Zainab Akhtar, Laura Snapes & Douglas Wolk talk journalism and its crossover between comics and music with Dan Berry. Recorded at the Thought Bubble festival 2014 with support from the Arts Council as part of Thought Bubble’s TBTV youtube channel.
Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. This was recorded at the Thought Bubble festival in 2014 with support from the Arts Council, who funded these recordings as part of Thought Bubble’s TBTV YouTube channel, which you should certainly go and check out. So I got to speak on stage to Zainab Akhtar, Laura Snapes and Douglas Wolk about the very tricky topic of journalism and comics. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Welcome, this is the comics and journalism panel, where we’re going to be talking about comics and journalism. One of the things I wanted to talk about first was this, is that we’re not going to be able to solve any problems today, probably. Maybe we might, but let’s have that on the back burner, or if we solve it at all we’ll…
Zainab Akhtar: Second agenda.
DB: Yes, exactly. So I’m going to let the panel introduce themselves. My name’s Dan Berry. I’m a lecturer as my day job. I run a podcast called Make It Then Tell Everybody, where I interview a different artist about how they do what they do each week, so I think that qualifies me as a journalist. I don’t really know, I don’t know, but I’m also an artist, so it puts me in a difficult position here, because I’m the guy being critiqued, I suppose, most frequently. Maybe. Don’t know. So the panel are going to introduce themselves and give you an indication of why they’re here. Douglas?
Douglas Wolk: I’m Douglas Wolk. I live in the US in Portland, Oregon. I write about comics for part of my living. I write for The New York Times, and occasionally Time magazine, occasionally Comics Alliance, a bunch of different newspapers and magazines and website. I do mostly criticism, a little bit of interviewy journalistic stuff, and occasionally write comics as well.
Laura Snapes: My name’s Laura Snapes, I’m the features editor at NME. I don’t really write about comics very often, very occasionally, but sometimes I commission comics artists, and I like comics as well.
DB: Disclaimer, Laura’s commissioned me as a comics artist.
LS: That’s true.
ZA: I’ve forgotten my name. I’m Zainab.
DB: Pause for applause.
ZA: My main job is, I’m a librarian and I also have a blog called Comics & Cola. I write about comics for various sites, and Comics Alliance, The Beat, The Comics Journal, stuff like that.
DB: One of the first questions I wanted to put to the panel is, you’ve described what you do, why do you do this?
DW: I fell into it by accident.
DB: It’s a mistake, I understand.
DW: It is actually the case that I fell into doing comics journalism by accident. I started working at a music magazine in the US in the mid ‘90s and we had some pages to fill, so we’re like, ‘Let’s write about other media.’ It was like, ‘I’ll write about comics every month, because that way we won’t have to pay somebody else to do it, to fill that half page.’ That turned into more gigs writing about comics, and then at some point they just snowballed. I really like doing it. I really like talking about the medium, I really like explaining things to people. I wrote a book called Reading Comics a few years ago.
DB: Yeah, I spoke to Douglas about it, Reading Comics: How They Work and What They Mean?
DW: Something like that.
DB: Yeah, and I remember reading it for the first time and thinking that it was the first book I’d read that talked across to me as an artist about comics. A lot of them I felt, they spoke down and I really liked it!
DW: Thank you.
DB: Pause for applause.
DW: It’s something that I really enjoy doing. If I had to make a living on writing about comics alone I would probably starve in the gutter, but I enjoy it a lot.
DB: How did you get into this and why do you do it Laura?
LS: It’s what I always wanted to do, and now I’ve created a situation where I cannot do anything else.
DB: You’ve skilled your way out of any other market?
LS: I don’t know about anything else.
DB: You’re the youngest features editor at the NME?
LS: I don’t know.
DB: Something like that. You’ve been incredibly driven in your career and doing what you want to do.
LS: Yeah, I figured out what I wanted to do when I was 12, and just did it. Making fanzines and doing work placements, just harassing people and writing a lot for free, which I fundamentally agree that you shouldn’t do it, or you shouldn’t have to do it, but obviously it’s a reality.
DB: Working for free?
LS: Yeah, sometimes. I’ve only done it a little bit. And why do I do it? Music is my favourite thing and all I do is sit around thinking about why I do or do not like the music in front of me. It’s a very privileged position to be in.
DB: Zainab, why do you do this?
ZA: I don’t know, I always wanted to write. I was a reader and also wanted to write fiction. I was going to be the next Agatha Christie. That didn’t work out.
ZA: Yet, yeah that’s true. I would just read so much. I didn’t use to read comics in a big way, but then I think when I was doing my English literature degree, we had to do a dissertation and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to be stuck with this and it’s going to be so long, so it has to be something that’s vaguely interesting.’ So I decided to do it on Batman. [laughs] So I started reading a lot more comics, and I think I started writing about them, just because I was figuring them out as well. The more I wrote about it, I just really liked it. Same as all the rest of them, because they can’t do anything else.
DB: So everyone’s doing this because they can’t do anything else. Cool, next one. What is journalism for, what’s its purpose? Journalists?
DB: Justify yourself, right now!
DW: There’s journalism and there’s criticism, and I do a lot more criticism. There are a bunch of different schools of what criticism is for. I used to work at The Village Voice with Robert Christgau in the ‘90s and Christgau’s whole thing is like, it is a consumer guide. If you’re writing in a magazine like this, it’s to let people know if they are going to spend a certain amount of their disposable income on some form of entertainment or art, what is the part that they in particular will be most happy if they spend their money and their time on it. That is a reasonable way of looking at things, I don’t always agree with it. I sometimes think that the purpose of criticism can be to open up art, to open up a particular work or more of a medium, or stuff about art in general to people who want to be able to read things, or look at things, or listen to things, and get more of an experience out of them. Those two goals don’t necessarily conflict, but they can.
DB: Yeah, sure. So what’s the purpose of… I mean, I always like to think about the purpose of things, because you get to then figure out if it’s working or not. So what’s the purpose of what you do Laura?
LS: I think if you exist in the same here and now, whatever criticism you’re reading, it definitely can be a consumer guide. I feel like now, especially with music where you can sample it before you read a review or before you buy, you don’t necessarily need to think of it as a consumer guide but I mean, this is a very blunt point to make, but every generation leaves behind its culture. We know so much about the ancient Romans or the Greeks or the Vikings or whatever, because of the culture they left behind. The journalism or the critic, both versions of it are just like a key to understanding it better. You don’t just have the document, you have the interpretation which lays bare the context and its interrelation to other things.
DB: So it’s all about context.
LS: Well partially, yeah.
ZA: I’m going to give a really lowbrow answer.
DB: Go for it!
ZA: When I write I don’t see it as… I don’t ever think about purpose, I just do it for myself, and that’s my main thing. I think that might be a bad facet to have, but I always… I think that’s why I’m bad writing for other people, because I always want it to be my way, and I don’t like being overly edited or things like that. Fundamentally I do it from in here. I do it because I want to and I have a need inside of me, so even if it’s writing about comics, I know that’s weird, but yeah. So that’s why… I don’t know, I don’t really think about purpose as much.
DB: You touched on something really interesting there, because you talked about working for someone else. Douglas, we talked about this before, and the idea that what you write changes based on where it’s going to end up and who’s going to ideally end up reading it. Is that something you’re considering while you work on these things, who’s going to be reading it?
DW: Oh god, always. Always, always. The audience has to be able to get something out of it. They have to be able to, on a very basic level understand and understand what they’re reading and understand why is it that they’re reading it. You have to write to draw people in, and then you have to give them something that is rewarding to read in itself, that gives pleasure in itself. The best critical writing is writing that is so lovely that you can just read it on its own, even if you have no interest in the thing under consideration.
DB: Yeah, I agree with that.
LS: Our ideal reader is this engaged 16 to 25-year-old, or something like that, but the reality is a lot of people who are reading our magazine are in their 40s, so you’re constantly having to write for young people who… it might be the first time they’ve ever read about Joy Division, then you write for somebody who remembers Joy Division, so you have to not talk down to either side, but make it not alienating to one or to the other. You always have to think of audience, but I think Zainab’s point about writing for yourself, I think if you are a really engaged comics fan, then you write for people who are like you. So, there are not too many steps in disassociation between you and your reader.
DB: Makes sense.
ZA: I don’t get paid very often, so I don’t…
DB: Pause for applause.
ZA: Yeah, so I just… I’m a lot more selfish about it. This time last year I wrote a piece for The Comics Journal, and I think it’s my first piece on the Thought Bubble festival, it was a report. When I submitted it, it just went… Tim who was my editor, he was really nice but he just went, ‘Oh, this is too positive’ I was like, ‘Well, I can’t make it not positive, because that was my experience, and that’s just how I write, and obviously you know how I write.’ I can understand if it was a different kind of piece, I could have changed it, but I can’t make it not positive and say, ‘Well this was bullshit!’
[laughter] Then similarly, when I wrote for Comics Alliance, I think that was a few months ago. I’ve stopped doing it now, but that’s a really mainstream website, and things that I write on my blog are not very mainstream. It’s like, indie, you know, small press. I think after a couple of months there, Andy said ‘You know, we’re not getting a lot of traffic,’ which we did discuss in the beginning and I said, ‘Nobody’s going to read these things.’ You do it because it’s not a vanity project, it’s important and you need it in there as part of the comics, because when people talk about comics a lot of people just seem to think it’s DC and Marvel and that’s it. Audience, I guess over time I’ve become more aware that, you know, from people who have wrote to me or talked to me, that it is probably people who read indie and self published, but I think yes. I’m really selfish, so always, it’s me first. That’s my audience.
DB: That seems sensible. When I’m working, I’m working for myself and that speaks to me. That’s good. In terms of writing a review then, so you’ve read something, you love it, you hate it, you’re completely ambivalent about it, what are your first steps in forming an opinion about it? Do you go with a gut reaction, or do you have a set of criteria that you can judge it by?
LS: Maybe writing about music is a little bit different. I don’t really focus on this very often, but say it’s a record, I’ll listen to it ten times in the car or walking around or at home, doing nothing, listen to it really intently, and you get a gut reaction from that. Once I’ve got the instinct of ‘how much do I actually like this’, that’s when I sit down and do, I guess, the heavy lifting where I annotate songs while I’m listening to them, and write down any ideas that come, and pick apart the themes. Then, I guess it’s a case of framing the analysis within what you actually think about it. Then I write it and put the two together.
DB: So you try and get your personal reaction to it and this analytical side as well, put together.
DB: Does that chime with the way that you two work?
DW: Yeah, I mean, to me the least interesting part of the review is, you know, if I’m writing for Pitchfork, like ‘7.1’. Great.
DB: Nice and definite.
DW: That’s not the interesting part. I always hear the voice of my college expository writing teacher in my head going, ‘You must have a clear, limited and interesting thesis.’ To have an idea and to make an argument about something, then you become part of a conversation. Then it becomes discourse instead of like, ‘Okay, here’s what I thought.’ That, I think, makes it more valuable and more useful, because that’s writing.
ZA: I don’t know. I think what I do, I always jot down some quick feelings first, because that’s probably my strongest feeling sometimes, when I read it straight away and I just thought, ‘Oh I hate that,’ or, ‘I really like that.’ Then I also find after a while, a couple of days it’s changed, and it’s probably a more tempered response, rather than instantly. Sometimes I’ve written something and then later I don’t agree with it! [laughs]
DB: It’s like someone saying, ‘What’s your favourite band?’ Today it’s this, and tomorrow it will… yeah.
ZA: It’s so dependant on mood as well. I know I consider you have to be objective, but you’re a person, and if you want to read…
DB: Oh, that’s an interesting point. So if your reviews and critiques are influenced by your mood, do you think that a review should, at the top, state whether you got splashed by a bus that day? Whether your cat was sick on the keyboard? If you’re in a terrible mood that day, or if you’ve just fallen in love, you’re in the best mood of your life? Do you think that you should state your emotional state of mind at the outset?
ZA: No, because you always come back to it. You don’t like, ‘Alright I’ve just come back and I’ve had a really shit day and I’m just going to bang this out and publish it straight away.’ I don’t know anybody who works that way. If you are in a bad mood or in a good mood, you’ll return to it. I don’t think anybody writes things straight off the bat. So, I don’t think it’s hugely relevant, really. It plays some part, but I don’t know what you guys…
DW: Again, whether I like something or don’t like it, I think is not nearly as important as if there’s something I have to say about it. I don’t think that that’s, ‘Oh, I was in a great mood that day.’ Not really relevant.
LS: I would say there’s one review I would retract, because I know exactly why it’s horrible, and it’s not Sufjan Steven’s fault, it’s my fault. But yeah, most of the time, no.
DB: So is there a responsibility as a reviewer? The way I approach reading a review is, when I was a teenager and I was getting into punk music or whatever, this is before the internet. My older brother had a friend who had this amazing cassette collection, and we’d go to record shop and he’d go, ‘You want to listen to this, you don’t want to listen to that, listen to this.’ You’ve got those people who can guide and direct and tell you what’s good. And whenever I come to a review, this is the way I’m thinking of it. This is the big brother saying, ‘Do this, don’t do that. Listen to this great CD, this is how you do it.’ How do you trust your taste, I guess, because there’s a responsibility that comes with that.
DW: You should not and cannot apologise for your taste.
DW: That is part of your voice as a critic, and that’s what people come to you for. There are a lot of critics I really, really, value and whose tastes are very, very little like my own. (Inaudible 16.51).
LS: I should probably add to what Douglas was saying. Quite often when I finish a review I’ll get to the end of it and think, ‘Oh, I haven’t actually put enough opinion in there. I’ve just had fun analysing this,’ and the taste is sometimes a secondary part of it. Also I don’t think you should ever apologise for it, because in an age where people connect with writers individually, there’s much more publications, there will be people who critically align themselves with you. You are always talking to somebody, and I don’t think you need to apologise for it.
ZA: It seems like you build a relationship with your readers and they get to know your taste. So I think people (ph 17.29) will recognise when you’ll be in, like… I really like dinosaurs.
DB: Just stating a point, while you’re talking about a review (ph 17.35).
ZA: It’s not really, you know, but if a comic’s got a dinosaur there’s a 90% chance I’ll read it.
ZA: I think most people who read (ph 17.47)… I think you build a relationship, you get to know people, and that’s why people tend to.. they can sift through what you write, if that makes sense.
DW: Zainab, is this the part where you and I get to fight about Batman?
ZA: I love Batman, just not currently.
DW: Well you were saying a couple of days ago that you didn’t see how it made sense for people to want to read deep critical writing about Batman.
ZA: No… it was on Twitter right, so it’s not the greatest forum. In the context of comics journalism and the sites we have currently, I think it’s really imbalanced obviously towards DC, Marvel, superhero things. I think they should be doing critical analysis on every genre. I was just speaking more to the imbalance. I mean, I’m writing an essay on Batman. I think the shift of it is not right. I’m just thinking (inaudible 18.53).
DW: It’s also something that connects to what Laura does in music criticism, we spend a lot of time talking about pop, we spend a lot of time talking about hits. We maybe don’t get as much of an opportunity to wave the flag for things that are out of the way, but if you’ve got 8,000 words of amazing analysis about Taylor Swift, then that’s a beautiful thing to see.
LS: I’ve read a lot of Taylor Swift (inaudible 19.30) online. I don’t know if this is specifically what you’re saying, but readers are really omnivorous now. It’s not like you would just go to one publication and be like, ‘Oh, I’m really sad they didn’t cover this Tony Conrad album,’ because you’re like, ‘Wait, this website has published 5,000 words on Tony Conrad.’ Nobody is publication loyal like that, I don’t think.
DB: One of the questions I’ve got here is, as an artist, how can I criticise the work of a critic?
DB: What we need to do is outline methods that I can… but is that legitimate? Because what we’re talking about is a creative form, which is critiquing another creative form. Is it legitimate to critique critique?
ZA: I think it looks so petty.
DB: It does?
ZA: I know it’s valid, because like you said, it’s a job and it is an art form, but I think it’s not really done, is it?
DB: Artists don’t like to do it, because like you say, you mentioned (inaudible 20.37) petty. (Inaudible 20.38). Surely there is…
ZA: Legitimate cause.
DB: A legitimate way to do it. Because comics criticism, comics journalism runs the full gamut from really excellent to fairly dull and uninspired, but how does an artist respond to this? How do you respond to an artist responding to your critique? Have you encountered this?
DW: Actually I have a couple of very close friendships that have started from my writing an incredibly harsh review of somebody’s work. If you put something out into the public sphere it is no longer yours in some crucial way. It’s open for whatever anybody wants to do with it. I think the best response I ever heard about that was when I talked to Yoko Ono about 15 years ago, she said, ‘Yeah, you know, I’ve done it, I’ve put it out in the world, and if somebody loves it and it inspires them to do something, that’s great. If somebody despises it, and that inspires them to create something and put it out in the world as a response to it, that’s great too, and I bless that.’ I like your attitude!
LS: I would never want to tell somebody they shouldn’t direct reply, because they definitely direct reply but I think maybe if you (inaudible 22.04) NME’s never written a horrible review of anything I’ve made, because I haven’t made anything, you could do that. I think it’s important to remember that what’s been written about you, it’s just one person’s opinion, and like I say, now that readers are really omnivorous, and now, certainly (ph 22.17) with the internet and there’s not just three critical reviews in these (? 22.21) publications, there will always be diverse opinion out there. You shouldn’t get too hung up on what is essentially just one person’s opinion, even if it really stinks, because it’s in like, a (inaudible 22.30).
DB: Can I put it another way? Is it one person’s opinion if you’re representing a readership?
LS: I don’t know anybody who writes the kind of… actually I guess I do know people who write to represent a readership. I don’t personally do that. I don’t personally think it’s a good idea either.
ZA: Sorry, what was the question?
DB: The ways to respond to…
ZA: Oh yeah, I got so caught up in it, yeah. I guess, I don’t know. I’m sort of like, I’m (inaudible 23.01) because I wouldn’t write about comics, so (inaudible 23.05) I spend way too much time on Twitter and from the things that I see, it’s just never been good. It’s never been legitimate. I guess I haven’t had experience of it.
DB: How do you mean legitimate?
ZA: It’s just like comics writers or artists and again, the things that I’ve seen, it will just be like, ‘Oh, you don’t know to review. Everybody (inaudible 22.29).’ Just really petulant and it’s not good. That’s my view, from what I’ve seen, but I guess there is a legitimate way to do it. I know people say, obviously you do have the right to respond, but I think it’s a different job, because you’re a critic so they should… I’m not saying to don’t (ph 23.55) but like, criticising the critic, I just think it becomes a circle.
DB: That eats itself.
ZA: Yeah, you could go on and on.
DB: Because you can criticise the criticism of the criticism.
ZA: Yeah, but I think discussion is a very good and healthy thing. It depends on the way you do it. The ones that I’ve seen have just been, sort of, rubbish.
DB: I think the hard part of it is that we’re talking about art, and we’re talking about personal… people’s hard work and effort to put up their song (inaudible 24.27). So to have someone say, ‘I didn’t like that, and that colour green’s awful,’ that’s, you know, attacking my very being! I think that if you are critiquing a maths equation or something you’ve got that, ‘Yes this rhombus is right, correct. This came out right.’ There are lots of different shades of grey within that. I think that that’s why it can become very difficult.
DW: There’s an amazing essay by Rebecca West that I only (inaudible 24.52) a couple days ago, that came out 100 years ago this week. It’s called The Duty of Harsh Criticism. She wrote it when she was 19 years old, or something like that. It was in the first issue of The New Republic and it’s basically demanding a new and brutal criticism for literature. One of the authors that she’s attacking in it is H. G. Wells, who was at the time the father of her three month old child.
DW: With whom she was still apparently tight! The point is that the people that we’re writing for are not the creators of the stuff we’re critiquing.
DB: So you don’t write them for the creators.
LS: It’s not like you’re marking their homework.
DW: At least no more than anybody else who’s reading it.
DB: Okay. So, what makes a good review then? What are the key components to writing a good review?
LS: When I’m reading other people’s, especially when I’m reading about an album that I already know, it’s really something that makes me either think differently about it, or that extrapolates things about it. I think, ‘I would never have thought that, but that makes perfect sense.’ Just (inaudible 26.10)…
DB: Bringing a different perspective to it.
LS: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I like. Maybe I’m coming at it with an editor’s hat on, but I’m impressed when I see that kind of thing, when it enhances your own understanding of a record or a piece of art.
ZA: I guess it’s just the same that you want from art. You want to feel something, or you want it to be interesting. I like the (? 26.39), there’s so much generic stuff out there, anybody could have written it. I like people who have a singular voice. Like Douglas was saying sometimes… this is totally (? 26.50) own direction, nothing about the book, but the way the person writes, you enjoy reading them. That can really make me want to read the book, in a round about sort of way. Personally I like to write… I’m really formulaic. I like to have my own view and then a deeper analysis and just talk about the full thing, but if it has been something that’s actually good (ph 27.17) then I’ll just (inaudible 27.20). I guess it depends on the book, I think as well. There’s not always a standard formula.
DB: There’s not one defined way, yeah. Interesting. So is there a check list of no-nos, the things that you don’t do in a review?
LS: I think in music writing now, it’s really redundant to say something about every track. Somebody can just listen to it while they’re reading it, whereas for a book the part summary is more important. In an album, you know, you don’t really need to do that. You don’t need to mention…
DW: Again, it really, really depends what sort of writing you’re doing. If I’m writing for a very general audience, if I’m doing something for The New York Times Book Review, one of the very first things I’m going to have to do is make an argument for why somebody who’s reading this, and might be interested in graphic novels and might not, or might just be paging through, why someone who is reading this might be interested in the thing that’s under consideration. In other things I do, if I’m writing for Comics Alliance I can assume that whoever’s reading it is already won over in a certain way. It’s interesting (inaudible 28.30) analysis. In most cases, I try to keep myself out of it. Nobody is going to care what I had for breakfast most of the time. There’s that 1% of the time where you can write a thrilling (ph 28.43) incendiary review that’s mostly about what your breakfast was, but I try to stay away from that.
LS: Also the thing I really hate in reviews is the tonal thing about when it’s like somebody is delivering their view from the mount, and not even looking (inaudible 29.05). I hate that so much.
DB: Oh, so it’s writing down.
LS: Yeah, sometimes writing down. I don’t know, maybe I should (inaudible 29.12) writer, but it’s when people write things like, ‘this is how it is, you know? Look’. Where it’s like that, just like, you are assuming that your view is empirically the best and the absolutes. I like people (inaudible 29.25). One of my favourite critics is Ellen Willis who was the first New Yorker pop critic who… not even the first girl one, just the first one. One of the things that I really like about the way she writes, is that she constantly grapples with her own perspective. She’ll go into something with an idea, but she’s not afraid to undermine it and question it, and pull it apart and then maybe think something else at the end. I think that admission, whether it’s explicit or implicit of (ph 29.48) fallibility is really important. I trust critics who are like that more than people who are like…
DB: Absolutely, ‘I am writing this, this is correct for all time.’
DB: Can we talk about interviews as well?
ZA: I hate interviews.
DB: You hate interviews? I love them.
ZA: You do a podcast where you do interviews!
DB: I run this podcast where I try and interview a different artist each week about how they do what they do. The way I set them up is that I want them to be useful. This gets back to the idea of purpose. What I want is someone who’s beginning the stages of their career to be able to listen to it and go, ‘Oh, I’m normal for not wanting to do this,’ or, ‘I’m struggling with that.’ That’s what I try and do, so when I prep for interviews, I talk to the person beforehand and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be the dumb voice. I’m going to ask dumb questions. I’m not going to try and be clever.’ I’m going to ask, ‘What’s a screen print? How does that work?’ because I’ve got this model of a person in my head that might not know, and I’ve had lots of students who I think would have a much better time in their studies if, when I say, ‘Okay, you need to do this. You’re going to do that, and do that. Do you understand?’ and they go, ‘Yes,’ when what they actually mean is, ‘You lost me on the first thing.’ So I want to be that voice that says, ‘I’m dumb and I’m not quite certain what you said there. So that’s what I do. When I’m interviewing I’m essentially playing a character. So I have to say, ‘If I’m asking something that you think, (inaudible 31.13) what it is, that’s the reason. Because it’s not for me, it’s for everybody else out there.’ So that’s something I think about a lot when I’m preparing for an interview. Is this a similar that you do? Basically I have to say that I’m not afraid of looking stupid. I’m fairly… fairly convinced I’m not, but I have to say this, and I have to be that dumb voice. Does that chime with anybody else?
DW: The one challenge for me is always finding out, or figuring out what people really love to talk about. If you can just get somebody started, your job is done.
DB: Yeah, those are the best. Ask three questions and they (inaudible 31.59).
LS: I think I do it in an opposite way also, because thank god, nobody hears my interviews most of the time. Obviously I’m interviewing musicians and when they get to a certain scale, it’s like, ‘You have an hour with this person, you haven’t got any more.’ One thing that really bugs me when you read music journalism, and I guess it kind of applies across all forms is… and I do think it’s very different work (ph 32.22) from what you’re saying in a podcast, especially for the audience you’re intending it for. When you read something, you’re like, ‘You could have Googled that. That answer is already out there. Why are you asking something that you already know that you could have written into your introduction?’ That strikes me as a waste of time, whereas I totally understand your approach. I think it’s perfect for what you’re doing. I think it makes me look dumb to the artist. They’re just sat there, you know, they have to answer the same questions so often. It’s funny, there are certain artists that I’m really obsessed with, so I’ll read every interview they do with shitty websites, or with The New York Times or whatever.
DW: Who is it?
LS: Oh, loads of different people! I’ve done it (ph 32.59) with loads of different musicians, and it’s really telling when you can just see them giving the same answer to a question. It’s like, that answer is already out there. If you think it’s still interesting, look at what you find interesting in it, and get them to expand on it in a different way. So I always try and ask stuff that I don’t know the answer to.
DB: Yeah, me too. When I’m preparing I’ll try and read as much about the person I’m about to interview as possible, but I won’t write down questions, because they might start saying something really interesting and then I’ll go, ‘What kind of pen do you use?’ and it’s just (inaudible 33.30) it. You know, it’s just died, like absolutely on its ass (ph 33.33), so I’ve got to listen and respond and just have a conversation. I think that the sooner I remember that it’s a conversation and not an interview, then it becomes a better interview.
LS: Yeah, totally.
DB: But Zainab, you hate them?
ZA: Yeah, I’m just no good at them, that’s why. Anything I’m no good at I instantly hate.
ZA: I don’t know if you… I did one recently with Erik Svetoft, who’s this really amazing Swedish artist and he was really good. I think the problem is I probably do a lot of them over email, which isn’t great because you can’t really build a flow.
DB: You can’t judge a cadence either (ph 34.10).
ZA: Yeah. I’ve done a few in Skype voice, but again, internationally you get a lapse (inaudible 34.19-34.23). It’s just, a lot of the time when you’re offered interviews, when somebody’s got a book out, it’s PR and like Laura said, the more you’ve been asked the same question, ‘Oh what was this book about?’ I’m not interested in stuff like… I guess I’m at a different point in my career. I have to be really interested in something for me to want to do it. A lot of people I find that again, it depends on your skill in being able to get it out from them, but they’re not willing to go very far in the real… not deep secrets, but you know, just not into anything vaguely that might… not controversial, but that they consider is… or things like that. I’m talking about within comics obviously. Generally I stay away from them, but sometimes if there’s a new artist or something that hasn’t been covered, I’ll just say, ‘Do you want to do a short ten questions?’ Those (inaudible 35.31).
DB: This next question is one that I struggle with a lot I think, because if you tell someone a joke, they make a noise that tells you that what you’ve done was right, it was funny. They laugh and it’s great, but how do you judge when you’ve done a good job?
DW: The cheque clears.
DB: The cheque clears! [laughs] Because there’s no noise that people make, (? 36.01) ‘oh, profound’. It’s a strange one. With a podcast, I’ve got a way of kind of judging if something’s popular, because people will talk about it on Twitter, or I look at the downloads and I’ll have a huge spike or it’s linked by someone. That’s a way of saying, okay, enough people are talking about it that it must be good, but there’s never any, sort of, big old slap on the back that arrives and says, ‘Good job Dan.’ (Inaudible 36.23).
ZA: I always think you know. I know, even if nobody reads it. Some stuff will get shared so much, but from a personal stance, I know when I’ve done a good job, and when it’s not been as good (ph 36.34) it’s just been really crap. That’s just me, I don’t know, but I always know. Whether it’s everywhere, if I do something I know that’s good or that’s not. Sometimes (? 36.49) I can write something really crap and then, ‘Oh that’s amazing.’ I’m like…
DB: Chops (ph 36.53).
ZA: It doesn’t happen but, you know. It’s an example (ph 36.56).
LS: I think obviously the hope is when you finish a piece and when you’ve filed it, you’re relatively happy with it. Obviously it’s good now (ph 37.05) to be able to look back at something and be like, ‘Oh yeah, I did a good job there,’ but I think part of growing as a writer or whatever, it’s always looking back at what you did two weeks ago and thinking, ‘I can make that better now.’ It’s a constant process of learning. I read things I wrote a year ago and I’m just like, ‘Ugh, I want to get in there and change that!’ But, you know, it exists as it is and you learn from it.
DB: This gets into the idea of being paid and whether that legitimises what you do as well. That’s a difficult question. Zainab, you do this for free.
ZA: I don’t think it legitimises it, but I won’t say (inaudible 37.34). I mean, I got nominated for an Eisner last year, regardless of whether you think that’s worth anything or not. I don’t know. Last year, I was doing my master’s and it was a horrible experience, because I was just doing it because you need (ph 37.54) a qualification and the course was just so boring. I just really wanted to get back to writing about comics again, so I thought this year, I’m going to have a strict schedule and (? 38.03) improve my writing as well, so I’m going to do three days a week. It’s just so much work, and sometimes I really hate it. What are we talking about (inaudible 38.14)?
ZA: Yeah. I don’t think so, because there are loads of people I know who write for free. When you say for free, they write for themselves, on their own sites and their own blogs. The great writers… I guess it depends what you mean by legitimacy.
DB: If I frame this as an artist, it’s a bit like having a publisher. If you’ve got a publisher, you’ve got an ISBN on the back of your book and a barcode, it’s like, whoa, someone’s taken a (? 38.46). The gatekeeper has opened some gates, and now you’re part of a special club where you are a published artist, whereas if you’re photocopying something and stapling it together, it’s almost not as legitimate because you’ve done it yourself and no one’s said, ‘Great. Great job, well done, you can come behind these gates.’ The work can be exactly the same thing, but having that barcode or that stamp of approval from one of those gatekeepers saying, ‘Good job, well done,’ it automatically makes it feel like a better, more legitimate thing.
DW: We’re in comics, that doesn’t apply necessarily, you know? Think about the so-called (? 39.20) tradition comics. Maybe my favourite writer on comics right now is Joe McCulloch (? 39.26) who I think has done, what, four pieces ever? He’s got a full time gig and he does this basically for fun as far as I can tell. I guess he probably gets paid for The Comics Journal column he does now. Legitimacy as correlated against getting paid went out the window a while ago.
DB: The computer’s changed a lot.
LS: Yeah, I think there’s some… certainly music, some garbage critics who get paid a lot of money who should not. I won’t name names. One of the most exciting things that I read recently about music was a digital zine that a bunch of 18, 19-year-old women had made about Taylor Swift. I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve read in a long time. Your criticism is so on points, and you’re so deeply moved (ph 40.11) as well.’ Maybe they would never have the desire to write about anything else, any other kind of music, it’s just Taylor Swift is their thing, so I definitely don’t think getting paid leads to legitimacy. But, as an editor, I have other editors who do this, I’m always looking at people who are writing on… I don’t pick my writers from other publications. I try and get them from Tumblr or things like that where they have not been quote unquote published with a capital ‘P’.
DB: So they’re doing it for the love of it?
LS: Yeah, so they’re doing it for the love of it, and that way you’re getting a fresh voice, you haven’t just got that person from The Guardian doing a thing for you. It’s nice to cultivate your stable in that way, which is maybe a very selfish ‘editory’ way of thinking about it. Also, these people are doing it for the love of it, so you know there’s something driving them more than a cheque.
DB: I’m going to open it up to questions from the audience, if anyone’s got a… there’s a question over there.
M: I was just thinking about an issue of video game (ph 41.06) criticism, which I wanted to see if it has applied to you guys.
M: A lot of the fan bases for video game (ph 41.17) criticism, they seem to be terrified of subjectivity. They think reviews have to be fact, fact, fact, score at the end. Have you guys experienced any of that reaction to your work in either comics or music criticism?
LS: (Inaudible 41.36) video game response (ph 41.36) is scared of women, (inaudible 41.38).
LS: I don’t personally (inaudible 41.47). People are trying to use the word subjective or objective to… if they don’t agree with you, they’re just trying to like…
DB: Gives you an automatic out of jail free card? (Inaudible 41.59).
LS: It’s like, I’m not saying my friend is fat, because I (inaudible 42.02) opinion to say.
DB: So there are a few other hands. Yes?
M: I do a podcast and blog myself, and the hardest thing I find is describing the art and visual aspects of comics. I’m just wondering how you approach that.
DW: That is a big, big thing. I think those of us who write are used to approaching things in terms of words, and so we naturally gravitate toward that. That can become a bias towards words and a bias towards the written text and can make us blind to visual stuff. That’s something that I struggle with all the time. I’ve actually taken a bunch of drawing classes and visual arts classes and things like that, just to try to get my brain to work more that way. (Inaudible 42.58) it’s a struggle. It’s a fun struggle.
ZA: That’s another thing (ph 43.02) within comics… well I don’t know if this is interesting (ph 43.04), but you are not adequately prepped if you’re not an artist, that you can’t write about art fully.
DB: Like, you’ve got to understand the technical processes you have to talk about.
ZA: Yeah, and what the artist is trying to create (ph 43.21). I think to a point maybe that’s true, because I know sometimes when I look at somebody’s work, it depends on how in depth you go. I don’t know lots of terms like hatching, there’s some stuff I know and there’s some I don’t, and I find myself hitting a wall. I don’t think it’s inadequate, I think you can still do it, but I have trouble with that words (ph 43.50) problem (inaudible 43.51).
DB: It’s difficult to verbalise them. Because I do an audio podcast, and it’s talking about a visual medium, this is why I talk mostly about the process. What kind of pens do you use, I guess. Where do you get your ideas from? Those best questions (inaudible 44.04).
DB: That’s the reason I’m focussing on… when people have sent me emails saying, ‘Oh this would be better as a video podcast,’ I think, ‘Well yeah, but you couldn’t draw to it. You can’t do that.’ Again, it’s less useful I think, if it becomes that definite. If you’re talking about the experience of it, how it feels to be drawing or be working in that particular way, I find that more useful than physically seeing someone drawing something, which can be a little obstusey (ph 44.29) in and of itself.
M: (Inaudible 44.35) actually even answer. The internet has got a huge amount of information on it, and there are an awful lot of artists and lecturers and such describe their own skills and what they’re doing. If you do a little bit of research, you can actually find loads of sites with a huge amount of information that will explain for an artist, what the culture is. What the (? 45.00) is, what (? 45.01) is. The difference between a (inaudible 45.01). So you can actually find all that information and learn from that. That’s what I did.
M: We’ve brought up the internet a lot, and that’s obviously wonderful for things like people who haven’t got a publisher, (inaudible 45.23). How does the ability of artists and writers to go straight to their sources affect what you do? So for instance that raises questions about what your job is, if the artists can just write on their own blog, cut out that process, what do you add to the table?
DB: So what do you add to what artists can put out themselves? Let’s give it a case study here. I can write a great big thing about this book I’ve done. I can outline the process I did, I can scan in my sketchbooks, I can show you the whole thing and that will outline all of my thinking around this one project. What can you add to that?
DW: We can certainly reach people who would not automatically gravitate towards that, who have not heard of the artist who has done the explanation. We can also say thing that are less about details and more about effect, and how it acts on us and how it acts on the world.
ZA: I think critique is a response, right? The artist can write about, ‘this is my work’, but you make a (ph 46.32) work, and you want somebody… you make it because you want to be… it’s also an interaction, so you want somebody to see it, (inaudible 46.41) see it essentially and describe it, meaning that it’s valid or not. I don’t think an artist can… they can ascribe meaning to their own work, but it’s not the same thing. You lose the interaction.
DB: John Allison talks about this really interestingly. He talks about putting out a webcomic as being.. you know, you can do it and just throw it out the window, and that’s essentially what you’re doing and it’s not yours anymore. It’s out there and you don’t get any control about how people are going to consume your work. You can have your best intentions and you can have a good enough idea to experience about (ph 47.15) how people are going to do it (ph 47.16), and you’ve got assumptions based on what you’ve done before, but you have no idea until someone actually consumes it and responds to it, as to how they’re actually going to view it.
LS: I think a lot of work is coming out of people’s subconscious, and they can have an idea of what they think it’s saying, but then sometimes it takes another perspective, somebody else’s perspective, they might notice a theme that’s running through something and present that idea to them. Maybe they haven’t articulated it in that way. I’m not saying that it’s the critic’s job is to explain the work, that is the person who’s made it. You know, this is very general, but I think there are very few things in life that don’t benefit from another person’s perspective, just to help open it up.
DB: We’ve got time for one more question, so let’s make it a good (ph 47.57) one.
M: Oh crap, no pressure! Actually it was more a comment and a question as well. A comment about the critiquing of a critic. There was a situation at the beginning of the year with Alan Moore and Sneddon, Laura Sneddon. I actually wrote a piece on that for my site, and it actually got more views than a lot of (inaudible 48.18). So it does feel like a hall of mirrors sometimes, but I’m just trying to work out from what you said, how legitimate that was as a piece of journalism as it were. To journal (ph 48.30) or to write on… a critiquing of a critique of a critique, it (inaudible 48.36). I wanted to ask about how you feel about the disposability of journalism as such, in terms of putting something out into the world and then letting it free. How much do you return to the work that you’ve done? You said that you’ve looked back at some of these (? 48.55), but how much do you look back? Do you just let it go and let it fly?
LS: Maybe sometimes you put in a few changes over time. I don’t know, I don’t really go back to anything and think, (inaudible 49.13) is gospel. You know, there’s very little that I wrote three years ago that I don’t… that some aspects (inaudible 49.18) of writing, of whatever it concerns hasn’t changed a little bit. I don’t know. Do you go back to stuff? Do you hold up (ph 49.23) any of the work that you’ve done like the Ten Commandments?
DW: (Inaudible 49.26). Done (ph 49.30) is beautiful.
DB: In terms of the podcast, I do not go back and listen to them. Listening to your own voice on tape is the worst thing, and doing a podcast means you get to do that for hours and hours and hours each week, which is the worst. Absolute worst, and when people say, ‘Oh, I like your voice,’ you think, ‘Don’t see it.’
DB: So no, I don’t go back at all.
ZA: We did a podcast with Brandon Graham (ph 49.59) and Robin (ph 50.00) and I think he said, (inaudible 50.04) a recording. I said, ‘This is never going to be released!’ [laughs] This really broad Yorkshire accent (inaudible 50.10). It was horrible, it didn’t make it through.
DB: Excellent. Well what a perfect note to end on.
DB: Can we have a round of applause?