TCJ 300: Meet the Comics Press

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

 

Away from comics, criticism of course had flourished since the Greeks as an honored and respected intellectual exercise. Philosophical focus and approach had evolved over eras. Thanks to individual theorists and influential intellects, criticism developed in different ways across languages, cultures and countries. But it had always risen to meet the challenges of new forms of art, new fields of scrutiny and new means of expression. A tradition of good writing about photography and about film developed with comparative lightning speed.

With the comics of books and strips it was different, retarded. In approaching comics as art, Groth and Catron were thinking about applying an informed aesthetic for a medium that essentially had developed without one. Since there was little widespread notice afforded the form (apart from its perceived sociological impact), there was little discontent over the lack of understanding of its unique language, mechanics, dexterity, beauty and finesse. For the public, comics were largely beneath the cultural radar. For narrower fandom, wider indifference must have seemed preferable to a wariness that invited disdain.


Kim Thompson, circa ’79-’82.


The Journal‘s early letter columns offered testimony to a resistance, even hostility, among fans to serious scrutiny of the medium. For one thing, serious wasn’t fun (and after all, this is just a hobby). For another, at the time when this country was most serious about its attention to comics there were bonfires of them in school parking lots.

The past assuredly had had its scattered, early examples of astute commentary on the form; Gilbert Seldes on Krazy Kat in ’24, Coulton Waugh in ’47 come immediately to mind. But certainly no tradition of informed, sustained discourse had evolved. No enduring trail had been left by others. No once-flourishing arenas left their ruins to serve as foundations. The magazine was for all practical purposes beginning from a dead stop with little direction in a messy, trackless wasteland so vast it would make television prideful.

It took a while to get moving. “My firm conviction that comics was a bona fide art form and that championing the art form should take center stage at the Journal took a year or so to evolve and longer than that to truly gain its editorial footing,” allows Groth; “those first few years of the Journal were a continuing learning experience for me (as well as for our poor readers).”

In issue #29, an editorial lamented the inbred roster of writers and friends on any given fanzine’s masthead and promised a search for new authorial blood and fresh vantage points for inclusion in the magazine. Two more issues of The Nostalgia Journal, rechristened The New Nostalgia Journal, were published before The Comics Journal took up the numbering with #32. Soon after that, issue solicitations were already listing in their table of fare the likes of “several on-going battles on the letter pages” and “a savage interview with Dave Kraft.”

The earliest issue I can lay my hands on is TCJ #37. It was the first release to switch over from newsprint tabloid to the more familiar magazine format. As testimony to inertial drag on editorial headway, the cover features a full-figure drawing of Han Solo by John Workman and Bob Smith trumpeting “STAR WARS! The movie! The comic! The photos!” Also blazoned was “Superman Movie — The First Photos.”

But inside, changes were noticeable beyond the new format. A reprint by famed theater and film critic John Simon examined that same cover-thumped Star Wars movie. The piece must have been a jaw-dropping experience for any fan who envisioned the movie’s release as the cultural event of their year. “O dull new world!” Simon intoned. “It is all as exciting as last year’s weather reports.” After some praise for more technical aspects, he rebounds, “What you ultimately have is a set of giant baubles manipulated by an infant mind.”


Marilyn Bethke, circa ’79-’82.


In the long run — and if nothing else, #300 affords the luxury of assessing things in the long run — it wasn’t so much what Simon wrote but the spirit, tenor, rigor and ferocity with which he conducted his business. Having brought in the New York Magazine critic from the “outside,” like some foreign hitman called in for an especially tricky job, the Journal held his prose out as if to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s what comic criticism can look like.”

That same issue #37 announced Catron’s departure for a position with DC and one Kim Thompson filling his various jackboots in editorial high command. But before Catron left, he and Groth wrote the exposé “Mediascene Shoplifts Superman Article,” which took on the imposing industry figure Jim Steranko and his magazine. The piece detailed the infraction but saved its harshest words for Steranko, recounting in equivalent detail his indifference to responsible publishing practices. In case any reader had somehow missed the latter offense, on the same page Groth wrote an editorial “On Ethics and Fanzines.” Now, Groth had previously worked for Steranko and was careful to credit Steranko’s virtues, but the companion articles were notice duly served: No ethical behavior, business conventions or creative enterprise undertaken by friend, foe or potential ally was to be above scrutiny. Topping off that issue, letters ran with the headings “Bilge,” “Trash” and “More Vigorous Discussion.”

There’s a temptation to say that the rest is history. Issue #39 began a series on fanzine reviews by Marilyn Bethke; in a later readers’ poll, her writing was judged both the worst and tied for the best in the magazine. That same issue also saw the announcement that the Journal, thanks to picking up distributors, had tripled in circulation! To 9,000! That number permitted the presumptive claim of “the best selling magazine about comics in the country.”

Issue #40 of the best-selling magazine about comics in the country included Groth’s response to the statement that, of the eight reviews in the prior issue, seven were negative. By issue #44, Bethke’s column handed down its own fanzines awards, including “Most Self-Indulgent and Tasteless Writing,” “Most Nauseatingly Pretentious and Tasteless Writing” and “The If-It’s-A-Putdown-Print-It Award,” categories swept by writers in the Journal. Forget about friend or foe: Reproof begins at home.

So it’s tempting to say the rest is history but probably hard to agree on what exactly that history is. For all intents and purposes, the further you move away from the primary source material found within the magazine itself, the less agreement on history, influence, etc. there’s likely to be.

What can be roundly acknowledged is that the Journal stayed most true to its single, core tenet: Comics are an art. In at least this fiefdom they would be read as such. They would be responded to as such. They would be held to the same fires. Everything followed from that.

In his book, The Golden Age of Comic Fandom, Bill Schelly wrote “In order for fans to come together to become fandom, the first prerequisite was a central meeting place.” It proved the same for readers who weren’t necessarily fanatics but who wanted more from comics, who could imagine them as something grander than a passing infatuation. They needed a meeting place of their own, somewhere to coalesce, recognize one another, reach critical mass. Over time, the Journal increasingly became the clubhouse for old-school aficionados, next gen true believers and toilers in the field who dreamed the dream. As the masses filled out, put on weight, they stayed lean — yes, and mean — networking, celebrating, savaging, honing.


Sigmund Freud in Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, written by Brian Augustyn, penciled by Michael Mignola and inked by P. Craig Russell; ©2006 DC Comics.


Elbows are sharp under the tent. Long-term readers know disagreements are common. Provoked, even. Feelings are bruised. As conducted here, criticism is a never-ending, open-to-debate process continually in search of greater refinement. (I’ve already referred to the Blood and Thunder letter column several times. Its emaciation in print is the single greatest threat to the magazine’s dimensions as critical platform. Consolers direct me to the hosted electromagnetic chat sites. Please.) Restless reexamination makes sense. Nothing is settled, not really. Everything is open for debate, everything is in play, in flux, if you care enough to take up the cudgels. There’s not unanimity but the direction is clear, the goal fixed. Said August Wilhelm on criticism, “Different people may very well have their eyes on the same center, but since each of them starts from a different point on the circumference, they inscribe also different radii.”

The magazine sought to encompass a number of radii, if only to hold them up for vivisection. Beyond comics being art, the magazine has no specific doctrinal ax to grind. This dovetails nicely with current notions of criticism relative to eternal verities and immutable standards of purity. I’m hardly the first to swear I’ve never gotten marching orders from editors or owners on which angle to take on what subject. In practical terms, that’s just the way the magazine rolls.

So there’s no direct lineage of critical thought to be offered here, either within the magazine or from the Journal on outward. There’s no documented cause and effect, in part because I suspect contributors, like their readers, tend to be individuals. At worst, personalities. There’s no First Book of Chronicles-like line of “who begat who” in forming philosophical camps or academies of thought, no “Tinkers to Evers to Chance” relay of appraisal, tone or approach. The most salient testimonial to intellectual torch-passing I could find belongs to Tom Spurgeon, another of the Journal‘s doubly gifted writers and editorial mahatmas: “The Journal was helpful to me as a teenager because it couched important arguments in terms of things I understood and cared about. Following Carter Scholz or Rob Rodi through a familiar comic story had the same unsettling effect as listening to my parents describe the neighborhood where I grew up in terms of illicit affairs and alcoholic heads-of-households. I wanted their secret knowledge.”

All that being said, I’d still argue that criticism in the Journal has accomplished something more important than generally elevating discourse and specifically fostering a new breed of comic reader cum critic. The latter may well be the art’s first responders, but the emphasis is on responders.

I call instead your attention to the Comics Journal ads that feature clipped quotes from comics writers and artists and cartoonists.

The relevant expression is one that appears often enough during the extended interviews for which this magazine is justly famous (interviews that, by the way, had little precedent in the field before the Journal effectively cultivated and paraded their utility). In long form, it’s the awareness of interviewees of the magazine’s… well, in the blandest terms, existence. In so many words, it’s a recognition of its stance, its role, and that of its readers.

But it’s within those ads that the thoughts are more strikingly set in their directness and brevity: “The good is always in conflict with the better. The Comics Journal attempts to explain the difference” (Gil Kane); “All in all, The Comics Journal is a stand-out inspiration to me” (Kim Deitch); “The Comics Journal never stabs you in the back — they just charge you from the front… I like that” (Todd McFarlane; so obviously I could go on like this for a while…).

You don’t get art without artists and you don’t get artists without support. The Journal has been and continues to be the place where creators can, if they choose, listen for the choric voice that comes back from the void affirming, “Yeah. What you’re doing? We get it” (usually right before it tacks on “And here’s what went wrong…”). The magazine provides evidence, for those that seek it, of an active, groomed, engaged and eager audience, a population capable of and willing to return serve. Hearty slap on the back or sharp spur to the flanks, it’s verification that somebody’s been paying attention.

You don’t want to take this argument too far, though, as you could construe a sordidly romantic component at bottom. At the creepiest depths, it suggests that criticism could have a place in fending off artists’ Van Gogh-in-Arles moment of crisis: that is, in their hour of deepest darkness and despair, when they’ve opened themselves up and spilled everything they have out before a silent and uncaring world, when searching they find they have nothing left to give, nothing inside to offer, they suddenly think, “I know! An ear!”

That’s giving criticism too much of a role as some kind of cultural “talking cure.” But it helps. It profits. Them and us. And in comics, on a steady basis, you pretty much heard it here first.

 

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