Tonight I was given the honor of sitting down with one of webcomics’ most well known critics: Ben Howard. A warm personality, Ben greeted the whole idea of an interview with enthusiasm. We spoke for the better part of 3 hours about everything from the time he spends as a critic, to his writing, and his newest venture: creating a podcast to explore the connections between comics and music.
This insight into the work and life of such a driving force behind the review community was at once a delight and a curiosity. How better to get to know someone than to dig into what makes them tick?
Without further ado, the questions.
Your reputation in the webcomic industry so far is actually quite impressive, what with the many organizations you work for. Can we start off by getting a short summary of your job and where you do it/who for?
Job? Hahaha! It’s not so much a job as volunteer work. Anyway, I got started writing about comics via a very embarrassing Linkara-style affair, but soon got bored (and embarrassed) so I went the more professional route of writing about comics online. My first website was PopOptiq. I even made an editor position before a shakedown (nice way of saying fired). Since then, I’ve been writing for the Outhousers, Graphic Policy, and Loser City. Sometimes I even write about comics on a personal level with my near-nonexistent Tumblr page (scarycleve.tumblr or however those go. It’s been a LOOOOOOONG time). It’s not glamorous at all, but at least I’ve earned the respect of comic peeps I’ve met online.
As for where? In my home, in my underwear, barely awake before a shift at my job. It’s infrequent, I’ll admit. But that’s comic journalism.
That’s actually insanely amusing and twice as insightful! Ha! Now, you’ve taken a shine to the indie side of the industry, but some time ago you told me that your beginning was in mainstream. What prompted your interest in the other side of the coin?
Honestly, now that I look at my comics reading history, I was always more inclined to indie, or at the very least non-superhero. The first official comic I read was “Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh” by the great, wonderful Herge. That comic was beautiful, adventurous, and quirky. “Bone” by the almighty Jeff Smith was the same way. A lot of the early Marvel and DC books I read involving Hulk, Spider-Man, and Batman were the same way. Quirky adventures of absurd-looking people fighting against the forces of evil. It was all so colorful and over the top, of course it appealed to mini me. However, around the time of high school, I was obsessed with “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns”, serious comics for serious people. They were unconventional and unique, something I couldn’t find in the mainstream market. I about gave up on comics, but then I read “Preacher”. First thought was: “Woah, you can say ‘fuck’ in comics? (juvenile, I know, but I was 17). Second was ‘Wow, comics outside of the mainstream can tell way more interesting stuff).” So, I ended gravitating more and more and more and more and more toward indie comics. Only recently have I nose-dived into Webcomics, and I’ve found so much reading material that mainstream comics simply won’t allow for whatever arbitrary reason. I’ve decided to firmly cement myself in the indie scene because Big 2 comics just keep failing me with repetitive stories.
That’s amazing! Is this the sort of work that inspired you to become a critic to begin with? Or rather, what did inspire you to critique comics?
You know, I’m not entirely sure of that answer myself. I’ve always had something of a critical view of the media I consume (even if it was something as stereotypical as “Twilight sucks”). I think it was Linkara who first drilled in my head the idea you could critique comics. Then I was invited to write at PopOptiq by the wonderful Logan Dalton, and from there I was introduced to the world of comics critique. It’s a strange world, both amazing and sad. It’s amazing because people write critical about comics, both what they like and dislike about the medium and industry as a whole. It’s the Wild West, not at all organized or highly respected as every other medium in the world. I’ll be honest and say it suffers from something of bipolarism. Just like comics, comics criticism is either truly great or truly terrible, and it’s built on each individual’s perception. Some comic critics who are highly praised, I find massively boring.
“Indie comics have the ability to push not just comics, but storytelling as a whole to levels unprecedented.”
Since I’m airing out filthy laundry here, I’ll admit the two types of critics I can’t stand are 1) Faceless fan with no real unique writing skills that just is about saying how much this (insert big title) is the best thing ever, even if it’s a shitty crossover book, 2) The arrogant alt-comix reviewer that treats a review more like their drunken soapbox to write paragraphs about their weird hate boners on the Red Hot Chili Peppers or how someone should kill themselves than actually review the comic (Not sure if the critics I’m shading here will pick up on this reference). It varies largely in quality, tbh. And so does mine, but I at least like to think I get to the point of my reviews even if I’m making the point badly. Honestly, I guess what inspires me to write about comics now is truly great work. I’m more and more wary of writing about comics now due to lack of compensation and readership, but every once in awhile a book comes along that’s just so amazing, I have to write about it. In an answer shorter and simpler than the rambling rant I just wrote, Love inspires me to write about comics. I love comics. I want to be a comic writer someday. Every time some nonsense with comics makes me think about leaving, I get drawn back in by a truly wonderful work someone does with this still untap medium. I simply can’t leave it.
It so happens most of that work is indie. And that’s because I find indie just so much more diverse than mainstream, which is still highly focused on cape comics. But with indie, I could be reading a comic that uses vampirism as a metaphor for domestic abuse in one instance to a comic about wannabe-rockers having an orgy in a busted down tour bus. It’s, well, I wish I had something more profound to say, but it’s just so damn unique and unlike anything I’ve seen in other mediums.
Indie comics have the ability to push not just comics, but storytelling as a whole to levels unprecedented. But major websites are still so damn focused on Infinity Wars 446 or Rebirth 5.575390 that the good stuff gets drowned out. I want to be a goddamn martyr and shine as much a light on this ignored side of the scene as possible.
All very true. And it’s also true that as a critic you can receive quite a bit of flack for the work you do. It’s almost unavoidable. Can we talk about your work as a writer next? Because you also work as a writer for the indie comic scene. Horror, as you sometimes say, is your genre of choice. Is there a reason for that? Can we get some insights into what pushes you to pursue that particular area?
As with a lot of things involving my taste in media, my profound love of horror didn’t really solidify until, well recently. Let me rephrase that, I didn’t realize how much horror has a profound impact on me until I required the critical skills to express so. Same with heavy metal music. Comics, metal, horror. It’s all been in my DNA since childhood. I just couldn’t express why until I developed skills in critical theory to do so. Sometimes I have received flak, but rarely because of my criticisms so much as the things I’ve said critically of publishers and creators, but we won’t get into that controversial territory today.
Anyway, so for my work…Well, actually thank you for bringing it up. I’ll admit, I first got into comics journalism for selfish reasons. I thought it would be a gateway to writing comics for publishers. Hahaha, no. Very much no. It’s a combination of both comics being very insular in terms of who gets to write books and the mainstream unable to take even slight criticism. Well, maybe they can take “someone likes/dislikes this book”, but say maybe “this comic has problematic elements (ala Divided States of Hysteria. For your sanity, do NOT google). Comics are just so…man, they’re just so hard to get into. I’m a writer, no writing drawing skills whatsoever unless outsider art counts. I know writers can get a bad rep sometime, mostly because the mainstream has an unfair emphasis on writers, but it can feel harder to get in comics that way because it’s a visual medium, so artists, colorists, letterers, etc., can more show their work off. But hey, I’m getting there, developing original material right now and hoping to get it out there in the near future. As for Anyway –one long rant later, haha get used to that — Horror is an area I keep coming back to because, like comics, it can push so many boundaries. I’m not even talking about what kind of messed up stuff they put in it, but the visuals that can be conjured. To me, horror visual medium like movies and comics have always had the best visuals. Watch “Nosferatu” or read the original “Tales From The Crypt” comics. The imagery is, for lack of more eloquent terms, far fucking out! Looking at that imagery is like being on a bad LSD trip! So much is done with color (or black and white), with inking, with designing just the most grotesque faces possible, I can’t help but me attracted to it. The imagery can be used for some serious symbolism, or just look seriously fucking awesome! Last year, I made a comic with my friends Niina Salmelin and Edwin Lopez. It’s technically a children’s story, but Niina really emphasized some conventionally horror imagery in the comic, and the result is a colorful, dream-like fantasy. That’s what I think draws me so much to Horror. It’s a dream-like genre where conventional logic and narrative tropes can be thrown out the window. It’s…God, I wish I could say it in more complex ways, but Horror is like Metal: It is pure, unchained emotion. Emotions that propel you to limitless heights of expression. In the end, I keep coming back to Horror for its visual mastery.
Writing comics is a push and pull kind of job. A lot of it depends on flexibility and how the artist wants to see a script presented to them in a particular writing style to suit them personally. Do you find that aspect of indie comics something that’s ok or should artists learn to work with standardized script styles?
I always try to adapt myself to whatever best suits the artist’s needs. Some want you to do the standard which is full script, describing the detail panel-by-panel, while others like to have just a page description and for them to figure out the panel layout; kinda like a pseudo screenplay. I have done both styles with two separate artists, and both worked out amazingly! I can’t complain much in that regard. That said, I think on which way a comic goes depends on the format. If the comic is a short story or single issue floppy (typically 20-30 pages in length) definitely the full script form. If a full-sized graphic novel where things can be more easily decompressed, the pseudo screenplay style works out more. I don’t think there will ever be a satisfactory answer to this. I think writers and artists will just have to get used to adapting to each others’ preferred method. If you’re doing work-for-hire, publishers can/should have a standardized format. Creator-owned? You’re on your own.
A good, insightful answer! We’re almost done too! Only one more topic to go! You also have a podcast about comics! Panel To Chords! Can you tell us a bit about that?
Oh, yes I can! I forgot the specifics, but my co-host Maddi Butler and I one day realized while chatting with each other online that there’s a long history of music and comics being tied together: There’s the emphasis first chapter of Watchmen titled after a Bob Dylan song (Desolation Row). And recently we talked to Matthew Erman, the writer of the indie horror series Long Lost. Each chapter of the book is titled after a song from a playlist he created for the series, like an unofficial soundtrack. It started off with just us reading comics then composing playlist on Spotify. Now, I think it is morphing into us understanding more and more how the two mediums are intricately linked, more than any other crossovers of two mediums. I think this will especially come to light in our next review. It’s gonna be amazing and I hope people listen.
Perfect! We’ll all be looking forward to hearing that! And I think that covers everything I had for today! Thank you so much for joining me, Ben! Is there anything you’d like to say in closing to our readers? Words of encouragement? Tips for breaking into the industry?
Haha! I am the worst person to ask for tips into breaking into the industry. Now, for encouragement? Most likely, You have your life in better than I do. There are many ways to make and publish comics now. Just find the method that best suits you. Most of all, you need the passion and love of these tawdry medium to do it. So, read stuff that inspires you, take notes, and make some fucking comics!!! Then send me a link and I’ll review them myself.