SPX 2009: The Critics Panel

The only panel I went to at this year’s Small Press Expo was the Critics’ Roundtable. It was held at 3:30 on Saturday (the perfect time to take a break and sit down), moderated by Bill Kartalopoulos. (Update: Sean Collins has posted his recording of the panel in case you’d like to hear it for yourself.)

(L to R) Tucker Stone, Bill Kartalopoulos, Sean T. Collins, Joe McCulloch, Chris Mautner, Douglas Wolk, Rob Clough, Gary Groth

(L to R) Tucker Stone, Bill Kartalopoulos, Sean T. Collins, Joe McCulloch, Chris Mautner, Douglas Wolk, Rob Clough, Gary Groth

The guests were

I thought that was a few too many people to allow everyone to participate equally. I would have liked to have heard more from Mautner, for example, but he didn’t get much chance to talk. Also, as you’ll notice from the picture above, we were joking about how similar the panelists were in resembling each other. I guess the youngish bespectacled white male represents many comic fans, though.

Along similar lines (wishing for a little more diversity), some of the most interesting comparisons came when Wolk (who works in print for well-known outlets) and those who mostly work online talked about how the experiences were the same or different. I would have appreciated more differentiation among the kind of work represented on the panel. (When they were introducing themselves, it came up that 4 of them write for the Savage Critics and 4 or 5 of them have written for The Comics Journal.) Maybe instead of so many bloggers, they could have included a podcaster?

But enough criticizing the critics. There were around 65-75 people in the audience, which surprised me at such a good turnout, and they seemed interested and engaged in the panel discussion. There was only time for a few questions at the end, and I had the impression that there could have been many more if another panel wasn’t starting.

Regarding these notes, I have done my best to capture statements and opinions accurately. Please don’t take anything (especially anything you object to) as a direct quote, but the concepts should be correct.

Criticism on the Internet

The first question posed to the panel was “how has the internet affected criticism?” McCulloch started by saying it allowed a quick response to whatever had been read and wide access (through search engines). You can also write however you want (in terms of style, length, etc.). Wolk added that it enabled conversation to take place quickly and broadly. (I appreciated this point, his emphasis of community.) Collins pointed out that you didn’t have an editor or gatekeeper, and Mautner liked the promotion opportunities, that you get the reward of readers’ attention, and that could lead to other things. Clough made a point about the problems of the internet, that it doesn’t always have long, thoughtful, critical pieces; instead, there was too much short snarky stuff.

The next question was to Groth, asking him why he didn’t have a blog. He referred to himself as “generationally challenged” and said that he spent several weeks honing a piece, so he wasn’t into the rhythm of posting every two days. He also thought that the potential conflict of interest put him in a difficult position. The Journal has shrunk as a proportion of Fantagraphics’ output now that they publish 60 graphic novels a year. Since the magazine is less prominent, I got the impression he felt the risk (of someone being annoyed by his opinion and taking it out on the company) wasn’t worth it.

I’m not sure what the next question was — my next note says that McCulloch pointed out that comic writing on the internet has grown a great deal in the five years he’s been doing this and that it’s easier for a new contributor to get lost. Wolk responded that if you don’t care about hit counts, timing doesn’t matter, so you can put out a piece when it’s ready and it’s there as long as the site is. I think this led into people talking about sequart.com having disappeared in some kind of database crash, and Clough saying that he no longer had copies of 200 columns he’d written for them. There was commiseration over this.

Stone (who talks like he writes, leading to the saltiest comments on the panel) said that self-imposed deadlines made him write. but he doesn’t know his hit counts. (Update: I got this wrong. Collins said he didn’t know his hit counts.Stone said that whatever his wife wrote was most popular.) Clough chimed in that he has a compulsion to write about what he’s read and that pushed him until he got it out there.

Print and Internet Differences

Groth then asked the others if they wrote differently for print and internet. Mautner said definitely! You have to consider your audience. In print, you have to explain a lot about comics; on the internet, you can assume that we’re speaking the same language. McCulloch pointed out that print has space limitations. Collins made the observation that when he’s writing for a general-interest publication, they mostly want reviews of good stuff, so he doesn’t publish bad reviews in print. Wolk backed him up by saying that the editors generally feel that if the review is negative, “why should our readers care?” Online, that’s opening a conversation; in print, you’re rendering judgment.

Then there was a discussion of whether Bottomless Belly Button got any in-depth criticism. Someone had read something that said that searching the internet just returned “it’s good, you should get it” reactions that were pretty shallow. At this point, Stone left for the men’s room. And I stopped trying to capture everything they were saying, so I didn’t get much of the BBB conversation.

The Critical Discourse

The next question was whether they felt that they needed to participate in critical discourse and weigh in on big tentpole books. Stone returned to say, “Critical discourse? What the f*ck is that?” He went on to point out that the wider internet has a low level of dialogue, illustrated through more profanity. Wolk felt that talking about what others were covering wasn’t an obligation but a pleasure. Clough feels obligated to cover review copies. He’s not interested in saying whether or not someone should buy it but just engages the work.

The panel began using Final Crisis as an example of something that was widely covered. Collins loved the book and the back and forth about it, but he would also love to see that volume of people writing about Acme Novelty Library #19, which he thought was the best book of the year. Wolk responded, “You might see more coverage if Acme was monthly,” which led to much laughter. McCulloch pointed out that there was so much conversation about FC because it affected so many other titles (supposedly). Clough thought it was easier to think about FC than Acme.

Then he asked whether the others approached reviewing art comics and superheroes differently. Collins said he was sure he did but he tries not to. Wolk thought it was hard to get away from the bigger continuity. Stone said he approached a minicomic from a 19-year-old shy kid different from an established older author, and he wouldn’t review the minicomic if all he wanted to say to the creator was “stop making comics”. (Only he said this in many more words and with more of a verbal picture of the poor kid.)

Collins pointed out that when reviewing for his own blog, he was self-selecting. He didn’t want to force himself through something that he expected to tear apart. Wolk finished by saying that his allegiance was to the reader, not to the person making art. There was no value in “scorched earth” unless it was useful or meaningful to the reader.

16 Responses to “SPX 2009: The Critics Panel”

  1. Tom Spurgeon Says:

    This sounds awful. You should put a paypal button up.

    Also, I think I outweigh this entire panel. In fact, I’d say this looks like a black velvet painting of the Last Supper starring a troupe of circus midgets, only I can’t tell if Mautner or Jog is supposed to be Christ. Seriously, Sean Collins looks like the biggest guy on the panel, and I once carried Collins around the San Diego con floor for a full day in my shirt pocket. I would have looked like Hagrid up there.

    I have to admit David Welsh is right in that this is the third picture of Gary where he seems 15 years younger.

  2. Rob Clough Says:

    Tom, you can’t see my enormous gut in this photo. The slimming effect of sitting behind a table.

    Johanna, thanks for this report. I felt a little uncomfortable that there wasn’t a bit more diversity up there as well, and frankly stunned that the room was so jam-packed. I would have loved to have seen you on the panel, especially since you would contribute a different perspective than the other panelists and that you’ve been at this for such a long time.

    By the way, the second question asked was regarding the positives and negatives of writing on the internet and how that may have changed over the past five years.

  3. Back from SPX « Precocious Curmudgeon Says:

    […] I sat next to Johanna Draper Carlson at the panel, and it was nice to catch up with her. She’s probably hard at work on a fuller write-up of the critics’ panel and posted a photo of me from the convention, taken during the three or four minutes when I actually had any responsibility of any kind. (Update: Her panel wrap-up is here.) […]

  4. Heidi M. Says:

    Gary is starting to be “startlingly well preserved.” We chalked it up to comics keeping you young with their startling youngness.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Thanks for filling in the question, Rob. I also forgot to use the adjective “apple-cheeked” to describe Joe McCulloch. I would have loved to have been on the panel, but only because I had an opinion on everything you discussed. :)

  6. Johanna Says:

    And I’m with Heidi: Gary’s a babe.

  7. Chris Mautner Says:

    According to my wife, I’m clearly Christ, based on body posture. Jog’s eyes, leading you out of the frame, let you know he’s John.

    But if Tom’s Hagrid then I call dibs on one of the Weasley twins. Not the dead one. The other one. Jog’s obviously HP. Tucker can be Draco.

    Anyway, it was fun to be on the panel. And it was good to see you again Johanna.

  8. Jog Says:

    I believe Chris is Christ (naturally), which would make me Jesus’ wife Mary Magdalene, if I’m remembering this correctly.

  9. Chris Mautner Says:

    Does that mean I owe you an anniversary present?

  10. Sean T. Collins Says:

    Would you believe I actually gave some thought to not wearing glasses to the panel for precisely “they’re all wearing glasses” reason you mention? But I was pretty tired and my contacts tend not to do well in my eyes when I’m tired. I assure you that if you see me around, at least 50% of the time you will be dazzled by my spectacle-free baby blues.

  11. Johanna Says:

    Ha! I’m glad you chose comfort and safety over looks.

  12. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » SPX memories…and there are a lot of them Says:

    […] The Critics Panel at SPX was much discussed. You can either read about it, in Johanna Draper Carlson’s […]

  13. Comics A.M. | The comics Internet in two minutes | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    […] on to the Small Press Expo, and convention recaps from David Welsh, Alert Nerd and Samuel Rules. Johanna Draper Carlson reports on the Critics' Roundtable panel, while Sean T. Collins provides the audio. […]

  14. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Sept. 29, 2009: Different lessons to impart Says:

    […] Small Press Expo 2009 Link: Chris Mautner, David Welsh, Johanna Draper Carlson (one, two), Ben Towle and Samuel […]

  15. Gary Groth Says:

    You’re pretty startlingly well preserved yourself, Heidi.

    Though not the babe I am, of course.

  16. Choice words from 2009 « The Manga Curmudgeon Says:

    […] notice that there are no articles by women on the final list, but I was sitting next to her during the critics’ panel at SPX, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for this observation. And it inspired Melinda Beasi’s […]




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