By Erik Grove
I’m going to start this column with a happy birthday. I remember June 1, 2009. I was familiar with Rich Johnston and Lying in the Gutters at CBR for years and happily tagged along when Bleeding Cool launched. Over the last 5 years I’ve missed a few days here and there but Bleeding Cool has been a part of my routine, one of a handful of websites I’m always current on. Now, I get to contribute my thoughts and words to this site and see my name up there in italics. It’s an awesome opportunity and a privilege. So, happy birthday Bleeding Cool! You’ll be drinking and making poor lifestyle choices before you know it!
In recognition of this momentous occasion, Essential 8 is going to get a little bit meta in June. I’m starting with an interview with Hannah Means-Shannon, our most excellent Editor-in-Chief, comic book scholar and the world’s only Rich Johnston wrangler.
Hannah Means-Shannon: In some ways, I have an unusual history with comics, though I’ve found others with the same story, so it’s a certain percentage of us comics obsessives who have walked the same path. Growing up with two brothers who are close to me in age, I read their comics for economic reasons—I could save my own allowance by doing so. What they read, I read. Some of those titles were Batman, The Punisher, Valiant comics, Spider-Man, X-Men, and Groo the Wanderer. My favorite was Groo out of vanity because they published my fan letters. The comics I purchased on my own were usually sci-fi in nature. I loved the medium, but I was also a total bookworm when it came to literature, and particularly illustrated books, and was into King Arthur, Robin Hood, Shakespeare, fantasy fiction, the like. I went away to college at a young age—16—and always felt pretty driven as a scholar, so comics gradually faded out of my life. Some friends tried to get me to read Sandman at school in England, and I snubbed them—by then I was very concerned to be taken “seriously” as a lit major. My academic studies were in heroes and hero worship in Celtic and Germanic literature by the time I was a grad student, and so once I was done with my studies, I decided to make a leap and start writing about medieval heroes in film.
At my second conference, I was put on a panel with comics and gaming scholars and it was a big revelation for me that’s hard to convey briefly. I read Watchmen while I was at the conference, and Sandman: The Dream Hunters on the plane home. I spent the next year reading everything by Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman I could get my hands on, then Warren Ellis, and plenty of Grant Morrison, and just kept pulling threads that led me in new directions. It was only after an initial canon read that I was ready to read “new” comics, and for me that first “new” comic series was Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man.
At the risk of being lengthy, what I read now are lots of comics from Image, Dark Horse, a few from Marvel, and a few from Vertigo or DC. But I probably spend an equal amount of time reading indie graphic novels or digitally. What keeps me coming back, and what has made a huge difference to me, when I feel I transitioned from a literary interest in comics to a full-blown appreciation of the medium, was getting to know comic artists and creators at small shows and local events in New York. That immediacy changes everything for me and that’s when it becomes art for me—the whole comics package. And there’s nothing like understanding how alive comics are.
EG: You’ve been the EIC at Bleeding Cool for six months now. Congratulations! Has your idea or perception of the role changed since you posted your initial essay here?
HMS: My probably fairly predictable answer to that is both “yes” and “no”. I had observed Bleeding Cool as a fan, then as a reporter and reviewer, for long enough that I had a die-hard commitment to the personality of the site as a venue for free speech. And the goals that I knew I was pursuing taking up the job are the same, though I’ve made some progress toward them with the help of our writers and columnists. So those goals are the same and the role I knew I was taking up is the same. But you can’t really know a role until you perform it, and the things I didn’t realize fully enough was how outstandingly eager people are to write for Bleeding Cool, which led to developing new content for the site much more quickly than I expected.
In fact, it was like a floodgate at first that was a little overwhelming. I had never had to answer that many e-mails before or try to keep in touch with so many people at once. I’ve had to learn strategies for organizing all that correspondence. I would say some other areas I knew I would be developing but are something experience only can teach you would be venturing into games coverage on the site, which is still ongoing. I have a knowledge of gaming, but not on the same level I “know” comics. The same goes for film, though thankfully I was a major film enthusiast/obsessive at a younger age, so that helps. Bleeding Cool is so much larger than just the comics side of things, and this job is not just to oversee comics. So there’s a lot further to go to develop our reach in pop culture.
EG: You had a long and successful career in academia before diving into this full-time. Does that experience inform or influence your actions as EIC?
HMS: Well, how could it not? I’ve had quite a few odd jobs in my life, but most of those jobs have been teaching in some capacity and the longest running job I’ve had was as an English professor specializing in Medieval Literature. Teaching was something I was afraid to do at first, and it totally threw me out of my comfort zone with massive workloads, since I often did overtime classes too.
Working with students totally changed my life and by necessity made me watch the way culture was changing and observe tastes, often in pop culture. So, the main skills from teaching that I see at work for me now are talking with young writers, helping them develop their skills, being a clear communicator in my own writing, and having a concern for the future in cultural terms. Having to handle vast amounts of paperwork in the past on tight deadlines probably helped too, and definitely the large amount of academic writing I did as a comics scholar before this shaped my ability to be a writer now. In more practical terms, it was a combination of my experience as a professor and as a reporter working with teams of writers that led to my hire. That unusual skillset was exactly what my employers were looking for, it turns out. In teaching we call knowledge “transferrable” when you can bring it with you out of the classroom and apply it to other things. A huge amount of my past skills have proven highly “transferrable” in ways I wouldn’t have been able to predict. You can read more about my decision to leave academia and take up this position here.
EG: What’s a day in the life of an Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool actually like? (Please tell me that most of your time isn’t hand-holding pesky Portland-based contributors).
HMS: God, I hope my answer to this isn’t too boring, but if you really want to know, I’ll try to lay it out. I usually stay up working until at least 3AM the night before, because my job is to get contributor content in place and ready to run ahead of the breaking news of the day. Everything for a given day is done by the night before unless something unusual comes up, and sometimes even further ahead than that. Then I write my own pieces for that day too. So I try to get 6-7 hours sleep if I can, meaning I’m a late riser. By the time I get up, my British head writers (Rich Johnston and Brendon Connelly) have already done a ton of work and are sprinting through breaking news. And I also usually have dozens of e-mails waiting by then from contributors, publishers, Kickstarter and indie projects, and the like. Coffee is my good, good friend.
First thing, I take any content that hasn’t been loaded the night before for whatever reason and get it edited and in place, meanwhile reviewing scheduling and the way it’s changing based on breaking news. Time-slots are moving constantly. My e-mails are full of content from our currently 90 contributors to the site (up from 40 at the time I was hired), and so I’m organizing and downloading that too. Then I’ve probably got at least one phone interview to do with someone, and my questions better be ready and my recording equipment in place. One time recently my pet parrots started acting up and escaping right when I was supposed to do an interview, so I was scooping them up and running for the phone.
To be brief, I’m loading and editing content constantly, answering e-mails, transcribing and editing interviews, and skyping with my head writers about stuff. I take a break at some point, an hour sometime during the day, and a couple hours in the evening before I start an “evening shift” that last from 9 or 10 to 2 or 3AM. If I’m really organized I try to exercise during one of those breaks. So, it’s a 16 hour or more day, but I try to take breaks. Keep in mind that Bleeding Cool is international and operates in every time zone with internet, and that’s why the schedule is going to stretch like that. I can confidently say that no reporter from Portland has never needed any hand-holding.
EG: If you were to meet someone that had never heard of Bleeding Cool and what the site does, what would you tell them about it? What’s the Bleeding Cool “elevator pitch” for new readers and has that changed or is that changing since its launch 5 years ago?
HMS: In some ways, I have to do this kind of explaining a lot because none of my family members are very familiar with pop culture, and they also know me as a professor, so this is a big shift for them to understand what I do. I usually define Bleeding Cool as a “pop culture news website” to them, adding “but it’s also a blog that’s mostly written in the first person”. When they ask me why I chose Bleeding Cool and not some other site, I say that Bleeding Cool is the only site that ever really held my attention for long. The only site I found impossible to ignore. It is perpetually changing, perpetually interesting and full of unusual things. Has Bleeding Cool changed? Yes, and the biggest change is in numbers of readers and number of articles. Rich Johnston has told me that on the first day, 200 views sent him over the moon. Now, we have millions of readers and that development is staggering. We also have our own magazine now! More viewers means more diversity and more content. In personality, I don’t think Bleeding Cool has changed, and that is why it is a success.
EG: There’s been a lot of discussion about diversity and inclusion (and their uglier opposites) in comic book culture recently and there has been scrutiny specifically on the culture surrounding some comic news sites. What responsibility, if any, does Bleeding Cool have to engage in or influence these conversations?
HMS: That is such a huge topic that there’s no way I can do it justice in the time that I have to answer, so this is definitely my short version. Bleeding Cool was founded on a very big concern for the underdog and the marginalized, and so naturally that has led to trying to include diverse voices and concerns, to represent those who have been silenced, particularly in mainstream media that shies away from covering “negative” or problematic topics. I credit Rich Johnston with that mentality and setting the tone for the site. A lot of people want to take the easy route and not point out inequalities and mistreatment in society, but Rich is the opposite of that and that’s one of the things that made me sure I should take this job, because I feel the same way.
There’s plenty of sexism, bullying, and prejudice in comics culture. I don’t believe, based on my personal experience, that the majority of comics culture is like that, particularly the more grassroots and indie you get, but mainstream comics fandom has a lot to answer for in exclusion, bullying, and generally vicious behavior. We engage with it every day on the site, either directly calling it out (this past week I can think of several big instances) or trying to set a much better example. Our contributors participate heavily in this and we don’t publish anything that has a whiff of moving things backward rather than forward in inclusion. Comics are for everyone. Pop culture is for everyone. And our work is to make that difference every day. I believe we do. I think we do put other sites to shame by comparison because we will publish very uncomfortably honest stories and champion causes openly.
EG: Alright. This is my big “gotcha” question. I see this on Twitter, in the forums and hear it from my peers that read the articles on Bleeding Cool: what’s going on with the typos in articles (and sometimes even article titles) and what would you tell people that get worked up about them?
HMS: Well, that’s actually an easy one to answer in practical terms, though again it may be a little boring for readers. Rich Johnston is the fastest, most prolific blogger on the planet to my knowledge. The reason the site has grown so much is because of his ridiculous work ethic and the speed at which he writes. He works 18 hour days as a norm and there’s no way he could write at such speed if he did much editing. And I wasn’t hired to be a copy editor for Rich, though I know that makes readers sigh with disappointment. I do what I can, but my job is so big, that I can’t edit every word he writes. Plus the major time difference between the UK and USA comes into play—he writes as it’s all happening, and that’s too fast for me to edit between countries.
I know it’s jarring—heck, I was an English professor and it’s painful on the eyes to me too. But with me freeing him up from other tasks he used to shoulder, we’ll move toward improvement, gradually. My most extreme answer to readers would be: do you want the information or don’t you? Wouldn’t you rather get it today than tomorrow? Usually, despite typos, you can understand what Rich is saying and to me that’s the most important thing. Unless you blog 18 hours a day, you really don’t know what it’s like yourself, so try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and be a little more understanding about the typos.
EG: Finally, imagine I’m asking you this question six months from now: what’s changed on Bleeding Cool after your first year? What’s year two look like?
HMS: In the first six months Bleeding Cool grew so much faster than I expected, in number of posts and contributors and the creators being represented on the site that I have to assume that it’s going to get much, much bigger in the second six months. Probably pushing the envelope on what I can handle. By the end of my first year, you’re going to see us branching into the Pacific time zone much more, and extending back into British hours as well. We may even be 24 hour by then. There are probably going to be 150 to 200 contributors by then representing many diverse perspectives and reporting on many more local cons. Indie comics are going to be even more represented.
Gaming is going to be substantial and film output is going to be higher. There are going to be other ways to view past content so you can keep up with how quickly things are moving on the site and don’t miss out, too. The second year is going to look like we’re the biggest pop culture blog in English in the world in terms of content and contributors. So get ready. It will still be very much Bleeding Cool but Bleeding Cool all grown up because we have the number of hands and eyes we need to bring all this information and all these ideas to readers more fully.
EG: Special thanks this week to Hannah for being a good sport and giving all of us a lot more insight into how Bleeding Cool works. Expect more surprises coming up this month!
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, OR. You can read his fiction and blog posts at www.erikgrove.com and you can follow him @erikgrove on Twitter. The cold is almost completely resolved now. Thanks for asking!