Women in Comics: Journalist Brigid Alverson, comics expert

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November 11, 2012 by shepla

Photo credit: Kathy Tully

Brigid Alverson has been keeping me informed about comics for years through her MangaBlog website, Good Comics for Kids (at the Library Journal website), and stories in Publishers Weekly. I am thrilled for the opportunity to pick her brain!

Girls+Comics: First off, I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your coverage of the comics industry. How long have you been covering comics, and how did you get your start?

Brigid Alverson: Thank you! I started in 2005. My daughters, who were 11 and 12 at the time, had been reading a lot of manga. It was unfamiliar to me, and being a good mom, I wanted to check it out, but when I went on the web there was very little information available. So I actually had to read the books, and I got hooked. I started a website for other puzzled parents, and it quickly morphed into MangaBlog.

G+C: What are some of your favorite titles? And what were your favorites as a kid?

BA: I spent part of my childhood in Ireland and Scotland, so I grew up reading both American and UK comics, and when I was a kid, I loved the British comics, especially the girls’ comics—Bunty, Judy, Diana. They had great stories about smart girls having jolly adventures. I read superhero comics too, and Archie, and the Harvey comics, but I always knew there was something missing in the States—comics that were just for girls. Also, all the American comics were just short stories, while the British comics had soap operas that ran for months or even years. Manga is similar in some ways–there are girl-centered stories, and the stories are longer. That’s one of the reasons I was attracted to it.

Now I read a lot of comics, so I have a different favorite every week. In terms of manga, I really like Saturn Apartments, which is a sci-fi series with really original art, and anything by Naoki Urasawa, especially Pluto. I also lean toward indy graphic novels, and my favorite book last year was Sarah Oleksyk’s Ivy, which is a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl that I thought was dead on. I liked Joe Harris’s Spontaneous, and I’m digging his new comic, Great Pacific. I’m also enjoying the Valiant relaunch, especially Archer & Armstrong.

G+C: You’ve had a lifelong relationship with comics as a reader. Have you ever wanted to create them yourself?

BA: Nope, never had the desire. I actually have a BFA and an MFA in studio art, but I realized in my 20s that I am not a good visual artist. My talents lie more with writing, and I prefer writing nonfiction. I’m strictly a consumer of comics.

G+C: What’s been your best experience covering comics as a reporter? The worst?

BA: I love getting my teeth into a good story. Like all reporters, I like getting scoops and digging in to see what everyone else has missed. A couple of years ago, I got a press release from a law firm about how they had worked with a consortium of comics publishers to take down a pirate site, HTMLComics.com. I immediately got on the phone with them and started doing some background research, and it turned into quite a big story–I wrote several different articles for CBR about it. I love going through legal papers and primary documents, and this was a great opportunity to do that.

The other thing that is really great is getting to talk to creators I really admire, like Art Spiegelman–now that was a fun interview!

I haven’t had any terrible experiences, but I do have problems from time to time with PR people who don’t give me complete information, or who don’t get back to me promptly. Happily, that hasn’t happened recently.

G+C: I read in an interview with you that you stopped reading comics because you didn’t like the way comics book store staff treated women. But now you’re reading again. Do you think the climate for women’s comic books have changed?

BA: Yes, but I also think that was an unusually bad comics shop. I have several acquaintances who are comics retailers–including Calum Johnson, the owner of Strange Adventures in Halifax, who was an Eisner judge with me, and Matt Lehman, who owns Comicopia here in Boston–and I have never heard them be anything other than positive about women reading comics. Strange Adventures even has a Ladies Night so women can shop without getting any funny vibes from the guys. I guess the fact that they do that shows that there is still a problem, but maybe not so much from the retailers’ side.

I think with the smaller, less professional comics shops, it’s less a case of gender than just being an outsider. There are places that simply make me uncomfortable, where I don’t feel welcome. I think those shops have a regular clientele that like the clubhouse feeling, so maybe they don’t need to court me as a customer. But overall, the majority of my comics shop experiences in the past seven years have been positive.

Beyond that, many of the most exciting young creators are women, particularly in the indy comics realm: Kate Beaton, Lucy Knisley, Hope Larson, Faith Erin Hicks, Julia Wertz. I think that makes a huge difference.

G+C: Do you think there’s a stigma about women reading comics?

BA: No, not at all, but I do think there is a bit of an age issue–it strikes people as a little odd that a woman in her 50s is reading comics. That’s partly because of the material I read. Persepolis is the sort of thing that suburban women would read in their book club; Saga, not so much.

I took the train home from Comic-Con in San Diego, where I had the opportunity to go to Gilbert Shelton’s panel. On the last leg of the trip, I was writing up the panel, so I pulled out my copy of the complete Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics. The young man sitting next to me was startled: “Excuse me for saying so,” he said, “but you don’t look like the sort of person that would be reading a comic like that.”

“Ha!” I said. “My disguise fooled you!”

G+C: Besides your blog, you cover comics for kids at School Library Journal’s Good Comics For Kids, and write for Publishers Weekly, MTV Geek, and Robot 6. How do you keep up with everything?

BA: Priorities! I don’t do much housework, for one thing, and I literally never watch TV. I’m fortunate that my husband is very supportive. I get up early most mornings and he brings me breakfast in bed—that gives me a good block of time to do my writing. I get a lot of press releases and review copies, which helps a lot—I usually know what’s coming a couple of months in advance. But I also spend a lot of time on the web and on Twitter. To stay up to date I use Google alerts, and I subscribe to over 300 blogs and websites on my RSS feed. All my vacation time goes toward comics conventions. I work a four-day week at my day job, and having that extra day to write helps a lot.

G+C: This past year you were also a judge for the Eisner awards. What was that experience like?

BA: It was amazing. I got the invitation in October, although it wasn’t announced until December, so I was able to get a running start on the reading. Jackie Estrada, who coordinates the Eisners, was wonderful–she set up an email group for us and made sure we got all the best-of-the-year lists as they came out, so we wouldn’t miss anything. We also recommended books to each other and had a number of lively discussions.

The judging weekend itself was like a spa weekend for comics fans. We stayed in the San Diego Sheraton, which is right next to the convention center, and the staff couldn’t do enough for us. We would all have breakfast together in the hotel, then spend the day in a big meeting room full of books, reading and, for the last day, taking votes. We had lunch and snacks sent in, and then Jackie took us out to a different restaurant for dinner every night. Then we would go back and read into the night. I was fortunate to be with a really good group–everyone had wide interests, so our areas of knowledge complemented each other, and there wasn’t just one person who was “the manga person” or “the superhero person.” We also got along pretty well, and we had lots of interesting conversations. One of the reasons I went to San Diego this year was simply that I wanted to spend more time with them!

G+C: I know you just got back from New York Comic-Con. What was the biggest surprise for you there?

BA: I was startled to see the sharp drop in manga sales, as outlined at the ICv2 Conference–after three years of decline, sales were down 35% from January to June of this year compared to the same period last year. During his talk, Milton Greipp explained that some of this was because of the Borders closure–people bought up books at a discount, so basically they loaded up in 2011 and didn’t buy as much in 2012.

But I’m always buoyed when I go to the panels and visit the booths and see that the publishers are still making new announcements, licensing new manga and expanding their lines in different directions, including digital. There are fewer manga publishers now than a few years ago, but they all seem to have found their niche.

G+C: What trends are you seeing now in comics and graphics novels?

BA: Kids’ graphic novels continue to be a strong category, and a lot of the creators are on their second or third books, which means they are getting better and better. In the manga world, we are seeing a lot of older properties get a second run–mostly stuff that was first published by Tokyopop, such as Loveless, and JManga is bringing back older Tokoyopop and Del Rey titles in digital form.

Digital is another big trend, especially in manga. JManga is developing a new market and doing a good job of marketing it via social networking. Every major publisher now has an app or a digital store, and some are on their second or third version–Digital Manga is relaunching its eManga site pretty soon, for instance.

And for some reason there is a lot of interest in comics from the 1980s and 1990s, a period I mostly missed. The folks who bought Valiant Entertainment (who were basically fans of the comics) are bringing back the characters one at a time in really smart, updated ways. First Comics, one of the early indy houses, is also making a comeback with plans for reprints of older material and new stories from those creators. Dark Horse has brought back Mike Baron and Steve Rude’s Nexus, and they have a new omnibus coming out later this month that collects the first part of the original series. And of course, there is Before Watchmen.

G+C: Your Twitter bio says “I write about manga, webcomics, kids’ comics, graphic novels—everything but superheroes.” I like action comics the least of any genre (except maybe horror or sexy-times titles), and yet they’re always the most popular sellers. Why do you think that is?

BA: They have a very dedicated readership. I believe the superhero audience is more deep than wide—there is a fairly small fanbase, but they buy a lot, and they buy every week. This is something I heard a lot of talk about at the ICv2 Conference–the Wednesday ritual, which brings people into the shop each week. For serious comics fans, that’s very important.

I think it’s also true that superheroes make for good movies, and because they are so iconic, the audience can relate them very directly back to the comic in a way that you might not with the characters in a novel. I mean, the superheroes have costumes! The comics publishers have not always done a good job of driving movie fans to the comics, but digital is making that easier. Many people don’t live near a comics shop, or don’t know that they exist at all, so digital comics have the potential to be more of a mass medium than print comics (although they are only a small slice of the market right now).

Wow, does anyone else love the idea of Brigid’s Eisner spa-type weekend? Sigh! Brigid, thank you so much, and thanks for all your comics coverage over the years! I’d love to see those British comics that Brigid read as a kid. I might have to try to find some copies of Judy

One thought on “Women in Comics: Journalist Brigid Alverson, comics expert

  1. [...] as what it was like to be an Eisner judge (in a word: Awesome!), check out Carrie Shepherd’s interview with me at Girls + [...]

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