What the Comics Journal Does Right
by Jeet Heer
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.