October 1st, 2008
Hello, Mindless reader – today we begin what will hopefully be a series of interviews with our peers in what some like to call ‘the comics blogosphere’. We begin with the excellent one-time Countdown blogger (said focus didn’t last long, fear not) Andrew Hickey, who now posts his everything at the plenarily, and accurately, entitled Thoughts on music, science, politics and comics. Mostly comics. You should read it, he write good. Onward, then!
MO: My vague aim is something more conversational, a sort of two-way more than a standard interview, because I’m interested in things like: why are we (drawn to) doing this? What are we achieving? (How can I be a more proficient blogger?) It’s also probably going to be the first of a few, I think, we’re all still relatively new to blogging and just, I guess… interested in the commonalities and differences we have with other people in our sector of what I call the comicsinternet (probably not my coinage actually). It shouldn’t feel, I hope it doesn’t feel, like work – our standard format with pros has been 21 questions but I wanted to go for something more natural here, peer-to-peer.
AH: Sounds good to me – I’m interested in those things myself. For myself, I suppose the biggest reason I write is so I can figure out my opinions for myself – I’m a hugely verbally-oriented person, and I often don’t know what I think until I say it, if you see what I mean. The other reason, though, is I love the conversational aspect of it (even though neither of our blogs particularly encourage that, not having comment notifications) – I love to post something in response to something you’ve posted, or Marc Singer or pillock or whoever, and then see that reflected back and amplified. I thrive on discourse. I’ve also always loved the essay form – as a kid I read through all Orwell’s essays, and I’ve always preferred Bernard Shaw’s prefaces to the plays themselves – and blogs are really the natural home of the essay, now…
MO: Anyway, I wanted to interview you first because primarily you flatter us regularly, and have done so for me personally more than anyone else, so you know. Flattery gets you somewhere, evidently, even if it’s only a – hopefully – broader profile on said comicsinternet.
AH: Well, I’m very grateful. I wouldn’t call it flattery, as such – I think it’s pretty widely known that Mindless Ones is one of the very best comics blogs around at the moment. When Grant Morrison says your blog’s his favourite one (or words to that effect – you did read that thing he posted on his website I presume) [MO: oh yes we did] it’s hardly flattery for me to say the same. I think what praise I’ve given you is entirely justified.
MO: So, to get us started, I thought I’d ask – it’s a favourite self-descriptor I use for a mild bit of bio, Secret Origins: what’s yours? I’ve pootered around various messageboards, initially beginning in I think 2001-02 as a bored callcentre worker, trolling Hero Realm!, the only place I could find with bad reviews of New X-Men, onto places like Millarworld, Barbelith and Your Mom’s Basement – oh, and Broken Frontier, having made sort of internet chums with Graeme McMillan through MW and Barbelith, I posted in his forum there along with about ten other people just hitherto the beginning of Fanboy Rampage which really opened the doors to the wider blogosphere as it was at that time (quite small, I have the impression?), sites like Jog and Dave’s Long Box in particular, but other, stranger and probably more academic, odd and erratic places like Peiratikos, Motime Like the Present or Howling Curmudgeons. FBR was probably quite an apotheosis for the – well, this sector of the – blogosphere.
AH: Same kind of thing for me, although I started on the comicsnet a little later. I didn’t get back into comics after the usual teenage stopping thing until… 2002 or 3 I think I started picking up a few trades, and started buying floppies properly in early 2004, and it was around then I discovered those sites. I was actually LiveJournal friends with Matt Rossi, who was at the time one of the Howling Curmudgeons (and who had his own wonderful blog, now sadly defunct) and it was through him I started reading them, and through them the rest of the comics internet.
MO: It’s not necessarily an endorsement of all the above for me to mention them, I think messageboards are kind of useless for the most part (Barbelith maybe was an exception at one point, and still is to some extent) for actually discussing your readership rather than, say, your fandom of comics – if that’s a distinction that makes sense at all?
AH: Oh, absolutely. I’m afraid I only discovered Barbelith just when it started going a bit downhill (hence the fact that even though I’m a member my posts are probably not even in the double digits). And most of the message boards… well, I used to hang around on Newsarama a few years ago, and I could feel myself becoming a worse human being with every post I read or wrote…
MO: And some of the blogs, I was flattered by them to some extent, in that they used fairly sophisticated academic terminology, as an English grad it was like something I didn’t know I’d been missing hitherto discovering it, but they were it seemed to me elevating the spandex discourse in a way. I don’t necessarily endorse some of these sites, and I’m quite leery of Comics Academia as a notion…
AH: I think I know what you mean – I think some of the comics academics are still too much in love with the comics of their youth, especially the Engelhart/Gerber axis at Marvel in the late 70s. Those comics are good, but not really as good as comics as their reputation suggests, and don’t really bear the weight of the analysis very well…
MO: I’m assuming you began comics-blogging with DC Countdown, following on from Douglas Wolk’s 52 Pickup?
AH: Oh god… what a mistake that was…
MO: Though I get the impression you may have blogged other obsessions/passions concordantly/beforehand?
AH: I had a LiveJournal (still have the account, though I don’t post anything any more) and I tried for a long time to post stuff along the lines of what I post now on there. The problem is, LiveJournal for a variety of reasons (mostly social) doesn’t really encourage the kind of posts I write, and I ended up just posting the usual “Oh my god, my life is so awful, why does nobody like me, my job sucks” self-pitying shit that makes up the vast majority of the content there. And I didn’t like becoming one of those kind of people.
DC Countdown was an attempt on my part to force myself to write something proper, on a deadline, on a regular basis. The problem was, of course, that I chose such an unutterably awful comic to write about. Looking back, it seems hard to imagine that anyone could have thought Countdown could have been a good comic, but the little we knew about it beforehand sounded mildly promising – I quite like Dini’s Detective, Keith Giffen’s usually good, and the promotional stuff suggested it was going to be a fun romp through the weirder corners of the DCU. I still can’t really believe that someone managed to make a comic about Mary Marvel, Jimmy Olsen and the New Gods, leading into a Grant Morrison story, into something so soul-destroyingly bad. But then it turned out to be the third worst cultural product in the history of the universe (for the record the worst is Lookin’ Back With Love, a solo album by Mike Love of the Beach Boys, and the second-worst the film Battlefield Earth).
MO: Yeah, things like Who, music and LibDemmery (it was actually odd, but quite pleasing, I’d probably be a Dem if I lived in England, I’m a Nat here – but it was strange to see the LD perspective, something I’ve not really seen represented hugely anywhere on other than on your site recently…)
AH: I’m glad about that – one reason I switched to a general blog rather than a comics-specific one is that I see all these things as connected. If I want to talk about, say, shamanic figures and the idea of taking on different aspects while still having the same underlying core I’ll probably talk about both Superman in all his many versions and Doctor Who. But while everything seems connected in my head, I worry that the political posts are off-putting to those who don’t care about politics…
MO: We’ll stick to comics mainly but these ancillary interests were also being blogged concurrently? Beforehand? How do you write so much blog (I’d really like to know)? What’s your process?
AH: I don’t really have much of a process, to be honest – a lot of what I post is first-draft stuff, stream-of-consciousness. Part of the reason I write so much is because I force myself to – I’ll often stay up until 2AM or so getting something written because I have a need to figure something out in my head. I also just read a lot – books, comics, magazines, blogs, newspapers – and am constantly connecting the dots in my mind. I usually plan out what I’m going to post while on the ‘bus to and from work, and the actual composition takes only a couple of hours. I also type fast and think faster.
I’ll also often have an overarching theme I want to devote a series of posts to, and plan them accordingly, but then I’ll get distracted by something and end up writing a post that sends everything in a completely different direction. But that means I’ve then got a load of planned posts stored away in my head ready to type up when I’m stuck for an idea. If I decide I’m going to write posts on, say, entropy, I might plan out posts about Seven Soldiers, about information theory, about time travel, about why authoritarian governments are counter productive (and from there a post about V For Vendetta) and so on, but only post half of them at the time.
MO: Also – I think you’re maybe particularly interesting to us, I like to imagine you live on the median of a faultline – around Leeds/Preston, he said, having consulted Google maps – between Dundee (where your interviewer resides) and Brighton (where the rest of the gang… where the portal to the Dark Dimension really is)…
AH: You’re pretty close with ‘somewhere around Leeds or Preston’ – I live in Manchester, which is almost directly between the two..
MO: Ha! I nearly said Manchester as a third option. It’s like leylines.
MO: Because off the top of my head you’re probably the only other British blogger in our bailiwick – oh no, Vibrational Match, sorry.
AH: Interesting you’d mention him – when I’m reading posts in my feed reader I often have to double-check if I’m reading something of his or something from Mindless Ones…
MO: Just about the only other, most of the blogs I read about comics, most of our sidebar is USian; we were talking on our special Mindless telepath lines about things that maybe make British comics readers, bloggers, distinct – it was actually a modest controversy, but we thought maybe we Brits are prone to much greater self-effacement? Do you think that too – I’d not want to generalise beyond this milieu, although I do get the impression Americans are shitloads more competitive than I personally am?
AH: I certainly am prone to self-effacement – doing this interview is really bizarre for me, because I’m talking more about myself here than I probably have in the last year. I wouldn’t like to generalise about all Americans though – my wife is American and I’ve spent enough time in the US to know that there’s no ‘national character’.
MO: Do you think there’re any other characteristics we share with you and David ‘VM’ Allison but not our American brethren in the ancillary comics free-press? Except the fact our writers are palpably better at writing superheroes than theirs?
AH: I think the main difference is one of comics culture. Over here comics are at least slightly ‘counter-culture’, if you’ll excuse the outdated terminology. I think comics fans in the UK as a group are more likely to be people who have other non-mainstream interests and aren’t hugely interested in mainstream acceptance. That’s certainly true of our comic creators – just compare Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Brendan McCarthy to Geoff Johns, Bendis and Alex Ross. I feel horribly snobbish saying this, but I tried listening to a couple of recordings of convention panels (DC have them on their website, and I was interested in hearing Morrison talking for an hour about comics) and the audiences sounded like audiences at a wrestling match – all “whoo” and “yeah!” (and indeed many of the USian creators also sounded like that). I don’t think we have that kind of comics fan over here – if DiDio came over here in front of a crowd and said “Hello DC Nay-SHUN!!!” then I think he’d be laughed off the stage.
Coupled with that, I think we have a different perspective on superheroes because superheroes are so American. I’m sure half the reason that people like Morrison and Moore (and to a lesser extent Millligan and Alan Grant and Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis and so on) have done so well in US comics is because while in the US a Superman comic is essentially about a normal place with one superpowered person, over here, it’s about a superpowered person living in a surreal dreamlike giant city with buildings taller than you can imagine, where people eat strange things called ‘Twinkies’ and cars travel in the wrong direction. The strangeness of the whole thing is amplified by the foreignness, so a British person trying to write ‘a superhero comic’ is going to write something stranger than an American.
It’s much like how British musicians re-invented rock & roll and gave it back to the Americans – John Lennon named the Beatles because he liked how The Crickets was a pun on the insect and the game, without realising that they’d never heard of the game. I suppose it’s the same reason why most American teenagers seem desperately to want to be Japanese (although the Japanese culture they like is again a distorted mirror of their own)…
MO: I hope these are distinct questions and I can just bang this up without chopping the structure around (because I’m terribly, terribly lazy [n.b. this did actually happen as Andrew basically restructured his reply to make it easy for me - a lesson, there, as follows: if you sit on your arse long enough, someone else will do it]) – and maybe on that note, do you not feel, and please don’t be hurt by this, that your blog names could do/have done with a bit more ‘zazz? I mean, I’d honestly probably not be blogging if I’d not been invited to by fellow messageboard posters (them on the podcasts) and I didn’t come up with the title for ours but I think it’s thematically good and, again, possibly a bit coy – I love it because my meek frontier hides a deep well of conceit that I never, ever want to see challenged.
AH: Probably. The Countdown one was a special case of course (although I did change the name of it, if not the URL, a few times – I liked ‘Sci-ence! Justice Leak!’ which it was called for a couple of weeks after a line in an issue of the Atom, but no-one else seemed to). With this one, I didn’t want to be too specific with the title, because I didn’t want to make the mistake of tying myself to one subject or style again. To be honest, I still think of this blog as being ‘in beta’ and will probably come up with a more interesting title for it at the same time I customise the theme and so on – I’ve just not had time to do that for a while. The other thing is I’m profoundly embarrassed by any attempts at ‘creative writing’ I try – it’s the same reason I never post fiction, and why I always co-write songs with other people to avoid writing the lyrics myself. I find my own prose style leaden and dull, and think that the best I can hope for is to communicate the ideas plainly and clearly and hope the ideas themselves are enough of a draw. So I think if I tried to come up with a clever or witty name, I’d probably get hideously embarassed by it and think all the real bloggers were laughing at me behind my back or something.
MO: And continuing on this hardhitting, no-nonsense section – how many issues of Countdown did you actually manage to last, ten was it (I stopped even torrenting it after, was it Lightray (who cares?), died and Superman had that speech at the end when he had a special font asking ‘what does it mean WHEN A GOD CAN DIE?!?!’) Do you feel in hindsight a bit silly starting a blog on that basis – I thought it became excellent when you got thoroughly fed up with the godawful series, which did to its “credit” spawn the terribly entertaining ‘Downcounting‘ segments at FBB, and changed its name – when it now seems so deathly apparent what an ill-conceived idea the comic was?
AH: Oh, it was a terrible idea – see above. I managed to last ten issues, but purely because I’d committed on my first post to do the first ten no matter what. You wouldn’t believe the storm of abuse I got for stopping doing that, you know – I got a ton of emails and comments saying I ‘owed’ people more posts on Countdown. (Although that was nothing to the abuse I got for disliking it in the first place). I agree the blog got better once I could just tear the thing apart every week – once I stopped even looking for any good aspects. I just hope I put at least one or two people off buying the thing. The thing that really depressed me more than anything else about Countdown though was seeing people on Newsarama and CBR and other such areas saying toward the end “I can’t wait til I can stop buying this piece of crap!” The fact that people will spend £75 or whatever, over the course of a year, on something they hate, and not even consider just *not doing that* makes me wish the inevitable ecological collapse will hurry up and wipe out most of the human race.
MO: ‘Sci-ence! Justice Leak!’ is a pretty good blog name, I must’ve missed and/or forgot that one.
AH: It was only up for a short while – Marc Singer told me it was crap and I should get rid of it. I liked it myself though… maybe I’ll reuse it…
MO: Right, a quickfire Q & A to top us off headlong into the conclusion. Which bloggers, if it’s not too terribly embarrassing to say, do you particularly admire? Again, re: comics blogs particularly, because I know you link things like Sadly, No! and I am totally obsessed with the current US election (UK politics is 100x as boring) and love them, have no idea how they can read and destroy the shit they read regularly – anyway, yeah, a comics blogs trinity in honour of the (quite boring from what I’ve seen; have you peered beneath its iconographic coversheets?) new weekly DC series mine’s probably Jog (everyone would say Jog, but still yeah, Jog,) Abhay and – I think – Tucker Stone. Jog is – I don’t know how someone can read to that breadth, and read it all so well; a fellow Mindless motioned to me that he’s more important than 95% of actual comics writers about now, and really I could at best only quibble a few percentage points. Just a pleasure and a learning experience, every time – he’s younger than me, I think, it’s embarrassing. I like to look down upon the young from my lofty perch of 29 years, largely wasted. Abhay – I think it’s worth mentioning Abhay in concert with yourself and Tucker, in that you and TFO have a wider remit than most comics blogs (that I read, and it’s maybe something we’ll look into down the road) and this is a good thing, actually, certainly for me because favourites lists and RSS feeds are habituating and it is probably not good for you to read about comics all the time you’re on the internet (I’m fairly sure it’s not good for you) but he’s got a knack for the informative tangent, a review that’s actually hardly about the content of a specific comic, but it’s still informative, illuminating, funny as hell. You know. Speaks to the culture. Healthy range of interests. He’s probably the most complete stylist on the comicsblognet, just ahead of Tucker – frankly, the only two bloggers I find actively intimidating. ‘Comics of the Weak’ just excoriates the living shit out of everything – he has the interballs I wish to one day myself grow.
AH: Trinity is perfectly adequate. I’m reading it, and it’s always just about passable entertainment, in that zone of not interesting enough to talk about but not bad enough to drop. It’ll probably read better in the trade though – it’s not a must-read-every-week thing like 52. It’s basically what you’d expect from Busiek. Comics bloggers? There’s surprisingly few I think are really good, though I read a ton of them. Well, other than yourselves, Jog is clearly right at the top, although my unfamiliarity with more than about a quarter of what he writes about is a bit of a problem. He’s easily the most intelligent and informed commentator on the medium by quite a long way. And is he really that young? Bastard. (I turn 30 on Sunday and so age is a tender subject). You asked me earlier how I manage to write so much – I’m absolutely in awe of his output both in volume and in content, and he’s got excellent taste too. I don’t know if Eddie Campbell counts as a ‘comics blogger’ – if he does, I’d choose him. Certainly I find his blog endlessly entertaining, especially when he starts talking about his craft (I have a real fascination for the minutiae of comics technique – it’s why Dave Sim’s Glamourpuss fascinates me and why I read Todd Klein’s blog regularly), but also the slice-of-life stuff that’s so like his Alec work. If not, I’d say Marc Singer – some of his posts on Morrison, Moore and Milligan have been very well thought-out. He tends to be one of the ‘comics academics’ we talked about above, but he’s generally talking about comics that deserve the level of discussion he brings to them. I don’t always agree with his conclusions – I found The Black Dossier much less problematic than he did – but he’s also one of the few people out there who looks at the implicit politics of things like Astro CIty intelligently. And Abhay of course is a genius, for all the reasons you state. He’s scarily good, and the way he brings in references from all points of the intellectual spectrum is hugely intimidating. His stuff is almost like using comics as tea-leaves to divine an entire culture, and it’s so completely out of the mainstream of comics criticism that I’m flattered you’d compare me even negatively to him…
MO: What’s, ah, forgive my onanism here but what’s your favourite comic – superhero or otherwise – of the Prismatic Age (c.93-94 to present; you’re one of three, I think, people to link to this concept that I’m so fucking desperate to sell, go figure)… God, this is going to be Morrison heavy; I think mine is, I’d go single ish specific here, honing missile style, and say Marvel Boy #3, which really encapsulated the whole Seattle riots, No Logo zeitgeist and managed to be a fairly handy critique of its own publisher – having its cake and eating it as we say – I think it and X-Force/X-Statix were really the most exhilarating, scathing, self-aware and unique superhero books this era’s produced…?
AH: Favourite single issue would have to be All-Star Superman 10, off the top of my head – “This is going to change everything”. But there’s also things like Mister Miracle #4, which seemed to be a summation of all Morrison’s work to date, combining Flex Mentallo and the issue of The Invisibles about the dying soldier along with Kirby Super Science(!!!) I love Marvel Boy, but in general I think Morrison’s better when he’s at his most celebratory rather than when he’s on the attack. Incidentally, I plan to discuss the Prismatic Age a lot more, both in the review of The Kingdom I’m planning to post in a day or two and in our next discussion…
MO: In closing, I just want to say thanks ever so much for submitting to this, if you fancy doing a followup, I’m into that because there are some seams that I think we’ve uncovered that bear greater examination, definitely, and just keep doing what you’re doing – there’s maybe ten or so blogs I’m particularly pleased to see in bold on my RSS feed sidebar and yours is undoubtedly one of them, in pretty much every aspect (I’m not that much of a Whovian.) Splundig vurr thrig!
AH: I’d definitely be up for that. Maybe a second half over on my blog a week after the first one’s posted? And the feeling’s definitely mutual…