Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Interview: Panel Culture

Spirit of Radio

  Not too long ago, I was introduced as, ‘This is my dad.  He likes to listen to podcasts.’  Guilty as charged.  As I’ve been rediscovering the worlds within worlds of today’s comic book culture, I’ve also continued to indulge in another obsession, podcasts.  Like talk radio – sports talk radio comes to mind – podcasts can be a miasma where opinion always trumps fact and acting contrarian or (worse) one-sided is too often the rule of law.
  Panel Culture, a podcast from Toronto, Ontario, was born out of a comic book buyer’s basic need to talk about the comics he was reading.  What distances Panel Culture from the idle chit chat and fanboy bluster of its peers is that Panel Culture is a podcast where listening to the opinions of others is as important as broadcasting personal passions.  Podcasts – and blogs too for that matter – created by heartfelt ‘niche dwellers’ can devolve, to quote Shakespeare by way of Macbeth, into: ‘a tale told by idiot[s], full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’  The three members of Panel Culture, Charles, George, and Owen are far from idiots; it is, for want of a more creative phrase, ‘a cultured panel’ to say the least.
  The structure of the podcast is straightforward: news and reviews followed by ‘picks-of-the-week.’  What this austere structure lacks in style it makes up for tenfold in honesty, open-heartedness, and charm.  I like these guys, but my media training tells me that as tedious as introductions are for the hosts, mass communication is always (and only) about audience – proffer no excuses, guys.  Listening to the Panel Culture podcast week-to-week, one hears the bonhomie of friends and fans – it’s like an old-fashioned drawing room for the ‘panel culture.’

Sophisticated Fun:  How did Panel Culture get started?

Charles: I started Panel Culture because I needed an outlet to talk about comics.  When I got back into comics about nine years ago, none of my friends were reading them and I found myself standing at Paradise Comics (my comic shop) [in Toronto] for hours talking to the guys who worked there.  I was listening to a bunch of podcasts and thought that it would be fun to be involved in my own.  So I asked one of the guys at the shop if he would be interested in doing one with me.  After a few months of talking about it, he recorded our first one last May (2011) and the rest is history.  Unfortunately, after a few months of recording, it was becoming clear to me that I had to find someone else to record with because Andrew was finding it really hard to find time to join me every week.  That is when I turned to Owen.  He had been a guest on one of our first episodes and I felt that we had a good rapport.  I thought he had some really cool opinions and that he would be a perfect ‘Ying’ to my ‘Yang’ (so to speak).  It wasn't long before George became a regular, and here we are. 

SF:  How does a podcast contribute to the critical discourse in a way that’s unique from a blog or website that reviews and discusses comic books and comic book culture?

Owen: The appeal for me is the back-and-forth, the dialogue. I love the way a podcast can replicate the feel of a few friends debating books they have differing opinions about or recommending one another books that maybe other people haven’t read. Charles, George and I all have different views on what makes a great comic (especially Charles and me) and I think that makes for a great experience for a listener.  By offering up a spectrum of viewpoints, I think that it shows how it’s not always as simple as “a good book” or “a bad book,” people’s opinions vary and I think we show that; and yes, sometimes we are even all on the same page.

SF:  How many comics do you buy a week and what role does economics play in your purchases each week?

George:  The number of comics I buy each week varies, at times wildly.  My recent numbers have been fairly inflated by my participation in the podcast. In the past, I have purchased as few as one or two issues in a single month.  Now, I regularly read several each week.  Economics certainly do play an important role in this.  Even for those that love comics, it can be frustrating trying to make sure you feel you got your money’s worth.  Issue prices are prohibitive to reading a wide selection.  A good comic, even at $3.99, can feel totally justified, but something you don’t like will seem like an awful waste at the [exact] same price.

Owen: Oh, budget plays a huge part in what I buy. I’ve been rather vocal about my dislike of the $3.99 (20-page) book; and in talking it out on the show I’ve realized that what it comes down to is, “am I getting enough enjoyment out of the book to justify the price tag.”  I usually try to cap my weekly purchases at about $30, but sometimes it’s more or less than that.  In addition to budget, though, I find that scheduling also plays a big part. On a light week I might try out something I haven’t heard of that looks neat, and on a heavy week, I might drop something I kind of like.  And, yes, there are times when I’ve had buyer’s remorse. Licensed books are often a big one when it comes to buyer’s remorse.

Charles: When we started, I was buying an average of eight to ten comics a week, but over the last few months I have cut that down to about five or six.  There are always exceptions though; a few months ago I had a week where I bought fifteen, and this week (2/29) I am only picking up two (my smallest pull list ever!). 

SF:  Comic book readers are very discerning especially when it comes to a favorite writer or artist.  Is there a writer you would read regardless of the artist he/she was working or vice versa?

George: While the whole process involved with making comics fascinates me, I tend to lean more towards writers rather than artists. This is partly because I identify more with writing, and couldn’t draw to save my life.  Brian K. Vaughan tops my lists of writer’s that I’d follow regardless of which artist they were working with; that isn’t to say that I would enjoy [a Vaughn title] unconditionally though.  Comics are best when they are collaborative, and if an art style doesn’t seem to mesh with the story, the whole book will be thrown off.  On the other hand, I have continued to follow certain [story] arcs despite a weak storyline. Sometimes the narrative will go somewhere that I don’t enjoy, but if I love the art, I’ll likely see it through.  My advice:  if a book is announced with a writer you aren’t certain of, paired with an artist that you’ve really enjoyed in the past, it could easily be enough to get you to try the first issue.  I think that people who first get into comics will certainly be more inclined to follow characters [more] than creative teams.  Most people end up checking out a superhero or super-team that they like and sticking with that [team or character] for a while, regardless of the creative team. As a reader’s tastes develop, they’ll likely begin to realize that not all Green Lantern titles are created equal and start to gravitate towards the creators they’ve enjoyed in the past.  For my part, I’ve been a big fan of Spider-Man and the X-men. The mythology and characters in these titles are strong enough to bring me back again and again. However, I will not continue to read about either of them if I am not enjoying them, no matter how much I feel the urge to see what happens next.

Owen: Absolutely. I have many writers that will always get my money (Brian K Vaughan comes to mind) and artists, too (Amanda Conner, for example). What I’m not a believer in is following characters. Oh, sure, we all have characters we like. Of course we do. The thing is… it’s not a character that makes a book good, it’s the creators. Personally, I feel that we should be voting with our wallets for good comics, not Superman comics or Spider-Man comics.  I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t get the appeal of characters. I will always try at least one issue of an Animal Man or a Booster Gold comic and I would expect anyone else to do the same with [their] favourite character.  My point is only that if you’re not enjoying a comic you should drop it regardless of whether or not your favourite character is in it. 

Charles:  Current writers who – at the very least – will get 3 issues out of me at the start of a run are Darwyn Cooke, Scott Snyder, Jason Aaron, Brain K Vaughan, Cullen Bunn, and Ed Brubaker.  Artists are tougher.  I might keep buying a comic if I am kind of liking the artist, or I might pick up a first issue for an artist like Alex Maleev, Jerome Opena, Tony Moore, Darwyn Cooke, Jock, Rafael Albuquerque, Chris Samnee, Stuart Immonen (the only reason I kept buying Fear Itself!). 

SF: Why does ‘Panel Culture’ review ‘all-ages’ comics?

Owen: That’s a fair question! The thing is, we review the comics that we buy, and personally, I buy a fair number of all-ages comics. I know a lot of comic readers have a hard time understanding why anyone would read an all-ages title. My short answer is that people should read what’s good. Period. There is nothing about a “mature readers” label that makes a comic good (or even mature for that matter) and there are plenty of all-ages titles that I would honestly say are way better than plenty of books full of adult material. The character-work, themes and storytelling in Bone, for example, is head and shoulders above of many titles that are dubbed “mature” just because there are a couple of swear words in them.  Personally, I don’t understand why anyone WOULDN’T want to read Bone or Tintin or Gladstone’s School for World Conquerors. Adults go see Pixar movies, right? Or watch ‘The Princess Bride?’ Those are all-ages movies.  Good comics are good comics, regardless of the label on the front, and if someone doesn’t want to read a good comic just because there’s no “adult content” in it … then, personally, I think they’re missing out on some great material for a pretty silly reason.

SF: Can any of you ever imagine a time when you won’t buy a physical ‘comic book’ because you’d prefer the digital version instead?

Charles: I am doing it right now. But any comic that I REALLY like digitally, I will, probably, eventually, buy the hardcover or trade paperback version of, so I can have it on my shelf.  I will always by stuff in print, but digital is definitely finding its place with me.

George:  This has come up on the podcast a lot lately. The boys [Owen and Charles] both got iPads for Christmas and they are diving headfirst into the world of digital comics.  I’m still getting physical issues.  I’m sure I’d like to get certain titles in a digital format if I had a device to read, but even then I can’t imagine ever giving up printed comics completely.  There’s a fetish property to comics. Holding them and physically turning the pages is part of the experience of reading comic books.

Owen: It somewhat saddens me to say it (because I love my comic book store), but yeah, I can see it happening.  As long as I live in Toronto I’ll always hit up Paradise Comics for my weekly books, but if someday I move away and I live in a place where there isn’t a nearby store I expect I probably will go all-digital, yeah.

SF:  Perhaps it’s my own naiveté or maybe I’ve bought into the hype, but with DC’s New 52, what Image is doing to celebrate its 20th anniversary, and the rise of day-and-date digital comics; are we living in a ‘new’ renaissance for comic books?

George: That’s a good question. It is certainly an exciting time for comics, but that is not the same thing as saying that comics are better than they’ve been. Despite a shift away from print in general there are a lot of comics out there today. The trick is figuring out which ones are worth reading, and which are merely retreading well-worn ground.
  Most of the comics made are still centered on superheroes, which is a double edged sword for the comic industry. Superheroes are more prevalent in films these days, which seems to have contributed to comic books beginning to be more accepted as mainstream. However, this also lends credence to the idea that all comic books are about superheroes, which is untrue and probably leads people back to the belief that comics are just for children.
  Inevitably though, all kinds of comics will continue to reach wider audiences and gain more credibility. Communication and art-creating technologies have opened up the world of making comics, as well as the potential market for selling them. People are really just beginning to explore what this means for comic books, but change has already begun. In ten years Marvel and DC may still be the big two, but even if that’s the case the comic landscape will look very different than it does today, and more people will be participating in it.

SF: I’ve heard you discuss your dislike for ‘event titles.’  I don’t know anyone who likes these types of comic books.  So, why do publishers keep publishing these type of ‘event titles?’

George, Owen, and Charles: Money.

SF: A couple of you have published your own comic books. Any desire to continue writing comics?

George:  Yes.  Writing is a passion of mine, and making comics in particular. There is something so satisfying about the collaborative effort involved in making comics. Challenging yourself to think more visually and to write in a way that instructs but also inspires an artist is exhilarating. Seeing pages come together way better than you could have imagined is truly great.   I’m always working towards creating and telling stories and I’ll be more than happy to share them as they get released.

Owen: Absolutely. My writing partner (Curtis Westman) and I had a blast working on the story for Kill Shakespeare: Volume 1 and we’re currently working on something new. We’re self-publishing a story that we wrote and my wife (Anya Craig) is drawing at Wizard World Toronto in April! It’ll be a collection of short stories starring a character we’ve created and after selling some copies at Wizard World we’ll be putting them online for all to see. Seeing artwork come in is honestly one of the coolest things and I can’t wait for everyone to see.

Panel Culture posts each week on iTunes and at Podbean,
Friend Panel Culture on facebook and follow them on Twitter @PanelCulture.
This interview was conducted over email.


  1. Excellent interview, Keith, your chums sound sound, so I've downloaded the latest podcast and look forward to a listen.

    My question to you ... why WOULDN'T they review all-ages books?

  2. Martin, Thank you for your kind words and astute observation. I wish I had an answer to parry your question. I don't. I think what I was going for was something like: 'I don't hear a lot of All-ages comics reviews on other podcasts, some, not all -- could be my own admittedly 'limited sample size.' I think Panel Culture does a great job of giving all comics equal time so maybe it's me whose behind the curve, probably. ;-)

  3. Gotcha! Another podcast which does all-ages is Raging Bullets. Sean and Jim are the nicest, most thorough podcasters ever!