Douglas Wolk  JOEL TURNIPSEED  ·  OCT 31 2007

OK, short intro: Douglas Wolk is smart, funny, and if you have any interest in comics whatsoever you should absolutely check out his Reading Comics. Great stuff. This is a long interview, but every time I tried to cut it, I thought, "Nope, not that—too smart." So here you go. Comments turned on, normal rules apply—enjoy.

JT: The opening of one of Robert Warshow's essays, on Krazy Kat, is worth quoting at length, if only because it could be a sort of manifesto of sorts for blogging, writ-large:

"On the underside of our society, there are those who have no real stake at all in respectable culture. These are the open enemies of culture.... these are the readers of pulp magazines and comic books, potential book-burners, unhappy patrons of astrologers and communicants of lunatic sects, the hopelessly alienated and outclassed.... But their distance from the center gives them in the mass a degree of independence that the rest of us can achieve only individually and by discipline... when this lumpen culture displays itself in mass art forms, it can occasionally take on a purity and freshness that would almost surely be smothered higher up on the cultural scale."

We'll get to comics, but I wonder if this doesn't perfectly capture some of the anarchism, snark, and general weirdness of a lot that comes across the blogosphere? Insofar as blogging remains a kind of private, gift-exchange of woe and rant and fanatical interest, isn't this what makes blogs so much fun? So vital?

DW: There's still a pernicious kind of defensive class-consciousness to what Warshow's writing here, a sense of "purity and freshness" from noble savages ("potential book-burners"? same to you, buddy!), a sense that everybody knows what the cultural scale is and that it's self-evidently immutable. That's not really the case any more, and it hasn't been the case for a long time. And the phrase "respectable culture" suggests that what's at stake here maybe isn't even culture as much as respect—the respect owed to the individual, disciplined "rest of us" by "them in the mass." That, as they say, is a mug's game.

To put it another way: "distance from the center" presumes not only that everybody agrees on what that center is, but that one is either near to it or far from it, and that being far from it can confer some kind of ironic virtue. This is the same kind of mindset that valorizes "outsider art" for the straw dangling from the corner of its mouth rather than for itself. What's fun and vital about the blogosphere is not that it doesn't speak with the questionably unified ("smothered"?) voice of mass culture, but that individual bloggers only need to speak for themselves and about their own personal interests, and don't need to triangulate themselves against any distinct or nebulous center; it doesn't matter who's paying attention and who isn't, even when lots of people are paying attention! Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there's no sun they're all orbiting around.

JT: In Reading Comics, you write "The blessing and the curse of comics as a medium is that there is such a thing as 'comics culture.'" It's unfair to ask, but can you give a shorter summary of this than you give in this chapter of your book ("What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics")? How are these cultures changing—or spreading—as mainstream literary writers like Chabon and Lethem enter the fray & magazines and journals like The Virginia Quarterly Review and The New York Times Magazine have begun featuring comics regularly (or that we now have a Best American Comics)? Is the imprimatur of "official culture" the mark of death for comics culture?

DW: "Comics culture" has always been a little bit tough for me to grapple with, partly because I'm looking at it from the inside. It's a culture that's immersed in comics and their history and economics and formal conventions, to the point where it can be difficult to read comics casually: you almost have to adopt (or work around) a certain cultural mode to pick up something with words and pictures and read it for pleasure, and that's annoying. On the other hand, the culture of comics-readers does privilege deep knowledge, and in its eccentric way it's deeply committed to being hospitable to newcomers; we care about this stuff a lot, and we like the feeling of being a community.

As for the second half of your question, why would an influx of public attention, talent and money possibly mark the death of comics? If people start buying books by Jaime Hernandez and Megan Kelso because they've seen their work in the Times Magazine, I'm all for that—believe me, there's nobody who's attached to the idea of the best cartoonists remaining some kind of subcultural secret. It's interesting to see the the way the new streams of creators are affecting comics, though—I'm particularly fond of cartoonists with backgrounds in design or contemporary visual art who've come to comics because they've gotten interested in narrative. In the last few years, there's also been a bit of a trend of celebrity writers in the comics mainstream, some of whom have adapted easily to the different sort of writing that works in combination with drawings, and some of whom are still writing as if the images in comics are just ancillary illustrations of the important (verbal) part. But that doesn't mean that something important has been lost, just that there's fresh blood and sometimes a learning curve—there are more English-language comics in print now than there have ever been before, and more good stuff available than ever before.

JT: A quick Google search for "comics blogs" returns about 58 million results. Are there notable blogs out there that manifest these two sides of comics culture? Is there a killer spandex fanboy site? A Pitchfork for comics?

DW: Oh, absolutely. I'd like to say that if there's a Pitchfork for comics, it's The Savage Critic(s), to which I occasionally contribute—my two favorite comics critics, Joe "Jog" McCulloch and Abhay Khosla, both write for it. The best spandex sites these days, as far as I'm concerned, are Chris's Invincible Super-Blog, Bully Says: Comics Oughta Be Fun!, The Absorbascon and Myriad Issues, with extra credit to Funnybook Babylon for "Downcounting," their weekly savaging of DC's "Countdown" series. And then there are great generalist blogs—the Comics Reporter is one of the first things I read every morning, and I really like the newish Picture Poetry, too.

JT: Even though I included 20 pages of graphic novel in my own book, I don't really have a big collection: Joe Sacco's books, Spiegelman's
Maus books, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, a couple of Eisner's, Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi's memoirs, Clowes, Pekar, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics—basically: no superhero comics whatsoever. Am I just totally dropping the ball on the superhero and other serial comics?

DW: There are a bunch of worthwhile serial comics at the moment, and some of them are superhero comics—although superhero comics are very much grounded in a shared set of conventions, there are an awful lot of them, and even a lot of the best ones require a willingness to figure out how they fit into the "continuity" context of thousands of others. If you don't like the idea of gigantic metaphors in brightly colored outfits, don't force yourself. That said, on the superhero front right now I'm loving Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "All-Star Superman" (which is deliberately un-linked to continuity) and Greg Pak, John Romita, Jr., and Klaus Janson's "World War Hulk" (which is very heavily enmeshed with continuity), and I think a lot of Brian Michael Bendis's "New Avengers"/"Mighty Avengers"/"Illuminati" work is really interesting--it fails as often as it works, but he's pushing himself really hard.

The best non-superhero serial comics right now? Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze," "Y: The Last Man," "DMZ," and I suppose "Love and Rockets" counts! Skipping serials on principle means you're missing out in pretty much the same way that you're missing out if you only watch movies and don't bother with "The Wire" or "Lost" or "Arrested Development"...

JT: Given the fanatical culture of comics, it seems natural that there are a ton of comics blogs (and that a lot of comics artists would have blogs), but the comic and the graphic novel don't really work as an online medium, do they? I tried keeping up with the New York Times Magazine's comics section when I dropped my print subscription, but they serialize them on the Web as PDFs—and even then, they don't read very well on my 15" MacBook Pro. Is this a fundamental nature of the beast? Or are there people out there making it work? Is there a Henry Darger out there in the blogosphere? The next Harvey Pekar (as if the current one weren't handful enough)?

DW: Scott McCloud's whole thing about the limitless potential of online comics hasn't quite been borne out yet, but it's still a very new medium. I agree that the Times's PDFs are a dreadful idea, but there are a lot of Web-comics that have enormous readerships; it seems, in general, like daily humor strips are the format that work best so far. I love Achewood and Diesel Sweeties, in particular; as far as non-humor strips go, Dicebox is pretty wonderful. The real problem is that there's presently no way for a cartoonist to make any money at all, let alone make a living, doing online comics (that whole "micropayment" thing seems to have fizzled); the few people whose sole employment seems to be doing them are actually making their money selling related merchandise. I this an insurmountable problem? Probably not—but nobody's sure how to fix it yet. At least people doing print comics have a tangible object that can be exchanged for money.

As for the Darger/Pekar question, I'm not sure what you mean—when you say Henry Darger, I think of a crazed sexually obsessed hyperproductive fantasist working in total isolation (hence not somebody who'd be in the blogosphere, by definition); when you say Harvey Pekar, I think of a compulsive self-documenter (hence... everybody in the blogosphere).

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
comics   douglaswolk   interviews   The State WeÕre In

There are 4 reader comments

Edo55 31 2007 4:55PM

Good writing, great bit. Enjoy your time Joel.

Dainius Blynas17 01 2007 5:17AM

In my humble opinion, blogging is not always peripheral activity, kind of counter-culture. There is significant part of blogs that are precisely the contrary, that is professional blogs. Professional in a sense, that they are written by professionals, highly educated people writing for other professionals. Such blogs could be called elite. For example, some of economics blogs could be classified as such (e.g. marginal revolution).

Spencer Sugarman46 01 200710:46AM

Is the current webcomic business model really a problem? Perhaps in the future some source of income unique to webcomics will be thought of, but right now the shared source of income (advertising, merchandising, maybe subscription) between webcomics and other online media (blogs, newspapers, etc.) seems sufficient. In this light, webcomics are just another type of content, like world news or (appropriately) interesting links.

The only problem I can think of is if this business model is failing for webcomics. Wikipedia has a list of self-sufficient webcomics that seems strikingly short. There are tens of thousands of webcomics being published, but only a handful are self-sufficient? My first impulse, however, is to wonder how this ratio compares to the print world, or to the blog world. (Also, as a side note, this whole advertising/merchandising thing feels like the print world's rules bleeding onto the internet; it feels wrong.)

If the sources of income are so insubstantial that, for an overwhelming majority of creators, they are barring entry to the realm of self-sufficiency, then there's a problem. If the number of self-sufficient web creators parallels the number of self-sufficient print creators, then there might still be a problem, but definitely less of one. Either way, I absolutely agree "the limitless potential of online comics hasn't quite been borne out yet." Various experimental webcomics have utilized to a small degree the way browsers display pages and people read online, but otherwise the status quo is print comic slapped onto a screen. A focus on exploiting the technology could distance the medium from its print brethren, and open new avenues of revenue.

Matt Forsythe52 06 2007 5:52PM

Someone should define the term "self-sufficient" on the Wikipedia list. Most of the people on that Wikipedia list are not making money directly from their webcomics. They are selling related or (in most cases, completely unrelated) T-shirts or merchandise. So Wolk's claim that there's "no way for a cartoonist to make any money at all, let alone make a living" remains true.

James Kochalka (American Elf) charges for his strip. But I doubt that income alone is enough to support him and his family.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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