What the Comics Journal Does Right


by

Sunday, November 1, 2009


The Comics Journal, as I noted in an earlier posting, needs to re-invent itself to make it relevant for the new era we’re in, a period where there is a much greater public interest in comics combined with a much more fragmented discourse about comics (found mostly these days the internet). It looks like the editors of the Journal were thinking along the same lines as I was, because they’ve decided to radically change the magazine by upgrading its web-presence while transforming the Journal itself into a twice-yearly upscale publication.

These are promising changes, although much will depend on the execution. I think one way to guide the magazine forward is to look at what it does right. Here is a list of highlights from the most recent incarnation of the magazine (the more compact, literary magazine format they started with issue #288 in February of 2008).

The Deitch family issue (292) was the stand-out interview. By conducting separate interviews with Gene Deitch and his three sons, Gary Groth created almost a new genre: a family saga in the form of oral history. With each Deitch offering conflicting accounts of their family life, we got a rounded image of their careers, one that read like a novel. This was one of the best issues ever. There have been other strong interviews (like the ones with Trevor Von Eeden, S. Clay Wilson, and Jason) but the Deitch interviews stood out for telling a cohesive story.

As for the critical essays, I think the Journal was strongest when its stalwart critics wrote long think pieces. Gary Groth’s novella-length, keen-eyed piece about the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman was superb as both portraiture and analysis. It gave a much livelier sense of what Thompson was like than the recent documentary Gonzo, or any of the other films about the notorious journalist.

Although many found it too long, I though the symposium on the Michaelis’ Schulz biography was important and necessary (full disclosure: I participated in the symposium). There were serious problems with that much-praised book, and it was good to get Monte Schulz’s objection to it in print for the record, so that future students of Peanuts won’t treat Michaelis as gospel.

Other strong pieces of writing were R. Fiore on Hajdu’s The Ten Cent Plague and Tim Kreider on Bill Mauldin. In general, Donald Phelps is the magazine’s most genial and idiosyncratic voice, although he often writes about things other than comics. I know many people have a hard time with Phelps’ rambling, quirky, allusive prose but his essays always give me a new way to look at art, something few critics can achieve. I have to confess though that I’ve never developed a taste for another dense Journal stylist, Ken Smith.

The strength of the magazine is in presenting essays that have a depth of analysis that can’t be found elsewhere. Most writing on comics tends to suffer from a shortness of breath: small reviews and bite-size blog postings. The Journal, at its best, doesn’t settle for such small snacks but offers a full-course meal.

Among its reviewers the Journal has a contingent of solid, trust-worthy writers: Kent Worcester, Rich Kreiner, Shaenon Garrity, and Kristian Williams, but they tend to get drowned out by crankier and less-informed critics, writers who mistake abrasiveness for insight. The magazine’s review section does seem too diffuse and scattershot. I’m never quite sure why some books get reviewed and others don’t. There’s a lot of good critics on the web now – Rob Clough comes to mind right way. The most promising prospect for the next incarnation of the Journal is to recruit these writers (I know Clough has already signed on).

Visually as well, the magazine has improved greatly in recent years. But if it comes out less frequently, there is more room for growth and experiment. Fantagraphics has a great design team which consistently puts together wonderful looking books. A Comics Journal that looks more like a book would be really exciting.

In terms of the print magazine, my strong sense is that the Comics Journal has always been strongest when Gary Groth has been most involved with it: his interviews with cartoonists have always set the gold standard in terms of being informed by the deepest research and asking the most searching questions. I’m thinking here of the classic and memorable conversations Groth has had with Chaykin, Crumb, Gil Kane, Jules Feiffer and many other creators. Now Groth is of course a very busy many with many broths to attend to, so the amount of time he gives to the Journal has wavered. But with two issues a year to put out, he should be able to reshape the magazine into something more closely resembling his own sensibility.

The Journal has often been accused of being just a mouthpiece for Groth’s opinions. To my mind, it’s regrettable that the Journal hasn’t often enough been Grothian enough.

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34 Responses to “What the Comics Journal Does Right”
  1. chris says:

    TCJ's move is pretty bold, which I think was able to be done because TCJ is a relatively smaller piece of the FANTA pie these days than ever before. While they still have the cred, I think the mag has been uneven since the Milo George era. There were some issues I could spend days pouring over, and others that were all-in-all uninteresting. But that could be my fauly.

    Anyway, I look forward to seeing a concerted effort for a TCJ.com.

  2. Inkstuds says:

    I am curious how the print end will compare with Comic Art magazine, which has been a pretty incredible comics publication. They set some really high standards for an annual effort, and I think aesthetically, TCJ will really need to step it up to compete with other similar publications.

  3. Desert Island says:

    Whatever happened to Comic Art magazine? Doesn't really qualify as an annual anymore.

  4. Frank Santoro says:

    I never liked Comic Art magazine. Too fancy pants. Not Grothian enough. No attitude.

  5. Dash Shaw says:

    Yeah, Comic Art has more of an academic journal vibe. No pissy energy. I’ve liked some articles though. That “In the studio” book was a waste of time. After I read it I didn’t know what to do with it. It was just taking up space on my bookshelf.
    I’d like for the new Comics Journal to have more cartoonists arguing with each other, or critics arguing about a book like a Cage Match. Maybe I’m a fucked up person to want that. I think if some of the writers for tcj had to converse and argue points about a book with someone who had different opinions, it’d force them to be more articulate and dig deeper and (really) be more entertaining to read! But also I don’t read most comics criticism (or most anything) because it looks boring, so maybe I’m not in the target tcj greater-attention-span audience.

  6. Inkstuds says:

    Thats why i do radio. I don't have the attention span to write anything.

  7. Michael says:

    The Comics Reporter had a great feature a few years ago called "Let's You And Him Fight" where a couple of comics thinkers debated back and forth for several days on a key book or issue in comics. (Not the fanboy kind of issue.) That sort of thing would be a great feature on a TCJ site. More thoughtful and focused than just a back and forth (and interrupted) message board argument. Something like the great letter-column arguments of the ancient TCJs without the months-long waits between.

  8. Scott Bukatman says:

    Comic Art is terrific at what Comic Art does, but what it does is celebrate. There really isn't any critical sensibility at work, Grothian or otherwise (there's a valuation sensibility, but that ain't the same thing). That's absolutely NOT to say that I haven't gotten a lot from what I've read in Comic Art — I enjoyed Wolk's take on Warlock a hell of a lot more than I enjoyed Warlock…

  9. sammy says:

    frank does fancy pants comics, and talks all fancy about page rhythm and color theory endlessly. he is critiquing a comics magazine when he himself reviews comics he has not read, but only looks at. thats some heavy conceptual fancy pants bullshit! what kind of attitude does comics comics have? is it grothian? does the posts of dan and tim exhibit that same attitude? do yours?
    dash, why does a lack of pissy energy mean academic? after you a read a book what are you supposed to do with it? why did you buy a book titled IN THE STUDIO? did you feel duped? can you recommend a book that won't take up space on my bookshelf? when you interviewed mazzucchelli for the Comics Journal did you follow your own advice and get into a cage match about his book? do you need to argue with someone to understand why you like or dislike something?
    you dont like criticism because it looks boring and lacks attitude. got it. yet you write criticism for a blog?
    these are real questions.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    For the record, I guess, I should say that I personally love Comic Art, which is as close to perfect as a comic magazine can get. Of course, I've written for the magazine so I'm hardly unbiased. But leaving aside my two essays for CA, which were peripheral to the magazine's achievemnt, I'd single out Ben Schwartz two great, feature-length biographical essays on Kaz and Drew Friedman, and K. Parille's great re-reading of David Boring — all great pieces of writing. And In the Studio is a book I often return to with pleasure.

    On the issue of "attitude" and a critical stance: the thing is, it's harder to write an appreciative essay than a negative one. There are many bad comics out there and what's wrong with them is often glaring. What's harder to do is describe why a good comic works the way it does.

  11. Dash Shaw says:

    “why does a lack of pissy energy mean academic?”
    It doesn’t. I’m saying Comic Art has an academic vibe and that it doesn’t have the pissy energy that Comics Journal has had, and that I enjoy reading. I’ve liked some academic books, as well as some things that don’t have a pissy energy. Comic Art is a separate thing than tcj, and I’m sure it’s more appealing to some people. I’ve liked some Comic Art articles, like I said. The Dick Tracy and David Boring pieces spring to mind.

    “After you a read a book what are you supposed to do with it?”
    Well usually I like to keep it around if I want to read it again or flip through it, which wasn’t the case with In The Studio.

    “Why did you buy a book titled IN THE STUDIO?”
    I wanted to read a book with a bunch of great cartoonists talking about their work.

    “Did you feel duped?”
    They talked about their work, but the whole thing was very dry: “here’s a comic page that I like.” It didn’t get my psyched or tell me anything that I didn’t already know. And I know it could have.

    “Can you recommend a book that won't take up space on my bookshelf?”
    This one is not a serious question.

    “When you interviewed mazzucchelli for the Comics Journal did you follow your own advice and get into a cage match about his book?”
    He won’t talk about Polyp, which is well-known. Groth told me to “drum up differences” and so I tried to do that about people that I know he likes and I don’t care for, like David B. -but Mazzucchelli resisted! And I tried to bring up things that I know he has a strong opinion about. If you read it you’ll see I tried to start something.

    “Do you need to argue with someone to understand why you like or dislike something?”
    No. But it’s more entertaining to read, and I think that for some of the tcj writers it’d be a good way to push their pieces into different directions. I don't think good criticism should be reformatted into an argument- I think some of the critics should have to explain themselves better and that would happen in the form of a conversation/argument. But maybe it'll just make the people angrier- as has happened on this very site! But I'm optimistic.

    “Yet you write criticism for a blog?”
    That’s correct. I haven’t written a real critique yet, but I’ll try to. Hey, it’s hard!

  12. Rob Clough says:

    Jeet,

    Thanks for the mention. I'm looking forward to joining the Journal's site. One thing that's pretty clear to me is that the Journal can't be all things to all people. Some people want more in-depth interviews, some people find them boring. Some people want more in-depth criticism, some people want breezier and "funny" writing. Some people want scorched-earth criticism.

    I'm hoping the the website will provide at least some of everything that people want. I pretty much plan to do the same thing I've been doing on High-Low, though I hope to do more interviews.

    I do like the idea of more critical back and forth, perhaps done on a more formal basis. I like message boards and and comments to blogs as much as anyone, but I'd love to see something like that constructed more carefully instead of being totally off-the-cuff. I'd certainly enjoy participating in them. I'd also like to see cartoonists discussing ideas and going back-and-forth.

    I also loved Comic Art, but it had a completely different mission than TCJ. Frank should know better to dismiss it as "fancy-pants". The International Journal of Comics Art, now THAT'S "fancy-pants" academic writing (they are academic papers). Comic Art was very much for general audiences. It aimed to illuminate, not provoke, and that can be boring if you're not interested in the subject or willing to engage the writer's interest.

    What can't be denied, is that Comic Art was the best-LOOKING comics-related mag of all time. Amazingly well-illustrated, on nice paper, with great design. TCJ has slowly started to catch up (the Special Editions were great), and I hope the new format catches up even further.

  13. Anonymous says:

    In The Studio was a great book. Beautiful illustrations and a nice way to present the inspirations of some of America's (NOT the world's) best cartoonists.

    However, Todd Hignite's writing was turgid in the extreme – like a parody of that other 'unreadable' Kenneth Smith (who i used to think was a parody).

    What happened to R.Fiore? His face-off with Pekar was legendary (I ened up on pekar's side, though).

    Guber

  14. T. Hodler says:

    You know, I like COMIC ART just fine, and there are many praiseworthy things about it (many of which have already been mentioned by others here in the comments), but I don't know why it should be controversial to call it "fancy pants."

    I mean, I guess it depends on how you define "fancy pants" (shall we all get together and make a list?), but COMIC ART seems to fit under at least a couple different definitions. If it means the kind of clothes you wear to important public functions, like award banquets and formal gatherings, then COMIC ART is pretty fancy pants in tone. There's often a real hushed-tones reverence to it, comics writing dressed up to meet prestigious strangers. Which isn't bad (like I said before, I like the magazine myself), unless that's not to your taste.

    Actually, I think the magazine was beginning to loosen up a bit in places in the last few issues, but still, I can see why not everyone would necessarily like such a formal tone, especially when we're talking about a subject as historically informal as comics. (I can also see why not everyone would like the semi-schizophrenic nature of Comics Comics, so no offense is intended by this.)

    As for INSIDE THE STUDIO, I enjoyed it for the most part, and found it a fun diversion that I've returned to more than once, but I got my copy for free, and I might've found it a little thin if I'd ponied up for the hardcover.

    I'm not really interested in giving the Comics Journal too much advice about their new online incarnation. Especially since they seem to have things so well in hand already, what with hiring such reliable mental powerhouses as Noah Berlatsky and Kenneth Smith. (Actually, I'm interested to see the Fiore, Groth, Clough, and Garrity stuff, which I'm sure will be worthwhile, and raise the tide for all comics-internet boats, etc, etc.)

  15. sammy says:

    dash,
    thanks for answering. I agree that it might help some of those journal critics to be forced into defending their opinions in cage match style pieces , since so many of them have such terrible terrible taste and are horrible writers.

  16. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Okay, grouping me in with Ken Smith; that's a low blow.

    Surely you like Suat's writing though? His interests and approach seem to overlap with yours a fair bit.

  17. Noah Berlatsky says:

    And what the hey; as long as my name has been taken in vain, folks can read my response to Jeet here.

  18. Jeet Heer says:

    To clarify somewhat: a magazine has to maintain a delicate balance of allowing many voices while also maintaining an over-arching sensibility. Whatever else one can say about it, Comic Art does have a sensibility; as a friend once remarked, you can figure out Todd Hignite's personality just from reading the magazine. The same is true of Comics Comics, which fuses the personalities, I would say, of Dan and Tim. At its best, The Comics Journal also has a governing ambiance, one that I describe as "Grothian". But too often in recent years, this sensibility has been diluted by the magazine becoming too eclectic and wide-ranging.

  19. Dan Nadel says:

    In haste, Jeet forgot to mention the all important third ingredient of the CC Vulcan soul-meld: Mr. Frank Santoro.

    Anyhow, I was struck by Steven Grant's take on TCJ take, in as much as it it looks at the magazine as a chronicle of the dialogue around and history of the business of comics. This is very true. I constantly read back issues of TCJ (too much information about me? Why do I feel suddenly exposed?) and relish the old news articles about various editors leaving Marvel or bankrupt distributors or whatever. Where else can you read about liquidation of Pacific Comics or the fate of the Warren original art when the company's properties were sold to Harris? Why would you want to? As Grant points out, just the discussion alone of this kind of thing was unprecedented. I find the the old business underpinnings (more like "business half" I think, since they are so fused) of comics fascinating. So, it's a piece worth reading, even if I don't agree with plenty of it — I think Grant is wrong that the criticism is less important than the journalism, for example. And all the more interesting because Grant himself was on the receiving end of some harsh words from TCJ a long while back.

    But the reason I return to the old issues, particularly the mid-80s to the mid-90s is, predictably enough, the interviews. Until TCJ we didn't have an extensive, living, contemporaneous account of what artists were thinking about the work while they were living with and/or making it. All those long interviews opened up the possibilities of historical research in comics. Sorry to nerd out here, but it remains a treasure trove of information.

    Oh, and not that it matters: I liked Comic Art. It had a clear sensibility and I think Todd has a great eye for compelling artifacts in comics.

  20. Jeet Heer says:

    Yes, I stupidly typed too fast and left out Frank's name as part of the Comics Comics triumvirate. A very embarrassing error on my part.

    Dan's right, of course, about the importance of the Journal's coverage of the business side of things. If you look at old fanzines from the early 1970s, they would try to do some business reporting but in a very half-hearted way. The entire run of TCJ is a huge resource for scholars.

    I singled out the interviews Groth conducted as being especially good, but the entire run of the magazine's on-going oral history of the medium is immeasurably valuable.

  21. Robert Boyd says:

    What is interesting about Steven Grant's take is that he was at one time on the receiving end of harsh Journal criticism because of an organization he was involved with that was dedicated, in its own way, to fighting many of the same battles that the Journal was fighting. (I think it was called Words & Pictures.) Those guys hated each other for a long time. It seems like time gradually healed those wounds, and Grant later even wrote for the Journal occasionally.

    I think the move to online with printed semi-annual issues is a good one. And I hope the printed versions are very "fancy-pants." I would like the Journal to resume doing more business reporting–and more basic business reporting than in the past (a little more concentration on firms' balance sheets, for example). But that's just me–I'm interested in that kind of stuff. (When I started reading the Comics Journal in the 1980s, I was utterly uninterested in that kind of information, and would always wonder why they included news stories on distributors–it just seemed completely boring to my 20-something self…)

  22. sammy says:

    there is no reason to think that because of the change in format and schedule the magazine will get better. its been editorially a mess for long enough now, that we are clearly hoping for something that wont be. looking at who is involved, it just going to be the same thing, with the same problems, in a different format. I think we need to get over the journal, and the extended kaddish of the last couple years, and finally move on and look elsewhere for good criticism.
    I guess I am talking to myself more than anyone.

  23. Frank Santoro says:

    "and the extended kaddish of the last couple years"

    great line.

  24. Josh Simmons says:

    I liked Frank's story about Nadel bugging Groth to let him take over the Journal; I think that's a great idea. I vote for Nadel to give it a whirl.

  25. sammy says:

    nadel, or parille, or hodler, or schwartz, or hignite, or heer, or jog, or spurgeon would all be great to get involved in some heavy capacity. but they wont. my guess is they will go with either somebody with middling taste (basically most online indy-comics critics) or a pushy loud mouth type who likes attacking the perceived "status quo" (they like to talk about "hipsters" a lot as well) in a vain attempt to get that grothian vibe and give the impression the journal is now a "voice to be reckoned with".
    good times.

  26. Josh Simmons says:

    Oh also, writers I would like to see at a new, improved Journal: Jog, Ken Parille, entice the Spurge back. The Comic Comics crew. I like the idea of a resident shit disturber on the roster, but I rarely ever agree with any of Berlatsky's tastes or viewpoints. Let Santoro take on that role.

  27. Josh Simmons says:

    Cross post/ crossing streams.

  28. Frank Santoro says:

    I made up that story where Nadel bugs Groth about taking over the Journal, haha. I saw Dan and Gary across the room at SPX and I couldn't make out their conversation. So I just filled in the words. In my mind. Scribbled it down in my notebook. Then I put that on the blog thinking Dan would get a good laugh out of it. He didn't. (Surprise!) So I took it down. It was up there for like an hour. Mr. Simmons has a good memory, apparently.

  29. Josh Simmons says:

    Ah ha ha.
    It sunk in because I think it's a good idea.

  30. Frank Santoro says:

    Cue the "Jerry Maguire" clip.

  31. Josh Simmons says:

    Come to think of it, maybe Santoro and Berlatsky should co-habitate the Shit Disturber position, then their disparate, nutty, and off-the-cuff pronouncements can whip the rest of the new Journal's staff into a frothy, feverish on-going cage match of gladatorial Comics Criticism of the first order. I'm liking the sound of this more and more.

  32. sammy says:

    and raeburn!

  33. Noah Berlatsky says:

    You know, I just had an extended confrontation with a former fan who was upset that I was no longer distributing shit in the requisite fashion…and here you all are, upset that I'm still distributing shit in the requisite fashion

    I guess you can satisfy all the people all the time.

  34. Frank Santoro says:

    word.