Comics losing its most relevant critic as Comics and Cola announces shut down


Yesterday Zainab Akhtar announced she was shutting down her Eisner-nominated website Comics & Cola. The reason was not the usual ones — no money in it, moving on, life changes. It was something much more troubling and dangerous.




Just to back up for a minute, Comics & Cola had run since 2011 and become the one indispensable voice for the evolution of comics as a medium of storytelling and art in the 21st century. Zainab always exhibited a specific but broad taste and championed cartoonists from  Jane Mai to James Stokoe, and covered publishers like Peow, Kus! and Breakdown as the innovative essential voices that they are. She was a contributor here at The Beat for much of 2013 and her pieces are some of the best things ever run here.  I could make a list of the great artists and comics she wrote about but it would just send me off into a reverie of reading. One of the great features of her site was “Shelfies” with indie cartoonists, such as this one that ran only days ago where Eleanor Davis visited her childhood home and looked at the books still stored there.

I’m truly envious of the passion Zainab exhibits in her comics writing, and her ability to write about comics art in an intelligent way, as in her discovery of  Hugo Pratt. 


Pratt’s art is beautiful; combining traditional, conventional beauty and drawing with capability and technique. Often with technique you get the sense of deliberation, a careful studying to produce a certain illustration and effect, but Pratt’s work is effortless, it flows and glides; like its protagonist its inherently pleasing nature is complemented by learnt attributes. There’s a seamless synchronicity between the writing, atmosphere, tone and art that allows for superior storytelling of the finest kind. Pratt’s lines are largely fine: he draws the sea and horizons in swooping, sweeping arcs, creased detail; then alternating between thick brushes to convey base impressions of a thing. 

The page below is a prime example in illustrating both those styles: in the second panel you have those very simple, thickly rendered smoke clouds, in the third lots of inks for shadow and depth, and that final middle panel of Corto running in panic: again very rough, one-touch strokes and squiggles. The effect it has here is to demonstrate the heat of the fire and moment and Corto’s emotions, while the policemen remain meticulously turned out and ambivalent. There is a lot of this: stroke, stroke, stroke, stroke, and suddenly you have a boat full of people sailing lazily on. You can see the individual components in addition to the collective image it conjures. It’s all gorgeously done.

Zainab’s comics criticism and view of the medium helped it grow and set a tone for the entire conversation about its evolution. (Luckily she announced that she will be leaving the site up.)   The outpouring of sadness from the community she championed was immediate. Just a sampling.


So much love and respect — it seems far from the hostility that caused her to walk away, but this post about The Lakes show might give some context. It is impossible to judge someone given the amount of invisible (to the privileged) racism, sexism and (far from invisible) Islamophobia that is rampant in European and US society. When Zainab first started writing for me, she was optimistic and idealistic, or at least expressed that most of the time. Over three years, via social media, I watched all that optimism and idealism wash away in a sea of  fatigue over daily battles, battles that should quite rightly never have had to be fought.





Not setting aside any of the above, I am going to make one little argument: people who say comics have a particularly toxic environment are both right and wrong. Yes, we are coming out of a 40 year period when sexism was entrenched as the very fabric of the medium. But it is also a very close knit community, where the lines between superstar and reader are often non existent. It’s part of this lack of boundaries that sometimes makes the roles of critics and creators fraught. But I doubt you’d see anything like a bestselling author like Balak telling a critic that he learned from her reviews in music, movies or TV.






But even this wasn’t enough to balance the other toxic elements that Zainab had to experience. Comics struggle with diversity, like the rest of US and UK society, and even a tiny token is often hailed as a breakthrough that will open the doors to a paradise of (unwanted) equality. I can only personally speak for the sexism aspect of that, but people have been saying “Women are in comics now!” for 40 years and that it still needs to be said is just a bit silly.

The comics industry should have been proud of the fact that its finest critic is a brown, Muslim woman from Leeds. I’d like to think that the good part of it, the part worth saving, is. But that’s not for me to call. Until we have a safer place for still marginalized voices, unnecessary battles will be fought every single day. And the casualties will continue.

And I hope with all my heart that we haven’t lost Zainab for good. She’s too unique and important. But even more, I hope she finds a place where she can be safe and happy.



  1. says

    Sad to hear. I wish her the best.

    And to the bigots and the bullies, I hope that someday they learn empathy and become better people.

  2. Erik Barkman says

    Zainab Akhtar is a wonderful writer and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following Comics & Cola these past years. Too bad she burned out.

  3. Spencer says

    I’m wondering what happened though? I feel like us fans of her site deserve more of an explanation so we can all, the whole comics community that loved her, have some real closure.

    Who are these bigots who consistently attacked her? Are there specific instances here? Was it just a lot of little attacks over a long period of time?

    I think we can start a productive conversation(maybe, at least theoretically) if we have a clearer picture of what was going on which led to this disturbing end.

  4. jacob goddard says

    One of the best writers-about-comics I have ever read, and I can only hope there is a bidding war over her picks her up.

  5. says

    I’ve never heard of this site, and this is the first time I’ve seen this site mentioned here, so I’m assuming the “relevance” is out of respect, mostly.

  6. says

    Spencer said: “I’m wondering what happened though? I feel like us fans of her site deserve more of an explanation so we can all, the whole comics community that loved her, have some real closure.”

    We already know what likely happened. It was probably the same stuff every non-white-guy talks about, ranging from blatant sexism to constant, wearying micro-aggressions (accelerated by the fact she is both female and Muslim). If you don’t know the problem, you haven’t been paying attention to years of complaints and discussion.

    Demanding specifics is unnecessary and wallowing in wanting to know the morbid details. Fans “deserve” nothing but to learn to be better supporters of different, diverse opinions and to support those who call out this kind of horrible treatment when and where it occurs.

  7. Spencer says

    I just wanted to know if there was anyone we could hold accountable, in the comics community, for making her shut down her site. I’m sorry that came off as insensitive.

  8. says

    Gee, And gone are my hope that perhaps the situation was a little bit better elsewhere than in France, where racism, hatred and bigotry are becoming a national trait.

  9. says

    Spencer, thanks for taking my comment so well. The problem is that there isn’t one or two or ten bad apples. It’s endemic, top to bottom. This isn’t a comic where we can send a hero to punch out a bad guy. It’s a much more difficult problem of education and building empathy with those beyond the young adult white male.

  10. says

    Spencer, there most likely is, but a) it’s the internet, it’s probably someone who benefited wrongly from anonymity and b) what would doing anything to anyone solve, especially at this point?

    This is unfortunate news, but this voice has not been completely snuffed out. Just…relocated.

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