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Matt Chats: David Harper on SKTCHD’s Return and Fostering Healthier Conversation Through Comics Journalism – Comics Beat

David Harper made a big splash in the comics industry with SKTCHD, his independent comics website featuring expansive articles, interviews, and recurring content. Even though he stays busy with his podcast Off Panel and Patreon-exclusive content, SKTCHD has certainly been missed, which is why its return is so exciting. Check out all the new content free for the first two weeks at sktchd.com. I was extremely happy that David, probably my biggest role model in comics journalism, agreed to do an interview. He discussed subjects including the new subscription model for the website, his favorite sources of comic book analysis, and his realization that The Beat’s own Heidi MacDonald knew something about himself he didn’t!

What made it time to bring SKTCHD back?

This is actually the third time SKTCHD was meant to come back, believe it or not. There were two other times where someone else within comics came to me wanting to back SKTCHD and resurrect it, and for one reason or another, it didn’t happen. Both times, we went far enough where I considered what the shape of an ideal version of a comic site I run would be and the type of content I wanted to publish. Both times it didn’t happen.

But in the process of doing that and in writing a couple of comic features for The Ringer, I realized, “man, I really like doing this.” Coupled with the content ideas I had already generated, it was a pretty easy walk from “I’m not doing this” to “I’m doing this.”

The other thing that played a key part in deciding to bring the site back was getting paid for the first time for my writing about comics. I remember when I first closed SKTCHD in 2016, Heidi MacDonald of this very website wrote a piece supposing that a part of the reason I closed SKTCHD was that I didn’t make money off of it. I bristled at that idea, as I wrote an article clearly stating why I closed the site, and money played no part in that decision. Or so I thought.

Then I was paid for my writing and I was like, “oh wow, Heidi was totally right! This makes a huge difference!”

Combined with the rise of subscription sites online – a model I believe is far more sustainable and reasonable than banner ads, which just don’t cut it, encourage bad behavior by websites and weaken the user experience on sites – and ideas started formulating in my head on how to actually do this in a sustainable fashion. That’s why my biggest inspiration for this site isn’t a comic site, but Ben Falk’s Cleaning the Glass, a brilliant basketball site that employs a subscription model for content that may not speak to everyone, but has a small but passionate audience willing to back him.

Combine all that in a pot, and baby, we got a stew going. And that stew is named SKTCHD.

I hope that line doesn’t convince people they shouldn’t subscribe to the site.

David Harper’s podcast OFF PANEL

At a time when so much content is free, do you believe readers will pay for comics coverage and criticism?

Well, I should be clear to start: this isn’t a criticism site. It’s barely even a coverage site. SKTCHD is designed to look at comics, in theory, in a way others aren’t, diving deeper into stories and never really letting the flavor of the moment drive the bulk of what is written. Of course, I’m not saying other sites aren’t good at what they do or anything like that. I’m just not good at what they do, and there are plenty of other sites to do all that. I just like doing what I do – what I did at SKTCHD before, but more refined and more specific, perhaps – and the fact that it’s different than what others do might help make it valuable to some.

I won’t have any comic previews, I won’t be writing regular news features and I won’t be writing traditional reviews with any regularity. I will have three constants on the site – Monday will be the day that week’s episode of my podcast, Off Panel, will go up (as a note, Off Panel will be the one piece of content that will be unlocked as it’s funded through my Patreon); Wednesday will be when The Pull, a regular column that originated on my Patreon in which I look at my weekly buys, recommendations and curiosities from the week; Friday will be a column in which I look at ten things I liked or didn’t like from the past week in comics to a perhaps unhealthy degree – but besides that, it will all be original features that range from really long to really weird and fun. So it will be its own thing, for sure. Oh, and I’ll have monthly mailbags/chats as part of it, which hopefully will involve guests as well, as well as audio interviews that informed my longforms but don’t quite fit what I’m doing with Off Panel. And it will all be delivered to subscriber’s mailboxes in a weekly email newsletter recapping what happened at the site.

As for whether or not I believe they’ll pay, I believe some will. I think there are people who are interested in writing about comics that are a little bit different than the usual. It goes back to Cleaning the Glass. Chris Ballard wrote a  great piece for Sports Illustrated about Cleaning the Glass, and he cited Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” idea, which effectively says if you have 1,000 true fans, that’s enough to make a living off what you do online. 

Is that true about me? Do I have 1,000 true fans? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe not! I will say I did some research over the past couple years feeling out what people would think of SKTCHD as a subscription site both on social and my podcast Off Panel’s Patreon, and I felt like there was something there. Coupled with a brief chat I had with one of the big ups at The Athletic, another (excellent) sports journalism site that employs a subscription model, as well as others around comics, and it made me confident in the idea that there was something there.

Ultimately, it’s up to me. Can I create content that is valuable and interesting enough to be worth a monthly investment? I hope so. But hey, that’s why SKTCHD will have other elements to it, most notably a member’s only forum that will allow people who love comics to talk about them without fear of being harassed or harangued for having an opinion. It’s been operational for a bit already as part of my Patreon, and it seems like people really enjoy it! That will add value for some, even if I have my Warren Ellis showing because of how I’m emulating the Warren Ellis Forums. But whatever, he’s one of my great inspirations in my writing – shouts to Come In Alone, his old CBR column – and you might as well imitate the best.

The first issue of PanelxPanel, which David names one of the best sources of comics journalism

You are, in my opinion, one of a relatively small number of individuals doing genuine comics journalism. Who are some others you admire?

It depends on what you call journalism, but I think the best person writing about comics today is Oliver Sava from The AV Club. He’s a phenomenal writer with a deep and broad appreciation of comics that allows him to understand what really works and what doesn’t across all facets of comics. If I had an infinite budget, I’d pay him whatever he wanted to write a weekly column for the site. But because I don’t have an infinite budget, the plan is for him to write a quarterly column for SKTCHD with his only direction being “write about whatever you want as long as it’s something that speaks to you,” basically.

Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou is in a similar vein as Sava, but he’s on a mostly critical side. He’s brilliant, and understands comics at a level I wish I did. Or maybe not, because I’m just like “That sure was good!” when I read comics. I can’t even imagine reading a comic like Hass. It must be exhausting to understand them to the level he does. PanelxPanel’s nominated for an Eisner for a reason, and it should win the Eisner for the same reason.

On the flip side of Hass, and I suppose the “comics journalist” of the three, is Abraham Riesman. He’s basically me if I was better at writing and had a deeper understanding of the medium. His comics features for Vulture are often astonishing, and he can weave a concise yet impactful narrative out of stories both big and small. All that said, the thing I envy him the most about is the fact he talked to Alfonso Cuaron about Children of Men for an amazing piece about the film. Ugh. So good.

Lastly, not to be a kiss up to the person that runs this site, but Heidi’s the gold standard. We’re lucky to have The Beat and the varying perspectives she both comes from and delivers in the writers she features.

Do you believe limiting access to the forum to those willing to pay for comics criticism will facilitate healthier discussion than what’s found on most of the internet?

Absolutely. Going back to both Cleaning the Glass and The Athletic, both sites and the writers on said sites have found a dramatic improvement in the tenor of the conversation both in their respective forums and comment threads. Instead of being adversarial and ugly, they’re respectful and engaging. Fancy that!

My hope is even a small monthly fee will discourage toxic audiences from wanting to partake, allowing everyone to find more joy and camaraderie than you might find in your average Twitter discussion. Don’t get me wrong: that’s a low bar. But it’s a bar I aim to leap over!

Cover to STAR-LORD: ANNIHILATION CONQUEST. Art by Nic Klein

What made you interested in compiling a history of Annihilation?

My favorite thing to do with my writing is to dig into sides of things that haven’t really been explored. So discovering the story behind a comic that has outsized importance considering its sales – cosmic Marvel was a wasteland when Annihilation came together, and you can directly link the success of this event comic to the resurrection of cosmic Marvel in the comics and Guardians of the Galaxy becoming one of the biggest film franchises in the world – was perfect for me just from a pure curiosity standpoint.

It helped a lot that I genuinely love the series. It’s my favorite event comic ever, and the comics it spawned are well loved by me as well, particularly Keith Giffen and Timothy Green II’s Starlord mini that was part of Annihilation Conquest and Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s Guardians of the Galaxy run.

So it was a subject that had a lot of meat on its bones, a lot of personal interest from me, and some charming featured players in editor Andy Schmidt, Giffen, Abnett, Lanning and beyond. That’s a perfect fit.

What kind of preparation went into the piece?

Looking at my emails, the first one I sent out in regards to this feature was on January 1st of this year. Since then, I’ve interviewed the bulk of the key contributors to the project either via email or phone (primarily the latter), transcribed them all (leading to 25,112 words to contend with before I even wrote anything), sliced and diced them and turned them into something that hopefully makes sense. There was, of course, a bunch of follow-ups, a bunch of dead-end emails and a lot of sleuthing.

Naturally, I reread my three Annihilation hardcovers, but that was easy. I do that every year anyways. I also read basically every Annihilation related interview I could find online. That was not ultimately very helpful, but I wanted to have some basis for where they were coming from before starting the interviews.

To regularly deliver features of similar scope you must be working on a number of them at once, months in advance. How do you manage that workload and keep things on track?

Work really hard and hope for the best, honestly.

The best I can do is get a head start and keep things rolling. By the time SKTCHD relaunched, I had 12 pieces of significance either completed or at some level of development. I started working on the bulk of them December of 2018 or later, so I’ve had a head start. I’m already working on my next wave of features, so I’m mostly looking a couple of months or so in the future, even if there will be plenty of pieces that are based in the present.

It also helps that I’m not trying to make every piece a monster. While some will be heavily researched pieces looking at comics, the industry or whatever, some will be simpler, like art features where I talk with an artist about the intricacies of their work and the decisions they make on the page, long-form interviews with notable creators and people within comics, or examinations of oddities. For an example of the latter, I talked to a writer from Defense News about what would happen if The Punisher actually fired a bazooka at close range from a fire escape as Klaus Janson depicted him on the cover to 1987’s The Punisher #1. It is, in my opinion, an amazing and hilarious cover, but I always wondered what Frank Castle was thinking. This is my examination of just how little thought went into that decision because dang, that is one heck of a bad idea. As I said, there will be silly things here, but they will be handled in a fun, hopefully, thoughtful way (that’s also hopefully the first part of a series on Frank and the odd decisions he makes).

Also, I’ve talked to pals around comics about making some guest appearances on the site, so hopefully some names you know will be making semi-regular appearances. That would make it easier.

The source of an article on SKTCHD. Art by Klaus Janson

vWhat’s your writing process like? What kind of software and productivity tricks do you use?

God, I wish I had a good answer to this. My writing process is weirdly super fast I think compared to most others I talk to. For example, I wrote the entire Annihilation feature on two flights – one from Anchorage, Alaska to Seattle and another from Seattle to Las Vegas – which amounts to six hours of flight time (but really something like 4 hours of proper “writing” time).

Most of the work happens in the research phase. Getting the information together is the longest part of the process, by far. Once I’m done with that and have organized everything into a Word document – yes, I use Microsoft Word still – I’d say most of my writing has already been done in my head and it’s just sitting down and typing it out. The keys to everything for me are research and structure. The writing just falls into place if I have those things together.

It all starts with a question, though. Every piece I write starts with me trying to find the answer to something, and it all comes from there. If I have a good question I’m really into from the jump, my life is much, much easier.

I know firsthand how hard it is trying to do weekly interviews, and you also have the burden of editing the audio for the podcast. How do you maintain such consistency?

The podcast itself is the easy part. I can talk to anyone, I feel like, so once I get someone, it’s just researching (again, the bulk of my process), recording and then editing, and after three years, I can turn around an edited podcast fairly quickly.

By far the hardest part is booking guests if I’m being totally honest. Finding something I’m passionate about – I don’t do promotional interviews, so it’s more about finding someone in comics I’m excited to talk to – 52 weeks a year roughly (I take some skip weeks) can be tough, especially when you factor in my day job, my personal life, and the lives and workloads of potential guests. Mostly it works out, but there can be some serious crunches.

Ultimately, I should do a lot better in terms of booking. I try to have a diverse mix of people on the show, and while I succeed in terms of what the guests actually do (my show has featured cartoonists, writers, artists, colorists, designers, editors, big ups from publishers, retailers, comics journalists, friends, and Andrew W.K., amongst others), I fail in other ways. I am trying to find a balance, though, because I can and should do better.

I guess that comes back to how I maintain consistency. Always try to do better. If you always try to be better, it makes it more difficult to backslide and for the work to suffer in the process.

What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with SKTCHD?

I probably should have aspirations for this, but I don’t really. I like writing about comics. I want to do it. This is the best way for me to do so while exploring the things I like to explore. Hopefully, I write things I like and others end up liking them as well. And in the process, I’d love to build a community of people who love comics and give them a place they can talk about them. If I can do that, I’ll be very happy.

Go follow David Harper on Twitter @SlicedFriedGold, support Off Panel on Patreon and of course head over to the newly relaunched SKTCHD, completely free for the first two weeks.

Matt Chats is an interview series featuring discussions with a creator or player in comics, diving deep into industry, process, and creative topics. Find its author, Matt O’Keefe, on Twitter andTumblr. Email him with questions, comments, complaints, or whatever else is on your mind at matt@mattwritesstuff.com.

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