Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Cue the sad trumpets, Hilary. And shift the blinds. I have a nose bleed.
As I sit here punching keys on a keyboard, preparing to explain the properties of a comics criticism magazine, I fail to ignore the question of why I care so much (about comic criticism, journalism or any semblance of commentary – not the magazine, itself). Because it’s a weird niche within a niche – a minuscule outlet left only for the obsessed – and it shouldn’t fucking matter, maybe, to anyone who’s not a maker themselves, yet here I sit preoccupied, investing more and more time into this dead-end fantasy.
People do all sorts of shit for all sorts of reasons, though, so it’s probably not worth the desperate search for meaning. If anything, this only boils down to a simple need of connection with others influenced by the same art form (God knows, it’s hard enough any other way). This criticism / thought-sharing experiment is a point of entry, more or less. Not to the medium. But to the medium’s effect. Each half-cocked blog entry (disguised as a magazine feature) reveals more and more of the serious thought and time individuals dedicate, and it influences other to spend the same, if not more, amount of time in response. It’s a snapshot of the reaction comics inspire, and as both a participant and witness, it’s a fascinating exchange, especially when common ground is established between you and the stooge authoring whatever editorial. All thanks to shared emotion or opinion.
But more so, reviews and columns say more of their authors than they do the works they cover – at least, when said reviews and columns are well written. You can pull apart repeated adjectives or phrases to know their limitations, and distinguish a pattern of works / creators studied to pinpoint an area of taste or bias. Read any Sean Witzke piece, and you’ll see the distinction. Supervillain, his blog, is more so an autobiography than a critical source (an accomplishment, in my mind), and in particular these sorts of critics engage on the long term. Of course, they need the observations, diction and taste to back it up, but an auteur-like grip, at least to me, comes first. It’s the final extension. It’s the difference between marketing packet and authentic dialogue. The individual working through his fascinations says something of human character, and it’s here, this task, we lock in on and watch.
In my own attempt, these columns are a chance to exercise something internal. The overall routine resembles a long, personal essay – stretched between posts, websites and formats – and is separate from the demand of responsibility or some blazing desire to feed a faithful congregation the loudest opinion. It’s about externalizing how such a thing like comic books have taken me, and riffing through my own romantic bullshit I rip off Joe Casey back matter pieces all to hopefully know a truth. An ongoing process, mind you.
It’s ambitious, surely. Maybe even high-minded and a tad pretentious, but ultimately I see more in the form of comics writing past pull quote grabs and snazzy descriptions. We’ve ended up too far on that side, though, now prisoner to some 9-5 mentality in which the writers meet quotas, word counts and answer to PDF freebies. Browse Newsarama; scroll through this very website’s homepage. Those pieces are about service, not connections, and they engage just as well as any “two thumbs up” exclamation. Or the rogue bloggers, stacking their Wednesday pulls and breezing through to let you know that the artwork displays a fun, “cartoony” style. Those fuckers deserve isolation. They short cut it, and by association short cut the subjects they cover, distilling comics down to nubs fit for the illiterate. Their thoughts aren’t worth knowing and should be canceled out in light of a server overload. God willing.
There comes Comics Workbook, though, the subject of this column (we’re getting there, I swear), and if anything it’s a move in an admirable direction. For those uninformed, Comics Workbook is a Frank Santoro project billed as an “online magazine for comic book makers,” and while the Tumblr iteration mainly features page-length strips, Santoro, along with cartoonists Andrew White and Zach Mason, debuted their print Comics Workbook Magazine last Saturday at Comic Arts Brooklyn as an avenue for written features. Not a revolutionary idea, but with the absence in printed comics commentary, the existence of this item is almost enough to break up the establishment of boxed-in online outlets consumed by press releases and short, off-hand remarks as well as excite any mildly curious member of Comics Culture. Workbook’s mission stands somewhere between maker outlet, critical rejuvenater and poster child for the diverse, obscure and cutting edge, and it’s a principle honed clear to the magazine’s core via its both celebrated and greenhorn editorial staff.
Admittedly so, it was the main reason I picked up a copy (only $2). And certainly there’s evidence Santoro, White and Mason can own up to their mission. In a way, Workbook has already been proven by its online portion. The site has cornered an area of comics, becoming a sort of destination for the new, as well as bringing further public attention to cartoonists like Simon Hanselmann, considered the next great find in alternative comics (this is a killer interview). This print edition presents the dissection, explaining to us why this “new” is deserving of attention, and even against a slim page count (16), the pieces in Comics Workbook Magazine meet a keen balance between informative straight work and personal reflection, using both to entice readers rather than overwhelm.
The stand out, though short, comes with Dorothy Berry’s (no relation) take on Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy. A piece that assumes its reader’s familiarity with the strip (which I’m not), Berry uses the occasion to compare Nancy’s character to her own existence, swiftly bouncing between memories in short-jot paragraphs. It’s her way of analyzing Bushmiller’s strip’s success of characterization across an array of situations, and while she launches into it, assuming you’re on board, it doesn’t matter. You realize the piece is more about a critic having a chat with an old friend, in this case Nancy, than some diatribe of why one should purchase a reprint. Which makes sense. Nancy is an old strip, where as Berry is the fresher voice to pick up on.
The other installments, while I’ll gloss over a detailed report (because let’s face it, who wants to read an analysis of an interview), engage, trust me. Though I wouldn’t call the inaugural issue of Comics Workbook Magazine flawless. If any improvement, I feel the editors could better use their limited page range by cutting back on the actual comics (6 pages worth, here) and publishing further prose on said pages. I understand their interest in presenting the actual work they find captivating, but by splitting a reader’s attention across multiple works, you force those readers to spend less time considering those comics. Or at least, that’s my reaction. Maybe bring to attention the best selection, and take further advantage of this opportunity to print criticism / writing of comics.
I’m glad this exists, though. Especially in a printed package. If anything, comics discussion is in need of a centralized venue. The people who conduct it tend to sit spread apart, performing under varying titles and fronts, and while the variety is energetic, it sometimes dampens the angle of the conversation as its harder to hear, stretched between websites and tweets. I’m not particularly sure if Comics Workbook Magazine will take shape as that focal point, totally embracing all corners of the map (seems against its quest), but it appears, for now, as a positive, productive effort to anchor a section of our greater culture in need of it – one born and bred within the maze of Tumblr. The physical object just some how emphasizes all of that, saying something of print’s abstract weight.
And now, an interview with Andrew White, “editor and wrangler” of Comics Workbook Magazine.
Andrew White is also a cartoonist who completed Frank Santoro’s correspondence course. He was originally involved with Comics Workbook via Tumblr. He posts work there regularly.
I know Frank Santoro oversees everything, but to what amount would you say Comics Workbook Magazine is subject to your guiding hand? What exactly do you do as “editor/wrangler”?
Frank and I worked together on producing a list of people we wanted to approach, but I took the lead on being in touch with contributors, helping them chose the focus for their comics/writing (with significant input from Frank) and deciding how the contributions would be sequenced once they came in. I also did some copyediting and transcribed this issue’s feature interview with Sam Alden. In the future I’ll be splitting these duties more or less 50/50 with Zach Mason.
I also contributed an interview to this first issue, and I plan to make more non-editorial contributions going forward. I’m working on a translation of some French comics criticism that will hopefully appear in an upcoming issue.
I’m proud to have helped make the magazine, and my influence is there in terms of the people we approached to contribute, but I think a good editor simply provides a platform for contributors to do their best work. A magazine like this one succeeds on the strength of its contributors or fails on the oversights of its editors. I’d like to think we’re heavy on the former and light on the latter.
It’s a first issue, and while I enjoyed it, it certainly shows potential for further development. I know you mentioned at CAB that it was a bit “slim.” So what additions / improvements do you feel can be made?
I meant that it was slim in terms of page count; sorry if that wasn’t clear! We’re sticking to 16 pages per issue for now, but I think that is a strength, in a few ways. First, it allows us to release new issues on a regular basis without overwhelming Frank, Zach, or myself. Second, confining each individual contribution to two (or in rare cases four) pages allows us to get as many new voices into the magazine as possible, which is very important to us.
That said, there are certainly improvements that can be made on the editorial end, and we’re also actively looking for new cartoonists and writers to bring on board, and new subjects to be covered, to make future issues even better.
How regular is “regular basis”?
We’re aiming for a roughly bimonthly schedule.
You’re making a point to pay your contributors, which is rare for comics writing, and you’ve expressed to me that you want to be very upfront about that. Why?
Paying contributors for a publication like this one is the right thing to do. Period. That should be obvious, but based on the number of venues that don’t do so, many more established than us, it seems that perhaps it isn’t. So I just hope we can serve as another small reminder that paying people for their work isn’t that hard to do.
Does having the magazine in a printed format lend the project more weight versus it being another blog?
Print is definitely a more appropriate venue for longer written pieces like the Sam Alden interview or Dorothy Berry’s article, but I’d say the project is very much an extension of the goals of the Comics Workbook tumblr.
As an extension though, why not just publish this content on the tumblr site? Why go the lengths of printing it? Just to service longer essays and interviews?
Well, since the magazine was Frank’s idea, maybe he’s better equipped to answer this question…but I do understand what you mean about print in some ways having more significance and permanence. I like what Frank said in this interview about the magazine serving as a small part of the historical record for obscure early 21st century art comics.
Tell me about when Frank first approached you with this idea. What were your initial thoughts and reasons for jumping on? What opportunity(ies) did this present?
I saw it as an opportunity to exercise different parts of my comics-making brain. Many of the responsibilities of a good editor, like creative thinking and problem solving, are skills I use as a cartoonist, but obviously this project is in many ways different from making my own work. It’s a nice change of pace. I was also excited to work closely with and learn from Frank, whose opinion on comics and criticism I respect quite a bit. I also think that having a magazine like this one out there is a good thing, so I was, and continue to be, happy to help make it a reality.
The magazine’s Twitter bio says “a magazine for comic book makers.” Do you consider this an invitation to creators as to participate in a critical discussion, or is this simply a fun, fanzine type of thing – done for kicks?
It’s a bit of both, if you’ll allow; there’s certainly a zine vibe to our design aesthetic and lower production value, and I think that’s in part because we’re not taking ourselves too seriously – but at the same time comics is Serious Business! I think we do want to encourage more creators to participate in a discussion of comics and to provide a venue for new voices to participate in that discussion, and for the discussion to go in new directions.
What directions would you like to see it take?
This is a bit of a cop-out answer – sorry! – but I’m not sure I have any prescriptive goals of that sort in mind. Maybe Frank does. I just think that having lots of different voices in the mix and having many different and even conflicting ideas about and perspectives on comics being articulated can only be a good thing.
You’re a creator who holds a vocal interest in criticism. Do you feel other creators are just as invested in the conversation regarding their medium? If not, why do you believe they overlook it?
I don’t think I know many creators who aren’t interested in talking about comics on some level, just as a natural extension of their interest in comics. Sloane Leong, Brandon Graham, Darryl Ayo, Comics Workbook Magazine #1 contributor Sarah Horrocks, and of course Frank Santoro are just a few of many creators who write about comics on a somewhat regular basis, for instance. On the other hand, I’m not sure all of those people or any other cartoonists see the kind of writing that they like to read or that they might have produced themselves as formal criticism. I don’t even think I would call the bits of writing I do myself criticism, necessarily, though I certainly have an interest in reading criticism, and now in facilitating its publication as one aspect of the magazine. There’s also the obvious point that, for myself as for many others who do comics as a hobby, writing about comics often takes time, always available in very limited quantities, away from actually producing comics. I feel like lots of cartoonists would write about comics if there were just a few more hours in the day. I do think talking about comics, whatever that might mean, is important and valuable, and hopefully the magazine can be one small venue for that discussion.
What will general comic readers gain by reading this magazine? Should they?
Sure, everyone should read the magazine! I think it’s good. I would say that it offers a window into just how diverse and exciting the medium is today. I hope that it can both expose readers to new work and offer new insight into work they might already know. I’d imagine, for instance, that anyone reading this interview knows Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, but Dorothy Berry’s piece in issue one, ‘Dorothy on Nancy,’ provides a new and compelling set of observations on that work.
Was the CAB [Comic Arts Brooklyn] debut a good one, both in terms of feedback and copies moved?
Yes! I think it sold pretty well, and we’ve already received a few very encouraging pieces of feedback. Both of those things are extremely gratifying.
You can purchase Comics Workbook Magazine online via Copacetic Comics. Here.
Dear Alec Berry,
Thank you for the opportunity to consider your work. Although in the end we have decided that “
The West Kirby Story” does not meet our needs at this time, please know your work was seriously considered. We hope you will continue to send more our way.
The Editors, Alaska Quarterly Review
My new favorite email.
Alec Berry wants you to know everything. Follow him on Twitter @Alec_Berry
Comics Should Be Good accepts review copies. Anything sent to us will (for better or for worse) end up reviewed on the blog. See where to send the review copies.