Ryan Carey, Rob Clough, Daniel Elkin and Alex Hoffman are four of the major comics critics in the U.S. right now. In Enemies of the State, Four Color Apocalypse, High-Low, Sequential State and Your Chicken Enemy, along with their writing in various other outlets, each has established a reputation as a thoughtful, insightful critic.
In comics, criticism tends to be maligned, or seen as a stepping stone to becoming a comics professional, but anyone who spends time with serious criticism – and the work of all four definitely are – can see the love for the medium, the passion for creators, the obsession with ideas and formalism. Good critics offer new ways to think about art, can introduce us to new work and inspire not just readers but creators.
It was announced recently that the four have teamed up to establish Fieldmouse Press, and in January 2020 they’re launching SOLRAD, which is just the very first aspect of the nonprofit organization. I reached out and was thrilled that they were willing to talk about criticism, their ambitions, and what people can look forward to next year.
I always like asking people, how did you come to comics?
Alex Hoffman: I came to comics I think in the way many people did in the 80s – the newspaper strip. Specifically, when I was little I would read the paper every day, and when I was old enough I would borrow collections of Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and Peanuts from the local library system. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and my grandparents got a major paper, so when we visited them, I would always ask them to keep copies of the Sunday funnies for me to read.
In high school and college, I was introduced to anime via Akira and then manga via Fullmetal Alchemist. This was the early 00’s so webcomics were also starting up; I remember regularly reading Questionable Content and American Elf. I opened my first comics review blog, Manga Widget, in 2008. I was inspired at the time by critics like Brigid Alverson, David Welsh, Kate Dacey, and Tom Spurgeon, and wanted to try my hand at writing about comics. That community was great, but as I progressed through my doctoral program, I felt like there was more to comics than just manga. I started reading work by Michael DeForge, Rutu Modan, Charles Burns, Julia Wertz, Nate Powell, and a bunch of other folks. Anything I could find on the internet and through collegiate interlibrary loan. I started Sequential State in 2014, and here we are.
Daniel Elkin: I got into comics via a big old collection of early Superman comics that my uncle had on his bookshelf. Comics were a big part of my childhood and early teens. Then other things became far more interesting. I came back to comics after the birth of my son. I thought it would be something over which we could bond. I was shocked to find that most of the superhero comics I was buying for us to read together were kinda repetitive and boring, so I took to the internet to find something more interesting. Amazingly, I found there were intelligent people out there who actually wrote about comics. Through reading criticism, a whole new and interesting world of comics was opened up for me. I really loved these beautiful works of art and wanted other people to know about them. So, I started writing about those comics. The rest is history.
Ryan Carey: I think I came into comics the same way a lot of kids who grew up in the ‘80s did : by seeing them on the drug store spinner rack when I was 5 or 6 years old. I’d always grab a few whenever I could cajole my parents out of a couple dollars, and later, when I got an allowance, that seems to be where most of it went, as well. When we moved from the suburbs into the city when I was 10 or 11, we were just a few blocks from a comic shop, and the rest is history. That same store has moved a couple times – as have I – and changed ownership twice in the ensuing decades, but I still pop in there most every Wednesday like clockwork.
Rob Clough: Comics are part of my DNA. My earliest memories involve comics and cartoons, like asking my father to read me a Bugs Bunny comic book or the incredibly satisfying feeling of sitting with a stack of those old Peanuts paperbacks. I learned to read though Peanuts and was drawn to superheroes through reruns of the old Marvel 60s shows. I started buying my own comics when I was nine years old, and something about the form always kept me coming back. A close friend introduced me to alternative comics in the late 80s and early 90s, but my true moment of indoctrination to this world came after I attended the Small Press Expo (SPX) for the first time in 1997. I started my writing career with Matt Fraction as my editor working for an online publication called Savant and then spent several years writing for sequart.com before it imploded. I started my High-Low blog in 2008 and have kept it rolling ever since, even as I’ve written for many other publications. The Comics Journal and tcj.com are my second home, comics-wise.
What is Fieldmouse Press and why did you decide on that name?
Alex Hoffman: The name Fieldmouse Press came from a brainstorming session – I think I was the one who initially recommended it. The concept came from the nature of the animal; that a field mouse is small, quick, and resilient. I think I was subconsciously drawing on Graywolf Press, a nonprofit press based in Minneapolis. I own a lot of Graywolf books. And honestly, I just like the way it sounds.
Daniel Elkin: Wasn’t there also some talk about Ignatz the Mouse? I remember that sort of steering some of our thinking around the name as well. Needless to say, I’m glad Alex took point on this, because otherwise we never would have got our super cute logo from Sophia Foster-Dimino. As well, I think we can all agree that nobody should ever let me name anything anymore. I mean, I ran a site called Your Chicken Enemy for nearly a decade for goodness sakes.
Ryan Carey: Yeah, that one was the result of a brainstorming session between the four of us after all the names I proposed were roundly, and probably wisely, dispensed with.
Rob Clough: I like the image of the humble field mouse skittering around and reading comics, quietly laboring over the task of deliberating and thinking about them.
Why did the four of you decide to team up and create something new? Because you each have different projects, what does crafting something new and different offer you and offer readers?
Alex Hoffman: Creating something new means putting more resources into one space, and centralizes some of the comics internet. Together we have the ability to do more with our resources than we could individually. I’m good at process, at management, and at making a beautiful website. Daniel Elkin is a tremendous editor. Rob and Ryan are insightful, prolific critics who have networks built over the last decade. That’s a powerful foundation to start from.
I have this gut feeling that the comics internet is balkanized right now – and I’m hoping that this project can bring smart, diverse opinions together from across the internet. And while this wasn’t a thing I was thinking about when we initially decided to work together, the loss of Tom Spurgeon has left a gaping hole in the comics community. This project isn’t meant to replace Comics Reporter – that’s foolishness. But I think it can honor Tom’s legacy as a champion of comics and cartoonists.
Daniel Elkin: Yeah, what Alex said, especially about Spurgeon. If we can create something even half as important as what Tom created, I feel we will have done the community a great service.
Ryan Carey: At some point it just makes more sense to pool your resources rather than toiling away in isolation. We’ve all got different tastes and aesthetic sensibilities, and I think giving readers one platform on which to find multiple viewpoints is inherently more interesting than just sharing your own thoughts on a blog – although I’ve done a hell of a lot of the latter, and may even continue to do so here and there after we launch, but I’m much more excited by the prospect of contributing to a project that offers a wide variety of voices.
Rob Clough: I’ve enjoyed writing for Elkin, who is the best editor I’ve ever had. When he proposed that we join forces and create a coherent comics vision on a new site, it made sense. The collaboration has been incredibly exciting. Writing criticism can be every be as lonely as making art, and hearing feedback and combining ideas has been energizing. Alex is a design genius (and overall genius) whose command of our bureaucratic logistics is exceeded only by his sharp critical acumen. Ryan is a review tank like me who reads everything, everywhere, by everyone, and knows how to boil it down smartly. Elkin has a completely different point of critical view which results in some fascinating essays.
Why did you decide to go the 501c3 nonprofit route?
Alex Hoffman: I was the one that initially recommended we use a nonprofit structure. We realized very quickly that if we were going to be publishing criticism on the internet, we wanted to pay people who wrote for the site. This meant figuring out a plan for sustainable revenue.
We also understand the reality of comics criticism in the later part of the 2010s – that ad-revenue driven publishing has coarsened comics criticism, and has led to the “Buzzfeed-ication” of most forms of paid writing for the web. All four of us put a lot of faith in the value of art criticism. I feel, and I know my partners do as well, that criticism centers an art practice outside itself, and brings to it context and other lived experience. A cartoonist once told me that an art practice needs criticism in order to exist fully in the world. We wanted to deliver on that promise in a way that respects the work of the artist and the dignity of the critic.
Daniel Elkin: Once again, Alex has put into words my thoughts exactly. I really do want to publicly acknowledge the fact that were it not for Alex, though, we would not be as far along on this path as we are. Alex has been instrumental in getting all the paperwork in order to smoothly transition into a nonprofit, and he has been tireless in making sure all of our ducks are in a row. As much as Fieldmouse Press is the child of the four of us, it was really Alex who did all the birthing.
Ryan Carey: Ditto what Elkin said. Really, Hoffman is a damn genius, but is just too modest to admit it.
Rob Clough: The pay model for comics criticism is not viable. Period. Unless you have a larger apparatus backing you up, there’s no way to make it work while paying people. Non-profit is the only way this might work, if grants can be obtained and other support provided.
How do you describe your vision for SOLRAD and what do you feel that is missing from the comics ecosystem as far as criticism and conversation? Okay, it might take an hour to cover ALL the gaps, but let’s say, the gaps in the conversation that you want to fill.
Daniel Elkin: I think an important thing to consider is part of our Vision statement. We believe that criticism of the comics arts is equally essential for the betterment of the form, education of the public, and to give the comics arts a place for reflection, discernment, and connection with the larger world. As more and more people are introduced to comics as an art form, the stronger our community becomes.
Even more than just this, though, we are hoping to provide a legitimate, transparent, and honorable platform that allows for the diversity of creators and critical voices that makes the comics community so rich. While there are certainly places within the comics ecosystem that provide safe spaces, we are hoping to take it to the next level and raise awareness of the comics arts outside its own bubble of support and into the larger public sphere to the benefit of everyone involved.
Ryan Carey: I’ll tell you what, I think there’s a vital place for quality criticism that engages with a given work fully and offers legit insight into the interpretive process a reader undertakes. Divining an artist’s intention is one thing, but whether or not it connects in the way they’re hoping it will, analyzing where it succeeds and/or where it falls short, this is vital stuff for creator and consumer alike. Too much stuff gets slagged off or praised to high heaven without a detailed analysis of why – I’d rather see a cartoonist being provided with honest and fair-minded opinion that can lead to improvement of their craft rather than getting discouraged and chucking it all in favor of their day job, which at least pays the bills. I’m hoping SOLRAD will quickly develop a reputation as an outlet for artists to count on for fair-minded, and through-going, analysis of their work.
Rob Clough: One reason why I liked the idea of working with this group is that they’re all willing to go as deep as I do in reviewing comics. They take their work seriously and respect the artists they’re reviewing as artists. This doesn’t mean giving everything a good review, but rather respecting the work and artist enough to take them seriously. I despise snark and hot takes disguised as criticism, as it’s a cheap and self-serving way of getting attention. Criticism is not about getting attention for yourself or getting clicks; instead, it’s about engaging the work and shedding light on it. That’s why “light, not heat” is one of our mottos. Diversity and a willingness to engage work from cartoonists whose experience is greatly different from own is a key part of our mission as both critics and editors who are looking to bring in new voices to criticism.
You stated that your four pillars are: “comics, critique, community, and collaboration.” Can you talk a little about what they mean and how you want them reflected in the work?
Ryan Carey: At the risk of sounding overly glib, I think they speak for themselves and that the pieces we run will be reflective of this. We want to be a welcoming platform that hosts a wide variety of voices that will inherently represent all four of those pillars in each individual piece we run, but also – and even more importantly – I think they’ll be easily discernible when the scope of the project as a whole is taken into account.
Rob Clough: I’ll go backwards: collaboration is underrated when putting together projects like this. Going back to Tom Spurgeon, whose own singular genius propelled his many achievements, many of those were done in collaboration with others. I always got the sense that he wanted to bring in more contributors to The Comics Reporter but was unable to pay them. Community is important as a way to create dialogue and places where everyone’s experiences are respected and accepted. Criticism is not always fun to hear, but it’s crucial in order to get better and hear how your work affected others. And comics is something that draws us in inexorably. We are all lifers.
You also in your announcement talked about wanting to publish new comics and not just criticism. Why is it important for that to be a part of this project?
Alex Hoffman: Publishing new comics is another aspect of the same goal – to highlight and champion working artists. While we don’t have any planned print projects right now, we’re eyeing 2021 and 2022 as a place to start that kind of work.
We also want to commission new comics for the web as a means to bring more art into the world. Our mission is to advance the comics arts, and I think publishing of all types is necessary to succeed in that mission.
Ryan Carey: We believe in stating our intentions at the outset and then taking a sensible, methodical approach to things as time and finances allow. I think we all have cartoonists whose work we would love to expose to a broader audience, and I’m excited by the prospect of being able to do precisely that when the time is right.
Rob Clough: I’ve solicited and edited comics before for Other magazine, and it was a thrilling experience. Comics needs as many venues as possible for publication that pay.
SOLRAD is launching early next year. Where do you want to be at this time next year? And how do you hope to build beyond that over the next few years?
Daniel Elkin: I hope that after a year’s time, Fieldmouse Press will be at a place where our fundraising efforts and grant applications all pay off so that can bring in an even more diverse set of voices and increase the amount we pay for content on SOLRAD, move into micro-publishing, and really engage our outreach efforts to position the comics arts in a manner so as to be regarded with the same critical prestige as other forms of artistic expression.
Ryan Carey: The best projects are those that carve out their own space and become industry and community “staples” by establishing a unique identity and presence that wasn’t there before. If we’ve managed to do that a year from now and have people saying “yeah, Fieldmouse and SOLRAD, I didn’t know how much the comics medium needed something like that until it showed up” – or words to that effect – then I think we’ll have done something right.
Rob Clough: I want people to be excited about what we’re doing, to have built a powerful body of criticism from a large pool of contributors, and to be fully funded. Then I want to have enough money so we can publish print projects.
So for people who go “This sounds amazing, this sounds intriguing, this sounds like we like or hate the same things” – what do you tell them? What should they bookmark? What do we have to look forward to?
Alex Hoffman: SOLRAD launches with an amazing selection of features the first week of January, 2020. We’re planning a very special first month, which highlights some of what we will be able to accomplish as a group that we weren’t able to accomplish as individual critics. I’m really excited about January. We’ll have features, a book club, some exclusive previews. We’ll have a great selection of working critics, and we’ve approached a few folks about commissioned comics for the site. We’re also going to be pushing for more multimedia coverage of the comics arts, and will be continuing the ENEMIES OF THE STATE podcast at SOLRAD.
You can find and bookmark SOLRAD here – www.solrad.co as well as sign up for the SOLRAD newsletter.
We’re also raising money to fund SOLRAD through 2020 and beyond, and could use your help doing that. If you’re interested, check out www.fieldmouse.press/donate for more information.