Origins of the Comics Journal


Monday, August 3, 2009

The first issue of the Comics Journal I ever read was #58 (September 1980), with a Daredevil/Electra cover by Frank Miller and Josef Rubinstein. So I’ve been reading the Journal for nearly 3 decades, off and on (mainly on). The magazine is about to hit issue 300, so this is a good time for a retrospective.

It’s difficult for anyone now to understand how baffling and upsetting the Journal was in its early years. It looked like a fan magazine but it was harshly critical of comics. Instead of the happy patter of the Bullpen Bulletins it was filled with long interviews with writers and artists bitterly complaining about working conditions (work-for-hire contracts, nasty editors). And it kept saying that comics should be an adult art form, judged by the same standards applied to film and literature. Most of the reviews, at least to my young fannish eyes, seemed incredibly abrasive.

One reason the Journal struck such a discordant note was that the comics community was much more cohesive in 1980 than it is now. As Frank Santoro pointed out in an earlier posting, the direct market created a common ground. So the Journal was read by Roy Thomas, Art Spiegelman, Dave Sim and the very young Hernandez Brothers (who did some lovely pre-Love-and-Rockets fan art for it, always a highlight in the issues of the early 1980s).

If the direct market was a bridge, then the Comics Journal was the main reading material of the bridge.

Frank is right to say that the bridge is over. To borrow a haunting title of a Paul Goodman short story, we have witnessed “the break-up of our camp.” It’s difficult to imagine Roy Thomas, Spiegelman, Sim and the Bros. sharing reading material these days. The comics world is too splintered into different factions. As a result, the Journal has lost its centrality, its ability to generate debate and part of its circulation. To put it another way, part of the greatness of the Journal in its salad days was that it was read by a large number of people who hated its editorial stance, yet felt it was a necessary read (and these people needed to hear what the Journal said). These days, I’d guess that most readers of the Journal are already in alignment with the magazine’s outlook.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that the Journal was not born of an immaculate conception: it had ancestors who contributed to its DNA. What were the early influences on Gary Groth? (I’m working here on the convenient fiction that Groth was the main shaper of the magazine. A more scholarly article would factor in other key players like Mike Catron and Kim Thompson).

A genealogy of the Journal would include:

1. The more intellectual side of fan culture. As the very name of the company Fantagraphics should tell us, Groth came out of fan culture, was a teenage fanzine maker. Some of the shoddiness of the early Journal (the terrible fonts, the slapdash layouts, the often hideous covers) was a holdover of fandom. But fan culture was more diverse than we sometimes think. Aside from all the geeky celebrators of superheroes, there was an intellectual elite of fans who held comics to a higher standard: Bill Spicer, John Benson and Mike Barrier being three good examples. These fans and the magazines they edited (Graphic Story Magazine and Squa Tront) had a wider scope of interest than most superhero fans (Barrier was the great Barks expert, Benson did pioneering work on Kurtzman, Eisner and Krigstein). This provided a grounding in comics history that strongly influenced the worldview of the Journal. These fans also often talked about the promise of adult comics and longer narratives: the graphic novel as a theoretical possibility before it became real.

2. Rolling Stone & Playboy. The long interviews the Journal ran were probably inspired by Rolling Stone magazine and maybe Playboy. I know later Groth was a reader of the Paris Review, which runs lengthy, well-researched career-spanning interviews. But I doubt if Groth was aware of the Paris Review when he first started.

3. Hunter S. Thompson. Tied to Rolling Stone was the figure of Hunter S. Thompson, whose impassioned, macho journalism had a big impact on Groth’s no-nonsense, gun-toting persona (although thankfully Groth doesn’t share in the Thompson mind-destroying drug use). One reason for Groth’s ill-fated and temporary alliance with Harlan Ellison was that Ellison was a poor man’s Hunter Thompson.

4. Counterculture politics. Politically Groth came of age during the tail-end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Watergate scandal. He was too young to experience the idealistic/optimistic side of the 1960s (the rise of the Civil Rights movement, for example). Rather, he came to political consciousness during one of the darkest times in modern American politics, when Nixon’s lawlessness led to a constitutional crisis. This helps explains Groth’s pessimistic anti-authoritarianism and his suspicion of established powers. It’s no accident that Groth once damned Jim Shooter by comparing him to Richard Nixon.

5. Gil Kane. I don’t think we can overstate the influence of Groth’s friendship with Gil Kane. Kane’s great 1965 interview with John Benson (in the original incarnation of Alter-Ego) was the model for what a good, free-wheeling Journal interview should be. Whatever his talents as an artist, Kane’s true medium was conversation: he was one of the great comics talkers, pouring out a seemingly endless supply of anecdotes and analysis. (Kane’s only rival as a comics talker is Art Spiegelman). No wonder the Journal kept interviewing Kane: He was the well-spring of smart comics chatter.

In interviews, Groth has talked about other influences, notably New York intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald. But I think these came later. The early Journal really doesn’t, to my mind, read like Partisan Review or Dissent. It really owes more to Graphic Story Monthly and Rolling Stone. The New York Intellectuals never really grappled with the nasty underside of mass culture the way the Journal would (despite Macdonald’s intermittent career as a film critic).

The Comics Journal was very much the product of a historical moment. That moment has now passed. In some ways, the magazine is the victim of its own success. We all know now that comics can be art. The question is, how the does the Journal re-invent itself for a very different era than the late 1970s? What sort of comics magazine do we need now, in the 21st century, now that alternative comics are a subculture strong enough not to need to engage with commercial comics?

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22 Responses to “Origins of the Comics Journal”
  1. Anonymous says:

    Well Comic Art magazine was pretty good, but it appears to have bit the dust shortly after it went for the book market…

    I have to say, that for all my gripes, this blog is as essential as it gets for top-range comix critiques! We definitely need a top-range magazine that can welcome ALL aspects of comix culture.

  2. Dash Shaw says:

    Kick ass post Jeet.

  3. Anonymous says:

    start signing your friggin posts please. it's annoying.

  4. Anonymous says:

    It's annoynymous.

  5. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I write about this stuff at some length in the book, so I don't want to repeat anything that's there, but one thing you have to remember — it may be hard to remember at this point — is that the Journal used to be a news magazine as well as an arts magazine. Part of the reason it had that big tent is that they ran industry news of a kind you couldn't get in other places. Today's pros don't really give a shit about that stuff. If the Jack Kirby Art Return fiasco happened now, there'd be almost no outrage and a TON of people on the other side hammering Kirby for not "taking care of business" or whatever.

    I'm not saying this to advocate for anything, but just to note that the loss of industry news and perceived common industry interest seems to me at least a big a factor as their not running "What's Wrong With The X-Men?" article anymore. Because honestly, they cover the shit out of major mainstream stuff and always have.

  6. Robert Boyd says:

    I think you are right about Gary. Still, brushing past Kim Thompson was a mistake because he brought something unique to the table that I think has strongly distinguished the Journal from the early days until now–he was brought up reading Franco-Belgian comics. I don't think his tastes as a kid were any more sophisticated than the average comics fan, but he was aware of 1) a totally different tradition, and 2) the relatively wide breadth of comics available to kids who grew up in that tradition. So by the time he came to the Journal, I think he could easily see how limiting the super-hero-centric mainstream American comics world was. He always respected it to a certain extent–he was the main force behind Amazing Heroes–but right from the start could never be limited by it.

    So add Franco-Belgian comics as an important influence for the Journal.

  7. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Also, I think it's worth noting that the kind of distinctions that are called for increased the difficulty of what the Journal did by about 10,000 times. It was easier to have a magazine that was a fun to read when the question of the day was if "Duck Feet" was better than "Project Pegasus" and why. It's harder to find a way to bring that same fun when the question of the day is whether "Speak Of The Devil" is better than "Tamara Drewe" and why. The latter question is more important and it's about two potentially great works instead of one, but there's a different kind of rhetoric involved and it's harder to create something that could be fun to read.

  8. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Also (and I'm sorry), building on what Robert said I might argue generally that the reinvention of the Journal in the mid 110s or so was WAY more important than the magazine that existed before, so John Simon is really more important than John Benson in what the magazine did well, and the fact that the Steve Bissettes and Rick Veitches were still on board with that magazine was more important than Jim Shooter being on board the earlier one.

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    Dash: thanks for the kind words.

    I'm also grateful to have the comments of Robert Boyd and Tom Spurgeon, who both know this stuff better than almost anyone else.

    Robert: I agree that I shouldn't have skimped Kim's contribution, but I was trying to write a quick and dirty blog post, not a definitive essay. Your absolutely right that Kim's cosmopolitianism is a key part of TCJ's identity.

    Tom: I also agree that the Journal that came after the reinvention circa #115 was the more important magazine. My favorite run of the Journal goes from about issue 120 to 130 (Crumb, Deitch, Feiffer, the Bros.). Still I wanted to capture something of what the early Journal was like. Jeet

  10. Gary says:

    Jeet's post was scarily accurate. Everything he wrote was pretty much dead on target — for good or ill, as HST would say.

    He left a lot out, of course, including Kim's contribution (it would be interesting to go through those early issues and see how we each affected them; we were in accord in terms of aesthetics and journalism but often argued about tone and tactics), and Mike Catron, who had a had a better grounding in traditional journalism than I did.

    Eerie, though, I must say.


  11. Frank Santoro says:


  12. Gil Roth says:

    The first ish I ever read led off with an editorial by Gary entitled, "Todd Loren: First Amendment Advocate or Lying Sack of Shit?"

  13. Joe Willy says:

    Maybe it's not the time or place for it but if I was able to vote on how to re-imagine TCJ I'd keep the interviews and long-form essays with TONS more art (taking a cue from Comic Art) and essentially pitch all the shorter and more time-sensitive stuff. I don't know how many times I've gotten my journal containing 5 pages of "previews" of artists appearing at a convention that has already taken place.

    Also, what's the logic of running the interviews and sketches in MOME instead of TCJ? I don't have a preference, by the way.

    I think one thing that's hurt the Journal in recent years is the notion that it's a house organ which promotes Fantagraphics books over others. Not sure it's true but it seems other alternative publishes think so. Also, it's reputation for being negative and nasty seems to have stuck yet I don't feel like TCJ runs as many negative reviews as it once did. For one thing, there's simply more good books to review instead of wasting time trashing garbage.

  14. Robert Boyd says:

    Joe Willy said…
    I think one thing that's hurt the Journal in recent years is the notion that it's a house organ which promotes Fantagraphics books over others. Not sure it's true but it seems other alternative publishes think so.
    This has been part of the reputation of the Comics Journal and an excuse for some folks to dismiss the Journal since the day Fantagraphics started publishing its own comics. It's never going to go away unless The Comics Journal ceases to publish.

    It's kind of a no-win situation. Before Fantagraphics was publishing its own comics, they were on the receiving end of a lot of "If you think you can do better, put your money where your mouth is!" taunts because they were so negative about the state of comics. And once they did start publishing the kind of comics they liked in the early 80s (Love & Rockets but also a lot of somewhat forgotten titles), they got hit with complaints like, "The Comics Journal is just 'Marvel Age' for Fantagraphics."

    Perhaps this encouraged a somewhat FTW attitude amongst Journal writers and editors. It did with me!

  15. T. Hodler says:

    (Off topic) Thanks for commenting, Robert. By coincidence, I've been rearranging my apartment, and yesterday I came across my copy of your old chapbook, Ron Rege and His Precursors, which brought back some fond memories. Did you ever happen to bring out any more books in that series?

  16. Robert Boyd says:

    T. Holder, that was just a one-shot. I thought about doing more, but hasn't the internet obviated the need for such things? I just blog when I have "ideas" that I wish, for some reason, to "communicate."

  17. T. Hodler says:

    Yes, but you can't hoard the internet. At least not yet. I'm sure some company's working on a way to allow collectors to do that.

  18. Russ Maheras says:

    I tend to think that initially, the only reason "The Comics Journal" came into existence in the form that it did was as a counterbalance against Alan Light's "The Buyer's Guide for Comic Fandom."

    It seemed pretty clear to me at the time that Groth believed Light to be some sort of Nixonian scourge on comic fandom. It also appeared that he thought only he and his associates at "The Comics Journal" could expose this "evil" for what it was — the same way journalists Robert Woodward and Carl Bernstein had exposed Nixon.

    And while I knew Light and thought that Groth and company were overreacting and painting Light unfairly, I have always believed that hearing both sides of any story is important in a democracy. In that regards, TCJ was yin to TBG's yang, which is why, although I was a regular contributor to TBG, I was also one of TCJ's first paid subscribers.

    When the Groth/Light feud invariably died down, TCJ had to find its direction and editorial voice. Again, when that happened, it seemed to parallel the investigative journalism principles of reporters like Woodward and Bernstein.

    TCJ staffers thus took on the personality of in-your-face comics industry crusaders seeking to right wrongs, speak the truth (as they perceived it), and act as beacons of light for the downtrodden and oppressed.

    This alternative viewpoint was much different than the mostly benign and passive fan reporting that had been the norm.

  19. Ad-hater says:

    > One reason for Groth's ill-fated
    > and temporary alliance with Harlan
    > Ellison was that Ellison was a
    > poor man's Hunter Thompson.

    This is a cheap shot and I think you know it.

    I think Groth, like many of us, went through a "Harlan Ellison phase". I know Ellison's turned into a bitter old crank, but he was also once a voice for creator rights and intellectual/artistic standards. I'm guessing that Groth wanted to bring some of that sensibility to the Journal; indeed, as I think about it, for better or worse, Ellison was probably a much bigger influence on the early Journal than Thompson.

  20. Anonymous says:

    "Plus, I fucking hate ads."

  21. Russ Maheras says:

    One more thing about the Nixon/Woodward-Berstein and Light/Groth and company parallel.

    Not only is the theme repeated by Groth himself in his very first editorial, the film "All the President's Men" was released the same month (April 1974) that Groth and company "contacted TNJ's founding fathers" to see if they would sell their newspaper.

  22. Brad Mackay says:

    Awesome post Jeet. You make some fundamental points that I had completely forgotten about in this new comics age. For a while there, buying and reading TCJ was almost a political act – a way of spurning the mainstream and championing a new way forward for comics.
    For better or for worse (probably better) that era is extinct. I have to say, I haven't picked up a copy of TCJ in a few years – but I blame part of that on their message board; it's a genuine bruise on the Journal's otherwise good rep….now there's a blog post worth writing.

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