I meant everything I said about Dirk Deppey, the recently laid-off writer of The Comics Journal’s Journalista linkblog, online editor of TCJ.com, and former managing editor of the Journal’s print version. The earliest iteration of Journalista was indispensable to the formation of the comics blogosphere, and indeed the entire comics internet, as we know it today. Dirk’s stint at the print Journal gave many comics bloggers their first-ever print outlet for comics criticism, from yours truly to the great Joe McCulloch. It also opened that publication up to manga and “mainstream” comics like it had never been before — to my mind an under-discussed and key step in the past decade’s reclamation of genre comics from fanboys, nostalgists, and monomaniacs as an area worthy of genuine critical engagement. Speaking personally, Dirk’s frequently insightful criticism and impassioned industry-analysis polemics were touchstones for me as a growing writer, even if now that influence is less obvious (because he did so much less criticism in recent years in the former case, and because I’m less interested in guns-blazing writing in the latter).
But Dirk has never been a shrinking violet when it comes to warts-and-all appraisals of notable and beloved industry figures as they head for the exits — that’s a big part of why people liked him so much. And it’s in that spirit that I’m saying now that Dirk’s farewell Journalista post was the first one I’d read in months, and the first I’d done much more than skim in years. While my hope is that leaving the Journal will allow him to return to his early strengths, the fact is that they were very much early strengths; if anything, the work he did on the late-model Journalista and on TCJ.com generally represented a major step backward for, or even an undoing of, the valuable work he’d done in years past.
I’m not surprised that the news of Dirk’s ouster was greeted with near-universal sorrow over the move and well-wishes for Dirk himself — they were responses I shared, too. But it seems a shame, and inimical to what Dirk did at Journalista, to let a quickly deleted tweet from Drawn & Quarterly’s twitter account (written, I assume, by a person I’ll refer to as “Schmom Schmevlin”) and an extension of the years-old pointed silence from one-time Deppey sparring partner and blogospheric allfather NeilAlien serve as the only critical appraisals of Dirk’s tenure at TCJ.
With that in mind, here’s a quick list of three major problems I had with Dirk’s work.
1) By the end, ¡Journalista!, for all the hours Dirk put into it, was about as minimal a linkblog as you could think of. The critical and analytical content that drove it in the early years was long gone, and the supplemental stand-alone reviews he used to run were a distant memory. He’d write a few lines about the “Above the Fold” story, mostly paraphrasing whatever he was linking to; beyond that he only even provided a quote or any kind of context for one link per subsection of each entry — the rest was just name/topic, name/topic, name/topic. In the absence of a critical voice or all but the barest context, there was nothing at Journalista you couldn’t get with a fuller and potentially more enriching presentation elsewhere. Eventually, elsewhere is exactly where I got it.
2) I may not be the best person to speak about this, since as I said my engagement with Dirk’s writing was minimal in recent years, but on the increasingly rare occasions when Dirk did offer his thoughts on the issues of the day, his relentless contrarianism too often skewed and obscured his analysis. Perhaps this habit of thought was an outgrowth of his pox-on-both-their-houses Reason-style libertarianism, Dirk’s expressions of which were always redolent with pride for sticking it to both fundamentalist conservatives and latte-sipping Seattlites as though the two were morally and intellectually equivalent evils. (I’d comment further but I assure you I don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to poor politics; when I was at my worst, in fact, Dirk was one of the people who treated me with the most understanding and kindness, and I’ll be forever grateful for that.) Regardless, from his refusal to countenance the idea that the digital-comics landscape had substantially changed in the wake of the iPad despite multiple points of evidence and statements from the major players saying exactly that to his vocal disgust for Facebook-driven PR efforts despite that social network’s obvious utility and near-ubiquity, Dirk frequently rode his hobbyhorses right off the trail, misinterpreting and misrepresenting the positions of his interlocutors in the process.
3) Here’s Dirk talking to Tom Spurgeon about the institution he helmed in both print and digital forms:
Prior to the rise of the Web, the magazine was pretty much the only place where you could get bullshit-free reportage and commentary on comics as a medium and an industry, and the Direct Market therefore tolerated its presence. The Internet changed that, and rendered The Comics Journal essentially superfluous.
So here you have the former managing editor and longtime online editor of the most important comics criticism publication in the English-speaking world saying he didn’t much see the point of that publication once the web came along. I in no way subscribe to Om-tae Evlin-dae’s contention that Dirk destroyed the Journal — he put me in it, so obviously he raised it to heretofore unreached Olympian heights, and at any rate the magazine’s real crash-and-burn days came after Dirk’s departure — but that’s a goddamn bizarre attitude for someone who ran the magazine to have about the magazine. And it very well could explain a lot about the disastrous relaunch of the publication as a web-driven entity. TCJ.com is, frankly, an embarrassment — comically user-unfriendly (just by way of a for instance, I had to manually search it to find Dirk’s aforelinked post on Paul Levitz, which had been voted one of 2009’s best pieces of online comics criticism by one of TCJ.com’s constituent blogs, because the old permalink didn’t work anymore), spastically updated, intermittently focused, and almost entirely removed from the very discourse Dirk claimed had rendered it redundant. That vacuum allowed the emergence as The Comics Journal’s loudest and most prominent critical voice an approach to comics and comics criticism that couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to the traditional ideals and values of both the Journal and its parent company Fantagraphics if it were made to wear a snazzy yellow union suit and call itself Professor Zoom, The Reverse Comics Journal. I’ve never had any clear idea who to blame for all this — Dirk, Managing Editor Michael Dean, Assistant Editor Kristy Valenti, or founder/publisher/longtime editor Gary Groth; frankly, I think the buck has to stop at the top. But here’s how Dirk responded when Spurgeon asked him “Is there anything you might do differently in terms of site development if you had to do the whole thing over?”
…As for site development, I think that Kristy [Valenti] and Mike [Dean] have done about as good job with TCJ.com as anyone could with the available resources.
If you had the potential to change TCJ.com for the better but can look at TCJ.com and think that — and absent yourself entirely from any role in it in the process — that seems to me the very model of malign neglect. And the downfall of what was once the biggest name in comics criticism has got to be discussed as part of Dirk’s legacy, even though the fact that I probably wouldn’t be here without him is part of that legacy as well.