For ten years, Chris Duffy has been at the helm of Nickelodeon Magazine’s comic section. In his tenure, he’s brought along some of alternative comics’ biggest, and most subversive names. Carrying on the network’s long-standing tradition of pushing the envelope of what is acceptable children’s entertainment, Duffy has showcased the work of names like Ivan Brunetti, Kaz, and Johnny Ryan—artists who, judging from their adult-themed work, maybe ought not be allowed to draw within a 100-yard radius of impressionable youths.
However, Duffy’s decisions have been validated time and again, particularly in the case of Ryan, who has proved an incredibly prolific kids gag writer, who along with some of the comics section’s brightest, is among the heirs apparent to the glory days of Mad, creating smart, original, and decidedly squewed content in the otherwise barren, post-Disney landscape of children’s entertainment.
Duffy, for his part, knows his stuff, a self-proclaimed comics obsessive, who did time as an associate editor at DC, after taking an unsuccessful stab at the world of professional cartooning [see left]. We had a lot of questions for Duffy, and fortunately, he was more than happy to oblige.
Did you find yourself a bit disillusioned, working for one of the industry’s two major players?
Everybody in publishing is kind of disillusioned [laughs]. The money is really bad—the whole experience, for me was less about comics, and more about work experience, which, in a way, was probably good tfor me. There were three things that I was the nominal editor on. One of them was called The Doomsday Annual, which was, actually a fairly cynical way of cashing in on this monster that killed Superman. There’s this part in Doomsday’s origin, where you find out that he’s been around for millions of years, and he’s wandered from planet to planet. They said, “oh, let’s do an annual, where we find out what he did.” Really, it wasn’t that interesting an idea, but he was a popular character, because he’d beaten up Superman.
I really did see it as a job. I didn’t really see it related to comics. The people that I talked to about what we were doing with the characters, that was an entirely different conversation than the one I had with the people who had similar tastes. Joey Cavalieri came in, toward the end of my time at DC. We would talk about good old and new comics, and there was always a sense that it had nothing to do with our everyday jobs. DC does sit on a big vault of old comics, some off which are pretty good. But I don’t think I left any more disillusioned about comics than I came in—maybe a little bit about people, sometimes.
In some ways, I left thinking that DC was actually a pretty decent place in some very basic ways. They were set up to be very honest with their freelancers, and very timely with their payments. They’re really good at that, and their royalty system seemed pretty fair. I think I saw them starting to say “no” to really mediocre stuff, when I left, so in a way, I left when they were digging themselves out of a hole, after the direct market collapsed.
I also got to work pretty closely with Archie Goodwin. I was one of his assistants for two months, while I was being shared with other editors. I try to think of the good things, but I’m sure my wife remembers plenty of times that I came home, just sick to death of it—mostly the workload. Every day, there was so much lugging stuff around, and just trying to get a million things done.
When you mention, “good comics,” are you referring to more alternative stuff?
I’m kind of an idiot for comics. I read a huge amount of them, and if there’s ever a genre that I’m not really understanding, I kind of wish I did. I started discovering alternative comics in the 80s. I didn’t really look at stuff like Robert Crumb until after college. I thought it was kind of scary—“it looks so grownup. I’m scared of my body, I can’t read these comics.” But after college, I bought issue after issue of Weirdo, until I had a complete collection. It had already been cancelled at that point, but I started getting into it.
In college, I read Yummy Fur and Flaming Carrot—but at that point, it seemed pretty easy to make the jump to alternative from the Keith Giffen, Kevin Maguire Justice League. Maybe not for everybody, but there was a sense to me that it all kind of fit together. Even Love & Rockets, the first dozen issues, it had this kind of science fiction backdrop and big monsters.
And then on the other end, you’ve got Alan Moore and Frank Miller reinventing the mainstream books.
Yeah, totally. College is when I started reading Swamp Thing. Although Alan Moore is kind of lumped in with the alternative stuff, but I’d say that he’s the platonic ideal of a traditional Marvel/DC writer. You read the captions, and it was worth it reading that caption. He’s got all of the tropes of the original stuff. But Alan Moore wrote an intro to one of the early collections of Love & Rockets, and that didn’t seem that strange at the time. Even DC hired Neil Gaiman and Bernie Mireault to do little origin stories for some of the Batman villians. My first year after college was when Eightball had just started.
Your interest with alternative comics definitely feeds into what you’re doing now. People that I’ve been interviewing since I launched the blog have been name-dropping Nickelodeon Magazine. And, for the most part, the artists have been surprising. The first one to mention you guys was Johnny Ryan. Was there hesitation on your end to have someone like Ryan write for a kids’ magazine?
The best answer to that I’m really trying to get Nickelodeon to fire me. That would be the punk rock answer [laughs]. When I first moved to New York, Anne Bernstein, she and about six other people were the entire social cartooning scene. She did the cover to the first issue of Drawn & Quarterly. She had been hired by Laura Galen who was, and still is, in many ways, the editor-in-chief of Nickelodeon Magazine, when they were creating a prototype, to basically head up the comics section, give it shape, and basically decide what it was going to be. She was an old-time comics fan, and she went on to write for Daria, after four years at the magazine.
I had been a big fan of the magazine, and had subscribed to it, since the first issue, because I knew that Sam Henderson was going to be in there, and heard that Jay Stevens was going to be in there, so I wrote her a fan letter, and she sent a little note back. So when I got hired, I was just following in her footsteps. And now, having been there for so damn long, things have changed, over time.
As for Johnny Ryan, in particular, now we have this touchstone name. It’s like, “hey, everybody, look, it’s Johnny Ryan, in a kids’ magazine.” His first couple of submissions didn’t really make it, and I didn’t really know if it would work out, but he started pitching gags, and he had tons of winners. They were just really good. We had a few semi-regulars in there, but he was the first person to pitch 20 gags, and you’d kind of want to buy all of them. I don’t really have an attitude, like, “it’s great that we’re really getting it over on those kids,” [laughs]. “Hey, wait’ll they grow up. They’ll pluck their eyes out!” But on the other hand, I don’t want to sound like I didn’t know who Johnny Ryan was, before we used him, and am not a little excited about that aspect of it.
But in the end, and this sounds like the wimpy answer, but he brings that Johnny Ryan point of view to everything he does. And even if it doesn’t have hypodermic needles sticking out of someone’s penis, there’s just something that kids respect in that kind of humor. It’s irreverent—well, I guess irreverent is kind of a tame way of putting it—it’s completely ape shit, and then if you censor out the shit part, it’s an ape, and that’s great! I think it’s great that people get really excited that Johnny Ryan’s in our magazine, and I am too. I works both ways—we’re kind of excited, but we wouldn’t print them unless we think that kids would dig it, and they do.
The concern, I suppose, is that someone would like his gags in Nickelodeon Magazine, and then would go to the store and pick up Angry Youth Comix.
Yeah, you know, I used to think about that, and wondered what would happen, but it’s been ten years, and it’s never happened. I don’t think kids follow comics, or care the way a fan who is an editor and somebody who does a comics blog care about it. So, I think—and I could be wrong, there could be tons of kids, as we speak, Googling his name. But it hasn’t happened, and I feel like I have a pretty good defense. Nowhere does it say—you know, I don’t think I even need a defense. The two works stand on their own. I wouldn’t print any of the stuff he does for adults. It’s one of those situations, where you say to yourself, ‘should I hesitate because he’s done this stuff?” And the answer is ‘no.’ If kids are going to enjoy it, it seems stupid to hold back.
[Concluded in Part Three.]