Nick Hanover: The other day, Abhay Khosla mentioned Loser City in a post about why comics don’t really excite him anymore. (We were in there as an example as people he thinks are okay and still talking about the scene in interesting ways.) It’s a messy but worthwhile read about his frustrations with the industry and the way the growth of it has only made the discourse around it worse. The thing is, Kim O’Connor (who’s also mentioned in that post) and I talk about this same issue pretty frequently, and I don’t know that either of us would still claim much excitement about the scene. This statement Abhay made about what he wishes comics coverage would be even sums up a lot of what bothers me about the current state of the medium:
“I like to feel engaged in a culture. That was the kind of writing I was trying to do, for the essays, is I wanted to try to do the kind that used the comics just as an excuse to talk about people. But if the comics are just TV pitches, and I can’t find people who care about what’s in them, then what the fuck do I even write about??”
Much of Abhay’s essay also discusses the impact knowing how many monsters operate in comics has on your interest (he specifically says DC comics, home to serial sexual predator Eddie Berganza, make him feel physically repulsed any time he sees them now) and he brings up a point that I think about a lot: there are monsters in every medium, and one could argue, say, Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are far worse monsters than anyone in comics and yet we aren’t throwing out film or struggling to maintain interest in it.
So Kim, I wanted to start by talking about that. Do you think comics as a medium feels dirtier than these larger media? And if so, why do you think that is? What impact does the questionable history and current practices of comics have on your coverage of them?
Kim O’Connor: I don’t know, “coverage” is probably too strong a word for what I do. Comics-wise right now I’m mostly just a person with a Twitter and a personal blog who talks about this stuff sometimes. I’m writing real pieces less and less often, seems like, though I’m working on some stuff I’m excited about for late next year. Part of it has something to do with that quote that stuck out to you…I feel it too, that my interests aren’t really aligned with how comics conversations play out in the broader culture. But more than that, there’s been a heaviness surrounding comics for me this year. A lot of Abhay’s post felt like reading a checklist on WebMD…whatever this is, I’m pretty sure I’ve got it too. Just the whole tired tone of it. Anyway I’m glad you wanted to talk.
My coverage (such as it is) is a combination of my own interests, whatever captures my attention, whether or not I feel like I have something to offer that you haven’t already read ten other places, and my schedule, which has been sort of busy lately. So how grossed out I am by a given thing is already just one variable in a much larger equation. Zooming in on grossness, I feel like there’s at least three separate things, with some overlap: sexual criminality, problematic hiring practices, and the general sludge of it all (the toxicity of culture stuff). Big Comics isn’t really my beat in terms of what I consume, so ironically the first two are pretty much the only reason I end up writing about them. But at the same time, that third thing, the sludge, sometimes stops me from writing about them (and is also the main reason I don’t read that stuff).
Do I think the world of comics is dirtier than other art forms? Nah. The whole world knows that R. Kelly sexually urinated into a child’s mouth and he headlined Pitchfork a few years ago. He’s doing a goddamn Christmas show at the Chicago Theatre in December. I saw an ad for it downtown where he’s wearing a holiday sweater. Like…he raped dozens of girls from a school that’s about a 10 min walk from my place. No one fucking cares. That’s the world we live in.
Does Comics feel dirtier, though? I think so, yes, probably just because it’s a more intimate world. (The Berganza conversation has a lot of analogs in indie publishing, for instance: Stephen Elliott, Tao Lin, Edward Champion, etc.) With Comics it’s harder for me to use the dissociative mechanisms that kick in when I’m reading a dead poet who beat his wife or something. (Similarly, I don’t mind seeing Johnny Depp in a children’s movie.) I guess I don’t really have a coherent philosophy around the art that I will or won’t consume. Reading Dylan Farrow’s open letter about being molested, watching Ronan Farrow out there begging for anyone to care…I can’t do Woody Allen anymore. I think it’s similar to what Abhay said about his relationship to DC. It’s not a boycott or some moral stance; I just don’t have the stomach for it. I don’t want anything to do with that shit. It’s not some huge sacrifice, I should note. I never loved Woody Allen; his stuff is fine, but mostly I associate it with that inevitable phase of dating when a guy’s like “we’ve reached the point in the program where I require you to watch my favorite Woody Allen films.” Increasingly I find myself unable to countenance Louis CK, but I had sort of been losing interest in him anyway.
Um…offhand I can’t think of a situation where this stuff has come up with regard to an artist whose work I really care about. (Feels like I’m missing someone obvious.) Bowie probably came closest, but the horror I feel about his behavior doesn’t really begin to touch my emotional relationship to his music. If Morrissey were outed as a serial rapist tomorrow, I don’t know that it would change how I feel listening to him. I already know he’s garbage as a person, and while I wish it were different, it doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of his work. But, you know…his voice has been in my ears through some of the best and worst times in my life. The emotional network that my consumption is all tangled up in is very personal in a way that feels pretty far removed from his actions as an individual in the world. (Plus: Smiths songs aren’t about Brexit or whatever in the same way that Manhattan is about fucking teenagers or DC comics are about sexual violence.) I think in general there’s a lot of built-in distance when you’re talking about these more iconic artists. They certainly aren’t on twitter yelling at me or people I know like those clowns at Marvel.
TLDR: I think it’s a very complex gut-level calculus, and sometimes I wonder if I should be more principled about it. I’m curious to hear how it works for you, especially since running a website means you’re thinking about this stuff in a way that’s bigger than just yourself.
NH: Editing other people does sometimes present a dilemma in that I can’t control what people want to read and write about, but I would never refuse to let someone I edit write about, say, DC, unless they took a position that I felt ran counter to my editorial aims. That does, however, lead into something that I think makes consuming comics “ethically” a little more difficult and complex than art we perceive as being the work of sole creators that I think we should discuss.
Most of the problematic non-comics people you mention as either being creatives you have excised from your consumption or can tolerate are pretty easy to remove. Woody Allen does not head up a movie studio alongside the films he makes, Morrissey doesn’t run an influential record label, and while R. Kelly might pop up as a guest on a track by an artist you otherwise like, you can still pretty easily remove him from all of your playlists without much effort. But in comics, the toxicity seems so widespread and visible at such high levels, it’s hard to divorce the behind-the-scenes issues from the product. Berganza runs one of DC’s most popular groups and isn’t the only problematic figure at DC. Nearly everyone in major editorial positions at Marvel routinely engage in bizarre passive aggressive behavior with fans and other creators and the owner of the company is a diehard Trump supporter. Even independent publishers like Dark Horse have top tier editors biting and groping people and there are things I’ve learned personally about people at Image that make me uncomfortable supporting that company.
At the same time, there are a number of creators who I like quite a bit who do work for all of these companies, and it’s not so easy to tell them that they should just publish work on their own (though more and more of them are going this route) in the same way that a filmmaker can depart the studio system or a musician can escape major labels. There are obviously instances where non-comics creatives have struggled to escape their industries and systematic abuse within them, namely Kesha, but it’s hard not to feel like the grossness of comics is impossible to escape no matter what level you’re on.
And to extend that further and comment on your point about people not caring, the conversations around comics amplify this feeling of doom. I’d argue that it’s not that people don’t care, it’s that most people who follow comics don’t want to confront how fucked up the entire industry of the medium is and can’t handle any criticisms of it. Something that comes to mind for me is the conversation that developed around you criticizing the view of Drawn & Quarterly as a historically woman friendly publisher despite the actual data showing they haven’t really supported many women creators. Instead of having a realistic conversation about the actual practices of inclusion at DQ, people lashed out at you, as though your pointing out the lackluster hiring practices was somehow worse than the company’s embrace of a “woman friendly” label despite a lack of representation.
Like you, I feel that most of my comics “coverage” these days has diminished to conversations on Twitter and select pieces, so how much of your glum comics mood would you attribute to the disappointing nature of these conversations? Do you think if the industry was better about having these conversations and receiving criticism that it might allow some of the larger industry issues to improve? Or do you think our bad conversation skills as a medium are just further proof that comics has no interest in improving at all?
KO: Hmm. I don’t know that I agree that this behavior comes down to individuals in other media, whereas in comics it’s systemic. I think it always tends to be systemic, it’s just that sometimes the system is looser. (I imagine this is the reason we hear about this stuff more with regard to Big Comics than indie. Dollars to donuts stuff like this is going down in that world, too.) With these iconic creatives, the Woody Allens and R. Kellys, their professional networks aren’t self-contained in the same way that DC is. There are more third parties, which diffuses the responsibility. There are these different levels of complicity that maybe make it easier to shirk your own. These big-name actors who still star in Woody Allen films, for example, inarguably play a role in normalizing him and holding him in the mainstream. They’re also making art. I don’t know that one cancels the other out; I think it’s more that people feel uncomfortable trying to reconcile the two. So they don’t.
The Pitchfork/Kelly situation is a powerful example to me, as a fan of the former. Pitchfork doesn’t just produce a music festival; it’s also a platform for cultural criticism and journalism. We can debate whether or not, as tastemakers, Pitchfork implicitly endorsed Kelly’s behavior, and how gross it is (or isn’t) that they financially profited off his music as proprietors of that event. Intellectually there is space to argue those things, I think. But two facts exist in uneasy proximity: Kelly used his celebrity to prey on underage girls at a school about 10 miles down the road from the park where they hold that festival. And a third fact emerged: no one really cared, or at least no one cared enough to recognize themselves as a link in that chain of events. Walking by that school on a regular basis, the link is harder for me to ignore.
So yeah, I think you’re right: saying that people don’t care isn’t quite fair. There’s a lot of bad stuff in the world, and we can’t care about all of it all the time to the degree that we should. Plus a lot of people who went to Pitchfork that year loathe R. Kelly. They were just there to drink a beer and watch Belle & Sebastian or whatever. I think there’s a similar situation going on with consumers and DC…you know, someone like you who’s getting real women asking you to RT their Tumblrs about date rape, someone like Abhay who seems to have dealt with this type of shit in a professional capacity…you guys are confronting it in a way that most people prefer not to think about too much. I get it, because I don’t want to think about it either.
But to get back to whether or not comics specifically seems worse off than other art forms…I think my experience as a woman in the world suggests to me that Berganza types are everywhere and that institutionally-backed harassment and assault are the norm, not the exception. I think if we talked about it long enough we could come up with more Berganza analogs on the production side of things. You mentioned Dr. Luke. I mentioned Stephen Elliott before, and while he hasn’t been accused of stuff as serious as these other guys, there’s clearly some abuse of power happening there that has been condoned by his community. There’s that stupid weasel from the alt-lit scene who raped a bunch of women he was supposed to mentor. I think that communities, big and small, tend to shield and harbor their problematic people. Look at Comics Alliance and Chris Sims. Jesus, look at the Democrats and Bill Clinton!
The touchiness you’re talking about…that is very real, though I can’t decide how much it ties into all of the above. I saw a tweet back when I wrote that D&Q thing where the person was like, “I hate this article so much that I’m unfollowing anyone who talks about it.” After I wrote about Chris Ware, I saw this cartoonist I like talk about how much he hates me. These people are just super defensive about things that don’t need defending. I don’t recall anyone really voicing dissent to my D&Q thing other than fuck HER and fuck her fuck FACE type stuff, which is annoying. (That piece was a lot of work.) That’s a response I get pretty frequently: that whatever I’m saying isn’t worth giving another moment’s thought past their passive-aggressive tweet about what a piece of shit I am. I think if they were to examine why they feel so pissed off…you know, there’s this thing that I’ve found in life, where sometimes when I’m really mad at someone it isn’t really about them at all.
I don’t want to lump it all together, but there is a way in which those responses share some DNA with the responses that are more aggressive. I went on and on about this back when I wrote about Abraham Riesman at Comics & Cola: how there is a world of difference between aggressive reviews of comics or ideas and straight-up interpersonal aggression. What the fuck was that thing that ran at Bleeding Cool after Abhay’s thing on Dan DiDio? That looked about a half-step removed from murder plans to me, and Rich Johnston’s like, “Run it! In the spirit of free thinking, we’ve got to hear both sides.” You know, that’s the “discourse.” It’s either petty—like Drawn & Quarterly delisting me after tweeting about the NYT article—or bullying, or both. A lot of times it’s stupid and/or disingenuous. It can also get very repetitive. Or unhinged.
So, yeah, I think the discourse is shit. Contributing to it is mostly thankless, sometimes costly, and often frustrating. Of course there’s good stuff too. We have some amazing writers who happen to write about comics. There’s Jog. We have Zainab, though she’s mostly moved offline. I don’t really need to name names; I think we all more or less have the same list. But how much genuine back and forth between people who disagree have you seen lately? I’m thinking…none?
Is my glum mood because of the state of the discourse…sort of? I’m not sure. I feel a certain mortification around comics, like sometimes I’m a little ashamed to be associated with it when it comes up in my real life. I felt depressed after Zainab closed C&C. Along with those things…I probably shouldn’t say this…some of the people who write about comics for major outlets are the fucking cockroaches. Like…they survive this stuff that’s killing off some of the rest of us, in part because they can be nasty. So to me those are the guys who are most directly responsible for pissing in the talent pool. They’re actively making inside baseball conversations less interesting by being bullies, and they’re also helping to shape the bad, bland conversation that’s unfolding in the broader culture. I don’t know how that all relates to the harassment and the assault stuff, but it sort of feels related, doesn’t it? Maybe on some level a lot of this comes down to fanboys?? Even at the corporate level, there’s that mentality of we can’t fire these boys because they’re good at what they do. Classic fanboy shit. Not for nothing, Riesman is one of the few journalists on god’s earth who seems positioned to put some heat on DC. Which…fat fucking chance. I don’t know, I’m just thinking maybe fanboys are gonna fanboy, whether we’re talking about shielding sexual predators or yelling at people about Adrian Tomine.
I’m curious about how that theory strikes you. We’re talking about a lot of things that aren’t necessarily connected, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it all comes down to this frothing fanboy mentality. I’m also wondering how much pettiness and aggression you’ve encountered as a dude. Did you get any blowback from saying Berganza’s name, btw?
NH: I’ve been pretty public about how little blowback I’ve gotten, and also how the woman who first got that ball rolling, Jennifer De Guzman, was actively erased from the conversation after. I said Berganza’s name instead of hinting at him because I was in a position to do so, and knew it. I have no interest in working in comics in any full time capacity, so there is no bridge for me to burn. And as a white male, I suspected that the magical thing that happens when white men call out other men and suddenly they listen even though women had been saying basically the same thing for a while would happen. I was frustrated that men in the industry– even people like Rich Johnston, who loves to periodically tweet at me and remind me he wrote vague reports about Berganza before I said anything– just weren’t saying Eddie Berganza’s name and supporting women who were frustrated by what was going on. It’s a minor thing, but I legitimately believe that other men refusing to openly call Eddie Berganza what he is– a serial sexual predator– was normalizing and minimizing the situation.
I can’t go into specific detail about it, but in the years I spent looking into and aiding in investigations about Berganza and other predatory figures in comics, one common thread that women who were involved in these situations spoke of was the feeling of hopelessness they experienced as a result of all the men around them acknowledging what was going on but refusing to say it out loud or explicitly name the predators. Everything was always innuendo, and even when women would find a male coworker sympathetic enough to listen to them, the guys would never, ever support the idea that these predators should be fired or ostracized. The women I spoke to, and the women whose information was shared with me by other reporters, all painted a picture of a comics industry unified in its unwillingness to speak the truth except in vague anecdotes and “yep, that sounds like that guy” shoulder shrugging. After the fact guys would tell the victims “Oh, we thought you knew he was like that” or “Oh, he’s done that before” or similar things, but they never offered these warnings in advance. It’s an especially infuriating industry-wide response to heinous behavior.
Where I do get blowback, however, is any time I ask dudes in comics to be better and to speak up about these problems and signal boost women who are asking for help dealing with these predators. That usually presents itself as something like Dan Slott repeatedly telling people I am somehow profiting off of pointing out “hey, comics are fucked up,” or an Image founders will see a Tweet I put out encouraging people to just block or mute bad comics pros and then will accuse me of being Frederic Wertham reborn. But the key difference here between what I experience as blowback and what I see you and critics like Zainab, and J.A. Micheline, and Claire Napier and on and on experience is that I just annoy these people because I’ve committed the sin of not shutting up about this issue whereas many of the same pros who yell at me go for each of you in vicious and intensely personal ways. John Layman, for instance, has gone out of his way to mock me on Twitter on a few occasions, but he’s never called me a “toxic presence” like he did to JAM, or regularly written transphobic hate mail to me as he did to a trans writer at WWAC who criticized trans representation in Chew (to say nothing of Riesman’s disturbing dragging of you in a national mag).
And I know that this focus on harassing non-white male critics out of the scene is not exclusive to comics, I watch it happen regularly to women I respect and admire in other media too. But what I also see is a decent amount of blowback to pros who behave that way in other media. When that LA Weekly piece reducing Sky Ferreira to a slab of meat made the rounds, it was called out almost universally; for fuck’s sake, even Billboard– Billboard!– ran an article calling it “sexist” in the headline (while Pitchfork, tellingly, stuck to the safer “controversial”). Meanwhile, in comics, when outed sexual predator Devin Faraci runs an article criticizing fandom and other critics for taking Marvel to task for a tone deaf “Captain America is a Nazi!” plotline, comics pros trip over each other to pat Faraci on the back and shit talk those damn SJWs for ruining the medium with their calls for better awareness.
This is why I think you’re exactly right when you call out the “cockroaches” who represent comics in larger scale media for amplifying this problem. Nearly all of the writers who cover comics for huge outlets look and sound the same and they all seem to lack a spine when it comes to covering the problems of comics as much as the grand global takeover of culture comics has accomplished in recent years. And I think you’re spot on when you say that they’ve gotten into these positions because of their cockroach-like abilities to survive. It’s not hard to see that these dudes all group up and bolster one another and go out of their way to bully marginalized voices, though I doubt they’d see what they do in the same terms. It’s just a coincidence, I’m sure, that the writing they shoot down and mock more often than not comes from groups who aren’t as represented as they are in media.
That decision to band together and shut down discourse that puts them in a less glorified light is a big part of why they retain these positions. People who might agree with the criticism you bring up of a publisher like D&Q are less likely to share that sentiment than they are to gleefully join into a mob talking trash about a critic because they don’t want to be seen as speaking out about a potential employer, but there are no such repercussions when discussing critics, especially critics who aren’t at a publication like Rolling Stone or Vulture or wherever. I see these complaints about “call out culture” and “Twitter mobs” and so on, and I don’t think that’s all that valid– it’s not like all of the Twitter mobs still going on about Eddie Berganza have managed to oust him– but I rarely see anyone in the industry using those terms to describe the frothing fanboys and pros who shut down legitimate criticism of issues in comics.
So to shift gears a bit and maybe close out on a slightly more hopeful or at least constructive note, what the fuck do we do? Do you get the sense that the younger generation coming up is better suited to defeating the cockroaches? Are you seeing better representation at publications and if you are, do you feel like that is having any impact on the discourse? Do we need to start wielding more pettiness and aggression ourselves?
KO: Oh lord, I don’t know. I’m not plugged in enough to have an informed take on that. But if we’re just spitballing…
With the hostile workplace and sexual predator stuff, the fix is far beyond the likes of you and me, as you know. That’s going to require serious litigation, and there’s any number of reasons why that may never happen. (What you said above about hopelessness is obviously a big one.) If and when lawsuits start getting filed, comics journalists will obviously have a lot more latitude, opportunity, and legal protections to give these stories the coverage they deserve. I know that has been a terrible disappointment to you personally, Nick, investigating this stuff with your hands tied. It bums me out just hearing about it. 🙁
Another big problem is money, and I see even less likelihood of that getting fixed. Boycotts and Kickstarters and Patreons can only do so much. People tend to bristle when you put too much focus on the sheer existence of straight white cis dudes, but from a purely factual standpoint, almost all of the people who have anything resembling a paying job in comics writing (meaning a staff position or regular freelance gigs with major platforms) fall into that demographic. Look around. Of course there are exceptions, but generally I think you’ll find that women, POC, and LGBT writers are mostly writing for peanuts or for free. A labor of love is one thing, but when the “reward” for that labor is a bunch of bullshit, that’s quite another. So I don’t know how any of that gets solved; I can only note that I have zero confidence that hiring practices at major platforms will change any time soon.
As for the level of conversation: also zero ideas. Haha. Seriously, is there room for anything in people’s hearts besides boring capsule reviews and bad Marvel Television thinkpieces? Who knows. I still see the central organ for good comics writing as TCJ, and it’s sort of nuts that after all these years they still struggle to publish much in the way of different voices. I feel sure they’ve had a record number of women doing reviews year, and what has that been—like one a month? Annie Mok is doing the lord’s work over there. Uh…Katie Skelly was there recently, and I think Sarah Horrocks was there this year? Things are also looking super white over there at a glance, though Ng Suat Tong has maybe made his way back over there. So just those people who come to mind already seems like a bit more of a mix of people than years past. They’re bringing a lot to the table, by my lights. On the other hand, do I think those gets were the result of Dan and Tim out there actively recruiting anyone? Eh, I very much doubt it. Their whole snide thing, that mostly male masthead…none of that is helping things either. Probably the only thing left to do there is wait to see if their successor is any better.
One thing I wonder about sometimes is why I never see much pressure on Dan and Tim coming from within that milieu. I can think of at least five cool-seeming guys who are involved in that scene, and I really wish one of them would EVER say to Dan and Tim (or just their peers, in general) something to the effect of “Sometimes you guys are gross.” Maybe they do, and I just don’t see it; again I’m not that plugged in. I think…honestly, I think I’m being a twit on some level, to wish for that. One of those guys wrote me one time and said he stays out of that stuff because of the lingering darkness from the Message Board Wars and, you know, fair enough: that sounded like a real horrorshow. But there’s always going to be a part of me that thinks, for pete’s sake, how hard would it be to say “that’s not cool” like once a year or something?? To publicly say: “Hey guys, the fact that only one woman does reviews for your website with any regularity is some shameful shit. Get it together.” Or: “Hey guys, has it ever occurred to you to ask a woman to write a column?” Or: “Hey man, I noticed you were really condescending to [whoever], and I think they deserve more respect than that.” Instead, I’ve seen at least two of those five simpatico dudes be quite critical of, say, Carta Monir—who doesn’t write comics crit anymore, you will note—and then suddenly become real apolitical when the bad opinion-haver is Dan or Tim or Tom Spurgeon or whoever. I just feel like it’s a double standard that they feel comfortable challenging the most marginalized people and let things pass when it’s their pals.
Or how about when [redacted] and [redacted], those goblins of indie comics, are stomping around Twitter like it’s the middle-school playground, rubbing people’s face in the dirt and then pretending like they’re somehow above it? Why doesn’t anyone ever say something to those turkeys? Instead that work is left to the people who they’re gross to, and predictably that doesn’t go so well. I know from my own very limited experience that it’s just not easy to confront someone who’s trying to diminish you, even if you think they’re being ridiculous…even if you have a reasonable grip on the lowness of the stakes. Moreover, it’s not worth it, because frankly they’re going to have to hear it from someone whose opinions they actually respect before they even begin to consider that what they’re doing is weird or wrong or rude. I guess I think in general we all need to stick up for each other a little more. I mean, part of me thinks that’s some real Pollyanna shit, partly because I myself don’t want anything to do with it. I’m petty enough in my real life, thanks a lot. But I watch someone like Zainab drop out of the game (and, more recently, David Brothers, though I don’t know the story there), and it seems very clear to me that we need to try harder. You titled our working doc “Comics should be decent.” It’s like, how hard is that? And the thing is it’s a total fucking pipe dream.
So anyway…bottom line, there’s definitely some people out there, but I find comics writing to be really fragmented, and I feel I end up missing a lot of it. People who aggregate links sometimes miss some things too, or sometimes they don’t seem to find stuff worth sharing. Probably the most encouraging thing I’ve noticed lately (same old demographic though) is Jude Terror getting a job at Bleeding Cool. I haven’t been following along closely enough to know if he’s going to bring it, but that seems vaguely promising…? Obviously not a fan of that site though.
At the end of the day, the only variable I have any control over in all this is myself, and I don’t see much happening on that front. I actually think that a lot of my glum comics mood comes down to that, because I’m pretty in touch with my own failures. I’m acutely aware, for instance, that I did my own argument here a real disservice in referring to people as cockroaches, which isn’t a good look. My anger is always getting in the way, and the things I feel emotional about – well, I’d do better to hide those things. But on another level, part of me thinks the biggest thing I have to offer “the discourse” is giving a fuck and not feeling too ashamed about it, and popping up on occasion to challenge the irony boys and the mean bullies and maybe especially the unintentional bullies in my own small way, even though I think it’s totally ineffective.
So yeah. Not feeling so positive or constructive over here. It’s down to you, Nick. Please save Comics. For the children. Seriously, though, I wonder how the landscape looks from your vantage, and what you think about the possibility of progress. This is the moment in the movie where you give the team a speech.
NH: Initially I had a bad reaction to the idea that I should be giving any teams anywhere any kind of speech, but I had an experience recently that makes me feel a little less pessimistic and hopeless. A media professor at the University of Texas had reached out to me about doing a guest lecture on the subject of music reporting and I went into that with the deliberate aim of not being all doom and gloom, but to be realistic and talk to people about the media landscape in frank yet hopeful terms. What first made me feel hopeful about that experience was that the class was mostly young women and fairly diverse. Obviously, not everyone in an undergrad media class is going to go into media as a profession, or even pursue it semi-passionately outside of another job, but it was still great to see a group of faces that are totally different than the faces I normally encounter in the field. And what was also encouraging was that they were very receptive to discussion about what things they could be doing now to get themselves on the radar of potential editors, things as simple as “Have an active Twitter,” “Make business cards and network during things like SXSW,” “Build up clips that show you can cover material efficiently and consistently,” etc. that I learned hadn’t really come up much in their studies.
What was also interesting to me was that afterwards, the professor told me that one of the more prominent music journalists he had invited, an elder white statesman with all of the expected coveted rock critic bylines, had basically shown up and scorched the earth. That critic had been so negative, the professor couldn’t help himself and blurted out “Do you even like music anymore?” and the critic took a beat and then said “No, I don’t think so.” I’ve seen this critic talk on panels before and I get the sense that his pessimism has as much to do with the changing face of journalism as it does the decreasing number of gigs that pay as well as what he was used to. You can view that the way he does, as the end times, or you can view it as a sign that change is coming, and it’s hard, and fitful, and devastating, but when it clears out all this deadwood, the landscape is going to be so much better.
I didn’t know about the class’s experience with that critic until after I had already talked, I certainly didn’t go in there trying to be an antidote to a specific rhetoric they’d already heard, I just knew from my experiences working with up and coming critics, I’d rather encourage and boost than wring my hands and shout about how horrible everything is (despite what some people may think based on how critical I am online). And I am honestly hopeful for what is coming.
Like a lot of other people, I’m frustrated with how long it is taking for change to arrive, and how costly change is, but the truth is I would put the current crop of critics emerging up against the best of any era. I mentioned J.A. Micheline before but I think JAM is a great example of what I’m talking about, she’s a fearless, brilliant critic who I have had the great fortune to work alongside and watch evolve. And outside of her enviable writing skills, JAM is one of the toughest and most ferocious voices we have in comics right now, and she’s not alone. There is an entire wave of voices emerging like JAM, who have started using the tactics of those frothing fanboys against them, sticking together and supporting each other’s work and popping up at places like the AV Club and Vice while using sites like the excellent Women Write About Comics as a homebase. Critics like JAM are largely skipping the expected comics outlets like CBR or Newsarama, where industry connections and backpatting interfere with sharp critical work, and going for larger and larger bylines at mainstream outlets. I think that’s a big deal, and a good sign of where the discourse will hopefully go once it gets out of this funk.
Are there still a lot of dudes holding on to positions that they don’t deserve and got because white male mediocrity always seem to rise? Absolutely. But more publications are paying attention to how homogenous their mastheads are and they’re making real change, like MTV letting Jessica Hopper take over news and editorial and fill it with rebels, outlaws and eccentrics (once upon a time, Laura Hudson did similar things for Comics Alliance, and I see some of that happening again with the team she works with at Wired). I think what we’re seeing are death throes, and a lot of critics are behaving like that critic I followed up at UT, trying to convince everyone that cultural criticism is dead when really it’s just fitfully evolving and the landscape that’s coming will hopefully feature a lot less pop critic neanderthals. What I hope is that the new wave ascends before these guys ruin the scene in a more permanent way, and that’s what the trend Abhay discusses has me fearing the most– if we can’t get our shit together and at least clear the way for frank, critical discussions about the medium we might lose our best and brightest to other, less intolerable fields. And I think we fight that by being honest about this mood comics as a whole has right now, and about the changes we can all make at the publications we write for and contribute to, and in our discussions online. If we think about these guys perpetuating that mood as evolutionary dead ends, maybe more of us can aid people like you and distribute the anger until they’re drowned out.