10 thoughts on interviewing cartoonists

Alex Dueben reflects on recent comments from writer Kieron Gillen and others about interviewing and comics journalism.

Last Wednesday, Kieron Gillen made a few statements on Twitter, going after people conducting email interviews.

While I agree with what he said in general and responded that there is a place for such questions, I also hesitate to avoid making such broad statements. Just like with “rules” about writing comics, they don’t NEED to be followed, but one should have a good reason when they are not following them. I am aware that Gillen would likely agree with me on that point.

In further tweets, he noted that he was talking specifically about “email interviews” and ones conducted after a book’s release. Since I am not good at putting complicated thoughts on Twitter, here is a longer response to his concerns and points as well as related ones that I have no doubt he did not think about or consider.

It is worth noting that Gillen tweeted this out around the time that Vogue posted an interview with Rihanna in which the writer admits more than once how unprepared she was, how she showed up without a list of questions, and even admitted it during the interview. It raised a number of eyebrows among journalists. Also, I kept thinking how much more Vogue pays for an article of that length vs. the outlets I write for and how not being prepared days in advance simply wouldn’t occur to me. So the following list may be a bit salty.

(Full disclosure, Gillen and I both contributed to the late, lamented website Ninthart.com once upon a time and by my estimation we have met in person on two different occasions. One of which was at New York Comic Con years ago when Phonogram had come out and I bought a copy from him, which he signed to me.)

1 – Doing interviews by email is hard and I find it awkward. Also, 99% of the interviews conducted by email are so obviously conducted by email. They read as stilted. I know that some people prefer to be interviewed over email, but honestly, they end up rarely being interesting interviews. Which is not to say such interviews are incapable of having anything of interest, but they tend to come off sounding more like press releases than conversations.

2 – Interviewers have a lot of triangulating to do. On the one hand, I have no interest in asking a creator the question that they’ve been asked a thousand times before. On the other hand, I do have to approach this as though a reader might not know who the creator is and that this might be their introduction to them.

I have to present the interview in a way that doesn’t bore people who know the creator but still wonder, “If this was someone’s first comic, would it make sense?” I am curious whether my interviews are any good to both the people who are very familiar with the creator and those who don’t know them at all. I never have an answer, to be honest.

3- This is obnoxious to say, but I don’t necessarily think that the interviewee’s feelings about the interview is that important. I mean, I don’t want them to be miserable and I’m not being an ass trying to get a rise so I can elicit some clickbaity quotations. And I have conducted some interviews that were honestly emotional and exhausting – and I said after, “This was the worst hour of therapy you ever had, but at least it was free.” I hope that I sound like I did a lot of reading and know what I’m talking about, or at least sound like I’ve read the book, because that’s far from a given. But beyond that…honestly, my feelings about the experience of the interview are even less important. Some people may take issue or find fault with this emotional detachment.

4- Some of the complaints that other writers raise in the thread are not about writers, but instead about editors. I will be honest, I have had some excellent editors– who have improved my work in so many ways and taught me so much. Other writers can speak to what it means to have a great editor. It makes all the difference. But then again, I have had some truly bad editors and been edited by some massively incompetent assholes.

  • I have had editors rewrite my work;
  • I have had to apologize to creators over what my editors rewrote my story to say;
  • I have had to complain to other editors to correct what was published because of factual errors that editors inserted in my work or typos that they created.

That doesn’t even get into training writers well, editing well or having a style guide. So many sites and places where people learn to write are just content factories that are pay poorly to both writers and editors, and the quality of the end product isn’t really a concern. They may want an interview with Kieron Gillen and quotes about his new project and some preview art, but as far as the actual content of the text…not a big deal.

5- Comics companies don’t care about journalism. Hell, some of them actively don’t want journalism. Think I’m making that up? What if someone or a team of people were to actually take a look at the comics industry? What if they looked at sexual harassment, noncompetitive practices, corporate policies? What if there was disclosure about salaries and rates, about profit margins and the treatment of creators? Hell, companies scream when people write negative reviews.

To use a bad metaphor, many creators will happily retweet and post the positive glowing reviews they get – and when they get a bad review will say something like, “What do critics know?” And then the critic may be taken off a list by a publisher and blackballed as far as events, access and review copies. PR is welcome, criticism and journalism are not.

6- I have conducted more than a thousand interviews with comics people over the years. (Yes, it’s sad and pathetic, let’s move on.) I would say that I have interviewed many who are worth talking to. Not all are winners, but I could pull together 100 interviews with a broad range of people and I would argue they’re as good as can be found. And I would argue, I have talked to a broader, wider range of people than most people who write about comics. Having said that, most comics companies will not talk to me. My emails are left unanswered. My phone calls are never returned. Their publicists feel that I am not worth talking to no matter what I am inquiring about or who I am writing for. And I understand that people have a limited amount of time, and sometimes people will just not do interviews for months at a stretch, or longer. But most comics companies just refuse to talk to me.

I think that is an important piece of this as well. Because if these publicists and companies actually replied to me, were actually willing to set up interviews and articles with people, could I make more money writing about comics? Could I spend more time and energy thinking about and writing about comics? Potentially even do so full time? Who is to say?

7-I also write about other things and I think it is notable that I have worked with other publicists,companies and industries, and they have personal knowledge and institutional knowledge of who I am, what I do and what I have done. Am I so bad at writing about comics that comics companies have knowledge of me and hate me?

8- I don’t expect comics companies to care about me. Hell, they don’t care about themselves! Look at this tweet from Heidi Macdonald

Now a number of people said, how could they be surprised by this? Heck, Raina Telgemeier’s Guts was the bestselling book the other week! To miss this – a story that has been going on for nearly two decades– requires the level of blindness that I can only compare to standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean and claiming that there is no water anywhere! But a large number of people in comics – executives, editors, creators – are that blind.

9- Comics is an art form and it deserves to be covered like one, with all the intelligence, thoughtfulness and consideration that comes with that. It deserves people who care and are interested in this art in its many facets. But we’ve seen how arts coverage has mostly declined in recent decades and there are no signs of changing. I try. I fail constantly, but I’d like to think I fail better the next week. There’s no money in writing about comics. But despite the occasional bad review I’ve given someone, despite publicists being nasty, despite indifference, I think of myself as part of comics. Another misfit who ended up in this weird industry, but isn’t really a part of it, and doesn’t feel like he belongs, but for whatever reason, is still here.

10- Based on an objective assessment of how I’ve conducted myself in the world, I would probably be a bad interview subject. But 9 times out of 10, yeah, Kieron’s right – it’s a stupid question!

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