Mark Fossen writes about the geek culture of comic books and video games on various sites including Focused Totality, Operation Sports, and the brand-new 5WG. Outside of his writing, he is a part-time actor and full-time web developer based in Utah.
Simon Owens: I’ve noticed several articles recently claiming that there are no famous video game critics out there today, and the articles theorize this is because video games take up a lot of time to complete and it’s economically infeasible for a magazine to pay a critic to invest that much time into one project. Do you think blogging is one place that can pick up the slack where the major magazines are lacking, because blogs are mostly run by those playing video games for the love, thereby giving them much more time on their hands?
Mark Fossen: I’m not sure the “takes a lot of time” argument holds water. It is based on a view of gaming as a narrative form, like books or movies, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The primary topic of discussion when reviewing a game should be the gameplay itself, and seeing the final credits sequence won’t tell a reviewer much that he couldn’t have extracted from the first few hours of play. Obviously, it takes more time than a movie or music review. However, major magazines seem to be able to pay book critics to read the latest thousand page Thomas Pynchon novel. If that’s economically feasible, I expect game criticism is, too.
I do think the blogosphere can pick up the slack primarily because they are usually gamers who happen to write, and not the other way around. They understand the language of gaming, its trends and tropes and history. Only that kind of knowledge will generate the next level of gaming criticism. It’s not that different from comics: too often, mainstream writing on comics reveals a writer completely unfamiliar with the medium, leading with the same old “Hey! Comics aren’t for kids anymore!” tagline. In gaming, we get “Hey! Gaming isn’t just Pac-Man anymore!”. How far along would film criticism be if every review started with “Hey! Movies aren’t silent anymore!”?
I expect that we’ll see mainstream gaming criticism develop slowly but surely, as a generation that accepts the PS2 and Xbox as an intrinsic part of the day-to-day comes of age. They’ll be gamers first and foremost, and then they’ll learn how to think about it and write about it.
Simon Owens: Recent reports show that comic book sales are on the uprise, probably because of the recent success of comic book movies. Do you feel that their quality is on the uprise as well, or are comic book companies trying to mold themselves around their hero-loving incoming audience?
Mark Fossen: What’s amazing right now isn’t that there are good comic books, because there have been books of quality at least as far back as Will Eisner’s work on The Spirit in the 40s. There have always been one or two visionaries producing work that easily stood alongside the best that pop culture had to offer.
What’s remarkable right now is that there are so many quality comic books, in so many different flavors. While the capes-n-tights is still the tail that wags the dog, it’s increasingly just one segment of a medium that’s exploding into many new fields. Just like television or movies, there’s more to comics than one particular genre. There’s been a huge surge in straight-up action books devoid of superpowers, crime books that read more like noir than “Bif! Bam! Pow!”, autobiography, horror, and even non-fiction like the wonderful Action Philosophers. There’s a depth of excellence right now that’s exciting, and I think it will continue to grow as people begin to realize that comics aren’t limited to superheroes anymore than television is limited to cop shows.
Simon Owens: How did you come to be a part of so many different online writing projects?
Mark Fossen: Happy accidents, and an inability to say “no”. Though I have a background in theatrical criticism, I hadn’t really considered writing until after being on the technical staff at Operation Sports for some time. I eventually decided I’d like to give reviewing a try and built from there. Sports games is a pretty limited field, however, and I began to feel the need to flex my writing muscles a bit with more frequent and varied reviews. Like most things, the way to get better at writing is to do it, and do it frequently. I was just coming back to comic books after a long time away, and decided to open Focused Totality to work on daily writing about an artform that that can support the reflective writing that I hoped to do more of. When the Managing Editor of Operation Sports, Shawn Drotar, mentioned opening a new gaming site that could focus on more in-depth writing, I went along for the ride and helped launch 5WG.
Not a day passes where I don’t think I’m overbooked, but I try to just start writing and put off the decision for another day.
Simon Owens: In your comic book reviews, you like to guess at what might be influencing a particular comic book. For instance, you claim that one of the comic books you reviewed was heavily influenced by the show Lost. Are comics heavily influenced by other forms of media?
Mark Fossen: More and more, comics are swimming in the pop culture pool. There’s a lot of cross-pollination, especially with television. Bablyon 5′s J. Michael Straczynski, Buffy’s Joss Whedon, and Lost’s Damon Lindelof’ are only a few of the more prominent names that have crossed from television to comics and back again. Comics are starting to be seen as a fertile ground for new properties, and it’s not just about the superheroes. There’s a Hollywood Option Gold Rush right now, and people are eager to cash in. Unfortunately, I read more and more comics lately that seem written specifically for the option money.
Simon Owens: What are the five blogs you’d recommend to supplement the reading of your own?
Mark Fossen: Double Articulation: Remember that commercial with Tiger Woods juggling the golf ball with his club? That’s like Jim Roeg with a comic. Using hardcore literary theory, he bounces it around and makes it sing and dance. he doesn’t post enough for my taste, but when he does, it is dazzling.
Jog The Blog: Consistently the best comics reviews available, and he churns them out daily. When I grow up, I want to be Jog.
Blog@Newsarama: I didn’t expect that a groupblog attached to the 800 lb. gorrilla of comics news sites would amount to much. I’m often wrong. If you only read one comic blog, this would be it. It has a lot of voices, and they’re all intelligent … and that’s a good combination.
Joystiq: If your one comic blog is Blog@Newsarama, then Joystiq is your one gaming blog. Another groupblog, it is notable for its breadth of coverage, and the ability to walk the line between disseminating news while still injecting some personality.
Penny Arcade: Maybe it’s not officially a blog, but the news posts attached to each webcomic contain some of the best writing about gaming that you’ll find anywhere. Come for the funny comic, but stay for the hyper-intelligent criticism of gaming and the industry around it.
(related posts: Comic Book Urban Legends, Interview with Video Game Media Watch)