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The Comics Journal Examines Its Own Navel Print
Written by Mike Dean   

This article originally appeared in The Comics Journal's 25th Anniversary issue, #235, July 2001.

The Comics Journal #235
The Comics Journal #235
Price: $7.95

Born of Bile
Newswatch Examines Its Own Navel
by Michael Dean

Always implied in the transition engineered by Gary Groth and Mike Catron from The Nostalgia Journal to The Comics Journal: The Magazine of Comics News and Criticism was the idea that the comics field was not an accumulation of quaint artifacts of the past but a living changing art and business. In other words, this was at last a comics-related publication for which reporting the news became a possibility.

This alone was a novelty among the hobby-oriented publications of the time, which tended to focus on a combination of reminiscing and establishing price tags for the objects of those reminiscences. (Joe Brancatelli’s cranky Inside Comics fanzine was a notable exception.) But it was immediately clear that Groth’s ambitions were too rude and noisy to settle for just any kind of news. Readers of the first Groth-edited issue of The (New) Nostalgia Journal were confronted by a gonzo spectacle the likes of which they had never seen before, at least not in the comics press. There, transcribed word for word were Groth’s guerilla attacks on a competing adzine publisher against the backdrop of the New York Comics Con — with Groth hounding and pressing his quarry for the truth until his wretched victim fled to the protection of con director Phil Seuling.

Beginning on Page 1 of this issue was the Journal’s first piece of investigative reporting and, characteristically, it was news that did not shy away from taking a very clear point of view. It didn’t call itself news, because, at the time, there was no place in The Nostalgia Journal for news. Instead, it announced in 40-point type — nearly as large as the tabloid’s front-page title logo — EDITORIAL BY GARY GROTH, immediately establishing Groth as the human face and voice of the Journal to come.

What Groth, an ex-journalism major, wrote in that first editorial, however, was, by and large, news. He reported facts and incidents around a series of petty larcenies allegedly perpetrated by Buyer’s Guide publisher Alan Light, quoted multiple sources, even gathered documentary evidence, transcribing taped interviews and reproducing photocopies of canceled checks. The piece had a thoroughness of detail that would have been impressive in a major newspaper and was unheard of in the comics press, such as it was. Some readers wrote to complain that Groth’s report was so thorough, it went beyond the bounds of politeness. Groth, in fact, went beyond the expectations of any news story by, in a final flourish, becoming the story — as Light’s petty corruptions were demonstrated to be the antagonistic inspiration for Groth to re-invent the very publication that was now before the reader.

Those who are under the impression that the Journal has evolved over the years in reflection of Groth’s growing disenchantment with the comics field may be surprised to learn that he had grown disenchanted with comics before even launching the magazine. Like most comics fans, albeit one who was so dedicated and involved that he had been producing his own comics fanzines from the age of 14, Groth grew out of comics during his college days.

     “I had started moving into underground comics,” he said, “but I was getting bored with comics, in general.”

Groth planned to conclude his involvement in comics fandom with a bang, presiding over a colossal 84-page issue of his Fantastic Fanzine, dubbed Fantastic Fanzine Special II. It was intended to be his swan song and after assembling and editing the package, he handed over the publishing reins to Light, a friend of several years, who had recently launched a collectibles adzine called The Buyer’s Guide (now, under different ownership, known as Comics Buyer’s Guide), along with other publishing projects under the DynaPubs imprint. Light offered subscriptions to Fantastic Fanzine in The Buyer’s Guide, the terms of which (three issues, plus the special, for $5) Groth described as “financial suicide.” Having sold several such subscriptions, Light then gave Fantastic Fanzine back to Groth, saying he was too busy with The Buyer’s Guide to continue the fanzine. Groth having moved on, however, this meant that Fantastic Fanzine had effectively ceased publication.

As Groth wrote in The Nostalgia Journal #27, “Light deigned his responsibility to refund the monies he received for a product that would never exist as unimportant and decided to send each subscriber (or ex-subscriber) a ‘DynaPubs package,’ thereby canceling their subscription to FF.” This package consisted of a special edition of a Light-published fanzine, a recorded interview with Dennis O’Neil and a reprint of Fantastic Fanzine #10. Subscribers were not asked if this package was a satisfactory fulfillment of their subscription and for many, it wasn’t, either because they already had part or all of its contents or because they had never wanted it in the first place.

Groth said he received several letters from former Fantastic Fanzine readers who were sent issues they had never ordered in “fulfillment” of advance orders of future issues of FF. Groth shared with any who asked all that he knew about Light’s questionable business practices, thus making what may have been the first of a long line of prominent enemies in the comics industry.

In the meantime, Groth and Catron had entered the grown-up (or nearly so) world of higher education. Groth attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and a couple of community colleges for two years then hooked up again with Catron at the University of Maryland journalism school. Those were the glory days of journalism, which was enjoying one of its brief periods of popular respectability in the wake of the Washington Post’s Watergate un-coverage. Catron and Groth were among the many who stood outside the gates of the White House each day in what was felt to be a literal death watch on the Nixon presidency.

For Groth, it was a period of both transition and alienation. Comic books had been more than something to read during the frequent solitude of his youth. His ties to other comics fans had been his sole source of community while attending high school, where, he said, he had “no friends.” From 1967 to 1974, he had published more than a dozen fanzines, the most prominent being Fantastic Fanzine, launched in 1972, and Word Balloons in 1973. He was also convention director of Metro Con in 1970 and 1971 and, in 1973, worked with comics legend Jim Steranko on Mediascene, the tabloid precursor to Steranko’s glossy Prevue magazine. But Groth’s work environment there didn’t give him the freedom that he wanted and exposed him to a disillusioning behind-the-scenes side of the comics profession. In his former friend Light, Groth also seemed to see the enthusiasms of youth gradually corrupted by business pressures and personal greed. By the time he entered journalism school, Groth had ceased to feel comfortable in the comics community.

But neither did he feel particularly comfortable in the academic world. Though Catron took to the journalism curriculum, Groth was restless. “He took the university courses more seriously than I did,” Groth said. “I was more into a guerilla journalism and magazines like Ramparts. He was more Washington Post, I found the courses too lax and rudimentary. I felt I wasn’t learning everything fast enough. It was an odd time of my life anyway. I felt frustrated and alienated.”

After a year in the University of Maryland journalism program, Catron and Groth dropped out in 1975 to start a new publishing venture. They had seen the growth of conventions and adzines in the comics market and felt there was a killing to be had, not in comics, but in the relatively unserved music-collector’s market. They concocted a scheme to put on the nation’s first rock ‘n’ roll convention in Washington, D.C., which they felt, would raise enough money to start a publishing empire. Rock ‘n’ Roll Expo ’75 was an ambitious affair at the Shoreham Americana Hotel, featuring dealers selling music-related collectibles, three guest writers from Rolling Stone magazine and none other than Dr. Hunter Thompson himself as the guest of honor.

Catron told the Journal, “We had a press conference in a ritzy hotel, and invited all these high-school journalism students.”

Unfortunately, the music con proved too difficult a concept for those primitive times. (See sidebar.) Groth said, “We held the con to get a whole lot of money to start a publication. Instead, we lost a whole lot of money.” They were able to proceed with their publishing plans by using names generated by the con to develop a subscriber and advertiser call list for an adzine devoted to music collectors. With the financial support of bookstore-owner/friend Jim Lawson, the adzine, called Sounds Fine, was launched but steadily lost money, and after 20 or so issues, they were forced to turn it over to their nearest competitor, Trouser Press, which incorporated it into one of its own magazines.

Back in the comics field, Gordon Bailey, Larry Herndon, Mark Lamberti and Joe Bob Williams were not faring much better with their adzine The Nostalgia Journal, which billed itself as “The Collector’s Guide to Comics, Science Fiction, Fantasy and Art.” Despite, or because of, the fact that The Buyer’s Guide had launched itself on the basis of ads run in the Rocket’s Blast/Comic Collector fanzine, Light refused to allow The Nostalgia Journal or any other competitor to advertise in his own adzine. According to Groth, Light apparently practiced a campaign of spreading negative rumors about competitors to advertisers and readers. One such incident led to a libel suit against Light and Stan Blair by The Nostalgia Journal. Blair, then head of a fandom fraud-finding group, had gathered information about The Nostalgia Journal, which Herndon said was erroneous and Light had used the information in an editorial. Herndon reported that the suit was decided in TNJ’s favor when Blair failed to show up in court. To prevent any competitor from gaining a foothold, Light offered to buy out The Nostalgia Journal on the condition that Bailey, Herndon, Lamberti and Williams would not launch any subsequent publications that would be in competition with The Buyer’s Guide.

Groth and Catron were aware of not only their own hassles with Light but also Light’s depredations against others in the fan press and took the opportunity of Light’s presence at the July 4, 1974 New York Comic Art Convention to harass him. “The Buyer’s Guide was trying to block The Nostalgia Journal at every turn,” Catron said, “and Gary walked up to Light at this New York convention and confronted him. Light avoided talking to us, but we started talking to Murray Bishoff, who was kind of like Alan’s go-fer. We were creating this scene and blocking their table.”

Here is how Groth describes the encounter between Light and himself, Catron and Jim Wilson in his Nostalgia Journal #27 editorial: “All three of us were convention veterans and by the third day of the con, we were all getting a little bored. As we wandered through the dealers room for the umpteenth time, Jim turned to me and said that conventions seemed to be losing their charm, degenerating into a decadent menagerie of comic-lusting teeny-bops. The word ‘decadent’ triggered a reflex in my mind, and not 20 feet away, as if in answer to an unspoken thought, sat the most decadent dealer of all.”

The influence of neojournalists like Thompson and Tom Wolfe can be seen in the way Groth pauses in his recitation of facts and background information to narrate this scene in which he plays a central role, thereby becoming a part of the news he is reporting. Wolfe has described (in the 1973 anthology, The New Journalism) how the act of reporting becomes doubly important in neojournalism: “When one moves from newspaper reporting to this new form of journalism, as I and many others did, one discovers that the basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene, since most of the sophisticated strategies of prose depend upon scenes.”

The construction of such scenes, however, requires the gathering of minutely observed data the average newspaper reporter would never dream of capturing. Here is how Groth introduces his characters: “[Light] sat there with that impish grin of his painted on his face, his fine blonde hair stylishly combed straight down. The publisher of TBG looked reserved, almost innocent sitting next to his henchman, Murry Bishoff, who did most of the talking for the team. Bishoff is quite the opposite of his employer. While Light is quiet, well-dressed, neat, and talks in whispered, conservative tones, Bishoff always talks as though he’s giving orders in a hurricane. He hides a wild, uncombed mane of hair under a silly-looking beanie. Bishoff looks like a wildly exaggerated Carl Barks character come to life. He talks with the same peculiar flair as he writes — in short, incoherent phrases and long rambling sentences, often straying from his subject, but never coming up for air. The best way to accurately reproduce an hour of conversation with Bishoff would be 10 pages of solid copy sans punctuation.”

Note that the description is far from dispassionate and tells us as much about Groth’s point of view as about its objects. All parties are fully present in the mind’s eye, then, when one turns to the issue’s featured interview, ostensibly a Q&A session with Light and Bishoff that is like a parody of the sort of interview one expects to find in the fan press. It is like a verbal boxing match between a young Muhammed Ali and a retired Jake LaMotta, with Groth nimbly dancing around his opponent, while refusing to back off.

That stubborn aggression is another key ingredient in Wolfe’s take on neojournalism: “The initial problem is always to approach total strangers, move in on their lives in some fashion, ask questions you have no natural right to expect answers to, ask to see things you weren’t meant to see, and so on. Many journalists find it so ungentlemanly, so embarrassing, so terrifying even, that they are never able to master that essential first move." No one would mistake Groth for a gentleman in the following exchanges, which appear in the “interview,” titled “Stop Answering His Questions, Murray”:

TNJ: Alan, what do you think of this (TNJ)? Alan? He’s walking away from the tape recorder. Come here Alan. Alan?

Bishoff: He’ll be back. He’s not running away from you.

TNJ: Oh, I think so.

...

TNJ: But why would you print that libelous ad [airing a squabble between Joe Brancatelli and Roy Thomas] and not print an ad for The Nostalgia Journal?

Bishoff: Well, that’s competition.

TNJ: But the RBCC printed an ad for the Buyer’s Guide. That’s how you got started, isn’t it?

Bishoff: Yeah, that’s true!

TNJ: You just think they’re fools for doing it?

Bishoff: Oh, no. I don’t think anybody’s stupid. You’re trying to put words in my mouth. I know you’re Democrats.

TNJ: I bet you’re a Republican, Murray.

Bishoff: You’re right.

TNJ: All right …

Bishoff: Are you trying to say something to me? I’m really trying to figure out what I’m …

TNJ: Well, we’re trying to figure out what you’re trying to say.

Bishoff: Well, that may be the hardest part.

TNJ: I think so.

TNJ: Murray, Can we come up to your room tonight and talk about Freedom of the Press?

Bishoff: No.

TNJ: Why not?

Bishoff: I won’t be in the room tonight.

TNJ: Where will you be?

Bishoff: I have an all-night party.

TNJ: Where is this all-night party?

Clearly, Groth had found his metier. A reader can almost taste his delight in the Light/Bishoff interview. For the moment, all trace of the boredom and alienation that Groth had complained of was gone. It was shortly after this encounter, that Groth and Catron decided to get out of the music adzine business and take over The Nostalgia Journal. The rock ‘n’ roll theme of Sounds Fine, after all, had been dictated more by market analysis and circumstances than by any empathy with the scene, Groth having little affinity for popular music more recent than Billie Holiday. This was a chance to apply their journalistic beliefs and publishing instincts to a field that they realized they did still care about. Add to that the spiteful joy of thwarting Light, and the acquisition of the Journal became irresistible.

The owners were only too happy to sell TNJ to Groth and Catron for a token sum. They had been hanging on primarily because they hated to let the publication come under Light’s thumb. The first issue of The (New) Nostalgia Journal devoted considerable space to thumbing its figurative nose at Light and The Buyer’s Guide, even though its new young proprietors had little reason to believe they would be any more successful at carving a niche in the Light-dominated comics-adzine market than the previous owners had been. “We were cocky,” said Catron. “We had a righteous confidence.” He felt a sense of exhilaration at a later con, when he saw Bishoff getting into an elevator followed by heckling fans who had read TNJ #27.

The Groth TNJ editorial was shocking to many and distasteful to some because of not only its directness, but also its doggedness. Light’s obsessiveness in guarding his market position was matched (albeit with nobler motives) by Groth’s obsessiveness in stalking his target. But more than that, to some who wrote in, Groth’s pursuit seemed no less petty than the crimes he uncovered.

Asked about this recently by the Journal, Groth admitted, “I was indignant about small injustices.”

At times, the rhetoric of Groth’s virtuoso editorial comes across as both inspiring and grandiose. Even accepting Groth’s every argument, all the facts, canceled checks and tape-recorded ambushes add up to no more than the sort of penny-ante dodges common to tight-fisted small publishers everywhere. Yet Groth compares Light repeatedly (as he would later compare Jim Shooter) to Richard Nixon. He draws an analogy between corporate America and Light’s corporate domination of the comics fan press. He argues that if comics may be seen as reflecting the times we live, then comics fandom, “a microcosm within that folk art, may reflect our America even more precisely.”

By the end of his address in #27, the news reportage has given way to the sort of declarations proper to an editorial: “In the world of today’s multinational corporations, there are a number of organizations who act as watchdogs to the powers that effectively rule this country, both governmental and corporate. While the national press has established an adversary relationship with our government in hopes of exposing governmental excesses, there are several organizations and committees that look over large business entities, and report their findings to the public... “

And so on. No doubt few readers of The Nostalgia Journal picked up their familiar tabloid expecting to be confronted with the problematics of the military-industrial complex and international corporations. There were some then who bristled at Groth’s audacity. What right did he have to drag his Watergate-inspired meditations into our insulated fan community just so he could do his own private Woodward-and-Bernstein number?

Groth’s revelation, however, had been that comics fandom and the comics industry were both a reflection of and part of the rest of the world. Out of perhaps defensiveness or a sense of inferiority, there had developed in the comics field a feeling that special rules applied. If fans were routinely ripped off, if near monopolistic conditions were allowed to prevail in the fan press, if comics creators were not expected to have the same rights of ownership accorded authors in any other field — that was just the comics industry being the comics industry. Groth’s message was that power plays and lies were power plays and lies, whether they emanated from the White House or a fandom publisher, and our outrage should be no less.

The Nostalgia Journal was a peculiar, ill-suited forum for such a message. Its readers were accustomed to finding, well, nostalgia in its pages and, as with any adzine, only whatever editorial content was necessary to complement the ads. But the fact is there was no forum for what Catron and Groth hoped to produce — a serious journal of comics-related news and criticism — and it was necessary for them to invent one by transforming the content and readership of The Nostalgia Journal.

“We thought we could increase the audience with additional editorial content,” Groth told the Journal, “which proved absurd. The whole point of editorial content in an adzine is to have editorial content that enhances the advertisers. Whereas we wanted to piss off advertisers.”

The expanded editorial content of The New Nostalgia Journal was not particularly appealing to a number of its regular readers and even less so to its advertisers. The choice before its new owners then was to retreat to the more typical and commercially viable ad-driven formula or to push their vision all the way and turn the publication into an editorial-driven magazine. In the process, advertisers dropped like flies, but the gamble ultimately paid off, as subscriptions picked up and a new readership began to gather around what was now called The Comics Journal — a readership that was interested in what the magazine had to say and not just what it had to advertise.

Catron told the Journal, “They said fans were not interested in serious news coverage beyond who’s drawing what characters. But those people were proven wrong. Fans are interested. Business affects what you read. There are reasons that things happen and our job was to explain what those reasons were and not treat readers like morons.”

Not that the Journal was overnight transformed into Ramparts or The New York Times. The first transitional issues only gradually made a space for news and most of what did appear was along the lines of artist changes and book cancellations. As Groth put it, “I think the Journal’s news coverage was pap in the early days.”

But even from the beginning, there was a philosophy behind TCJ’s news approach that was new to the comics press. As duties were divided up, Catron oversaw the Journal’s news coverage, while Groth, who had production experience, focused on layouts and criticism. “Gary didn’t care that much about the news back then,” Catron said. “What I wanted to do at the time was bring a professionalism to the news that was sadly lacking in the other available fan publications.”

Comics publishers at the time were so unaccustomed to coverage by a comics press that they were ill-equipped to provide news. Today, the big companies, and even the small ones, make every effort to funnel all news coverage through public relations figures like Patty Jeres at DC or Brian Reinert at Marvel’s outsourced PR firm. Such corporate mechanisms did not exist in 1976, a circumstance that was a mixed blessing and curse. When Mike Gold was hired as DC’s first public relations director the following year, the Journal happily reported it as a step toward Catron’s coveted professionalism. Later, comics journalists realized it had also been a step toward greater corporate control of information and another degree of separation between the press and the newsmakers.

“All my stories originated by me getting on the phone and asking questions,” Catron said. “When I was reporting a fact, I would do my best to check it out and try to talk to the principals involved. I wouldn’t just parrot anything I was given. The freelancers back then weren’t company spokespersons. It’s different now that a lot of these guys are on contract.”

The comics field was no exception to the familiar trade-off of progress, by which efficiency supplants intimacy. Creators were easier for a reporter to get a hold of to talk about new projects or events in the old days, but there was no publisher-maintained staff to let it be known when there was a new project. Nor was there much by way of staff in the comics press to investigate stories and find out about new projects or events. Catron was his own news staff, but he was also part of Groth’s production staff, and both comprised the advertising and mailing departments.

“We would sit in Gary’s living room pasting mailing labels on envelopes,” Catron said. “I remember literally falling over backward asleep.”

Where Catron and Groth differed with respect to the news was on the question of objectivity versus advocacy. “I was more concerned with objectivity,” said Catron. “I tried to be fair in my stories. I wasn’t trying to put a point of view in the news stories, and I wasn’t trying to push a philosophy. I felt you should be able to have enough facts in a story for you to be able to decide for yourself how you feel about it. I have since changed that view somewhat. I realize that even in what you select to report you can’t be entirely objective, but I still feel there needs to be a core source that can be fairly balanced. Gary had a very definite point of view. He felt that comics could be an art and that the biggest impediments to comics becoming that were the major comics publishers of the day.”

That was, to say the least, an awkward position for the editor of a specialty magazine like the Journal to take, and over the years as Groth’s attitudes and philosophy began to assert themselves increasingly in the news as well as in the magazine’s editorial stance, enemies were made — so many enemies in fact that eventually some forgot to think of themselves as enemies and the experience of having been savaged by the Journal became a kind of badge of survival in the industry.

Catron left the Journal in 1978 to take a job in the fledgling PR department at DC Comics. When he returned a few years later, it was primarily to handle circulation matters. During his tenure, Catron and Groth were never at odds regarding news coverage, simply because that coverage was so rudimentary that differences of journalistic philosophy did not come up. Kim Thompson, who, for the most part, shared Catron’s views on objectivity, replaced him as news editor and expanded the magazine’s ambitions to cover a wider range of stories. Groth began to write more news stories, as well, and more and more, the magazine began to take a clear position regarding the events it reported, no matter whom that position offended.

If there are figures who represent in Groth’s mind the ideals of news and criticism identified in the magazine’s name, they are Hunter Thompson and John Simon, “writers of real courage and integrity in their respective fields. They had a way of dealing honorably with things without being provincially narrow. I was incredibly drawn to their visions of art and politics.” His readings at the time also included such influences as the Partisan Review, Irving Howe, Willam Barrett and Dwight MacDonald.

Though the Journal did not immediately reflect such attitudes in its news coverage, Groth said they had begun to emerge by the early 1980s. “All the fanzines at the time were just puff sheets for the publishers,” he said. “I knew we had to be a little more adversarial. I think any journalist needs an intense personality.”

Through the Journal, Groth pursued that adversarial role to the degree that it cost him a number of friendships in the comics community. “To some people I was a nice kid who became Satan,” he said. “Those kinds of things are regrettable, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Maybe this is something I learned from Simon. You could tell he wasn’t reviewing something because he went out to dinner with the author the night before.”

The consequences of Groth’s position vis-à-vis the Journal have included both respect and animosity, sometimes from the same corners of the industry. They have resulted in Groth being banned from the Marvel offices and have ensured that the Journal will never be a heavy-ad-content magazine. The more precarious the Journal’s position, however, the more elated and determined Groth seems to be.

“I think somewhere deep inside the most imperative moral stances are acts of futility,” he said. “And there’s something quixotic in that that I admire.”

 
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