Rethinking "The Comics Journal"

In perhaps the most telling marker of the comics industry's (and publishing in general's) slow but steady shift towards digital media, the longtime bible of serious comics criticism, "The Comics Journal," this week announced its plans to shift from an eight-times a year publishing schedule to a semi-annual format supported by a brand new website at its current internet home of TCJ.com. The changes will take place after the release of the magazine's milestone 300th issue, and since the announcement of the changes, the web has been full of reactions and think pieces on the subject.

However, little has been released on the specifics of the move, so CBR News reached out to the staff of longtime TCJ editor Gary Groth, Assistant Editor Kristy Valenti and managing editor Michael Dean for their take on why they've made the switch, what readers can expect from both their online and print efforts, and what the shape of comics journalism and scholarship on the web is.

I guess the easiest way to start is to ask when this decision got made. From what I read on Tom Spurgeon's site, things happened relatively quickly. Had you guys been discussing changes in a casual way for a while, or did something happen during the build up to 300 that just made you think, "We've got to pull the trigger on making a bigger web shift?"

Groth: 300 is a nice, round number, so that may have been an impetus to change the game when we did. I know Spurge characterized it as "a relatively short period of time," but there was nothing hurried about our deliberations. I had been thinking about how to refine the magazine before then, and we'd often have impromptu conversations in the office about this same question, and I finally broached the subject in an official way three or four months ago after I'd put together a tentative game plan that I wanted to run past Mike Dean, Kristy Valenti, and Dirk Deppey. So, in a sense, your supposition is right: we were always casually talking about making changes to the magazine.

From what I've gathered, we're looking at a soup-to-nuts redesign of the website. While the current site has a number of features that work to connect readers with the magazine's content, a shift like this must mean a seismic overhaul in terms of layout, content, interactive features, and everything else we associate with the web. Who's heading up the redesign, and is there a model of site(s) you're looking at emulating in any ways be they a full-service new site like the New York Times or a more feature-focused magazine like Slate?

Groth: I know I used the Huffington Post and The Atlantic Monthly and Senses of Cinema when I was showing our web designer examples of the kinds of sites I liked and found well designed and easily navigable, but I had no single site in mind as a perfect template. But, yes, the site's being redesigned from top to bottom - it won't look anything like the old (current) site. Our local Seattle-based tech support company is doing all the programming; the design has been a give-and-take collaboration between us and what we need editorially, and them and what they can give us technologically. My experience with websites is relatively rudimentary - my guess is most of your readers visit ten times the number of websites I do - so I've used native intelligence, minimal experience, logic, and a lot of input from others to design the site. I particularly like the horizontal blogger scroll that allows us to display a dozen blogs at the same time in order of the time posted.

Your hints on what people can expect in terms of full interviews, regular blog posts and archival material from the magazine is pretty self-explanatory, but I was wondering what people might expect in terms of your plans to reclaim areas that used to be covered by the magazine with a more specific focus. The news section comes to mind in this regard, but the internet really opens possibilities up to all sorts of things the print magazine is unable to do. I guess what I'm asking is, what kinds of things will you be working with outside the criticism, commentary and opinion writing we're used to seeing in TCJ?

Valenti: We're very excited about the multimedia possibilities of the site: for example, we obviously have a very rich audio library, and as someone who had done quite a bit of transcription, I can say that actually hearing the words as spoken by the interview subject adds so many more dimensions than text. Dirk and Gary have begun to enthusiastically propose ideas for new and original audio content, too.

Groth: You'll probably be hearing my voice more than you'll want to with the debut of Gary's Happy Hour. (For one thing, I plan on posting a fifteen-minute audio chat with Gahan Wilson every other week.)

Dean: With respect to news coverage, I'll just add that we do have ambitions along that line. Our criticism of comics news on the web has been that bloggers become so focused on the latest developments of the hour that they neglect to go back and do any in-depth reporting. We hope to do both.

I'm sure this is all very early in the game, but I have to ask if there are any folks worth mentioning who will be playing a role in the site's new focus that may be familiar names, be they regular contributors and columnists from the magazine, or known names from the blogging world you may be bringing under the TCJ umbrella. Any kinds of topics you're hoping to cover in more depth regardless of specific writing talent?

Valenti: We do have ideas for blogs, columns and essays that we haven't had the room to sufficiently explore in the Journal. In fact, some of these topics have only recently developed a body of work substantial enough for critical discussion - but we're still trying to match them up with the right writers at the moment, so I can't go into it more than that.

Groth: I can, a little. Our roster of bloggers will consist of writers who currently blog but don't blog enough - such as Shaenon Garrity and Robert Clough - as well as a few writers we were able to shanghai from the printed magazine who have never blogged - such as R. Fiore and Kenneth Smith. We'll also be hosting contemporary sites, such as The Hooded Utilitarian, which features a number of provocateurs (Noah Berlatsky, Ng Suat Tong, and others) who are not unfamiliar to "Journal" readers.

In the past, the print version of TCJ has cast a very critical eye on how comics journalism and criticism has established itself on the web (well, the mag has cast a critical eye on a lot of things, but this one seems fairly important, all things considered). From a writing perspective, what's the value web content holds outside being delivered faster than print? Do you view the new TCJ site as having to start engaging the discourse that's already happening online, or is it more a shot across the bow in terms of providing what you feel is lacking online?

Valenti: Of course, the web offers an immediacy that print hasn't been able to offer for some time, but we are hoping that, with the website, we'll be able to expand our repertoire of critics to people whose voices have been shaped, in a larger part, by the web. I think many of the people who have primarily written for the print edition, too, like R. Fiore, are looking at this as a chance to expand their writing into new modes.

Groth: I see this is an opportunity to create a true web version of "The Comics Journal," to in effect combine the virtues of both the web and print as I understand them, which is to say, a single "place" where readers can come and expect a consistently intelligent, idiosyncratic, combative, and occasionally clashing conversation about comics and cartooning. Over the past few years I've noticed smarter critical commentary on the Net, but it's scattered all over the place, buried in the usual mountain of frivolous, tepid, dimwitted, unreadable fanboy drivel. There's no single website you can visit and anticipate a range of interesting sensibilities on an equal footing, so one of my goals is to distill the best criticism and journalism we can into a single site.

Moving to the future of the print mag, even considering that a lot of changes have rolled out in the pages of TCJ over the past ten years or so, the very last redesign that changed the trim size and other superficial features of the magazine still felt like a big switch. At the time, the take on the format shift was to help make the mag more desirable for the bookstore market that comics in general and Fantagraphics specifically have made such a big part of their business in recent years. Should this new shift to semi-annual publication be taken as a sign that the last experiment worked in bringing in new buyers? Didn't work as strongly as had been hoped? Something in between?

Groth: Something in between. With #288's format change (almost two years ago), we have been distributed to bookstores, and this added a thousand or so copies to our readership, which was helpful, but I also saw some slippage in the comics market at the same time, and I would've had to have been blind not to notice the overall trend in declining newspaper and magazine circulation throughout the country. Editorially, I've been a little frustrated of late because, as I've said elsewhere, it's been difficult to balance the commercial needs of the magazine with the aesthetic imperatives. Reducing the frequency allows us the latitude to focus on quality over quantity, which is what I'd prefer to do. I'm looking forward to putting together each issue as a unified whole, or at least a sum of parts that come together in a pleasing way, and customizing the size, format, and package to accommodate the specific editorial focus of each individual issue.

One of the things I've really enjoyed being a feature over the past few years since color was introduced to the magazine has been your reprints of older comics material that has fallen out of print. With your stated goal being to make TCJ in print form more of an objet d'art, will you be working to expand on this kind of material in future issues? Any chance you'll be publishing original comics, or will those kinds of things remain under the purview of something like "Mome?"

Groth: Do you have a mole here? Yes, we've discussed featuring original comics - as well as keeping the reprints of older work. It would be pointless to be redundant with "Mome," of course, so we're discussing ways in which original material would be ideally and uniquely suited to a semi-annual magazine; we're working on it.

Beyond the promised new design features and the expected focus on longer, meatier writing, what kinds of new features can readers expect to work their way into the print magazine?

Valenti: I'm hoping that we'd be able to accomplish some of the more ambitious, but labor-intensive, projects that we have been unable to in the past: for example, I've wanted do an oral history on a certain subject, and it seems much more possible now.

I suppose the last question on the print side of things, and in terms of the redesign as a whole, is, why go to the semi-annual format? Do you anticipate the expanded features of the print magazine to take up six months of prep time, or is there a benefit to publishing twice a year that may not exist in something like a quarterly schedule?

Valenti: After working with Adam Grano for six years, I'm really thrilled to see what he can do with TCJ with expanded resources per issue and lengthier deadlines.

Groth: If we can assemble the magazine at a more leisurely pace - rather than the breakneck pace that we've worked at for 33 years (that's the royal we; i.e., mostly me and a succession of poor, burnt-out editors) - we'll put out a better magazine. I hesitate to call it a magazine, too - it'll be distributed to the book trade by W.W. Norton and will retail for a minimum of $20, so it'll be something of a hybrid magazine/book; it'll basically be a book that comes out twice a year and feature material that has the permanence I think of as befitting a book (though I know that's not generally the case in a world where books have no more permanence than yesterday's newspaper).

"The Comics Journal" #299 featuring an interview with cartoonist Josh Cotter is on sale at comic shops and book stores now.

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