Before we get to the second half of my interview with Tom (the first half being here), I just want to put in another plug for Obscure Comics Month. Don’t forget to send me your links (cmautneratcomcastdotnet).
And with that, here’s Tom Spurgeon:
Q: Tell me about some of your influences. What critics do you admire both inside and outside of comics?
A: That’s a really good question because it’s one I don’t really have an answer for. I’m not horribly well read in comics. The people that I like that write about comics — there’s nothing that connects them. I always loved Bob Fiore when I was a kid because he really mean and really to the point and really funny. There’s something really impressive about a guy who can be that consistently right on and write well, in a smooth, pleasing style. I wish that Bob had written more over the years. How many people can you say that about? It’s not many.
I really like Donald Phelps, who did Reading the Funnies, and he has a really baroque, almost aggravating prose style. But the quality of his insights, how he sees a comic is so refreshing and so out of left field that I feel it’s always worth chopping through whatever he’s put in front of me in terms of sentence structure in order to get at those wonderful insights.
I really like Bob Levin who worked for the Comics Journal.
Q: He did The Pirates and the Mouse, right?
A: He did the Pirates and the Mouse, and Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers and Pirates. I worked with him on those books. I edited those, probably very poorly, but Bob’s a very – again, it’s the quality of his insight. There’s a notable and idiosyncratic point of view on all of these artists. And he has wonderful taste on who he seeks to explore. He wrote this thing about Jack Katz that’s wonderful and one on S. Clay Wilson that’s great. And this kindness that he has towards the act of creating art makes Bob a really great critic. He really holds artists in high esteem and I think that shows through in his work. He really admires someone who sets out to make art and to communicate that way and has to go through what society will dump on them. That’s something I’d like to emulate in my own writing.
Anyone younger than that? All of my peers? I hate them. They’re all talentless hacks.
Q: Except me, right?
A: Except for you! You are a budding genius! What’s your name again? Who is this?
Q: Joe McCulloch.
A: Is that you Jog?
I like a lot of the younger guys. In general I wish there were more unique points of view. I wish that there were more points of view represented. I think we’ve kind of covered the superhero fan that grows into alternative comics but still looks back with fondness on superhero comics angle, you know? There’s a writer I really like – Tim Hodler, who writes for Comics Comics?
Q: Yeah, I like him too.
A: I think he’s really great, and I think the reason he’s really great is he seems to come at these books with a fresh, new angle. Something we’ll joke about is that a good critic is marked by if you saw them at a comic convention, holding a bag, do you want to know what’s in the bag?
Q: That’s a good rule of thumb.
A: I’m just not sure that’s always the case with everybody who writes about comics. You have people who write well and people who write entertainingly, and people write in a way that might buttress our own opinions, but those guys that enlighten, those guys that really have specific tastes and really bring a passion and insight into comics equal to the passion of the creators? Those people are special. That’s always a good question: Am I desperately interested to know what that person would pick up at a show out of all the comics available to them? Those people are usually the people that I end up reading.
Q: Paranthetical to that, what really bothers you the most about comic criticism today? What do you want to see more of? Let’s start with the bad stuff first.
A: One thing that bothers me is I think sometimes we get a little too carried away into making points that aren’t really tenable. There’s an argumentative quality to criticism that I don’t think needs to exist if that makes any sense. I think that sometimes people are building their critiques in service of something that can’t be argued or a postion they can’t defend – a blanket for it rather than something that comes out of what they’ve seen or what their own ideas are.
That has to be the Internet’s influence. I wish we didn’t talk as if we had to defend that in front of a message board of angry people trying to pick at it. I think people make untenable statements in their criticism. Things they might not believe, they might not be able to defend, but it sounds good. It will score them cheap rhetorical points. Or it sets them up in a good position to take on all comers.
Q: I think with the Internet, and God knows I’m guilty of it, there’s a tendency to write quickly and get it out fast and you don’t read back what you’ve written.
A: Yeah, I think there’s a tendency, but that’d be like me calling someone hefty. I can’t throw that knife because I write really quickly and all of my Internet writing has probably been a lot quicker. It kind of demands a certain productivity that doesn’t flatter it in terms of going back considering things.
I think that’s true. I think there aren’t always considered arguments. But we talked about having an honest reaction to something and building on that, more than trying to craft a impenetrable little diamond of a review. If a quick review that’s sloppily written has an insight into a work then it’s infinitely more valuable to me than something that’s well written and constructed and entertaining on those levels.
Q: You were talking about a lack of variety and voice. One of the things you do that I wish more people did is talk about different kinds of books that are out there, with your “Off The Beaten Path” segments and pointing out books that you might not be aware of because Diamond isn’t going to be trumpeting them. And you also go back and cover old books. I really liked last week where you picked out old comic strip collections by people like Lynn Johnston and Al Hirschfield. Your average reader on your site needs to be reminded of some of those creators – well, maybe not so much Johnston.
A: We’ve gotten a snootful of Johnston in the last year.
Q: Yeah, I’m sick of her (laughter).
A: Yeah, I think that’s true. There’s a tendency when you’re constructing arguments and trying to figure out what’s of value, then I think there’s a tendency to block things in and create fortified positions. A weakness of my take on comics and one of the reasons I am so happy to read unique voices is because I’m a very white-bread, standard critic. I’m very normal.
I might not have the best taste in comics, but I have really broad taste in comics. I like a lot of different things in comics. I like strips as much as I like alternative comics as much as I like underground comics as much as I like gag cartoons as much as I like painters that deal with narrative structures like Tony Fitzpatrick. There are so many things that are interesting to me about all of the different comics aspects and all of comics historical aspects that I didn’t have that one experience where that one kind of comic was it, like oh my god, marvel comics in the 80s, that was it. That was comics. I don’t have that in my background, so I might be more interested in a wider variety than some people. That might make my tastes too hopelessly broad and not really specific enough in that you might not want to dig too deep into my knowledge of any one area.
The value in that is that this is a time where we have all of this material available to us. I don’t know why you would ever want to lock in. Comics in a microcosm has always been dealt with on the recurring on the base of its market mechanism. Newspaper strips, you pick up the paper and you read Peanuts and then you’re done with Peanuts. Or you go to the comic shop on Wednesday and buy the comics that are out there at the time and you’re done with them.
I think the great development of the last 10 years is that we can go backwards and forwards and you don’t have to engage comics every Wednesday. You can go back and buy a comic that was done in 1915. There’s all sorts of jumping points. There’s all the trades now. There’s all the stuff archived online. There’s no reason not to find something that you’re passionate about and that you enjoy. There’s really no reason to ever read a bad comic ever again.
For those of us who went to the supermarket and bought X-Men and a lot of comics that weren’t as good as X-Men hoping that we might find one as good, that’s a wonderful thing. I hope people remember that, that there’s an entire art form to be engaged, not just the one that comes out in the paper in the morning or the one that comes out every Wednesday. Why not look at all that stuff? It’s great.
Q: That’s kind of how I feel and it frustrates me. Sometimes you notice a book and it feels as though you’re the only person noticing or talking about it. As you say, with such a huge swath of material out there, why would you want to be too narrow in your focus? Because it seems to me that people who are too narrow in their focus, except for maybe Paul O’Brian, (Spurgeon laughs) aren’t really saying that much.
A: Well, you know God bless people who have a narrow focus, if you’re really passionate and focused on one thing.
Q: Well, that’s why I make Paul the exception, because he is very good at what he does.
A: But you know Patrick Rosenkranz is the underground expert and he’s a wonderful guy to talk about comics with. He has a really passionate viewpoint and his deep knowledge of underground comics doesn’t invalidate the way he views other comics.
But I just think there’s something about the market mechanism that is very much a part of this culture right now and I think that we’re discovering it’s the same with television, you don’t have to watch what’s on the television right at that moment any more. I think comics has always been such an emphemeral art form that this kind of switch in the way we engage the art form has come along right when we’ve realized that it’s valuable. And so I think that’s gotta be a focus of how we engage the art form now.
There’s so much stuff that we haven’t discovered – someone like Dan Nadel puts out that book Out of Time, or the Fletcher Hanks book that’s out, where there’s all these wonderful ways to look at all these wonderful missed opportunites to look at work because there’s this almost rigid, weird, very limited way to look at comics that’s set you up to get you in the shop every Wednesday and that should be step one I think for a lot of people. For a lot of people that’s step one and done.
I would hope that people would explore all the different ways they can read comics. Cause it’s all comics. If it’s not exactly comics it’s close enough that I don’t know what you’re complaining about. I would hope people would read as wide a variety of great stuff as there is out there. I think it’s moving in that direction but sometimes it’s got to be nudged along a little.
Q: Would you argue that’s part of any good critics job? To say hey look at this, this is cool and point this stuff out?
A: Well, I think that’s the primary value that you get out of reading that stuff, to find new stuff and maybe get some insight onto stuff that you did or didn’t know about.
Q: That’s what I try to do with the Graphic Lit column for the paper because I tend not to do more negative reviews because I write for a really general audience who are not necessarily comic book fans and I want to point out the myriad material. The downside is, as we said, there’s way too much stuff out there to keep track of.
A: yeah, I wish they’d stop. They should slow down to please us. We should install the comics throttle in your house. It would be one of those Doctor Doom looking things and it say “few good comics” to “full stop.”
Q: It would have a little dial that could switch genres. So it would stop Viz from putting out three volumes in one week of every manga I want to read.
A: But we have to do that in your house. If we put that in my house, I’d get up in the middle of the night wanting to pee and I’d stumble into it and there’d be 50 great new manga series out that week.
Q: My son would destroy it.
A: That’s true.
Q: He’d be like “What does this button do?”
A: We have to find someone who can take care of the magic comics dial.
Q: We’ll put it in Douglas Wolk’s house.
A: Doug can take care of it. (pause) Should we start talking shit about Doug?
Q: I was going to ask you who you wanted to pick a battle with for this.
A: See the problem is that anyone you could think of, I’d probably lose the fight. And you can’t have that. Maybe I’ll pick a fight with someone no one knows, and doesn’t write about comics except maybe once a year. I could totally destroy that person. If I’m going to fight with Doug or Bart Beaty or Jog or someone I’m going to get my ass kicked. Those guys know their stuff. It’s horrible.
I like Doug. I’ve always liked Doug.
Q: Yeah, he’s a great guy.
A: Doug’s a real good guy. I’m really happy that his book has been successful and that people can talk about comics and I swear to god I’m going to read it soon.
Q: I was going to ask if you’d read it yet.
A: I haven’t. It’s staring at me right now as I’m looking. It’s staring at me, giving me the finger. The stuff of Doug’s that I’ve liked the best, he really writes well about the Hernandez brothers in particular. Of the stuff that I’ve read of Doug’s in the past I remember going “Wow, he really gets them.” He has a real passion and insight for them. He writes really well. He writes very sharp, very comfortable, very happy, friendly prose.
So there’s no way in hell I’m going to pick a fight with him because I write like a thousand cats being strangled. It’s horrible. If getting into heaven counts on verb agreement I am totally screwed. My English is not so good.
Q: I did get the feeling you had some issues to take with some of the stuff he was saying though.
A: It’s not that I don’t mind talking about it, it’s just I thought by now I would have read the book. Let me say this: as much as I enjoy reading Doug on the Hernandez brothers for instance, I don’t find his superhero writing all that convincing. I don’t find it convincing, ironically because I feel like he’s trying to convince me that his position is legitimate rather than simply arguing from a position. And he’s such a good writer that I think that he’s going to get away with some stuff that you might not go back and question it.
That’s one thing I’m looking forward to when I sit down with this book is going over some of the areas where I haven’t found him as enlightening as in other areas and just kind of going how is he constructing the argument, what is he actually saying here?
I think there’s an element of playing to people’s prejudices when you talk about how a critic is received. I think we all know this from talking on the Internet, there’s a way you can phrase arguments that as long as you’re there phrasing them in a way that’s amenable and not judgmental then that’s really all that matters. There’s a certain comics reader in all of us that doesn’t want to be made fun of or yelled at. Or that doesn’t want something we find pleasurable and enjoyable harshed upon.
Q: Your also going to have trouble getting your point across in any kind of debate by just saying “you’re an ass.”
A: We all know those critics. Scorched Earth criticism has a place but you can’t stay in that groove all the time. What I’m looking forward to when I get into Doug’s book is really looking at what he’s saying about something and separates that from how he presents it or how the stance has been taking for him. The one warning sign that has come to me when I’ve talked to Doug about the book is that he has a line where he talks about criticism being a dialogue and as long as I instigate dialogue then I’ll have done my job. That’s just not where I come from. I think that instigating a dialogue is kind of a lot easier than actually saying something. You can do one without the other and I hope that Doug does both.
Q: Ok, so if a sandy-haired youth came up to you one day and asked you “Hey Mr. Spurgeon, some day I want to be a comics critic,” what advice would you give him?
A: Who said this?
Q: I don’t know, anyone.
A: A little kid or something?
Q: Yeah, in San Diego or something. Because, you know, they’re all over the place.
Q: My point is, since this is a column about criticism for Newsarama readers, what advice do you give? I remember on The Engine there was a discussion about this and you kind of talked a little bit about planting your flag in “don’t give a shit” land.
A: OK, that’s a big part of it. The big thing is, and I wouldn’t use this language with a kid because the kid would immediately fall asleep.
Q: It’s a hypothetical kid.
A: The hypothetical, nonexistent, insane child. Is he naked and painted green? Is he trying to bite me?
Q: If you don’t give him the right answer he might.
A: What kind of weird, psychotic child are we talking about here?
Q: the kind that wants to be a comic critic
A: I would say I need to talk to your parents. “Please seek help for your child.” I was terrifying enough when I suggested to my parents I might not want to be a certain kind of lawyer. If I had said “I wan to be a comics critic when I grow up” there would have been beatings and beatings in my household. I’m kidding.
The big thing is you need to value the activity in and of itself. It’s not a good path to anywhere else. It isn’t. If you want to be a comics writer write comics. If you want to write about movies, write about movies. Only if you want to write about comics, then write about comics. If you don’t value that in and of itself there’s not enough reward there to keep you going.
I would also just kind of remember that you owe people – it sounds so stupid – but you have to do the job honestly. Don’t bullshit your way through the job. Don’t half-read things. Don’t write slogans. Actually engage the work and don’t worry about people not liking you if you write something mean. You owe people your honest opinion as well as you can put it and as best as you can put a piece together and put it in front of them.
If you take that aspect of it seriously and not the rest of it seriously because it’s kind of a ridiculous endeavor, that what you’re doing, there’s not even a good critic to point at, to say you’re not that respected guy over there. There are no respected guys over there. But if you want to do that, do it, that’s great.
You are a weird kid. And God help you.
Q: I do get kids who find out I write about comics and video games and are like “Wow, how can I do that?”
A: there are so many things that have to go wrong that you end up writing about comics and video games full time. Just the horrors. A lot of drinking before tests and after school. Reading comics instead of reading your schoolbooks and all the things that would actually help you. All these skills have been brought to bear to lead me to the place where I am today.
It’s not a bad thing to do. People will take you as seriously as you take yourself. It’s just like anything else. It’s like making art too. If you have a certain amount of integrity and you work hard at it and you’re honest, then people will accept you on those terms. The great thing is, if you do those things, you won’t care how people take it. You’ll have satisfied yourself.
And then I’d say “get away from me you creepy kid.” And then I’d go back to smoking cigars and making fun of cartoonists because I’m jealous of them.
I like that. I like the idea that I’d be standing around smoking cigars with Calvin Reid and Doug Wolk and saying shitty things about cartoonists really loud so that people could hear us.
Q: You mean you don’t do that?
A: No, we don’t. At SPX we do, but at the other ones we don’t. No, of course we’re all toady weasles trying to get autographs and get people to look at our movie scripts.
This is the worst column ever by the way Chris. I’m going to build an underground railroad just to get you out of this column. To help you escape.
Q: Wait until you see the hits it will get.
A: Yeah. My mom is going to be so reading this. Like, multiple times. You’re going to be flooded with hits from the West Demming sewing circles. Wherever the hell the Rotary Club goes to every week.