George Gustines, Senior Editor New York Times

Q&A with George Gustines

It’s not every day that a New York Times editor gets to chime in on all things indie comics, so let’s do this, with relish.


Q:  With noteworthy indie publishing houses flexing creative muscles these days, beyond the “Big Two” (DC and Marvel) and with so much notable creator-owned graphic literature to choose from now, how did we get here? And where do we go from here?

GG:  It seems like it was a tough climb that has exploded with tremendous opportunities. Honestly, I don’t know where the starting point is or how you want to measure the success. Are you talking “simply” comics?

If that’s the case, I would argue that the incredible success of The Walking Dead needs some credit for this boom. I’ve always been fascinated by the monthly sales charts and I kept looking at that series as one that defied “standard attrition” and managed to grow in readers month after month. And this was before the TV show made it a cultural, not a comics-only, phenomenon.

If you’re talking graphic novels, I would look towards books like “Smile” by Raina Telgemeier. She’s become a sensation. And, she’s tapping younger and female readers, which is fantastic.


Q:  You mentioned THE WALKING DEAD.  Zombies have become so ingrained into pop culture.  Why do you suppose that is?

GG:  It seems to run in cycles, doesn’t it? Weren’t vampires all the rage a few years ago? For me, the appeal of The Walking Dead is the sense that anything can happen. (I suppose we know Rick and Michonne are safest.) I grew up with and love super-heroes, but we all know things – eventually – get reset. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t understand the hysteria involving Captain America. C’mon! There’s no way Cap is a Hydra agent.


Q:  Vampires…  Zombies…  In your crystal ball, what do you see as being the next big undead cycle in popular culture, and why?

GG:  Bigotry, Sexism and Divisiveness! It would be nice to have more hopeful messages out there to counter so much bad news in the world.


Q:  What’s your favorite indie comic right now, and why?

GG:  It is hard to pick an absolute favorite. There is a trifecta of comics published by Image that I adore: I’m a Walking Dead diehard, I love Saga and I wish Southern Bastards came out more often. I’m also a big fan of Boom’s Giant Days and Goldie Vance. And, I’m reading more Archie as an adult than I ever read as a kid.


Q:  Archie recently met KISS, and fought against Predator.  What should Archie do next?

GG:  Those team-ups (guest appearances?) did not have a lot of appeal to me. (Maybe if they met the B52’s or Jason from “Friday the 13th”?) I want Archie to concentrate on what they’re doing well: the re-launched series is excellent. Jughead is a lot of fun. Afterlife is extraordinary. All of them have incredible art. I’m looking forward to the Kevin Keller series.


Q:  What is it about Archie Afterlife that really rings your bell?

GG:  Familiar characters in a strange and increasingly horrible situation is a great starting premise. And Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa immediately wretches up the tension. And there’s that sense, again, that anything can happen. The artwork – by Francesco Francavilla – is simply stunning.


Q:  How long have you been enjoying indie comics, and which were some of your early favorites?

GG:  I think Mai, the Psychic Girl, from Eclipse, was one of the first indie comics I read. (This would’ve been around 1987.) I also seem to recall – perhaps wrongly – that it came out every two weeks, which added to the appeal. Looks like Tales of the Closet, which was a godsend, was out that same year.


Q:  MAI was one of the more interesting manga titles.  Have you read much manga?  If so, which manga titles have you found most to your liking?  If not, and if given a chance to, which manga titles would you like to try?

GG:  I have not had a lot of personal success with manga. The purer stuff – right to left – always threw my brain off. Not the right to left part, but I had difficulty following the panels in the right sequence. I enjoyed the first volume of Drops of God and the Buddha series. I find some of the series – and their high volume numbers – daunting.


Q:  When you write your indie comic someday, what do you suppose that it might be called? And, what might it be about?

GG:  This is way too self-involved – so I apologize in advance – but if I had any drawing skills, I’ve thought about a graphic novel autobiography. My parents moved here from Ecuador in the 1960’s in pursuit of the American dream. It would be awesome to honor them and tell their story (the ups and the downs) and the lives they forged for my sisters and I. There’s also my time at The Times, which continues to transform each year.


Q:  It’s been said that writers ought to “write what they know.”  You mentioned SMILE earlier, by Raina Telgemeier; as fine an example of autobiographical graphic lit that we’ll see.  In terms of autobiographies, of the ones that you’ve read, which ones affected you most?

GG:  Without a doubt, Fun Home. It’s an amazing, emotional story. And I thought how she visually expressed her various obsessive compulsions was brilliant. Does “Fortune and Glory” count? I really loved how Brian Michael Bendis conveyed the ups-and-downs of having his comic book optioned.


Q:  Bendis’ Fortune And Glory totally counts.  That’s a powerful example of graphic lit / cautionary tale / autobiography.  Everyone ought to seek it out.  Speaking of Bendis, which is your favorite non-mainstream graphic lit of his, and why?

GG:  I discovered Jinx, Goldfish and Torso around the same time, so it is hard to pick a favorite. (Answering this question makes me want to reread them, which I’ve never gone back to do.) These projects are all great examples of when comics and graphic novels work best: the words and pictures are in synch. Bendis has a tremendous gift for dialogue – he used to remind me of the playwright David Mamet – and from what I recall, the books each had strong artwork and inventive and well-paced layouts. What’s not to love?


Q:  What advice might you give to an aspiring young writer, who was determined to find success in the field of indie comics?

GG:  It seems like a relentless and 95% thankless job with a lot of trial and error and rejection, so my advice would make to make sure you have the stamina and thick skin for it. (When people pitch me ideas for possible coverage in The Times, I always start with the high odds against it so that no one has false expectations.) I would also avail myself to any material that is out there – the book about writing comics by Brian Michael Bendis (and his “Fortune and Glory,” just because it is So. Freaking. Good.); Comics Experience has classes, etc. And try to find people who will give you honest feedback, which I can say a lot easier than I can do in real life. Just want to get back to the first point: an indie comic is a lot of work to produce and then you typically have to think about sales and marketing on top of it.


Q:  What are three qualities that every entertaining indie comic ought to have?

GG:  Great art, great writing and predictable delivery.


Q:  What are you really most looking forward to reading this summer, indie comic or otherwise?

GG:  Right now, I’m finishing The Art of Charlie Chan and Patience, comics-wise. And I need to get to Justin Cronin’s The City of Mirrors, the final part in his trilogy.

Q:  What is it, about Justin Cronin’s tales that really grabs you by the shirt and keeps you reading?

GG:  I’m a sucker for an end-of-the-world tale. The books are so massive that they cause me some trepidation (I still haven’t started volume three), but I know once I get started, it’ll be difficult to put down. That’s when I know it’s love: when I stay up late reading the book and I read it on the way to and from work.


Q:  Digital versus Print. Print is still fighting the good fight, while Digital continues to gain ground. What does the future hold for Print?

GG:  I wish I had a crystal ball to know the answer to this question. Comics wise, I had resisted reading comics digitally, but once I began looking at them on my iPad, I quickly grew obsessed. The art and the coloring look amazing and there is so much material available. I also love being able to take a quick snapshot at a favorite cover or panel and being able to share it. But I’m not done with print. There are certain books that mean a lot to me – Pedro and Me, Archer’s Quest, Y the Last Man, Young Avengers, Scott Pilgrim, The New Teen Titans – that I’ve kept as part of my permanent collection. Though I wish I had kept more because I quickly run out of books to lend friends who have picked up the graphic-novel reading bug.


Q:  What was the last indie comic that you lent to a friend?

GG:  I’ve been pushing Saga, Scott Pilgrim, The Walking Dead and Y the Last Man, because I own those and can lend them out. I also recommend Bitch Planet and Southern Bastards.


Q:  For those of our Multiverse readers who might not be familiar with Y the Last Man, what could you tell them about the fascinating simian character of Ampersand, without giving too much away?

GG:  Brian K. Vaughan knows how to expertly pull at the heart strings. Pride of Baghdad, about four lions that escaped a zoo in Baghdad, was sad and beautiful. That was a one-shot. Imagine what he can do with Ampersand in 60 issues.


Q:  What hasn’t happened in indie comics yet that you would love to see happen next?

GG:  I think people are doing incredible work and I need to broaden my filters so that I’m exposed to more of it. (Wednesday mornings can be scary when I get on my iPad usually by 6:30 to see the new selections from DC, Marvel, Image, Boom, IDW, Oni and others.) But what I would love to see happen – across the industry – is greater sales. It is puzzling to me that the huge interest in comics-related movies and television shows hasn’t had a greater impact on the sales of comics. Trade paperback sales have certainly gone up – Preacher got hot again timed to the TV show – but I would love to see a halo effect of folks trying other books – not just the source material – because of the cool films or great TV shows they are watching.

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