you contributed to it, if it was influential, and how that might have fueled your interest in taking it over?

DAN NADEL: I was 15 or so... the first issue I picked up was 152 -- Gary's interview with Todd McFarlane. In a way, that's a gold standard: Gary was confronting an artist about his choices, and it was a conversation that needed to happen. Funnily, little has changed since then. It was a pretty swift conversion for me, and I quickly tried to grab as many issues as I could. Through the Journal I learned about Charles Burns, Julie Doucet, Rick Griffin, Aline Kominsky, as well as The Bungle Family... I was already deep into underground comics and had read the Smithsonian books, the Feiffer book, various Goulart histories, but I had somehow missed the Journal, and it was there that I learned that it all mattered. Before it was discovery and history. After, it was suddenly relevant. That was my big lesson -- that thinking about and criticizing and understanding the moral ramifications of aesthetic/commercial choices in comics was crucial. I even wound up reading the various mid-century critics he always referred to.

It was a hugely important magazine for both my comics and my critical thinking education. I can't really overstate it... The morality of TCJ remains very important to me, as does its uncompromising critical stances (even if I disagreed). The culture of TCJ was crucial -- the idea that there were people who really cared about the art and commerce of the medium in a clear-eyed fashion. It wasn't perfect, but it remains the only repository of real critical and historical thinking about comics.

As for actual previous experience... I applied for an internship when I was 19 but never heard back! Sigh. I guess it's all worked out.

I only contributed a few interviews to the magazine over the years. But I loved the Journal and I think everyone can agree that its legacy has taken a hit these last couple years. So, yeah, I want to make it great again. I think now's a perfect time to engage again.

TIM HODLER: I didn't pick up my first issue of The Comics Journal until I was in college. I'm a pretender compared to Dan. He's the real deal, a former comic-store clerk who probably had a well-honed argument defending his position vis-à-vis Wolverine vs Cyclops (or John Byrne vs Dave Cockrum) well before I ever had a conversation with another person who read comics regularly. I was more of a solitary reader, a Mad magazine and comic-strips kid, though somehow I still managed to find out about and get hooked on Hate and Eightball as a teenager. Never heard of TCJ until later though.

I started reading the magazine when you were its managing editor, actually (since those days, of course, I've gone back and read back issues from earlier eras). Those were some pretty entertaining issues, too, with great long-running letter-column debates (which reminds me: Dan, we should try do a "Best of Blood & Thunder" feature), wonderfully long cartoonist interviews that were somehow both depressing and inspiring simultaneously (like so much else comics-related), and just tons of personality generally. I think that's always been the Journal at its best: a place for a plurality of real, idiosyncratic, and conflicting voices to be heard arguing with each other, a venue for usually intelligent and always passionate (if sometimes amateurish and/or deeply irritating) debate about not only individual artists and stories, but the entire industry. It is one of my favorite magazines of all time, and one of the very few that can legitimately claim to have helped change an entire art form -- and in consequence, the culture generally -- for the better.

I have never written for the Journal until Gary asked me to participate in the Crumb roundtable that is being published in the next issue, which should be out this spring.

SPURGEON: A couple of follow-ups. I don't want you to dwell on it, but since Dan brought it up and because I think it may be useful in terms of characterize how you're going to approach the work, could you talk briefly about the nature of how the magazine's legacy "took a hit"? How specifically does your magazine correct what you and perhaps other readers feel is a step back for the publication in recent years? What will make your Journal important to comics and comics reader right now?

HODLER AND NADEL: The magazine fell out of step with the culture around it. It was still providing great interviews and the like, but lacked a vision and a guiding critical sensibility. Its reason for being was no longer always clear. And then the web site, while well intentioned, suffered from a confusing design and too much content of widely varying quality. It lacked any kind of unifying idea, was difficult to navigate, and simply didn't take advantage of (or build adequately from) the print magazine's enormously valuable legacy.

Our Journal will be tightly editorially controlled. Meaning: We are actively commissioning articles, thinking about how to put together a day/week/month of content so that it coheres, and dividing content into obvious categories so that readers can get the most from a visit. We are also trying to be completely engaged with the best of the medium. So, for example, when Chester Brown publishes a major new book, or Aline Kominsky releases her autobiography, etc., we will cover it from a bunch of different angles -- we will pull from the print magazine's archive, we'll conduct new interviews, we'll post reviews and essays. In other words, we'll give them the kind of 360-degree coverage a cultural event deserves, and that these days is only really possible on-line.

imageRight now when a major comics work is published, it can be a real struggle to find any noteworthy coverage: we want to be the first place people look for it. We also plan to focus on more general thinking about comics -- guys like Ken Parille and Frank Santoro expand our vocabulary for talking about the medium. So, our Journal will be important to readers right now because it will focus on comics as a living, breathing medium with issues to be discussed. We will be publishing what we think is the best (accessible) critical and historical writing, and we will be covering cartoonists we think are important to the medium right now. The new TCJ can be a trusted to provide a hub for comics as a cultural vessel.

SPURGEON: Can you break down what each of you will be doing for the magazine, and how this gig fits into each of your professional lives? I have a feeling that neither one of you if quitting to do this full-time or near full-time, but I honestly don't know. Although these collective answers suggest an enormous amount of cooperation, how does the work break down between the two of you? And is there anyone else involved in an editorial capacity from your end?

HODLER AND NADEL: Geez, that's an interesting question. What will we be doing for the magazine? First of all, your comment about the collective answers has suddenly made at least one of us extremely self-conscious.

HODLER: It seemed like a natural way to go about this interview at first, what with it being conducted via e-mail and all, and also just to avoid having one of us give a long and involved answer, leaving the other just to quickly agree by saying "yup." It's not like if you were asking us questions verbally, we would be answering in unison, hands clasped behind our back. (Actually, even better, one of us would answer while the other hummed musical accompaniment, perhaps "La Marseillaise"?) [Spurgeon laughs] But wait, where were we? Oh yes: Basically we will be doing the same things for The Comics Journal that we did for Comics Comics -- editing & coordinating & writing & wrangling -- only on a much larger scale, and involving a lot more people. Dan's got a bit more time in his schedule right now, and so will be taking the lion's share of the work for the time being, but we're basically doing the same things, just in different proportions. Hold on, let's see if Dan can explain in his own words...

NADEL: Tim and I basically agree on everything. Seriously. This has to do with my knowing Tim is smarter, funnier and more rational than I am, and Tim knowing... well, I'm not sure why he agrees with me. It's a mystery. So we kinda work in synchronicity, assuming the other one is not doing some insanely stupid (and when I do, Tim just gives it a good title, like "Dapper Dan's Movie Reviews.") But, concretely, yes, we're both assigning and editing, and then on top of that I tend to handle the design/programming/admin supervision work, while Tim tends to deal with day-to-day editorial upkeep and comments monitoring.

HODLER: Other than that very amorphous division of labor, we're basically playing it by ear and seeing how things shake out. We've been working together on CC for a very long time now, and more or less just do these things unconsciously at this point.

NADEL: About the job thing: At the end of 2010 I finished an 18-month long consulting project for an arts funding company, so TCJ basically is slotting into that space in my day/week, as well as the space left by Comics Comics. Everything else remains the same for me professionally (though to stay sane I'll probably write less about comics for other magazines): PictureBox, book-packaging, curating, teaching, and writing. And Tim remains an editor at a magazine here in NYC, as well as a freelance writer.

As for your last question, Kristy Valenti has been helping us out a lot in various ways, but otherwise, we're the editors!


SPURGEON: Second follow-up of the two I mentioned. On my first, quick reading, neither one of you has mentioned the news; certainly it's not been a point of emphasis in those first couple of responses. In recent years the Journal for the most part stopped doing news reporting and on-line the expression of news gathering fell to Dirk Deppey's blog. Will your Comics Journal have a news function? If so, what? If not, why not?

HODLER AND NADEL: Our TCJ will cover news as it relates to the health of the medium. There are plenty of outlets for comics industry news and we're going to try and restrict ourselves to topics that warrant more in-depth coverage.

SPURGEON: To get back into site specifics: what are the parameters of the publication as you conceive of it now, what are we going to see and on what basis? Is it web site based? Are you taking over the print Journal as well? Can you just talk about what we're going to see for the next few months to a year from you, just in rough terms?

HODLER AND NADEL: We're only editing the web site, which will be a full-on magazine with new content every day. (Gary Groth is editing the print version of the Journal by himself. It is now an annual. Having seen a PDF of issue #301, we can say it's really exciting to see "the old man" back in action.) The on-line magazine will publish long features, like Bob Levin's piece on Frazetta and upcoming interviews with Jim Woodring and Chester Brown by Nicole Rudick and Sean Rogers, respectively.

We have commissioned about eight regular columns covering various aspects of the medium. Column writers and topics include: Ryan Holmberg on the history of alternative manga; Richard Gehr's series of New Yorker cartoonist profiles; R. Fiore's "Funnybook Roulette", covering various ideas and reviews; Ken Parille's twice-monthly close readings of comics; continuations of Frank Santoro's and Joe "Jog" McCulloch's columns from Comics Comics; a bi-weekly Jeet Heer column on comics history; and R.C. Harvey once a month on comic strips. Also, every three weeks we plan to run "A Cartoonist's Diary", featuring a different artist each time, with a week's worth of posts about their daily routines. First up is Vanessa Davis, and later we'll have Brandon Graham and Joyce Farmer, among others. We also plan to feature selective (as opposed to comprehensive) link-blogging, at least one comic review a day, highlighted classics from the magazine's archives (as noted earlier), and as many other things as we can think of. We want this site to be a hub and destination for the best thinking and writing on comics. That's the goal.

imageSPURGEON: Will Gary be involved with the on-line edition?

HODLER AND NADEL: Gary has been very involved in the conceptualizing stage and he's planning a number of articles and interviews for the new site, as well as new introductions to the archival material. So, basically, we want Gary involved as much as he has time for. The Comics Journal has always been at its best when Gary is heavily involved with it.

SPURGEON: You already mentioned Kristy Valenti... what about previous editor Mike Dean?

HODLER AND NADEL: Michael Dean will, we hope, write as much for us as he can, and as our editorial coordinator, Kristy Valenti will be working with us from Seattle in an administrative and editorial capacity to make sure everything is running smoothly. Michael and Kristy -- and Jacq Cohen -- have been invaluably helpful during this transitional period, by the way.

imageSPURGEON: What about Kim Thompson? For that matter, can you maybe just talk about the writing pool generally?

HODLER AND NADEL: We've asked Kim Thompson to write, and it looks like he will. If he writes the series we've tentatively agreed to, it will split the internet in three. Otherwise, yes, many of the The Comics Journal writers are continuing or returning, including Bob Levin, R. Fiore ("Funnybook Roulette" will be a regular column), Chris Mautner, Sean T. Collins, Rob Clough, R.C. Harvey, and others. We're also very excited to have some familiar but new-to-TCJ names coming on board, such Patrick Rosenkranz, Ken Parille, Richard Gehr, and Tom De Haven, not to mention the entire Comics Comics crew, of course, and plenty of other great contributors such as Naomi Fry, Jesse Pearson, and Andrew Leland. We're trying to put together a pretty large pool, which we'll need!

SPURGEON: Talk to me a bit more about the archival function. My take on archiving the Journal was that there were some problems in that republishing the material in text form did not fall under the basic contractual understanding between writer and publication: that the Journal bought first rights and that full rights reverted back to the writer six months after publication. I, for one, have archived the Journal work I did as a freelancer on my own site.

Now, I assume in terms of the page-by-page scans you're leaning on the exception that the
New Yorker established, that this kind of archiving doesn't involve having to secure special rights to do so with freelancers. Is that the way you see it? And in terms of the text pieces you say will be made available, are you securing permission from freelancers, focusing on those articles TCJ has all rights to (such as the articles done by employees). Or are you securing new rights/repaying?

HODLER AND NADEL: You're correct. The text pieces we're pulling out to republish were either written by a TCJ employee or the rights have been secured. The page-by-page scans, we've been told (and it makes sense) do not need to be cleared, as they're presented as documents, as in The New Yorker model. In both cases, this has been Gary's department, and he's been careful to get everything cleared.

SPURGEON: The first iteration of The Comics Journal on-line, the one in the mid-1990s, was perhaps best known -- good, bad and, let's face it: really, really bad -- for its message board. The Comics Comics site has had an active comments culture, although in recent weeks some authors have turned comments off. What will be your TCJ's take on commentary and feedback, both in terms of how you're set up to handle it or not in a functional sense, but also in the philosophical. Is it important for you that TCJ readers have space to speak their mind?

HODLER AND NADEL: Well, we are taking down the message board. Its day -- and that of message boards in general, frankly -- seems to be done. However, most of our posts will have comments enabled (depending on the author). For the most part, the CC comments threads have fostered lively and valuable discussions, so we're hoping that that will continue. On-line comments threads can provide a really good forum to discuss issues, and at CC at least we've been lucky enough to have artists and historians engage with their readers. If we can continue that, we think we can make a contribution to how comics are discussed in general.

SPURGEON: This is probably something I should have asked earlier, but how much have you drawn on outside influences in terms of web publishing? Are there sites -- The Paris Review, The Atlantic, perhaps -- that have been instructive to you in putting together your version of the Journal? For example, when we started CR, we had Romenesko in mind content-wise and employed the Annenberg School's then-site design. How qualified have you felt in putting together an effort like this one, what have the challenges been in that sense?

HODLER AND NADEL: You read our minds. Or hacked into our emails. Our primary models were: The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Pitchfork, and Tablet. We were looking for sites that could handle multiple categories of content in a clean and efficient fashion. But with TCJ we also wanted to move away from the type/white-space model of most sites and make it fun and visually exciting. Having plenty of room for artwork has been very important. We felt moderately qualified because of our experience with CC, as well as years of experience in publishing in general, not to mention that we're both obsessive readers. Basically, we tried to build the site we wanted to see.

SPURGEON: Wizard Magazine just re-launched with an eye towards post-Web digital publishing: they say they're focused on apps and tablet-ready content as opposed to web sites and blogs. Do you have any interest at all in moving the Journal eventually in those directions? Do you feel like device-ready content represents a long-term solution as to how the Journal will function?

HODLER AND NADEL: Well, Frank Santoro is actually taking over Wizard, so we'll have to compete with that. [Spurgeon laughs] The new web design is tablet-friendly, and we conceived the site as something that can move into other formats, but we'd be lying if we said we had immediate plans. Right now we're just launching the site. If it's a success, then we'll talk to Gary and co. about the next step.

imageSPURGEON: Before I forget to follow up, what exactly becomes of Comics Comics?

HODLER AND NADEL: We're not taking it down, but we won't be publishing any new content there, at least for the foreseeable future.

SPURGEON: With Fantagraphics and now PictureBox involved in some capacity in the production of an important magazine about comics, can you talk a little bit about how you approach the danger of favoring those two publishers over others, how you feel about a charge that's going to be leveled by somebody out there and what you plan to do to ensure you're as fair as possible? For that matter, considering the level of complexity involved in this arrangement and the ambition you have for the magazine, are you considering an ombudsman or letting someone play that role?

HODLER AND NADEL: Well, there's not a lot we can do about that concern, other than to attempt to be as fair as possible. Because FB publishes a large percentage of the best contemporary and archival comics in North America, it is inescapable that we will cover a lot of its projects. If we didn't, TCJ wouldn't be doing its job. Gary has dealt with that pretty well over the years. But we certainly won't shy away from being critical of FB projects either, which is something we've done at CC and will continue to do. It should be noted that Gary was very forthright about this: He told us to do whatever we need to do and feel free to blast away if we think something deserves it. And we will.

As for PictureBox, if one of our regular reviewers feels that a PBox comic deserves a pan, well, then he'll be fired. (That's a joke, son.) Really, given that PictureBox publishes only about 3-4 comics titles a year, we think it'll be pretty easy to integrate it into our normal coverage, and they're all fair game for reviewers to praise or criticize as they see fit. We honestly can't imagine it not receiving similar treatment to Adhouse or a like-sized publisher and we'll be extra careful, but we also don't want to penalize artists and books. Tim will probably handle the editing of reviews of those particular books. So, that said, Robot 6 is running a big preview & interview of Yokoyama's next book in March, precisely because Dan didn't want to actively promote a PBox book on Likely that kind of thinking will continue. However, it's hard to argue against, say, an interview with CF or Matthew Thurber sometime in the next 18 months, simply because they are very interesting artists to both of us, and to our readership. So, for PBox, let's just say when we both agree there's something that TCJ must cover, it will, but we'll be very careful. And yes, we will be running negative reviews of PBox books, should they come in.

As for an ombudsman -- we're not really set up for that. We're relying on our best judgment, and we're sure we'll be called on any and all fouls!

SPURGEON: In addition to perhaps seeking other outlets, is there anything that you want to do editorially that you might be putting off for a while? Is there something we can look forward to you doing or trying where we know things are moving along pretty well when it shows up? Have you even thought that far down the line?

HODLER AND NADEL: There are a few articles and recurring features under discussion that we are extremely excited about, but haven't quite locked down well enough for us to announce. But honestly, at this point, just getting the site off the ground and running is feeling like a major accomplishment. Things will be moving along pretty well if we deliver on all the promises we've made so far, and are still delivering on them six months from now!

SPURGEON: If I remember correctly, the last few years of the print Journal ran comics as well as prose articles about comics. Two questions. First, do you plan on running comics on the web site? Also, in your list of planned columns I see most major expressions of comics covered but not webcomics, those comics that have arisen out of Internet culture or an Internet platform separate from comics -- Achewood, for example. Do you plan on any special coverage of that specific world of comics, to treat it as its own thing, and if not, why not?

HODLER AND NADEL: We do plan on running excerpts of upcoming and important graphic novels now and again (as we're doing for Seth's new book), but do not at this point have immediate plans to run any original comics (other than whatever the various cartoonists who are submitting diaries may submit). It's definitely on our radar as a possibility, though. Webcomics is another area we plan to watch. Eventually we may commission a regular column or writer to handle that topic, but for now, we simply plan to cover web comics the same way we cover those in print: we will run reviews and occasional articles about various titles, and include them along with the rest. If that ends up seeming inadequate a few months down the line, of course, we reserve the right to change direction.

SPURGEON: Could each of you name a favorite piece that's showing up in the first month or with the launch that we can specifically look forward to seeing? Could each of you name a specific piece you're particularly looking forward to seeing being made available in the archives? I know you like a lot of pieces from each group, so it won't be your most favorite, or the best. A favorite.

HODLER: In some ways, the stuff I'm most excited by is nothing new for the Journal. Just to see R. Fiore's or Donald Phelps' names on a web site I helped edit is enough. New major articles from Bob Levin and Tom De Haven are also big news in my household. Gary has brought up the possibility of reviewing one book in particular (that I shouldn't mention by name yet, probably) that I think will be incredibly fun to read. Dan might not feel the same way. As for archives, there are way too many items to list: maybe the great Pekar/Fiore/Spiegelman debates?

imageNADEL: This'll sound redundant: I'm really excited to be working with Bob Levin, who I've admired for a long time, as well as Tom De Haven. Tom's upcoming pieces are really exciting to me. Also, Patrick Rosenkranz and Sean Rogers... well, it's all pretty exciting. As for the archive: I look forward to Carter Scholz's "Seduction of the Ignorant" and Rob Rodi's brilliant take down of Watchmen, as well as having those CC Beck columns available again. But we advise patience... it'll take us a while to get all of it up there.

SPURGEON: Finally, you mentioned how it's time for the Journal to engage with comics again. What do you say to the argument that the Journal's mission has been accomplished, that comics did find a place for itself as an art form and an industry in terms of making seriously intended art? What is its mission now? To celebrate that fact? To shore up the edges? To simply provide the kind of conversation that made this possible and affected your lives? Why should anyone care if the Journal is revitalized or not?

HODLER AND NADEL: There is a reasonable argument to be made that the Journal has fulfilled its original mission, at least to a certain extent, but to say that leaves nothing to be done seems a little silly. Music, literature, painting, film: these are all occasionally serious art forms that found places for themselves long ago, and there is still plenty of room for intelligent, worthwhile criticism to be written about them. Of course, in a real sense, the Journal's mission will never be entirely fulfilled: while many comics worth of serious attention are being published, there is still very little serious attention actually being paid. We are in the middle of an extremely volatile time, not only for comics and its current distribution system, but for publishing itself, and now is as an important a time as ever to focus critical thought forcefully and perceptively at work that deserves it. The average intelligent person who is interested in comics but doesn't know where to begin has precious few venues to look to for guidance. Comics coverage at most mainstream press outlets is a second thought at best, and even the best of the specialist press sometimes seems drowned out by the wider sea of box-office hype, meaningless bickering, and offensive glad-handing. We want to be the kind of site that anyone can visit and not only be entertained but genuinely informed.


* The Comics Journal


* photos of Nadel (left) and Hodler by Whit Spurgeon
* a Gil Kane Journal
* TCJ #152, Nadel's first
* Frank Santoro, by Whit Spurgeon
* the old Journalista logo
* photos of Gary Groth and Kim Thompson by Tom Spurgeon
* interior page sample
* cover to an issue of Comics Comics
* the "Seduction Of The Ignorant" issue of TCJ
* the magazine's first logo, 300 issues ago



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