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An Interview With Todd Hignite
posted July 22, 2006


One of the most satisfying developments in the last decade in the limited field of writing about comics has been the debut and subsequent development of Comic Art. With so many publications and books positioning themselves in terms of approaches and markets, Comic Art traveled the more admirable route of acting as a reflection of editor Todd Hignite's view of comics. It's a classy and intelligent view, as was apparent throughout the magazine's first-volume run.

Hignite returns this summer with the first issue of Comic Art volume 2, the beginning of a partnership with Buenaventura Press. Hignite uses the thicker BP version to give Seth a booklet platform through which to talk about comics and to profile through his various, high-profile contributing writers such creators as Drew Friedman, Richard McGuire and Jim Starlin.

We traded e-mails in late June.


TOM SPURGEON: I've never interviewed you before. Can you give me the short story of your background, particularly your relationship to comics as it led you to originally doing Comic Art?

TODD HIGNITE: Well, not to get too bogged down in uninteresting biography, but my early background pretty much mirrors that of most folks my age or older now involved with the medium. I was obsessed with superhero comics at a very early age -- they actually represent some of my earliest memories. I was a rabid collector, forced my parents to revolve portions of family vacations around visiting comic stores, worked at a store myself as a teenager, went to conventions every year beginning at age 13 or so, and on and on. Then my life was completely changed around 1985 with the discovery of Love and Rockets. And then again when the first issue of Eightball came out.

In my late teens I self-published some zines with friends, meeting and then interviewed Dan Clowes when he still lived in Chicago. I studied art history in college, and after writing about comics and doing more research in graduate school I decided to put together the first issue of the magazine. It was always a dream and I'd recently done some freelance writing on comics and art, so the time seemed right -- all my interests perfectly coalesced in the mag. My friend here in St. Louis, Dan Zimmer, was already publishing his Illustration magazine, and he kindly agreed to help with the production and showed me how the distribution and business side of things worked. The first idea I had was for the In the Studio feature with Clowes, since he'd always been a favorite cartoonist and I had continued to correspond with him a bit over the years. I think my original concept for the entire feature was picturing his Lloyd Llewellyn Special cover joined with that Basil Gogos Screen Thrills. I wanted to hear him talk about that. He was kind enough to agree, as well as to help out in other ways. His encouragement really got the ball rolling, and all the cartoonists I loved were incredibly supportive and willing to participate in that first issue -- my wish list of Clowes, Gary Panter, Jaime Hernandez, and Seth. It seemed like most everyone that I contacted or tried to commission work from came through from the outset, so that was of course the greatest possible encouragement.


SPURGEON: The original run on Comic Art was really well received. What was it like working in that context where everybody seems to have been praising you? Was it nice? Did it ever go to your head? Did it ever make working on the magazine difficult?

HIGNITE: If that's indeed the general reaction, it's nice to hear. I get very little feedback, so I don't really know much about its life in the world after it leaves my hands. I'm pretty far removed, willfully so, and it's a fairly humble operation -- I work on it from my little home office like just about any fanzine editor from 1968. But the fact that the artists I respect more than anyone in the world -- coincidentally, in my experience, also the smartest thinkers about comics, their history, formal qualities, and what makes good, interesting writing about the medium -- feel that it turns out ok is extremely rewarding and all I could ever ask for. If the magazine is praiseworthy, it's obviously entirely the result of the contributors, as well as those who help out in other ways, particularly with images... and because I've never second-guessed what I thought the publication should be. It's exactly like what I wish existed so that I could buy it myself, and from the beginning I've never put much stock in anything outside my exact vision for it; the range of material is that which I appreciate reading about. I'm just trying as hard as I can to make each issue better and more surprising than the last.

SPURGEON: One thing that has really distinguished your magazine is the approach to art direction. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to the magazine's visuals, and why that is important to you?

HIGNITE: It's crucial -- the proper presentation is just as important as any other aspect -- it's a visual manifestation of the way good comics deserve to be treated. I've always felt that none of the defensiveness that existed for years would be necessary if, as a first step, moderately intelligent people had the opportunity to actually see some of this work in all its glory. I'm distrustful of writers that massage comics or any other art form to fit as mere illustration of a theory. It goes back to a problem with academia -- the ego that forces diverse types of artistic expression into a predetermined narrative. I want the work to speak and be further illuminated by the texts, so it just makes sense to show the art off to its fullest and not have it relegated to a muddy little accompanying image. I have a great deal of respect for the artistic achievement. I also dislike publications that go too far down the other path, that are overly designed, turning the work into clip-art. So my approach to the art direction goes both ways and is something I'm quite meticulous about. It's a fine line, but I can tell you that this first issue with Jonathan is truly how the magazine looks in my dreams.

SPURGEON: What is it about Jonathan's work that you find so pleasing?

HIGNITE: It's that perfect middle ground I mentioned. I was really surprised with his initial interpretation and his grasp of what I'm always searching for -- he's really talented in this complicated language. I was immediately pleased with the beautiful aesthetic, which is very much his own and doesn't at all make me think of some immediate predecessor, like so much derivative design these days. He has a great attention to detail, but most important there's an understated humility and respect for the material -- he punctuates in the perfect spot and he's never bombastic. He knows how to make it flow.

SPURGEON: Editorially, how do you see your magazine as distinct from what the Comics Journal does, or what various on-line sources do? Do you even make that strong a distinction?

HIGNITE: As with most comics devotees, The Comics Journal was sort of my bible for a long time -- it was the single greatest comics resource of my young adult life and I read every issue cover to cover. I never had the idea of directly competing with what they do -- how could you? Though there is some inevitable amount of crossover in terms of subject matter, the gestalt, the combination of my particular interests and presentation, is idiosyncratically my own, I think. I'm personally not much interested in the contemporary comics business per se, the dogged coverage of which has been a commendable aspect of the Journal from the outset. And the centerpiece of TCJ has always been those massive interviews -- and while I do run interviews, I'm mostly interested in biography only insofar as it firmly relates to the work. I guess that comes through in the Studio features -- for example, I never wanted to run a photo of a cartoonist sitting at their drawing board, preferring any insight into personality to crystallize through the lens of their work. Though that has more to do with my writing than with other contributions to the magazine; if a text opens up the art at hand in a new way, I'm certainly open... In terms of specific approach, it's probably evident that there's a brand of virulent criticism that isn't of much interest to me. There is an inherent criticality in what is and isn't featured in the mag, I think. But it's always good if I'm surprised, so my own unavoidable preconceptions aren't firmly stamped on everything; I learn a great deal from each issue. Douglas Wolk has an article in the new one on Jim Starlin's Warlock, a series to which I'll admit not paying a whole lot of attention -- but his text is a revelation.

And due to the infrequent schedule, we could never have any sort of news features, which is what on-line sources are best at providing. I tried to do reviews once, but it seemed sort of half-assed because by the time the issue came out many of the books were a year old...I quickly realized the ridiculousness of that, so I also included reviews of 90-year-old books.

I guess my goal on a basic level at the outset was not dissimilar to what it seems a lot of people are both trying to do now and have been doing for years: expand understanding of the medium by uncovering some things and looking at them in a different light -- getting away from the same old histories. My focus is more on making sure that what we have to say about these cartoonists and their historically specific cultural climates truly expands understanding of the medium -- now through longer, in-depth articles by the handful of writers I greatly respect. Along with some new contributors each time, I hope to be working with the same core cast of writers every issue. I've always been extremely excited about presenting the work of under-appreciated cartoonists, and that's been a big part of the magazine, but you have to go further than that. I know the art is going to be great, but I attempt to foreground the context and highly personal readings rather than just splashing a bunch of images on the page. As I mentioned, visuals are of course key, but I've always been interested in producing much more than just a picture book. Fancy production values don't mean a thing without content.

From the outset, I just wanted Comic Art to be a smart, nicely done art magazine about comics that conveyed some sense of the medium's great range of possibilities. I'd like to think there's room for more than the handful of magazines that exist now, but maybe I'm dreaming. I know we're much luckier now in terms of book publishing related to the field than even four years ago when I started -- there is so much more of interest coming out that the percentage of really worthwhile books is necessarily way up, and there are more reprints and historical projects than ever, it seems. It's sort of incredible.


SPURGEON: You just mentioned a Douglas Wolk piece on Jim Starlin's comic Warlock. Let me use that to get into your head a bit. What exactly is that you find revelatory about Doug Wolk's take on Starlin's work? Has Douglas convinced you that that work's more valuable than you thought it, or do you just appreciate the style and force of the argument being made?

HIGNITE: Wolk positions Starlin as a true auteur with an overriding aesthetic that extended to every aspect of this sideways and strangely pessimistic epic -- which is of course extremely rare in superhero comics; it's comparable in terms of personal vision, if maybe not scope, to Kirby's Fourth World stories. The essay explicates beautifully Starlin's particularities and recurring motifs/themes, wherein, Wolk argues, he weaves in the specific period of mainstream superhero comics as subtext. Fascinating stuff. That was such a strange time for mainstream comics -- the Marvel mashing of superheroes with what was currently popular in other realms of popular culture (i.e. science-fiction) gelling with this residual Ditko and Kirby trippy-ness...which actually seems pretty relevant right now. So yeah, his text moved me quite a bit.

After reading the essay and in turn the comics themselves, I also became more interested in that brand of maximalist cartooning, where so much angst, explication, and drama is packed into every actually seems a little strange to call that chaos "cartooning"! Certainly, the article gave me both a new plane on which to see Starlin's work and also made me think much more about that whole weird moment. Douglas is not only an excellent, interesting writer, but the subject matter also worked quite well within both the context of this issue specifically, and the types of work I've covered before -- I think the subject and his approach play off expectations, in many senses, nicely.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about what led you to take a break with the magazine and what you wanted to change between that iteration and the new Comic Art?

HIGNITE: The break was pure necessity -- I was working on a few other projects myself -- the In the Studio book and an exhibition in New York based on the book -- and just couldn't keep up. It may not seem that something published two or three times a year would be so all-consuming, but between my obsessive approach and working a straight job to pay the bills, it was -- and is.

The expanded page count represents exactly what I wanted Comic Art to be from the outset, but could never afford to do myself. Alvin was excited about the idea and agreed to publish it, and we seem to be on the same page. I knew I needed a publisher that cared about every little element as much as I did, so that I could sleep at night -- and crucially, someone to promote it and give it more of a presence in the world. I'm just not good at that end of things and began to worry that if I didn't really make an effort to push it further, I'd be doing a disservice to all the wonderful contributions. And again, context is crucial -- I'm pretty thrilled to have it published alongside Kramer's Ergot. The diversity of material has always been about uncovering surprising connections between seemingly disparate art, and how Comic Art relates to other projects that Alvin publishes is another step in that direction. So the range of contents in #8 is not dissimilar to past issues, but the format allows for lengthier features, more room for reproductions, and more special accompaniments -- such as the incredible little book by Seth -- which I've always wanted to experiment with. With such heft, it was also really important to me that the cover be a knock-out, and Richard McGuire's design honestly exceeded my greatest hopes. I was incredibly humbled when this all came together. And the distribution will be much better. I couldn't be happier with the arrangement.

SPURGEON: Do you have any worries about going to more of an annual size? Is there anything about the magazine format you'll miss?

HIGNITE: Nope -- I don't know how readers will feel, or how it'll affect sales, but this format really feels right to me in terms of the scale and number of features. And to be honest, it's the only way I could continue the publication from a practical standpoint. I hope people will actually be much more excited about this one -- you're getting a ton more for your money than in the previous incarnation. This thing is really two separate -- and quite substantial -- books.

SPURGEON: Do you have a dream feature?

HIGNITE: Not a single feature, I don't think, but for sure an entire dream issue. Honestly, this one sort of is my dream. After I'm satisfied that each of the articles is a fully realized and perfectly contained entity, I love to think about the sort of frisson resulting from all these collisions of histories and art.

SPURGEON: Ideally, what would you have a reader take away from the latest issue?

HIGNITE: Well, I'm really proud of the individual articles across the board, so I'm confident that it'll be an entertaining and eye-opening experience. The aspect that's most fun for me is seeing how all these artists and voices -- personal reflections, formal analysis, historical research of primary sources, and everything in-between -- play off one another. Drew Friedman's comics are definitely due for re-evaluation and Ben Schwartz has written a massive career-spanning feature that I'm thrilled with -- there's a lot to take in this time. In general, I just hope it's as much of a joy to others as it is to me. Hopefully everything coheres in a nice way that breathes as a whole and makes readers understand and love comics a little more. I love the medium more than anything and really put everything I have into this. I'd like to think that it'll make a difference in the way people think about comics.