The great interblog circle jerk continues with this, the first instalment of my interview with the guys at Funnybook Babylon, where-in we discuss TOUGH LOVE FOR COMICS, contemplate how best to help the little bros, and take Tucker Stone’s name in vain*.

*Tucker responds in the comments

ZOM: It’s a formality but I think it might be worthwhile to have some introductions. I’ve been reading your site for the better part of a year, I’ve read your profiles and I listen to your podcast, but I’m not still now entirely clear on your individual roles and responsibilities. I know that David and Chris do the lion’s share of writing, and I know that some of you are techy, but break it down for me.

DAVID U: To be fair, we’re also pretty academic in most of our articles so far, so it’s not like we’ve been all that transparent anyway. But let’s break down some barriers! I’m David Uzumeri, and I guess my current “responsibility”, if it can really be called as such, is just to post whatever I think is interesting and/or whatever people seem to be digging on me doing, which so far largely seems to be annotation-style analysis of recent Morrison stuff (just because I find it so beautifully and intricately dense) and my thoughts on the industry or shit I predicted/figured out, since, for some reason, I seem to have a halfway decent success rate with that.

My personal history with comics was largely four-color in my youth, growing up in New York’s (student?) ghetto of Troy and later Alabama in the late ’80s and early ’90s. At first, I read a whole lot of Batman – Milligan and Mignola’s “Dark Knight, Dark City”, Wolfman’s short run, the Jason Todd and Tim Drake sagas, etc. Later on, I got into Dan Jurgens’s Superman, Ron Marz’s Green Lantern, Jim Lee’s X-Men, Rob Liefeld’s X-Force, Zero Hour. All this now-somewhat-maligned shit formed the basis of my love for the stuff and probably still informs my taste to this day. Which is probably why I’m so attracted to superhero comics, although I’m a little bit (although not much) more well-read than that. The stuff that really resonated with me, though, was the stuff I sort of would always buy by accident – Grant Morrison and Mike Parobeck’s remake of “Flash of Two Worlds” in Secret Origins #50 on a camping trip, Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s Untold Legend of the Batman in cereal boxes, stuff like that. After what could best be characterized as “a brief dalliance” with manga, I just sort of went into my English-student stuffy “COMICS are for CHILDREN” mentality (largely because I dropped them since they were too expensive) until I read Watchmen in University and then Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns (who was sort of like the ’90s comics I liked as a kid, except 500x better) and Brian Michael Bendis and sort of fell in love from there.

I’m currently working as a software developer in Toronto and pretty much just read comics and write for this site in my spare time outside of the bars and the hanging out and all.

JOSEPH: I’m Joseph and these days I pretty much focus on the podcast. I end up doing a fair amount of editing on each podcast, trying to drop the extraneous bits where we ramble on and on, and tighten each week’s show into something that I hope isn’t too hard on the ears. I end up usually leaving about a third of what we record on the cutting room floor.

JAMAAL: I’m one of the co-founders of the site, along with Joe and Pedro. I’m a regular contributor to the podcast and the website (although I’ve been slacking with the writing as of late). I also help guide the editorial direction of the site. Until relatively recently, Pedro and I were primarily responsible for creating a rundown for the podcast.

CHRIS: I show up for the podcast, irregularly write things and try to use my teaching background to help revise and improve the other guys’ posts. Since I have started criticizing the copy-editing in comics, I figure the least I can do is work to make our site come correct.

MATT: I started out writing a little, but these days I mostly talk articles through with people, and do a little copy-editing when Chris can’t take it anymore.

PEDRO: I really see my job as making sure the website keeps moving. The other guys provide the bulk of the content. I have to make sure there is a platform to do so. I do have a seat at the podcast table where I interject something that is a little bit closer to the traditional super hero fan in regards to opinion and I occasionally write things here and there that Chris has to spend years copy editing. I try to make sure that if things need to be done, that I push to get them done. I usually do them so horribly people take pity on me and do them instead. I also say terrible things that I should never really say in public.

ZOM: So then, let’s get straight onto… well let’s get straight onto another obvious question. How did Funnybook Babylon come to be? What force pulled all you guys together and keeps you locked in place? A lot of factors contributed to the Mindless Ones equation, but an effort to recreate our “comics chat” pub sessions (sadly a thing of the past) was probably the initial driving force. That, and the never-ending death of Barbelith. Anything comparable in the FBB team history?

DAVID U: Pedro, Chris and I all knew each other from the Something Awful forums, and talked on IRC a lot, so when Funnybook Babylon was formed I was invited to do a few articles. I ended up writing a bunch of articles, and now I just keep doing that, I guess. Writing on a blog was more appealing than a message board because people other than dudes who paid ten bucks to read a message board might give a shit about what you’re saying.

JOSEPH: The show got started around the 2007 New York comic-con. I had gotten hooked on a bunch of podcasts about a variety of subjects (the old GFW Radio, 1up Yours, This American Life, KCRW’s Left Right & Center, On The Media, among others) but I couldn’t find one that I liked about comics. Nothing against the other folks out there doing comics shows, I know how hard it is to do a weekly show, but I just felt that there wasn’t a show that talked about comics in the way that Jamaal and Pedro would.

I figured that the discussions between Jamaal, Pedro & I could be interesting enough to turn into a show, so we gave it a shot. The first few episodes were awful, but we bought some equipment, brought in Chris as a permanent podcast member, and tried to improve.

JAMAAL: From what I recall, the idea for the podcast was Joe’s, as a way to broadcast some of the more interesting conversations that Pedro and I had about comics. The blog was developed as an extension of the podcast. I think it really began to take off when we brought David, Chris and Jon in the mix.

CHRIS: I knew Pedro from the Internet and started hanging out with him at NYC comic events. At some point he introduced me to Joe and Jamaal, and they eventually brought me into the site. I had tried to start a comics blog before with some of the FBB gang but it never amounted to anything until the anchor of a weekly podcast and a bigger peer-group to exert peer pressure was added to the equation.

MATT: I’ve been hanging out in IRC and on the Something Awful forums with Chris and Pedro and David U. for a few years, and once it was explained in IRC that Funnybook Babylon was a place for anyone who cared about comics to write about comics I jumped at the chance. Since then I’ve sort of failed to follow up on the actual “writing articles” thing but I got my foot in the door, at least.

I got hardcore back into comics in 2003 after talking about them on message boards. It quickly became obvious who the intelligent posters were, and who had interesting things to say, but we began to outgrow the forum when we realized we had more to say than we could fit into our posts. We then graduated to a sad little blogspot where we threw up several rants, which led us to bat around the idea of doing a full on blog site with bells and whistles and what not. It never succeeded due to the guy doing the heavy lifting behind it. Joe came along, however, with his idea for a comic podcast separate from this. In the back of my head I knew if we could get this working I would have a valuable pool of writers to bring along to get the site running. As Joe points out the first 4 episodes were okay but marred by the fact we ran it off Joe’s Powerbook. Episode 5 was lost because over 95% of the podcast was obscured by the sound of a laptop fan. In one of my biggest moments of bitching, I told Joe, if we don’t get a better system, I’m not doing the podcast again. New equipment was purchased and we started doing better shows. Knowing that I was going to leave for my honeymoon, I brought Chris in to start filling my spot. It was kind of surreal listening to those podcasts because they were just much stronger. From here I pressured Chris to take his rantings about Countdown and throw them up on the site. Soon after that, I was writing a terrible Pull List Preview that disappointed David so much he offered to do them. He’s now stuck doing the best annotations in the business (yeah I said it, Wolk).

ZOM: Gotta agree, they’re bloody good.

There’s been a bit of chat recently in Mindless circles about our USP: if we have one, and if so, what it looks like. Does FBB have a USP?

DAVID U: I dunno, we’re all pretty radically divergent in our views. I guess our pseudo-USP is just supporting raising the intellectual bar for discussion on the web, toning down the reductionism and snark, while also not really being scared to call a spade a spade as long as it’s done in a manner that’s at least rudimentarily constructive and not personally insulting to the book’s creatives. Countdown was a bad comic, an awful comic even, produced by a group of people who’ve all done good work in the past. A shitty issue of New Avengers doesn’t turn Bendis into a hack.

JAMAAL: I don’t think that we have a ‘USP’ at all. On one hand, we want to raise the bar for pop culture discussion in an accessible manner, but on the other, we enjoy having silly segments on our podcast. The only real principle that I could think of is that we try to avoid the reductive thinking, stereotyping and logical shortcuts that pervade many comics blogs.

CHRIS: I confess to having to look up “USP”: is it a “unique selling point”? If so, I’m uncertain if we have a USP. In terms of a RareSP, I think we aim to discuss comics — all comics, be they ‘pop’ or ‘art’ or whatever other boxes you want to check — with a level of thoughtfulness and grounding that seems to get lost amongst the quips and snark and anecdotes. I don’t know if we fully succeed, and it probably hurts our prolificy, but I feel like that’s our throughline. Even when I resorted to snark when trying to make sense of Countdown, I wanted it to be considered, and if at all possible constructive. When I felt it was devolving into easy potshots, I trailed off.

MATT: I have to echo everyone else’s answers about just trying to raise the level of comic discussion on the internet. So much of the “blogosphere” is incredibly reactionary, and I like to think of Funnybook Babylon as taking a more level-headed approach overall. Plus we’re all really, really smart so people should pay attention to us.

PEDRO: There was and still is a hole for the kind of conversation and criticism we do at FBB. No one is talking about comics, super heroes especially, like we do. I understand why people feel the way they do about superheroes on both sides of the fence. I just don’t hear enough people doing what we do, and, not to really sound cocky, as well as the other guys on the site do. I really enjoy the level of conversation that occurs here. You get smart discussion about pop culture that is honest and not dripping with irony. Also no New Journalism here. That’s a promise.

ZOM: Hah, “no New Journalism” – that sounds about right. Certainly the kind of criticism you bring to bear is largely of the analytical and impersonal variety. Obviously your individual subjectivities are in there, but you don’t wear them on your sleeves in, say, the way that many of us at Mindless Ones do. It’s interesting because while I feel it would be difficult to boil Mindless Ones down to a single line description (and, trust me, I’ve tried) New Journalism definitely factors into my thinking. My posts, for example, are far more meditative than they are critical in a traditional sense; Lines of thinking that approximate a trad crit approach crop up, for sure, but they’re almost always explicitly tied to something murky and personal. Sometimes the results work well, other times less so.

Okay, next question: Tucker [Stone] recently stated that most mainstream comics are total and utter shit, and that’s a sentiment I find it hard to disagree with. How about you? I see the whole “tough love for comics” ethos as containing some sort of positive component, or is it tough love of the spare the rod and spoil the child variety?

First of all, sorry, I’m getting tangential here, but I really get bugged by the use of the term “mainstream” to describe superhero comics. Mainstream? Really? Maybe in the direct market, but they’re overshadowed hugely by the Fantagraphics/D&Q crowd in terms of acceptance amongst the literati and mainstream acceptance/impact. Some superhero fans seem to get all indignant over this like it’s some kind of insult, but I can sort of understand why the average person would be more interested in a story about love and a dying mother on the streets of Brooklyn or something over a flying alien who bashes through a time barrier to confront the abstract personification of terror, or whatever.

Which brings me to Tucker’s point, which is that a lot of superhero comics are shitty – and yeah, this is pretty true by the standard of the best of the best of real mainstream comics, but the ratio’s really the same across the board. From what I remember from his interview, though, Tucker expanded on this to state that his major problem with this fact was that comics reviewers go too easy on books they don’t really like just because it features a character they like, and isn’t profoundly and patently offensive.

The thing is, you don’t see me slamming my coworkers (or myself) for watching shows like Prison Break, 24 or Gossip Girl, you know? It doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate The Wire or Arrested Development as well. People always go easier on serialized stories like that, but in the end month-to-month single issue sales aren’t the big factor here, trade paperback sales are. And those actually largely can be dependent on buzz and quality, at least according to the sales guys at the Big Two since we don’t get comprehensive numbers for the non-Direct Market. So I don’t think it’s like this epic pandemic of the comics commentary crew wearing those awesome see/hear/speak-no-evil helmets in “Rock of Ages” when they’re confronted with shitty comics, I think it’s just how response to serialized stories works, especially featuring characters you’ve already formed an emotional connection with to a certain extent.

JOSEPH: In film school I had a violent reaction against the separation of “High Art” films and “Low Art” films. What makes Pasolini’s Porcile and Roger Coorman’s Death Race 2000 great films isn’t very different.

I think that part of the ‘Tough Love’ is championing things that we like, not just tearing things down. We were all pretty positive on the latest relaunch of “The Blue Beetle” and “The Incredible Hercules”. Those are great “mainstream” books.

I don’t see why those books can’t be in the same conversation as one about Laika, Sentences, or Nausicaä. They’re all comics, and I think that we’re all into the medium, and what it can do. I think that both ignoring or talking only about superheroes is silly. There’s a larger world, but that doesn’t mean that the capes and tights don’t have interesting things to say once in a while.

That said, I also don’t like when superhero books are given a pass on having things like characterization, plot, and storytelling simply because they tug on nostalgia, and lean on other comics that have come before.

JAMAAL: For me, ‘tough love for comics’ is about honesty. I would agree that a lot of reviewers grade comic books on a curve because the audience’s expectations are so low. Hell, I would go further than that and argue that the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ applies to all genres of comic books, not just superhero titles. At the same time, I think it’s important to avoid cynicism and pedantry. I don’t want to churn out a string of columns that snarkily point out minor logical inconsistencies in plots. I also don’t want to write reviews or commentary showering praise on a book because it’s not a superhero title. To tell you the truth, that’s probably why I write a lot less for the site than I intended. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a definite place for writers like Tucker Stone, but I just know that I couldn’t be one of them.

As far as shitty superhero comics go, I don’t think I quite agree with Dave (or probably with anyone else who writes for the site). I don’t think it’s possible to directly compare product created for different mediums, but putting that aside, I think that the floor is lower for comics than it is for just about any other medium. I think one of the main reasons for this is that fans of the Marvel and DC Universe have an emotional connection with the characters (and the setting) that fans of other mediums don’t generally have. The shared universe idea gives fans an incentive to follow characters for really long periods of time, which leads to fans reading a ton of crap. There’s really nothing that parallels this in other mediums. The loyalty of the fans (who’ve been taught to follow characters in a never-ending story and not creators) discourages the publisher from rejecting the real bottom feeder stuff. The problem isn’t that superhero fans are reading the equivalent of ‘Prison Break’, it’s that they are reading something that no network would put on the air. As a result, the ratio of good to terrible superhero comics becomes so unbalanced that the fan now looks at the comic book equivalent of ‘Prison Break’, and thinks it’s the comic book equivalent of the ‘Wire’.

Just as an aside on the whole ‘mainstream’ argument, my view’s always been that we have no idea what a ‘mainstream’ title or genre really is. We can all come up with arguments based on anecdotes and personal impressions, but in the end, our conclusions really say more about our feelings about the industry than anything else.

CHRIS: I think there are a lot of terrible superhero comics out there, to the point that just saying “this superhero comic is bad” is more or less white noise. Discussions about why people read these terrible comics, or contrasting why certain comics (good or bad) fail or succeed is interesting. Talking about why you think a particular book is especially despicable or admirable is interesting. Really harping on why a single panel makes you think someone is a sexist, or how you randomly read one issue of an unremarkable unadmired book and found it to be simply appalling is incredibly boring. It’s not even a matter of shitting on the equivalent of Prison Break, it’s finding some largely ignored aborted reality show on basic cable and then discussing how phenomenally bad the theme song is. Who cares?

When a popular and/or admired creator drops the ball, that’s worth discussing. When a high-selling property turns out an appalling story, that’s worth discussing. But so much of the “criticism” of superhero comics from a “smart” perspective comes off like the people who try to dismantle a political party based on YouTube comments.

I admit I’ve done my share of bashing horrible comics (Jeph Loeb and Countdown most prominently), but in both cases I was critiquing high profile best-selling titles. There’s not much point to shitting all over DC’s Cyborg mini-series or True Believers since no one’s reading them. But to re-iterate, I didn’t want to just point and laugh. People are buying these books, the creators of these books are succeeding, and what does that mean? That’s something worth examining, but if all you’re going to do is make a LOLCat out of a really dumb Hulk panel, what’s the use?

“Most mainstream comics are complete and total shit” can mean so many different things that it’s a complete non-statement. Setting aside that I think the distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream comics is meaningless and artificial, saying that comics are bad doesn’t really say anything at all. To come back to Chris’s answer, that comics are total shit isn’t what’s interesting, it’s why things are total shit and why people buy total shit that’s important to discuss.

As far as tough love for comics goes, it’s all about honesty and respect toward whatever you’re writing about. Even the best comics have flaws, and glossing over them doesn’t do anything but give an inaccurate picture of quality. I do, however, like to focus more on the love part of the equation. I find it difficult to write about comics I don’t like.

PEDRO: I feel like I am the worst person to follow up on this. I don’t think that the cape books are as terrible as everyone says they are. I still find 4 to 5 quality books a week to buy. This is equal to the number of TV shows I watch and greatly outnumbers the movies and music I consume every week. I won’t disagree that there are terrible books out there but I don’t really find bad superhero comics to be devoid of any value, even to those who aren’t a part of the traditional fan base. Thankfully, I’m not the only voice on the site so this opinion gets balanced with others. Sometimes my fear is that when you go off like that all the time, anything positive gets lost in the noise of declaring an entire sub-genre utter shit. It begins to veer towards political pundit territory. I don’t think Tucker is like that, but a lot of other people are. It’s the combination of the honesty Jamaal talks about, the fairness Joe points out, and the focus Chris is gesturing towards. Kind of the way I treat my dumb ass brothers. They all have a good heart and when they succeed you are right there cheering them on, but sometimes you just got to knock them across their heads when they do some dumb shit they shouldn’t have done. You can’t smack them for every dumb thing, because they’re just going to ignore you after you for awhile and start doing crack. Don’t let your little bros do crack!

In part 2 we ask the big question. That’s right, mindless chums, what would you do if you were the Beyonder!

Remember, help the little bros!

Other interblog circle jerks

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