Publication: Paste Magazine
Editorial: Paste Comics
Audience: Online Pop Culture Revelers, Ages 25-34 with a University Education
I’ve been working for Paste Magazine longer than any other company I’ve been associated with, having served as an editorial/marketing intern immediately after graduating with my bachelor’s degree in journalism. Paste Magazine was once an oversized monthly print publication with cover stock that could be worn as armor; it was heavy, sophisticated and ornate—a thing to frame as much as to read. The fact that it was created and written by a subversively smart group of Atlanta Dads, segregated from the marketing of New York and Los Angeles, arguably proved Paste’s biggest point of differentiation. The passion, approach and skill of the artists we covered outweighed promotional budgets and PR teams. Under any objective definition, we broke bands like The National, The Lumineers, and Band of Horses. When Death Cab For Cutie requested a cover story for its album “Narrow Stairs,” we agreed on one condition: lead singer Ben Gibbard would author the feature, camping in the woods overnight to write out the meaning of life in five thousand words longhand. He did, and we published it.
As elegant and labor-intensive physical media is wont to do, print magazines fell under the tide of innovative disruption (AKA the internet) in the late Aughties, eventually relegating Paste to the binary frontier. In its current state as an online publication, I manage and edit my own corner of pastemagazine.com with Paste Comics, as well as contributing to music and photography. This position follows a stream of various roles for the magazine.
After serving as editor of Paste NYC (covering all New York City-related media), a critic for Paste Film and a band photographer, the comic book sector offered a new and attractive challenge: advocacy. I wouldn’t only be contributing reviews and editorials to dissect the medium, but I’d also present it as a viable art form that transcended its reputation as picture book fodder where grown men in leotards punch one another. If my writers and I could convince your grandmother, 6-year-old daughter and social equality-advocating best friend to read comics, we were doing our job well. Comic books is a medium, not a genre.
I opted for a content strategy that defies any wisdom online publishing may have established in the past decade: a focus on surgically-specific original reporting instead of pagination and rehashed news items. Gradual, foundational thought leadership is my tortoise to the listmania, gallery-drunk clickbait of the internet’s hare. We’d painfully birth an audience; high bounce and exit rates be damned.
For background, Alexa cites Paste Magazine as the 1,558th most popular website in the United States as of March 2016 (we receive roughly 8.5 million page views a month). For perspective, here are the rankings of competitor sites: Spin occupies the 3,890th slot, Stereogum lands the 3,172nd position, and Under the Radar owns 64,657th place. (For perspective, Pitchfork achieves 792nd place and The Onion AV Club 570th, just in case we were getting too self-aggrandizing.) Though my strategy was to bolster gradual growth instead of easy hits, the Paste Comics section grew 651% to upwards one million unique visitors within its first month.
A huge metric behind thought leadership is pull quotes. These are selected bits of text from reviews or features that publishers (Marvel, DC, Image) put on their comics’ promotional material and covers to interest readers. Pull quotes are an intellectual stamp of approval. I wanted the industry at large to value our collective opinion; our positive reflections would be viewed as a singular endorsement and our negative feedback an automatic condemnation of critical bankruptcy (joking…king of). In all candidness, our favorite creators turned out to be our favorite advocates. For example:
Writer: Scott Snyder
Artist: Sean Murphy
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
A cerebral sci-fi horror amalgamation, The Wake won the 2014 Eisner Award for Best Limited Series while its artist, Sean Murphy, won accolades for Best Penciller. Paste was quoted on the cover of its collected hardbound and trade paperback editions. The Wake author Scott Snyder has won many, many awards. Snyder started as a Creative Fiction Professor at Columbia University and Stephen King selected two entries from Snyder’s first short story collection—Voodoo Heart—in his Best American Short Stories volume for 2007. As Snyder lies in the center of the Venn Diagram where intimidatingly sophisticated talent, cross-over success, and geek royalty intersect, we love to sing his praises. Luckily, DC Comics and Snyder love it as well.
The Original Review:
The Wake may be the best ‘80s creature feature that never was. Much like he did in American Vampire and Severed, writer Scott Snyder dives deep into the nostalgia well (and the Arctic Ocean) to drum up a yarn brimming with escapism and otherworldly threats. Instead of revisiting the Roaring Twenties or Great Depression dioramas that tend to occupy his narratives — including his exceptional 2006 short story collection, Voodoo Heart — The Wake feels ripped straight from the Reagan Era, if only by osmosis. Mysterious Cold War bureaucracies, grotesque sci-fi fiends, and a strong female protagonist ($10 says she busts out some fly one-liners in a sweat-soaked grey tank top in the next five issues) all allude to some vintage cinema homage to works like The Abyss and The Thing. Though they’re not in the masthead, James Cameron, John Carpenter, John McTiernan, and even Steven Spielberg float above this comic like patron saints. The Wake #1 is more of an elaborate promise than a realized product, which is fine: few long-form stories confirm excellence in 25 pages. But with Snyder’s tight scripting and Murphy and Hollingsworth’s inspired scenery, it’s not too early to call The Wake a blockbuster in the making.
Batman: Death of the Family
Publisher: DC Comics
Also spearheaded by Scott Snyder with a pool of other writers and artists contributing to the event, this new incarnation of Batman has remained the bestselling comic book of the past three years in the wake of DC Comics revamp of its entire editorial line. This specific collection revolves around the reintroduction of Joker. So much of what I can say is probably beyond obvious: Batman’s the most beloved comic book superhero in America, Joker the most beloved (word choice?) villain, and we’re honored to be a voice in such a primal place within the trans-cultural megaphone. The fact that DC and parent company Warner Bros. trusted our input enough to attach a quote to its product hinted at the possibility that our coverage transcended niche interests.
The Original Review:
There’s a profound chemistry at play. Snyder defines the trajectories of his characters and then lets them collide in brilliant displays of violence and hope that never betray their base definitions. The first page of Batman #15 is an especially strong example of Snyder’s descriptive skills, defining the Joker’s hatred through pupil physiology. (“Happiness, laughter, affection. The pupils open. Fear, anger, hatred, the pupils close. But not his. His pupils stay fixed, tiny points of blackness, the eyes of someone who hates everything, everyone.”) Without spoiling the climax, this story ultimately succeeds by focusing on the psychology of its characters instead of the unnerving violence that marked some of its earlier chapters. The price Batman pays is far higher than another corpse bound to rise again if sales slow down. If anybody thinks that mainstream comic books can’t be smart and provocative while work like this exists, then the jokes on them.
Writer & Artist: Jeff Lemire
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo
Jeff Lemire is currently known as the man who created the story that will be Sony Pictures’ next huge movie franchise, Descender. But in his decade of work, Lemire has been one of those rare voices that’s ascended the comic format to literary heights. The 12-chapterTrillium sits proudly within that endeavor. Nominated for a 2014 Eisner (it lost to The Wake), this gorgeous, sweeping space epic merges romance and audacious sci-fi into a kaleidoscope of emotion and escapism. It was also the best-selling paperback the mont it was released, August 2014. There’s no doubt that getting a pull quote on the front cover a book is far better than any other placement on a creative statement, maybe save a tattoo across the creator’s forehead. When the book is about two lovers breaching time and space to glorious critical and market reception, it’s even better.
The Original Review:
The best moments of Trillium are the ones that superficially say the least; Pike’s textless flashback to a trench turned mass grave is especially evocative. Nika’s sci-fi portion is a tad busy, but its exposition segues to a gorgeous psychedelic splash page and art that breathes much more easily. If Lemire has adopted the quicker pacing of his recent works, he still knows when to pan the camera back and let his layouts project the vivid imagination bustling inside of him. And that’s what makes Trillium such a special work: this is a piece of an artist pulled from a deep place nobody’s ever seen before. And for Lemire to share that, all we can say is thank you.
After spending a year developing content to reflect our editorial mission of introducing the comic book format to a larger audience, we came to the startling conclusion that one of the best ways to do so would be to produce the content we were covering. And so we made comic books. We realized that we inhabited an interesting space to create something; Paste had spent a decade nurturing various musicians, artists and genres. In that time, those musicians and their audiences had grown substantially. We loved comic books. Why wouldn’t they?
So we launched Songs Illustrated, an ongoing series that pairs incredibly talented musicians with incredibly talented comic book professionals. For the creative process, the musician and I would select a comic book artist/writer, who would then transform a song into one-(or more)-page comic. The beauty of the experience was that the musician would share the comic with their audience, exposing a whole new population to the form. Artistic cross-pollination at its finest.
The series works on both a critical and commercial scale; introducing a relatively low-impact medium (comics) to a relatively popular medium (music), with a heavy social social base (the content is free and un-gated). Check out some in-process art next to finished samples below. Click on the image for a link to the full comic.