Jim McLauchlin's PANEL DISCUSSIONS: Here's Everything Wrong with 'Comics Journalism'

Tools of the trade
Tools of the trade
Credit: Zach Pennington
More tools of the trade
More tools of the trade
Credit: Jim McLauchlin

Comic book journalism is kind of like the weather—everyone complains, but no one seems to do anything about it.

There’s little doubt that, alas, faith in media in general is at a laughably low point. Gallup pegs American confidence in media at about 20%. Among comic book professionals viewing comic book media…it might be even lower.

“I see two major things: Puff pieces, usually for the big two; and a developing outrage industry,” says Chew creator and Detective Comics writer John Layman. “I really don’t see much else.”

And Layman knows what to look for. He has a real-world journalistic background, having worked as what he calls “a Jimmy Olsen news assistant” on a major daily newspaper, the San Diego Union Tribune.

Ron Marz tends to agree. Marz was a sportswriter and later the entertainment editor for the Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman before going on to write Green Lantern, Witchblade, and more. His observations are very close to Layman’s.

“There’s a lot of fluff, because we are an entertainment medium, and by and large, that’s what entertainment generates,” Marz says. “There’s also a lot of easy stuff, repackaged press releases, and obviously canned interviews along the lines of ‘Here’s an email list of 10 questions, you send them back and we’ll print them.’ The craft of journalistic writing is not as prevalent as it should be.”

Professionalism tends to help any industry. Dentistry is now better with Novocain than it was in the days of bloody pliers and a shot of whiskey. With that in mind, here’s a quick guide to everything that’s wrong with “comics journalism,” with some hopefully helpful suggestions on how to make things a little better. And let’s start by taking that first bullet out of your rhetorical gun:

I am not telling you that you have to do things this way.

Though I wish you would. Again, any community is better served by a higher degree of professionalism, and I’d like to see that in my journalistic community. This is a “best practices” guide that, if followed, can help put your work on a par with the same work generated by the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, NBC News, and so on. It’s a few basic building blocks that can swell the tide that raises all ships. So if you so desire, please float my boat.

Starting with the most important point…

YOU ARE NEVER THE NEWS

The most basic strike one in any Journo 101 class is the student who comes up with the lead of “The Pasadena City Council held its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday.” The lead is never the meeting. The lead is what happened at the meeting.

Alas, many comic Websites go one step lower. We often see convention event reportage that starts with “I went to Such-and-Such Con 2014, and here’s what I saw.” To be honest and frank, that’s a 0.5 on the 1-to-10 scale of reportage. Not only did the reporter lead with the fact that a con happened (big whoop), but inserting yourself as the focal point is flat out wrong. Things happen around you that have nothing to do with you, and if you’re reporting on an event, you need to be self-aware enough to separate yourself from the importance (or lack thereof, using your news judgment) of a happening.

“Last weekend’s Such-and-Such Con featured record attendance of 41,000 and a major Marvel Comics announcement” is a much better example of a way to start event coverage. You are not part of it. And what HAPPENED at the event is the news. Dig?

My gut is that many homemade bloggers—and that’s just a descriptive, not a pejorative—simply lack the experience to separate their own experience from the outside-observer reporting experience. Use the above as a guide, and you can quickly change that. Which leads quickly to…

THERE’S A REAL LACK OF ORIGINAL REPORTAGE

Marz hit one thing right, or at least half-right: Comic news sites are full of repackaged press releases, or sometimes, straight releases not even repackaged at all. If that’s all you’re doing, you’re not a comics journalist. You’re just a mouthpiece. At a bare freaking minimum, press releases need to be clearly labeled as such if you’re running them.

A slide used during Jim's high school journalism classes
A slide used during Jim's high school journalism classes
Credit: Jim McLauchlin

I often tell high school and college journalism students that a good PR person can be a tremendous boon. They can get you basic information, help you with fact-checks and research, and aid in access. But that’s all they are—preliminary helpers. You need to do the legwork, and keep in mind that the PR flack is in the employ of whatever interest they represent. They have an agenda, and it flows in one direction. You need to be aware of that agenda.

Original reporting is not hard. There are a million things to report on, and ten times that many angles, if you care to look. Sometimes the answer is as simple as…just opening your eyes.

I taught 10 weeks of a high school journalism class, one day a week, last year. The students had a hard time finding stories of local interest until I showed them a roadside memorial where a young girl had died in car crash involving a drunk driver. The family had maintained the memorial for two years running. The memorial was less than one mile from the school’s front door. Just open your eyes.

Again, there is a wealth of ideas to report on, and dozens of angles for each idea. Find one, and then find your sources.

YOU NEED SOURCES, AND THAT MIGHT BE TOUGH. SO WHAT?

Let’s flash back to point one: You are never the news. You need someone else to make things newsworthy. You need eyewitnesses, you need experts, you need people involved. In short, you need sources.

I get the feeling that many intro-level journalists are afraid to make that first step, to simply say, “Hey, Joe Artist. I’m writing a piece for Something-dot-com, and I’d like to ask you some questions.” Well…that’s about the only way you can get started. Make that step. I’ll tell you this: For the last 26 years, I’ve worked as a journalist in sports, entertainment, literature, comics, and government and politics. About 99% of the time, people want to be interviewed. They’ve got something to say. That family with the roadside memorial? You bet your ass they had something to say about their daughter, and about drunk driving. Make that step. The worst anyone can say is “no.”

Some people get “no.” So what? Try again, try better, try harder, and try persistently. A common complaint runs to, “Well, I tried to talk to Dan DiDio, but he said I had to talk to DC’s PR department first.” Many people just drop it there, having never called DC PR. Make that call! Dan DiDio does one metric buttload of interviews every year. You may not your thing slated now, but you may get another thing later. Start the process, get in front of people. Again, that PR person is there to help you.

To Ron Marz’ earlier point about canned interviews: You have an obligation to your audience to ask questions that you actually, you know, ask. An emailed “interview” is not an interview—it’s a position paper. And you, as a reader, can DEFINITELY tell the difference. Be better than that. And to that end, keep in mind that summarizing Twitter is not called “journalism.” Summarizing Twitter is called “Twitter.”

A variety of sources is also crucial, so you’re not just telling one side of a story. One quick example, and I use this less for reasons of ego (I think!) and more because I can speak very specifically as to what went into it, is this Wonder Woman piece. The piece, which ultimately dealt with what Greg Rucka called “the queer aspect of Wonder Woman,” had seven different sources: Three former Wonder Woman writers, two lifelong Wonder Woman fans, a fetish model who gets paid to dress like Wonder Woman, and an academic who deals with gender issues. That is, I think and hope, a wide swath of sources that can provide a 360-degree view.

BY AND LARGE, PHOTOGRAPHS SUCK

Two things drive me nuts about many photographs seen on many comic book websites:

1) A large percentage are stolen. Just flat-out stolen. They're pics yanked from other sites to which, let's be honest, you have no rights to. A photograph is a distinct creation like any other work of art. The copyright is owned by the photographer (sometimes a monkey!), unless he has assigned rights otherwise via a contract. Period. I'm always a tad befuddled to see people break out the torches and pitchforks over scammers who run torrent sites and yank images to make T-shirts on redbubble.com—and they should!—yet steal people's photographs left, right and center. Rule of thumb: Just because you found it via Al Gore's Google machine doesn't mean you can steal something and repurpose it as you see fit. That original photographer, legally and morally, deserves to give their consent, and be compensated should they so desire.

2) The "standard" shot is the same, and it's a bad one. If I see ONE MORE PHOTO OF A GUY SITTING AT AN ARTIST ALLEY TABLE HOLDING UP HIS COMIC, TYPICALLY WITH A GOOFY GRIN, SOMEONE'S GONNA GET A SLAP FOR THAT! This shot, which we've all seen a million times, is poorly composed and really not even borderline-professional. A few tips:

Don't do this
Don't do this
Credit: Buddy Scalera

• EYE LEVEL: Put the camera on the same level as the subject. Most these con shots are taken with photographer standing, subject sitting. It's a down-shot. Unless done with proper background and for a specific dramatic purpose, it's off-putting. It's not the way we relate. Think about it: If you're chatting and having dinner with friends, you're all sitting. You're all on the same eye level. When you're striking up a conversation with someone at a cocktail party, you're likely both standing. You're seeing eye-to-eye. That's the way we relate to each other. Make your camera do the same, and your photos are instantly relatable, and better.

• RULE OF THIRDS: Don't center the subject. Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid across your frame instead. Hell, some viewfinders have them. Your subject's eyes should be roughly along the top horizontal line, and face centered on one of the vertical lines, looking into the LARGER space. It's totally cool, and in fact more active, to have your subject in partial profile—Think "two eyes, one ear." This gives your subject "talking space" (hey, just like comic book characters need space for word balloons!) and a small sense of motion and life in what can otherwise be a static medium.

Do this
Do this
Credit: Buddy Scalera

The beauty part: You don't need to get it right the first time. This can be accomplished "in camera," or in your editing and cropping—and if you're NOT looking at your photos with a critical eye and cropping properly, you're failing only yourself! Hey, if I, a neo-Luddite, can do this in iPhoto, so can you. Now pardon me while I go throw my wooden shoes into a loom.

The photos here of artist Rick “Rickman” Celano are a few ready examples taken by full-time marketer and occasional pro photographer, Buddy Scalera. Bud knows what he's doing, so guess what? The "bad" photo is bad on purpose, taken to illustrate the point. Falling under the realm of "not stealing," I asked Buddy to do this, and he granted his consent. There's a lesson here: Just ask. Sometimes you'll find that people are happy to let you use their photos, properly credited of course. And you just might make a new friend.

SO MANY PEOPLE WRITE ‘REVIEWS,’ AND THAT’S A BAD IDEA

Here’s my contention: 90% of all comic book reviews, from the word “go,” are worthless. And here’s why:

The golden rule of any review of any work of art is that reviews must be placed in a larger cultural context. Tell me what this album, this book, this movie, this whatever, says about us as a society. Tell me what makes this important. Tell me why this is art.

A work really must be absorbed in full to be able to be commented on in such a manner. And all due respect to all creators involved, but reviewing this month’s Amazing Spider-Man is kinda like reviewing seven consecutive pages of Moby Dick…if Herman Melville hadn’t quite fleshed out the ending yet. It’s not a review of a work in full. It’s one tiny clipping that can’t be analyzed and criticized properly.

There certainly are exceptions, and they are plenty. Wanna review Watchmen? Go ahead. There’s a work in full. To a certain (large?) extent any stand-alone comic or paperback collection of a storyline in full makes sense. But Something-Man #214 (part 2 in a 5-part story)…what are you really reviewing? There’s no “there” there, at least not yet.

Certainly, some would disagree. Hell, Ron Marz and John Layman do. But they also find fault with what passes for reviews in the comics space.

“Some books are better to review by the large chunk or the paperback, but I think it’s fair to review single issues,” Layman says. “My complaint is that I think 75 percent of quote-unquote ‘reviews’ are just synopses. There’s no criticism there, or, even worse, it’s, ‘Well, this is what I think should have happened.’ At that point, that’s not criticism. That’s you wishing you were a comic book writer.”

Heck, Marz likes reviews, at least the ones that attempt to review all aspects of the comic.

“Most reviews have no mention of the art, or perhaps at most one sentence or one paragraph,” he says. “If there’s that little attention paid to the art, it invalidates the review in mind. The art is at least half of what we do in this business, so if you’re not talking about how the art and the story work together, you’re only doing part of the job.”

WE REWARD THE WRONG THINGS

Ah, the elephant in the room. And the real weather that no one can seem to change.

As much as people say they want something good, something meaty, something well-sourced, something in-depth…they take the lowest common denominator every time.

Search-engine driven headlines (like Bleacher Report’s famed “tsunami” sports headline immediately after the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami) and outright end-around “clickbait” stories that don’t deliver what they promise unfortunately generate eyeballs on pages…and then we get the outrage machine.

Credit: Marvel Comics

“The model of online coverage now lends itself to outrage journalism—looking at a story for the most outrageous or controversial aspect and pumping that up for all it’s worth,” says Ron Marz. “It gets you Website hits, which don’t necessarily translate to responsible journalism.”

John Layman is none too crazy about the effect, either. “I think some legitimate points are raised among the outrage, but I also think there are some kind of ‘outrage journalists’ who see they get clicks over the outrageous thing of the day, so they just dig for the next one,” he says.

Layman says the effect is especially irksome when it lands at your front door.

“Anyone can have a Website, and they’re suddenly a, in quotes, ‘professional journalist,’” he says. “There’s a very small Website out there that just ran some article about how Chew has some very prevalent anti-transgender hate. The author cited four examples, which are quite literally, four panels over the course of 40-plus issues. And then they post something about how proud they are about all the hits they were getting. They never came to me for a quote. It was just ‘Rob Guillory and John Layman clearly hate transgender people.’ It’s irresponsible, and it really pisses me off.”

Layman characterizes “Spider-Woman’s butt” as another recent outrage machine controversy, and again, blind outrage gets it wrong. When Marvel bumped Spider-Woman cover artist Milo Manara from future gigs, Vox.com attributed it to “No one liked Marvel’s porny Spider-Woman.” Seemingly the only outlet to get it correct and actually make a call to confirm what was going on was ComicBookResources.com. There’s a way to do things right, and groundless speculation is not it [editor's note: Newsarama asked, Marvel declined to comment].

AGAIN, IT AIN’T THAT HARD. THE TALENT WILL HELP YOU.

Flash back to “sources.” No lie—the talent wants people to do better.

“I haven’t done an interview in quite some time that hasn’t been a promotional interview,” says Astro City and Tooth and Claw writer Kurt Busiek. “And promotional interviews are a bore. It’s as if you’re co-conspiring with someone who shouldn’t have an interest in promoting you and your work, and yet they do, because they want copy for their Website to get clicks. I get requests to do interviews from somebody I don’t know who has a blog somewhere, and no offense to them, but the questions are boring as hell. It’s the same 12 questions over and over.”

Layman agrees. “The puff pieces are all blow job-y questions,” he says. “It feels as if someone’s trying to do a creator a favor to promote their book. I am never adverse to someone asking me a challenging question, or even taking me head-on. One of the great things about working at the newspaper was watching great reporters who could be civil and friendly, but still ask all the tough questions. I learned a lot. And…there’s got to be better questions that can be asked in these things, right?”

Creators do see some bright spots. “Some people do good, thoughtful work. It’s just the exception, not the rule,” says Ron Marz. “David Harper has done a number of really nice pieces for Multiversity where it’s obvious he’s put the effort and research in.”

Kurt Busiek is dying for anything different. “A couple of weeks back, I did a podcast with Rachel Edidin called Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, and we went into fun, interesting areas that I usually don’t get to,” he says. “More of that, please.”

THE OTHER ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Much of the “problem,” and let’s call it that, boils down to a lack of professionalism, with “professionalism” used here in the strict sense of the word as it relates to “getting paid.” There just isn’t much money on this beat.

Most comic websites and magazines pay nominal fees if they pay at all. It’s a tough number to peg, but the total number of people actually making a living off of covering comics (and I am certainly not counted among this number) is likely 10-12. Even something high-falootin’ like the Los Angeles Times' Hero Complex has a staff of only 3-4 people, but they cover a wide swath of material, 80% of which is movies and TV.

“People used to pay for magazines, which meant the magazines could pay for articles and pay for editing and so on. When you pay somebody, you have a better chance of getting quality work,” says Kurt Busiek. “Used to be if somebody was a reporter, they had a job, and were reportable to their boss. Now to be a reporter, you need a phone that records.”

The “free” model seems to be great for consumers, but are the consumers really being served?

“A low barrier of entry is not necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing. In comics, if there wasn’t a low barrier of entry, we never would have had Bone,” Busiek says. “The low barrier of entry can get around traditional gatekeepers direct to the people, and if you have something good, it can become a success. But there isn’t a very good way to find the people who do it well and reward them. And the people who do it well don’t get rewarded very much.”

SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?

Part of it is that comic book journalists, as a whole, need to get better. That’s a large chunk. The other side of the equation might be…the readers.

Pay for performance is great, but “pay” in the sense of money in a day and age where people want/demand/get their news media for free is a genie that will never be put back in its bottle.

But if contemporary journalism shows us anything, it’s that “pay” doesn’t have to mean money, at least in the direct or first-iteration sense. “Pay” is more likely to be defined as page views or the odd currency of social shares.

It’s often said that people don’t necessarily get the government they want, but they get the one they deserve, based on their actions and inputs. The same may apply here. One step than can help flip the equation is for consumers of comic book journalism to reject the clickbait and two-bit bloggers and read and click on and share the good stuff. Actions and inputs.

That’s all. Now, who wants to start?

—Jim McLauchlin has spent parts of the last few years guest-teaching high school and college journalism classes and advising students on (sometimes scary) job prospects, so he’s more crazily immersed in this crap than you want to know. Similar articles of this ilk are archived on a crummy-looking blog. You can also follow @McLauchlin on Twitter.

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