Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Journal of record

The Comics Journal is an easy magazine to poke fun at. It sometimes gets so myopic in its examination of comics culture that it goes right up its own arse, while refusing to acknowledge that the lights have gone out. With an editorial focus that has raised sneering to an artform, it can be willfully dismissive of works that deserve attention, while focusing on others that have had their fair share of notice.

And yet, it remains the best magazine about comics I’ve ever had the pleasure to read, offering in-depth analysis that has changed my entire opinion of certain comics, while warning of potential danger spots ahead.

And it has some of the best interviews with comic writers, artists and editors that have ever peen published in any medium. Conversations that go on for dozens of pages, covering a massive amount of comics history, with fascinating people talking about their fascinating lives.

The early days of the magazine were a little clumsy, partly due to inexperience in the editorial department and partly due to an overall lack of genuinely progressive comic books. The magazine could only talk about Will Eisner or R Crumb for so long, before having to acknowledge that the Uncanny X-Men was the most beloved comic of the period.

But it eventually found its feet somewhere in the mid eighties. The launch of Amazing Heroes allowed it to jettison much of its mainstream content and focus on the rising tide of independent publications. (A tide that the Journal’s publishers took advantage of to publish its own excellent titles, including the immortal Love & Rockets.)

By the time it had reached an issue number in the triple digits, the Journal had established itself as the place to go for news of new projects or deep analysis that was unavailable anywhere else in comicdom.

In my mind, it first reached its peak somewhere around #130 and every issue of the magazine for the next few years featured some incredible writing looking at some of the great projects of the late eighties, from creators who were arguably hitting their own peak in their craft.

The Comics Journal was absolutely churning with excitement at the time, as many of the arguments that Gary Groth had been spouting for years turned out to be true. Like many others, he could see the hunger for comics that had more of an intellectual focus, rather than the broad strokes of emotion and sheer dumbness many comics had been happy with for decades, and he was very, very good at articulating the desire for these works. That hunger eventually blossomed into a whole new area of comics that is now well-established, one outside the dominance of Marvel and DC, where great projects lurk and inevitably find an appreciative audience.

As the new guard of independent creators such as Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes and Chris Ware came into their own, the Journal was tracking their progress every step of the way, pointing out obscure gems and overrated lumps of waste.

And despite an already high level in quality, the interviews around this time reached a whole new level. They grew from lengthy, in-depth looks at careers in comics into monoliths of information that drilled down to the most esoteric of details, while also giving wide swaths of data about the history of the medium.

I was 19 when I discovered The Comics Journal, after only ever seeing the occasional issue of Amazing Heroes or Hero Illustrated. An odd magazine shop in the odd city of Christchurch was going out of business and was selling off its stock at ridiculously cheap prices. The dozen or so issues of The Comics Journal that I got from that shop are almost falling to pieces now, because they were just full of so much good reading, packed with tons of tiny bits of information and entertainment.

There was Neil Gaiman interviewing Los Bros Hernandez in a lively chat and Groth getting some fantastic stories out of Frank Frazetta. (At the time I thought I didn’t like Frazetta, but this was mainly because I was a fucking moron when I was 19, and that interview helped me overcome my own ignorance. It also convinced me that Frazetta might be older than stone, but he was just as hard and could still take me in a fight with one hand tied behind his back.)

There were also terrific interviews with Clive Barker, Roberta Gregory, Scott McCloud, Seth and Grant Morrison, right before he got stuck into The Invisibles. Each one opened my eyes to new ideas, new thoughts and lots of lovely new comics that I had to try out. Each subject had much to say, and I soaked it all up like a comics sponge.

One that still sticks in my mind is the interview with the great Joe Kubert in #172.  Kubert’s crystal clear view of the early days of comics, right up through his work on the war comics of the sixties and seventies, were a true eyeopener and it was marvellous to get a glimpse of the mind behind the sheer stylistic power of his pencils and the vast history that lurked beneath the surface. That particular magazine obliterated a tedious three hour train journey I had to take at the time, and I can still remember the thrill of finding out I was only halfway through the monstrously long interview as the journey was coming to an end.

From then on, I was always interested in what the Journal was doing, even though it has always proved incredibly difficult to get hold of issues. But those few that I have managed to get have been greatly appreciated, especially the fantastic Kevin Eastman interview in #202, which was another eyeopener in terms of how fucked up the comics business can sometimes get.

But it steadily got harder and harder to locate the individual issues and attempts to get it imported through magazine and comic shops proved fruitless or prohibitively expensive. Eventually, I lost touch altogether. The internet still provided plenty of information and the odd good interview, but it just wasn’t the same.

And then I moved to a town that actually knew how to stock a good library, and that love for all things Journal flared up again. I’ve devoured the last dozen issues, eagerly snapping them up as soon as they appear on the shelves.

I do feel a little guilty about not actively supporting the magazine when I get so much enjoyment out of it, but the current price pushes it way beyond anything I could afford on a regular basis, (especially with the NZ dollar tanking against its American equivalent in recent months).  And while I still enjoy many of the features and interviews (and am particularly pleased to see some of the internet’s finest comic writers in print), there are still vast sections that I’m just not that interested in.

I’m still not sure about Kenneth smith’s articles and if it’s a joke about its own inherent unreadability, it’s one that goes right over my head. The section given over to reprints of ancient comic strips and other oddities from the past century of comics is always worth a look, even if the style of days-long-gone can be a little hard on modern eyes. There are still long articles that look at the overall industry or the minutiae of specific works that are skim-worthy and rarely connect with me, although it is nice to see topics covered that are otherwise ignored and these articles will certainly find an appreciative audience for this fact.

Overall, it is still an absolute pleasure to sit down with a new issue of The Comics Journal and read about the craft and love for the medium that is out there. It is often lamented that there is not a midway ground between the Journal and Wizard where a third comics magazine option can find success, but that is no reason to ever cast aspersions on the Journal’s achievements.

The magazine has consistently provided meaty reading on the entire medium, highlighting works that deserve all the recognition they could muster, while unafraid to call a spade a useless tool. It has recorded the history of comics with style and panache, has published the liveliest letter page in magazines and has been unfailing in its bid to raise comics as an art form. There is still a long way to go on this score, but the Journal shows no sign of giving up the fight.

And that's nothing to sneer at.

* * * 

Thanks for all the hard work to Tom Spurgeon, Eric Reynolds, Michael Dean, Dirk Deppey, Milo George, Anne Elizabeth Moore, Darren Hick, Eric Evans, R C Harvey, Robert Rodi, Matt Silvie, Heidi MacDonald, Jan Strnad, everybody else who has chimed in over the years and the grand old men: Gary Groth and Kim Thompson. Excellent work, everybody.


Nik said...

I have to admit I've fallen away from the Journal a lot in recent years - it IS hard to find down here although I have seen it at the library sometimes like you. I do think it's a great, important publication but it does sometimes get its own head firmly in the clouds (the ongoing baffling mystery of Kenneth Smith's wank-prose is a perfect example). I long for the days of an Amazing Heroes or something that strode the middle ground between Wizard and TCJ, though!

Jesse Post said...

I think it's also worth noting how beautiful the actual magazine is nowadays, with it's smaller trim size, glossy covers, crisp perfect binding, and color on seemingly every page. The high price point also turned me away for a while but I came right back when the physical product made it worthwhile. The interior design has improved tremendously. I buy it every month now, keeping them proudly on the bookshelf when I've read it through.

Bob Temuka said...

They are definitely worth picking up from the library, Nik. The last year or so has seen some fantastic interviews, even when I'm not particularly fond of the work the subjects produce. The biggest pain about getting them from the library is that sometimes you have to wait months before you get the chance to grab them, and sometimes they never seem to show up at all. (I'm still disappointed every time I walk in and fail to find the one with the Deitch family interviews...)

And hey, in other local library news, I just saw that Dylan Horrocks is giving a talk tomorrow night! http://hicksvillecomics.com/?p=298. I feel like crap on toast after a nasty bug swept through the office, but I'll give up some precious lying around time to make that...

You're right about the design work, Jesse. It's a gorgeous looking product. It has always had spectacular covers, but the smaller size has really paid off, resulting in a fantastic, and chunky, package. And as somebody who is easily amused by things like this, I also really, really like the peel-off sticker thing they do on the cover.

Randy Reynaldo said...

Great appreciation. It's been easy to beat up the Journal over the years for being "elitest" (a reputation I'm sure it partly exploited to its advantage), but I agree it's filled a niche that was much needed in the industry. I faithfully purchased every issue since early on (30-something?) but in recent years, esp. with the change of format, I've not done so as regularly, partly an acknowledgment that they've moved in a different direction than me. That's no fault of their own--tastes change and as I have gotten older and taken on new responsibilities (including a family), I have neither the time, patience nor interest to devote to things that are too esoteric for me these days. But I still respect the magazine and its place deeply. (Back in the '80s, I even had an article and some reviews published by them.)