My second way-too-late interview from Baltimore Comic-Con!
I was largely unfamiliar with Dean Haspiel’s work before stumbling upon his Zuda webcomic Street Code. Besides his bold, dynamic drawing style I think what struck me most was the comic’s honesty. That might sound like a stupid thing to say– it is, after all, an autobiographical comic– but the style of the story and the way it was told gave off a really comfortable feeling; as if Dean was sitting with you, explaining the events in earnest. It’s a style that’s echoed in the grandiose Billy Dogma comics he writes and draws for Act-i-vate, the webcomics collective he helped found.
Though I’ve previously posted the Brian Wood interview, my interview with Haspiel was actually the first I’d done in Baltimore (and, if we’re counting, the first in-person interview I’d ever done– hence the nervousness and constant index card checking) and despite having only met the man once or twice previously that sincerity mixed with his unbridled enthusiasm made for a pretty nice chat.
At the time of the interview the Act-i-vate Primer was just coming out and while I’m a little late with the advertisement the book looks great, and if you haven’t already you should pick it up. And hey, look, you can do that right here.
My thanks to Dean Haspiel for sitting down with me, as well as Matt Occhuizzo for shooting the interview and Alex Gitlin for editing it.
2009′s Baltimore Comic-Con was by all accounts a huge success and a lot of fun to attend, as there’s a level of transparency there that you don’t get at the NY (or presumably San Diego) Comic Con. Everyone was really very approachable– signings and interviews didn’t need to be scheduled, itinerary didn’t need to be fleshed out, it was just a matter of walking up to someone and engaging in conversation. I did three interviews in Baltimore (which I’ll be posting over the next week or so), the first of which is below.
Fellow Brooklynite Brian Wood (DMZ, Northlanders, Demo) is an interesting guy. Anyone familiar with his work knows that he’s as adept at writing mainstream comics as he is doing indie work, and his stories generally focus on youth culture and social consciousness. His books, while not humorless, are certainly weightier than your average monthly comic, and in some cases– as it is with his book DMZ– are somewhat radical. While these qualities might give the impression that Wood the man is somber or humorless this description couldn’t possibly be further from the truth. Sure, he’s passionate about his work (as well as the people he works with) and takes his opportunity to make a statement very seriously; but in the end this interview was probably the easiest to conduct due to how forthcoming and easygoing he was (despite my inability to keep my eyes off my notes and my cringeworthy Twitter remark toward the end.)
Big thanks to Brian for the interview, as well as Matt Occhuizzo for filming it and Alex Gitlin for his help in editing the thing (that Star Wars intro was a nice touch, really made me look like a pro.) Enjoy.
This year was the first year that I had been to any comic book convention of any kind, whether local, regional, “international”, whatever. I’d always been interested but never mustered up enough motivation to actually buy tickets and go.
At the end of last year I started this blog, inspired by other bloggers on the internet who weren’t just using their sites to review Superman and Wolverine comics, but rather giving their own perspective on the issues of modern comics, comics history, and the problems the medium faces. I don’t know that I’ve really added much to the dialogue but I’d like to think that at least some people have been interested in what I’ve had to say.
Anyway, because of my new hobby I figured this year would be as good a time as any to attend New York Comic Con (seeing as its in my city and all), scope out the sites and sounds, and check out some interesting panels. Of all the panels I attended and reviewed I have to say the one I found most rewarding was moderated by Ms. Karen Green. Ms. Green is a librarian of Ancient & Medieval History, Religion, and Graphic Novels (not all at once) at Columbia University, where she says the administration has been incredibly supportive in creating and promoting their collection of comics and graphic novels (you can view a subject guide to their collection here.) She is also a contributor to comiXology where her column, Comic Adventures in Academia, has been running monthly for over a year. Ms. Green recently took some time out to answer just a few questions about herself, the panel process, and of course, comics.
Wednesday’s Child: First of all, tell me a little about yourself as it applies to comics; how, when and why did you get into them?
Karen Green: I’ve covered a little of this in some of my columns, so forgive me if I’m being repetitious.
I guess I started where everybody starts: in the Sunday funnies, in the Jackson, MI Citizen-Patriot. My parents, who were New Englanders who felt a little bit like exiles in the Midwest, had a subscription to The New Yorker, and I used to read their cartoons, too. Plus, my parents had a copy of the New Yorker’s 25th Anniversary Album, which had a bunch of cartoons from 1925 through 1950, and I used to pore over that obsessively, studying the way the styles changed over the decades and learning a lot of American history as well.
When I was a little older, I discovered MAD Magazine and the Archie comics pretty much simultaneously. MAD was just…geez, just insane and anarchic and wonderful. Archie comics, which I would read obsessively at my orthodontist’s office, gave me a vision of the future, of what high school was going to be like–or so I thought. I mean, I went to high school from 1972 to 1975, and anything less like Riverdale High is difficult to imagine. But I still loved MAD–I used to hang out in the drugstore downstairs from our apartment and read the paperback anthologies of the earliest, classic stuff, so I was completely immersed in that Bill Elder/Harvey Kurtzman ethos and style.
In high school, which was very much a sex-and-drugs-and-rocknroll kind of time, the backdrop was R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton, but I was also really into Edward Gorey–if he even counts (I think he does). I moved out on my own in 1978, and one of my earliest purchases was Bill Blackbeard’s Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, and that’s where I discovered the early newspapers artists like Winsor McCay (still my number one favorite artist of all time) and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat (I’d actually first seen Herriman in his illustrations for Don Marquis’ archy and mehitabel). Then, in the ’80s, I had a subscription to Heavy Metal, which was where I discovered people like Charles Burns and Moebius and Tamburini/Liberatore. I remember when The Dark Knight was published, and I kept meaning to get to it, but I never got around to it. Same with Maus. I never even heard about Watchmen coming out.
You’ll note that there aren’t any superheroes on that list. I just didn’t grow up reading superhero comics. I feel like that puts me at a real disadvantage now. I don’t have the knowledge of the history of the various characters and their universes that allows me to have a real appreciation of what is happening now, and it means my understanding of certain artists and writers who had key roles in that history is sorely lacking. So I’m a lot more comfortable with alternative work than I am with the mainstream.
WC: How long have you been a librarian, and what made you decide to… I don’t want to say “champion”, but I guess campaign for comics in your library?
KG: I started working part-time in Columbia’s library while I was a grad student in medieval history there, in the mid-1990s. When I left the doctoral program in 1999, I took a regular, non-professional job in the library and decided that librarianship allowed me to have what I liked about academia (intellectual ferment, academic curiosity) and avoid what I didn’t like so much (tenure pressure, publish or perish, complete absence of free time). So I went to library school and then in 2002 I applied for and got the job I have now: Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian.
During my years in school (BA, 1990-1993; MA/MPhil, 1993-1999; MLIS, 2000-2002), I didn’t read comics at all, because my brain was busy with other reading. When I got the library job, I had freedom again, and it was a great time to start reading again. I was buying stuff by Peter Kuper and Paul Hornschemeier, lots of titles from Fantagraphics. And there was SO MUCH stuff I wanted to buy that I couldn’t afford it all. With novels or non-fiction, I was able to check titles I wanted to read out of my library. Why couldn’t I do that with comics? It made no sense to me. We were in a new Golden Age, the mainstream critical press was taking notice, university presses were publishing academic treatises–why weren’t we buying this stuff? So I made the pitch–based on the arguments I laid out in that first comiXology column –and I got the green light. The library has actually been incredibly supportive of this area, and even though budgetary belts are tightening, there’s no sense that this collection will suffer more than any other area.
WC:What’s your connection with comiXology, and how did you get started?
KG: I’d been going to a lot of programming that had to do with comics and libraries–at ALA (American Library Association meetings), at New York Comic-Con at the Thursday symposium, anywhere I could get a chance to talk about how different academic library needs were from public library needs. All of these events were filled with public librarians, and I was usually the only academic librarian present. People listened politely, but I didn’t get a lot of follow-through. Then in November 2007 I saw a notice for a breakfast panel hosted by Calvin Reid and Heidi MacDonald of Publisher’s Weekly, and I signed up to go to that. It was really a publishers’ forum: what were comics and what did they mean for publishing? But during the Q&A, I asked my same old question: what can you do to help academic libraries shape their collections, given that we are collecting for a different audience and with different concerns from public libraries? And this was the right venue, because afterward I had a small crowd of people come up to me to talk academic library issues. One of those people was Peter Jaffe, one of the comiXology partners, asking if I’d be interested in writing a monthly column about the unique issues of collection in academia. Back then, they had two columnists–Kristy Valenti and Shannon Gaeritty–and I was incredibly intimidated, because their work was so well-informed and insightful. But I thought it might be fun, so I said yes: really, the best thing that’s happened to me. The contacts I’ve made and the reach I’ve developed as a result of that column has been mind-boggling, and a real boon to building the collection. I can’t be more grateful to the comiXology guys, Peter and his partner David Steinberger, who have just been amazing. And they just keep on adding fantastic new columnists.
WC: It’s no secret that I was a huge fan of your Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel at Comic Con. Anybody who’s casually glanced over this page over the past few weeks has noticed the Rubicon-sized block of text where my panel review is. How did you get tapped for this panel? Were you approached by someone to moderate, or did you decide to put it together on your own?
KG: As I said, the comiXology guys have been amazing to me. And they contacted me, gosh, months ago, and asked if I would like to moderate a panel and, if so, on what. And I think we came up with the topic together. I really can’t remember. Maybe it was all their idea! But they submitted the topic, and it was approved, and then I came up with the panelists.
WC: Well how did you choose the panelists? You mentioned earlier being a fan of Peter Kuper, and how Jonathan Hickman was a last minute replacement. How did you come up with the rest of the panel?
KG: I wanted some people from the independent tradition and from the mainstream, superhero tradition. As I mentioned on the day, I picked Dean Haspiel first. I’ve really loved his Billy Dogma and Street Code webcomics, and I think they both merit deeper readings. He was taken aback by the invitation, because he doesn’t think of himself as an academic–and I wasn’t asking him as one–but when I promised him that there would be actual academics to do the heavy lifting, he agreed. Then I asked Gail Simone, who I’d met at the 2008 Comic Con because we were both on a panel on Women in Comics, but she wasn’t making the trip out. And I asked Kyle Baker, because I’d met him at a Q&A at Barnes & Noble for “Nat Turner,” and he was clearly pulled in by the scholarship and history underlying a lot of his stories. Plus, he had superhero cred. And he agreed. Then I asked Gary Panter, but he said no.
I also asked Greg Urquhart early on, whom I knew because Alexander Street Press had asked me to consult on their comics database–but he hasn’t really needed my input because he is so spectacularly qualified for this project. And I asked Derik Badman, who is a librarian at Temple and also a comics creator (he’s done some terrific webcomics, which you can see at his blog Mad Ink Beard), and he agreed, but later on he pulled out because of time constraints.
I wasn’t quite sure who to get for the academics. I’m a member of the comix-scholars listserv, and I asked its moderator, Peter Coogan, but he wasn’t planning on coming to NYCC. So I started thinking about the names I’d seen on the list, but no one really grabbed me.
Some time went by, and I was at an event at MoCCA about Graphic Novels from Europe, and I ran into Gina Gagliano, from First Second, who has been a wonderful support and adviser in my journeys in this industry. She was talking to Kent Worcester, and she mentioned the Comics Studies Reader, and I asked him on the spot. Later the same evening, she was talking to Peter Kuper, whose work I just love love love, and I asked him on the spot, too.
I’m Facebook friends with Gene, and he’d heard about the panel and was very envious not to be on it. When Derik pulled out, I asked him to step in, and he did. So, I figured I was set: Greg for publishing, Dean, Peter, and Kyle for creators, with a mix of indie and mainstream experience, and Kent and Gene for scholars. Six: perfect. Then the comiXology guys sent me an email, saying that DC had asked the Con, and the Con had asked them, if we could put Bill Savage on the panel. And I looked him up, and I wasn’t really excited about what he did, because it seemed to be almost all about cowboys, which is kinda niche. Plus, I thought 6 people plus a moderator was enough. But it’s nice to play nice, so I agreed, and boy am I glad I did! He turned out, as you’ll recall, NOT to be the cowboy Bill Savage, and he added SO many interesting and thoughtful contributions to the discussion.
Then, when I learned that Kyle Baker couldn’t make the 7 PM time slot, I turned to the comiXology guys for help. They know a lot of creators from their podcast series. They threw out a lot of names, and sent out a lot of urgent emails, but nobody was free. This was, like, over the two days before our Friday. Then they mentioned Jonathan Hickman, whose Nightly News I am just crazy about, and I was keeping my fingers crossed. I showed up at the comiXology booth at, like, 11:30 Friday morning, and asked David Steinberger if he’d heard about Hickman (I didn’t want only 2 creators on the panel; that’s why I was so edgy). David called Jonathan on his cell, and he came right over to the booth; I asked him without even really telling him much about the panel, and he said yes.
So that’s the (rather lengthy) story of how the panel came together!
WC: Now, at first I was admittedly hesitant toward the idea of the panel, and any sort of “validation” process for comics– the notion that there needs to be some kind of acceptance, academic or otherwise. Take the term “graphic novel”, for example. It creates a sort of dichotomy in the medium. It implies some higher level of artistry: “I don’t read comics, I read graphic novels.” I’ve since become less hesitant, partially because of the panel itself. But do you think there’s a chance that this fight for legitimacy can ultimately hurt the medium? Meaning, comics will be thought even less of, because the works of true genius will be filtered out as “something else“?
KG: I don’t think there’s a conscious fight for legitimacy. I mean, I don’t think anyone’s out there in the industry hoping that more academic papers will be written, you know? I don’t think, personally, that comics need “validation;” they’re doing pretty well on their own. As the scholars on our panel pointed out, academics are in the business of figuring out how to read things, and how texts and art fit into a context and on a continuum. So, the comics industry can do its thing and the academics can do their thing and that’s all good.
WC: Well it’s not so much the comics “industry” itself but the medium I’m more concerned with. That is, I could care less whether Marvel or DC survives, except for its consequences for or implications on comics in general. But there seems to be this idea, whether right or wrong, that the evolution and survival of comics culture is dependent on some sort of mainstream “validation”, doesn’t there?
When I hope that faculty will use these works in their classes, it’s not because I think that the industry needs academic validation, it’s because I think that faculty need to see these as legitimate alternatives for a syllabus’ reading list. My interest isn’t in validating the comics industry, but in broadening the resources available to faculty.
About the term “graphic novel”–yeah, it’s a problem. It’s a marketing term, really. Like a “pre-owned” car. Call it what you want: these are comics. If people want to call them graphic novels, god bless ‘em. Doesn’t make any difference–although it might make your Aunt Sadie more comfortable buying them for her kids than if you called ‘em comics.
I think a lot of people use graphic novel to refer to anything professionally bound, and comics are what’s in the newspaper. Comic books are what come out on Wednesdays. So when people say they read graphic novels, not comics, they may just mean that they only read trade, bound copies. And, frankly, that’s what I read, too.
WC: Continuing on the last topic, a lot of the ideas people have about comics are because of the way superhero books are seen as “kid stuff”; yet the owner of the comic shop I frequent says nowadays he hardly sees ANY children on Wednesdays. It seems adults are even buying the “kids” books. With that being said, is there any room for “hero” comics in this discussion, or do they inherently hurt comics’ chances of being taken seriously?
KG: No, I don’t think superhero comics keep comics from being taken seriously; Hollywood has pretty much taken care of that, don’t you think? Superheroes are big business, and anything that makes money in this country is taken seriously. My feeling about superhero comics is like what I said before about my own reading: they’re like an incredibly complicated game of Double Dutch, and it ain’t easy for a novice to jump in.
As to whether comics are kid stuff–this has been a real roller coaster, hasn’t it? Comics were seen as kid stuff during the Comic Code days, and then graphic novels showed that comics “weren’t just for kids anymore,” and now you’ve got lines like Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books, trying to reclaim comics for kids again, because they’re “not just for adults anymore.”
And adults haunting comics shops on Wednesdays? That’s no surprise. Adults don’t grow up anymore. They play video games and dress like 12-year-olds. Nobody’s putting aside childish things anymore!
WC: Will Eisner was once quoted as saying, “there is a world of good material available to (adults) now in comic form.. the more you support it, the better the material will be as it comes out.” Do you think this growth in acceptance will start attracting different types of artists or writers to use the medium, or perhaps change the industry, towards more serious, challenging work? And if so, what are the potential benefits or downfalls that might stem from that?
KG: I would say that’s already happened. Didn’t we keep seeing, during the Writers Guild strike, articles about how all these screenwriters were going to try their hands at comics? The problem is that comics are a different medium, a different form, and it’s not so easy suddenly to switch from what you know to something new. Novelists don’t always make good poets; poets don’t necessarily make good playwrights or screenwriters; these different forms have different rules, different demands, a different vocabulary and structure. So, yeah, there’s an influx to comics from different media, and some of it is good (Joss Whedon) and some of it isn’t. The cream will rise to the top, I think.
WC: Do you think sequential art is inherently inaccessible? Clearly the main problem people have when reading comics is following the panels. Indeed, reading Jimmy Corrigan, at times even I found it difficult to follow along, having to slow down and take everything in. Is the need for comics to be adapted to holding it back from people’s acceptance of it?
KG: Oh, gosh, everyone knows how to read comics. No one has any trouble with the Sunday funnies, do they? All the building blocks are there; they’re just, maybe, in simpler form (at least nowadays they’re simpler–shame no one’s doing stuff like Winsor McCay used to do in the Sunday papers; of course, it’s not easy to be Winsor McCay in a 1″x4″ rectangle). But if you can read Beetle Bailey you can read sequential art. Not everything’s as easy to read as Beetle Bailey, but then not all novels are created equal, either. JK Rowling isn’t Donald Barthelme isn’t David Foster Wallace. And Charles Schulz isn’t Jack Kirby isn’t Chris Ware. But not everyone today is drawing like Chris Ware; there’s a whole array of options out there at any given time.
I grew up spending a lot of time in art museums. I like medieval art, with all its symbolism, and I like the innovations of the Renaissance. I love the creativity and improvisation of early Modernism. But I’ve never been a huge fan of art movements from the mid- to late-20th century. It often seems like a private joke among artists: white canvasses, black canvasses. Call me a Philistine. I can take it. I just don’t care for it. I appreciate what they’re doing, but it doesn’t speak to me. Sequential art is no different. In a way it’s almost better: you’ve got the equivalent of the medieval, the Renaissance, the Modern, and the post-Modern all happening at the same time, and you can pick and choose what works for you. Readers don’t have to learn more than they already know to enjoy what’s out there, but if they want to be challenged, that’s an option, too.
WC: Where do you feel the benefit lies in academic study of comics? Is it in study of the work itself, as a tool to study another topic, or is there some other benefit?
KG: I feel like my answer to this question was profoundly changed by the panel I moderated, as well as at a talk Art Spiegelman gave at the ALA Midwinter meeting two weeks before NYCC. I had really only thought of approaching comics as another kind of text–as you put it, as a tool to study a topic–but now I think that studying the structure of the medium is incredibly valuable. Spiegelman deconstructed a couple of panels–one from Maus, one from In the Shadow of No Towers–and demonstrated how the placement of the panels, the location of the speech balloons, all worked both to control the readers’ eyes and to add to the power of the story. He did the same thing with a Nancy comic strip, showing how the artist used techniques as simple as whether someone is walking from left-to-right or right-to-left to help tell the story.
When I was studying Latin, we read Vergil’s Aeneid. We read it for its story, of course, and for its historical context, but we also read it because of how Vergil used his language. So, for example, if he was describing horses galloping, he might switch to a meter that went “ba-BUM ba-BUM ba-BUM” to evoke the galloping hooves. Or, in Caesar, in the most famous line in Latin, from the Gallic Wars: “Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes” (All Gaul is divided into three parts). The word “divisa” actually does divide the sentence in half, leaving three parts on either side. And “all Gaul” (Gallia omnis) is literally divided by the verb “est.” So, appreciating these works can focus on content and context or on style or on both. And I think that comics offer that same opportunity.
WC: Ultimately, where do you hope discussion of academic acceptance leads? What are your realistic hopes for comics in the next ten, or even five years, in terms of academic or social acceptance?
KG: I’d like to hear purchase recommendations from faculty as well as from students. I’d like to see comics on more syllabi. I’d say that social acceptance is a fait accompli. I think academic acceptance is spottier, but it’s spreading. Right now, I’m more interested in how acceptance is building at Columbia and so far, I’m afraid, it’s primarily among the students. But I’m going to keep plugging away!
WC: Finally, you ended the panel at Comic Con asking about a comic book “canon”; what’s in yours?
KG: Oh, I’m not nearly knowledgeable enough to create a canon! I’m still discovering new people all the time–new to me, that is. I think the point that the panel made, that creating canons is a beginning to discourse, is a valuable one. I’m not nearly cocky enough to fire the opening salvo in that discussion, though!
WC: ha! Then how about this to go out on: comics you’re currently reading or have just finished, and your overall favorite work.
KG: Gosh, OK. What’s on MY shelves, then? What do I buy? I love Peter Kuper’s work with a passion. Also Brian K Vaughan’s–especially Ex Machina. I have all of Garth Ennis’ Preacher. I finally read Watchmen about 5 years ago, and it blew my tiny little mind. I have a lot of Alan Moore on my shelves. Sandman I liked very much, but not as much as a lot of others. I think that recognizing the literary and mythological traditions Gaiman was drawing on gives a different sort of experience to those who are encountering them for the first time. In a way, you could compare my Sandman experience to my friend Gerard’s Watchmen experience. He grew up reading a ton of superhero stuff, and also reading Moore’s Swamp Thing, and when he read Watchmen–in the periodical version, as it was coming out, he thought it was cool, but it didn’t blow his mind. For me, without a lot of background in superheroes, whether mainstream of postmodern, it was just a completely different order of magnitude. And that’s what Sandman is like for me–oh, nice, I recognize that bit, I see how you’re doing this, but it’s not an entirely new fantasy world. But, you know, I have the full set at home, nonetheless!
I do have a fair bit of McCay. I have a lot of collections about early newspaper comics. I have everything from Spiegelman. I have Persepolis. But I also have some of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman, notably “The Hiketeia”, because he does a really great job using a pretty freaking obscure Hellenic statute as the basis for a terrific story. I have books I’ve bought for myself after I did columns on them, because I really liked them–Kirkman’s Walking Dead, and Veitch’s Army@Love.
And I have a TON of Doonesbury collections, going back to the 1970s. Meaning I got them in the 1970s. LOVE Doonesbury. Love political humor.
So, it’s a pretty mixed bag. I’ve probably left stuff out!
KG: Shout-outs go to people like Rich Johnson (formerly of DC Comics and then Yen Press), John Shableski at Diamond Book Distributors, Gina Gagliano of First Second Books, Michael Martens of Dark Horse, Nick Purpura at Jim Hanley’s Universe (the comics shop that we use as our vendor), Leigh Walton of Top Shelf, all of whom have given me incredible support and advice and introductions–you name it. And to Art Spiegelman, who taught at Columbia in Spring 2007 and gave me a massive reading list that I could use to expand the collection. Also to Michael Pregill, a former Columbia doctoral candidate (now a professor) in Islamic Studies, who is a hard-core fanboy and who gave really generously of his time when I was first shaping the collection (he’s the one who made me read Watchmen). And Dave Purcell, a current master’s student at Columbia, who has also given me suggestions (he’s the one who gave me The Nightly News). Comics collections don’t get formed by one person–well, good ones don’t, I reckon–and I have been so fortunate to make friends and acquaintances along the way who have been unstinting in their support. It’s a very cool industry, that way.
Wednesday’s Child would like to thank Ms. Green for a wonderful, insightful, pleasant interview.
***Oh, and remember to read Karen’s column over at comiXology!