Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Comics and Community XVII

Last weekend, I drove down to Bethesda, Maryland, with some friends for SPX. Rumor is that the conference is going to merge with a larger, more mainstream comic-book convention and move to Baltimore soon, so I wanted to catch it while it was still what it was. Thing is, I should've gone several years ago, I think. SPX wasn't the awe-inspiring, energy-raising experience my friends had described, and even the parties in the evening were relatively lame. That said, I hung out with friends, met lots of neat people, reconnected with folks I'd met at TCAF and MoCCA, and went to an interesting panel on comics and journalism.

Featuring Heidi MacDonald, who writes for Comics Buyer's Guide and Pulse; Johanna Draper Carlson, publisher of Comics Worth Reading; and Arnold Blumberg, a senior editor at Cinescape, the session focused on the "strange relationship that the comics industry and journalists share, what works, and what doesn't." Here are my Cory Doctorow-inspired notes on the discussion:

Johanna Draper Carlson: Comics journalism gets no respect.

Heidi MacDonald: Has written for the Pulse daily news site for more than a year. Got into comics journalism 20 years ago. Has written for Amazing Heroes and the Comics Journal. Used to edit for Walt Disney and DC -- now back to journalism.

Arnold Blumberg: A senior editor for Cinescape. Worked for Eon online. Also an Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide editor.

Carlson: It's her 10th anniversary in comics journalism. Used to contribute to Comicology magazine. Has a masters in popular culture, thesis on comics fandom. Once DC's Webmaster. Comics journalism and criticism is fairly new academically and otherwise. No impetus on standards or journalism as a craft -- no medium is healthy unless there's a culture of criticism and commentary. Large companies don't support that.

Blumberg: Crossover to other media (film, video games) encourages mainstream media to pick up on it. Entertainment Weekly's comics coverage is subscription only.

Carlson: Still targeting a young male audience, though.

MacDonald: Need to get past negative feelings that they hate us! Concentrate on the positives.

Blumberg: Not really a strange relationship, but an area of journalism focusing on a medium that's not overly respected. Literate criticism still not looked at. Media studies now spilling over into comics. He teaches a class on comic book literature at the University of Maryland. Usually it's an art department course, which is another battle.

Carlson: 10 years ago it was part of the English department.

Blumberg: Largest growth is on the art side. He focuses on the literature side. How to analyze and critique rather than make comics.

Carlson: Need a shared language about comics to critique.

Blumberg: Need consistent rules to critique.

MacDonald: Disagrees. There's little textual analysis of comics. But look at Fantagraphics' Frank Miller interview book. An interview in the '80s focused on craft. Today everyone focuses on the industry.

Carlson: That's not true.

Blumberg: Journalism is now about the self-involvement of the industry. Mainstream needs to chang from focusing on the top two publishers and most iconic characters. Some look at the licensing.

Carlson: That's the benefit of being independent. Writes for Publisher's Weekly. Actually edited by Heidi. Covers collections of strips, graphic novels -- chunks, not serials.

MacDonald: Comics world is small and cliquey. Arnold works on a price guide and covers comics -- conflict of interest?

Blumberg: A sign that few people have the capacity?

MacDonald: The comics industry is really welcoming. We really don't turn anyone away.

Carlson: Hard to find paying outlets.

MacDonald: Doesn't write reviews any more. Gets two emails a week about her CBG column. There's a gentlemen's agreement. If you're friends with creators, what if you don't like their book?

Carlson: People either know her, know her husband, or hate her.

MacDonald: Needs to do news -- needs to maintain friendly relationships.

Carlson: Cut me off, fine! Publishers don't. They need the coverage.

MacDonald: I do news.

Blumberg: Danger of doing news features and then negative reviews. Can't review stuff honestly?

Carlson: Involve yourself in the story. Is news the problem? Small industry, easy to connect with anyone.

MacDonald: Other than Todd MacFarlane, Neil Gaiman, and Alex Ross.

Blumberg: Negative reviews aren't a personal thing.

Ed Mathews: Gets uppity PR people who will threaten you if they don't get good coverage. You just have to not care. Comics journalism needs external sources of funding so you can do what you need to do.

MacDonald: All magazines, editorial and advertising aren't always separate.

Mathews: Make comics vs. cover comics?

Carlson: Doesn't want to do comics. Writing comics is a separate skill than writing about comics.

MacDonald: Doesn't want to write comics either -- she's a journalist. I don't know how big your place is, but my place is not big enough for free comics.

Blumberg: I still read superheroes comics. Sue me. Reach a point where you realize what you're not comfortable writing about. Lose the spark you had when a kid. Deserves serious critique.

Carlson: Combine hobby and day job focuses way too much on one thing -- if this is what you want to do, you need outside hobbies. Role of feedback -- writes about comics about ideas. Feedback is still too personal. Talk about ideas, not people.

MacDonald: Publishing and library interest in comics. Great to see books coming out. Knowledge is becoming Google-ized. Old reference books: George O' indices, Maurice Horn, Steranko's history. FAQs started about 10 years ago.

Carlson: Group mind and accuracy.

MacDonald: Old knowledge spreads out. New knowledge not there? She's contributed to the group mind.

Carlson: Comics scholars' list.

Blumberg: .

Question: Consideration of audience?

MacDonald: Hard with the Pulse because it's a big readership. Has to be more general interest. Feels like she gets more out of pieces not written by insiders. Publisher's Weekly article on licensing tie ins. A challenge to get a fresh perspective.

Carlson: Uses the term collection or graphic novel vs. TPB.

Blumberg: More mainstream vs. academic. Magazines need to be short, punchy, cool quotes. Essays in price guide a different gambit.

Carlson: Hard to fake the perspective of a new reader.

Blumberg: Can't meet extremes -- aim for middle, the intelligent reader.

Carlson: Is print news viable?

MacDonald: The Pulse, Newsarama, CBR.

Carlson: Best print news source is the Journal.

While interesting, the panel was hardly the in-depth consideration of comics-related journalism I was hoping for. And the participants for the most part fell prey to the very traps they mentioned. As I see it, there are three basic camps in which comics-related writing is welcome: academic media studies, industry- and reader-related media, and the mainstream media. The discussion focused primarily on industry media -- the very self-involvement mentioned above -- and somewhat on media studies. Both are fine and help support the industry, but it's the mainstream media coverage of comics that's the hindrance for the medium's growth, I think. Why does mainstream coverage of comics suffer?

  • Most newspaper reporters and magazine writers (read: people) aren't comic book readers.
  • Most comic book readers are still teenage boys, and the medium's output reflects their tastes and interests, which don't resonate with the wider culture or a mature audience.
  • The pamphlet form ghettoizes comics (read: direct market) and adds to the impression that comics are ephemeral, disposable, and not deserving artistic or literary respect and consideration.

    Some of the more interesting parts of the conversation were about how comics journalism largely focuses on craft -- the process and practice -- or the industry (Who has MacFarlane sued lately? Will Dave Sim punch Jeff Smith?). That's fine and dandy for people already in the know -- we read comics, we know people who make comics, and we care about the industry. But to the average person? Yawners, goners. We, as comics readers and writers, need to begin writing comics journalism for a non-reader audience. We need to encourage publicists to better educate writers while promoting select titles. And we need to continue to increasingly approach comics as books. Sure Jimmy Corrigan was serialized in Acme. But what got picked up by the New York Times Book Review? Sure Jason Little serialized Shutterbug Follies online. But what got picked up by... you get the picture.

    In a recent CBG column, Peter David argues that the TPB (Sorry, Carlson.), graphic novel, and collection is killing comics. Au contraire. Publishing books that should be books as serials is killing comics. (Actually, crappy comics are killing comics, but that's just Sturgeon's Law in action.) Quantity, meet quality. Maybe comics made for kids should be serialized. Kid culture embraces that. But not all comics should be pamphlets. Pamphlet sales shouldn't determine the fate of what was created as a book-length story. And if we want to attract more older, mature, life-long readers of comics, we need to make better comics, reconsider their format and distribution, and begin to infiltrate professional mainstream journalism about popular culture.

    I was also fascinated by the industry PR service aspects of the discussion. I've never received ongoing free comics service as a reviewer. (Full disclosure: Jim Valentino and Deni Loubert did set me up with Aardvark-Vanaheim and Renegade Press service in the late '80s. But I was 13 then, and Jim didn't remember me at all when we met at SPX. Ouch!) Sometimes a minicomics maker will send me an item they'd like me to consider for review. Sometimes I'll rank a freebie from Top Shelf or Highwater. But in general, when reviewing comics, I buy almost all of what I write about. At SPX I dropped about $300 on stuff to review. Support the scene, as they say. I buy the books I review. I do get some free records. Sure, I'd like free comics. If you work as a publicist for a publisher, hook me up. Heck, if you're a small publisher, hook me up. But know that I won't review everything, I might not like everything I receive, and that I'll tell Media Dieticians what I think works -- or doesn't work. All in a constructively critical, widely read, appreciative way.

    I'll leave comics news to MacDonald and Blumberg.
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