(Part of an impromptu mini-roundtable on the failure of TCJ.com)

A few days ago, Noah wrote to me about a critical endeavor that he is planning for the HU site. By the by, I mentioned that TCJ.com deserved another “kick in the butt” now that it had enough time to improve itself to which he responded that he was planning a little something on Sunday (read here).

Noah’s complaints are not the voice of a single cranky individual, they are merely some of the unvoiced grievances of a number of online reviewers and comics enthusiasts. Noah, as well as I, can point to a number of seasoned reviewers and bloggers who find the new TCJ.com a mess.

The passing of the print Journal didn’t so much signal the demise of long form comics criticism but the death of a consistent and semi-regular venue for thoughtful criticism. The online version is clearly not anywhere close to becoming a replacement despite its avowed aims and its stated contributor list. In his article, Noah writes:

“Meanwhile, on the same day, Tom Spurgeon had 17 posts. Sure, some of them are just individual images…but many of them were substantial. With its layout problems, the one thing tcj.com had going for it was the promise of constant, high-quality content…and yet its team of dozens is getting its ass kicked by one guy. Because that one guy actually cares. And caring, as it turns out, really matters.”

“I’m being somewhat inconsistent here; in my earlier post I said there was too much content; now I’m saying there’s too little. But, alas, I think the site has managed to have both problems at once. Because there’s no sense of why what’s being posted is being posted, the site feels both overwhelming and insubstantial. The whole thing has an air of despairing malaise — the toilet paper spools and spools, and you can hear the creaking and the distant flush.”

Towards the close of his article, in a long list of “why nots”, Noah closes with the following:

“…Why not have Gary dive into that rolodex and get some creators to write pieces? Why not do something to make it seem like the energy that went into so many issues of the journal is being put into tcj.com?”

My feelings are quite close to those of Noah’s. The site does not so much lack content as a strong editorial hand – something which is just as necessary in an online magazine as it is in a print venture. The lack of this coupled with the poorly conceived website design is disrespectful to any writing which does appear on TCJ.com.

Is it any wonder that so few writers have produced consistent and substantial content for the website despite being included in TCJ.com‘s long contributor list? Just to pick a few names out of the air, none of the following writers have produced any new work for TCJ.com: Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, Chris Mautner and Joe McCulloch. For one reason or another, all of these writers prefer producing articles for their own blogs then TCJ.com, the online presence of what was once the most respected regular print venue for English language comics criticism.

Just to be clear, no one writes for TCJ.com because of the money. The money is nice but it is almost certainly viewed as a gesture of appreciation by TCJ‘s writers. The amount of money I’ve earned from writing  for the print Journal since the early 90s would still be less than what many professionals earn in a single month in their day jobs. This illustrates the relative unimportance of financial incentives when it comes to writing about comics.

In his blog entry, Noah mentions a “problem” with Kent Worcester’s course syllabus posting. If there was a “problem” with Kent Worcester’s post, it had nothing to do with its content. The real issue was that it was placed in an interminable stream of content which included single line blog entries, short reviews which must have been dashed out in under an hour, and long, thoughtful pieces on comics and comics history. This muddles up the reader’s expectations and, inevitably, its tolerance for the website as a whole.

A well run and designed website is a basic building block in any online magazine.  A website which treats single line blog entries and articles running into a few thousand words  with equal weight and respect is clearly one which doesn’t warrant any serious writer’s attention or approbation. The site design as it stands is the equivalent of a regular print magazine being printed on toilet paper and being cast into a row of hedges (I should add that the fact that both Noah and I have resorted, quite separately, to the same sanitary product metaphor to describe the website reflects the dire straits it is in).

Very little copy editing is done with respect to TCJ.com. The job of the editors and website designers is quite simply to allow the best writing to shine through and not to add to the chaos that is the web: highlighting articles of particular interest; separating more formal articles from blog entries (and, I would suggest, with more than a single tag); and the further separation of short form reviews from those of greater length and interest.  In other words, the very things which they used to do for the regular print Journal.

As it stands now, TCJ.com reflects a great deal of what Gary Groth railed against in his “Welcome to TCJ.com” post in early December where he wrote:

“It would stand to reason that we’re living in a Golden Age of criticism. But, we aren’t. Very little writing on the Web is of any real critical worth — or even pretends to be— and there is no journalism to speak of. I have never assiduously followed comics blogging, but so much of what I’ve read feels dashed off — amateurish, shallow, frivolous…”

It also displays very little of its stated aims:

“…one of our goals was to bring the Journal’s editorial strengths to its website — perspicuous, analytical, passionate, and fearless criticism and commentary about comics. Over the past few years, I noticed a handful of  truly discriminating critics emerging on the web (Robert Martin, Dan Nadel, Bill Randall, Charles Hatfield come to mind), but I never quite knew when they would appear or where…”

The above quote seen in the context of TCJ.com as it stands today would be humorous if it wasn’t so sad. It is pretty telling when TCJ.com shows less interest in the promotion of comics criticism than a steadfastly commercial site like Comixology.com.

As a whole, TCJ.com reflects not so much the aims expressed in Gary’s introductory article but the sentiments expressed in his quote in The Comics Journal #300:

“The Comics Journal has always been the biggest pain in the ass, not just to ‘put together’, but in every conceivable way. It wins enemies, loses friends, and influences no one since it’s in print and no one reads print anymore. It’s always late, it’s labor intensive, it’s a political minefield, and probably an anachronism.”

TCJ.com is a token web presence; a hideous, slapdash attempt at “making up” for the diminished print Journal. It is an embarrassment.

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