In his capacity as co-editor of The Comics Journal, Dan Nadel (who is also publisher of PictureBox Books, co-organizer/curator of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, and an important anthologist/historian/editor) tore apart virtually every aspect of SP7, a tribute to the influential Japanese alternative-manga anthology series Garo for which editors Box Brown and Ian Harker have established a Kickstarter fundraiser. This has led to the most impassioned argument among alternative comics people I’ve seen since back when I started reading the Comics Journal message board in 2001. Here are my thoughts on it.
1. I’m having a really hard time figuring out which side of this argument is the cool side to be on. Does anyone know? Because I’m on that side.
2. In a single post, the Comics Journal’s three-decade reputation for temperate rhetoric is RUINED.
3. I am actually glad this is what we’re arguing about today, instead of just sticking the boot into obviously bad and unethically made superhero comics again. For one thing, those comics don’t need the press. For another, the issues we’re talking about, the comics and creators and editors involved, they are actually vital to the art form. They can stand to be argued about passionately.
4. Dan’s ersatz editorial is clearly the product of months or years of pet peeves given voice in straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back fashion, and as such is riddled with inapt or inept elements that a calmer and more considered approach to this post would probably have caught and eliminated. The thing about spelling “comix” with an “x” is pedantic and childish; the claim that EC Comics didn’t influence the undergrounds in a substantial way is plain wrong in a way that even Dan’s co-editor Tim Hodler caught immediately; much of the argument about how Brown and Harker are misreading Garo particularly and manga generally requires the absolute least charitable read of what they’re saying, to an extent that strains credulity; it’s kind of funny that he spells Bryan Lee O’Malley’s name wrong while decrying the sloppiness of his targets’ writing; and so on. Don’t blog angry!
5. The strange thing about doing a Garo tribute anthology is that you’re doing a tribute to an anthology, which is definitionally a whole range of comics (genres, styles, tones) by a whole range of creators rather than one particular set of visual and narrative and philosophical characteristics you can point to and say “there, that’s what we’re paying tribute to.” If the idea is to pay tribute to the way the various kinds of comics in Garo, a whole range of approaches that roughly map to “alternative comics” here in the English-speaking world, broadened the possibilities available to Japanese comics readers and makers, wouldn’t the best way to do that be to simply make a broad range of thoughtful, progressive comics? It’s entirely possible that that’s what this will be, with zero fetishization of Garo qua Garo, but if so it’d almost defeat the purpose — you could slap the word Garo on any collection of thoughtful, progressive comics. It’s like, no one thinks to do a RAW tribute anthology, because the influence of RAW was internalized and dispersed throughout all of alternative comics. Alternative comics is a RAW tribute anthology.
6. That said, I like Ian and Box personally, and as editors. (I like Dan personally, and as an editor of both comics and criticism, too. I’m a lot closer to Dan on both points, honestly.) I like many of the contributors here. The book’s Kickstarter isn’t something I’d contribute to because I’m not familiar with Garo and would mostly prefer to see the contributors do their own things in their own settings, but it’s something I’d probably pick up at a show.
7. I was surprised to see the discussion really quickly escalate into open anti-Nadel backlash. I probably shouldn’t’ve been. Dan is a gatekeeper four or five times over: He’s the publisher of one of the only mid-’00s artcomix publishers still standing. He’s the co-founder and arbiter of a curated festival that has absolutely kept cartoonists at the gates based on his taste. He’s the co-editor of the alternative comics criticism publication of record. As an editor/anthologist/historian he’s helped broaden, or suggest an alternative to, the comics canon, depending on how you want to look at it. He’s the post-alternative generation’s most prominent straddler of the line between comics and the fine art world. If you’ve ever felt rejected or neglected by him in any of these guises, it’s knives-out time, because nothing fires comics people up more than “you think you’re better than me?!”
8. That’s not to invalidate all the complaints, of course. Though all, literally all, of my personal and professional interactions with Dan have been delightful and enriching to me as a comics person, I have to imagine he’s been an unfair dick to people from time to time, since we all are. Moreover there are people in comics for whom a rejection by Dan in whatever capacity, however honestly and fairly arrived at by Dan, really would hurt, career-wise.
9. If you’ve ever followed any of the online feuds in which Dan’s been involved, or if you’ve ever talked to him about the work of other editors and publishers, the throughline that emerges is that Dan takes the presentation and contextualization of work very, very, very, very, very, very seriously. I’m paraphrasing this, but one thing he said comes back to me any time I look at an archival reprint project: For the vast majority of cartoonists, you only get one shot at this. If your work in reprinting comics, or writing about them in your book’s backmatter, or the context you provide for them w/r/t other cartoonists and movements in comics, is sloppy, that’s not just about you — from now on anyone who encounters these comics will encounter them with that sloppiness as their lens into the work. You owe it to the readers and the cartoonists alike to be rigorous, serious, sensitive, informed, insightful, and otherwise good at your job. If you strip away the excesses of rhetoric and the Kickstarter stuff, that’s his concern about SP7 and its presentation of Garo. It may be a lot to read into what is effectively sales copy, the Kickstarter description, but it’s hardly crazytalk.
10. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding entities enable the creation of a lot of terrible, lame work, but lots of terrible lame work gets made anyway. It seems like an opportunity to spread the financial risk of making art around up front so that artists can make more art is a positive development overall. It shouldn’t be the burden of a new model to behave flawlessly and yield flawless results in a way that the old model doesn’t.
11. Of course the new model shouldn’t also smack its shoe on the table and shout “WE WILL BURY YOU” about the old model, whether you’re talking about publishing through established publishers or distributing through the direct market, both of which are vital for the health of comics, no matter how much you don’t like your local shop and no matter how many rejection emails you’ve gotten. But Box and Ian aren’t doing that, so it’s a separate issue.
12. I think we should also separate obvious boondoggles, freak occurrences, and cases where wealthy, successful artists are using Kickstarter anyway from consideration of efforts like this. Penny Arcade, Womanthology, Mark Andrew Smith’s stuff, Marc Silvestri, that weird stick-figure D&D comic that made like five million dollars, Amanda Palmer — they tell us nothing about this project.
13. I don’t see how you put your books on Amazon and still wax outraged about Kickstarter’s Amazon fees, I really don’t. I’m not being some “two wrongs make a right” “Kirby got ripped off so it’s okay to rip off Alan Moore” type person, because in this case it’s literally the same thing. Isn’t it? That’s not a rhetorical question–I really want to know if there’s an appreciable difference between selling your books on Amazon and kicking to Amazon via your Kickstarter crowdfunding effort.
14. It seems to me that the job of a publisher is to pay for, print, distribute, and promote the work of the people it publishes. Take any of those elements away and I’m not sure you’re a publisher in the traditional sense, and that’s something for people published by such entities to thoughtfully consider. Of course, I’d never before thought about this issue at all prior to this year, so these are very tentatively advanced ideas I’m putting out there, not the Magna Carta. I know a lot of respectable outfits who don’t fulfill all four of those criteria.
15. That said, money from a bank, from your dayjob paycheck, from your trust fund, from a loan from your parents or your buddy who’s a lawyer, from people who pre-order or contribute on Kickstarter — all that money spends the same. If you, the publisher, are still in charge of gathering those funds in order to make and sell the books you publish, it doesn’t matter much to me how it is you’re gathering it.
16. The cartoonist Chris Wright said on Twitter that one of the reasons he likes publishing through a publisher rather than on his own is because he’s “too lazy and too stupid” to do it himself. He was kidding around a bit, but he’s right. Not every artist has the interest, inclination, or ability to hustle. I know that I myself could not be less interested in or less adroit at self-publishing. I got into writing to write; I have no brain for getting printer quotes. Now let me stop you right there before you “well la-di-da” me — I FULLY REALIZE this predisposition on my part limits my ability to get things made. If I could be different about it. I would be. I don’t feel entitled to the world beating a path to my door, I don’t expect it to, I own the consequences of my disinterest and inability to self-publish. But yeah, not every artist has that in them. They shouldn’t be expected to. They shouldn’t be blamed for their failure to, as if it’s a moral or artistic shortcoming.