WHY I FIGHT
"The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better endure it." -- Samuel Johnson
Hello again. Can we talk? Like good friends do over a nice brew, yeah?
People don't really chat these days to one another. Sure their lips might be moving, but no one seems to be listening these days. Heck, you write an e-mail and most people just answer whatever it is they feel like answering (if they even feel like writing back to you) on their Blackberry or whatnot. Everyone's got their own agenda, everyone would rather be elsewhere. Look, I've never been one to be too proud, but I'm mighty glad to see you're here and that you haven't given up on comics. Whenever I write one of my articles or work on a book, you guys are always on my mind. I'd like to give you something I feel is worthy of coverage by any means necessary. The only mission I have for doing these things is writing about the people, books and things that mean something to me, and hopefully, if I do my job right... I'll give you something entertaining to read. That's sounds like a mission statement if I've ever heard one.
One way or another, comics have always been a part of my life, and I remember being drawn to them from early-on. To the dismay of my parents, I was just another child of Generation X who watched way too much television growing up and lived for seeing live action shows like "Superman," "Batman," "Wonder Woman" and "Hulk," and even the cartoon adventures of "Spider-Man" and "The Super Friends." The medium of comics was never foreign to me since it just seemed natural to have the art and words mesh together that way. The sequential narrative even made the most boring subjects interesting. Example: If you look at one of the old Radio Shack's Superman giveaway comics now... they look like pretty dry infomercials selling these electrical knickknacks of science, but when those things were given away at my school it was a highly anticipated godsend of distraction from having to think about breaking out a number two pencil for the SRA standardized test or some pop quiz.
As for the comics themselves, I knew I was in trouble (or going to hell) when I traded the Catholicism book from my first communion in the third grade for a copy of Marvel's "Star Wars Treasury" #2 to a non-Catholic schoolmate (no less) who was feeling left out from the religious enlightenment. I never had any remorse over that transaction whatsoever. As I gradually started to build a comic collection from bartering books with the other kids, and buying them from the spinner rack at Garden State News, I soon discovered that I had to hide them away from my late father who hated the sight of them and ridiculed me endlessly if he saw me reading that "damn garbage." Over time, I became very good at hiding them, because a part of me just couldn't imagine living in a world without comic books.
As a child and a teenager, I was not a very confident individual when it came to anything, really - geez, this is starting to sound like one of those depressing Chris Ware comics. The idea of writing anything came to me when I was a freshman in high school, but there was no school newspaper or even a facility for the kids to do a paper and be creative, because I attended two schools that didn't have a budget for it. So I ended up putting a lot of that enthusiasm and energy into my school papers, my daydreams in my notebooks and the occasional school play.
When I was seventeen, I typed my first professional article on a Smith-Corona typewriter and drove my first vehicle, a Yamaha Beluga, over to the offices of a popular big city newspaper that my dad subscribed to. I didn't know the sports editor and he didn't know me, but I introduced myself to him and showed him the article, which was neatly tucked in a folder like a school project. The conversation was very brief as I told him that I had written this piece for him because it was an interesting subject that neither his paper nor any of the other competitors had done. Without much promise, he said he'd look it over and run it if he liked it. A few weeks later, it ran in full-color in the Saturday supplement and thus began a short series of more articles as I wrote about things that fascinated me about the game of baseball. For some reason, I've been very fortunate to primarily write about stuff that I was passionate about. The thing I remember the most about this thing is how proud and surprised my dad seemed to be about seeing that first piece, particularly after he saw it pinned to the wall of a grocery store that he visited across town.
The very first thing I remember reading that I'd consider to be comics journalism was the obituary of Wally Wood. I was pretty young, but I still remember that article about his life and tragic death being one of the saddest things I'd ever read. Even as a child, I was always really curious about how things worked, and I was especially keen on wanting to know more about the people who were doing the type of work that was entertaining and influencing me. A key source of information about comics and movies early-on was Jim Steranko's awesome "Prevue" Magazine during the early Eighties. Let me tell you something about the headaches this mag caused me with the nuns: I had a habit of bringing my magazines and comics to school to let my friends look through them, but the problem with "Prevue" was how their great layouts would not only cover the latest blockbusters but also "emphasize" the female form of actresses. Plus, the house ads were loaded with pictures of erotica books - I knew who Helmut Newton was be ore anybody else I knew, and I hadn't even hit puberty yet. From the pages of "Prevue," I ordered a copy of Steranko's excellent two tomes of "The History of Comics," perhaps even finer because its author had the foresight to interview many of the principals responsible for the creation of the very industry we love.
Right from the start, I fell for the fandom, the history of the industry, as much as I fell for the comics themselves. I greatly enjoyed and learned from the comics magazines of the Eighties like "Comics Features," "Comics Scene," "Comics Interview," "Comics Collector" and "Comics Journal," all in their prime period of influence, at least to me. The newspaper weekly incarnation of "Comic Buyers Guide" was a great place for news and picking up back issues from their vast pages of classified ads. People like Don & Maggie Thompson, Jean-Marc Lofficier, Gary Groth, David Anthony Kraft, Pat Jankiewicz, Kim Howard Johnson, Ron Goulart, Robert Greenberger, Patrick Daniel O'Neill, Paul Gravett, Will Murray and others from that era, and slightly after, did work that I still cherish to this day. A huge, undeniable, favorite of mine is the comics historian side of Roy Thomas, since his essay opening the hardcover presentation of "Marvel Comics" #1 about artist Bill Everett and his story on the genesis of Marvel's Star Wars" comic series in "Starlog" #120 are among the most insightful articles I've ever encountered about the industry. There's also "1990's Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World Greatest Comics" by Les Daniels (author of the great "Comix: A History of the Comic Book in America"), one of the quintessential books about this industry that can be enjoyed both by the savviest comics fans and their suburban moms.
During the early to mid-1990s, the overall mainstream coverage and history by "Wizard," "Overstreet Fan," and "Hero Illustrated" was pretty solid despite the fact that their editorial visions and drives were so similar that it made them interchangeable (something that I see in the British film magazines of today). The rise of the comic news Internet sites and newsgroups made these magazines somewhat expendable, as those seeking the latest news, press releases and rumors could find all these things without paying a cent or waiting a month's span in our very own "Comic Book Resources" or our distinguished competitor "Newarama." And via message boards and blogs, now comic book savants can even espouse their admiration and/or sour grape disdain for the rest of cyber world to see.
By the mid- to late 1990s, I started gravitating towards the publications about comics from TwoMorrows, via (first) "The Jack Kirby Collector" and (second) "Comic Book Artist" ("CBA") magazine. "CBA" became my favorite magazine about comics because it was packed with lovely art and informative interviews, but underneath it all was a lot of genuine enthusiasm for the comics and creators that made us embrace this industry in the first place. The editor of the magazine, Jon B. Cooke, approached each subject with an unrelenting passion that engaged me enough to start contributing to it during its latter issues as a sub-editor and a writer. It was a different type of comics periodical in an era of so much negativity. "CBA's" focus was fully driven by the vision of its editor and a subject was never complete until every single person needed was spoken to. The results were a ton of dense issues that were loaded to the brim for those thirsting for comics knowledge. Yes, it was sometimes maddening, intense and often late - but it was amazing to begin to discover and understand how these beloved books and their creators came to be. While Jon collected his Eisners, I was content with just being able to do my thing and spend hours talking about comics with my editor.
Over the last dozen years, I've done books and written for a bunch of comics publications and online ventures - I even did my own print fanzine once. I've always done my best to be professional and courteous to the hundreds I've talked to in covering a story. I don't give my word if I can't honor it. But each piece, article or book, is almost like starting over again, because there are so few comics readers - and apparently fewer interested in - reading about comics. It almost feels like working in a void. There are even surprisingly some comics creators unaccustomed to being interviewed and/or reluctant to speak about their work. Also, unless you are backed up by "Vanity Fair," "Entertainment Weekly" or some Benjamins, the Big Two aren't necessarily going to return your phone calls for requests or information right away. I've seen many just give up once their initial enthusiasm wears out or when the reality sinks in that there are no financial perks or even much reader feedback when covering comics. Like I said, each entry is a new struggle. You've got to roll with the punches and pray that you've got enough, emotionally, to keep going and finish what you started. I've never blamed or held it against anyone for giving up. It's just par for the course as some people need to move on to other things for their own sake or for those of their families.
If you continue, it is because there's a part of you that likes the challenge and believes there are plenty of interesting stories left to write about in comics. It's very important to remember that you fundamentally have to write for yourself above everyone else. You don't quit because there's a part of you that just needs to get this done. If some pundit sends a nasty comment your way, you continue and move on to the next gig. The world is gonna keep spinning no matter what. I've learned something from every piece I've done, and to some degree I really hope that some of the things I've covered have been insightful to someone out there. There is a real value in documenting these things that we care about for ourselves and future fans. We come closer to understanding how exactly these beloved works came about.
In this new century, podcasting has interestingly emerged to be one of the latest forms of comics journalism. Reading comics is a pretty solitary experience for most, so to hear fellow comics fans come together and articulate their opinions on Wednesday's latest is a fantastic thing. It gives a voice to the opinions of many who weren't previously heard, and shows like "Comic Geek Speak," "Around Comics," and "iFanboy" bring this notion home very successfully. As a fan of talk radio, I'm glad to see these shows around, because they vocalize comics and put enthusiasm into the discussion, often in a more positive light than alienating. Let's face it, the day that there's no one left standing to talk about comics will be the day that the medium is dead for good.
From where I sit, my favorite comics journalism comes from the people who really care about this industry, fellow professionals and dedicated fans who take the time out of their lives to write passionately about these things because they have the foresight and willpower to do it. In a not so distant future, they'll be a new generation of comics readers, like there always should be, that'll expect us to show them the way in what's worth reading. The history of this industry only grows stronger when we share our experiences with others.