I hope all of your are busy working on your selections for Obscure Comics Month. Remember to send me links if you do decide to take me up on the challenge (cmautneratcomcastdotnet) so that I can post them here for all to read.
On to this week’s interview.
If you can’t stand my writing and wonder what in god’s name made me think that I could ever write halfway decently about comics, blame Tom Spurgeon. It was thanks to him that I got a freelance gig writing reviews for The Comics Journal, and his friendship, advice and honesty about my writing (good and bad) over the years has always been a source of encouragement to me.
So, yeah, I owe the guy. Doing a lengthy interview with him doesn’t really offer much karmic payback, but I’ve always considered him one of the smartest folks in the room where comics are concerned, so it’s always worthwhile to hear what he has to say on the given subject. Plus, he’s pretty funny.
Q: This is for the critic column, so we’re going to be talking about comics criticism today.
A: Oh great.
Q: Don’t sound so enthused.
A: I’m fired up man. C’mon!
Q: In preparing for this, I realized I don’t know much about your background before you started working at the Journal. So tell me a little bit about your biographical details and how you got into this crazy gig.
A: It’s exactly like Batman, except that it’s food and fantasy geek activities instead of exercise and criminology. And my parents weren’t shot to death. But other than that it’s exactly the same.
You want my background up until when?
Q: Until you started working at the Journal – Basically I’m curious as to what got you so interested in comics that you’ve made a career out of critiquing them.
A: That’s a good question.
You know, my dad was a newspaper man and was also a very big comics fan, so when you’re a kid and you want to pick up spare jobs at a newspaper, what you usually end up doing is reviews. You do book reviews or movie reviews or they send you out to a play or something and you make $15. That’s generally how you get your foot in if you want to write for the newspaper, at least around where we were. There always seemed to be two of my classmates and I who were vying for those gigs. I hadn’t thought of doing any kind of journalism or writing at all but I stumbled into it just because of the crappiness of my post-grad school job in Lancaster, Pa. Anything sounded better than watching women sniff underwear.
Q: Is that really what you were doing?
A: I was. I was an efficiency analyst for QVC, the home shopping network. I would go around to warehouses and I would watch people work and I would then come up with a guide as to how efficiently they worked so that they could be measured and then fired. I remember one time I had moved over to a new area of this warehouse and one of the guys knew who I was and knew what was coming and he actually had a heart attack. He had to be taken to the hospital. So I was kind of like, not the Grim Reaper, but the Grim Reaper’s booking agent. I would show up and then three months later someone would get fired.
And one of my first days I watched the returns of swimsuits. And I noticed that part of their work activity was that these ladies that got the return swimsuits had to sniff the crotches to see if they had been worn or not. Because if they had been worn you couldn’t get credit back on your account. I remember sitting in this chair watching the women sniff the crotches of these ladies swimsuits and I remember thinking “I either have the best job or the worst job in the world.” I have no idea which one it is.
So they put an ad in the Journal and I read the ad and I went up to the comic store – I used to take these long lunches where I wouldn’t clock out just to see if I could get away with it – and so I would take these three hour lunches and I would go to the comic store and read stuff off of the stands and really annoy the poor owner. They had an ad in the Journal and I figured I could come up with a resume that would emphasize working for newspapers and stuff – I did some summer work at newspapers when I was in college – so that’s how I did it.
This is more detail than anyone on Earth needs to know but I didn’t take naturally to writing for the magazine. I didn’t write much of anything my first year and half of four years there. I wrote a couple of “Hit Lists.” As it turned out I had a lot of wordy critics that were working for me at the time like Chris Brayshaw. And we had this feature where you would review single comics I think it was called firing line.
Q: Yeah, I remember you saying at the time that you had to have a certain set word count for the front and no one was writing short enough.
A: Yeah, that’s actually how I started writing for the magazine heavily. One of the reviews had to be only 450 words, and everyone turned in these 900 word pieces that really pushed the limit and so became the guy who just filled in that space. That’s how I started writing about comics basically. I started to put more time into writing about and I liked it and on and on and that’s how my life was ruined.
Q: I was trying to find a metaphor for watching the swimsuit sniffers preparing you for a life of reviewing comics, but perhaps it’s best if we don’t go down that path.
A: No, I wouldn’t even want to. I thought of Marvel Swimsuit issues and I tried to make a joke myself there but it didn’t work out. Nothing about swimsuits and comics mixes. Or crotch-sniffing and comics.
Q: So, when you’re getting ready to write a review, how do you prepare? I have this image of you putting on the smoking jacket and the Sherlock Holmes pipe.
A: Actually I have an Aquaman costume that I wear, and as I write I scream along with what I’m typing like Private Pyle in whatever that movie where he played Robert E. Howard (Note: That would be Vincent D’Onofrio in The Whole Wide World). I scream at my computer screen as I’m typing in my superhero outfit. That’s how I write all of my reviews.
Is there a good answer to that?
Q: I’m curious as to if you have a specific mindset. For example, I find if I have a tough book to tackle I’ll sit down and write it in longhand first and just write stuff out. I won’t get on the computer right away.
A: You know, I haven’t written a long form piece in quite some time. Most of what I’ve written is pretty short. So I think the key for me to be able to write is just … in my office I have a lot of comics around and when something catches my interest and you turn that switch and say “What is interesting enough about that book for me to write about it?” And once you’ve come up with a few things you go “OK, that one.” And you pull that out of the stack or swirl of comics that surround me at the office and then you just kind of work out of natural curiosity.
I couldn’t work where I would be assigned something. That’s why I like to write older reviews too. The great thing about publishing on the Internet is that unless you get caught up in it, it really is the land of “I don’t give a shit.” You can really follow your personal interests, your personal desires in a way that there’s a greater expectation to conform or to be logical or to be engaged with the comics of the day when you’re in print. So I indulge in that. I have a setup now where I can 250 times year hopefully I will be curious about a comic enough that I will try to write down what I find interesting enough about it. And hopefully I’ll do that in a way that if it’s engaging to me it will be engaging to someone out there. It’s just naturally following your curiosity.
Q: You say you pick whatever interests you but I was wondering if you ever feel obligated, especially when people send you material.
A: I do. I feel horrified. I’m consistently horrified that I don’t …
Q: I feel consistently guilty all the time.
A: Yeah, I do too. I live in a constant state of guilt about a lot of things, but especially considering this. It’s so hard to create stuff. And it’s so little that I can give someone in return if it’s positive. If it’s negative then you’re just the worst heel on Earth. The comics look up at you like starving orphans, “Please, please help justify our existence.” And you know that you can’t, because really all you’re doing is providing one person’s reaction to it. Maybe you’re letting a few people know about it but there’s really no lightning bolt anymore where someone can make someone else’s career. You kind of add to a cacophony of voices and maybe push someone over into a greater spotlight. But you can’t make anyone’s career anymore.
It’s just so hard to create anything anymore. You want to be respectful of that but at the same time the respect extends to treating someone’s work seriously and not stepping around … so yeah, I feel so bad. I have a basket where comics go when I want to review them. And there’s that horrible day that comes three times a year where you have to empty the basket. And you look at them and like I said earlier, and go “I just have nothing to say about this book.”
I actually did that with an interview once, where I agreed to an interview and read all the guy’s stuff and I had to email the guy and say “ I got nothing to ask you. I am so sorry. I should never have asked for an interview.” But with criticism is like that all the time. There’s just so much stuff now and so much of it’s pretty good, but if it doesn’t elicit a response, it just doesn’t …
Q: I just find myself swamped. It’s not even so much I couldn’t think of something to say as much as the sheer vast material out there. The guilt that I feel – like the other day I realized I had asked for a copy of Alias the Cat and never did a review. So I kind of hacked a paragraph piece out, which the book doesn’t really deserve at all.
A: I do feel bad that it does cost money and I try not to abuse the privilege. (Sarcastically) I’m not like you. If I do ask for stuff I make sure to read it. I think if you do it for long enough you have to get over that impulse of it. That “I feel bad because this is somebody’s baby and I’m not able to write a review.” If you don’t wrestle that impulse to the ground you’re just not going to be able to function.
But it does come over me when I’m sorting my basket into the shelves of books that nothing occurred to me to write about them. I wish that I could engage them on some level, but I’ve been doing it too long to fake it at this point.
Q: Well you kind of answered the question already then, but what do you do when you have a comic that you have to grapple with, where you like it, but you’re really not sure why or what you want to say about it?
A: Well, that’s the work part of it Chris. That’s the job part or task part of it, that sometimes it’s not going to come naturally to you as to how to communicate how something affects you. You have to learn how to read stuff closely. It helps to have a wide background in various arts, but also to bewidely read in comics to recognize certain things. And there’s something you talked about the other day that I think is you kind of have to step back and break things down formally sometimes. That really helps.
One thing that really helps with me is to break things down to shapes or to break things down to how … if you read my stuff you’ll see this pop up a bunch of times, but to how the eye moves across the page and where the eye stops and for what reason. And in what direction the eye is naturally shod off to. And what that means. I think you just kind of have to wrestle those things to the ground a little bit and come up with an explanation that you can communicate through the writing of it.
In the end there’s going to be something you just don’t understand. I don’t really understand how Jim Woodring’s stuff works. I wrote about Will Eisner the other day and I’m not really sure what to make of his comics and never have been. Just in terms of his being such a potent and powerful cartoonist that tells these modern stories in this, not old-fashioned, but very specific way. That’s just an odd thing. There’s some people that you’re never going to get. You’re never going to quite understand and you continue to go back to them and you continue to wrestle with and I think there are cartoonists that you kind of grasp right away. “That’s what this person does and it’s of this quality.”
There’s good essays that are inconclusive that I’ve read from other people and everyone loves those essays where it seems like a critic really gets a cartoonist. You know, introduces them or maybe reappraises them in a way. That’s the joy of reading that kind of criticism. To see work anew.
Q: Of course, as long as you’re honest with the reader about why you’re lost and you can do so in an eloquent fashion the reader will probably forgive you.
A: Yeah. I mean, you don’t want to be like the confused guy. That could be your schtick. “I have no idea what this comic means. Next! Totally baffled here!”
I think there’s a real bonus to have an honest voice or a voice that people can grow accustomed to and know where you’re coming from after some time. I think people get used to that. There are comic writers who have been around for decades now that you can kind of come back to and there’s a large group of writers that have been around for decades-plus now, that have consistently written that whole time so yeah I do think you kind of have that relationship with them and I think an honest opinion not a strident point or a political point or something like that I think people look for an honest reaction. They judge their own reaction to that. Yeah, I think you’re right. I think honesty has a great deal to do with it.
Next week: Who are Tom’s favorite critics and why? The startling answer when we return!