If you've got an interest in comics and pay attention to their coverage in mainstream news outlets, the name George Gene Gustines might ring a bell.
Throughout the 2000s, Gustines has handled a fair chunk of the New York Times' comics coverage, and his byline also appears in the weekly "Graphic Books Best-Seller Lists" the Times started publishing in March.
While there's no official comics critic at the Times (we'll get back to that in the interview), Gustines, whose main job is to be the managing editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine, comes as close to being it as it gets right now.
Reason enough to talk to him, I thought. How and why did Gustines come to be a comics reporter and critic at the daily newspaper of record? What's his approach to the comics form? What are his thoughts on the increased media coverage comics have been exposed to for the past decade?
The following interview consists of two marathon e-mail conversations—the first conducted in July and August, the second in October and November.
Do you read comics?
I grew up watching Super Friends, and during a fateful visit to a corner newsstand, my sister bought me a copy of Justice League of America #200. I was hooked, and despite some heavy competition of great artists in the issue—Gil Kane! Carmine Infantino! Jim Aparo!—I was smitten with the work of George Pérez, which led me to The New Teen Titans. That pretty much certified me as a fan. I took a break from comics in 1994 or 1995 for a year, but eventually found myself back in. I’m pretty sure comics will remain a part of my life.
I grew up on DC, so I have a soft spot for the Titans, though I’m not buying either title right now because I haven’t really enjoyed them. (Well, I guess I’m still getting Teen Titans in trade, but I’ve given up on Titans.)
Right now, I’m loving Green Lantern. The build-up to Blackest Night has been fantastic. Beyond that, I tend to read things in trade: Fables, Invincible, The Walking Dead (one of my absolute favorites!), Scott Pilgrim, Captain America, Astro City, etc.
I read that you started at the Times in 1991. Is that correct?
You’re thorough! I started on May 5, 1991.
When did you first know that you wanted comics to be a part of your professional life? Was it something you were actively working toward, or more an opportunity that presented itself when you were already working as a journalist?
I was definitely shy about my comic-book reading habit at the paper. I only "came out" when a writing opportunity arose in connection with our now defunct Escapes section. I wrote about being a reluctant traveler and how my partner, in a quest to get me to enjoy leaving Manhattan, would always find a comic-book store for me to visit. The publicist at DC noticed the piece and kept in touch. When the gay-bashing storyline came up in Green Lantern, I was given the exclusive.
In between all this, I went to City College and majored in communications. I wrote occasional stories for the paper, but the writing about comics quickly became an addiction, a point of pride and, unofficially, my beat. It’s been a great way for me to use this very specific knowledge I have and make it useful for the paper.
My career at the Times has been varied. I started out as a copy person (running errands, etc.) and have managed to work my way up. I’ve reported and edited, but it wasn’t officially as a reporter or editor until my most recent position.
The Green Lantern story you mention was one of writer Judd Winick’s, circa 2001, right? How much convincing did it take to place the story in the paper?
That’s the one. I was a novice at pitching stories, but it wasn’t much of a struggle to get in. There was a good human-interest angle and, honestly, the summer doldrums were upon us, where good copy can be very scarce thanks to vacations, etc.
So DC’s press contact came to you with the story? Does it happen often that you’re contacted by publishers, or is that more of an exception?
Do you mean am I often approached by press contacts ("flacks" in newspaper vernacular) or do I generate my own story ideas? It’s definitely a mix.
When a publisher wants to break something big, they sometimes offer it to me first. I have to figure out if it’s a story that makes sense for the Times and then I have to convince my editors of that. Thankfully, the more I write, the better a sense I have of what makes a good story. That also, in turn, helps me earn the trust of my editors not to come to them with something that’s too "inside baseball." (I’ve had at least one pitch where I thought, not even comic-book fanatics would care about this. Why do they think Times readers will?)
I love breaking news (whether it’s the new logo for DC, Buffy being in bed with a fellow slayer or having the first few pages of Image United), but I also enjoy softer pieces like when, timed to Free Comic Book Day, I pitched visiting comics stores in all the boroughs.
Generally, would you say it’s been getting easier to convince your editors of comics-related stories since you started out?
It’s definitely gotten easier, since I started writing about comics in 2001, to convince my editors of their worthiness. But I’ve been helped considerably by a number of factors—like the big budget comics-related movies and some of the incredible graphic novels that have come out, like Fun Home. It’s basically been a perfect storm that has put a new spotlight on comics.
You say that some comics-related stories are too much "inside baseball," and in that Green Lantern article you wrote, you included a brief history of comics dealing with social issues. As a reporter, what are you looking for in a story?
I definitely love breaking news, particularly when something dramatic happens to one of the icons. (I’m kicking myself for not coming out as a comics fan sooner in my career. I would’ve loved to have covered the "Death of Superman" for the paper. Or maybe pitched a "wedding announcement" when Clark and Lois got hitched.) I wish I had "The Death of Captain America" (I had to follow the Daily News on that one), but I love being able to report on those events and include the point of view of comics fans: He’s not going to be dead forever.
I’m all for softer pieces, too, though that can be a slightly harder sell. Basically, I love hearing from everyone—publicists, creators and fans—because there are times when I see a commonality in what they are pitching that ends up making a better story as a "trend" than it would as a stand-alone item.
Does that make sense? One of the best things about working at the Times is there are a lot of sections of the newspaper. I’ve written comic-book stories for the obvious, the daily Arts and the Sunday Arts & Leisure, to Circuits, Small Business or the daily Business section. It’s about finding something newsworthy and the right angle for the right section.
You mention the "Death of Captain America" story, and you also reported on "Batman R.I.P." and on Captain America’s "rebirth." How do your readers respond to stories like these, which seem specifically tailored to attract the attention of larger audiences?
From the occasional reader feedback I receive, I think people are interested in knowing what’s going on with the icons. And when it’s a major event, it seems to generate foot traffic into comics stores, so I suppose by that measure, it’s successful. (I would love to know if anybody picks up, say, "The Death of Captain America" or the President Obama issue of Spider-Man, and then decides to go back to their local comics shop the week after for something else.)
Are you happy about the way the comics publishers interact with you? Are there things they could do to make your job easier at any point in the process?
I’m pretty happy with the interaction. At this point, I’ve developed good contacts with the folks at DC, Marvel, Image, IDW, Drawn & Quarterly, Oni Press, Dark Horse and a few others. I’m also pretty dogged when something piques my interest and seems like something Times readers may enjoy. I try to figure out a way to cover it. For example, I kept my eye on Robert Kirkman for a while, mainly because I became a little obsessed with The Walking Dead, and I eventually managed to write about him, first in a paperback round-up and then when he became a partner at Image, the news of which they gave me as an exclusive.
There is the occasional interaction with a non-publicist that can be frustrating. I appreciate the passion that people have for their own work, but sometimes they aren’t realistic about whether there’s a story in it for me. It could be a great comic, but if there’s no angle, there’s no angle. (The saddest part is after I do a "trend" story and someone who also fits it contacts me. But it’s obviously too late and there’s little chance of revisiting the subject.)
I guess the hardest interaction with non-publicists is reading material that isn’t very good. It’s a work of passion for people, so it’s hard to know what to say in those cases.
Do you get a lot of feedback from comics fans?
Occasional reader feedback. And I have the unfortunate tendency to "Google myself" to see what blogs might be saying after my articles hit. (The toughest part is when they assume I also write the headlines for my articles.)
No, seriously. I wasn’t aware the headlines are treated separately from the articles.
I bet it depends on the size of the paper. But here, the reporter files their piece, it’s typically read by a backfield editor, who then sends it to a copy editor, who is the person who usually writes the display copy (headlines, blurbs, photo captions, etc.)
And comics fans don’t like the headlines?
Comics fans, with good reason, wince at the "Pow! Wham! Boom!" headlines that some newspapers use on their comic-book coverage. I’ve only had one of those headlines, I think, but it fit the piece.
Have you observed any changes in the way the media and the audience respond to comics and comics-related news coverage since you started out? Do you think there are fewer "Pow! Wham! Boom!" headlines now?
There’s definitely been a change for the better in terms of coverage. Comic books, graphic novels, whatever you want to call it, they get a lot more respect than they used to. I think that’s a result of all these comic-book properties being turned into movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games, etc. It’s also because there’s been incredible work being done: Fun Home, which I mentioned before, Bottomless Belly Button, Asterios Polyp, the list goes on. It’s a great time to be a fan and to be covering the medium.
You mentioned that it's important to find something newsworthy about a given comics story to make it suitable for the Times. Isn't that approach very limiting, in terms of the kinds of issues it allows you to address, and in what fashion?
I don't think it's limiting (at least not in a bad sense). It's more along the lines of there's a certain level of story that the comic book publications or blogs can do that I can't. The stories I write have to be for a more general audience. For instance, at one point in my career, I was sincerely pitched a story about the death of the other-dimensional version of a popular comic book character. That is not a story I can write for the paper.
Is the paper's audience, which is both larger and more diverse than the audience of a given comics-specific news outlet, a curse as well as a blessing?
I would never call the Times audience a curse!
It's a blessing because it makes me think harder about stories that I pitch. I have to weigh what the fanboy in me is interested in (it's very possible, given the right character, that I would immensely care about the death of some other-dimensional version of that hero) versus what's a more general interest story.
But many comics-related articles in the mainstream press are very light pieces or outright novelty items, right? Doesn't that suggest a rather unflattering attitude towards comics and what they can mean to a general audience?
I can't really comment on what other mainstream publications do. Sorry!
I'm not asking you to point fingers, but I'm wondering what your thoughts are, as someone who's working in the field. Do you agree that it's an issue, generally? What do you make of it?
Honestly, I don't read a lot of mainstream press coverage that is not in the Times. Usually, we're all reacting to the same news. Sometimes there are features in other papers that I do read (like the Wall Street Journal, I think, did a piece on Paul Pope and his line of clothing).
The thing that comes closest to what you're asking about, I think, is something that readers sometimes see in headlines or in ledes—the old Biff! Pow! Wham!—that gives them flashbacks to the Batman television show starring Adam West. Those types of headlines can be unfortunate.
Is comics coverage something papers think they need to provide now, generally, or is it something that’s dependent on individual reporters or editors that are comics enthusiasts?
It certainly helps to have reporters and editors who are enthusiastic about the genre, but it’s also amazing to see—when a major story hits—how many newspapers, magazines and television shows cover it. When I broke the news that the new incarnation of Batwoman was going to be a lesbian, it even landed on the AOL home page. And when Captain America died, didn’t Joe Quesada end up on the Colbert Report?
Not when he came back, though. Did Marvel miscalculate when they suggested there was going to be heavy media coverage of Captain America #600 and Reborn #1?
Marvel did get a lot of coverage for his return, but I don’t think it could ever equal what his death generated. They may have to bring back Uncle Ben for that.
Neil Gaiman linked to your review of his Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter and David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp, from his Twitter account. "They review comics!" he writes. He seems excited, and there are 850,000 people "following" him. Does that intimidate you at all, or are you just happy about the positive response?
I have to confess to being a little bit of a technological dinosaur. Twitter has pretty much gone over my head, but this morning, a colleague sent me the same news.
I think it’s very cool that Neil Gaiman tweeted the news of the review. The more people read it, the merrier. Especially if even a small percentage decide to try out one of the books. Then everyone wins. The review received really good play in the paper and a page-one refer, which was really nice to see.
Each of the three works might have supported a longer standalone review. Can you talk about why this format was chosen, as opposed to separate, longer reviews?
That combo was actually my idea. You're right that they probably each could've supported their own review, but it was a balancing act: Do I review one book and go more into depth with it or do I shine the line on three books? My editors and I thought it was better to go with the three. In the past, however, my reviews have focused on one book: American Widow, Incognegro, Fun Home, etc.
This was also more of a case of getting some variety in—look! three books—than to do a one-off. In the end, I think I got a little more space for the combo than I would've had I written about only one of the books. And ultimately, it's a "Sophie's Choice": I could either review one book alone or the three together. I wouldn't necessarily get the shot at three separate graphic-novel reviews in the same month.
Do you think there will be a point when the Times will cover and review comics releases as a matter of course, and with the same frequency and prominence as film or prose?
I certainly hope so! I think the amount of coverage today is light years ahead of where it was in the past. I mean, look at the Graphic Books list that was started this year. I think that says a lot about how far comics have come and how serious the paper is about covering them. So I definitely have my fingers crossed that it continues to grow, especially since the great and noteworthy work doesn’t seem to be abating.
What's your selection process for the comics you review in the paper?
I wish there was a cut and dried process. I have to pitch graphic-novel reviews in much the same way that I pitch the comic-book news stories that I write for the paper.
Beyond that, some books just lend themselves to convincing my editors in that they almost demand being reviewed. I'd say a book like Bottomless Belly Button fits that category. It was a hefty tome by a young talent and there was a lot to talk about in terms of layout, content and themes.
This year, I got to do a round-up of graphic novels as a review. There, it's also a matter of timing. I knew the review was running on July 31, so it was a matter of seeing what books came out that month and which ones might make sense to review as a package. There, too, I got lucky to have some extraordinary talent releasing books that month: Neil Gaiman, Darwyn Cooke and David Mazzucchelli. It was kind of a perfect storm.
Basically, I try to read a lot: features about upcoming books, galleys I'm sent and lots and lots of trade paperbacks. If I can't get a review slot, sometimes I can write a feature about the book instead, as was the case with New Orleans: After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.
What makes a good comic?
I've been wrestling with this question quite a bit. For me, it starts with the writing: good premise (The Walking Dead)? Interesting point of view (Criminal)? A moving personal account (countless memoirs!)? Any of these criteria can hook me in. The art, of course, plays a big role. I've read lots of stories with lackluster art, but when the images are as strong as the words, there's a certain magic to it. That's when you get, in superhero comics, unforgettable runs like Wolfman/Pérez on Titans and Claremont/Byrne on X-Men.
Compared to other, culturally more accepted storytelling forms like prose or film, where do you think the particular strength of the comics form lies?
I'm not sure if I'll express this as well as I should, but there's magic in the comic-book format. Whether it's the unlimited special effects budget or simply some of what you can accomplish with layout, I think comics lend themselves to stories being seen a certain way.
For the graphic-novel adaptation of the 9/11 report, I was especially intrigued by the "tick tock" (a newspaper term for the minute-by-minute recap of how a story unfolded) that showed the four planes in the air that day. I think with a prose book, you would need to approach that linearly—you could really only read about one plane at a time. With a comic (and, I suppose, with a split screen for a movie) you could see the four planes at once, in different parts of the country, and get a glimpse at what was happening in each one.
I definitely appreciate a dynamic layout. Superhero-wise, I'm a big fan of George Pérez and everything he can achieve on the page. I also marveled at the panel placements and overall design of the pages of Promethea and Watchmen. Comics, when everyone is firing on all cylinders—the writer, the artist, the colorist, the letterer—creates a beautiful alchemy that's better than the individual parts. I'm afraid I'm more of a word man, so I can't quite express my appreciation for the visuals enough.
In the paper's movie reviews, critics typically address aspects like cinematography, acting or the cultural significance of a given film at a given moment in time. Do you think there's enough of an opportunity to discuss a comics work with a similar degree of scrutiny in a Times review?
Most definitely. A review of a graphic novel is no shorter than a typical film review or a book review. There's plenty of space to provide context, if needed, of the work's importance.
How do you approach a book, as a critic? What are you looking to achieve in a review?
My main goal is to bring attention to graphic novels, in general, and whatever book I'm writing about specifically. My dream would be to make graphic-novel reviews even more commonplace in the Times.
How much of the current comics coverage do you think comes from that desire to give the work exposure and "spread the word," so to speak?
As passionate as I am, I don't think any of the coverage comes from a point of advocacy. It's all news- and merit-based. This year, the coverage has ranged from the huge (Disney acquires Marvel) to features slightly more quiet (a profile of the author of Stitches, a feature on Unknown Soldier), etc.
If I had a weekly column, I think that would be more along the lines of my wanting to "spread the word." Right now, particularly for the stuff with my byline, it's tied to an event, breaking news or a review (which in itself is a tied to a publication date, the book being worthy and my ability to grab a review slot).
You've said that that your main goal is to bring attention to the material, though—could you clarify?
I'm a big fan of comics, so my passion for writing about happenings in the industry come from that. So I guess you could call that advocacy. But it's not like I have an open forum to run an article in the Arts section where I talk about how much I love Blackest Night. All the writing I do for the paper has to come something newsworthy.
Does that make more sense?
Could you imagine writing a negative review of a comic?
I'm actually torn on this. It's a little masochistic, but I think one of the benefits the Times (and its readers, ultimately) gets from having me around is that I read a lot of stuff—some it awful, some of it average, some of it really good and some of it exceptional. So if I get, say, one review slot every couple of months, do I want to use it to write about a really phenomenal book or do I use it to critique a not-so-good book?
But I think, in the long run, negative reviews are beneficial. It would certainly add to the debate about a particular graphic novel. I remember there was one that a publisher was aggressively publishing and did well, sales wise and critically. It left me cold. The art was fine-to-stunning, but I found the story underwhelming. Worth a review? I'm honestly not sure.
Would the Times be open to publishing one—a negative comics review?
I think so!
They seem to be a rare exception in the mainstream press, though—I don't recall ever seeing one. Why do you think that's the case?
No clue. I can only assume that other reviewers for other publications face the same dilemma: limited space to review graphic novels. So why not introduce readers to really remarkable book rather than a book that is not so hot?
You've said that negative reviews would add to the discussion of the form. Conversely, do you think it's limiting the discussion that virtually all mainstream reviews tend to be expressions of praise?
I don't think so. I think drawing attention to great work attracts readers to that work. Plus, even in positive reviews, there's often things to discuss. I enjoyed Bottomless Belly Button, but in my review, I still questioned some of the choices Dash Shaw made: about his depiction of nudity (was it necessary?), the layout and even the page count.
Still, the tenor seems to be overwhelmingly positive for those comics that end up being reviewed. I'm sure that part of the reason are space limitations. But at the same time, I'm wondering how much of it has to do with reviewers feeling the need to prove comics' worth as a narrative form.
You got me! I can't speak for the other reviewers!
Obviously, comics have come a long way, in terms of cultural acceptance. But, in a general sense, can a storytelling medium be an established part of the landscape before mainstream outlets consider it a relevant subject for scathing criticism?
I'm not sure I understand. Are you asking if it must be an established part of the landscape before it can be considered relevant for scathing criticism?
I’ll try to rephrase: As long as we're not seeing reviews that are more critical than favorable, can we really assume that people—reviewers, the media, their audience—are taking comics seriously as a storytelling form?
I think their mere presence in the pages of various newspaper and magazines is proof that everyone—reviewers, editors, reporters—is taking comics seriously. As for the audience, I think they are too: The general public gets their attention drawn to noteworthy books and those that are already comic fans get another perspective on it (and also know where to go for even more reviews and discussion about the books).
So you don't see a concern of comics being considered too frail, or not substantial enough, to warrant that level of critical scrutiny?
Not at all. Not at the Times, anyway, which is all I can really vouch for.
You've said it takes the right angle to make a comics-related story news-worthy. Does this apply to reviews as well?
Reviews can pretty much stand alone—the books just have to be noteworthy.
An "angle" can come into play if, say, there are suddenly three graphic novels coming out that deal with terrorism. That might be cause for me to pitch a review that discusses all three books or perhaps a feature where I interview the writers about tackling the subject.
How do you define "noteworthy" in this context?
I think of it as the same criteria as what makes a good comic: It starts with the writing: good premise? Interesting point of view? A moving personal account? Those are all factors that will make a book stand out for me.
How about widely discussed major releases like, say, the latest Alan Moore or Chris Ware book? Is there an awareness at the New York Times, as a newspaper of record, of such works and the need to cover them?
Definite awareness. And I've been speaking pretty much from my own experience and what I notice in the daily newspaper. The Sunday Book Review covers a lot of graphic novels, too.
Speaking of which, the Times has also published comics reviews by other critics, including Douglas Wolk, David Hajdu and Steven Heller. How are those various pieces coordinated editorially? Do editors assign books they want the paper to cover? Or does the coverage depend on what's being pitched at a given moment?
I've never written for the Book Review, so I can't really speak to their assigning process. I know that, with graphic novels as well as prose books, that having a review appear in the newspaper or the Book Review, does not mean that it can't appear in the other. (In other words, it is possible for a book or graphic novel to be reviewed by the daily newspaper and the Sunday Book Review.)
Beyond that, I suspect it's a mix of what you suggest: the expert reviews suggesting books that should be covered as well as the editors hearing about books throughout the year and keeping them in mind for a review.
Douglas Wolk reviewed Asterios Polyp for the Book Review a few days before your review appeared in the Times proper. Did you discuss the book, prior to or after the publication of your given reviews? Is there any communication among the critics?
Douglas and I never discussed Asterios Polyp, but I have met him a couple of times.
I think on regular beats there's a lot of communication between critics. I don't think we're at the point where such a thing is needed, yet, at the Times, especially since there is no official critic!
As how realistic does the idea of an official comics critic at the Times strike you, at this time? Do you think it's something that's imminent, or should we rather not hold our breath?
As you know, these are incredibly rough times for the newspaper industry, so I would not ask anyone to hold their breath at the thought of an official critic being named. I hope, however, that I'll continue to be able to do what I've done so far: continue working at my day job and continue moonlighting as a writer about comic books—whether that's a news story, a feature or a review.
Were the comics best-seller lists something that you initiated?
My colleagues in News Surveys, the department that is responsible for the Best-Seller Lists, are the ones who got the ball rolling. But when we ran into each other at the New York Comic-Con, we realized we should team up to get it accomplished. It was a lot of fun to move it from idea to execution so quickly.
What do you think made them consider best-seller lists for comics at that particular point in time?
It’s something the News Surveys people had been pursuing for a while. I think it was another perfect storm: We ran into each other, I was eager to do it and we knew the Watchmen movie was coming out, so it seemed like an ideal time to introduce the list.
How are your readers responding to the charts, and what have the reactions from the comics industry been like?
The first few weeks received a lot of attention from readers (fans of comics, librarians, etc.), all really happy to see the birth of the list.
Since then, I haven’t heard that much, but that kind of makes sense: to something new everyone reacts; once it becomes a regular feature, it’s a little expected.
People in the industry seem interested in it. I’ve seen a few blogs reference it each week and I know a few publicists keep their eye on the rankings. The format was tweaked this week and now includes, like the other Best-Seller Lists, how many weeks the book has been on the list. For example, the Killing Joke hardcover (at no. 9) has been there for 20 weeks, and Batman: R.I.P. (at no. 10), has been there for 22.
In terms of the material that’s on the charts, has there been anything that’s surprised you?
No real surprises. And it’s kind of nice to go into the comic store one week and see some of the stuff I’m buying hit the list a week or two later.
My big learning curve has been manga. I haven’t read a lot of it and I’ve been trying to dip my toe in so I can better understand it. I suppose I should start with Naruto, since multiple volumes of it seem to be on the charts every week!
The manga list is separate from the other two comics charts. Why is that?
We went back and forth about it. It’s such a huge category that it seemed to be worth including as a separate entity.
Was there a concern that manga might have pushed too many Anglo-American comics off the best-seller lists if it wasn't presented as a separate category?
It was more a question of workload. I was flying in the dark as to how much time each list would take. We thought about one list, which mixed the three, we thought about two lists (hardcovers and softcovers) and we thought about the three lists which we landed on. I'm glad we did it. It's made me read a little more manga to try to appreciate it more.
One or two commentators seemed really upset about the "Graphic Books" term that you introduced for the charts.
Yes, there was a lot of discussion about that.
As one of my colleagues put it, "books" rather than "novels" allows our list to evolve, especially with so many memoirs, non-fiction works, etc.
Why not call them comics?
Comics, to me, implies the thin, stapled pamphlet, so we tried to stay away from that. (We love comics, but that’s not what the list purely covers. I liked "collected editions" but that implies reprints. It was a tricky term to settle on.)
Can you go into the logistics involved in setting up and compiling the charts? Was it just a matter of taking the existing infrastructure that the Times has been using for its other best-seller lists and applying it to comics, or was it more complicated than that?
This is probably the one question I can’t answer. There is an alchemy to putting together the list that only the folks in News Surveys understand and are privy too.
My colleague, Deborah Hofmann, put it this way: "In general, with all our rankings, we are approached, as well as we approach. And there are many criteria for selection. All the lists benefit from corroborative sourcing. And we watch for trends. The computer has a whole lot of red flags and checks and balances. We seek information from many different sources and we preserve those processes in order to protect the list from would be manipulators. It is a process that requires constant evaluation and monitoring."
I hope that helps! In general, part of the "ease" of getting it done is because it’s similar to the other Best Seller Lists. Beyond that, the hardest part for me has been coming up with the manga summaries, if only because I’m on such unfamiliar ground.
Can you say anything about the sales figures involved, in a broad, ballpark sense? Is there a lot of variation from week to week?
I’m not privy to any numbers. I get the rankings and then work my magic—blurbs for each book and then an intro for the list.
As you said, there seems to be more press coverage of comics-related news than there used to be, but it’s also a tough time for the media in general and for traditional newspapers in particular. What advice would you give a journalist looking to specialize in comics, at this point in time?
That’s a tough one, because you’re right—it’s an incredibly difficult time for the industry. I can’t imagine any newspaper having a reporter whose only job is to cover comics (and if there is one, I’m officially jealous).
If I was getting into journalism now and had the interest in comics, I would take any job I could with a newspaper, keep an eye on the comics industry and write about them when I could. But I would make sure whatever job I’m doing for the newspaper took top priority. I was an editor in our now defunct Escapes section; I was an administrator in our Arts section; I helped facilitate our Pulitzer nomination process; and now I’m the managing editor of T: The New York Times Style Magazine. I definitely feel privileged to be able to write about comics as often as I do.
If you’re not talking about newspaper, I think the Web offers a lot of opportunities to hone writing. Pitch stories to different news sites so you can build up some clips. Or start a blog to review comics or write about trends that you spot. And, in general, broaden the material that you read. Reading only DC or Marvel or whatever is too limiting. I read a lot of trades from a lot of different publishers to give me a sense of what’s out there. You never know what may spark a story idea. (It’s definitely an expensive habit, but libraries seem to be expanding their graphic-novel collections so that’s a good, cheap way to stay on top of the material, too.)
Do you follow any comics-specific news outlets? Do you have any thoughts on their coverage?
I try to read Newsarama, Comic Book Resources and The Beat religiously. I really enjoy the blogs on Newsarama and Comic Book Resources, where I have to admit I miss the weekly "Lying in the Gutters" column, which was always entertaining.
Do you have a favorite comics-related news story that you wrote?
The recent review [of Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, etc.—ed.] was definitely one of my proudest moments, and it received great placement in the paper.
News-wise, there were a couple of pieces last year that I worked particularly hard on. There was one about restoring the house in Cleveland where Jerry Siegel was born. (It wasn’t a difficult story to report, but one of my goals is to land a comic-book story on Page One and I had naively convinced myself that this one was it.) I also had an article about the market for original art. I couldn’t quite tell it correctly until an editor friend read it and gave me some advice. She helped me focus it, and it finally worked.
For pure fun and splash, I would point to a fashion piece. Unfortunately, no one in the comics world really noticed. It was the first time my day job (working for the style magazine) and my night job (writing about comics) intersected beautifully. In connection to the superhero exhibit at the Met, the style editors put together a feature with superhero-esque fashions. I was given the task of coming up with code names and backgrounds for the heroes. Goofy, I know, but a lot of fun.
What’s the most gratifying part of reporting on comics for you?
It’s two things. I love being able to be an expert at something for the paper. I also think there’s a lot of great work being done in the industry, so I’m thrilled that I can sometimes shine a spotlight on it.
Thanks to Michael Dean for advice.