February 16, 2015

Trying To Make Sense of Things: Why Four Comics Critics Are Just About Done With Comics Criticism

Much to my chagrin, a number of important voices in comics criticism have started to move away from writing about comics. The reasons for this move are many. In the case of some, they've taken on other positions within the medium (working for publishers, creating their own comics, etc...), in other cases they've been harassed by the internet for having unpopular views (most recently Zainab Akhtar from the great site Comics and Cola who is scaling back her posts), and in still other cases, they've just hit burnout. I recently contacted three of my favorite critics and writing partners who have all publicly stated they are moving away from criticism or have begun to question its worth, and I asked them to write a short piece on why they have come to this point in their “careers”. My hope is that this discussion may lead to something. What that something is, though, I have no idea.

My concern is that as more erudite and thoughtful critics leave comics, what will become of comics themselves?

It started when I put out the following e-mail to Taylor Lilly, Justin Giampaoli, and Keith Silva:

“Gentlemen –

I'm thinking about putting together a little writing piece called “When Good Reviewers Burn Out” or “Writin' About Comics Blues” or “When Love Ain't Enough” or “Fuck You, There's No Money In This Shit” or something like that.

I figure it this way – we're all kinda wondering what the hell we are doing when we are doing this writing about comics thing. As you know, I've been thinking about this a lot lately – not necessarily what is the role of the critic (although I'm still working that shit out, see my interview with Colin Smith), but why write about comics at all.”

What follows is their responses (followed by my own sense of things):

Taylor Lilley (No Cape No Mask): Why write about comics at all? Why write at all? Why do anything of soft value in a world where actions of hard value are so desperately needed?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to actually try to answer all those questions. I too have looked at the header of an article, seen the double digit read-time, and thought “Not today”.

Elkin, you wrote the above italics in an email to a small group of people who routinely invest their time, gratis, in considering the work-for-money of people who make art for a living. Then, a couple weeks later, you wrote this. I’m not going to label it a review, or an article. It just is.

For me, my answer to the italics is this: If I can’t be as emotionally involved and as philosophically provoked by what I’m writing as Elkin clearly was, and articulate it so effectively, well… why shout mediocrities into an already echoing well?

Defeatist? Extremist? Unrealistic?

At the core of generating any kind of readership is consistency. Every copy-and-pasted “How To” article you’ve ever superciliously browsed will confirm that. So will Seth Godin, so Hyperions and Satyrs both agree. And if we’re considering writing, we’re hoping to be read. Unfortunately, I’m rarely engaged to the extent that I feel my content deserves to be found. Rarely do I watch a film, read a comic, binge on a show, and find at the end of it that I have something to say about it so worthwhile, so insightful and otherwise unavailable, that I MUST deliver it to the people.

But if I don’t deliver something consistently, if I have no track record of entries to prove my dedication and credibility, how will anyone find these infrequent gems of mine? They won’t.

So to have a shot at discovery, I have to create and publish content that I don’t really believe deserves sharing, earning trust for when I drop the good stuff. That sounds too much like my day job, grinding through the shitty parts to get to the golden parts. Doing that pays my bills, buys me this computer so I can afford to indulge these navel-gazing quandaries of self-expression. But before the screen, fixed in its glow…

I just don’t care enough about being read to start grinding again.

Without that effort, though, I don’t get to exchange with brilliant folks like the other contributors to this piece. I don’t read as much of what they produce, either, because I’m less interested in receiving than in exchanging. So do we actually publish for the minds we’ll meet, rather than the effects our content will have?

I don’t know. I’m not publishing right now.

But once I’m engaged, there are two questions: “Will anyone find this?”, and “If nobody did, would their lives be worse for missing out?”. Double-positives do not abound.

Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions.

Justin Giampaoli (Thirteen Minutes): Elkin,

I'm trying to keep this as concise as possible, you know I have a tendency to ramble, so I decided on a list. In no particular order, here are some of the factors that have influenced my decision to "quit" reviewing comics when I hit my 10-year anniversary at Thirteen Minutes come this November:

1) Volume. I started Thirteen Minutes in November '05. At the time of this writing, I'm at 1,792 posts on that site alone, and even if each post only contains an average of 5 capsule reviews (it's more), well, you do the math, that's a lot of fucking reviews. This doesn't count the 2 years I reviewed comics for my LCS web-site in San Jose before Thirteen Minutes started, it doesn't count any of the solo reviews or great roundtable reviews we've done together at Comics Bulletin, it doesn't count reviews in The East County Californian (a small alt weekly down here in San Diego), it doesn't count reviews at Fanboy Comics, nor does it count the 521 mini-comics reviews I did at Poopsheet Foundation from 2009 to 2014. I estimate I've done around 9,800 reviews total. Through sheer volume, I'm just tired.

2) Niche. The critical landscape is different now. When I started, there largely wasn't a critical presence that reflected my reading habits, something that was in between the sometimes haughty erudition of The Comics Journal and the predominantly low-brow humor of Wizard Magazine. Now, there are many options in this space. We had/have people like David Brothers and Kelly Thompson and Tucker Stone and Abhay Khosla and Dominic Umile and Oliver Sava and (insert your favorite critic of choice). At the time, I egotistically believed I was filling a void, and that void no longer exists. Side Note: Notice how many of those names I rattled off have transitioned to other industry roles and have also quit the comics review business.

3) Compensation. There's simply no money for generating online content. Not counting comp copies, store credit at an LCS, or a Press Pass to a show (which I have all received, generously so at times), what reviews actually pay cold hard cash? As a matter of course, they don't. I think TCJ pays $50 a review last I heard(?), but you have to constantly pitch (all with a denial/no response to acceptance ratio of about 10/1 I’ve heard anecdotally), it isn't a steady weekly role. I'm not sure a weekly paying gig exists. When I wrote for that alt weekly in San Diego, I made $25 a week per article, an actual check from the Entertainment Editor! And I was thrilled! It paid for my weekly comics! That was the most I ever made writing comic book reviews, and it's interesting that it was for an out-of-industry venue. I've reached a point where I'm much less willing to give the milk away for free "for the exposure" unless someone is willing to buy the cow.

4) Purpose. Aside from sheer love of writing or love of comics, what is the point of reviews? Really, what function do they serve? The way the direct market is set up, they don't move the sales needle an inch. The retailer is the true customer in the direct market, so unless you're talking to them directly and they're increasing their orders, there's a negligible sales impact. Some creators read them, many creators don't. Are they for people trying to establish industry relationships? Are they just RT click-bait to vainly get social media hits? Is it just an outlet for people trying to "break in," to position themselves on the fringe of the industry? We can do down a rabbit hole about how we're discussing art and how that very discourse is a goal in and of itself (which I do believe - I worked for 7 years at a museum and can bore you to death with the ancillary benefits in "enrichment of culture" arguments and strategies around "creating connoisseurship in an audience"), but I'm talking more pragmatically, what purpose do comic book reviews serve? I'm not sure there is one. From the POV of the publishers, free marketing perhaps?

5) Peers (Lack Thereof). It's always bothered me that there's no set of industry standard common core qualifications to be a reviewer, or a critic, or whatever you want to call it. With the proliferation of voices on the internet - I mean, EVERYONE is a broadcaster of some ilk now - it just means you're one small voice in an ocean of voices. And as well all know, for every "good" review/er out there, there's about 100 poor ones. It's just white noise, and the signal to noise ratio is staggering. At the end of my 10-year run here, I can count on one hand the number of fellow critics whose work I consistently enjoy. 

6) Enjoyment. Over the years, I've found that my enjoyment has been impacted by working as a critic, constantly cataloging pros and cons pushes me out of the work a bit. Reading for the purpose of critique alters the experience, it's not the same as reading for sheer enjoyment. I miss reading for sheer love of the game sometimes.

7) Evolution. This last point is the most important for my current state of mind. My role in the industry has evolved over time, and it's started to lean more toward the creative side, writing or editorial projects that are not reviews. I've had the opportunity to do exclusive retrospective interviews with creators, written introductions to trades, provided backmatter content for single issues, curated bonus content for collected editions, I even have a couple pitches in at the moment, and most recently was hired as a credited editor on an ongoing series. I could cite the need to recuse myself from reviews because in some instances it feels like a conflict of interest now, but it's mostly a loss of interest. Reviewing comics has simply run its course for me. Not only do these gigs pay (some quite well), but I've found them way more rewarding and enjoyable. There's "fire in the belly" there. Paradoxically, I don't think I would have landed many of these jobs without reviewing for the last decade, where I was able to build a professional network, establish some credibility, and hopefully demonstrate knowledge. 

That said, umm, never say never? I'm sure I haven't written my last review. There's something magical that happens to me on a tertiary level when you pair words with images, and I have no reasonable doubt I'll be reading comics until the day I die. I love reading, I love writing, I love comics, and if, that's the key, *if* a book ignites some spark of response, I'm sure I'll be talking about it somewhere, even if it's just a quick endorsement on Twitter.

Keith Silva (Interested in Sophisticated Fun?): You’re catching me at a bit of a refractory period, Elkin. Earlier this week an essay I was asked to write for an upcoming trade paperback was accepted by the publisher. So, yeah, bully for me, I guess. No cash money, but $50 to spend at the publisher’s on-line store; rest assured, I spent $49.99 of those fifty bucks. I hazard to even mention this. I don’t want to jinx it after all.

ANYWAY I got the gig because as my friend, Taylor Lilly, would say, “I wrote nice things about someone’s comic.” Fair enough. Nice enough things to get noticed and to be asked to (I suppose) say more ‘nice things.’ I stand by what I wrote in both cases. It’s a comic worthy of praise and a comic I wanted to say something about. So what?

When I got the email my essay passed muster and had been met with approval from both the series editor and the comic’s writer and creator my wife asked me: “Do you think it means they thought your essay was good or do you think they’ll accept just about anything?” My wife, the forever pragmatist. Again, so what? Yes, one might argue, I committed the sin of … what? … Yea-saying? … Good will? Call it what you like, what I wrote got me noticed (eventually) and paid, sort of. Progress nonetheless.

I wrote my first review of a comic three years and a day ago from typing this sentence. At that time it was about something to say as much as it was a justification for buying so many comics in the first place. I was also reacting to what I was reading on-line, the proverbial, ‘I can do better than that guy.’ I have a competition in me and so I did. For me, writing about comics is a hobby; pastime is probably a better word choice. It’s a chance for me to show others the ‘life of the mind,’ so to speak. I still enjoy surprising myself, especially when an insight or an idea occurs in the act of writing. Never discount the power of discovery or surprise or wonder.

Then, as now, the whole point is to share my thoughts with other like-minded people. Another way of putting it is I started writing about comics ‘to make friends.’ If not for the friends I’ve made since I started reviewing and writing about comics there are no invitations to write introductions, believe me. Most of the friends I’ve made I’ve, of course, never met and maybe never will, but that’s another story for another time. I take solace in the belief if we lived closer we’d hang out in person as much as we do on-line, trading one-liners over whiskeys or arguing for our favorites.

I never understood the need to be first to review or critique something, especially art. Yes, maybe every (or any) issue of Green Lantern, Avengers, or Southern Bastards doesn’t merit the same scrutiny as a work of art in a gallery; who said it should? Some paintings require more thought, some less, same holds true for films too, that’s why it’s called … you know, art. I admire those writers who can be consistent, quick, and hammer out critiques week-after-week. Giampaoli has that gift. That’s not me, never has been me. I like to take my time. I like to think about the work and see what bubbles up after days or even (God forbid) weeks. Who’s holding the gun? If nobody gets noticed or paid why chase regrets? When did the need to write with consistency become synonymous with championing mediocrity, with, as Lilly poetically points out, “shouting down an already [and forever] echoing well?” When I started I made sure to post something at least once a week. Now, not so much, again it’s a progression or maybe an excuse.

What I’ve come to realize in the time I’ve spent (wasted?) critiquing and writing about comics is I’m the one who controls the message. Me. The internet is always going to be out there, waiting. Why should I let someone else dictate how I should spend my ‘free time’ or, for that matter, what I want to read so I can write a review? What, because they need content? From what I can tell, most websites pay cynics and suckers the same rate. So what?

At the core of your question, your dilemma (is that fair?), dearest Elkin, is why we write about comics. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I occasionally catch a sidelong glance from my favorite pragmatist I mentioned earlier followed by a variation of your question: Are you still writing? Sometimes this question is delivered with an icy stare and other times exhaustion. I love writing. I love writing about the things I love. Yes, it’s a way to pass the time and, you know, impress nerds on the internet with my vocabulary. For me, writing about comics comes from my deep down desire to be a promulgator and arbiter. I want to give my shout, as Giampaoli says, and write about comics and movies and creators I want to champion. I want to be a voice to remind people that if you like stuff there’s a comic for you. I want to stand up for small press publishers and DIY cartoonists who are out there telling stories and making great comics. When the Eel Mansionses of the world get mentioned in the same breath as the dozens of iterations of X-Men comics that come out each week, I’ll have said my piece about comics.

Which reminds me, I got this cool Katie Skelly comic the other day …

Elkin: Page One: I'm really not sure how it all started, but I woke up one morning from unsettling dreams and found myself writing long form critical reviews of comics. Maybe it was a result of an extended stint of unemployment or the fact that my marriage was falling apart as fast as I was losing my house to foreclosure. Maybe it was a mid-life crisis as I firmly fell into my forties and I started pulling muscles I didn't know I had.

Whatever. Suddenly, there I was hunkered over my desk in a stained t-shirt and floppy boxers, writing about comic books.

Page Two: When I got my BA in English in 1989, I would have punched you in the neck if you told me that all the decisions I would make in my life for the next twenty-five years would lead me to laboring for hours and hours writing about funny books – as “a 4th tier reviewer on a mildly trafficked internet site awash in a sea of similar sites that have more to say about less complicated and more widely accepted claptrap leading nowhere” (it's come to the point where I start quoting myself) – for little readership, smaller recognition, and no pay.

Seriously. Punched you in the fucking neck.

Page Three: But here I am now. Much better dressed and pacing in front of my new standing desk. I've been writing about comics in one form or another for the past 5 years and, like my fellow writers included in this piece, I've started to hit the wall.

I mean, really, what's been the ROI on this gig?

1. Community – I've met some incredible people whom I would never have met had it not been for writing about comics. Not only have I enjoyed my back and forth with the likes of the three other fellas gigging on this piece, but also with some of the amazing writers at sites like Comics Bulletin, Loser City, and Psycho Drive-In. Plus I've had interactions with writers and artists and publishers and critics of comics via social media and face-to-face that have been inspiring, entertaining, and thoughtful – none of which would have happened had it not been for dipping my feet in the water.

2. Clarification of Thinking – One of the great things about writing about art is that it allows you to hone your thoughts on a myriad of subjects. From the obligations that a society has towards those who compose it, to the role of absurdity in keeping us sane, I've written about wildly diverse abstract concepts brought about by wildly diverse small press comics. By spending time writing about these things, I've grown to understand the complexities of my own thinking better. By spending time writing about these things with other writers, I've opened up more fully to new realizations.

And that's pretty much it.

So why continue (which is pretty much the purpose behind what I'm trying to elicit in us all here)?

While I've listed two pretty compelling reasons above, overall it's a fool's game, a masturbatory, ego-stroking, dead-end, time-sucking, awkward at parties, hard to explain to your girlfriend's parents, even harder to explain to your son, fool's game.

Page Four: And yet I keep writing about comics, even though I've hit a wall in my apperception of what it is, exactly, that I'm doing, the whys and wherefores of the thing as it were.

I have no answers, I only have guesses, but these guesses form a fine “because” for the matter at hand:

Because I love the medium, but more importantly, because, like I told Keith Silva as we sat on the stoop of some small bodega in Brooklyn a few months ago, I do it for me, because I have to, because when I read something beautiful I have to understand why I find it beautiful, because I want to let the artist know that I found it beautiful, because I want others to know that the beautiful thing exists.

And so I continue...

Just at a much slower pace now.

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