Saturday, July 28, 2007

My Life in Comics

How a 6-year-old with tonsilitis ends up 35 years later as a comic book critic.

"You write good rant," comics retailer Brian Hibbs said about me once; it would be disingenuous not to note that he went on in the same paragraph to say that point I was making in that specific rant was "kinda stupid." But, Hibbs is the same comics retailer who once, when ranting at me after calling me on the telephone, informed me with utter conviction that "everyone that reads Love and Rockets also reads Superman." Res ipsa loquitur, I suppose, vis a vis what is or isn't "kinda stupid" to Mr. Hibbs.

Some autobiographical sketching seems required. What the hell, at the end of the day I believe autobiography is the highest form comics can aspire to, conveying as it does such a pure distillation of the author's intentions, in the very best autobiography that has been created in comics (be it R. Crumb, James Kochalka or Alison Bechdel, to name three people who have worked wonders in the form). So, a little about me.

I was born in 1966 in upstate New York (not Westchester County, either, real upstate New York, where a day trip to Montreal is vastly more likely than one to Manhattan), and lived in that area there until my family moved to Florida when I was around 8 years old. My earliest memories of living in New York involved being given comics by my mom as I was recovering from having my tonsils out when I was six years old, and later walking down a half-mile or so to the downtown area of the town we lived in to the drugstore that had an extensive comics rack to satisfy my earliest comics fixes with Spider-Man, Archie and Richie Rich comics.

In the 1970s, amid possible scandal regarding my birth, I later came to realize, my family moved to Florida. For most of the time my family -- my mother, her husband (who I believed was my father until I was about 16 or so and was told the truth) and my "brother" (actually my nephew, but adopted -- you can see the Doane family story is a complicated one) lived in Florida, I attended a private Christian school, even performing puppet shows for the affiliated church's Sunday school classes. This quasi-religious upbringing (there was no religion in our home, thank you, Jesus) is no doubt to blame for my later, autodidactic exploration of history and science, which moved me to abandon the supernatural as anything other than powerful myth.

My lifelong love of comics was certainly cemented while we lived in Florida, with a 7/11 convenience store near our house; I walked there once or twice a week with a buck or two from my parents and would return home with a stack of comics -- at the time I started reading them in the early 1970s I think they were 20 cents, and by the time we were in Florida, they had probably moved up to the outrageous-but-still-affordable price of 25 cents. It wasn't until they were 35 cents that I seriously began to wonder if they weren't charging too much. These days I have come to agree with the idea that "the only comics that are too expensive are shitty comics," a phrase coined by the great comics critic Tom Spurgeon, another formative influence. He means, I think, that truly excellent comics are worth any price; bad comics are a lousy bargain even if you get them for free, as comics critics like me and Tom often do, and which is even more widespread among comics readers thanks to the massive pirating efforts on the Internet.

As a kid buying comics in the 1970s, my tastes were all over the map; if it was comics, I was interested. Marvel, DC, Harvey, Charlton and Gold Key were my main sources of entertainment, but the occasional Warren magazine like 1984, Creepy and Eerie, and even Jack Chick Comics (ubiquitous in Florida and throughout the south, where, of course, they are quite literally Gospel) also found their way into the mix in my voracious need for comics reading material.

In my early teens, probably through in ad in a Marvel or DC comic, I discovered The Bud Plant catalog, which opened up my eyes to the vast, and vastly richer, greater comics artform. It was easy to believe in the 1970s and early 1980s that comics and superheroes were interchangeable nouns. I am, therefore, eternally grateful to Bud and his colleagues in Grass Valley, California (who I've never met and who have certainly never heard of me) for what they did for me. I remain a fan of just about any good comic, superhero or no, but Plant and Co. introduced me to such concepts as autobiography, creator-owned work, and black and white comics, and those three elements in some combination (ideally all three) almost invariably make up the comics that I love the most.

We moved back to New York in the very early 1980s. Returning to public schools for the first time since 2nd grade or so, I majored in art in high school, but the art teacher discouraged my interest in cartooning, so nothing much ever came of that, although I remain an inveterate doodler. I do draw Wolverine's head better now than I did in the 9th grade, so, all was not for naught, Mrs. Murphy.

In 1985 and 1986, I attended Adirondack Community College in Queensbury, New York, majoring in broadcasting and doing a regular radio show on WGFR, the college's 10-watt radio powerhouse. I started working professionally in radio in 1986 and continue to do so to this day. I've been a disc jockey, news reporter, writer and producer, but currently work as a copywriter and production director; gratifyingly, it's actually the most fun I've had in two decades years in radio.

In 1993, I married Lora, and in the ensuing years we've had two children, a daughter and a son. Both kids have inherited my love of comics, and love to draw as well.

In 1999 I began working at an all-news radio station in Albany, New York, and that was where it first occurred to me that comics might make for interesting news stories from time to time. Luckily the job was loosely-defined enough that no one ever told me to stop. The very first person I ever interviewed in the industry was DC editor Dan Raspler, on the subject of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's JLA: Earth 2 graphic novel. It remains one of my favourites. The radio interviews and my personal GeoCities website On2TheFuture (that was focusing more and more on comics the longer I maintained it) eventually led to my being tapped by a New Zealand-based website, Silver Bullet Comic Books, to write and edit reviews; in late August of 2000 I decided to take a chance on the creation of Comic Book Galaxy, and after a few weeks of gathering a dream-team of writers (many of whom have gone on to amazing careers as writers, and in one case, the editor-in-chief of a fairly major comics company), the site debuted on September 1st, 2000.

The Galaxy's remit is to feature quality writing about comics with "Passion, Truth and Diversity," with the ever-present goal of "Pushing Comix Forward," and celebrating comics that achieve that mission. The site has been more successful at these goals at some times than others, but in recent years I have realized that surrendering to popular taste in exchange for an increase in "hits" (visits to the site by readers) is a sucker's game. Give me 10,000 monthly readers interested in the comics we talk about at Comic Book Galaxy any day, as opposed to the 10,000 or more daily visitors to some sites who come looking rabid with desire to learn what such hacks as Geoff Johns or Chuck Dixon might be working on next.

Among my personal favourite comics creators are Alan Moore, James Kochalka, Paul Hornschemeier, Barry Windsor-Smith, Los Bros. Hernandez, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, Chester Brown, Kevin Huizenga, Renee French, Dan Clowes, Bernard Krigstein, Chris Ware, Phoebe Gloeckner and David Mazzucchelli -- but such a list fails to explain the true breadth of my love for great comics, or my passion for, as Warren Ellis once noted, "What's new and what's next."

The one thing that always keeps me immersed in comics as an artform is the fact that there's always something new and different just around the corner, always something amazing to discover. It's been my privilege to be able to share some of those discoveries with others since I began writing about comics, and I hope that my writing about comics will impart to the reader at least a bit of the joy I have received over these past years.