Tom Spurgeon speaks on the state of comics and comics journalism
Tom Spurgeon has been covering comics and the comics industry since the early ’90s, but really emerged as a prominent voice about comics in 2004 with the launch of his website The Comics Reporter. After years of steadily growing into online journalism, in 2010 Spurgeon won the Eisner Award for Best Comics-Related Periodical/Journalism. He’s authored, or co-authored, several books about comics, including Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and the overlooked Romita Legacy. He also wrote a a syndicated comic strip from 1999 to 2002 called Wildwood.
I turned to Tom for this interview as a chance for readers to get another side of someone who’s seen and covered a lot in comics, and frankly to ask him from one journalist to another what I should pay attention to more. So whether you’re reader, reporter, creator or suit, I recommend you read on for Spurgeon’s take on where we stand, where we fall, and how we can pick ourselves up again.
Chris Arrant: When you meet people, what do you tell them you do for a living?
Tom Spurgeon: Astronaut!
I tell them I’m a writer. Is that a dumb answer? Everybody’s got to do something. The comics part only comes up if people ask me what I write about, at which point I tell them one of my areas of interest is comics. It was a lot harder in the mid-’90s trying to describe what I did for a living in that people were much less familiar with comics beyond newspaper strips and superhero books. We used to get calls at The Comics Journal from people pitching us stand-up comedian articles. My friends back home have an easier time wrapping their mind around what I do now, with multiple entry points and greater coverage of the field.
Arrant: How do you perceive the state of comics journalism today?
Spurgeon: I think it’s okay. It’s just industry journalism, right, that just happens to cover comics? There’s no special nature to journalism about comics beyond that, well, except potentially a few historical developments along the way, like the fact that our industry press came out of a fan press and still has some of those characteristics. I think we do a better job than some industries, and I think the shift to on-line publication of that entire industry segment (mostly, anyway) has set us back a bit in terms of building the kind of resources that can then be spent on more thorough coverage. But we’re getting there.
Arrant: How do you think the fact that comics journalism grew out of fanzines has affected the current state of things?
Spurgeon: I don’t exactly know what you mean by “the current state of things,” but I think it’s pretty obvious that a lot of the industry publications historically and currently are designed and formatted like fan magazines as opposed to B2B [business-to-business] publications, and that publishers will sometimes dismiss industry publications as coming from fan interest as opposed to “real” press. That kind of thing. Maybe most importantly, the people drawn to that kind of publication seems to me oriented towards their subject matter in a way that’s different than the folks I know that might work on a magazine like Coatings World, for example. I’m not sure that the people who work on Coatings World are really into coatings the same way comics fans are really into comics. That’s three, anyway.
Arrant: You’re a second-generation reporter, following in the footsteps of your father – who even edited the comics page for the Muncie Star-Press back in the day. What’s that like?
Spurgeon: My dad actually owned a gear works up until about he was my age, and then he worked in PR briefly and then got into the newspaper business that he had been in right after college. My dad very much loved our shared hometown, so I think he enjoyed being in that kind of community position that newspaper editors used to fulfill.
Dad was a big comics fan; he clipped strips when he was a little kid and remembers his sister getting upset when Raven Sherman died. He tried to have a good comics page in both of the newspapers he ran, all the best strips and something for every readership. He was a good friend to Jim Davis when Davis was getting syndicated, and corresponded with some of the cartoonists who appeared in his pages. He was really early on Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side and Bloom County. He knew Luann was going to be a hit and that Rudy wasn’t.
I miss him a lot; I’m glad he got to see me do the syndicated strip for a few years. He had a blast with that.
Arrant: At what point did you say, hey, I want to turn this hobby into a career?
Spurgeon: I was working at a home-shopping network when I saw the ad in The Comics Journal where I ended up getting the job — I was the fifth choice, incidentally. Seattle sounded much cooler than Millersville, Pennsylvania, and working on a comics magazine sounded a lot more fun than coming up with formulas by which line managers could judge the productivity of their returns workers. I was a beneficiary of a nepotism-related summer job or two while in college, so I was confident I could do that work and like it. Now I’m stuck.
Arrant: As a journalist, you have a unique vantage point on the industry. What do comics need more of and, alternatively, less of?
Spurgeon: I hate to backseat-drive an entire industry, Chris, mostly because it’s sort of ridiculous to think that I know better than people that have made their lives in comics publishing, either deriving great profits or supporting great art.
I’d like to see significant development in the non-commercial, non-publishing aspects of comics. I’d like to see greater library collections, I’d like publishers to maintain a high standard when dealing with the life’s work of some of these creators. I’d like to see some nonprofit comics companies. I’d like to see more comics stores and many more models for comics stores. I’d like to see us move from less of a collector’s model for previously published work and more of a used-books model, because I think that’s a boon to readers. I’d like to see DC’s sales figures.
I’d like to see fewer efforts on behalf of sick, broke and ailing creators, although I’m afraid we may see more of those.
Arrant: And specifically the comics journalism field – what kind of kick in the ass does it need?
Spurgeon: I think more money would be good, Chris. A bootful of cash. An ass-kicking of filthy luchre. That sounds like a jerky response, but I think if industry journalism is valued the best thing that can happen to it is that it’s supported, and that it’s supported without qualification. I’d love to be able to work an eight-hour day on CR, but I can’t afford to. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about writing comics articles and the like. I’m so grateful for the opportunities I do have, and I realize a lot of that is patronage rather than a cold, commercial transaction.
Also, I think thing might be better generally if folks didn’t think of industry journalism as a stepping stone to making comics, which I think brings with it a lot of fear of infuriating people or getting on the bad side of powerful people.
Arrant: How and where do you see yourself fitting in to the comics industry?
It would be nice to fit in someday! I’d love to do about three times as much with CR as I’m doing now. I’d like to write a couple more books. I’d love to have a bigger audience and make more money and have different opportunities just like everybody does, but I don’t think the basic relationship to comics changes. Comics are wonderful, and I want people to see them for how wonderful they are, and I think writing about them and helping to ensure ethics and good conduct within them helps sustain and enhance the wonderful things.
Arrant: In your career – and years as a fan before that – you’ve seen the real growth of the idea of creators’ rights in comics, which I believe you once remarked was comics “original sin.” Do you think comics can ever walk back from that in any real manner, or has it done so and I’ve missed it?
Spurgeon: That’s a great question. I’m not really sure there is an end game as much as these principles that get applied in some areas and then fail to get applied in others. In other words, I’m not sure we haven’t come as far as we’ll ever come. That progress is remarkable in a lot of areas: People are largely credited for their work, there are royalty systems in place that have bought a lot of people their homes, and there are healthy assumptions at work in comics, for instance the notion that a work is yours until you sign it away or that you have specific value to a comic above and beyond the corporate value.
At the same time, there’s still a lot of abuse. We still get people offering lousy deals to people that either need the work desperately or that have become convinced it’s a stepping stone to somewhere else — it’s usually a stepping stone to regret. There are in many everyday business relationships in comics an underlying contempt and lack of respect — for instance the notion that a creator is given an assignment as a gift rather than hired based purely on their skill set. And then there’s the really tough notion of how you step away from these fundamentally distressing cases where a creator does not participate in the success of his or her creation and the protection of those profits drives that relationship rather than basic humanity or the kind of humane treatment from which an industry can benefit long term. I think the way the families of our creators are treated by companies and fans can be shameful and heartbreaking, and just shows a real lack of the wonderful American conception of generosity and compassion. I think it’s wrong that corporate officers have the potential to make more in a single year than the creator could have made over the lifetime of work they did on a project — and if that’s just cold reality, if that’s the way things have to work, I think we should do everything else possible to honor those men and women and their families.
It’s such a crap shoot, Chris, and I think sometimes we think this stuff is going to work out because we’ve been conditioned by the success of icons like Superman and Spider-Man that there’s going to be decades of time and oodles of money and that everyone can be made happy. But that’s not the case, and maybe someone has a very limited window in which to make the money on which they’ll retire. It’s so important to apply these values wherever you can.
Arrant: As one reporter to another, I have to admit buying comics is expensive. What’s the whole buying comics like for you? You must get comps like me, but what about shopping for comics?
Spurgeon: I do get a lot of comps, and I’m grateful for all of them. I have the world’s worst comics collection; it’s like a comics collection that was made by running up and down the aisle of Midtown Comics throwing things into a basket and not looking at them until I get home. So I always have spaces to fill, and I’m always looking for stuff. I buy a lot of older material from AbeBooks.com, stuff like Peter Arno books. My closest comics shop is 150 miles away, but I enjoy catching up with some superhero books while I’m there, and spend $40-$50 every time I head down there. I love comics shopping, there’s so much good stuff to find. Now that I’m a bit older I’m trying to be more discriminate, but just the other month I was in my hometown and ended up buying a bunch of Pat Boyette Charlton comics just because they look cool. It’s a struggle. I’d love to have access to a library instead of having to build my own.
Arrant: Where do you see comics five or 10 years from now?
I’m a terrible seer, but I imagine that five or 10 years from now a lot of the digital content issues will be settled. My worry is that a move to a digital-distribution system may cause the amount of money that professionals working in mainstream comics receive to go down rather than up, and the fact that all these comics people can fashion something of a living in that field is one of the greatest virtues of that neighborhood of comics. We should also know a lot more about the future of newspaper via digital-content distribution, and how that will have an effect on the strips.
My fondest hope is that comics will get over its tendency to want to swing for the fences and will spend some time developing a small but historically profitable devoted patronage — the key word is develop, because I think we’ve seen in the past what happens when you just service the existing fan. But instead of a world where a million people might buy a 99-cent download of a comic book, I think it’s an equally good future if there are developed 200,000 more comics aficionados, a readership that isn’t treated with the contempt that I think some aspects of companies treat such readers. Comics have enriched my life, and I’d like to think there are more people out there that could have a similar set of experiences.
Arrant: Do you have a big question about comics that you still haven’t figured out the answer to?
Spurgeon: Yeah, I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why the alt-comic died. The counter-intuitive element that bothers me there is that when the alt-comic thrived — well, “thrived” — the bulk of copies moved were sold in a minority of super-stores. We have many more stores of that quality now, but no alt-comics. Most of the theories — “they stopped publishing the good ones!” “they publish way more now so no single title sells well” — come from parties interested in deflecting blame or providing spin, so I’m leery of trusting them.
Additionally, I’d like to know just how corrupt/divorced from reality back-issues pricing has been over the years. I wonder about that sometimes.
Also, when Black Bolt speaks, does he just say whatever or does he save stuff up that he’s dying to get out? Is it “My wife is pretty! I like dogs! Where’s the beef?” Or is it more like “The Star Wars prequels were very disappointing! No matter what your politics are like, it’s remarkable and encouraging that the United States elected a black president! Sometimes I look at my life and loved ones and everything I’ve accomplished and I don’t feel anything inside!”