Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Potential problems in the march towards webcomics (or, get offa my lawn!)

-A bit more on journalism: Here's an example of a good piece written without inside sources. How much better would it be if there were some inside sources? Quite a bit, one would think. In fact, it could be a highly informative and entertaining piece. The Wildstorm relaunch has been one of the most great Marvel/DC catastrophes of the last five years, but it's been overshadowed by DC's other scheduling disasters, DC's drooping sales, negative fan reaction to Marvel's big crossover events, and both companies' questionable depiction of women and minorities. It's highly unlikely that Scott Dunbier is responsible for the whole mess--there has to be more to this story. I don't know if Marc-Oliver Frisch has the connections to push this story any further, or even the inclination to do so. If anybody else does, however--please do so!

-Those of you smarter and more keyed into the outside world are probably already aware of this, but for those like me: cartoons by Graham Annable on Youtube (via Kazu Kibuishi, sort of--he was linking to the newest one). If you're not familiar with Annable, you should be. Here's his site.

-Speaking of not being keyed into the outside world: let's talk webcomics. I don't read enough of them, and it makes me feel bad because they're a wonderful opportunity for cartoonists and readers alike. Tom Spurgeon is so worried that he isn't covering them enough on his website that he took the opportunity presented by a nasty email (the "suck it, grampa" letter) to talk about webcomics in a variety of ways--as a platform for delivering comics, as specific works of art, and as a potential savior of the comics industry. It's a typically Spurgeon-ish piece, concerned with potential of webcomics to economically benefit a wider range of cartoonists. It also reflects Spurgeon's catholic approach to comics, arguing that webcomics are not fundamentally different from print comics in any aesthetically meaningful sense. Thus, rhetoric painting webcomics as a paradigm-destroying revolution-in-waiting is overblown; there's still a fair degree of fluidity between print and online comics, and it's unlikely that readers process the comics much differently depending on where they read them.

If I'm interpreting him correctly, I think we're basically on the same page. (Spurgeon's got more of a problem with online interfaces, which I've never found especially problematic; but this strikes me as a minor disagreement.) It's not such a radical position to evaluate webcomics as a subset of the larger comics world, with no special consideration given to the method of dissemination or the cost to the consumer. Spurgeon's off-the-cuff list of quality webcomics reflects this mindset. The New York Times comics are produced for print, and are available online mostly for convenience's sake; I'm pretty sure the same is true for Ben Katchor's Metropolis work. I would speculate that some within the webcomics community would protest their inclusion on his list, but there's no doubt that these particular comics are vastly superior to almost all of those produced for the internet.

But for those of us who aren't as invested in webcomics as a movement, it's a good list of high quality work. It breaks down some of the stereotypes about webcomics exemplified by this Homestar Runner cartoon (link courtesy Heidi McDonald). Of course, those stereotypes exist for a reason, as Spurgeon notes (and as I noted a few weeks ago). I think this is related to a different point of Spurgeon's: a big part of the discourse on webcomics is that they are potential gold mines for their creators. The biggest goldmines of all--PvP and Penny Arcade--have spawned legions of imitators, all focused on the excruciating details of various flavors of nerd culture. I hate these strips. I have no use for their progenitors either; they either deal with pastimes of no interest to me, or they make me feel bad about participating in the pastime in question.

And this is what makes me a bit queasy about webcomics as the future of comics publishing. There seems to be a meaningful link between poor quality and the desire to become internet comic moguls. The "suck it, grampa" letter itself reflects this outlook:

We see the internet as the Future of comics, and are aware of emerging business models that support this theory by proving that online comics can succeed by selling merchandise and advertising associated with a freely-distributed webcomic. This is, in fact, The Future. Pretentious Art Comix from Drawn & Quarterly that 130 people buy are not the future. They are The Problem.

Look, I love Achewood as much as any comic published in any format at any point in comics history, but it would be absolutely disastrous if every comic had to follow Chris Onstad's publishing model. That model, it seems to me, depends on Onstad's incredible cast of characters and unparalleled gift for writing distinctive dialogue. It's the perfect combination for a merchandising empire: plenty of beloved slogans and characters to emblazon on t-shirts, posters, and bottles of hot sauce. Furthermore, Onstad's success in giving each character a recognizable voice surely spurs sales of Roast Beef's zines and Nice Pete's novels. Onstad's profits are high enough to provide for a family of three in an area of the country notorious for its high cost of living. And yet Achewood itself does not suffer from this extensive merchandising.

It's unrealistic to expect other webcomics to succeed with this model; not everyone is as talented as Chris Onstad. More importantly, not everyone wants to create a comic which lends itself to vigorous branding. Could Chris Ware have made a living off of a webcomic version of Jimmy Corrigan? I find it difficult to envision a market for t-shirts adorned with lines of dialogue from the comic, or cookbooks purportedly written by its characters. But there's clearly a fairly significant demand for the actual Jimmy Corrigan comic, which has sold over 200,000 copies in graphic novel form. Will there be no room for these kind of comics in the future? Will it be all Peter Bagge and no Dan Clowes?* Or will the future Dan Cloweses have to make money in some other endeavor, content that their work is at least out there for people to read?

For year, that was the only solace for alternative-type cartoonists: at least somebody's reading this stuff. We're not completely beyond that yet, and it's uncertain (unlikely?) that we ever will be. But in the world of print, especially now that traditional publishers are in the graphic novel business, there are opportunities for producing serious work in exchange for moderate sums of money. What happens if this avenue is closed off? One would guess that an online version of Fun Home would have done okay on advertising, given that many of its readers would comprise an identifiable demographic for advertisers to target. But what about Nick Bertozzi's The Salon? Would Bertozzi have been able to sell naked Picasso t-shirts? Who would advertise on his site? The tourism board of Paris?

The answer, I suppose, is that The Salon is part of The Problem, one of those Pretentious Art Comix which are holding back the webcomic revolution. It's easy to proclaim that web cartoonists can make a living off of advertising and merchandise, but it seems to me that there's a much narrower range of comics supporting that model than Spurgeon's correspondent is letting on. It seems to me that dependence on ancillary income streams puts the cartoonist in an uncomfortable position, one that might encourage pandering. Which is nothing new in comics--Marvel or DC thrive on pandering, couldn't exist without it. But when you ask cartoonists to depend on merchandise sales, you're asking them to get in the business of creating popular intellectual properties. When you ask them to depend on advertising, you're asking them to get in the business of demographic farming. These are the economic models upon which broadcast television has historically depended. That's nothing to emulate, at least not for creators more interested in quality than profit.

Having said all that, I do think the move towards webcomics is all but inevitable. I think it will be a great way for a wider variety of young cartoonists to show off their work, and a wider range of material should (theoretically) be available to those who don't have access to comics shops which carry everything under the sun. But I worry that the future might be bleak for those who want to make a living by producing more challenging, adult work. One possible solution would be a multi-tiered pricing structure for content, much like in the contemporary television industry. Comics which can survive on advertising and merchandising could be the equivalent of the major networks, free to anyone who wants to read it. More artistic/literary work would be more like HBO, perhaps bundled with other content (the Modern Tales model, I believe) or offered a la carte (not necessarily via micropayments, since it's unclear if that's ever going to catch on). Or maybe Valerie D'Orazio is right, and Marvel/DC/other custodians of intellectual properties will embrace a wider variety of styles and offer employment to deserving cartoonists. (I think my model is more likely, but hers is probably more desirable.) Or maybe the changing global economy will encourage socialism, thus forcing the government to pay cartoonists. Or maybe the impending ecological apocalypse will ensure that only the very most talented people are allowed to produce comics instead of working on the farm tower.

Then again, maybe webcomics will never fully replace print comics, in which case I should have spent this afternoon doing something more productive and/or fun.

*For the record, Peter Bagge is one of my very favorite-est cartoonists ever. I just wouldn't want every comic to read like Hate.


jc said...

I don't doubt that Onstad sets out to introduce ideas in the strip that lend themselves to merchandise. "Stoned Lightning" is the clearest example of this I can recall. They make a softball team, design a logo for the team, the softball team is almost immediately discarded. You can buy a shirt with the logo on it.

I find his ability to move the booklets far more interesting. A cartoonist who wants to work on a strip might use the strip as a sort "home base" for daily ideas and daily readership; he can also use the site to sell self-published print materials containing material that doesn't lend itself to the format of the strip (though it's a tougher and tougher sell if that material isn't concretely tied to what's going on in the strip in some way.)

That is probably more of a way for people to get somebody to read their stuff than to turn a profit, but there are a heck of a lot of young cartoonists who need some exposure and experience before they jump right in and try to make a commercial venture out of their work. I don't know if Onstad had what he's doing now in mind early on or if it just naturally suggested itself as the strip progressed.

Julio Oliveira said...

Well, there is always the Something Positive model too. The "give me a year's salary and will quit my job and just do this for you people". Donations are a great part of paying the bills with webcomics. Now he pays the bills mostly with advertising, not having the kind of really fancy merchandise some others have.

And t-shirt sales. I always thought that J. Jacques idea with questionable content, of using his characters clothes to create a buzz for possible t-shirts designs he intends to sell and them sell the ones "people demanded", pure genius ... thought it would help him if the comic wasn't really good.

The Estate of Tim O'Neil said...

I think the speedy proliferation of merchandise-friendly ideas is just a byproduct of the way Onstad works. For every "Stoned Lightning" that appears for three days and is never heard again, there's something like the stupid fake plastic testicles on a cell phone that metastasizes into something much larger (the Great Outdoor Fight). That's how he works - he's never planned stories in advance, being content merely to allow them to unfold as they occur to him. Had the mood struck him, I'm sure the Stoned Lightning story could have built into something more substantial - but it didn't. At least he got a T-shirt idea out of it...

Dick Hyacinth said...

The book sales issue is interesting. I always wonder how many people buying Onstad's books are giving them to people who don't or won't read comics on their monitor. Kind of like the Team Comics obsession with "hooking civilians" or whatever.

I also wonder about some diminishing marginal utility (probably a misuse of this term, but bear with me) in reading a "serious" comic versus a funny one like Achewood. I mean, we've all wasted entire afternoons re-reading old strips, right? But I'm less likely to casually re-read something like Palestine--I'm usually doing it in a very deliberate way.

Then again, that stuff is free on the internet, so buying it ends up being mostly a way of financially supporting the continued production of the strip. I guess non-humor strips could tap into that sense of goodwill, in which case all you have to do is produce an extremely high quality strip with a rabid following. Sounds simple enough.

Winston Rowntree said...

"it would be absolutely disastrous if every comic had to follow Chris Onstad's publishing model. That model, it seems to me, depends on Onstad's incredible cast of characters and unparalleled gift for writing distinctive dialogue."

Disastrous how? Because lousy comics couldn't survive? Because success would depend on quality? Onstad's success depends on unique and appealing comics--as should any cartoonist's success. Sounds more like the separation of wheat and chaff. Great article, anyway. Good discussion goin' on.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Re: donations - Interestingly, the Penny Arcade guys had to survive on reader donations for a while, before they got a business manager who helped them build their current empire. It shows that even the most popular strips take years and years to build an audience; it's not going to happen overnight, even if you're an amazing talent, which most of these guys aren't.

Joey said...

Just FYI, The Salon debuted as a webcomic on several years before it appeared in print.

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