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Friday, May 14, 2004
Towards a definition of comics journalism

Now that I've almost doubled my daily readership (8! Hits! Per! Day!), thanks to the three questions blog-meme, I figured "what better time to alienate my non-comics readers than to put up a big ole post about comics?" If you normally skip the comics posts, now would be a good time to stop reading.

To begin with, allow me to establish some bona fides, for whatever they're worth. I've been a passive participant (aka: just a reader) of comics sites on the web since around 1996, or back when Newsarama was hosted on Another Universe's web site, Randy Lander and Don McPherson posted their reviews to their personal sites, and Warren Ellis was one of the first superhero writers with a web site (but no forum and no Old Bastard's Manifesto). [I actually made a dip into newsgroups about a year before that, but was promptly smacked down for being an American who had the gall to post in a rec.arts.comics forum frequented by British comics fans]. Throughout the last 8 years or so, I've watched comics sites rise and fall, witnessed comics sites move from news-only to news-with-much-reviled-but-expected-message-boards, and, in the last two years, seen most of the intelligent conversation about comics move from message boards to blogs, and occasionally blog comments sections.

I also read Wizard magazine for far too many years, as when I got back into comics after graduating from college, it was quite literally the only comics magazine that the shops I bought comics at carried. The whole time I read it, I yearned for something else, something intelligent that discussed comics, but I had been warned off The Comics Journal by retailers who told me it was "too snobby" and "alternative just for alternative's sake" (whatever that means). In fact, the only reason I ever picked up an issue (a little over a year ago) was because I enjoyed Dirk Deppey's Journalista so much that I wanted to help pay his salary, and I hoped TCJ would be half as interesting as his blog. Even more recently, I've started reading Comic Book Artist, and have sampled a few of TwoMorrows magazines, most of which I found not to be to my liking. I wish I could say that I had also tried Comics Buyers Guide, the weekly old-guard comics newspaper, but sadly, I have never shopped anywhere that carried it, or, if I did, it was never displayed anywhere that I noticed it.

Where am I going with all this? I've noticed a lot of complaints, particularly in the last six months or so, regarding the state of comics journalism, both online and in print. Recently, GutterNinja and Postmodern Barney have attacked the subject of the need for an intermediary comics magazine, in between the fanboyishness of Wizard and the holier-than-thou TCJ (though I'll be interested to see how or if Mr. Deppey changes people's perceptions of TCJ, now that he's Managing Editor). Neilalien reiterates Steven Grant's recommendation for The Comics Interpreter, which I've never seen in-store or read, and several recent postings among the comics bloggerti in response to Heidi MacDonald's alleged denunciation of blogs have gone so far as to describe comics blogs as a way to "Choose Your Own Adventure," and make your own comics magazine.

In all of the uproar, I don't see much discussion going on about what (literate or semi-literate) comics fans actually want from their comics journalism. What I do see is a lot of complaints about things that apparently are not comics journalism:

*"Regurgitation of company press releases," a complaint which has mainly been leveled at CBR, Newsarama, The Pulse and Wizard.
*Shilling for, or giving "a free pass" to, sponsors or publishers. This has been leveled against both the Pulse and TCJ, in their coverage of Fantagraphics financial woes.
*Interviews with industry pros about their current or upcoming work, which have "obviously been conducted by email" because the interviewer doesn't follow up on interesting questions and the interview is printed in a strict Q&A format.
*Stories which aren't particularly timely. I see this most often leveled against TCJ's Newswatch (for example, they gave more coverage to the back and forth sniping between a couple of bad girl pin up artists, one of whom may be ripping off the other's style while not paying out what he owes, than an in-depth analysis of CrossGen's financial crumbling business or Bill Jemas' alleged "lateral move" at Marvel, which took his hands completely out of publishing) and even Wizard, which occasionally publishes new bites about projects which were announced a month earlier or may have collapsed since the issue went off to the publisher.

I suspect that it would be a worthwhile exercise for those of us who are legitimately interested in these things to discuss what is comics "news:"

Is it news when a new creative team, or a new writer or penciler takes on Wonder Woman? How about why the old team left the book or were fired? Is it news if they decide to give Green Arrow a mohawk? What if they kill off Cyclops, or turn the Punisher into a born again Christian? Are the behind the scenes sexual antics of an editor news? Does it become news if her unwanted sexual advances affect the livelihood of the creative talent on a book? Is it news if a popular (or unpopular) creator signs an exclusive contract? How about a company breaks an exclusive contract with a creator because the creator's style no longer sells comics? What if a popular mainstream creator breaks out on his own to do creator-owned work? Or if a popular art comix creator starts writing The Hulk? To what extent are sales figures, or sales estimates "news?" Is it news if a creator has an approved pitch and the company cancels it before publication? What if a company forces a creator to change her vision of a relaunched X-Statix in order to add Thor-girl to the cast?

I'll tell you one possible answer: there's very little "news" in comics that fans on a whole can agree about. To one person, getting Joss Whedon to write X-men is amazing "news." To another, the fact that there's a female Wolverine running around the Canadian wilderness is "news." But very little in comics is of Significant Importance to anyone, even the fans, when the outside world is in the state that it's in. Warren Ellis isn't ripping out the fingernails of people who read Superman; Ed Brubaker isn't threatening a hunger strike if more people don't start buying Gotham Central.

Here's a better question: what would you consider "investigative" comics journalism, and where is it? If Joe Sacco took an office job at Marvel for a year and then illustrated an expose on corporate life at Marvel? Where are the hard-hitting exposes about Diamond's direct market monopoly, the shrinking number of direct market stores (and those stores that deserved to go under), the manga translation sweatshop that Tokyopop must be running in order to put out 100K new volumes a month? Why doesn’t anyone in the comics biz look into what the book store chains are saying about comics and graphic novels (one local B&N recently moved the GNs to the front of the store, next to the humor and games sections, and out of the sci-fi/fantasy ghetto)? Where are the man on the street interviews with non-comics fans about why they don't read comics? Why hasn't anyone dug into why Marvel is selling the exclusive paperback rights to their early Masterwork reprint-editions to Barnes and Noble, and now allowing B&N to publish an exclusive 992-page Ultimate Spiderman Hardcover? They've got a lot of nerve, turning their back on comic shops, right? Why aren't they being called to the table for this travesty?

I'll tell you where these stories are: they don't exist because the companies involved don't owe the fans or the creators squat, so they don't have to cooperate in any stories. Marvel is right when they say that they can fire any creator and there'll be 20 more already working creators ready and willing to take his place. Granted we only know half the story, but when Igor Kordey was fired off Excalibur and his contract was terminated, he hit all the "news sites" and message boards looking for sympathy, but when push came to shove, he's out of a job, Marvel had a replacement hired within a few days, and the book will still probably sell close to 100K copies of the first issue. Marvel and DC had a similar response when some creators tried to unionize back in the 70s. Comics is one of the only fields where the fans not only think they can become pros, most pros came from fandom. If the current creators unionized, they could all be fired and the big companies (the only ones for whom a union would matter) could find scabs willing to take on all of the books and never miss their schedule.

Marvel, DC, Diamond: they aren't answerable to fans, so they have no reason to play along with "news" sites or magazines who don't play along with them. I doubt I'm the only one who's noticed recently that even Rich Johnston, once the freest talker in comics, has been keeping his trap shut (he allegedly knew about Joss Whedon on X-Men a month before the news borke, but he never printed it) except for items that the big companies are ready to "leak" (he even presents "leaks" from his own publisher as "news" or "rumor" each week!). If, as a comics journalist, you piss off your sources (or the upper management of your sources), you lose what little news you get. I have little doubt in my mind that if DC told Newsarama to stop doing their monthly analysis of sales figure estimates (such as they are), Newsarama would stop in a heartbeat, as Matt Brady knows that pissing off DC means that he loses "exclusive" DC "news" and access to DC's creators (at least those who want to keep their jobs).

The two things that comics journalism, both online and in print, have in abundance are interviews with creators and reviews of comics past and present. Since I don't think we'll ever see anything resembling "news" in these magazines/sites, other than press releases, I'd like to call for an improvement in what we do get.

Reviews are fine, but like Steven Grant, I'd like to see more in-depth analysis of comics than we have. Surely someone can look at The Sandman with a more critical eye than Hy Bender in his "I love the Sandman" book, right? Am I alone in thinking that The Invisibles, or Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, or From Hell deserve more actual analysis than they've received?

As for interviews, I'd like to see more career-spanning in-depth interviews, like Tom Spurgeon's recent interview with Joe Casey in TCJ #257 (I think), or Gary Groth's with Will Elder in TCJ #255). Short of that, I want more interviews that ask the questions fans of creators really want to know. To date, the best short-form interviews with comics creators have been Alan David Doane's late, lamented "5 questions with," and that run of about a dozen of Rich Johnston's Waiting for Tommy interviews that he did in early 2003, while trying to convince his boss to fly him to WizardWorld Chicago. TCJ usually has pretty good interviews, but they seem to limit, whether intentionally or unintentionally, who they interview, which limits their audience (anyone here think an issue with a no holds barred Grant Morrison or Ed Brubaker interview would sell more copies than one whose cover story is on interviews with the little known Fort Thunder creators? I know it isn't all about sales, but still . . .) CBA has the interviews down to a science, though I still think they shy away from pushing creators on controversial topics.

That's enough from me. The floor is open. Anyone have any thoughts?

Thursday, May 13, 2004
Now it's your turn

Phew! Yesterday's little Q & A in the comments certainly kept me busy, and probably revealed a little more about me than I'm entirely comfortable with, but that's okay. I said I'd be truthful.

Now, though, I want to learn a little about you, specifically why you come by this here establishment, and even more specifically I'd like to hear from those of you who are normally scared off by the gang who usually hangs out in the comments section. You don't even have to leave your name if you don't want to, or you could even email your answers to me at the address hidden under the "Email Me" link above.

1) How did you find out about this blog, and what keeps you coming back?
2) What would you like me to write more about? What should I never write about again?
3) Do you stop by more than once a day, and would you like to see more frequent updates?
4) Would you rather have the power of flight or invisibility?

I know I cheated and asked more than three questions, but hey, it's my Coffee Shop. I'll do a real entry sometime tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004
Satisfy your curiosity

Courtesy of Will at Be the Boy:

3 Questions

I want everyone and anyone who reads this to ask me 3 questions, no more no less. Ask me anything you want and I will truthfully answer it. Then, I want you to go to your blog, copy and paste this allowing your friends (including myself) to ask you anything.*

Go ahead, I dare you.

*It's probably obvious, but responses will appear in the comment section.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
Some thoughts on HBO's Deadwood

This week's Deadwood seemed to revolve around the theme of men and women, who wears the pants and what one can make the other do. On one hand, we've got the admittedly married and generally morally upstanding Seth Bullock who is trying to convince the widow Garrett to stay in Deadwood, despite it genuinely appearing to be in her best interest to take Trixie and the little girl (is her name Sophie? I forget) back to New York. What's Bullock playing at? Does he want the widow to stay so she can be his gal on the side? I doubt it, as that seems wholly out of character for Bullock. He also seemed to be interested in her prior to the discovery of her gold strike, so his interest doesn't seem to be financial. Maybe he just wants her to stay as a way of "classing up the joint," especially once he got Swearengen's pinky swear not to harm the widow (it's probably worth noting that Swearengen made no such promise about the child, though that may be low even for him).

On the other hand, we see exactly how complex the relationships between the two saloon owners and their madams really is. Swearengen spends the entire episode cursing Trixie and asking everyone if they've seen her. Meanwhile, only the doc knows where she is, and he's trying to convince the widow Garrett to take her out of Deadwood (Trixie won't go to New York on her own). After last week's confrontation, and Trixie's desperate suicide attempt (or cry for help depending on how you look at it), it seemed pretty clear that Swearengen would probably kill, or at least maim, her when he found her. Instead, she returns to him, offering the gold nugget that the widow had given her as a peace offering, and then proceeds to strip down and get into Swearengen's bed to sleep! This all leaves me wondering what exactly is their relationship, that she has the privilege of bedding down with Al without first offering the "trix" of her trade?

We finally start to see why Tolliver keeps Joanie around: he loves her, and will do anything for her. Of course, that relationship is apparently complicated by the fact that Joanie, who is the madam at the Belle Union, bats for the other team. When Tolliver sees Flora coming out of Joanie's bedroom, Flora thinks his suspicions mean he's on to her scheme (that is, she and her brother play innocent and then apparently rob saloons), but his later dialogue with Joanie makes me think he was jealous that Flora could "have" Joanie when he couldn't. The speech where Tolliver, having just proven himself to be at least as much a bastard as Swearengen by killing Flora and her brother, prostrates himself before Joanie offering her anything she wants in exchange for her love? her respect? foreshadowed the unspoken scene between Tolliver and Trixie. I suspect that both saloon owners share a similar relationship with their madams.

Not specifically related to this week's episode, but related nonetheless, I have been doing some research into the historical Deadwood to see how closely the show follows what actually happened, or at least what was rumored to have happened in the town that many considered to be the last untamed outpost in the west. Here's a few things that I've found out:

*Al Swearengen, a notoriously "colorful" character did own the Gem, only he billed it as a "theater" not a saloon. As a "theater," the Gem was given a greater degree of credibility than had it just been a saloon, even though most of the shows put on there were bawdy shows or peep shows. Apparently, there was an actual stage inside, though, where everything from Shakespeare to Vaudeville was performed. I also found that Dan Dority was the bartender at the Gem, and a notorious Swearengen crony. Swearengen was infamous for tricking girls into moving to Deadwood with promises of becoming actresses, then stranding them in Deadwood and forcing them into prostitution. Sad to say that Al Swearengen didn't meet his end in Deadwood, he died penniless trying to jump a train outside Denver in the early twentieth century.

*Seth Bullock was the first Sheriff of Deadwood, though he did come there from Montana with Sol Star to open a hardware store. The historic Bullock became friends with Teddy Roosevelt, even riding with his Rough Riders for a time. Roosevelt regularly invited Bullock to visit at the White House, often introducing him as "the last true cowboy." Bullock is also credited with opening the first hotel in Deadwood, behind his hardware store, so I don't know where that leaves E.B. Farnum's hotel.

*Speaking of Farnum, I haven't found much about him, other than the fact that he was Deadwood's first mayor. I haven't found any connections between he and Swearengen, either.

*The Belle Union was a genuine saloon/theater which is almost across the street from the Gem. Though I haven't found any historical mention of Cy Tolliver as it's owner, that doesn't mean that he wasn't. It's interesting to note that the trial of Jack McCall was held at the Belle Union, not the Gem as it was on the show.

*The Rev H.W. Smith was also a real person, though it appears as if he was actually considerably older then he appears to be on the show when he came to bring the Gospel to Deadwood. Apparently, Rev. Smith was mysteriously killed just outside town shortly after the smallpox epidemic ended, so I'll be interested to see how they play that out, or if they try to attribute the killing to someone specific.

*Charlie Utter's wagon train was famous for bringing not only Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane to Deadwood, but he also brought the first prostitutes to Deadwood (this is noticeably different than the show). It doesn't seem to be clear how long Utter stayed around Deadwood.

*Calamity Jane was an interesting person. By accounts, she was a foul-mouthed drunk who dressed like a man. She was a nurse during the smallpox epidemic, but she was also a prostitute who mainly worked out of the Gem theater. As time wore on from Hickok's death, her stories of what they had (as in romance) grew in scope; it isn't known if they had any relationship at all, aside from a somewhat tenuous friendship. I'll be really interested to see if they play up the fact that she worked as a prostitute, and, if they do, if they have her work out of the Gem (we haven't really seen her interact with Swearengen yet, so they may get along).

*They appear to have gotten most of the details surrounding Hickok's murder, and the subsequent trial and tracking down of McCall pretty much accurate. I believe that Bullock hunted McCall down without Utter's help, but that's the only detail that seems to be off.

*Finally, I haven't been able to dig anything up yet on the historical Alma Garret, Eddie Sawyer, Joanie Stubbs, Johnny Burns or A.W. Merrick. That doesn't mean that they didn't have historical analogues, just that I haven't found them yet.

Monday, May 10, 2004
Monday morning bullets

I must have left my muse back on my pillow when I woke up, as I'm really not feeling it today. I keep trying to write up a worthwhile post, as I feel like I have things to talk about, but I just can't work up the energy to write about anything in a very interesting way. So, here's some bullet-point blogging to keep up appearances:

*Old Friends: Spent the weekend just outside Chicago at an old friend's wedding this weekend with another friend. I had a great time, visiting with the few other people I knew who were there, reminiscing and catching up on their lives as adults. It's worth noting that I couldn't have felt safer if I were to have a medical emergency: my friend is an MD, as were many of the guests and members of the wedding party. I haven't been around that many "doctors" since college.

*Blackjack: After the wedding, I, along with pretty much the entire wedding party (including the bride and groom, strangely enough), hit up Harrah's, the local "riverboat" casino for some of that old black magic. As of midnight on Saturday night, they only had six tables of Blackjack going in the entire casino (unless there was an annex that I couldn't find): four tables of $20 limit, and two of $25. Oddly enough, from what I could tell, they had three different versions going on as well: the dealer shuffled a six deck shoe at two tables, while two others used an automatic shuffler between six deck shoes; the last two used a continuous autoshuffler (meaning the cards were fed in after each hand).

Unfortunately, the tables with the continuous autoshuffler were the only ones with openings when we arrived, so I stalled (I won't admit to stalling from nervousness due to the "high" table limit, as I generally prefer playing with a $10 limit where I can raise my bet when I feel comfortable with it, and you can't make me). Two hours after we arrived, and around the time they closed one table down rather than lowering the limit, I finally sat down. I had some highs and some lows, and quit around 3:15 am having a little more than double what I sat down with. No complaints here.

I do have one question, for any blackjack players reading this. At one point, around the middle of the shoe, the dealer was showing fifteen, and I had a soft seventeen. I was debating whether or not to take a hit, since technically I had a winning hand (but not one that couldn't be improved), when everyone at the table started encouraging me to double down. The dealer even said that's what the book tells you to do. Not that I dispute "the book," but why would you double down on a soft seventeen against a fifteen? For the record, I didn't double down, and I ended up taking two hits to make 18 (a three and an eight) and he dealer ended up busting with 24 after three more cards.

*Survivor: I couldn't have been more wrong, could I? If I watch it again, and that's a big if, I'll refrain from making boneheaded public predictions (speaking of boneheaded, what was Jenna thinking in voting with Rob and Amber against Rupert!). I'm at a loss regarding the venom that Lex has for Rob, considering he used the same "it's just a game" excuse when he voted off Jerri, Colby, and Ethan. Oh, and for anyone who watched the reunion show, right before she got booed and subsequently left the stage, was Jerri actually complaining about the exploitation of "reality TV stars" by the public? Because if that's what she was saying, I find it more than a little hypocritical that a woman who has been on Survivor twice, lived in a house with other D-List celebrities for The Surreal Life and posed for Playboy would complain about being exploited. If she were 10 years old, okay maybe; but she went into these endeavors as an adult, knowing full well that she was opening her life, at least during her public appearances, up to public scrutiny.

I know this makes me a heathen in some circles, but I didn't watch Sopranos or Deadwood last night in favor of watching the Survivor finale. I know that they're both better shows than Survivor, but they had the advantage of being on HBO West three hours after they were on HBO East, so it was easier to record them than Survivor. I'll watch them this evening, and may post any thoughts I have on them tomorrow.

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