I Thought They’d Never End

Over the past year or so, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the mainstream North American comic book industry peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That sounds like both hyperbole and curmudgeonly old man thinking, when put so bluntly, but the more I think about it and try to poke holes in it — think of the amazing comics available now or there wasn’t a robust book trade back then or whatever, both of which are valid points — the more I realize such arguments are beside the point. The mainstream North American comic book industry was in better shape 30-odd years ago than it is today.

On the face of it, that’s relatively obvious: both Marvel and DC were in dominant mode, in terms of both market share but also output: beyond their core superhero comics, both publishers had additional imprints or titles dedicated to promoting different material that just don’t exist at either publisher anymore; Marvel, always the more conservative company, had Epic Comics and the Marvel Graphic Novels line, which regularly featured creator owned new concepts from Marvel talent, while DC had the Berger books, Piranha Press, it’s own graphic novels line, and random, wonderful oddities like Wasteland or Angel Love or Outcasts.

There was also a far healthier indie scene than we have today, I’d argue, with publishers like First Comics and Eclipse Comics acting in a similar manner to today’s Image Comics but with less of a focus on potential media adaptation and more willingness to experiment and challenge its creators as well as readers. Companies like Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink Press were around to offer alternatives to superheroes in terms of action/adventure strips, and Fantagraphics, Last Gasp, and others (including, again, Kitchen Sink!) were there with more alternative, artcomix material, too.

And what’s more, what’s the thing I keep coming back to is, there wasn’t the naked, blunt focus on the bottom line — whether corporate parents or potential movie or TV deals — that feels omnipresent in today’s industry. Everyone had to stay profitable, of course, but there was still, almost across the board, a willingness — an eagerness — to play and occasionally make dumb decisions for good reasons that just feels absent in today’s market.

Like I said before; there’s probably some element of nostalgia present in all of this, and certainly there are audiences and demographics better served now than way back then. But creatively, I can’t help but feel that the North American comics mainstream was far better off in the good old days. Does this make me old, or just right…?

Swollen But Unseen

I’ve been re-reading Brian Eno’s A Year With Swollen Appendices lately, I’ve become fascinated with the latter element of the book. For those who’re unfamiliar with it, it’s basically a published version of a year of Eno’s diaries, with the addition of a bunch of essays and expanded thoughts at the end; about a third of the finished book is made up of those appendices, which range from everything from lists of books and records Eno has been involved with to unfinished essays about why “interactive” isn’t the right word to use when describing certain kinds of media. It’s a fun, thought provoking, playful read, and one I’ve been enjoying revisiting.

All of this is prelude to me admitting this: it’s made me want to write big, thoughtful pieces of comics theory. It’s left me wanting not just to read, but to write longform thinking and theorizing about the comics medium and the comics format. It’s left me wanting to be playful with something that is my field of expertise in the same way that Eno is with his, even if I don’t necessarily know what that would actually look like in practice. It’s become a really exciting idea, at least in theory.

The thing is, I don’t know where I’d put that; in theory, it could be a Popverse idea, but I don’t feel like it’s complete enough for there, or necessarily even coherent enough — there’s something about Popverse as a platform (and a job!) that I think needs to be almost finished before putting in there, and this isn’t that, at all. Is it something for here? Maybe — this has always been a space I’d promised myself for experimentation and failure, but is it too comic-forward for here…? I don’t know.

There’s no small part of me that wishes that I had the book deal that never quite happened; if this could be anything, it could be a book. One day, perhaps. One day.

The Path, Taken

For no immediately apparent reason the other night, I started thinking about the final year of my undergraduate art school program. Like I said, I’m really not sure why; I was falling asleep, and it just happened, as if my brain went, hey, this was more than a quarter century ago, why not start thinking about it now? Reader, I did. I was falling asleep and suggestible, what can I tell you?

Specifically, I was thinking about my dissertation that made up some significant portion of my final grade that I can’t remember — a quarter? That can’t be right, but it feels like it might be, nonetheless — and how I basically half-assed it. I got a pretty good final grade for my degree, good enough that I felt accomplished and relieved in equal measure when finally learning what it was, but I remember being told in an offhand manner by one of my teachers that my dissertation had dragged it down, and what’s more, I remember hearing that and thinking in response, yeah, that makes sense.

The irony of the whole situation from today’s point of view is that I screwed up the dissertation purely because I didn’t want to write. I had countless, multiple chances to work on the thing, but I’d spend them doing almost anything else until I had no other option. To this day, almost exactly 26 years later (I basically wrote the whole thing in a blur across the Christmas break), I remember with shocking clarity the feeling of sitting down to just do it with a combination of stress and resignation, as if I’d run out of chances to avoid doing it.

Looking back now, I think about how short the word count was (10-15,000 words) and how difficult it felt to get them out of me at the time. I was, ironically, less than a year away from realizing that maybe I wanted to be a writer, but if you’d asked me at the time, that would have seemed almost impossible.

Exciting News For Our Readers

This is a weird one, but in keeping with my original plan for this site being a repository for things I didn’t put elsewhere. Below is the written-but-never-sent-for-technical-reasons (no, really; the site was down on the day it was supposed to go out) final edition of the Comics, FYI newsletter, from July of this year. Preserved for historical purposes, and a fun look back (for me, at least) about where my head was at in the summer before I started at Popverse full-time.

To a certain generation of British comic book readers, the phrase “Exciting News For Our Readers” (or variations on the same; sometimes it would “Great News”) had a chilling effect whenever it appeared on the cover of one of their favorite titles, because it was generally understood to be a coded way of announcing that the comic in question had been canceled.

Okay, that’s perhaps a little reductive; British comics of the late 20th century were rarely outright canceled, after all. Instead, the practice was to take two or three of the most popular strips from the title – almost every UK comic was an anthology, filled with multiple strips and characters running anywhere from one to eight pages per issue – and place them in another comic, which would add the canceled title’s logo to its cover for a brief period in an attempt to lure in some new readers who’d been following along with the now-gone comic. The “Exciting News” for readers was that two of their favorite comics were now teaming up to become one all-killer, no-filler title, in theory.

To be fair, it was this practice – referred to by those in the industry as “Hatch, Match, and Dispatch,” for reasonably obvious reasons* – that resulted in the addition of Strontium Dog and Ro-Busters to 2000 AD back in the day, both of which now considered essential parts of the beloved anthology’s DNA even though they originated in the short lived title Star Lord, so it’s clearly something that did what it was supposed to. Similarly, other classics like The Thirteenth Floor** long outlived their original homes thanks to this strategy, finding new fandoms in the process.

The reason I’m telling you all of this is because I, too, have some Exciting News For My Readers: this is the last edition of the newsletter for the foreseeable future. Sorry, all. (Especially those who just signed up in the last few days, which turns out to be a surprisingly high number for some reason. Read the archives, at least?) Here’s the “exciting” part of things, though: as of next week, I’m going to be a staff writer for ReedPop’s Popverse site, where I’ll be doing more of the kinds of things I’ve been doing here, and more besides.

~~~

As I said back in the first newsletter in January, I started this as much as anything for a chance to do the type of writing that I didn’t feel I had the opportunity to do anymore after leaving THR’s Heat Vision blog as a regular contributor***. What I didn’t expect to happen at the time was that a number of different things would happen very quickly after that email went out, including the first in a number of calls with Popverse editor Chris Arrant where we talked about what comics journalism could be, what it used to be – look, we’re both old – and the potential for what at the time was a secret, mystery thing that Chris was planning that turned out to be Popverse. (He really kept things under wraps for an impressively long time.)

While all that was happening, the newsletter quickly grew into something I enjoyed doing – and something that felt as if it could actually provide some kind of service to readers, at least to the extent that anything in comics journalism is necessarily capable of. (I’m old enough to be simultaneously cynical and optimistic about such things, I confess.) I say that as much as anything to let you know that deciding to put this newsletter on indefinite hiatus isn’t something I took lightly, nor something that I haven’t gone back and forth about a bunch of time in the last week or so as the Popverse gig came together. (It’s still coming together; I have a bunch of paperwork to fill in after I send this out. As someone who’s been freelance for more than a decade, I’d forgotten quite how much paperwork was required for such things.)

There are a number of stories I’d planned for future newsletters – a number that I’d started to report and even write up, only to put aside while waiting on more information or final quotes or whatever – that will, I suspect, end up as stories on Popverse****; there are a number of developing and/or unfinished stories to follow up on that I’m sure I’ll be pursuing there, as well. Basically, while this newsletter is taking a nap, almost everything that you would find here, you’ll find there, and more.

I still have a lot of love for the newsletter format, and think there’s a lot of potential to be unlocked in news delivery this way; I’m purposefully looking at this as an “indefinite hiatus,” if only because I reserve the right to resurrect this at a later date, dammit (or else use this for sneaky mailings when everyone least expects it; don’t be that surprised if it happens). For now, though – well, as of Monday – anyone looking for me should be taking a look over at Popverse.

* The hatching was the creation of new titles in the first place, in case you’re wondering.

** The Thirteenth Floor is a British horror strip that should be far better known than it is; created by Judge Dredd’s John Wagner and Alan Grant, and featuring stunning art from Jose Ortiz, it’s essentially the 1970s Wrath of the Spectre concept with a twist, as a sentient (and sentimental, albeit also sociopathic) computer called Max protects working class folk from bullies of all sorts via a supernatural floor that can bring people’s nightmares to life. It’s genuinely amazing stuff.

*** I also said in that first newsletter that I was planning on this eventually turned into a paid newsletter, which clearly didn’t happen; I think that was for the best, in the end.

**** I’d planned on doing a lot more interviews and profiles for the newsletter that just didn’t happen for all kinds of reasons. Expect more of that on Popverse too.

~~~

Meanwhile, panels for this year’s San Diego Comic-Con have started to be rolled out – both on Comic-Con’s own website, and via promotional emails from those organizing said panels – and not only am I at the show, I’m on no less than three panels this year:

Comics Journalism: Newsletters and TikTok and Blogs, Oh My! Thursday July 21 at 5:00pm, Room 23ABC

The world of writing about comics is changing yet again, with new ventures appearing, old formats arising again, and all new ones finding innovative ways to talk about comics, from Substack to TikTok and back. Heidi MacDonald (The Beat) joins Chris Arrant (PopVerse), Graeme McMillan (Comics, FYI), Joelle Monique (IHeartRadio), Barbra Dillon (Fanbase Press), and others for their annual discussion of the state of comics journalism.

Adapting the World of Blade Runner for Comics Friday July 22 at 2:00pm, Room 29AB

Titan’s critically acclaimed and beloved Blade Runner comics series returns! Blade Runner Origins co-writer K. Perkins (Paper Girls, Batwoman) and Blade Runner 2029 writer Mike Johnson discuss with journalist Graeme McMillan adapting and expanding the classic neo-noir world for comics.

Image Comics: The Secrets Behind Captivating Comics Storytelling Sunday July 24 at 11:30am, Room 10

A freewheeling conversation between Marcia Chen (Lady Mechanika), Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika), Erica Schultz (The Deadliest Bouquet), Tina Horn (SFSX), and Wyatt Kennedy (Bolero). Moderated by Graeme McMillan.

The first Comic-Con I ever did was to do the Comics Journalism panel, back when I was doing Fanboy Rampage!!! (That was… maybe 18 or 19 years ago at this point?) Time is a flat circle, I guess…? Anyway: I’ll bet at Comic-Con! Come see my panels but keep your distance because Covid.

Behind The Muzak

The one thing I didn’t really consider with the slow motion collapse of Twitter that’s going on is that the company doesn’t just own Twitter, but Revue, the platform I used for my shorter-lived-than-intended newsletter at the start of the year; if Twitter collapses, so does the archive of Comics FYI, as well as the mailing list attached to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those are two things I’d like records of for posterity, for my ego, and just to be utterly cynical, for potential further use should things go suddenly wrong with my day job and I need to think about alternate outlets again.

Back when I started it, Comics FYI was my attempt to inoculate myself against the freelance life in some way, by having something that was mine and therefore couldn’t be pulled away without notice — or, maybe worse, with notice, as happened at THR, leaving me an anxious wreck for a month, scrambling to try and argue my value to executives who really didn’t care one way or another. The newsletter was mine, and that was genuinely thrilling, and that freedom was something I felt both an excitement from, and pressure of, every time I sat down to write an installment.

What it didn’t do, however, was pay.

Something I honestly hadn’t really considered in any appreciable manner about the newsletter was how effectively it would act as an advertisement for my writing skills, but within weeks of it launching, my freelance career — which had been slowly but clearly dying throughout 2021 — was more active than it had been in years. So much so, in fact, that it would eventually bring me a full-time job offer that came with a non-compete clause that only had so many cutouts available. Figuring that Popverse would give me the opportunity to do the same kind of work as the newsletter, but also pay me for it, I signed up and quietly folded the newsletter.

That said, I’m going to keep hold of the mailing list for the future. Just in case.

Have You Ever Considered…?

It’s almost the holiday season again, somehow — a realization I came to, as so many are these days, because of work, as we start to plan coverage that includes gift guides and Best Of lists. (It’s beginning to look a lot like Listmas, as the song almost goes.) 

That this is what you do for the end of the year isn’t anything new to me; I’ve been doing this for long enough that it’s not only second nature by this point, but almost a nostalgic tradition in and of itself. There was a period of a few years where the end of the year meant coming up with Best Comics Of The Year lists for both Wired and The Hollywood Reporter more or less simultaneously, and still trying to ensure that I wasn’t entirely repeating myself. They were for two different outlets with different audiences, I’d tell myself, and therefore what met the criteria of “best” was different.

By now, then, it really is as much a part of the end of the year to think in terms of this kind of writing as listening to Christmas music, putting lights around the tree or stressing that I’ve not gotten the presents right for whatever reason. It’s a comfort, in some kind of a way, if I’m honest: a familiar landmark that lets me know where I am in terms of the year, and reminds me that, before too long, the whole thing can be packed up and put away as we look to the new calendar with no small amount of hope that surely, surely, this one will be better. 

I tell myself all of this as I sit here, thinking about my work to-do list for the day, trying to find the piece of surprise, curiosity, and “new” — the novelty — that gets my fingers on the keys and my brain in gear, that makes the work happen every day.

A Personal Announcement

So, last week I started a new full time job; my first in more than a decade. I’m both excited and nervous about this.

Excited because, well, it’s exciting: I’m somewhere I want to be, working on material that I want to work on, and with editorial support to do what feels like it’s going to be good work. And it’s a staff position, something I haven’t had for more than a decade at this point — although both THR and Wired were long term freelance gigs that felt like staff positions, in their own way — which brings with it not only a sense of security and stability, but also a guaranteed income on a monthly basis, healthcare benefits, and paid time off. Even just typing that, I can feel the tension of the freelance hustle fading off my shoulders just a little. That, in itself, is exciting.

I’m also nervous, though, because it has been more than a decade since I’ve been staff, and because being staff has responsibilities and requirements that I’m not used to at this point, not just yet. I’m nervous because I want to do a good job and convince those who hired me that they made the right decision, and because I want to do a good job just to do a good job, that that’s a reward in and of itself. (Of course.) I’m nervous because this is, ultimately, something new and uncomfortable, and no matter how exciting I find it, anything new and uncomfortable is almost certainly going to leave you a little bit nervous if you care about it in any way.

2022 has been an entirely unexpected year in countless ways so far, and we’re barely halfway through. This is just the latest twist I didn’t see coming just a couple months ago, but it’s a rarity in that it’s not a disaster that I have to survive and recover from. Or, at least, I hope it isn’t.

Don’t Fence Me In (The Self-Indulgent Version)

It’s a sad reality of my career that I’ve learned to work through emotional distress and trauma; a sad reality of my life and previous marriage, as well, in that work became a respite and relief from a relationship that was not good for me, yet I felt locked inside.

There used to be a skill — a term I use loosely, and arguably utterly incorrectly— I had, wherein I was able to tune out everything bad around me and just concentrate on the words in front of me, anchoring myself in whatever deadlines I had and whatever the subject matter I was to focus on no matter how turbulent all the other stuff was.

I was thinking of this almost wistfully last week, writing in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Roe v. Wade ruling and end the national right to abortion. It was news I struggled to come to terms with — intellectually, sure, I understood what was happening, but as soon as I tried to comprehend what had been taken from people, and the pain and misery that would come from the decision, my brain started to swim — and, try as hard as I might, I couldn’t stop it from taking over my brain and preoccupying me all day.

(That Chloe was visiting family at the time didn’t help; I wanted to be there with her as she processed the news, too, I wanted us to process it together, to talk about it and get angry and sad and scared together. Doing it alone and through texts and calls felt unnatural and awkward.)

I tried to compartmentalize, and put everything in a box as I met my deadlines, and I couldn’t; it wouldn’t fit. It wasn’t just the Supreme Court news, really, but the accumulation of everything that had been happening in the past few weeks. I tried to eke out what I could to meet my deadlines, but my heart was barely in it.

It’s an evolution for me as a person, this new inability to shut away unprocessed feelings; it’s something new that I know is good in the long run. It’s just not particularly good for my workload.

FYI, FYI

By this point, I’ve been doing the Comics, FYI newsletter for close to six months; it’s not something that’s necessarily turned out exactly as I expected, but in ways that have been more rewarding, and in entirely different ways than I’d anticipated.

The origins of the newsletter were somewhat diffuse: I missed writing regularly about comics, and in a relatively self-directed fashion. (At THR, I’d basically had my druthers to pursue what interested me, as long as I could sell my editors on it; Aaron and Erik were particularly good at helping me pare down what was, and wasn’t, interesting in the end.) I’d spent much of 2021 promising myself that I’d start a comics website of my own, only to hold off for the simple reason that, deep down, that wasn’t really something I felt ready for; a newsletter, though, felt like it could be fun, if done right.

Throughout the whole process of thinking about it pre-launch, I kept remembering a conversation I had with my friend Lucy (Hi, Lucy!), wherein she joked that she didn’t really pay attention to comics news and just needed someone to summarize the important things for her every now and then. That was always the North Star, when I was working out what I wanted to do. If I could basically write about what seemed important to me, and explain why in such a fashion that anyone could get it, then I was doing something right.

And, of course, I wanted it to earn money for me. After all, paid newsletters are a thing, now. Surely, if I got enough readers, then I could make money from it, right…?

Spoilers: I’m still not charging for it. By this point, I probably never will. The newsletter has become rewarding in its own right, and my career has picked up elsewhere, so I don’t feel the need to charge for it anymore, per se. Doing so feels almost the opposite of the “information for everyone” mission that the newsletter has evolved, and almost self-indulgent and greedy at this point. Maybe my thinking on that will change again at some point, but for now, the newsletter is my version of comics journalism public service, being curious in public and inviting others to join in.

It’s become a highlight of my week, every week, even when it’s stressful and not coming together in time. It’s something I can’t imagine not doing, anymore.

The Right Length

One of the things about having been an online writer for as long as I have is the number of white hairs in my beard. No, wait, that’s not what I meant to say at the start of that sentence. (I do have a lot of white hairs in my beard, though; I guess the last year has been particularly stressful?) What I meant was: After doing this for close to 20 years now, it’s strange to be able to recognize trends and attitudes towards particular things change, evolve, or simply upend themselves for whatever reason.

What’s brought this to mind is, simply, word count. As part of my new work reality, I’m writing a lot more long form pieces than I used to; at THR, the majority of my work was in theory short news bursts with the occasional long form op-ed or explainer. In terms of word count, that would translate at something roughly 300-400 words for news, and 800-1000 words for long form.

Nowadays, I’m seeing long form expectations start at 1000, and go up to 1500-2000, depending on outlet and story. Initially, it was a significant shift in thinking — I was used to compressing everything down to its tightest, most abbreviated form, after all — and something I really struggled with; I felt as if I was filling time aimlessly and trying to find something, anything, to fill the space.

What’s surprising, though, is how quickly you do adapt, though. Your rhythms change and you find the way to work through the space you have, fast enough that when presented with the old limits again — Wired still asks for pieces around the old definition of long form — that that becomes the struggle instead. I’d just gotten used to going on at length, and now I have to be brief all over again? Heavens to Betsy, who has the brain space to juggle all of this on an ongoing basis?