Charles Hatfield and Craig Fischer had already proven themselves through their writing, both in the pages of The Comics Journal and in the academic world where they make their daily bread, to be insightful, sharp critics with lots of worthwhile things to say about the comics medium. That they would team up, in blogging form, came, to those who had read their work before, as an inspired decision.
Indeed, the net result, Thought Balloonists, has proven since its inception earlier this year to be one of the must-stop places on the Web for good, meaty critical thinking about comics. What the also offers, however, is a sort of conversational give and take that very few critical blogs — comics or otherwise — seem to have adopted.
This interview was conducted via email over the course of the past month (give or take a few days). My thanks to both Mssrs. Hatfield and Fischer for their time and patience .
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you guys know each other?
CH: Hmmm. Basically, Craig and I met because we’re both academics — university professors — with a shared interest in comics. We’re also both occasional freelance writers about comics, outside of academia, so we were/are used to thinking about multiple audiences for our comics-related work. More specifically, we met about six years back, I think.
CF: It might be worth noting that the subjects we teach as professors are different from each other. Charles teaches children’s literature and culture, while my specialty is film studies.
CH: Craig, didn’t we first meet in person at the PCA (the national Popular Culture Association conference) in Toronto in 2002? I remember that you presented on Kirby and the question of fascism then. I was there presenting on nostalgia in comics, particularly in Seth’s work — a sequel to my 2001 PCA presentation in Philadelphia. In fact, it looks like, from the 2002 PCA program, that you and I and Bart Beaty were all on the same panel together, though presenting on very different things.
CF: That’s right. The main thing I remember from that 2002 PCA is what fun it was. I was really tired of film studies around that time, and I was overjoyed to discover that I could write about comics in an academic context.
I also recall going with Bart and Ana Merino to the Beguiling during that trip; Joe Matt was there and tried to hit on Ana. (You went a day later, and met Chester Brown, right?) Also, a bunch of us — you, me, Ana, Gene Kannenberg, and somebody else — went out to breakfast one morning and had the nerdiest comics discussion in history. We discovered that Gene had stored a list of famous comics catch-phrases (“Shazam!” “Blistering barnacles!”) in his cell phone, and we spent an hour suggesting additions to his list. I think my major contribution was “the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” (Told you it was nerdy.)
CH: I had a great time at that Toronto gig, not least because of the good company, with whom I got to visit The Beguiling. Ana Merino (who was then working alongside Craig at Appalachian State University, and is now at Dartmouth) probably played a big part in introducing me and Craig to each other. She’s a binding force! Shortly after that, I think, I approached Craig about joining me for a panel about Kirby at the 2003 Comics Art Conference in San Diego; we got together with my buddy Jarret Keene to deliver three-fer Kirby panel.
CF: Right. And I can’t over-emphasize how important Ana was to my involvement in conferences like PCA and ICAF. When she first arrived at Appalachian, she kept hearing about the guy in the English Department who read comics, but she put off introducing herself to me because she was afraid I would be a typical American superhero fanboy. But one day she wandered down to my office, said hi, saw a couple of issues of Acme Novelty Library on my shelves, and we were off to the races. From that day forth, she kept encouraging me to submit to TCJ, to ICAF, to everything else I got involved in. I owe her a huge debt.
Was that CAC Kirby panel really 5 years ago? Wow. That was a blast. A memory: standing with you, Bart and Ana near the Fantagraphics booth, looking at an amazing double-page splash in a old copy of Fantastic Four #63 that I bullied you into buying. Then suddenly Kim Thompson looked over our shoulders, and said, “I keep telling Gary that Kirby is every bit as good as Herge,” or something like that.
CH: After that, Craig delivered papers at the International Comic Arts Festival in the Washington, D.C. area (now the International Comic Arts Forum), which I’d been part of organizing since 1997. Craig, didn’t you present at ICAF 2003 and 2004? Then, in 2005, if I recall rightly, you joined the ICAF Executive Committee; that was circa 2005. Between 2005 and 2007 Craig and I served together, along with Ana Merino and others, on that committee, which basically meant that we saw each other at least once a year and exchanged a lot of emails and phone calls, between 2005 and 2007. By then, of course, I’d long since learned that Craig and I share a serious interested in writing about Kirby, and about comics more generally. I’d also read plenty of Craig’s critical writing in The Comics Journal.
CF: All accurate. And, of course, I’d read Charles’ own TCJ reviews, and his terrific book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, and was a fan.
CH: The idea for what eventually became Thought Balloonists came to me partly because I knew Craig would be moving on from ICAF after the 2007 conference and I wanted to keep in touch with him and keep collaborating with him. There was, of course, a more purely selfish motive: I wanted a more regular outlet for my critical writing about comics, outside of academia, and I had begun to enjoy blogging, which a student of mine taught me about two or three years back (thanks Jamie!) and which I had used sometimes to stay in touch with family.
I liked the idea of doing reviews online; I thought it would be a good outlet for that part of my work. But the idea to actually commit to a regular comics blog did not occur to me at all until I was standing in line at a Pat Oliphant book-signing in D.C. with Craig and we began chatting about our tentative “Best of 2007″ choices; I had been working on a best-of piece for TCJ at the time. I sprung the idea on him that evening and we developed it last November and December.
CF: Again, all this is accurate. When we were standing in that Oliphant line, I remember that you said to me that we should collaborate on a blog because our tastes were “just different enough” to create productive friction, though it turned out that we’re a lot more in sync than in disagreement.
I was glad to accept Charles offer because (a.) I was flattered to be asked; (b.) like Charles, I was ready for a new non-academic venue for my writing; and (c.) I’d been struggling with a case of writer’s block–a symptom of a larger mid-life crisis–for a couple of years, and thought that a regular writing schedule might be good for me. It’s been wonderful.
Q: How did you two come upon the idea for the structure of the blog — both the back and forth main review and the Friday individual essays?
CF: From what I remember, the structure of the blog was one of the earliest things in place. It was an attempt to exploit some of that “productive friction” — the notion that the blog would be spicier if we had room to disagree and argue with each other. I bet Charles was the one who came up with the two-fer structure.
The “Friday individual essays”–which actually go up on Thursday–was, I think, my idea. I thought that we needed to update at least twice a week to keep people coming back, but I also realized that two long dialogues per week–on top of our work and family demands, our scholarship, etc.–would burn us out. This way, we get a little break from twice-a-week writing every two weeks, and we can also explore more fanciful topics in the individual essays. We typically reserve the Tuesday two-fers for new books, while in the single-author pieces, we blab about old Kirby comics, our favorite comics pages, less topical stuff like that.
CH: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right: the twofer notion came from my initial pitch to Craig, but working out the larger scheduling issues was something Craig put a lot of effort into. He suggested solo pieces on alternating Thursdays, and also recommended that we will build up a backlog of material during the month before our launch (man, was that a lifesaver). Craig also sketched in our first tentative week-by-week schedule.
I think the alternating Thursdays have brought more variety into what we do, and, as Craig says, it’s necessary for our sanity. The initial brief for Thought Balloonists was to do topical reviews, but, by tossing ideas back and forth, we’ve come up with other things to do, such as discussing favorite comics pages, wrangling over larger theoretical or aesthetic questions, weighing in when the news seems to require it (as we did at Steve Gerber’s passing, sigh), doing short think pieces and miscellaneous follow-up posts, et cetera. The result is less purely review-oriented than I at first envisioned, but much livelier for it.
We plan an even greater variety of features in future, though it’s likely that we’ll stick to updating twice a week most of the time. The “Twosday” feature is really the anchor of what we do, which is why we tend to get the greatest number of hits mid-week.
I like our current setup. I’ve got latitude; I feel pretty free to do anything thoughtful related to comics or cartooning.
What we’ll probably become known for is ruminating; we like doing stuff that takes a few minutes to read.
Q: How do you guys go about selecting books to review? Do either of you ever have to sell the other on reviewing a particular book? Do you ever get into any arguments about your picks (i.e. “Goddammit I don’t want to review Crickets! Let’s pick something else.”)
CF: Good question.
Some books we’re both excited about reviewing. Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure was the proverbial no-brainer, since we’re both such Kirby geeks. Speaking for myself, though, there were a couple of times that I was a little less than enthusiastic about writing a TB review. I was ambivalent about tackling The System of Comics, for instance, because I had tried to read it before we started the blog and failed, failed, failed. But writing the System review forced me to put in the effort to understand the book, and now I’m thinking a lot about “the multi-frame” and “braiding” and other useful Groensteen concepts. Even if I don’t like a book, I’m bound to learn something when I write about it.
Also, I figure that if this week’s comic is a drag, next week we’ll write about something I like better. It’ll all even out over the long haul. Our negotiations about what to write next are amazingly congenial. This is not to say we don’t have individual agendas — Charles is rabidly awaiting the new Toon books, and I’m ready to put him in a head lock to convince him to do a “Twosday” about Uzumaki – -but we’ll get to everything eventually.
Besides, if we’re really in a hurry to talk about a book, we can do it on a solo Thursday.
CH: What Craig said!
I should add that it was Craig who put The Immortal Iron Fist on my radar; I doubt very much that I would have checked out that book without his recommendation. And of course writing about Iron Fist was a blast. That’s just one example of how doing the blog has actually opened up my horizons a bit. I’m thankful for that!
When it comes to choosing things to review, the underlying consideration, I think, is that it has to be something we’re keenly interested in. Thought Balloonists is something we’re doing as amateurs, in the original, non-pejorative use of that word, that is, out of love [amare] rather than for money. So we’ve got to be strongly interested in something to tackle it. It’s not as if we’re professional reviewers who regularly have to review whatever gets sent their way, or a fair cross-section of what gets sent their way. So we can afford to be selective. My sense is that we’re likely to review things we like, things we wish we liked, things from creators who interest us for whatever reasons (positive, negative, ambivalent), and things with a reputation, that is, things that we’d be expected to have opinions about, whether it’s a new project from a major creator or a much-hyped project that is generating a lot of buzz. It’s safe to say that Thought Balloonists is biased toward work that we can talk about at length.
Q: You mention reviewing what you like, but what about what you hate? Do either of you ever feel the urge to be negative, either about a particular book or a trend or genre?
CH: Sure, there are books that I don’t like that I consider important enough, or revealing enough, to be reviewed. Not everything on Thought Balloonists will be (indeed not everything so far has been) positive. Criticism in the adversarial sense is also important.
My point was simply that we are likely to review books that we find interesting, either for artistic reasons or because they come with a rep or a high profile (a new book by a prominent creator, or a much-hyped event series, or a book that has attracted a lot of criticism from other sources, etc.). Some of those “interesting” books will turn out, of course, to be crap.
As for “hating,” well, that’s a waste of energy, isn’t it, except when there are compelling moral or ideological reasons to come out fighting? Hating work just for the sake of position-taking, as in, “I belong to THIS club, not THAT one,” seems like energy mis-spent to me.
There’s a lot of work in comics that I don’t like, and some of it will surely be covered in Thought Balloonists, but I hope we always give our readers more to think about than mere position-taking and snark.
I try to save positive DISlike for issues where something important is at stake. Like politics.
CF: Yeah, I’d echo what Charles said. I’m not much of a hater either, particularly of whole genres. I grew up a Lee-Kirby child, and Love and Rockets expanded my taste, and Yummy Fur blew my mind, so I’ll read anything that promises to be good.
I’ll write a bad review if I have to–it wasn’t a pleasure to find fault with Crickets — but in my reviews I always try, regardless of opinion, to present an idea or address an issue bigger than just the individual book. That way, the review can still be useful to someone who disagrees with me.
CH: Hear, hear! That’s exactly what I meant.
Q: How do the two of your complement each other? In other words, how would you compare or contrast your writing styles, outlook on comics in general and critical thinking, if that’s not too broad a question?
CH: Actually, we’re still in the process of figuring this out, and probably will be for a long time. The short answer, I’m guessing, is that we like a lot of the same things, and place the same high value on sharp, well-reasoned, independent-minded criticism, but that we’re still capable of confusing each other terribly!
When I first proposed the blog to Craig, I thought we might be at loggerheads critically very often, more often than in fact we have been. I knew Craig well and enjoyed talking comics with him, but I figured we’d have to be at odds part of the time. I even proposed titles for the blog such as “Comix Versus” to try and build up a sense of bare-knuckled critical debate. I was hoping to send off some sparks, y’know, create a kind of Ebert/Roeper sort of duke-em-out. Craig pointed out that this was probably too adversarial-sounding for what we’d actually end up doing, and he was right. So the name “Thought Balloons,” then “Thought Balloonists,” came up, as if to emphasize thoughtfulness over verbal fisticuffs.
I’ve noticed that we disagree fairly often, but never fundamentally about the aims or importance of criticism. And I’d even go so far as to say that our tastes are probably very close, though we differ enough that, behind the scenes, we do a fair amount of jocular back-and-forth regarding who’s right or wrong about a particular book. I would guess that Craig’s aesthetics are more urban and punk-influenced than mine; I confess to being a woolly agragrian type at heart, all folk-rock and fantasy, and I may have a more overtly Romantic strain in me. That said, the differences don’t manifest so very much in our reading of comics. Hell, they don’t even manifest in our discussions of music, though we’ve had very different experiences there.
Q: What do you feel is the benefit of the back and forth nature of TB, as opposed to a more traditional “one-voice” review blog? In other words, what do you think TB brings to the table that other review blogs don’t? (apart from your own insightful commentary I mean)
CH: Well, two things, I’d say:
First off, the fact that we’re doing this together means that we’re each reading things we wouldn’t otherwise read and reviewing we wouldn’t otherwise review. So the very choice of material we cover is affected by our constant dialogue. From a selfish POV, I’m learning when I do this, so my mental map of comics is getting that much larger, more inclusive. I count that as one of the major personal benefits of doing the blog the way we do it.
Iron Fist is the one example I’ve given so far. But there are others . For example, I’ve been reading Brian Chippendale lately, whereas I probably wouldn’t have had the gumption to take on his stuff, not right now anyway, without Craig’s encouragement. I needed someone else’s interest in Chippendale to get me beyond my initial befuddlement (I know Craig well enough to know that his interest in something is a sure sign of its potential interest to me). Examples like this have been popping up a lot lately. Thought Balloonists has made me a more adventurous comics shopper, and I hope that adventurousness proves instructive for readers as well.
Secondly, and probably most importantly, Thought Balloonists is designed to encourage discussion and to allow for disagreement, without turning disagreement into simply a matter of contentious position-taking. We want to demonstrate that there is room for substantial disagreement, without rancor, even about comics that we both consider important or interesting.
There are of course other blogs that offer a mix of voices (where would I be without the Savage Critics, for instance?), but TB aims to offer the advantages of focus, while still allowing for that sort of polyphony. We want the liveliness that comes with the tag-team approach, but we also want to do substantial reviews, and, as readers have no doubt noticed, we’re willing to go long if need be. So TB is sort of a combination of the epic holding-forth that one sometimes sees in, say, the Comics Journal, with the dialogic and responsive nature of blogs. We’ll see how that combination works.
I should add that we’re still working out different ways to format the back-and-forth. For example, our recent “Tiny Fragments” exchange came out of another post (our review of Crickets), more specifically out of a comment that I had written in response to Craig. We decided it was too big and had too much potential to relegate to a comment, so I expanded it, added relevant images, and published it as a separate post, to which Craig wrote his own counter-post. Sometimes we’ll just talk back to each other in the comments section (as we did when, for example, Craig disagreed with my review of Odds Off). At other times, the back-and-forth will blossom into new full-blown posts. Another new wrinkle is experimenting with co-writing joint posts, as we’ve done with the start of our Eddie Campbell series. While we like our tag-team “Twosdays” approach, we also want to try out new ways of making the dialogic aspect of the blog more truly dialogic. We’ve only just started.
It seems to me that this is a good moment to be doing something like TB. The alternative comics scene is at an interesting moment right now, in terms of its receptiveness to all sorts of comics, the breakdown of once-firm divisions, and the emergence of new things to argue about. For example, Comics Comics (with Tim Hodler, Dan Nadel, Frank Santoro et al.) is coming up with some interesting new critical angles. Frankly, I’m surprised by some of the critical choices those guys have made. But what they’re doing is really invigorating. I visit their blog pretty often, and I just got through revisiting the first three issues of the magazine. Most interesting, and in such contrast to, say, the new, bookshelf-friendly, literary-journal-styled Comics Journal. Also, Todd Hignite’s Comic Art magazine is doing a similar repositioning, with its very ecumenical take on all things comics (plus its wonderful reproductions). I feel as if some of the old hidebound distinctions are melting away.
At the same time, I see new distinctions popping up. There’s a lot of position-taking going on, in terms of resistance to or acceptance of the “literary” comics paradigm, which strikes me as symptomatic of this tense, promise-crammed moment. There’s gratefulness, of course, for the more encouraging reception of comics in literary circles, but, at the same time, there’s an almost instinctive resistance to gentrification. And there’s a new assertiveness in terms of comics as visual art (narrative or otherwise), a trend Thierry Groensteen refers to as the liberation of the image, for its own sake. Trends and counter-trends: it’s an interesting soup right now, and I think Craig and I are close enough, aesthetically and style-wise, and yet far enough apart too, to make an interesting, complementary team.
CF: I pretty much agree with everything Charles says. I think I mentioned previosuly that it was Charles that suggested tackling Groensteen, and I’m glad we did. I agree also with his observations of the current critical comics landscape — partially because I recognize in myself a knee-jerk tendency towards celebrating comics’ “outlaw” qualities, and a resistance to comics’ “gentrification.” (I’d hazard a guess that Charles is more comfortable with said gentrification–he liked the “Masters of American Comics” exhibit more than I did–though neither of us is strident about our preferences.) Frankly, I’m not sure where comics is going–the medium seems to be exploding in about a dozen different directions–but I love reviewing books that represent the different directions and explosions.
Beyond that, doing TB as a dialogue also makes it about friendship. Doing a solo blog might be intellectually satisifying, but I think I’d find it lonely. With Charles, though, it’s a blast.
Q: What are your future plans for TB? I believe at one point you said wanted to expand upon the site’s initial set-up. How so? Will you, for example, invite other critics to contribute occasionally?
CF: Charles and I hope to expand TB’s parameters in a couple of ways. First, the two of us want to continue to write different kinds of articles, beyond the reviews and appreciations that we’re currently doing. I’m transcribing the first TB interview right now, and there’s three or four other people I’d like to interview, artists and creators whose work intersects with comics but who are not typically discussed by the comics press or blogosphere.
Also, Charles and I have already talked to people about doing some guest-writing for TB. I think guest writers are a good idea–not only to give Charles and I a break occasionally, but because new writers bring fresh perspectives and expertise in certain areas of comics and Charles and I may not have. So yeah, this’ll be a future direction for us.