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Online Comics Journalism: Does It Exist?
Part 3: Rich Johnston's Honest Lying

from The Comics Journal #266
By Michael Dean
Posted January 17th, 2006


If it seems hard to locate on the Internet a source of comics-industry news that embodies the attributes of reliability, thoroughness, skepticism and probing investigation that we associate with good journalism, it may be because online journalism is a different kind of animal.

At least that was the theory expressed by Rick Veitch, proprietor of the Pulse comics-news site at Comicon.com, when he spoke with the Journal recently. In the classic models of newspapers and TV and radio broadcasts, news emanates outward to the vast information-hungry public, whereas on the Internet, news accumulates. It comes to the website from the public. Comics-news websites and blogs are nodal points through which information circulates and multiplies. The news comes there from hundreds of different sources and is relayed onward through the many linkages that make up the World Wide Web. "We've arrived at the point where we all custom-create our own magazine about comics and read it every day online for free!" Veitch announced.

Compared to traditional print and broadcast sources, news appears online in a relatively raw and undigested form -- some would say in a more direct or unmanipulated form. If a press release is not repeated verbatim, a link will often lead back to its full text. At their hypertextual best, online news sites can also provide links to posted financial statements, police reports, court rulings, congressional bills and other legal documents referred to in a news report. Instead of relying on a news reporter to provide focus and organization, the diligent online news-seeker can visit a multitude of sites, following links back to the raw materials (the documents and press releases) that form the foundation of the news reports and piece together his or her understanding.

There may be no better exemplar of this hands-off, just-the-messenger approach to comics-news reporting than Rich Johnston's Lying in the Gutters on the Comic Book Resources site. The concept of Lying in the Gutters calls for Johnston to simply pass on the stories that come his way, without so much as vouching for their accuracy. His reports don't pretend to be anything other than rumors, though a stoplight-themed system rates them (red, yellow or green) according to how much credence is deemed advisable.

At the same time, Lying foregoes the transparency that characterizes most comics news sites, by refusing to link back to his sources. The result of this methodology, he told the Journal, is that "some aspects will be more honest than traditional journalism. Much will be less. I often obfuscate sources to hide their identity -- even deny that a story has sources on many occasion. There are people at major publishers that refuse to toe the party line yet would like to keep their job, thank you very much. When such employees have gone public over an issue, say Wildstorm editor John Layman over the censorship of a kiss between two men in Jenny Sparks, they've been marginalized within the company. I often provide a valve that relieves pressure from a company without it exploding."

Johnston is based in Soho, London, where he holds down a day job as an advertising copywriter, which he described as "slightly lucrative." The same cannot be said, even slightly, of the pay he earns as a news columnist for the Comic Book Resources site. It is in this online comics news "hobby," however, where Johnston looms large. ("I've become a kind of institution," he told the Journal.) One might think American comics fans would not look to a London copywriter as the most authoritative observer of the American comics scene, but that fails to take into account the nature of the Internet. To his readers, Johnston is, in effect, a citizen of the Web, and every comics professional is his neighbor, a whisper away by e-mail.

Dating his avocation back to his first regular postings to Usenet newsgroups in 1994, Johnston lays claim to being the oldest extant comics news reporter on the Internet. ("Over ten years damnit!" as he says in his column introduction.) Back then, Johnston was a college student, but his aim to report what wasn't being reported was much the same as it is today. As it happened, that goal filled a niche, and his audience followed him from newsgroup to newsgroup and from website to website, growing every year.

From the start, Johnston has been the right person in the right virtual place at the right time. While it might be possible to imagine different reporters taking over The Pulse, say, or Newsarama, Lying in the Gutters is inextricably bound to Johnston's particular voice and point of view. An earlier incarnation of Johnston's column, All the Rage, continued at SilverBullet.com after his departure for Comic Book Resources, but it has never been the same. Lying owes a great deal to Johnston's discerning intelligence and an attitude that sometimes approaches iconoclasm. A rumor, after all, is the kind of news that gets leaked, rather than announced. While the vast majority of most news sites' content comes from press releases, carefully spun and controlled, the news that Johnston disseminates frequently comes to him in the form of privately e-mailed gripes and tips. He is, therefore, often the first to break stories about unpaid, fired, re-assigned or otherwise dissatisfied comics creators, as well as canceled, delayed or bowdlerized comic books.

But Johnston would deny that he represents the hands-off approach common to comics news sites. He described himself as being highly selective in the stories he puts on his site, often checking out their validity and reporting only about 10 percent of the stories that he looks into. "Rather than just spread rumor and gossip, I like to hold it accountable," he told the Journal, "and I've stomped on a number of virulent rumors that have been passed around comics pros, simply by holding up the evidence. Other times, when certain people have refused to believe something, I've been able to get over their stubbornness by joining up dots with a big fat marker pen -- the CrossGen situation comes to mind there. [Johnston was the first to suggest the publisher's imminent collapse when he passed on word that CrossGen freelancers were going unpaid.] Reporting on the collapse of CrossGen I know helped a few creators to see the rolling ball before they would have been flattened by it."

Johnston said he is most pleased with stories where the information he spread was of practical benefit to people in the industry. "Ditto with the original fall of Jim Valentino's 'non-line' at Image," he said, adding that his reports "helped some creators to get another publisher for their books sooner rather than later."

Other stories he said he is proud of include the repeated leaking of changes to the artwork on The Authority ordered by DC's Paul Levitz, and an interview with Joe Illidge after his departure from DC. "Patty Jeres, in a memo, instructed all DC employees not to contact me over that story," he said. "Naturally, I received about seven copies of that memo by e-mail." Reports on the art changes have included examples of the unchanged art as well as the Levitz-authorized version. More recently he has shown his readers panels from Marvel's new Shanna the She-Devil in which some nudity in the artist's orignal art was ordered covered up.

Reporting is Johnston's hobby, though, not his profession, and the time available to him to follow up on the truth or falsity of the rumors that come his way is limited. "This is a rumor and gossip column," he told the Journal. "And looking back on old columns, I'm struck by what I missed or what I got wrong much more than what I got right. And there are some atrocious blunders along the way. Especially stories that upset people, without that intent ever being there. I won't drop a story just because it upsets someone, but I will try and make it as fair as possible under those circumstances."

Johnston sees gossip reporting as part of an honorable tradition and finds journalism over-rated. He likes taking an indirect advocacy role on behalf of creators under certain circumstances, but regards accurately informing his readership as of secondary importance to keeping them entertained.

"When I see a list of things journalism should be, usually sent to me by American readers wanting a fight, I recoil," he said "-- and don't recognize it in much of the print journalism I encounter. I'm a gossip and rumor writer along the lines of Nigel Dempster, Matthew Norman or Marina Hyde -- a tradition that goes back centuries in the UK. They break stories, but rarely get the credit. Nevertheless, they are the more popular features in the newspaper. And, as I understand it, LITG is the most popular online comics column. My work is more in line with the incredibly partisan British tabloid press, one that seeks to entertain more than inform, though if the latter is a byproduct, so be it. And LITG is something I write for my entertainment as much as anyone else's. It has an audience of one. Thankfully, there are 10s of thousands who come along for the ride, which makes the damn thing pay a little. I stop short of Prime Time, because that way lies approved articles, holding back the majority of the information until it's marketing-ready-date. I can write pretty much what I damn well want and on occasion can rouse an audience in righteous fury. I take positions, I mock, I try to entertain."

Asked how free he really is to write whatever he wants at Comic Book Resources, Johnston said, "There's very little editorial interference. More often it's over my horrendous typos." He didn't say there was no editorial interference, however. And more specific questions about whether he was ever asked not to run certain rumors by the proprietors of Comic Book Resources went unanswered. He said some stories were pulled if they appeared to duplicate stories already scheduled to run on another part of the Comic Book Resources site.

Besides outside pressures from site owners and publishers, the rigor of some comics news reporters, whether online or in print, can be compromised by the reporter's own desire to enhance his or her relationship with comics industry professionals and companies. Since the pool of comics journalists is largely drawn from comics fandom, it's not uncommon for reporters to be too star-struck to write objectively or critically about their subjects. Johnston said, "The fan-pro [thing] got pretty old the first time one of them asked me if I wanted to give them a blow job. Working in advertising, I meet real famous people most every day. They only one I get the shakes over phoning or meeting is Alan Moore. In his presence, I'm blinded by his work a bit. Shame, when he's such an unassuming person. That's clearly my problem, not his."

Although Johnston asserted, "I can't burn bridges with companies because they're not my sources," there are other kinds of bridges and other kinds of roles that companies can play. It's hard to find a comics news writer who wouldn't rather be a comics writer. Comics news reporters are therefore in the position of writing about companies which they wish would employ them. From time to time, comics journalists are hired away from the news field by comics publishers. Online reporter Michael Doran was hired briefly by Marvel to handle its media relations with other comics news reporters. Comics Buyer's Guide and Comics and Games Retailer Editorial Director John Jackson Miller did a stint as writer of Marvel's Iron Man. Miller drew some criticism for continuing his editorial role while at the same time collecting a paycheck from Marvel, but the truth is a comics journalist who merely wants a job with a comics publisher is no less potentially compromised than a comics journalist who has a job with a comics publisher. The main difference is that the latter only has to worry about staying on the good side of one company.

Johnston is not entirely unsusceptible to this potential conflict of interest, though he said, "Hardly anyone is going to give me a job writing comics." He couldn't say no one is going to give him a job in comics, because two publishers already have: "William Christiansen did at Avatar because he thought it was funny and he is beholden to none. A start-up company next year called Vicious Circle have, because they want to make an instant name for themselves and I'm an easy way to do that. Marvel did once have a meeting about giving me a book to write, to control me, but it never went anywhere. Probably would have worked, though. DC? Well, for a few months, Paul Levitz couldn't put a foot right regarding creative freedoms, and I was there dogging his tail. That kind of thing doesn't go away easily. Image has made a few enquiring moves, but again, I doubt it's likely."

Asked to name some online comics news sources he feels are doing a good job, Johnston said, "I read CBR, Newsarama and Pulse. Comics Reporter, Fanboy Rampage, TCJ Online and The Beat make up a significant chunk, as well. The Beat is my favorite comics gossip and rumor column. Each does their own thing to a varied degree of quality. I hope I fit right into that."

Lying In the Gutters both does and doesn't fit right into that. Johnston, unlike his colleagues, is not at the beck and call of press releases. He is, however, in much the same position of passing on what he hears, with little time to investigate or confirm facts, given the Internet's self-imposed atmosphere of urgency. And though Johnston has his own code of honor, in which he takes some pride, his reports are, if anything, less accountable to accuracy than those of other sites that identify themselves as reporting news as opposed to rumor and gossip. His audience must take it on whatever faith he recommends to them via his stoplight system that his anonymous sources are passing on true information.

In one respect, Johnston is a very good fit with the online journalists with whom the Journal has so far spoken in this series (The Pulse's Jen Contino, The Splash's Rick Veitch): Like them, he considers himself an entertainer first and a journalist second, if at all. " 'Journalism' in the U.S. demands strictures that I'm unwilling to follow or sign up to," he told the Journal. Asked if comics "journalism" is different in England, he said, "Maybe a slight more tongue in the cheek. Outside of Comics International, pretty much there is no British comics journalism."

That is a level of scarcity that the Journal has so far encountered in its search for online comics journalism. In future issues, the Journal will continue to survey comics news sites in hope of encountering one that is prepared to sign onto the "strictures," both good and bad, of something that they are willing to call journalism.


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