Comics Journalism is a funny thing, because nobody seems to think that it exists. Whenever you see a comics journalism panel at a convention, the panellists spend all their time debating their own credibility and whether they should be allowed to exist – when comics journalism and comics criticism are both real, have both done some pretty notable things, and should just get on with it already.
I want to move past the discussion of whether comics critics are legitimate, and instead get us to the fun bit – to the bit where we get to hear stories from the critics who have spent years and years behind the scenes. If this year at SDCC, on the comics journalism panel, we can skip the “do you exist?” question and just have Tom Spurgeon and Heidi MacDonald tell us a handful of the million fun anecdotes they’ve surely built up, I think we’ll all be having a lot more fun on the comics internet.
Because the comics internet is HUGE now. This year we’ve seen websites launch, podcast projects get underway, video interviews rolled, and a general expansion of the debate on comics as a whole. There are a lot of brilliant places to go now if you want to hear about the nuts and bolts of comics, and I wanted to share some of the more interesting bits and pieces with you all.
To do so, I turned to the people I trust (and I hope you trust as well) when I want to hear about interesting comics – the comics critics themselves. And, wonderfully, a number of them agreed to share some of their favourite writers and pieces from 2014. Here’s a look through some of the commentary and criticism which marked the year.
Let’s get this out the way – I got a nod from somebody. Clearly that is bang out of order, but thanks to Alasdair Stewart (who you’ll see pop up a few times here – he sent a lengthy list of nominations) for the nod:
The Spire’s done great work all year in particular but your willingness to write wherever you land means you’ve got work at multiple high end sites and raised the profile of books and creators that deserve it all the more. And that, Captain Bunny, means you embody the things that define truly great comics criticism; enthusiasm, inclusiveness and articulate…ness. You’ve had all three in spades throughout the year.
But moving on from that.
Certain types of writing were nominated most often in this list – being opinion pieces and columns. Whilst there’s a lot of work being done gathering interviews and reviews, the pieces which seem to most stick with people are commentaries on certain aspects of comics culture, or process. And as only a few certain websites actually place the premium on commentary, those were the sites which most often got mentioned this year.
Multiversity Comics would be the first of them, having engaged in a number of ‘theme’ months and posting a great many columns across the course of the year. You might have noticed some of the events they held in 2014, like the concerted auction they set up to benefit comics writer Bill Mantlo across September, or lettering week. The latter, in fact, was nominated for inclusion in this list by Chase Magnett.
I was originally going to select all of Multiversity Comics. The entire site is doing great work in comics reviews, news, interviews, and features. However, what stands out to me is their in-depth, comprehensive analyses. Lettering Week, written by Drew Bradley. offered an incredible array of materials to help readers better understand and appreciate this oft-ignored aspect of comics. The dedication and care put into the series is enlightening and enjoyable for both casual comics fans and old war horses of comics journalism. It’s an absolute must read and helps to point the way for better comics journalism.
Multiversity proved to be rather popular as a whole, in fact, and Chris Arrant praised the work of one of their staff writers in particular:
One of the highlights of my RSS feed on writing about comics the past year has been the work of David Harper at Multiversity Comics. Although his billed role is as an editor, the most impact I see is in his original editorials and think pieces on the industry.
I look at his stories thinking “hey, he beat me to it!” to “hey, I wish my editor would have approved my pitch on it!” to “wow, I didn’t think of it like that.”
Chris also singled out Brian Salvatore, and in particular his piece on re-thinking the idea of ongoing series,
As part of this piece, I invited some people who run websites to nominate whoever from their own site they wanted to – and Multiversity’s EIC Matt Meylikhov picked yet another piece from Harper. In this case, it was Creator-Owned and the Thin Line Between “To Be Continued” and “The End”, which looked at the level of sales required for a creator-owned title to succeed. Following up on comments made by Brandon Montclare, the writer of Image series Rocket Girl, he looked at just how many sales an Image title need in order to be allowed to continue – and where the cancellation threshold is.
Comics Alliance also had a strong showing from fellow critics – as another site which features a lot of editorial writing, they’ve had a number of writers like Juliet Kahn and Andrew Wheeler writing thoughtful and smart pieces about comics. One of their focuses has always been on increasing diversity within comics and within the comics readership, which led to one piece singled out by Kelly Thompson.
So, obviously, for my own “comics journalism” via She Has No Head! I focus a lot on issues of all kinds surrounding “women in comics” but after five years of doing that column, it can get frustrating and tiresome to feel like you’re not making any headway. So when I see a piece like Fake Geek Guys: A Message to Men About Sexual Harassment by Andy Khouri so well articulated, so simple, and coming from such a good place, I’ll be honest, my heart swells with happiness.
The feminist movement needs allies but we especially need vocal allies as too many people allow bad behavior to continue by not saying anything at all. If you’re silent, you’re unfortunately allowing others to claim you as belonging to their camp, right or wrong. Khouri’s piece, beautiful, passionate, smart, and engaging, placed him firmly as a vocal ally and the way he tied the issues so beautifully to something we all love and want to come together on – superheroes – made this piece one of my favorites of the last year.
Juliet’s work was also mentioned by Janelle Asselin, who wrote:
Juliet Kahn is, to me, the future of comics journalism. This is the kind of woman who is part of the fastest growing demographic in comics. She’s written some of the smartest pieces of the last year about feminism and geek culture. She reviews books primarily featuring women and interviews many female creators. She’s fearless, on point, and unapologetic about her brand of fandom.
I invited Juliet Kahn to submit to this list herself, which she did – in the form of Zainab Akhtar’s review of Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoët’s comic Beautiful Darkness, also over at Comics Alliance…
WHICH LEADS US INTO A LENGTHY LIST OF COMPLIMENTS FOR ZAINAB AKHTAR.
David Harper also chose Zainab’s work as one of his favourite pieces of the year, and actually selected a second piece she wrote about the very same comic, Beautiful Darkness, over at her own site. Zainab’s spent the year flitting between Comics & Cola and a number of other places – she had a few pieces at Comics Alliance, Publishers Weekly and The Guardian – but always making sure she returns to her own blog. David said:
When I first read Beautiful Darkness, I liked it, but didn’t love it. Afterwards, I read Zainab Akhtar’s write-up about Kerascoët and Fabian Vehlmann’s graphic novel, and something incredible happened: she made me appreciate it more. Akhtar’s a very gifted writer – she earned an Eisner nomination this year, after all – but very few comic journalists/critics have the ability to look at a work and reveal truths in the work and further appreciation of it. She might be the very best at that, and this is a fantastic example as to why
Sequential State’s Alex Hoffman agreed:
One person who has really done a strong job this year is Zainab Akhtar @ Comics & Cola, The Beat, Comics Alliance, Publishers Weekly, etc. Zainab’s writing is joyful, curious, and insightful. Her reviews are smart and nuanced, and she does a great job featuring independent creators and small press. She is a huge inspiration for me as a writer.
As did Alasdair Stewart:
Zainab’s had an amazing year and the sheer variety of work she’s put out is staggering. She and you have the same baseline enthusiasm and eloquence and it’s infectious every time I encounter it. Plus Zainab’s got a tremendously universal worldview that I really like; if something’s good, she’ll like it. It doesn’t matter if it’s mainstream or indie, good is good. As mottos for interacting with culture in all it’s forms go ‘good is good’ is pretty hard to beat. Plus her incredible knowledge and skill with indie books has put some genuinely brilliant comics in front of me.
Which is all likely why she got nominated for an Eisner this year!
But Zainab can’t be picked for everything, thank goodness, which left some room still open for other sites and writers to get mentioned. For example! Rachel Stevens mentioned the work of one of her fellow writers:
I want to talk about Claire Napier’s Ghost in the Shell overview on Women Write About Comics. She’s dissected the entire franchise from start to finish in every aspect of the manga and anime, particularly how the series treats the Major’s body. As she is a woman and a cyborg, the Major is literally objectified throughout, and her relationship with characters vary depending on the iteration in the enormous cyberpunk series. Claire’s dissection is thoughtful, analytical, appropriately cynical, and able to puncture self-seriousness with humor.
And that really was a block of writing which properly caught the attention of readers and other critics, as I know many others have shared and praised Napier’s writing across the year – David Brothers wrote about it on 4thletter!, for example.
You know who else mentioned her work? Zainab Akhtar:
I am going to be a bit cheeky and nominate 2 writers who I enjoy/ed reading, both of whom make me want to improve and do better myself. I think good writing is about individual voice, honesty, and knowledge and both Claire Napier and Joe McCulloch offer that in spades, in addition to being engaging and interesting. What I also appreciate about their writing is the approach and angles they take; looking at, and talking about comics from standpoints I wouldn’t consider, and in a natural way- it’s not affected.
Jim Viscardi, who has spent the year as EIC for ComicBook.com, wanted to spotlight an article from one of his writers, the (aforementioned!) Chase Magnett. After an article was written on some newspaper site which casually decried the idea that comics could be considered high art, Magnett wrote an extensive counter-argument to the claim. The piece, Comics Are High Art, was one of a series of pieces he wrote this year for several different sites.
Joseph Philip Illidge made a splash this year with two columns over at CBR, which looked primarily at people of colour in the comics industry – mostly, asking where they were and why they weren’t represented in a particularly consistent way. He was mentioned as part of this, for his current column ‘The Mission’.
Joseph Phillip Illidge, whose work on ‘The Mission’ at CBR reads like nothing else on the market right now. Joseph has this remarkable, measured insight that he uses to dismantle issues in the most precise way I’ve ever seen. His stuff is like a watch; immaculately designed, every word chosen perfectly and all of it working towards the same purpose. I love reading his stuff as much for the craft of the language as anything else.
One thing I’d mention about the year, also, is that comic book podcasts really took to the spotlight. Viscardi also hosts the ‘Let’s Talk Comics’ podcast which started out with mostly Marvel-focused interviews but has since expanded to become a wide-ranging single-subject podcast which speaks to many of the most interesting names in comics. Alex Hoffman also mentioned podcasts in his response to my call for good comics criticism:
I really enjoyed Mike Dawson’s TCJ Talkies podcast with Caitlin McGurk and Jim Rugg on Ghost World and The Death Ray by Dan Clowes. The bookclub nature of the discussion was fun, and none of the participants dominated conversation. There was some smart discussion about Clowes’ oeuvre.
On top of that, Darryl Ayo mentioned perhaps the two most well-received podcasts of the year:
I haven’t read a lot of comics criticism in 2014 due to my participation in Small Press Expo’s Ignatz Awards jury. I do, however, love Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. That and Inkstuds’ “Inkstuds On The Road” series of interviews.
Referring latterly to Robin McConnell’s incredible impressive cross-country trip with Brandon Graham, where the pair travelled America and the UK, interviewing groups of artists and writers wherever they go. The other podcast there would be Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes’ podcast about the X-Men, which each episode continues a chronological trip from start to end of the franchise. Proving to be massively popular with people from the start, the podcast has a lightness of touch that has somehow managed to make some sense of the most complicated characters in comics.
Alasdair Stewart also had some podcasts he wanted to recognise in this list:
Stace Whittle’s basically a national treasure at this point. A frequent awards judge, runs Whittle Waffle and is deeply connected to the UK comic circuit. David Monteith and Barry Nugent at Geek Syndicate are broad spectrum fans who just presented two excellent shows on iplayer and are always worth listening to. Likewise, Al Kennedy and Paul O’ Brien of the House to Astonish team. Al’s been one of the greats for years but House to Astonish really is a natural habitat for him and it’s great to see the show do so well.
House to Astonish may have gone on hiatus this year, but Paul O’Brien’s reviews have continued throughout the year – something I’m very thankful for. And on that topic of prolific reviewers, Forbidden Planet’s Richard Bruton – the cornerstone of British Comics Criticism, I think most would agree – was mentioned by the other cornerstone of British Comics Criticism, Andy Oliver:
As a comics commentator who devotes most of his coverage to grassroots practitioners and micropublishers my interest lies not in stories of the newer and more inventive ways that corporate comics continues to come up with to consume itself, or any salacious behind-the-scenes revelations of industry politics and intrigue.
Rather, I will always gravitate towards those writers who use a significant amount of their online time to critique and assess the next generation of creative voices within the medium. So I’m going to pass over the big “scoops” of the year and focus instead on the valuable work of one particular critic in 2014 – Richard Bruton at the Forbidden Planet International Blog.
Richard’s remit is broad but it’s the time he takes to cover UK self-publishers and smaller publishing outfits that once again has been a vital backbone of support to an area of comics practice that rarely gets the depth of analysis it deserves. Unflinchingly honest and astonishingly prolific, comics journalism needs far more Richard Brutons out there.
Andy’s last sentence in that quote originally said “British comics journalism needs far more Richard Brutons out there” – but I took out the word “British”. Richard’s work is some of the best anywhere.
This was, as Andy intimates,a year where there were some bigger stories going on. Rich Johnston over at Bleeding Cool nominated his editor, Hannah Means-Shannon, for her work in keeping a handle on all the various dramas and crises which the site reported on across the year. They reported on several stories in 2014, including the recent news of Roc Upchurch leaving ‘Rat Queens’, and oftentimes caught hold of news nobody else would have known about otherwise.
However, perhaps the single biggest interest for comics journalism/criticism this year came about from a Teen Titans cover, of all things. As Christian Hoffer says:
I think this year had a lot of great examples of comics journalism and commentary this year. I could name drop a ton of people who deserve consideration, but since you’re limiting us to one person, I’m going to go with Janelle Asselin. I think that Asselin has contributed a lot to comics commentary and journalism over the last year, particularly with her much needed “Hire This Woman” feature over on Comics Alliance, and her April 2014 piece about Kenneth Rocafort’s New Teen Titans #1 cover, which was run at CBR.
I think the response to that latter article really crystallized what a lot of women in the comic industry face, and I admire her bravery for not backing down. Asselin’s “Hire This Woman” feature is a great example of providing positive coverage to lesser known creators and her Teen Titans piece is a the sort of critical commentary I’d like to see more of in 2015.
Referring to the way half the industry tried to shut her down after she gave a negative critique of a cover, which portrayed a teenage girl in a cynically sexual manner. With readers and members of the comics industry both yelling at her about how wrong her critique was, she kept a brilliant poise and was continually thoughtful in her feedback.
It’s been a really good year for comics criticism, commentary, and journalism. It may have felt like 2014 was a relentlessly negative year for comics news at times – but that’s simply because we’re all now seeing the stories which were ignored ten years ago. If the comics industry is expanding the readership and aiming towards a more diverse readership and catalogue of mainstream creators, then critics have been instrumental this year in helping spotlight that new talent. I feel pretty relieved that criticism is in the hands of so many people I respect and admire.