Robert Stanley Martin has been talking about the history and legacy of TCJ in our comments thread. I thought I’d collect the bulk (though not all!) of his discussion here.
Caroline Small: To do that, though, people have to get past this knee-jerk notion that craft and concept are an either/or choice. A lot of indie/alt cartooning has turned punk and underground ways of seeing the world into a fetish for harsh, angry expression and just plain ugliness, as though ugliness itself is sufficient to make a work edgy — as if ugliness is somehow inherently more meaningful than beauty. Like scatology and mundaneity, ugliness in indie comics is often a shortcut, a way of giving the illusion that something significant is going on when it really isn’t.
Well, I blame The Comics Journal.
While Groth and company always deserve credit for bringing a semblance of real-world critical standards and dialogue to the field, things have long been past the point where the values they promote have become a pernicious influence. In general, the magazine’s contributors have always implicitly evaluated new work through the prism of the Surrealist aesthetic as popularized by the Beats. The highest goal of art in this view is “self-expression.” Anyone who disputes this should consider why the magazine is all but defined by its idolatry of Crumb and his counterculture peers. Those are the artists who brought that aesthetic to comics. The magazine has always championed Surrealist/Beat modes such as confessional stories and dream narratives over every other approach. The accompanying fetishization of grittiness is why harshness and ugliness are seen as values. The lack of varnish is taken as a signifier of authenticity, and as such, the work is “purer” self-expression and therefore better as art.
Because “self-expression” is seen as the highest goal, things like literary craftsmanship and erudition are treated with suspicion if not outright hostility. That stuff is seen as “artifice” and “pretentiousness,” which in this view are qualities that corrupt art. Skillful drawing is still valued–Crumb’s influence has its good side–but I believe that’s because it’s seen as necessary in the “authenticity” pursuit.
It’s too bad that it isn’t generally recognized that with, say, Harvey Pekar, erudition enhanced the quality of his observations and the judgment used in presenting them.
However, reading is hard work, and adapting the thinking of the better prose writers is even more difficult. Maybe these artists already feel they have too much on their plate.
I may be making a gross generalization, but it’s a pretty accurate one. In the mid-1980s an editorial decision was made by TCJ to essentially segregate the better adventure comics reviewers, such as Heidi MacDonald, to Amazing Heroes. In MacDonald’s case, they did this despite her demonstrable interest in all areas of the field and knowing it made TCJ look like there was a “No Girls Allowed” sign hung on the front door. If memory serves, an ME even complained about it in the pages of the magazine.
That was the time that TCJ settled into the general position that underground comics were the font from which all blessings flowed, and the stuff worth covering was material in that tradition. The anti-corporate-comic bias was so pronounced that there was essentially no coverage of Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison until well into the early 1990s. This was about three years after the rest of the field had taken notice of them. The magazine loosened up a bit after that embarrassment, which happened to coincide with AH‘s demise. From that point on, you might see some discussion of the adventure end of the field in its pages, although the material was usually mocked. Writers go where they feel welcome, and if I was interested in writing about adventure comics, I’m not going to submit spec pieces to a magazine run by Gary Groth. The only time appreciative reviews of stuff from the corporate field occasionally found a congenial home there was during Tom Spurgeon’s or Dirk Deppey’s tenures as ME. Apart from that the emphasis was pretty much always on the U. S. alternative field. The biggest story in comics by far over the last decade was the rise of manga, and the coverage of that work has been conspicuously grudging.
TCJ was able to get away with this from a commercial standpoint because it consistently featured what was by far the best news coverage in the field. When the news operation died, the magazine’s days were numbered. The website is essentially Comics Comics operating under the TCJ logo, and its editors are part-time contractors rather than full-time staff. It’s also going to be a long time, if ever, before you see another print edition.
Kim Deitch was at best a second-tier figure during the underground’s heyday. He didn’t come into his own until the 1990s. I know he likes Kirby, Ditko, and Everett a lot, but I don’t see their influence anywhere in his work.
Who was in the tradition of crudeness before the undergrounds? The art in commercial comics after World War II has always struck me as being pretty slick.
Robert replied to a number of other commenters here.
They never stopped reviewing them [pulp comics], but the tenor was generally, “Look at this piece of crap I accidentally bought last week.”
There was no rhyme or reason to any of it. When the mainstream review coverage was at its nadir, this is what you didn’t see reviews of but should have:
–Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Black Orchid.
–Grant Morrison’s Animal Man.
–Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer.
–Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man.
–Rob Liefeld’s X-Force and New Mutants.
–Jim Lee’s X-Men, or any of his Image work.
–Chris Claremont’s X-Men finale. (They could have killed two birds with one stone with that, as Lee drew it.)
–The Death of Superman.
–The Moore, Gaiman, Sim, and Miller issues of Spawn.
–Frank Miller’s Elektra Lives Again.
–Frank Miller’s initial Sin City serial. (Fiore reviewed the second one in his column.)
–Mike Mignola’s initial Hellboy material.
If you don’t consider Fiore’s columns, the ’92 mainstream-comics ghetto issue, or the “Batglut” article that plagiarized Pauline Kael left and right, there’s a good deal more.
There was also next to no review coverage of the initial manga translations that were released beginning in the late ’80s (Akira, Lone Wolf and Cub, etc.). And as it was translated, I don’t see how the lack of bilingual reviewers was a problem.
By the way, I happen to think a good deal of this stuff is crap, but given its high profile, it should have been reviewed. That it wasn’t is a significant editorial failure.
I admit this is a tangent from the craft/concept debate. But it does illustrate TCJ’s myopia, which I do think is a big part of the problem. Groth and company are largely unable to think outside of their own box, and the magazine’s prominence made this pernicious.
They tried to make up for the Gaiman oversight with multiple feature-length interviews in ’93 and ’94. But it was very belated. Gaiman made his first big splash in ’88 with Black Orchid. By the end of ’89, he was the most respected talent then working at Marvel or DC.
By the way, I don’t know if Caro agrees, but I think Gaiman is very relevant to the craft/concept debate. His material is much more sophisticated than anything I’ve seen from all but a handful of the major indy talents of the last quarter-century.
There are a lot of great interviews, but there aren’t many noteworthy ones with mainstream talents in between Kim Fryer and Tom Spurgeon’s tenures (from #118 to #171). And of those, such as the ones with Alan Moore and Tim Truman, a good portion were conducted because the talents were taking an indy direction with their work, however short-lived. Apart from the news coverage, TCJ turned its back on almost the entire field during that time.
And a couple ending comments from Robert:
However, TCJ was a trade magazine back then, and it wasn’t acting like one with its features material. It handled those sections like it was an arts journal, of which there’s no expectation of currency or an encompassing treatment of the field’s output. The comprehensive news coverage made the magazine seem completely schizo.
And if you ignore the news coverage, it didn’t really work as an arts journal. They were actively hostile to theory-based criticism. What they wanted and published was journalistic criticism of the kind you’d see in a trade publication or the New York Times Book Review.