Walking about the comics beat with Heidi MacDonald
If I had to pick one person as the reporter-of-record for the American comics scene, it would be Heidi MacDonald. Although she may not write for Comic Book Resources, Newsarama or Wizard, her compelling voice and expansive knowledge of comics — and virtually all of its players — give her writing for Publishers Weekly and her own site, The Beat, a unique perspective. In addition to her comics commentary, she’s also served as a comics editor herself with stints at Disney, DC/Vertigo and Fox Atomic. This multifaceted experience gives her writing insider knowledge and credibility while lending MacDonald’s colorful wit intact to provide one of the most unique and strongest voices talking about comics.
I quote MacDonald often, many times for her idea of “the satisfying chunk” (ask her!), and with comics in the middle of a unique tectonic shift at the moment in terms of formats, genres and even ownership, I wanted to pick her brain on where things are and where they’re heading. Before I’d probably do this in a hallway to a press room at a convention or over weeks of emailing, but thanks to Robot 6 I can put it down for the world to see.
Chris Arrant: When people off the street ask, what do you tell them you do for a living?
Heidi MacDonald: I usually say I’m a writer, and they always ask what I write, so I say I run a website about comics (or graphic novels, depending on the crowd) and pop culture. They ask what it is called and I say “The Beat — just Google ‘Beat’ and ‘Heidi’ and it will come up.” Over the years the response has generally gotten more positive. Usually someone has a cousin or neighbor who is involved in comics. About half the time I have some familiarity with whoever it is, as opposed to the Olden Days when people were more aghast at the notion of comic books as a whole.
Arrant: What do you see as your role in the comics industry?
MacDonald: I guess it falls into two categories. One is as a kind of curator/guide. I am subsidized to spend a lot more time reading the comics Internet and media than the average person working in the comics industry or following the comics industry, so I try to point people towards the most cogent or newsworthy items. Since there is so much comics news now, I tend towards information that is going to help people with their own endeavors – whether as a reader, a creator or a commenter. I try to run news on business that affects the industry, including fields that aren’t comics but have an influence on them. Or stuff that is unusual and entertaining.
The other role is sort of digging up information that isn’t generally known – so “reporter” kind of covers it. I like to know the real reasons for things, and I think my readers do as well. Not that I always know, but so much information is canned and misleading.
A lot of people read The Beat with their morning coffee, which is a daunting responsibility, so I try to take it seriously.
I should point out that this has changed a lot in the six years I’ve been doing The Beat. In the beginning I was one of only two or three full-time comics bloggers, and a lot more of my goal was to be entertaining. I also put in a lot more personal information and sort of “subplots,” I guess you would call them. This was absolutely the most popular part of the early Beat, I think because people at that point really wanted to read things with a personal voice and viewpoint. Now I think that is more of a detriment – plus there just isn’t time and attention for that. Also, now Time, MTV and other major news outlets have their own comics blogs, so the level of professionalism is a lot higher.
Arrant: What are your thoughts on the state of comics journalism right now? What do we need more of, and less of?
MacDonald: Ironically, a few tweets by Brian Bendis kind of made this a hot topic the week prior to my writing this. I think he was kind of tweaking people a little, not just criticizing, but everyone immediately got all defensive, myself included. He was talking about the Internet, but there is so little print comics writing these days that he might as well have been talking about all comics journalism.
As the discussion at Robot 6 uncovered, most of the things wrong with comics journalism would be significantly improved if there was more money available to subsidize long-term planning and writing. We do need independent news sources and journalists who are paid to work on a story for a week not an hour. There are days when there are three major stories and I have to write about them all. It just doesn’t leave much time for any real thought or research. You only get to scratch the surface. I do miss the chance to let something sit and rewrite or rethink it. There is so little time or opportunity to do that any more. And I think most of my peers are under the same gun.
A lot of the problems with comics journalism are the problems with entertainment journalism in general. I get together with some of my journo pals here in New York every once in a while and we all have the same sob story: PR people control access and the story with an iron fist, and any time you deviate you get grief, whether it’s no cooperation, or pulling advertising or stories. What is fairly unique about comics is that even though it’s a lot bigger than it once was, and a lot more people want to get into it, it is still such a clubby little world. So everyone feels connected. If you write a bad review of something, the creator often will complain or write to you directly. I can’t imagine that happens so much in the music or film worlds. A film critic gets paid to write movie reviews, and is insulated from say, angry directors (unless it’s Uwe Boll) – and angry directors don’t have enough time to read the hundreds of reviews of their movies, anyway.
Anyway, I’ve spent all this time talking about MY problems because I see the same problems on a lot of websites. In the discussion that spun out of the Bendis comments, it was suggested that if you just do great work it will find an audience and you’ll make good money doing it. I have to say, categorically, that that has been tried and it doesn’t really happen. I have talked to so many people who are launching general-entertainment websites or magazines, and they always say the same thing – the comics coverage is important to them editorially, but it doesn’t get the numbers that every other subject does, whether it’s movies or TV or wrestling. The audience for pure comics news is relatively small, unfortunately, and it wouldn’t support a spectrum of magazines and websites.
The result is that you have all the major sites being, in some way, beholden to Marvel and DC for their rationed portions of news. And in the last two years, Newsarama and CBR don’t even get the major news stories any more – all the major publishers go to The New York Times or USA Today or on the web Techland or io9 or IGN to break their big news now. It’s a zero-sum game.
So to circle back – we need more trained writers who can write stories that aren’t just regurgitation of company lines, who can talk to multiple sources and write a news story that lays out facts and other viewpoints. To get trained they need to be able to take time to do it, and to take time to do it they need to make enough money to make it worth their while.
Arrant: Where do you see comics 20 years from now?
MacDonald: Comics, or whatever they are called, will be more a part of people’s cultural lives than ever before but they may have some form that we can’t even envision now. I think as hand-held platforms become the TV of the current day, we’ll see comics adapt to a new medium. Traditional comics will still exist, but they may be even more specialized than they are now. And the great thinkers of comics — the Alan Moores, Chris Wares, Lynda Barrys — will be recognized as major cultural figures, and studied in schools and completely mainstreamed.
Arrant: You’ve been on the ground floor for online comics journalism, founding the Pulse over at Comicon and soon after, The Beat. How do you think the Internet has affected comics commentary?
MacDonald: I think I answered some [before], but we’re living in a world where we’re drowning in information! I don’t think of myself as being on the ground floor, but when you put it that way … there were probably 10 websites that were around when Jen Contino and I launched the Pulse. TOTAL. Now there are a kabillion, and every media outlet covers comics in some form or another. All of this information makes it even harder to find the substance. I love twitter and tweet every day, just about, but if you have even a little bit of ADD, you are going to become paralyzed by all the information coming out.
So in a way every little jot and tittle is being covered, which is something I foresaw from the git-go. What I didn’t really foresee is how this would create such a dearth of authority. And the ubiquity of information makes real information even harder to find. It’s hiding in plain site (sic).
Arrant: You’re probably one of the most passionate comic commentators I’ve seen, giving off some very detailed and thorough commentary on the Beat and at your old column for CBG. What would you say are the most particularly sensitive issues, or ones that draw your attention the most?
MacDonald: Well, issues of sexism have always been my hot button, and probably the source of a lot of my best writing. Because there’s just so much fodder for it! A lot of issues are really just a game of whack-a-mole – you keep bopping it on the head and it keeps coming up again. The one thing that time has made me realize is that there is no final solution – these are really issues of human behavior, which changes very little even while society and culture take on a different shape.
I’m also fascinated by convention culture. I must confess, I love writing my annual story on how fast San Diego hotels sell out, even though it’s kinda the same story every year, because I always find some weird statistics or statement that makes the whole thing fresh.
The most rewarding part of writing about comics is seeing a new talent emerge – and of course when you get in on the ground floor you get to pat yourself on the back a little. I remember arguing years ago with someone who worked at Wizard that Bryan Lee O’Malley was the kind of guest that they should be considering and being told “Who’s that?” and then the Scott Pilgrim movie was on the cover years later. I was an early supporter of Dash Shaw and now he’s the bomb, so that feels good.
The other topic that really riles me up is creator’s rights. When I get a story about a bad contract or rip off, steam comes out my ears. And the more these things are talked about the more power the creators have. I am always trying to get accurate numbers out there. Knowledge is power.
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?
MacDonald: Um, I do get a lot of free books. So many that I don’t really have room in my house or office. I do go to Hanley’s or Midtown or Bergen Street now and then to pick up something I missed out on. There is always stuff I haven’t seen and you need that store environment to see comics in a different way. When I go to a show like MoCCA or SPX I always spend a lot of money…it just isn’t right to take a $4 mini comic when the person needs to sell 100 to pay for the table. I try to spend the most money when I know it is going to the creator. And I always flip through whatever I buy, even if I do have a “to-review” pile that is three years old. EEP. SOMEDAY.
Arrant: And lastly – given the comics you buy and get for free, where do you drop them off so I can dumpster dive?
MacDonald: Sadly we have to throw out the comic book comics a lot of the time. There are very few places that will take them. I started donating my extra books to the Center for Cartoon Studies. They have a library and I figure if I need to read something I’ll just take the bus up to Vermont.