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Serving the casual reader by not reviewing anything he's looking for

So, Joey Manley, the guy behind Modern Tales and the hoster of American Elf -- and a guy who gets money from me every month, I'm glad to say -- is publishing a new literary journal entitled The Graphic Novel Review. His stated goal is to create a book review that is for the casual graphic novel fan what the New York Times Book Review is for the casual book lover.

I can get behind this idea. I think something that brings graphic novels closer to the mainstream and develops critical scrutiny for them is a good, good thing.

It's a pity they've elected to be dumbasses about it.

We hope to review books featuring corporate-owned properties (e.g. non-creator-owned books) almost as rarely as the NYT Book Review covers Harlequin Romances, or any other prose book put together on an assembly line by creative workers with no long-term stake in the economic life of the work they have done. Which is to say: hardly ever. Our assumption is that such economic conditions will almost always lead to sub par work, even when the creative workers themselves are capable of great things. Since the vast majority of superhero GNs coming out are corporate properties, the genre may get fairly scant coverage on GNR. This is not a slight against the genre, so much as against the method of production. Creator-owned superhero books will have a much better shot at garnering a review.

Okay. So.

Under this system, Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing wouldn't have a home here. Or a collection of Superman stories that includes the single finest Superhero story I've ever read: Moore and Gibbons's "For The Man Who Has Everything." Or The Dark Knight Returns. Matt Wagner is only good when he's doing Grendel or Mage. Drop him into Sandman Mystery Theater and he's got no reason to bring his A game, obviously.

And anyone who's working on Batman or Green Lantern or Spider Man? Sub-par work. They have no economic stake, so they're just phoning it in, clearly. Always. Almost no exceptions. Because... because. They have no reason to really try, do they? (Setting aside the paycheck they're receiving.)

Guys? The New York Times Review of Books doesn't review romance novels. You're right. But they do review potboilers. And Stephen King novels. And Harry Potter books. Look, I'd love it if this meant the next Dan Cowles book got to sell ten times what the last one did. But it won't do that if the 'casual graphic novel reader' doesn't buy Graphic Novel Review in the first place. If they're walking through Barnes and Noble, they see a graphic novel section, they pick up your magazine, and see that 95% of the display isn't being covered... they're not going to pay any attention to the other 5%.

If you disdain the masses, you don't get to educate them. If you want them to learn about the gemstones, you have to address the semiprecious stones they already collect. And, most importantly, you have to accept that quality and art can be born from many sources and many directions. You have to accept that sometimes, the wage slave is going to blow away everyone around him because the art is more important to him than anything else. Sometimes, a writer wants to write, to make something glorious, even if he's doing it for hire. Charles Dickens wrote a ton of his stuff on an serialized assembly line as work for hire, but we still think Pickwick Papers is pretty damn spiffy, you know. And a good number of the best -- or at least most celebrated -- writers and artists of graphic novels are on the wage train. Hell, no one's more celebrated right now than Alex Ross, and he does most of his work for the big two.

Superman. Batman. Spider-Man. These are cultural icons, whether we like it or not. To simply dismiss graphic novels that feature them means dismissing the absolute core of American sequential art. That won't elevate the fringe, that will make your magazine part of it. And besides, we have no need to recover Gary Groth's territory. He's already staked it out pretty thoroughly, guys. Have faith he can hold that fort down, and choose your articles on the basis of their merits, even if the subject has been heard of by more than forty people.


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Joey actually addressed this issue on his blog last week, and, in fact, brought up Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run himself.

"[W]e're still stubbornly clinging to the bias toward creator-owned work at GNR, but not without some allowance for its ineffectiveness as a way of identifying the really great work -- we'll be making exceptions right and left, I'm afraid."

That makes me feel better about GNR, actually. Less the "we'll be making exceptions" part, but the acknowledgment of the bias as a bias. There's nothing wrong with having an editorial bias in a magazine, whether electronic or physical. The problem is in comparing yourself to the Times Book Review without recognizing that your bias brings you closer to a specialist review rather than a generalist one.

The likelihood is I'll pick up an issue or two, depending on their distribution method. We'll see if the articles speak to me and my needs or not. Not that they have to speak to me and my needs -- that just determines whether I'll keep up with the articles or not.

Thanks for the feedback on GNR's mission statement. Thanks also for the very kind words about my other projects in other posts you've made -- I really appreciate it.

On the specific issues you bring up about GNR's deliberate bias, here are some thoughts:

I'm not sure that the latest and best Superman story is really what the casual reader wants. In my experience, the people I hang out with who read lots of novels, but who aren't comics fans, are far more likely to have an interest in, say, Bone, or Akira, or in some of the not-too-avant-garde realistic books put out by the avant garde publishers, like, say, Blankets, Ghost World or American Splendor. I try to push a superhero book on them, they swat me away and roll their eyes. I show them Ghost World, they flip through it and think about borrowing it. That's the kind of book that will fit our bias neatly. All of these books have fairly prominent availability in the big box bookstores, so I could hardly understand their being dismissed as "fringe items."

Unlike TCJ, we won't be covering mini-comics, out-of-print items, or obsessing over our superiority. Unlike Wizard, we won't be spoon-feeding you corporate hype.

And that's really where we're aiming. Think of us as attempting to fit into the middle ground between the High Snobbery of TCJ and the drooling boobery of Wizard.

Dickens' work was serialized, and was very popular, and is often held up as an example of greatness when people criticize "mainstream" comic books for being serialized, and for being very popular. But it is my understanding that Dickens' work was owned by himself, so his example doesn't apply here. Ditto Twain. Shakespeare is more problematic, but our conceptions of "intellectual property" were not fully-formed when he was working.

Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, etc. -- the potboiler authors reviewed by the Times -- definitely own their own work. You may see the Times reviewing a Western, but you won't often, if ever, see them reviewing a Work For Hire western series like "Longarm." (Longarm of the Law -- get it? Rgh.)

As you noted, I've mentioned in my blog that our bias will not be as harshly enforced as the writer's guidelines might lead one to believe. The writer's guidelines were written strongly. What we did not want was hundreds of submissions of reviews of the latest Marvel/DC/etc. books. The corporate comics are, as you've noted, dominant in the industry (and industry which itself is dominated by hardcore fans, not casual readers) -- so dominant that we felt that a deliberate bias against them was necessary in order to keep from being overwhelmed, and becoming yet another Silver Bullet Comics, or Comicon Pulse, or Newsarama, or Wizard, or ... you get the idea. Those works get plenty of coverage, and, we feel, will not appeal to the "true mainstream" book reader who represents our target audience.

But we could be wrong!

And we will be covering some of the corporate books, some of the time, anyway.

GNR will be a free webzine, by the way. I know, that sounds weird coming from me. But there you go!

Thanks again!


(I'll forward a copy of this comment to Joey Manley as well -- damn Movable Type and its inability to ping people when replies are made to their comments! DAMN THEM!)

I appreciate your viewpoint, and I do honestly feel better knowing that there is room for corporate books to be reflected here.

I think there is a distinction to be made between the DC/Marvel books and, say, the difference between a Fantasy novel and Forgotten Realms. The work for hire novels series are, for all intents and purposes, fringe to the 'mainstream' of novel writing. No matter how many Star Trek novels are written, when the casual reader of Science Fiction wanders into the SF section, he wanders through the SF section, not the SF/Media tie ins. Even high quality tie-in novels (I for one am a fan of Bruce Baugh's Lambrosa novels, over under the Vampire: The Masquerade banner) are pushed to the side -- not considered up to snuff, if you will. And this is mete, in its own way. The casual reader has no doubt heard of Star Trek or Buffy, but he doesn't think 'novels' when he hears them. He thinks of TV shows, and considers, rightfully, that the work-for-hire books are spinoffs from said TV shows.

But if you say "comic book" or even "graphic novel" to a casual reader -- someone who doesn't have some knowledge of the field -- they're going to think Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. Or they're going to think anime (and let's not kid ourselves -- translated manga are outselling American graphic novels significantly, right now). I happen to agree with you that the potential audience for Bone (or even Eightball) is significantly higher than the potential audience for all but the best DC and Marvel has to offer -- but the casual reader will never have heard of Jeff Smith or Dan Cowles.

Do I think Graphic Novel Review needs to cover every "let's slap twelve issues of Superman together and sell it in Barnes and Noble for twenty bucks" entry? No. Absolutely not. I do, however, think that when Kingdom Come came along, it would be perfect fodder for GNR. And when The Kingdom came along after it, it would be equally important for GNR to cover it and show how that work was inferior to its original.

So... in one sense, I completely agree with you. So long as you are in fact going to cover the significant corporate works, then I think GNR has a much higher chance of succeeding in its mission. (And I think it also has a higher chance of evangelizing independent and creator-owned works to the masses.) I absolutely don't want to see GNR become a mouthpiece the way Wizard is. I just would hate to see it go the way of "The Comics Journal," disdaining the popular because it is popular, and therefore refusing to acknowledge merit where merit clearly exists.

In other other other words, the elaborations you've made on your mission are okay by me, and I'm looking forward to the result. At the same time, I'm going to continue to champion the idea of quality regardless of source. With luck, both our viewpoints will harmonize.

(And I have no trouble believing GNR will be free. Given the nature of Webcomicsnation, it would surprise me if something like GNR weren't free. One of the things I like so much about the Manley brand of operations is a shared concept of business model and community building. GNR clearly falls into the latter category.)

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