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Guest Op/Ed: What's Wrong With Comic Book Journalism?

Written by Richard Caldwell on Monday, September 07 2015 and posted in Features
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Guest Op/Ed: What's Wrong With Comic Book Journalism?

Wait... people actually *want* to publish their op/eds on The Outhouse?! *That's* what's wrong with comic book journalism!



Richard Caldwell writes for The Outhouse:

 

There are a thousand and one articles written every year across the intra-web asserting what exactly is wrong with the comic book industry. It's a tragic rite of passage. Be a reader long enough and provided you are self-aware you will eventually become embittered over something or other and get it into your head that you know better than the thousands of professionals selling their own fan-fictions to the various publishers out there. All well and good. But not written about often enough is what exactly is wrong with the state of comic book journalism. I was one of those hacks for ages, but happily retired aways back. And seeing as how I'm no stranger to contrarianism, and that the Outhouse is the lone comic book news site which proudly contends it is not a comic book news site, I'm opting to grace them with my three cents on the matter. Don't worry, I'm not getting back into the game, just that the Perlmutter/Johnston thing and its general lack of coverage really pokes my third eye all to heck. But if all of this is tl;dr for you, then you and your short attention span are also part of the greater problem, because this all boils down to self-awareness. And the lack of that, as well as the lack of transparency and accountability and the royal surplus of inflated egos peculiar to the comics industry. Having a marvelous ego myself I clearly have much to say on the matter.

I used to follow the blog of Michael Netzer, a veteran (in every conceivable sense) of the comic book industry, and I had there come across mention of a "group think" article posted in September of 2013 at Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter website. Its contents stayed with me. The discussion consisted of a number of persons relative to the industry weighing in on what they see as flaws in comic book journalism. I would care to assert two quick points here before I jump into diatribe mode: One, I solemnly believe that "comic book journalism" as it exists today (and possibly on back through the ages) is a goddamn oxymoron, in practice if not in theory. And two, as well-considered as is Spurgeon's news site, I only learned of the article's existence through a third party, which is highly suggestive of where comics media truly stands, when even the big boys are not adequately prying eyes.

The article at the site did contain a few interesting points, such as Spurgeon's own suggestion of providing more coverage for newspaper strips, as well as the comment from the very smart Ken Eppstein (Publisher of Nix Comics) wishing for more actual cartoon journalistic efforts, ala Joe Sacco or Matt Bors or even what Molly Crabapple has been flirting with more and more, which would entail using the strength of sequential art itself to express the news story, whatever it might be. But the article was ghastly for the most part, with evidently none of the participants having ever closely observed more than a handful of comic news sites in action. I saw the bulk of the article as highly symptomatic of where the tunnel vision mindset of comics journalism exists, as addressed in part by the following three qualms that I felt stood out rather abrasively. One, the lack of a noticeable female representation in the conversation was what first caught my eye, as is the case (regarding any actual diversity) with the trade near and far. Two, the point a participant expressed declaring the obnoxiousness in the overuse of such terminology as "exclusive" I do agree with, though his notion that such serves as an example of the over-dependence on SEO is ill-informed. Has he no grasp of how blatantly (and lazily) so many sites merely copy and paste the latest press releases (or as I call them, unpaid adverts) blanketed out to most comic news outlets? Does he comprehend SEO so poorly as to not see that when hundreds of sites copy and paste the same material, then they are killing their own individual chances at standing out in search engine results? Re-writing, or even just slightly rewording, PR materials can appeal to spider-crawlers by leaps and bounds, yet this is something that very few persons operating comic news sites seem to get. And three, a point expressed by another who wished for more smaller sites to compete with the few big guns. Again, his was a statement that was grossly ignorant, as expressed by this link list which I myself gathered on a quickie gig setting up We Love Comics back when and which yet still displays only a fraction of the literally hundreds of comic book-related webzines and blogs. The problem is not at all in the numbers, it's a matter of syntax and execution.

Regarding the American market, I find that comic book news sites mimic comic book publishers quite literally, in that there are a couple of behemoths who dominate well over half of the audience (while the audience is yet a small fraction of actual comics readers). This is followed by a subset of perhaps three or four bodies, each of which is far larger and better trafficked than those below them, yet still hopelessly playing Davids to the larger Goliaths. After this subset is a larger listing of perhaps just under a dozen players, all wrestling for validation. And below them are hundreds, if not thousands, of blogs (or self-publishers, in keeping with the analogy), none of which seem to last more than a year and fail consistently at gathering a regular audience of more than a few dozen at the most. In full correlation to my qualms listed above, the lack of diversity helps to explain this, as does the lack of adequate technical prowess, but more so what keeps the smaller outlets in place and the larger sites resistant to evolution is the lack of grasping basic reality. The little dudes trying to emulate the bigger dudes is not helping any of them stand out, for starters.

A huge and ongoing issue is that unless a person is already a regular reader of comic books, they have never and will never check out any comic book news site. This is contrary to how many of these websites view themselves, theoretically hoping to increase readerships for themselves and for whatever publishers. However, accepting paid advertising from comics publishers diminishes journalistic integrity, that much should be obvious. Journalists trying to hop the fence and submit for work with publishers is also a shameful commonality and a total conflict of interest. But then, if these sites are spending more efforts on appealing to publishers then by default are they failing at bringing in new readers, as they are failing at informing the public objectively, in which case they are not news sites at all but commentary sites at best and at worst, spokespersons. Only acknowledging the company line is not journalism, it is adcopy writing. Better informing their readers would present less opportunities for those readers to be sold on bad materials while also granting the journalists a better likelihood at being taken seriously as journalists. Granted, the longer you scribe for news sites there is the inevitability that meeting new people may lead to job offers, but you don't have to take them up on it. And using journalism as a cover for looking for comics work is being disingenuous to your readers. I have other ideas on how comic book news outlets could improve their standards and practices, which may well improve their own public relations considerably but all of which will be ignored but by the 5 persons who have read this far.

No more top ten lists. If it's not to be found in the mainstream journalism that many comic book journalists wish to count themselves among, then do not pop out such rubbish in your own home. Also, I have never seen any logic to support grading systems, be they stars, bells or whistles. I think they are amateurish shortcuts. Critique is as old as the Greeks. It can be an art-form unto itself. I won’t dare make the claim that I’ve been doing it right, because I think my own reviewing style constantly evolves. But seeing so many reviews that are merely rushed summations of their topics of choice is hard to sit through. Have some respect for the craft. Writing a review is very much like writing a book report in school. Giving nothing but an abbreviated account of the story is not a passing grade, whether your teacher is unionized or not. I feel that a proper review article should be distinctly, solidly, either for or against a thing. Art, no matter the media, no matter the medium, is always a subjective thing. Any commentary on said art should reflect that. I long ago developed the practice of not only naming all members of the creative team upfront, but of embedding in their names linkbacks to their own websites or blogs. And you would not believe the number of flowery emails that warranted from letterers and colorists. Discussing merely the meat and potatoes of a work leaves quite a lot out.

I’ve lost friendships over reviews, through the years. Friends are capable of trash, and enemies are capable of diamonds. Creativity is funny that way. While an effective review should involve some degree of a personal spin, keep it reined in. Never ever mistake snark for style. Reading some Strunk and White beforehand helps tremendously as well, as the number of comic news sites staffed by persons writing on a high school level are far more than anybody would care to publicly acknowledge.

Something particularly problematic about the content of comic news sites in general is volume. Why would anyone feel the need to write on something that has already been covered to death in literally thousands upon thousands of various bloggers and blog-spots, blog-groups and e-zines the globe over? Is their one particular view somehow something especially special? That’s what makes the mainstream the mainstream, the fact of its prevalence. For that reason I never saw fit to review anything from Marvel or DC. They get plenty of love elsewhere. Why not instead shine your little light on others, on the things not being written about to death and beyond, which inadvertently allows for more original content when compared to the status quo. That’s not to say that no fine work is coming from those big houses, good old boy politics aside, but for any single article of a Batman or X-Men related comic there are HUNDREDS of active creators who get no love to speak of. Turning the spotlight towards them helps grow diversity. Marvel and DC won’t suffer any real sales for it, out of any reassertion that honest fandom and consumerism are not necessarily one and the same. But you could be making the day of some hardworking writer or artist otherwise stuck halfway to oblivion in a handbasket and ready to get off the bus. Fostering real creativity, particularly that without a huge PR budget, is never a bad thing.

In the same vein, one of the reasons I avoid online social networking sites is so that I can approach new topics unmolested, with no predispositions. In previous jobs, this was difficult with persons in charge connected by the hip to larger media. All of the big comic news websites are clearly in bed with larger publishers, larger movie and gaming production companies, singularly because the persons working there dream of employment with those conglomerates and foolishly believe that doing so many favors will ever make that happen. This conformity is a key element in why few if any persons not faithful to the medium already never check out those sites. Their original content that is little different than paper dolls makes the websites indistinguishably derivative and blows any claim of unbias right out the window of their mom’s garage. The steady flow of agreeable articles for all things with big corporate names on them, and names of superstar creators, makes their content completely predictable. In the pre-internet days, there was the old joke that a person could read TV Guide and know everything that was happening on television, without having to actually watch any programming. That’s really not the case anymore, as much as we like to believe that the internet makes the movement of information so much easier. If you want to know what’s going on outside of the prime-time perimeters, you have to go digging, as the big boys unabashedly offer no assistance. This is actively disrespecting the readers, the creators, and the craft itself, insulting intelligence all around.

For god knows what reasons, many smaller news sites will not acknowledge a story unless it has already been covered by one of the larger sites. Adversely, I have seen before that should a smaller news site grow a spine and break a story, then that story will go untouched by the larger sites, evidently in scorn at having been scooped. This is even more stupid than the battle of the sexes. There is bias in all forms of media, and the comics journo game is no different. Sometimes, the bias in comics media is deliberate and malicious, but there are even more occasions where it is simply the result of negligence or ignorance or incompetence. And it does not have to be that way.

Understanding the behind the scenes goings on can also be a tool in standing out where regards non-derivative media coverage. For example, if a publisher or other company has a bad track record of not paying their employees (not at all a rarity, unfortunately), then why give them any coverage? Is that really worth supporting? Another example- if editors have a nasty habit of not crediting all of their creators in the books, or even shamefully and consistently misspelling names of their creators (hello, Dynamite), consider the decision of not supporting or covering those titles. I understand how difficult running a ship on a skeleton crew can be, but if you overlook your own then why should readers feel they have a chance at getting anything of the experience? Equally and at the other end of the spectrum, what if that ace lettering job was the debut work of a kid fresh out of school, should he or she not be called out for the stellar performance? If reviewers wish to only acknowledge mainstream works by top dollar names, that’s fine and they are more than welcome to get lost in that crowd of blandness, but why only acknowledge a fraction of the talent responsible? If colored comics are usually prized above and beyond black and white books, why are the colorists rarely getting the acclaim for that? Lazy reviewing, and passed by lazy editing, helps nobody anywhere. Not to downplay the roles of writers or pencilers, but their parts are mere links to a larger chain. Same with movies- writers and directors and producers do a lot (well, maybe not the producers), but what about the SFX team, the storyboard artists, the production designers, the wardrobe department and musicians? What would a movie be without those contributions? I briefly worked as a catering chef for touring rock acts, and was made graciously aware of the importance of even the weak links to every chain. A band's guitar tech may not be listed on the album sleeves, but their live performances would be next to impossible without their hard work.

This goes for any art, be it film or music or super-gluing zillions of pennies to the outside of an el Camino. Someone applied some effort to the creation, so show some respect and apply some effort to the commentary in turn. But not too much. If the article takes longer to read than the book or comic or whatever discussed, you’ve lost 99% of your readers immediately. All the same, putting a little thought into what you do, a little self-awareness no matter what you are doing in life, is a way to assert your independence as much as it is a way to not get lost in the crowd. Thanks to sensory overload, people already know to follow Superman and Twilight and Harry Potter and the Hunger Games and Star Wars and Pokemon, they do not need your help. But there is a world of creativity out there, outside of the machinery in place that would greatly appreciate a closer look, without selling any value-less agendas. Does a true comics reporter really want to stand in a long line spouting loudly felt dogma in unison, or do they want to serve a purpose other than making money for other people? If media today is absolutely controlled, why not for aims higher than mere Capitalism? If you are a fan of something and wish to promote it, why not go a different route than only a sales pitch or generic description? Flash some goddamn passion. Think about what you are doing.

In conclusion, consider this idea, which also relates to self-publishing. I think what’s wrong with self-publishing now is no different than the biggest weakness in citizen journalism or comics journalism- the complete lack of editorial standards. There needs to be some strand of order tying all of the chaos together. With journalism, open floodgates means the potential for more honesty than the mainstream, but it also means the potential for even more bias. And with small press, it literally puts the “vanity” in press. Critique exists for a reason, something deeper than just telling people what to spend their money on. The most brilliant creative thinkers in the world still need a backboard to bounce ideas off of, otherwise how will they have their brilliance verified? Or sharpened?

I have half-jokingly said before that editing is the only socially-acceptable form of sadomasochism, but with the growing power for anyone to produce, distribute and sell their own works immediately (even including music and film production), solid editing remains the one thing that absolutely cannot be short-cut around, hard as that may be to stomach for some. Many self-publishers rely heavily on media support, which proves itself powerless for the task when comic news sites insist upon remaining small collectives preaching to their respective choirs. In that respect, much of what ails the state of comics journalism can be blamed squarely on the shoulders of its respective editorial bodies. I have played editor before. I eventually went freelance thinking that fewer would be able to take either credit or blame for what I do. I amassed my own readership, and a truly great rapport with dozens upon dozens of creators. I may not have been doing what was popular, but I was doing what I felt was the right thing, which demanded thorough and constant consideration on my part. If more comic news staffers, and their editors, could be willing to step back for a glimpse at the larger picture, and be willing to take full accountability for their own actions or inaction, then I doubt the tiny world of comic book journalism would feel such a need to constantly comment on itself. It would already know its place, and it would fully embrace that. But comic book news sites, again like the comic publishers they cover, will likely always be caught in a perpetual identity crisis with matching inferiority complex.

 

Richard Caldwell used to write for loads of rags, including Bleeding Cool, CCN, and Mantality Media. Dave Elliott once referred to him as "the bastard American son of Alan Moore", which was probably not meant as a compliment but was taken that way.





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