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Tom Spurgeon speaks on the state of comics and comics journalism

Portrait by Michael Netzer

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.

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Talking Comics with Tim | Jason

Werewolves of Montpellier

Hopefully, if you’ve been reading Robot 6 for any substantial amount of time, you’re familiar with the work of Jason. In this email interview, we discuss his latest work released from Fantagraphics, Werewolves of Montpellier (a book aptly summed up by the publisher as “a lycanthropic thriller, a romantic comedy, and an existential drama — basically, your typical Jason book”), as well as some ideas shared in his blog, cats without dogs. My thanks to Jason for the interview (and for reminding me why I love Hal Hartley films) and to Robot 6’s Sean T. Collins as well as Fantagraphics Jacq Cohen for helping to make this interview feasible.

Tim O’Shea: Cinema clearly informs your work, does your appreciation of film date back to your childhood-or when and how did it begin?

Jason: I read comics as a kid, and books like the Hardy Boys, but I think what made the biggest impression on me were movies. In the 70s there was just one Norwegian channel and every Monday night they showed a feature film. I would watch every one of those. And I still remember a lot of them, sometimes better than some movie I saw last year.

O’Shea: In the comments section of your blog, you wrote: ” I like movies, non-musicals, where the characters do a dance or sing a song. Like Rio Bravo, Buffalo 66, Bande à part or Simple Men. It’s something that doesn’t work in comics.” If you don’t think it works in comics, I’m curious why did you have Audrey sing Moon River (a scene that I thought worked, by the way)?

Jason: It’s just four panels of her singing, and I guess it sort of works. But take the dance sequence in Simple Men (Hal Hartley’s 1992 film) as an example. I don’t think that could be recreated in a comic. You don’t get into the music and start tapping your feet like you would in a movie.

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The last word on superhero comics?

from Final Crisis by Doug Mahnke

from Final Crisis by Doug Mahnke

Last week, Tom Spurgeon took a page from Monty Python and said he’d like to have an argument: “What are all these superhero comics really saying?” Given the genre’s domination of both the Direct Market and the comics internet, Spurgeon said he wanted to see a more in-depth discussion of what the heck is going on in these weird and wild comics, particularly regarding their heroes’ behavior and any potential larger message beyond “superheroes are awesome.”

In response, I proposed an argument of my own: “Why do superheroes dominate the online conversation the way they do?” In light of how many comics commentators and critics clearly read a wide variety of comics, or at least have been known to from time to time, I’m perplexed by why The Rise of Arsenal gets so much more airtime than Art in Time or 20th Century Boys.

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What comics arguments do you want to hear more often?

Hulk vs. Superman by Mike Deodato Jr.

Hulk vs. Superman by Mike Deodato Jr.

When you think about it, it only makes sense: Because the comics conversation is so dominated by old arguments, it can be tough to make room for new ones. That’s the thesis of a new post by The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon listing “Three Arguments We Could Be Having.” After we here at Robot 6 pivoted off Spurgeon’s interview with Noah Berlatsky to list the comics arguments we’d prefer never to hear again, Spurge is returning the favor by suggesting three he thinks we’d be better off having in their place: “1) Does reprinting archival comics have a moral component?; 2) Why are so many Direct Market shops still female unfriendly?; 3) What are all these superhero comics really saying?”

In other words, while the current golden age of reprints is a boon to all fans of the medium, what do its practitioners owe the creators of the comics they’re reprinting in terms of not just royalties, but also the best possible packaging and analysis of the material? Everyone’s got horror stories about some creepy store where the wares or employees make it a “shop at your own risk” situation for women and girls — why has that not translated to industry-wide action on those affronted consumers’ behalf? Should superhero comics be expected to have more of a message than “superheroes are awesome,” and if that is the message you go with, shouldn’t that be reflected across the board instead of occasionally having them indulge in really nasty behavior or suffer jarringly grim setbacks to get across the importance of a particular storyline?

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What comics arguments do you never want to hear again?

42708b62a3Sometimes an interview can be interesting because of the questions the interview subject doesn’t answer. Case in point: Blogger and critic Noah Berlatsky’s interview with The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon. Pivoting off a recent Savage Critics roundtable on Daniel Clowes’s divisive black-comedy graphic novel Wilson, Berlatksy sets Spurgeon up with a characterization of literary comics of the sort Clowes creates as self-pitying, misanthropic, pessimistic, and tedious. It’s a characterization Spurgeon’s having none of:

[Berlatsky:] …there’s a default stance in certain regions of lit comics land which is basically: “life sucks and people are awful.” Which I think is glib and overdone and tedious, a, and which, b, can be made even more irritating by the fact that the people promulgating it are, you know, fairly successful, and (what with various autobiographical elements thrown in) the result often looks like a lot of self-pity over not very much.

So…I’m wondering how strongly you would push back against that characterization of lit comics in general…and also whether you feel it is or is not ever appropriate to think about a creator’s biography in relation to his or her work in that way.

[Spurgeon:] At this point I wouldn’t push back at all against the stance that says the default mode in lit comics land is basically “life sucks and people are awful” because it’s no longer an argument I take seriously. I don’t think it’s true by any reasonable measure and I’m done with entertaining the notion until someone presents the argument in a much more effective or compelling fashion than what always sounds to me like some angry, lonely, re-written Usenet post from 1997.

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With comics, what makes you say “okay, that’s enough”?

Blackest Night by Ivan Reis and Herogasm by Darick Robertson

Blackest Night by Ivan Reis and Herogasm by Darick Robertson

Green Lantern and Garth Ennis are responsible for very different comics; bloggers Tom Spurgeon and Tim O’Neil are two very different writers. Yet in recent days, both have posted about how they’ve reached their limit with comics about/by the aforementioned individuals — for very different reasons. And they’ve written some thought-provoking things about that tipping point where you decide “You know what? This comic isn’t for me anymore” in the process.

First up is Spurgeon, who in linking to Charles Hatfield’s negative review of Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern-starring opus Blackest Night said he hasn’t even read the series yet, simply because he has no interest in ever reading a comic about Green Lantern again. Says Spurgeon:

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The last Best of 2009 list?

01footnotes

Footnotes in Gaza

I’d say “better late than never,” but in my experience, like Gandalf, The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon is never late, nor is he early — he posts his Best Comics of 2009 list precisely when he means to. And it’s a good one, divided into sections on reprints, overlooked gems, books about comics, and your basic best books of the year. Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza, R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis Illustrated, and Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days comprise his top three.

I come away from the list thinking two things. First, from about his #7 choice up to Number One, that’s a pretty brain-crushing line-up of major works; it’s not difficult to picture a stretch of five years not yielding that kind of harvest. I mean, Josh Cotter’s astonishing Driven by Lemons ranks only at #15 — I ranked that book a lot higher on my own list, but that you can make reasonable arguments for that kind of placement given what else is out there speaks to the richness of the field right now.

Second and relatedly, Spurge wraps things up with a few paragraphs on books that didn’t make the cut for whatever reason, one of them being simply not remembering them all. “It’s a fantastic time for an art form when you can just forget about some of its quality works,” he says, and I would agree.

The Fantasy Lantern Draft begins!

Blackest Breakfast by Jeremy Wojchihosky

Blackest Breakfast by Jeremy Wojchihosky

One of my pet theories about superhero comics is that the best of them don’t hesitate to tap into what I call “inner-eight-year-old gold” — those simple, magical ideas that made playing with your Secret Wars or Super Friends action figures so much fun. (I, for one, made Iron Man and Magneto arch-enemies. I mean, c’mon, it’s right there!)

One of my favorite such goldmines is the opposite-number villain, those baddies who share a hero’s basic look and power set but change the color scheme and otherwise stand as a mean-spirited mirror image. That’s why I’ve loved Geoff Johns’s Green Lantern run ever since he introduced the Sinestro Corps, and why that love has only gotten stronger as a whole rainbow of Lanterns has been introduced for Blackest Night and beyond. And like a kid playing with his toys, I can’t help but daydream about which other characters it’d be cool to draft into the War of Light.

Looks like I’m not the only one. Over at his blog The Cool Kids Table, Ben Morse has selected a rainbow of Marvel characters he thinks are fit to wield the various multi-hued Power Rings floating around the DCU right now. If he had his way, you’d have a very different Red Hulk on your hands from the one Jeph Loeb concocted, while Clint Barton would look more like Green Arrow than ever and Storm would be making Love rain o’er everyone. This isn’t the first time he’s done a Lantern Draft, either: Like any DC fan worth his salt, he came up with his own personal picks for the roles currently filled in Blackest Night by Mera, Lex Luthor, Scarecrow, Ganthet, the Flash, the Atom, and Wonder Woman. Click the links to see his full rosters.

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The Comics Reporter & The Cool Kids Table look back on the ’00s

from Blankets by Craig Thompson

from Blankets by Craig Thompson

As 2009 draws to a close we’re practically awash in Best Comics of the Year and/or Decade lists. But when it comes to breaking down the books that made a difference this decade, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and a pair of sites have developed novel approaches to the traditional decade-ender.

First up is Tom Spurgeon, The Comics Reporter. This year he’s aiming his annual Holiday Interview Series squarely at “emblematic” books from 2000-2009 — “by which we mean favorite, representative or just plain great” — by hosting discussions with a series of critics, each one focusing on one particular book. So far he’s tackled Mat Brinkman’s monster-mash Multiforce with writer/artist/critic/bon vivant Frank Santoro, and Craig Thompson’s rapturous romance ‘n’ religion memoir Blankets with me. Further installments will roll out on (I believe) a daily basis until the New Year. If you’re the sort of person who loves to really dig into what makes a great graphic novel tick, these are for you.

Next we have Marvel’s Ben Morse, DC’s Rickey Purdin, and CBR’s own Kiel Phegley, who collectively park their online presence at The Cool Kids Table. In their ongoing look back entitled “Our Comics Decade,” the trio take a look at one comic per year that impacted their view of the medium. So far they’ve covered 2000, 2001, and 2002, and recounted their experiences with books ranging from Scott Lobdell’s Uncanny X-Men to Jeffrey Brown’s Clumsy. Personal and aesthetic history have a tendency to mix and match in unexpected and interesting ways, and it’s fascinating to watch these guys spill the beans on how it happened in their lives in such a methodical way.

So go, click the links and curl up with (a good post on) a good book…

Talking Comics with Tim: Dustin Harbin–the Sequel Interview

Dustin Harbin

Dustin Harbin

A few months back when I interviewed Dustin Harbin regarding this year’s HeroesCon, I made a mental note to follow-up with Harbin in another interview, where we could just discuss his creative projects/process. This interview was conducted via email several weeks back. Late last week, Harbin let me know that while he’s remaining as Creative Director at Heroes Aren’t Hard To Find and Heroes Convention, he will be reducing his hours at the store and has “gone full-time with cartooning”. My thanks to Harbin for another interview, I’m happy to say this one was even more fun than the last.

Tim O’Shea: How much are you paying Tom Spurgeon to pimp your work? Seriously, Spurgeon praises many talented storytellers, but he seems to be your number one fan. Did you buy him a lot of meals when he came to HeroesCon in 2008 or what?

Dustin Harbin: I remember having to argue with Tom just to be able to bring him a water: I tried hard to buy him a drink at the hotel bar, but he was leery of my seductive ways. I think Tom is like a lot of us–he’s a passionate advocate for people he thinks deserve wider recognition. I’m not basing this just on the very VERY kind attention he’s showed my comics so far, but he’s the reason I discovered Richard Thompson’s work, who you’ll agree Tom is an even more vociferous a supporter of. I don’t know what attracted Tom’s good feelings, but I’m incredibly grateful for them.

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