TCJ 300: Meet the Comics Press

Posted by on January 1st, 2010 at 4:58 AM

 

The Firing Line Forms Here


From Tantrum, by and ©1997 Jules Feiffer.


Once upon a time there was no Comics Journal. Coverage of comics, let alone comics criticism, was very, very different.

In 1976, print commentary ruled the roost in a way that would be difficult to imagine with our Internet-powered free-for-all. Newspapers, a going concern at the time, were the pre-eminent source of useful, daily information, challenged only in certain ways by television. Local papers carried no reviews of comics in their book pages or weekend literary sections. Like, ever. In part this was because comparatively few comics of recognizable social ambition or self-evident artistic heft were widely available. Name your period comic-book benchmark: Arcade? A blaze across the sky, begun in ’75, gone in ’76. American Splendor? Issue #1 is ’76. A Contract With God? ’78. Tantrum? ’79. Raw? First in 1980. Weirdo? A year later. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary? OK: 1972.

Intriguing comics, too much like every succeeding new cutting-edge art movement, seemed to require an introduction, an explanation through which common folk could gain entrance. There apparently was education to be done. Such orientation was made necessary, in part, because of the lack of consensus regarding the nature and significance of comics. Or rather if there was a consensus it was none too flattering. At best, comics were entertainment for children and the momentary diversion of newspaper-buying adults. At worst, they were the opium of the subliterate. For some, the stink of “seducer of the innocent” still clung, probably strengthened by the liberties of the undergrounds. As such, newspaper-column inches considering comics as a developed, expressive medium of communication were hard to come by. (Full disclosure: That was the way it was presented to me, then lacking a permanent address and irresistible fourth-estate skills, as I attempted to place funnybook-related articles in the paying press.)

If comics did generate notice in the papers, it was usually within the “Holy Attic Stash! Old Comics Worth BIG MONEY!” school of journalism. It was either that or personality pieces on local artists breaking in or trying to break into the professional ranks by landing a job with a major publisher. These were just as likely to wind up in the People and Personality pages as in the Arts section. One exception would be where drawings were so accomplished, so sensational, that they could be splashed across the first page of the Leisure section supported by so little prose apart from captions that a journalist’s byline wasn’t warranted.

In select cities of sufficient size, there was also notice paid to local conventions, gatherings where fans (“from ‘fanatics’,” we were invariably reminded) spent some of that BIG MONEY for old comics, often, apparently, dressed in colorful, handmade costumes.

No, back in the day, bulk prose on funnybooks was pretty much left to fanzines (“magazines made by fans for other fans”). Titles rose from humble beginnings as intimate, hand-wrought, idiosyncratic objects. Many were little more than unabashed mash notes, their affections imprinted in an inaccessible past. Paeans, plot summaries, personal relationships and fan art abounded. En masse, they seldom seemed interested in achieving much more. Individually, they appeared to be the work of principal instigators aided by a like-minded cadre of acolytes. They were what a sentimental garage band might have produced if it had a copier instead of instruments.


Cover for The Rocket’s Blast Comicollector, by and ©1968 John Fantucchio.


Some zines made an effort to keep abreast of mainstream news, where “news” consisted of books canceled or about to be launched and what creators were on or off what corporate properties. To get the slenderest jump — aka “scoop” — on the most routine of business decisions made by mainstream companies, friendly relationships with publishers were plainly thought to be a necessity. Friendlier still and there might be an interview to be had with an industry pro. Of course, such relationships had to be based on trust, which is to say the zine’s assurance of unconditional positive regard backed by a track record of flattering copy.

It was much the same for getting and keeping advertisers, particularly for adzines. These were little more than printed bazaars noisy with offers to buy or sell. The bigger the zine the more it seemingly relied on bigger dealers with bigger advertising budgets to regularly hawk back-issue stock, hobby supplies and original products. These parties too were to be courted.

Thus the cornerstones of zine journalism were good thoughts and cozy relations twice over. Accordingly, seldom was heard a discouraging word about companies, pros, titles, advertisers or their wares. It was the perfect antithesis to criticism.

Select zines were able to achieve a higher profile, thanks to some combination of bigger mailing lists, more advantageous access to professional ranks, wider followings, greater advertising patronage, better production values and perhaps nurtured commercial and professional ambitions. My own experiences with these was limited (being without a permanent mailing address and all) but titles like Rocket’s Blast Comicollector, Alter Ego, Mediascene, Cartoonist PROfiles, Cinefantastique and Comics Buyer’s Guide seemed preeminent. About The Nostalgia Journal I had no idea.

In time, even DC and Marvel found the packaging of favorable gloss, controlled publicity and parceled insider information so attractive that they appropriated it for their own versions, The Amazing World of DC and FOOM (for “Friends of Ol’ Marvel”).


Gary Groth, circa ’79-’82.


But one thing back-checking reveals is that none of these efforts had any consistent interest in generating criticism-as-we’d-commonly-recognize-it (which, for the record, involves varying degrees of descriptive, analytic, interpretative and evaluative reflection relative to an artistic work; theoretical aspects of the form invariably underlie the discussion, either implicitly or explicitly, and a bit of historical perspective only helps). To be fair, many fanzines forthrightly warned of their other, varied preoccupations right in their titles: a tout for movies devoted to the fantastic; a composite “scene” assembled from media veneers; in-house PR organs; and most prominently, periodicals designed to help you buy and collect and possess comic books.

Those last in particular, as aids to acquisition, spoke directly to a theory of criticism, which was proving more persuasive by the day. It posited that capitalism had essentially made criticism a non-issue. In replacing criticism with a cash-and-carry mentality, in establishing a mindset where everything was capable of being expressed in currency relative to a rate of exchange, the possibility of meaningful analysis and judgment was effectively destroyed. If you are the kind of person who argues that criticism is an instrument dependent upon standards, adopting cost-benefit analyses as your governing principle intuitively begins at a dead end. That sort of for-sale yardstick thrives in reviews today where the summary evaluation boils down to what’s worth the money and what isn’t, an authoritative buy/no buy bottom line. After that, price guides represent only a warped “cost of everything, value of nothing” extrapolation.

All that I’ve since come to know about The Nostalgia Journal can be found in The Comics Journal #235, the one celebrating the title’s 25th anniversary. This single issue is as close to a magazine’s autobiography as can be imagined (yes, as autobiography it carries the possibility for self-mythologizing, but that pitfall is mitigated by its composite nature. A lot of people got to weigh in and a remarkable corroboration is achieved, bequeathing the whole thing a kind of “writer-response” integrity).

If you haven’t picked it up elsewhere, The Nostalgia Journal was a struggling adzine that Gary Groth and Mike Catron bought out in 1976. Right out of the gates, their very first editorial went straight after the reigning 400-pound gorilla of adzines, The Buyer’s Guide. In inaugural issue #27, Groth, microphone in hand, hunted down Buyer’s Guide publisher Alan Light at a New York City con, hounding him and a crony about their business practices.

For comics coverage, this was — as they say — different. It was the fusion of participatory New Journalism and raw gonzo zeal set loose upon the funnybook flock. You would probably have to have been there, but that first Groth/Catron issue of The Nostalgia Journal printed the entire transcript of the confrontation in all its thrusting, dogged, righteous, fulminating glory.

I know this thanks to Michael Dean’s piece on the origins of news reporting in The Comics Journal in that aforementioned #235. Dean traced the beginnings and early evolution of the magazine’s “Newswatch” feature, particularly as it deviated from industry practices of sentimentality, whorish fiscal relations and abject ball-scrubbing. It was apparent from the get-go that Groth and company were out to bite the hand common knowledge said was feeding them. Moreover, the new regime seemed to be sizing up the head beyond the hand, anxious to see if it could be swallowed in one bite.


A 1979 photo of Mike Catron.


“The whole point of editorial content in an adzine is to have editorial content that enhances the advertisers. Whereas we wanted to piss off advertisers,” said Groth. As for making nice with publishers, Catron reflected in #235 on his partner back in the day: “Gary had a very definite point of view. He felt that comics should be an art and that the biggest impediment to comics becoming that were the major comics publishers of the day.”

With attitudes like that, the reaction of old Nostalgia Journal advertisers, prominent publishers, contented readers and frightened onlookers was immediate and predictable. Writes Dean, “The choice before [the] new owners then was to retreat to the more typical and commercially viable ad-driven formula or to push their vision all the way and turn the publication into an editorial-driven magazine.”

Not to puncture the suspense, but we know that in time The Comics Journal came to refer to itself as “The Magazine of Comics News and Criticism” (apparently that motto won out over “Resisting Arrested Development Since the Ford Administration”). In an article far more objective than this one, Dean recreated the fledgling steps of the magazine’s news-gathering arm as it bushwhacked industry heavyweights. But what of the publication’s twin engine, that of criticism?

 

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