-This weekend saw two of the most respected comics pundits make two big statement-type posts. People are linking to them, but nobody's really engaging in a dialogue with them yet. They're both worth talking about, so I'm going to try to engage both of them. This is pretty long as is, so I'll cover Tom Spurgeon on webcomics later today or tomorrow.
-First, Christopher Butcher takes stock of comics journalism, both online and in print. And by in print, we're really only talking about the Comics Journal, right? Back in the 90s, we'd have to include the Comic Buyer's Guide in that conversation, but that no longer seems necessary. In fact, I was kind of surprised to learn that CBG is still operating. I don't think I've seen an issue since about 1999; I certainly didn't know that it had moved in a more Wizard-ish direction. At least in terms of format; like I said, I haven't seen an actual physical copy at any point this decade. But this description of the latest issue indicates a very different publishing model than Wizard's. Strike that--it seems more like Wizard for baby boomers, with a greater emphasis on the Silver Age and nostalgia. Peter David still writes a column, too.
I wonder to what extent Butcher's complaints are related to the rise of Wizard at the expense of CBG. Butcher examines contemporary comics journalism through the prism of a Slate article about the magazine industry's obsession with access to celebrities. The chief illustration of this comes from a recent controversy in GQ, which killed an investigative piece on Hillary Clinton in order to ensure Bill Clinton's cooperation for an upcoming article. In the comics industry equivalent, according to Butcher, is Newsarama's willful neglect* of controversies involving the depiction of women and minorities in DC/Marvel comics in exchange for access to creators and the editors themselves.
I completely agree with this assessment, but I would add that this is a model which Wizard adopted long before Matt Brady was in any position to genuflect before Joe Quesada (or Quesada in any position to demand genuflection). You can't blame Wizard for the creation of the superstar artist in comics; if you're going to blame anyone, blame Stan Lee. You can, however, blame Wizard for the creation of what John Byrne and/or Peter David called the "rock star artist." Popular artists were pushed hard at Wizard. They drew the covers, all of which (at least early on) were replicated as pull-out posters in the center of the magazine. Its glossy, photo-friendly, full-color format allowed Wizard to publish numerous photos of hot artists. Moreover, it also allowed Wizard to cover their lifestyles--their studios, their comics collections, their cars, their houses. The real masterstroke, however, was Wizard's Top 10 Hottest Artists list, a cheat sheet for young readers and not-so-young speculators. It was an ingenious marketing decision--Wizard created demand for coverage of superstar artists while positioning itself as the primary venue for such coverage. There was a moment or two where Wizard flirted with actual journalism; the magazine published two contentious interviews between Patrick Daniel O'Neill and Rob Liefeld, neither of which flattered the X-Force superstar. But this approach was dropped soon after.**
(Of course, once Wizard supplanted CBG as the primary voice of comics fandom, all the anti-hype coming out of Oh, So? and But I Digress were basically feeding the Marvel/DC/Image hype machine. Which reminds me of this. Not surprisingly, The Comics Journal was the only publication doing anything constructive during this period, in large part because its contributors were asking questions that CBG and Wizard didn't generally consider.)
Wizard's fawning coverage was somewhat mitigated by CBG, which was much more critical of the Image founders, if memory serves. I didn't read a lot of CBG--my local comics shop never carried it, nor did any local bookstore. What I remember about the few issues I read was the strong presence of Peter David, John Byrne, and other professionals who might be considered the pre-Image establishment. David had a column, while Byrne and other creators provided content for CBG's prodigious letters column. I can't exactly recall CBG's editorial focus in detail--I seem to remember much the content was on the level of the shop, with lots of talk about how Marvel/DC's policies and product were affecting the way people sold comics (both new and back issues). But there was also a lot of stories about the higher echelons of the industry as well. CBG seemed to occupy that fabled middle ground between Wizard and the Comics Journal, partly because its long publishing history gave it clout. Put it this way--in that McFarlane/Groth interview that's been making the rounds, both use CBG as a synedoche for the comics press as a whole.
CBG ultimately abandoned its weekly format in concession to the rise of the internet as a source for comics news and fellowship, as Chuck Rozanski noted in his eulogy for the publication's weekly tabloid form. Of course, the internet is also mostly responsible for the decline of Wizard. I don't necessarily find this to be such a bad state of affairs; the internet has several advantages over print. For consumers, there's no comparing price and timeliness. For would-be journalists, there's a much lower barrier to entry for covering comics on the internet. That should (and, to a great extent, does) mean a greater diversity in topics and perspectives. Unfortunately, the biggest voice in online comics journalism seems to be following in Gareb Shamus' footsteps.
DC and Marvel, spoiled by years of Wizard's psuedojournalistic puffery, are receiving the same sort of treatment at Newsarama. It's unclear if the big two are exerting some pressure, or if this is just a tactic Matt Brady and Mike Doran have used to climb to the top of the mainstream coverage heap. Newsarama is clearly the top dog now, getting all the plum interviews. But the gap between it and its competitors didn't seem quite so yawning a few years ago, right? I mean, Comic Book Resources still provides a lot of fanboy-friendly content***, as does Wizard's much-maligned website.
But just compare the three sites--Newsarama is busting at the seams with CONTENT! CONTENT! CONTENT! Interviews! Previews! Announcements of new projects! Newsarama leads the industry in "postmortems," interviews with editors and creators (usually writers) reflecting upon recently-published mega-important issues. Recent examples: there's a weekly dissection of the latest issue of Countdown with editor Mike Carlin and an interview with Judd Winick on his controversial Green Arrow/Black Canary wedding thing. Newsarma stories always feature (frequently long) comment threads, which generally become key hubs of discussion for the biggest publishing news in mainstream comics.
This is not to say that Newsarama is devoid of criticism of Marvel/DC. Blog@Newsarama, as Butcher notes, has been operated independently of the main site. Contributors Graeme McMillan, Lisa Fortuner, and Melissa Krause are often critical of DC and Marvel. Best of all, Blogorama casts a much wider net than its parent site, covering manga, independent comics, and newspaper strips just as often as Marvel/DC. In fact, lately its contributors seem to be covering these corners of the industry with greater frequency than they cover Marvel and DC. That's deserves special recognition--it's not tokenism, but an actual, pluralistic approach to comics journalism. And it's done in association with a site which is the spiritual successor to Wizard.
As much as I like Blogorama and similar news accretion and commentary sites (ie, Journalista, The Beat, and The Comic Reporter), there's not a whole lot of investigative journalism happening online. Butcher mentions Newsarama's coverage of the Superboy reversion rights story as an example of real journalism, and he's probably right. But I still think there's a fanboy element at work there--will DC get to use Superboy in the future, or will Jerry Siegel's greedy relatives deprive us of these stories? Not that Newsarama is voicing this opinion, but its readers surely are. Actually, that link is for a comment left on a Blogorama post by Tom Bondurant. When I tried a Google search for copyright + superboy on the newsarama.com domain, most of the recent stories appeared on Blogorama. Maybe Google isn't finding the Superboy stories from Newsarama's main site, but I seem to recall a link to the Bondurant story serving in lieu of a separate parent site story on the most recent developments in the case. In other words, I think Blog@Newsarama is doing the heavy lifting on the Superboy copyright story. Bondurant's post was a legitimate piece of journalism, but is anyone else doing this kind of reporting? Is anyone doing it on a regular basis?
This isn't a new topic; I think it came up last spring as well. Unfortunately, I think we're still a pretty long ways from seeing the kind of journalism Butcher (and most every thinking comics fan) wants. It's an issue of access, but it's also an issue of money. In the Slate article which started this whole conversation, Ron Rosenbaum suggests that magazines bring back the write-around--an approach to story writing which doesn't require access to the subject of the piece. It's sounds like a good idea for comics until you start thinking about the amount of time and effort one would have to devote to the subject. And you still have to be enough of an insider to have access to the flunkies and drones in the Marvel/DC offices. Rich Johnston has traded on this journalistic approach, and he sometimes uncovers important stories this way. But there's also a great deal of politicking and agenda-serving in his columns, such as the "Didio ain't going nowhere" piece from this summer.
Comics are so insular that I'm not sure if there's any hope of achieving real investigative journalism on a regular basis. Johnston has complained in the past of Marvel and DC trying to plug leaks, making his job harder. When you're talking about two relatively small publishing enterprises, leak-plugging isn't that hard. You occasionally get someone like Valerie D'Orazio, who quit the industry and is thus willing to shed a little light on the inner workings of the mainstream publishers. But that's still fairly rare; it seems that most fired employees hope to land positions at some other comics publisher, and thus keep their mouths shut. Creators are in an even more tenuous situation; it's no surprise that the most vehement critics of Marvel and DC are freelancers who have little hope of receiving future assignments from either company. And really, their inside information is less valuable than that of people who actually work(ed) in the corporate offices.
It's a terrible shame, because there are a lot of questions I'd like answered: How do DC and Marvel really see the bookstore market? How much do they rely on it when planning new titles and initiatives? What are the "real" numbers on low-selling books? How do editors respond to charges of misogyny and racism? What kind of pressure does Time Warner put on DC? Marvel's executives on its publishing wing? Above all else, though, I'd like to hear more about what goes on at Diamond. I hardly ever hear any inside information coming out of Maryland, despite reports that turnover has been high.
I don't expect to get any answers to these questions anytime soon. Popular demand for real journalism seems limited to information about creative team changes and plot spoilers. Sites which are critical of Marvel/DC face backlash from both the companies and their fans. You can attempt to piece together a story from limited information (as Marc-Oliver Frisch does on his blog and as he and Paul O'Brien both do on The Beat), but reactions to those kind of stories are mixed, and there are limits to what they tell you. So we can take this limited information and put together best guesses, hoping that those in power will take note and clarify the situation. Or we can take what we get from the sites which have connections, yet do nothing with them. At least there's no shortage of quality editorials on the comics-related internet.
BONUS: As I was writing this long, rambling post, the news broke that Newsarama had been purchased by Imaginova. Newsarama itself and The Beat have both identified Imaginova primarily as the owner of LiveScience and space.com. Imaginova's Wikipedia entry reveals that the company is a genuine conglomerate (way to use the term correctly, anonymous Wiki-editor), with subsidiaries in telescope manufacturing and computer software. Their website also mentions the company's forays into online retail and content-providing for websites like MSNBC and Yahoo. And even some limited print-type publishing (get ready for Newsarama: The Magazine). Plus, it was founded by Lou Dobbs! Will this mean more stories about the effects of illegal immigration on the comics industry?
What little reaction I've read has been negative, but I don't really have any strong thoughts on the subject. Well, I do like Space.com, I have to admit. I would think that, given its previous behavior, Imaginova plans sell Newsarama stories to larger, mainstream news sites. I have to think that this will change the nature of Newsarama's content at least a little, so that the site can provide content that a casual reader can somehow comprehend. Online comics journalism: maybe there's hope yet!
(EDIT: I take back my positive comments about space.com. I think my experiences there all came from following direct links to articles. The homepage and various portals are making my brain angry.
Another thought: Will the buyout affect Newsarama's forums and talkback features? I'm guessing it won't, but the comments may be policed a bit more thoroughly from now on.)
*And occasional ridicule of, I might add.
**I want to say that O'Neill was demoted or fired shortly after these interviews, but I can't find anything online to support this dim memory. Not that I'm suggesting that the Liefeld interview got him fired or anything--more that O'Neill's editorial style was incompatible with Gareb Shamus' vision for the magazine.
***Alongside coverage of non-Marvel/DC stuff, like that Eric Reynolds interview about Mome. And, to be totally fair, Newsarama also covers many non-superhero comics. Hell, even Wizard's website does. That's another advantage of web-based coverage over print--there's a lot more room for a greater diversity of topics.