Interview: Matt Seneca

From George Herriman's "Krazy Kat"

Matt Seneca, who blogs at Death to the Universe, is one of the most engaging voices in comics criticism on the Internet. He’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of pictorial storytelling and its history, but more importantly, he has the chops and enthusiasm to explain the medium to others. When it comes to describing the appeal of his writing, Sean Witzke probably put it best: “Matt Seneca is the rare guy who writes about comics that can make you excited about a medium that’s in the process of chewing off its own legs and slowly bleeding to death. He’s got an artist’s eye for why things work on the page and a critic’s capacity to reduce things to their component parts.”

In short, it’s been a lot of fun to read his writing, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from him, even if I continue to read comics the wrong way.

Recently Matt generously lent his time for a phone conversation to share his perspective on comics as an art form and criticism as an activity. I’ve included that in its entirety below. My questions are in italics, and Matt’s responses are in normal type. Be sure to check out his website if you want to see more of his writing, or if you’re burnt out on reading after the interview, check out one of his comics, Affected. Enjoy!

EM: Really, the first thing I wanted to ask you isn’t even really a question, but – I was wondering if you could kind of recount your own origin story, as it were. From what I know you spent an enormous amount of time reading comics when you were younger, and I’d love to hear a little bit more just about how you got into the medium.

MS: Yeah, I did spend a lot of time reading comics as a kid. I just read a lot as a kid, that was just what I did, and comics was only a part of it. But as I grew older I got more and more into comics. I started working comics retail, and I started, when I grew older, doing more chores around the house – I’m talking like ten, eleven years old. And then, getting an allowance, comics were something available for me to buy, because, you know, they’re cheap, and books are 10, 20 bucks.

So going to the comics shop, I became a Wednesday comics shopper pretty early in life, and then working comics retail I was around comics all the time. And I just pursued it, and never really found an end point, and I guess still haven’t. So I got more and more into comics all through growing up, until by this point, I realize that this is what I want to do, I want to be involved in this field. So yeah, I was a big comics kid, but I’m more into comics now than I ever have been.

At what point did you discover the Internet world when it came to criticism & conversation about comics?

It was kind of a long process. When I was, gosh, let’s see, 13 or 14, I discovered, it’s defunct now, but there used to be a website called The Continuity Pages, written by a guy named Julian Darius. And he would post interesting stuff. And this was like the single website I would read for whatever reason, it was just the one site I looked at, I never sort of had any urge to go beyond it. And then Julian Darius started hiring other writers to write for The Continuity Pages, and he turned it into, and that website’s defunct now, but it was a fairly big hub for writing about comics on the Internet. And now they make movies about comics and publish books, like they made that Grant Morrison documentary, they published writing by a guy named Tim Callahan, and stuff like that.

And then, working retail, there would be books that would come out that I would have to talk to customers about that I had no interest whatever in reading, so I felt it was kind of incumbent upon me to chase down reviews of comics, that sort of thing. Comic Book Resources, what else… Silver Bullet Comics, another site that’s not around anymore. And from reading SequArt I got into Tim Callahan and Chad Nevett’s blog that they used to write for SequArt, and from there they would link to guys like Joe McCulloch & Tucker Stone. And reading those two guys’ work – JogTucker Stone – was kind of the galvanizing force because I felt their viewpoints were very similar to mine, and I felt like I could probably write as good as them. And that’s not a knock on their writing abilities, those guys are both great writers… but because they’re so approachable as writers, I felt, well I can do this, you know, I talk about comics a lot, these guys are just talking about comics. So I started blogging basically based off the inspiration those two guys’ work gave me. And then shortly after I started blogging I discovered Comics Comics, and that was like the motherlode, especially Frank Santoro’s sort of craft-based comics lessons.

So did you have a point in that whole process where understanding comics as a process maybe clicked for you? I don’t want to say that you’ve mastered the whole medium, no one has, but you seem to have settled into a way you read comics that you’re comfortable with and that you find valuable. Is that something that came about in a moment where you realized you had it, or was that a more gradual process?

There wasn’t like one big, epiphanic moment where I realized, “I got it,” but there have been touchstone moments… I know what you mean when you say I’ve settled into a certain way of reading stuff, but I am still trying to be a better reader and to get more out of the comics I look at. Writing about them first of all helped, because you become a critic when you write about any medium, and you need to kind of develop your critical faculties just in terms of understanding “What is this comic doing?”, “How is it achieving what it achieves”? And then drawing my own comics has taught me a lot about the medium, and especially understanding pictorial logic, pictorial construction, the way a story is constructed. The only way I was able to ever understand those things was by drawing. I don’t think you can learn that from just reading comics, you have to put pen to paper. And I don’t even think you can learn that from just writing comics; you have to, no matter what your drawing skillset is – and you know, I’m not going to make any grand claims about mine, I can draw okay, but there are a lot of guys who are plenty better than me – you have to put pen to paper and do it to understand it.

And then there have been certain other books, like looking at a lot of Kirby when I was 17, 18, that have really taught me the basics of like, panel-to-panel storytelling. Dash Shaw’s book The Unclothed Man was a huge, enlightening… it really opened my eyes to a lot of formal properties of comics, and how they can be exploited. That book, actually coupled with an interview he did with David Mazzucchelli in The Comics Journal #300, and hearing him talk about that, and reading the book, that vastly widened my understanding of comics. And then, more recently, talking with Frank Santoro, I interviewed him about his art show that he had out here. That was the first time I’d sat down and had a talk with a professional comics artist. That was my latest sort of epiphany moment of: here’s a guy who does it, and who I have, you know, completely idolized ever since I first read Storeyville when I was 17. And he’s sitting here, dishing to me on how it happened.

Those have been the big moments, but every time I open a comic I feel like I learn something.

From Matt Seneca's "Affected"

Getting to the point of your own increasing commitment to making comics rather than criticizing them solely, it was interesting, I read a previous interview you had done where you said you sort of felt like that would be a more legitimate way to participate in the conversation. That being solely on the sidelines and writing about them wasn’t honoring sort of your own responsibilities, in a way. It seems as if it’s had an effect upon your own ability to understand the medium – have you found that it’s something that you think, long-term, you’ll be spending more and more time on, and less and less time on criticism? How do you see the relationship between criticism and creation in your own work?

That’s a good question. The easy answer is yes, I will be spending a lot more time drawing comics. I do spend much more time drawing comics than I do criticizing them, just because it takes a lot longer to make a comic than it does to write a blog post. I probably spend a solid four, five hours a day – usually in the middle of the night – drawing comics. And then I’ll write a blog post for one to three hours, most days, three-four times a week.

So yes, I take more time drawing comics than I do writing about them, but the thought process involved in both is kind of the same. It’s all about just trying to understand comics for me, and understand how they work on the page. I feel like maybe you can see in my criticism I’ve gotten more and more into understanding specific things that have to do with the skills that you need to have to draw comics – narrative construction, panel-to-panel storytelling, stuff like that. And my criticism has become more focused on those things because I’m trying to figure them out at the drawing table, too. And because it’s the same sort of skill-set and the same kind of things to understand, I think I do see comics as a venue at least for comics criticism.

I’m not well-educated, you know, formally, I haven’t read really any criticism. I’ve read a couple reviews by Lester Bangs, but other than that, you know, if I want to see a movie I’ll see what Ebert had to say about it. But I haven’t read any criticism that isn’t comics criticism, I don’t consider myself, like, a real critic, in the classical sense or whatever. For me, the criticism I’m doing is all more directed at making art, understanding art. I don’t even know what real critics are supposed to do.

So I guess I see drawing as comics criticism because, for me, the criticism is just trying to understand things, and trying to view, talk about how you make comics, and for artists – like I wrote that blog post where I talked about how making comics is a more direct way of talking about comics than writing about them on the Internet, it’s more native, because you can use comics to discuss comics. So I kind of see every comic an artist makes as an act of broad-based comics criticism, not like a review, but where they’re talking about, here’s how comics can be constructed, and they just put it on the page, not just blogging about it.

That’s one of the most exciting things I’ve found about your writing when I first got into it, this very clear sense of this ongoing conversation within the medium. Of every great artist being great in their own way, but also clearly having as kind of a first-order consideration the influence of the people before them and the ways that they’re affected by that and the ways that they change that approach. Is that something that you think has any limitations, in terms of assessing, maybe even an individual comic? Is that ever something where you worry about losing sight of aspects of something that might be really more individual and idiosyncratic and less about response? 

You mean, looking at it from that broad perspective, am I going to miss what makes a specific comic special?

Sort of – I guess I’m wondering if If there are any limitations that you see to that approach. I think it’s an incredibly valuable and exciting way of looking at comics, but I’m wondering if there’s any limitations that you’ve found in it.

Sure, you know – well, alright, I said I admire Tucker Stone’s writing a lot. And the reason is because I think that guy is – except Frank Santoro, who’s hardly even making criticism, he’s making craft, he’s basically doing a lecture series on the Internet – but with Tucker Stone what I admire about his writing so much, and I think he’s far and away the best guy writing about comics on the Internet, is that he is talking about the broader social and and even psychological implications of things like superhero fandom and the way the comic book industry operates. And from my perspective, I mean, I wrote that Chester Brown article this week, where after talking with Tucker about that book, Paying for It, I tried to bring that more, I guess, wide-view, socially aware aspect, into it, but I’m not going to be writing all my reviews like that.

So yeah, I think there’s a limitation. When you’re so far inside comics, it’s tough to get outside and look at it from more of a detached, critical perspective. And then also, lately I’ve been trying to study more and more things like classical painting and classical drawing… this is another thing from Frank Santoro, where I see the amount of pictorial skills that you can get from just making comics is limited. And it’s hard for me to square the circle with those works, and comics, within my criticism, just because, you can go back and you can trace the chain of influence from Frank Quitely to Jack Kirby to Curt Swan to Hal Foster or whatever, but then what do you do when you want to talk about a Raphael painting, you know? There’s no direct line, at least not that I’ve been able to discover, and maybe I just need to do research and go find out what art museums was Kirby visiting, what exhibitions did Hal Foster go look at, but I don’t really have the time to do that.

So yeah, there’s limitations, but overall, I do this approach, so I’m fairly happy with it.

Do you think that that sort of approach will become more valuable if there’s this continuing, I don’t want to say lack of relevance of comics in the cultural mainstream, [but] it seems at least as if there are fewer people buying and consuming comics as art than there might have been, say, in the 1990s or early 2000s. I may be wrong there. Is that something where you think there will be any effect on what’s important to look at within the medium, or what to focus on, or what to write about? The sort of wider economic picture of comics as commerce, and the economic support for writing and publishing top-quality comics?

Do I think the critical approach I use will be important to that?

Yeah – I’m wondering if you think that, like, let’s say if the mainstream superhero market completely gives out, and Marvel & DC really aren’t publishing monthly comics in five months, and that has economic effects throughout the industry, would that have any effect upon the medium artistically, or what would be more important about talking about it? Or the same way, if comics are something that were being read by millions and millions of people per issue, would that be a different conversation?

Yes, it would irrevocably change the medium if Marvel and DC… they’re never going to go full digital until the last 10,000 people who need that copy of Batman in their longbox die in 30-40 years, but when they go mainly digital, which will probably be in the next five years or so, I think that is going to change the medium a lot.

I think it’s funny because the vast majority of print comics are Marvel and DC and their derivate companies, the other publishers trying to ride that genre fiction wave, and they publish most of the print comics, but you get the sense they don’t really have a commitment to the print comic as an object. They don’t feel that these things are important. And then you look at a publisher like Fantagraphics, or Drawn & Quarterly, orPictureBox or any of the usual suspects, and they, you do get the sense with these books that they have a commitment to creating objects that will stand the test of the time, and be pretty to look at, and more than in an ironic, “oh, this is pulp art” way.

So I think yes, if Marvel & DC were kind of removed from the equation, that would change the public perception of comics, largely for the better. But the thing is, and this is where the second part of your question comes in –  if Marvel & DC disappeared, the amount of people who read comics would be like 10,000, 15,000. As opposed to now, maybe, 200-that’s probably a high estimate, 150,000 maybe, and we’re talking in America.

But then if that were the case, and then millions of people were buying the new Chris Ware book or whatever, then yeah, I think my approach to criticism would be something that would more embrace, because when a mass audience accrues around something they want to know the history, they want to understand – and not all of them, you know, plenty of people are happy to just go see a movie, or go buy the record, or go buy the comic, and experience it is for what it is and what it is alone – but more people would want to know about the history, they’d want to know more about the aesthetic ancestry of comics.

That’s what I’m interested in knowing about. And I have a fairly large audience on my blog, I’m not The New York Times, but it seems to be something that many other people are interested in.

Marvel & DC are going down, they are losing readers, they are losing aesthetic relevance, not that they ever had the most in the world, but they have published, they’ve had periods where they’ve published a lot more good comics than they are now, and maybe it’s just because of that, but I don’t think it is, I do feel like art comics, you know, to use what might be an outmoded term, but, intelligent comics, are going to be ascendant because of that, and because of a lot of other things, good marketing, that sort of feeling that persists around comics from that early 2000s graphic novel boom.

From Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen"

Thinking here a little bit more about people who might have very little understanding of comics, you know, maybe the one comic they’ve ever heard of is Watchmen, and there’s another group of people who maybe have heard of Dark Knight Returns and Maus and Sandman and something like that. These are certainly people who are out there buying comics and then often times aren’t going any further. These are the comics they’ve found that are critically approved by mainstream book critics as “not comics for kids anymore” and that kind of silly way of phrasing it, but it also does seem to get them to read it.

Is there anything that you think, people who are just reading, like, the top 10 most popular comics ever are missing about the medium? I mean, are they going to get some appreciation for graphic storytelling, or do you think that there are maybe misperceptions about comics as a medium that come about from those?

You know, I don’t know. I think it depends which ones they’re looking at.

What would be ones they could look at that you think would be better for appreciating the medium as a whole and what might be a little more misleading? 

Well first, real fast – yes, I think people who read all those books, all the top 10, or even the top 20 or 30 most popular, are missing out on the raw, cutting edge of comics. They’re not going to be reading any Gary Panter or CF or anything. And that is, to me, the most interesting, relevant, part of comics. But they’re not going to be reading any great old comics, like Krazy Kat, or anything. So they’re missing out on the real, great, formal inventiveness, but that’s to be expected of a mass audience – people who go to the movies just a couple times a year aren’t going to go and watch the Ingmar Bergman retrospective.

But yeah, I think people who look at books like Jimmy Corrigan, Crumb’s Genesis, and probably Maus, too, – though no, you know what, Maus‘ subject matter largely precludes the same kind of deep inside-comics appreciation of it, through no fault of Art Spiegelman himself, it’s just, it is what it is. People approach it as a Holocaust book rather than a comic book. But books like Watchmen, Dark Knight – those are movies to people. And this is the problem with the mainstream criticism of some comics that’s driving people to books like Watchmen, is that they’re conceptualized by the mainstream as novels that happen to have pictures. They’re not. They’re comic books.

You don’t hear about Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, you hear about Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And I mean, Alan Moore wrote that comic real great, but I like Dave Gibbons a lot better, personally, to go through that comic and look at. So, especially because those books are movies, people will just absorb the visual narrative as though it is a movie, it’s just moving the words along for them, and that’s fine, as those comics function quite well on that level, but there is a deeper engagement with the act of pictorial storytelling that is probably easier to get into with something like Jimmy Corrigan, and something like Crumbs’ Genesis, too, I think, because the pictures are so up front, and the text is sort of so removed from the images in a way.

And you know, again, it’s through no fault of those comics, they’re wonderful, but if it’s the only comics people have read… I think there is a greater understanding of the basic building blocks of comics storytelling as opposed to movies, which is how most people are coming to those specific books, that I think that people lost out on in the midst.

I think that’s a great answer. Just on that point – one of the particularly great things about reading your criticism and then also, some of the other people I’ve gotten into, like Tucker Stone, since that point, is really realizing that thinking of something like Alan Moore’s Watchmen – David Gibbons played an equal, probably a greater role in that being an artistic success. I’m wondering if  because comics is such a visual medium, is there anyone you can point to where you’re interested in them as a writer and you might see them as successfully making an impact on this artistic conversation within comics, even when the visual presentation isn’t up to par?

I guess one of the obvious examples there, at least I would suspect, would be Grant Morrison, who everyone seems to agree is saying something relevant about comics, even though he is often very, very bad – if he’s not working with Frank Quitely – when it comes to visual presentation. Do you think that a Grant Morrison, or a Neil Gaiman, or someone like that… have you found yourself ever with a great example where you think written comics are still participating even if they’re visually deficient? Or is that not possible?

Well, I don’t know if that’s possible… Neil Gaiman, I’m not the biggest fan of his work, I can certainly appreciate the level of craft he brings, he just doesn’t typically tell stories I’m too interested in. But I think that the problem with Neil Gaiman’s work is somewhat similar to the problem of Alan Moore’s work. People look at Moore’s work the way they look at movies, and I think people have kind of been primed… specifically because Gaiman on Sandman, which is what people outside comics are reading, he didn’t work with the best artists, in fact he worked with some pretty bad ones a lot of the time. I think people are looking at that as literature, as pop literature, and not as something with pictorial storytelling going on, in it, even; they’re just reading the balloons, and slipping over the pictures with their eyes.

And the same thing is probably true for the Grant Morrison comics where he hasn’t had the best art, we’re talking about Invisibles, here, right, and maybe Animal Man. I think those books are great; they’re probably not so great as comics, but I mean, just as storytelling, they’re wonderful, and relevant, and valuable, because they make you feel something, they can make you look at something different. So, yes, they’re still valuable, there’s still aesthetic import, but as comics, maybe they fail as comics despite the fact that succeed ultimately as stories.

And then, even something like… I think George Herriman is one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, but he has this kind of scratchy, simplified style that not a lot of people will get into who aren’t cartoonists themselves and who aren’t deep in comics. I think anybody, if they were to look at it, would appreciate his wordplay and his completely unbelievable sense of language. There are a couple of examples – and I mean, that’s not to say that Krazy Kat doesn’t succeed as comics, that’s one of my top two comics of all time. But even if people aren’t yet down with the Herriman art, I think there’s still plenty to appreciate on a pure literary level.

Alright, well I’ve kept you for about a half hour here, so I’m happy to let you go, but I had one last question, which is: from everything I’m hearing it sounds as if comics are going to continue to be something you’re going to find interesting and a big part of your life over the next years. I’m wondering if there’s anything, if you had to boil it down… what is it about comics that kind of keeps you coming back to them?

They just look so pretty. When I look at comics it’s a different feeling than I get from… you know, I love going to art museums and looking at fine art, I love watching movies, and watching narrative unspool in front of me, and I love reading novels, and poetry, and non-fiction too, and feeling these stories sort of inside me, but nothing touches me with the same immediacy and strength as just, different colored panels on the page. I just think they’re so beautiful. And I think there’s such an immediacy, it hits – and this is the most cliched thing in the world, but it really does hit right between written language and pictures, and it brings the beauty and power that both of those things can have right together into this perfectly unified whole.

And it’s something that’s so easy to read, it’s so easy to engage with, but the engagement is so deep at the same time, and you can pull endless amounts from a good comic, and can keep going deeper and deeper into what it’s doing and how it’s constructing, what it’s constructing, and how it’s accomplishing what it accomplishes. It’s never-ending, and the further you look into comics, and the further afield you go into new and different ways of operating in the medium, the more you find, and the more value you can bring back into any comic you want to pick up.

I just think comics are so beautiful, and so under-seen and under-appreciated that I want to thrust comics into the faces of as many people as I possibly can and just tell ’em, go read, go look at everything if you can, it doesn’t matter what. Just look at a comic.

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