Comics Crusaders

Saving an Art Form From Superhero Excess 
By John Giuffo  


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You won’t see a "BIFF" or a "POW" in their headlines. Batman may get respect on the streets of Gotham, but he’s just another punk to them. And like all crusaders, they carry the flag for The One True Cause no matter the odds, no matter how hopeless the battle sometimes seems.

They’re on a mission, you see, a mission to save the comic book industry from itself. Since 1976, the editors of The Comics Journal (which bills itself as "The Magazine of Comics News & Criticism") have published the only magazine about comics that holds hope
for — and constantly advocates for — the medium as a viable and vital art form. Publications that are considered to be in competition with The Journal, such as Wizard and The Comics Buyer’s Guide, deal mostly with the best-selling comics, which in recent years have increasingly become variations on the superhero theme. And superheroes are one of the reasons, in The Journal’s view, that the comics industry is in the state it’s in today. After an initial sales explosion in the early ’90s, the industry has suffered a series of setbacks. Companies have gone bankrupt, the number of titles has decreased, the distribution system has evolved into a monopoly and readers have deserted in droves.

In an attempt to maximize sales, companies often sold books with different covers geared toward compelling "fanboys" (more on that later) to buy a version of each. Expensive foil or hologram covers were common, and hyper-stylized and unrealistic drawing styles trumped storytelling or originality. Investors were chasing an inflated section of the industry, and when that section lost appeal to readers, the industry began to fall apart.

So The Journal covers artists and books most comics fans will never see, from American minimalist James Kochalka to European undergrounders such as David B. It also covers more mainstream creators and titles such as Sandman writer Neil Gaiman or the visually compelling Marvel superheroes series, Legends. The Journal is a bimonthly magazine of news and opinion, renowned for its extensive and meandering 50-page interviews with comics figures as well as its often pugnacious and downright antagonistic attitude toward those in comics that it deems shortsighted, opportunistic or just plain foolish. The Journal doesn’t just highlight what’s wrong with comics, it lauds what’s good and delves into the minds of comics creators. If The Journal is unsparing in its coverage of the comics industry, it is because that is what the magazine’s editors believe the ailing comics industry needs more of.

Fanboys — which in comicspeak refers to the usually adolescent fans of comics whose understanding and appreciation of the form begins and ends with superheroes — represent all that is stultifying the art form right now. For them, The Journal shows no mercy. Dismissed as formulaic, repetitive, brain-dead and limiting, fanboy fare (especially anything beginning with an "X-") gets no lip service in The Journal’s pages, and the magazine’s advertising revenue suffers. Whereas competitors Wizard and The Comics Buyer’s Guide are packed with ads from major comics publishers like Marvel, DC and Image, The Journal runs mostly small press ads, and at a very low ad-to-editorial ratio at that.

In its editorials, usually written by founder and chief curmudgeon, Gary Groth, The Journal weighs in on comics issues such as the industry’s six-year slide into near-obsolescence, the irresponsible editorial behavior of comics professionals and publishing companies and the often rocky and pitfall-strewn path of the future of comics. And they’re usually right on target.

For a publication whose sales depend almost entirely on the whims of an increasingly shrinking body of comics fans and professionals, a commitment to artistic and editorial integrity such as The Journal’s can be deadly. The Journal doesn’t seem to care (thanks to funding from publisher Fantagraphics Books, which provides the money for the magazine’s expenses that aren’t made from sales). And it (only half-jokingly) wants only those readers it deems worthy. "You can’t argue taste because taste is inarguable," the editors wrote in the August 2000 issue. "You either have it or you don’t. We at The Comics Journal, of course, have no anxieties in this regard. The critical line is drawn where we say it’s drawn, and we’re quite sure, thank you, about which side we’re on. Fine distinctions between comics, cartoonists and companies need to be made, and we’re certainly willing to make those calls, assured in our wisdom and girded by the rightness of our aesthetic and moral vision. Quite frankly, it’s you that we’re not quite sure about."

They’re no more charitable toward industry professionals. At the 1999 San Diego Comic-Con, the premier American comic book gathering of the year, the editors of The Journal held what they described as a "Nuremburg-style tribunal" to hold accountable those responsible for the past few years of declining sales, comic store closings and the dumbing-down of the medium. After all, they said with a touch of self-referential hyperbole, "Only after we have gnawed the bones of our enemies can we wipe the blood from our hands and face the dawn of a new day."