By Seth Kushner
We’d been working hard to get press for our new book, Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics. Thankfully the hard work paid off in the form of positive reviews in such publications as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Publisher’s Weekly, and others. We thought the major press was over until The Wall Street Journal requested a reviewer copy from our publisher. We excitedly awaited the high-profile review and when it came on May 25, 2102, it was not what we expected.
When I’d initially seen the review on the Journals’ website, the headline, “Worst Comic Book Ever!” confused me. Further confusing me was the accompanying illustration depicting silver age versions of Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor reading a copy of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. What did any of this have to do with our book? Then, I read the credit “Leaping Tall Buildings edited by Christopher Irving.” They got the book title right, but the rest was simply incorrect. The actual and correct credit is “Christopher Irving: words, and Seth Kushner: pictures.” Christopher didn’t edit the book, he wrote it, and the Wall Street Journal, picture of journalistic integrity that they are, failed to mention my name, the co-author, ignoring me completely.
Disappointed but curious, I read on, skimming, until I found mention of my book which, oddly, didn’t come until paragraph six. It was then I realized the writer Tim Marchman had an agenda.
Mr. Marchman gave a positive review to LTB, calling it “a collection of brief and beautifully illustrated profiles of comic-book artists, intends to celebrate the form — and does…”
I was happy for a good review in a major media outlet, regardless of the errors. But, Marchman then reveals his intent, which was clearly to use this “review” as a platform to write his thesis on why today’s superhero comics are failing, turning a book review into an op-ed piece.
To quote Marvel Comics Editor-In-Chief Axel Alonso in the recent Axel-In-Charge column on ComicBookResources.com:
“To be honest, I felt bad for Christopher Irving, the guy who edited the book [“Leaping Tall Buildings”] that was supposed to be the subject of the review! [Laughter] Hey, I was just surprised that the Journal ran it. It wasn’t a book review, it was an editorial about the comic book industry filled with sloppy business analysis and cultural commentary.”
When asked about the errors, my co-author, the book’s writer Christopher Irving had this to say:
“In the piece, I was mis-credited as editor (that honor goes to the awesome Will Luckman) rather than writer, and my partner-in-crime Seth Kushner was not credited at all, nor was there any mention of the fact that the other half of the book was comprised of Seth’s stunning photography. This book was a joint effort between Seth and I, and I consider him a co-author in the truest sense.”
Right back at ya, Chris. I have to give much of the book’s success to Chris and the way he weaved the narrative of his individual profiles into a history of comics. It’s a shame readers of the Wall Street Journal are ignorant of that fact. But, what of the various points Marchman brings up in the piece?
Who reviews the reviewer? Not me, nor Chris. “It’s not really my place, as the book’s writer, to review this review,” Chris says. I agree, but there are a few points in which I’d like to respond.
I do agree with some things Marchman says but he often doesn’t make his points well. For example, I agree wholeheartedly there are not enough new ideas in superhero comics these days. We live in tough times and the “big two” [Marvel & DC Comics] produce only what sells. Period. In my lifetime, there have been very few new creations that have become part of the pop-culture lexicon…very few Supermen, Batmen and Spidermen. But, a few smart creators have managed to independently create a handful of characters who’ve made it past comics and onto t-shirts, toy aisles and movie screens. Mike Mignola did it with Hellboy, Frank Miller with Sin City’s Marv, Mike Allred with Madman and there are others. Every month independent-minded creators are trying their best to catch lightning in a bottle, like Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Steve Niles with the recently released comics anthology Creator Owned Heroes. Others have taken to publishing their signature creations for free on the web, like myself and my cohorts at TRIP CITY. Take a look at Dean Haspiel’s BILLY DOGMA, Jeffrey Burandt’s (with Aaron Bir) THOMAS THE HEADLESS BOY, Chris Miskiewicz’s (with Palle Schmidt) THOMAS ALSOP, Joe Infurnari’s TIME FUCKER and my SCHMUCK.
Marchman refers to the current superhero comic as “clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible.” Well, sure, some are, but I believe there’s as much a mix of mediocrity and greatness in mainstream comics as there is on TV and in movies. People like me, who are fans, learn to seek out the stuff that’s good.
I see no need to discuss in too much detail Marchman’s seemingly below-the-belt attack on writer J. Michael Straczynski. JMS already defended himself in a twitter war he waged with Marchman where he told the reviewer his behavior was “dickish.”
I won’t officially take a side but I will say Marchman was incorrect in blaming JMS for the much-maligned “comic in which Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil.” JMS publicly disassociated himself from said comic and admitted the storyline was forced upon him by Marvel editorial.
Later in the piece, Marchman says contemporary superhero creators tend to come off as “pretentious autodidacts or failed cult leaders” and says of Brian Michael Bendis, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrison and Dan DiDio, “These are the men most responsible for the failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public’s obvious fascination with men in capes.”
Okay, we get it, Marchman’s not a fan of contemporary superhero comics. That’s fine, no one’s twisting his arm but I do disagree with where his finger is pointed. Yes, it’s true neither Marvel or DC has figured out how to get the vast majority of folks who go to the multiplex to see The Avengers or Dark Knight Rises to step into a comic store but, if anything, the creators he’s name-checked are probably responsible for keeping comics alive.
Bendis brought snappy David Mamet-esque dialog and storytelling to comics, along with a penchant for making old properties feel fresh. Quesada saved Marvel from Chapter 11 a decade ago by hiring people like Bendis and brought the author to the forefront during a time when the art and “image” was king. Morrison brings big ideas to works of his own and to those corporate-owned, and DiDio seems to embrace a try-anything approach, which has been hit or miss, but lately has mostly been hitting. I believe these men bring their A game to every project.
If anything, it’s the comics industry itself that can be faulted, by failing to embrace digital sooner, seemingly repeating the mistakes made by the music industry before it. Oddly, there is an entire section in the back of Leaping Tall Buildings on the “digital generation” which serves to answer some of Marchman’s concerns and criticisms but he seems to have conveniently ignored it in favor of going off on his own tangent.
The saying, “any press is good press,” applies here in relation to my book. In the end, Marchman’s controversial article got people talking, which is always a good thing, and though it barely mentions the book, we seem to have benefited from all the chatter. Leaping Tall Buildings jumped approximately 20,000 places on Amazon after the article ran and several stores reported selling out of their copies.