Conflict of interest reservoir state of the union.
Back from tour. Cleaning out the basement. Now I'm on House Tour. Sorting comics. Stapling zines. Getting ready for another road trip. This time to New York for CAB.
On the road I was thinking about how I need to review some comics. I still have a box of stuff to review from SPX. And a box of stuff from this west coast tour. In a week I'll have another box of stuff from CAB. I wonder if I'll have the time to do even bullet reviews of my reading pile. Should I just try and review everything or just pick and choose a few things to highlight? I wonder if anyone will review such and such or so and so if I don't.
That's a weird feeling. There is much more work out there on the convention circuit than ever before. Yet there seems to be a lack of new outlets for comics reviews. I feel like I see things linked to all the time. So maybe I'm just not reading them? Or maybe it's just that books come out and then they sort of just disappear. And unless something gets a good word of mouth (like Chuck Forsman's TEOTFW) then it just sort of dies (like Patrick Mceown's Hair Shirt). It's a weird feeling — this embarrassment of riches. I feel like I pay close attention to new art comics from all over the world, and I can't even keep up. How's the casual reader supposed to keep up? Or better yet, how's the newbie maker trying to find any sliver of an audience going to keep up? There seem to be more makers than readers these days. The number one market for art comics is art comics makers.
I loved it when Matt Seneca started writing about comics, and I'm happy that he is making comics more than he is writing about them. But the downside is that there is one less engaged reader filtering what is out there for the rest of us.
I loved it when Sean T. Collins would post a review a day on his blog. Nowadays he's getting paid real money to write about Game of Thrones and David Bowie. There's no real money in being a writer about comics.
So the people that do it hardcore - like Rob Clough - do it out of love for the medium. Which is awesome. However the small subculture of engaged comics reviewers is getting older, myself included. I really hope that members of the younger generation will start writing about each other. I'm seeing some hints of it here and there, but not many organized voices. So much of comics culture is death-dealing to makers in their early twenties. The "pap pap" demographic of comics is so insular - which is fine - but out on the circuit younger makers are telling me that they never read this site, or any websites related to comics at all. There's really not much for them in most comics sites that reflects their tastes or their concerns.
I was thinking it would be interesting to "interview" another art-comic critic about all this so I emailed some questions to the league-leading Sean T. Collins. Sean's probably racked up more reviews in the last ten years than anybody. And in lots of different places and on many different subjects. He seemed like a good person to talk to about this. It's all inside baseball comic book talk, so be warned.
Frank: As someone who has written tons of reviews for many many years, do you think there are more comics reviewers nowadays - or less?
Sean: Less. Certainly less as far as alternative/art/literary/underground comics go. It seems as though there's as much of a profusion of reviews of superhero comics as ever. Perhaps that's because the sites that host them are drafting off of superhero movies and the wider "geek culture" ascendancy, and regular interaction with monthly supercomics provides them both with the requisite flow of constant new content necessary for eyeballs and ad dollars, and with the opportunity to be relatively big fish in the relatively small pond of superhero comics instead of fighting for survival exclusively as guppies in the Hollywood shark tank. But reviews, full-fledged reviews, of stuff you'd pick up at SPX or CAB are an endangered species. I think even the larger altcomix and boutique publishers are hurting for the kind of coverage they used to get.
Frank: And what about major news outlets like the New York Times or somewhere like that?
Sean: Shrug? I'm not really sure. Michael Cavna's out there, and Douglas Wolk, but those slots are limited, and written for a generalist audience that can't support the sort of ongoing dialogue about the cutting edge that best benefits the work we're talking about. It's not where I'm looking, at any rate, since usually we'd be talking about a bunch of capsule reviews that will include stuff I'm interested in and then some middlebrow stuff put out by the big New York publishers.
Frank: It might be hard to phrase this question - but about 2008-09 it seemed like that's when 1000-word reviews were common. And there was a "healthy" comment section in places like Comics Comics, the TCJ board, Study Group, etc. Then I noticed no one commenting anymore. Then I noticed that I wasn't taking the time to read long reviews or blog posts. I'm sure that's partly due to Facebook and Twitter and the conversation getting dispersed around, but it seems to me that there are less "longish" reviews and blog posts about new comics.
Sean: Yeah, I think the rise of social media leveled not just interactions of comparable length in "traditional" outlets like comment threads and message boards, but also larger reviews. It's exceedingly easy to type up your strongest single impression of a new work and post it to Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, and receive feedback almost immediately. And since your strongest single impression could be nothing more complex than "This is SO GOOD, you guys," and the feedback can just be a like or a fav or a reblog or a retweet or a share, it's tough to build up a thoroughgoing interrogation of a comic. The energy is diffused.
And to the extent that longer pieces or exchanges are generated, they tend to be about comics culture, about "the conversation," more than about individual works. This privileges controversy over content and arguers over reviewers, more often than not, and can lead you further and further away from the actual work. That was always part of my goal in the way I wrote about comics, writing three reviews a week for years -- to keep the focus on comics, lowercase, rather than Comics, uppercase.
Most of the time I'm tempted to argue that "healthy comment section" is oxymoronic, but that's beside the point, I realize.
The funny thing is that I haven't seen this social-media effect hit other critical communities nearly as hard. TV criticism is booming, thanks in large part to a New Golden Age comparable to what's happened with comics since the turn of the century, and if anything the advent of Tumblr and Twitter have made the music-writer community stronger. Then again, there's still money in those rackets, relatively speaking. "Full-time comics critic" is inconceivable.
Frank: To follow up on that - the stuff that might inspire longer posts are generally for an older readership that seems to like that kind of thing. I call it the "pap pap" demographic :)
Sean: Oh, sure. Always a huge audience for Jack Kirby. But I've seen a lot of younger cartoonists -- younger, for the sake of conversations with me about this sort of thing, literally meaning younger than me, i.e. under 35 -- complain about that, even ones who like Kirby (or Steranko, or Chaykin, or Moebius, or Crumb, or Spiegelman, or whoever we're talking about). Of course, where do I see them doing this? On Tumblr, on Twitter. And I've never seen any women alternative cartoonists evince any interest in discussing the canonical superhero artists at all. Have you?
Frank: I went through the last two
months weeks of this site's comment section and there wasn't a single comment by a woman. That's a whole other round table international summit - so don't get me started. Please. Anyways - beyond us all getting older there are only a handful of folks seriously reviewing new work. Would you agree?
Sean: Yes. And one thing that falling away from frequent reviewing myself made me realize is that perhaps the pool was always a lot shallower than it looked. The loss of individual critics can take a real toll on what's getting reviewed. Tom Spurgeon gets sick, Matt Seneca transitions to cartooning, Chris Mautner takes on a more demanding gig with his paper, the Panelists split up, Nicole Rudick disappears, Comics Comics takes over The Comics Journal and Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler transition to primarily editorial rather than critical duties, I get consumed with IRL chaos or irritation with my peers or more rewarding work writing about television... when those losses happen, you feel them.
Moreover, when not a lot of writing is being done overall, the idiosyncracies of individual critics start mattering a ton. Rob obviously performs an invaluable service, but he reviews literally everything people send him, so it's difficult to ascertain his point of view as a critic based on what he chooses to talk about, particularly because he rarely pans anything. Matt basically never wrote about women cartoonists. Comics Comics' mission of broadening the discussion to genre-indebted work led to a dropoff in discussion of canonical '90s alt comics and the rise of a lot of criticism by people intelligent and well-read enough to handle that kind of work but who now had the cover to talk about nothing but Heavy Metal and Akira. I'll never begrudge a critic as great as Joe McCulloch for following his bliss, but I'd love to read more from him on current alt/art comics as opposed to older/obscurantist/untranslated manga, just from a purely selfish perspective. He's great on the podcast he does with Matt, Chris, and Tucker Stone, but it's not the same. (Super, super excited to see his review of Fran, on that note.) With me you've got a much tougher row to hoe if your work isn't at least bleak if not overtly horrific; I've got a bias toward hard-R work that's undoubtedly limiting. Nick Gazin is Nick Gazin. The loudest, most argumentative, most in-it-for-the-insults voices -- who are invariably the most thin-skinned when criticized, oddly enough, perhaps because they take everything as personally as they make it with the comics they go after -- dominate, and that can be a huge turnoff to artists whose personalities don't mesh with that mode of discourse. That's always been my problem with Tucker, for example, who has phenomenal taste and is a top-drawer critic outside of his superhero-insult-comedy mode -- he's tough to have a conversation with if you disagree. So is David Brothers, whom in my experience approaches disagreement -- over Kickstarter, say -- like a debater looking to win. An exception here among the big arguers might be Darryl Ayo; you can feel like you're banging your head against the wall with him, but he's never going to block you on Twitter. But he loves argument for argument's sake, which undermines him; it made him invaluable when decrying faux-edgy racebaiting, because you need someone with the fire to fire back at trolling, but often he'll hit things he doesn't like with any weapon to hand, no matter how inapt -- he once told me Dan Clowes's earlier work was less cynical, for example. And so on. We're a weird group overall, and having more of us would mitigate the weirdness in a necessary way.
The "where are the women critics" question's an excellent one too, of course. Zainab Akhtar? Sarah Horrocks, to the extent that she writes reviews?
There are a couple of areas where I think you feel the impact of the lack of reviews the most. The first is with work of obvious quality that's nonetheless flawed. Social media allows praise of that work to be passed along and amplified with very little pushback in terms of drawing distinctions between good work and great, or noting where it could have been stronger. Reblogs vs. reviews.
Two examples that come to mind recently: You can feel Sam Alden's Household place all its narrative weight on treating the sister character as a menace, an abuser, but as best I can tell her only crimes are partying, enjoying sex, and failing to intuit without being told that her brother is unhappy with the sexual relationship they've established. That this relationship is incestuous and therefore taboo is insufficient in terms of setting up the moral argument Alden appears to want to make, one that privileges the brother's suffering over the sister's despite them both emerging from the same circumstances. And because of that, and like many of his comics, it concludes with a big emotional image that's unearned, which given that he considers concluding stories his strong suit is doubly unfortunate.
And Chuck Forsman is a major talent in a variety of ways -- Oily Comics is, I think, a straight-up visionary publishing model, and his cartooning is a worthy heir of the King/Brown/Harkham lineage; it's amazing to me how much it reminds me of Harkham without actually looking anything like a ripoff. He's really internalized that work, clearly, to the point where I've never seen the Schulz comparisons people make all the time at all. And his writing is really specific, really restrained, really atmospheric -- those last few Snake Oil issues are incredibly strong. But that's why The End of the Fucking World threw me for such a loop, when all was said and done. That Satan-worshipping human-sacrifice cop who follows them all around the country murdering people for information -- that's like something out of a late-'80s Sylvester Stallone cop movie. It's so over the top, so at odds with the tone and the strengths of the rest of the book up until that point, and so far removed from the naturalism with which he portrays those two heshery main characters, that it knocks the whole thing down. And it makes you look back on elements that you gave a pass to because you assumed they stemmed from those specific observational talents rather than sensationalism or insensitivity -- the boy sticking his hand in the garbage disposal, say, or the way the girl's obliviousness to his real nature is sort of played for laughs, even just in terms of their sexual relationship -- and wonder if they were similar misfires all along.
My point, ultimately, is that without a sufficient volume of reviews being written, you're not going to see needed critiques -- particularly since most people are writing for little or no money, and most humans like enjoying themselves if they're not getting paid, and it's generally easier to enjoy yourself if you're thinking about something you like instead of something you don't.
The other big problem, maybe the biggest, and certainly the one that's worried me the most and I think inspired my whole end of this discussion with you, is that there's an entire generation of young artcomix makers whose work just isn't being reviewed at all. Out of the 70-plus artists who've appeared in Leah Wishnia's Happiness anthologies, for example, nearly all of whom are constantly posting new work to Tumblr, have more than six of them, tops, everbeen reviewed by the pro or semi-pro comics press? An entire generation, an entire movement, of altcomix creators who are doing vital, defiant, personal work is badly underserved by criticism, and that will have a huge effect on both comics and comics criticism moving forward.
That said, literally while I was working on these responses I discovered something really exciting: Wishnia has herself begun writing reviews. Now, they're written with the express intention of giving shine to work she likes and feels is underexposed, so it's advocacy at least in part. And moreover, she's such a lynchpin figure in this scene that it's bound to affect her judgment, as it does all of us to one extent or another, though I suppose it's ultimately no different than Dan, or Gary Groth, both publishing and reviewing work. Honestly, though, both those problems are more on everyone else than they are on her. If more people were writing reviews, those idiosyncracies, again, wouldn't matter.
Bonus blogging round:
Neil the Horse - the classic early '80s comic - is having a fund drive!
Santoro Correspondence Course dept:
Bob Clark from the internet asked about how dynamic symmetry can be applied to newspaper comic strip formats. So I asked Santoro Correspondence Course graduate Allen Spetnagel to diagram a newspaper comic strip and to answer the question:
Allen: Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik’s seminal essay “How to Read Nancy” revealed the subtle compositional genius driving Ernie Bushmiller’s classic comic strip. While Bushmiller was likely unaware of the theories of dynamic composition that Frank espouses, he probably did have an awareness of classical composition and the rule of thirds. Even though a comic strip is not always presented in the form of a multi-tiered “golden rectangle,” it can still be diagrammed with circles, squares, and diagonals that show potential points of interest within the work of art. My “Nancy” diagram simply divides the strip into two separate rectangles, then proceeds with the method I learned in Frank’s course.
Thanks, Allen. And thank you Mr. Clark for writing in.
Next up! CONTEST!
Blobby Boys Fan Art contest!
Over at Comics Workbook! Check it out here!
I tried to get Alex Schubert to have a Blobby Boys T-shirt contest so we could make fun of the Battling Boy T-shirt contest, but then Alex responded by saying "What's Battling Boy?" So we are doing a "Fan Art" contest in celebration of the awesome Blobby Boys collection just released by Koyama Press.
Email links to your fan art to santoroschoolATgmailDOTcom
Deadline is November 8th! 11:59pm EST
CAB news: I will be set up downstairs at CAB. Table D8 - which is along the left wall downstairs - towards the back. I will be set up with my back issues but more importantly it will be the Comics Workbook table. Andrew White and Zach Mason (A to Z) will be there. And I think I can arrange a Simon Hanselmann appearance at some point during the day. Also, Dash Shaw will be signing copies New School. And Katie Brawl will have her new comic for sale there as well. Please stop on by and say hello.
I was featured in a Bloomberg Businessweek article about worthless comics collections. Check it out here.
Also my comic, Pompeii, has gotten some solid reviews. Here's one by Mike Balderama at Boom Tube. And here's one by Geoffrey Lapid at Comics Bulletin. And a fun interview with James Romberger over at Publishers Weekly.
And I have been invited to speak to the Classics department at Ohio State University. Professor Richard Fletcher wrote about Pompeii at his Minus Pluto blog.
Thanks! Over and out!