Grotesque Anatomy
Tuesday, December 09, 2003
  Interview Reviews: CBA and Back Issue
Last week Kevin Melrose lamented the sad state of online interviews.  I was thinking about his complaints as I read two new(ish) comic magazines, Back Issue and Comic Book ArtistBack Issue is a new magazine from TwoMorrows Publishing--the first issue just hit stands a couple weeks ago.  Comic Book Artist, on the other hand, has a bit more history to it:  Originally published by TwoMorrows, the magazine has now moved over to Top Shelf.  The second issue of the second volume also came out in November.

Back Issue #1
Back Issue #1 • TwoMorrows Publishing • $5.95 • B&W • 96 Pages
Interviews are featured prominently in both magazines.  CBA, in particular, devotes most of its space to interviews:  Issue #2 features six interviews of varying length (Julie Schwartz, Mike Allred, Rags Morales, Frank Cho, J.J. Sedelmaier, and Mike Friedrich).  Back Issue only features one interview, but it constitutes nearly half of the issue.  Plus, it's an interview with a twist:  Titled "Pro2Pro," the format features "either an exchange between two (or more) comics creators with a moderator, or a pro interviewing a pro, each talking about their [sic] respective work."  This issue, Marv Wolfman and George Pérez are interviewed by Andy Mangels about their Marvel and DC work during the 70s and 80s.

While the interviews in both mags are better (or at least more in-depth) than the typical Pulse puff piece, they still have their flaws.  "Pro2Pro" interviews seem intrinsically doomed by their format:  How many creators are going to speak freely when in the presence of their peers?  The Wolfman-Pérez piece quickly devolves into fawning back-patting (Pérez himself even refers to the mutual admiration society feel of the interview at one point).  Moderator Andy Mangels doesn't help matters by lobbing out softballs like "[Y]our book [New Teen Titans] is one where fans can remember issue numbers and stories with uncanny accuracy."

CBA relies on the more traditional interview format of one interviewer and one interviewee, but even here interviews aren't without problems.  The Mike Allred interview is derailed at several points by the interviewer's attempts at humor.  While I can appreciate that the interviewer was perhaps going for a more conversational tone, I found the constant use of bracketed "stage directions" (e.g., [laughs], [laughter], [make rimshot noise]) annoying.  It probably would have been less distracting had CBA just let the transcript stand on its own without all the unnecessary cues littering the text.

Comic Book Artist v2 #2
Comic Book Artist vol. 2 #2 • Top Shelf • $7.50 • B&W • 112 Pages (16 in color)
Ultimately, the biggest problem facing each magazine is timeliness.  Several interviews are marred by hopelessly outdated material.  In the Mike Allred interview, Allred still refers to Princess Diana being part of the X-Statix team in the "Di Another Day" storyline.  There is an editorial note that "[s]ince this interview was conducted in early July, Marvel has decided to omit Princess Di from the storyline," but no follow-up to see how Allred feels about the changes to the subversive storyline he had been so excited to work on.  Without such a follow-up, the piece feels four to five months old, which is ancient in this wired age.

Which makes me wonder:  What is the lead time for this magazine?  Are all interviews going to be done four to five months in advance?  I don't want to appear insensitive--the editor indicates that part of the reason for the extreme lateness of CBA #2 was "an extended, six-week bout of acute, chronic bronchitis"--but I think a magazine covering the comic industry is going to face problems if it feels like old news when it finally hits shops.  Especially in this age of immediate news on the Internet, print mags need to be faster if they're going to compete with free websites.  (Although sometimes the lag time leads to unintentional humor:  In their "Pro2Pro" both Wolfman and Pérez go on and on about how returning to Teen Titans--especially to complete the unfinished Games GN--would be "anti-climactic" and "reliving past glories."  'Nuff said.)

Aside from these limitations, each magazine has strengths that will likely appeal to different audiences.  First and foremost, what will probably attract most fans is the artwork:  Each mag offers plenty of pictures to look at.  I found that CBA was stronger in this area:  In addition to having better production values overall, CBA also includes a 16-page color section.  CBA also has a much stronger design, with crisp, easy-to-read layouts; pleasing design elements; and a sharp-looking perfect bound format.  Back Issue, on the other hand, looks much more amateurish:  Artwork is tilted for no reason; images are faintly repeated behind text, making it difficult to read at times; and a lot of space is simply left blank, causing the book to feel padded.  Surprisingly, publisher John Morrows reveals that the emptiness was intentional:
[W]e needed a designer to break new ground with the mag's look.  My old college pal Robert Clark has been after me to involve him in a TwoMorrows publication for a long time, and this was the perfect place for his cutting-edge design sensibilities.  He's a master at using white space to give the eye a resting place, perfectly complementing Michael's silky-smooth text.
A master at using white space?  I suppose, in the way that a high school student desperate to meet the minimum page requirement is a master at using white space.  (And even with all those empty areas, Back Issue was still four pages shy of its advertised 100-page length.)  Here are sample pages from Back Issue (Attn. Kevin Melrose:  Features Games artwork you may not have seen yet!) and CBA so readers can see what I'm talking about.  (The bad crop job on the CBA sample is my fault:  I couldn't get very deep into the gutter due to the perfect bound format of CBA.)

Beyond aesthetic considerations, each publication has a distinctive editorial feel.  With its title, Back Issue pretty much wears its editorial vision on its sleeve:  This magazine is dedicated to covering the past glory of comic books.  If, like publisher John Morrows, you feel that "[t]he 1970s-1980s still have a lot of great material to be documented," then Back Issue is the mag for you.  In addition to the aforementioned "Pro2Pro" feature, Back Issue will also feature the following departments:  The Greatest Stories Never Told (looks at comics which never saw print); Back In Print (reviews of recently released reprint volumes); and Beyond Capes ("examinations of non-superhero comics or comic-book trends").  In the first issue, Beyond Capes focused on Tarzan--both the DC and Marvel versions.  (Although to be fair, "DC vs. Marvel" was the theme of the first issue, and next issue promises to be less "Big Two"-centric, with a spotlight on Comico.)

The focus of CBA can also be found in its title:  Whereas Back Issue seems more excited about the characters and companies of yore, CBA seems more focused on the creator--the comic book artist.  As CBA editor Jon B. Cooke put it in his editorial from the Top Shelf debut:
Y'see, it's fundamental in the philosophy of Comic Book Artist that it is NOT about things; it's about people.  While we may have been using hyperbolic subtitle, "Celebrating the Lives and Work of the Great Cartoonists, Writers & Editors," I always preferred the feistier--and more correct--banner "Price Guide NEVER Included," but only used it once or twice.  What me, a wuss?

But no, I've always been adamant--and hardly shy about expressing my contempt--about the things I hate in this business.  I hate the coveting, selfishness, greed, speculation and slabbing coming hand-in-hand with the collecting bug.  I despise the adoration of the hero (i.e., the "property") above respect for the creator of said character.

Do the titles of the mags matter?  Are they really indicative of each mag's approach to its content?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps Cooke's rant is all a bit of after-the-fact bluster and posturing.  Whatever the case may be, it's probably more instructive to look at the end results and make one's judgments based on actual content.  With that in mind, I have to be impressed with a magazine that can give me a deeper appreciation of a "shallow" subject such as Frank Cho.  I'll be even more impressed if CBA can succeed in humanizing unlikeable interviewees  such as John Byrne, who will be featured in CBA #3.  Then again, I probably shouldn't set unrealistic expectations for the magazine.

UPDATE:  Graeme McMillan pointed out in the comments section that the contents of CBA #3 have been changed from what was originally announced in the back of CBA #2:  The John Byrne interview has been postponed til issue #4, with #3 now featuring a Darwyn Cooke interview (presumably rescheduled to better coincide with the release of Cooke's DC series New Frontier).  So anyone wanting to see if John Byrne has it in him to be lovable in an interview now has to wait a little longer.
Like Unto A Thing Of Irony!

Iron Fist

by John Jakala

Main Blog

Of Course, My Tune Will Change Once I Start My Own...
Supreme Speciousness
In Other Reviews
Superfriends Superfun
Snark Lightning
Objection Exception
A Case of Synchronicity
Mundane Morrison Madness
Topics That Will Not Die: #3 - Series That Will No...