Friday, December 18, 2009

Sequart Reprints: TCJ #291

The Comics Journal has been the gold standard for comics writing and journalism for three decades now. Let's check in on the newest issue (#291) and see where the magazine currently stands. The Journal has always been known for three things: no-holds-barred journalism about the comics industry, revealing and thorough interviews, and incisive criticism about the form. At its best, the Journal is a reflection of its editor-in-chief, Gary Groth. Groth has made a lot of enemies over the years by exposing the repugnant business practices of many comics publishers, helping to shame them into doing the right thing. His frequently scorched-earth reviews have also bruised many an ego. As the Journal has grown older and more respected (and Fantagraphics as a publishing concern has expanded), Groth has had less of an obvious presence in each individual issue of the Journal. His writing has become more infrequent, and while his opinions are no less forceful, he seems more interested in creating light than heat these days.

How interesting any particular issue is depends on the philosophy of the managing editor at the time. There's a tension as to what exactly the Journal should be covering. Should it try to cover every aspect of comics, and run the risk of printing interviews and columns that detail inferior genre work? How best to cover manga, children's comics and webcomics? Should the Journal pursue more rarified, idiosyncratic coverage of art comics or should it try to appeal to the average comics fan?

Looking at the terms of the last three editors, it seems that the Journal suffers a dip in quality when it tries to provide a wider appeal. Under Milo George, the Journal interviewed and delved into some incredibly challenging and fascinating creators and comics. As a reader and critic, I learned a lot from these issues and couldn't wait to read the next one. His successor, Dirk Deppey, made it a point to cast a much wider net. However, he often did this in the most confrontational and quirky ways possible, like devoting an entire issue to shojo manga. Deppey did a lot to improve the look of the Journal, with a more appealing format and the welcome addition of classic comics reprints. While I didn't find Deppey's vision of the Journal as compelling as I did George's, that vision was clearly formulated and consistent.

Under current editor Michael Dean, the Journal feels like it's drifting while looking better than ever. It's now being published twice a quarter in an attractive book format. Each issue is lavishly illustrated and has continued to reprint interesting public-domain comics. Dean was the Journal's former news editor, and now that he's managing editor, the news section has dwindled to out-of-date bullet items. The Journal was never about printing it first, it was about getting the details and doing real reporting, and I'm not sure that's a priority anymore.

In issue #291, mainstream artist Tim Sale is featured with a 37-page interview. While Sale has his virtues because of his unusual approach, the interview felt pretty by-the-numbers. A fan of Sale might be interested in specific projects or details like his color-blindness, but it didn't do much for me as a reader who had read little of his work. An interview with up-and-coming artist Josh Simmons is considerably more interesting, in part because Simmons himself has led such a fascinating life. His tales of traveling with a sex circus certainly beats the zillionth question asking artists what kind of pen they use. I think that's a tribute to interviewer Kristi Valenti, who was both knowledgeable about Simmons' career and clever enough to steer the interview in some interesting directions.

This issue's review section was, for the most part, remarkably strong. It was led by the welcome return of Groth, penning an amazing 27-page review of Ralph Steadman's book The Joke's Over. The book details his relationship with the legendary Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Groth's review is an essay that is about as much his own thoughts on Thompson as it is about Steadman's book and career. Thompson was obviously a huge influence on Groth's career, as he was on many modern journalists and writers. Both Groth and Steadman explore Thompson as daring, visionary writer vs. Thompson feeling the need to live up to his own legend--Thompson the drugged-out, violent cartoon character. Groth's conclusion that Steadman in many ways succeeded in true Gonzo journalism as his career went on where Thompson failed is backed up by explorations of several fascinating projects late in his career, as well as this book. Steadman found a way to control his demons in ways that Thompson did not. This article serves as a fantastic primer on both artists, interspersed with bold insights and connections.

Rich Kreiner (always a welcome presence in the Journal) contributes a review of Lat's TOWN BOY that focuses both on its formal qualities and Lat's ability to create a sense of time, place and character. Shaenon Garrity reviews a couple of odd choices: a collection of early Carol Lay stories and a couple of issues of the Bob Burden/Rick Geary (!) GUMBY comic. In the former, she lays out a convincing argument why the IRENE stories of Lay deserve consideration as part of the comics canon, and praises the latter for its weirdness but wonders about its audience. The major misfire in this issue was Jason Rhode's review of Rich Tommaso's MIRIAM. When a review starts with the phrase "Bad art dispenses cheap sincerity like VD gets around a state college", you know that the author is more in love with the sound of their own voice than actually engaging the comic on its own terms.

The comics section focused on Dan Gordon, who was best known for his animation work but did plenty of teen and funny animal comics as well. The comics here were amusing and well-crafted but eminently forgettable. It was interesting to see the work of a popular-but-forgotten artist reprinted, at least. The preview of Danica Novgorodoff's SLOW STORM showed off the artist's moody, expressive style.

R.C. Harvey's column on the controversy about how to award Pulitzer Prizes in editorial cartooning was excellent. While I've never agreed with Harvey's reductionist theories on how to catagorize comics, I've always appreciated his wide-ranging interest in comics in all their forms, but especially editorial and newspaper comics. This is exactly the kind of diversity in covering the form that the Journal can excel in, without pandering to a specific demographic. On the other hand, while Tom Crippen's column on the various changes Marvel has put Spider-Man through was certainly well-written, it seemed to repeat its main points over and over: Marvel has lost track of how to make its characters actually fun.

The Journal shines when its writers discuss ideas about comics that are personal and idiosyncratic. That's why the heartfelt appreciation that William Stout wrote for the just-deceased Dave Stevens was so moving. Stout knew that he couldn't write an all-encompassing article that revealed every detail of Stevens' life; instead, his own anecdotes about Stevens' life paint a rich portrait of his life. I wish a figure as important as Steve Gerber got the same kind of treatment. Again, Crippen got the details right and had some interesting insights, but Tim Hodler had more interesting things to say about Gerber in the pages of COMICS COMICS than Crippen did here--and that wasn't even an appreciation.

At this point, how good the average issue of the Journal will be depends on whether or not Groth writes something in it, the skill of the individual interviewer and how interested one is in the interview subjects chosen. As long as Groth is still involved with the Journal, it will remain a powerful force in the comics world. While the Journal may not be at its most provocative at the moment, it still sets the standard for comics criticism and commentary. It'll be interesting to see how long Dean remains managing editor and if the news division of the Journal is revived.

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