Sure it seems a bit early to get nostalgic about 2008—and heck, judging from the past 12 months, it seems a fairly safe bet that this year isn’t likely to considered a font of great memories for decades to come—but still, what would December be without a slew of year-end recaps? Last year we spoke to The Beat’s Heidi MacDonald to help The Cross Hatch in welcoming in the new year. This time we’ve tapped a fellow industry veteran and highly regarded comics blogger, Tom Spurgeon.
These days Spurgeon is best known as the principle—and, really, sole—driving force behind the frequently updated and massively authoritative site, The Comics Reporter. Spurgeon also did time on the print side of the media equation, having worked as both the executive and managing editor of Fantagraphics’ The Comics Journal. He’s also the co-author of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book and creator himself, having penned the short-lived Wildwood strip for King Features.
We sat down with Spurgeon to recap the 2008 and toss out wild predictions for 2009—naturally we spent the vast majority of our time together wallowing in recession freak out mode.
When people look back at 2008 in 10, 20 years, what are the big themes for the year going to be?
The big story at the end of the year is, of course, the economy, and how that’s going to affect the comics business. I think you actually go back and look over a lot of the stories from this year, you’ll find that there’s actually a lot of movement on economic issues, even before it got on everyone’s mind. You have the Minx imprint that went down and Virgin comics. You have these kinds of stories throughout the year. Right now everyone’s kind of freaked out because we don’t know what the economic effect will be, down the road. That will certainly be one of the big stories.
This was also a big year overseas with the fallout from the Danish cartoon story. I don’t know if you remember the assassination attempt against one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, and his wife. If you look at what the landscape was like post that original incident, back in 2005, 2006, when the assassination attempt became public, there was a sympathetic reprinting of the cartoons in a lot of newspapers and a not very nice reaction on the part of those who politically objected to those cartoons. It’s almost become iconic, I think.
It’s also interesting what happened over here, with the Obama New Yorker cover. The reaction wasn’t as intense, obviously, but it hit a little closer to home. The power of cartoons reared its ugly head, here in the States.
Yeah. No one rioted here, but I think that was a really fascinating check to see where everyone’s head was at, on that kind of issue. I think there are a lot of unresolved issues, as far as what’s appropriate and what should and shouldn’t be done. There’s a legal issue over in France with the Charlie Hebdo people and what they said about the president’s son. It was construed as an anti-semetic joke, which has steamrolled into a human rights hearing against that cartoonist and columnists. What’s interesting is that that magazine is one of those that was just exonerated from the charges having to do with the Mohammed cartoons. You see that, not only are comics kind of powerful, but there are some things that comics or cartoon imagery should or shouldn’t do, and people are willing to litigate over it and very much advocate for different political solutions and different outcomes regarding these issues.
The collapse of newspaper and editorial cartooning will also be a big story coming out of this year.
In terms of newspapers folding?
Newspapers folding, newspapers shedding staff. In the past year, I think it’s something like 20-30 full-time newspaper editorial cartoonist positions have been lost, which is about a quarter of what were remaining from a once proud tradition of every town having an editorial cartoonist on staff. Now it might be as low as 55 or 60 newspapers that have that kind of position and that kind of voice. It’s kind of been a weird year. You mentioned the Obama New Yorker cartoon, and I think what’s kind of interesting is that that was really the most memorable cartoon to come out of this historical election. And you can almost argue that editorial cartoonists as a group didn’t really show for themselves very well in this historical election year.
And it wasn’t even that great of a cartoon to begin with.
Yeah, it wasn’t a great cartoon, but can you name another from the year? I can’t, really. I think people did good work. [Pat] Oliphant was really mean this year, especially going after Sarah Palin. And Tom Toles is consistently good, but you’d think that, with such an historical event going on throuought the year, you’d be able to remember two or three cartoons. There really wasn’t anyone doing that. I don’t know if that’s just because we don’t have, as a group, the same kind of cartoonists they had 50 years ago—but there are a lot of great cartoonists, so I don’t think that’s the case.
You were talking about the newspaper collapse, earlier, and I think that’s the source to some degree. There are so many outlets now for this type of work that there isn’t really a centralized location that everyone can gather around.
Sure, and there are some regional cartoonists, but there aren’t really that many national cartoonists, anymore, outside of Toles and Oliphant and maybe [Paul] Conrad. It’s kind of been weird to watch this—it’s sort of like those stop motion things that we used to have of the Hindenburg crash when I was a kid. It’s kind of like watching comics and cartooning in newspapers, right now.
And then, on the strip side of it, both United Media and King Features came out with really big online initiatives, in that last month or so. And they were both radicially different. United Media, with Comics.com, has put the vast majority of its archives online, in hopes that it would drive interest and gain them an audience via the notion of free, whereas King Features has launched someothing called Comic Kingdom, which works with local newspapers as kind of portals, to provide content for those sites. We won’t know for a couple of years if either of those things will work out, but it just goes to show you how ar along we are, that those syndicates are kind of worried about newspapers and print surviving as the same source of economics and legitimacy that they have for so long. When those goes start to make movements, it’s kind of a scary thing.
When you rattled off the names of publishers that didn’t make it through 2008, you mentioned Virgin and Minx. I couldn’t help but think of those two imprints as examples of how, in a certain respect, the comics industry has become a bit bloated. Will this recession scare help to keep things in the industry in check to a certain degree?
Yeah, I don’t think, in either case it’s something along the lines of “Minx and Virgin are gone, how will we survive?” [laughs]. It’s horrible for people who worked there, but I think they were both predicated on a wealthier comic system that we had for a while, and they both had problems with their models, if you want to backseat drive what they were doing. But yeah, it does seem like there’s always a bit of bloat, and I think comics has always had a bit of a hang up about making tough judgments as to what is a legitimate business model and what isn’t. So you have a lot of great companies and creators out there, and then you have a lot of these companies that aren’t put together with the same kind of consideration.
They seem kind of like hustlers. Anyone who works in comics, if you do what I do, the bulk of your mail, you might get 20 or 30 percent from companies that everyone’s heard of, and then you spend a lot of time dealing with these self-publishers and guys who want to throw some money at the wall or want to get their next movie project up. The thing about economically tough times is that you’re going to see a lot of those companies not do as well. It’s not all of those companies that have problems, but there are certain companies that I’m not real sad about. In other words, I don’t feel that it’s an industry disaster that some of those companies don’t publisher, after a while.
The big two—DC and Marvel—have been hit pretty hard. Is there a way in which that’s to the benefit of smaller publishers?
No. What would you suggest the benefit might be? I’m kind of drawing a blank.
In terms of readership, I suppose. Those two publishers are sort of notorious for flooding the marketplace. Do you think people might possibly be turning more toward indie books if there are fewer mainstream titles?
I don’t know if that’s the case. I think there’s something in your example that bad economic times can sometimes work to curb bad economic excess. You’re not gonna flood the market if cost all of the sudden becomes a concern. You’re not going to sign people up onto cruddy limited series, just to keep the other guy from getting them. I think there’s that kind of thing, but some of the worse things have come from these bad economic times in comics.
A good thing that a lot of the indie comics companies have right now is that a lot of the guys who are running them are really hardcore. They’re very far along. I still think of Top Shelf as kind of a new company, and they’ve been around for a decade. Those guys have—if not a life-long commitment—a very serious commitement to do comics, and what they’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years, in terms of success, they’ve put back into their companies. The model used to be that when you got a big book deal or sold a movie, you would buy a car or a home, whereas now you hear about Drawn & Quarterly opening up a store.
That’s a much nicer story, if you’re a fan of the artform. It’s the same thing with retailers. We have a lot of savvy veteran retailers that can weather the loss of reatailers who are hounded out of business because eBay reveals that they’re not pricing according to market. A lot of bad practice retailers get hacked away, in bad markets like this. But these veteran retailers and comic companies have a lot of savvy people running their businesses.
That’s been in interesting trend in the past year or so—D&Q, Fantagraphics, and Picturebox all opened stores. It seems almost counter-intuitive move in this time when everyone’s buying their books online. What’s the impetus behind that move?
I think a lot of it has to do with event programming. It gives them a place to run local events, it gives them a place to their signings and have people come through town and give a focus to that publicity. I know in Fantagraphics’ case, Seattle has always good comic stores, but not a whole lot of great comic stores, so they’ve always been wanting to have a place to do those kinds of events. And now they have one, and it’s a real benefit in terms of making them a bigger player in their neighborhood and town. There’s a certain kind of person you get who would want to go to the Drawn & Quarterly store or the Pciturebox store, who wouldn’t want to go to a really good comic shop, as well. I don’t think anyone’s getting rich doing this.
[Concluded in Part Two]