Under new management: The Comics Journal revamps, relaunches its website

by  in Comic News Comment
Under new management: <i>The Comics Journal</i> revamps, relaunches its website

The Comics Journal, a venerable, influential and controversial mainstay of comics journalism that had developed an air of the walking wounded in recent years, has radically revamped and relaunched its online presence. Its new editors are Dan Nadel and Tim Hodler, best known as the minds behind Comics Comics magazine and, in Nadel’s case, the art-comics publisher PictureBox Inc.

The print version of the Journal will continue to be helmed by founding editor and Fantagraphics co-publisher Gary Groth, acting in a more hands-on capacity as of the forthcoming Issue #301 than he has in years, by the sound of it. Kristy Valenti serves as editorial coordinator. Contributors to the new include Frank Santoro, Jeet Heer, Joe “Jog” McCulloch, Ken Parille, Ryan Holmberg, Rob Clough, Richard Gehr, R.C. Harvey, R. Fiore, Vanessa Davis, Bob Levin, Patrick Rosenkranz, Nicole Rudick, Dash Shaw, Jason T. Miles, Andrew Leland, Naomi Fry, Jesse Pearson, Tom De Haven, Shaenon Garrity, Matt Seneca, Tucker Stone and Hillary Chute. On a Robot 6-related note, my colleague Chris Mautner and I will also be contributing.

A look at the new site reveals a multifaceted approach, with reviews, columns, interviews, lengthy features and essays (the current lead feature is a look at the legacy of, and turmoil surrounding, Frank Frazetta by writer Bob Levin), an events calendar, selected highlights from the magazine’s archives, and more. The biggest news, perhaps, is that Hodler and Nadel plan to have literally the entire 300-issue Comics Journal archive scanned and posted online by the end of this year and made available in its entirety to the print magazine’s subscribers. Click here for Hodler and Nadel’s welcome letter, in which they explain some of the changes and reveal a bit of what’s ahead. (And click here for their farewell letter to Comics Comics.)

Since I’m writing for the thing, I may not be in the best position to comment about it, but quite aside from my own minor role in the proceedings, the move is a welcome and long-overdue one. The Journal is the most important publication of comics news and criticism in the medium’s history — it all but singlehandedly made the case that comics can and should be capital-A Art for years, an argument that at this point it can be said to have won handily. It also pushed hard (belligerently, some might say) to hold the medium to higher aesthetic standards, and the industry to higher ethical ones. But its online presence has always been comparatively rudderless and ad-hoc. For years, Dirk Deppey’s Journalista linkblog was the magazine’s primary voice online; since I think none of those years corresponded with Deppey’s tenure atop the Journal‘s print incarnation, the two outlet’s editorial voices never quite jibed. In the absence of a strong vision like what Groth’s was for years in the print version, off-brand aspects of the magazine’s website — its Mos Eisley-esque message board; Noah Berlatsky’s pugnacious Hooded Utilitarian group blog — filled the void, to the dismay of many readers and creators, and even to the dismay of the people involved in those aspects of the site themselves. The problem was compounded when the Journal radically reduced its print output (it is currently an annual), leaving a relaunched website plagued by unwieldy design, hazy editorial focus, and sporadic posting by its contributors to pick up the slack. With the recent shutdown of Journalista, HU, and the relatively new group blog The Panelists, it was clear some kind of major change, likely one devoted to streamlining and focusing the magazine’s editorial output online, was in the offing. Handing the Journal‘s website to an experienced print/web editorial team with a clear vision of comics and how to talk about them, one that moreover has been on the leading edge of comics criticism for some years now, is a major step in the right direction.

It’s funny: I think that since about 2007 or so I’ve been saying in “how do you solve a problem like the Journal” conversations that if I were God-Emperor of Comics, I’d just hand the thing to Hodler and Nadel. For nearly that long, I’ve been saying that its website should basically be Pitchfork for comics: an easy-to-navigate, accessible-to-newcomers, unafraid-to-ruffle-some-feathers, go-to site for people interested in a certain form of artistic expression. And lo, that’s basically what has come to pass.

For much more on the move, see Tom Spurgeon’s excellent interview with Tim Hodler and Dan Nadel. As a former editor of TCJ himself, Tom’s able to work the unique contours of the matter better than most. And as Spurge also points out, this means The Comics Journal message board is dead. Here’s how Tom reacts:

I’m happy to see the message board gone. I feel much more responsible for the dark side of comics culture that festered there than I do any sense of community it may have fostered, more than I do whatever exposure to little-known works it may have facilitated. It was a place that had some virtues but mostly, I think, it was a place where unhappy people went to be even less happy. Its time has more than passed, and like many of the people that once gave entire working afternoons to stringing along five or six life-and-death rage-sessions at a time, I don’t think I’d been there more than a half-dozen times in the last three years. It may be the thing in life I spent the most time doing from which I keep the least amount of positive memories. I wish the board could have been a whole lot better. It always made me feel like we had done something horribly wrong in putting it up in the first place. Its departure is a load off my mind.

If you’ve never been there, I can hear you asking already: Was it really that bad? In a word, yes. Actually, in another word: worse. The fact that I’m saying this despite the formative role that board played in getting me thinking and writing seriously about comics, and despite the lasting friendships I formed there (Spurge included), should tell you something. The sheer volume of nastiness and trollery was unrivaled, and all the more disconcerting given that this wasn’t some battle board where Thor and Superman fans were duking it out for supremacy and where you’d therefore expect some smackdowns, but a place that could otherwise have been utilized for intelligent discussion of The ACME Novelty Library and what have you. There came a time that I realized that every visit to that godforsaken board made me enjoy comics less. What a terrible thing to be able to say about the reader-interaction forum for the greatest magazine about comics ever. The new regime’s messboard mercy-killing is a major mitzvah in and of itself. I’m looking forward to seeing what else they can do.