Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

















October 7, 2007


CR Editorial: Face/Fight/Flee The Future! Talking About Webcomics

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I've been thinking a lot about comics on-line recently, which is why I was delighted to receive the following Suck It, Grampa letter from reader Winston Rowntree.
Your web site is focused primarily on print comics that Nobody Reads. There are thousands, like myself, who think of comics primarily as an online medium and we read online comics almost exclusively (and I don't mean manga and gamer comics). 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. Your website seems to ignore The Future, albeit with the occasional obligatory reference to The Perry Bible Fellowship. Granted, The Future of comics has not arrived yet, but you'll look really smart if you get on the bandwagon now before it fills. If you want to present a comprehensive picture of the comics world, then you have work to do. There is a world of high-quality work out there on the internet, if you know where to look. Will you champion it? Thank you and forgive my youthful and swinish arrogance.
Now that's how you kick off a discussion. My thanks to Mr. Rowntree.

Leaving aside the distorted argumentation, the basic criticism here is well-founded. CR doesn't engage webcomics as passionately and as thoroughly as it should: not as a news blog, not as a platform for editorials, not as a place for criticism. That's on me. I plan to write more frequently about webcomics as a critic, and just kind of getting in there and embracing the work of doing that is the only solution to the problem of meager critical dialog. My guess is that I'll just make a priority of reviewing one a week for a while until interacting with that material becomes more natural, a bigger part of my comics reading life. This site has a huge gap to make up when it comes to a critical dialog with translated manga as well, which should make 2008 an enjoyable year in terms of getting into work with which I'm largely unfamiliar. I plan on similar initiatives regarding news coverage in those areas as well.

However, this letter both puts on the table and embodies some of the difficulties I've had engaging with the on-line portion of the comics medium. I thought maybe by listing a few of them here I could encourage further dialog, invite sympathetic e-mails of general assistance, or at least get some of this off of my chest.

1) Basically, I Don't Give a Crap About the Future as a Value in and of Itself -- My primary concern with comics isn't in the mass thrust of its most popular aspects but in its best work, its value as edifying and significant art. If the great art is on-line, I'll follow it there. If it's in the 130-copy press run comic sold by an art comics publisher, I'll engage it there. If it's in a mainstream comic book, I'll go after it there. In comics, touting the future resembles a more abstract version of pushing comics' present. Both are tricks of marketing-driven rhetoric that stretch past the presumption of great work to isolate a value that's distinct from content. There's a limit as to how far I'm willing to let such an element dictate terms. If that means I miss the bandwagon, well, at least I'm not living down a bunch of articles describing in great detail all of these specific visions of the future of comics that never came to be. Webcomics culture would impress a lot of us a lot more if it emphasized the greatness of its offerings, not simply their hit counts, or the hits in years to come.

2) I Also Don't Care As Much As One Might Think About Bottom-Line Business Matters -- Clearly, the biggest problem when examining webcomics as business is the level of ancient astronauts-level bullshit sometimes involved in the way figures are reported or asserted or hinted at. I'm burdened with a second problem in that when I look at business, my primary concern isn't the number of zeroes in the bottom line or the projected possibilities for same but in the creation of an ethical playing field that favors opportunities for artists to succeed according to their abilities. A lot of news about on-line comics comes in the form of trumpeting how much money is either made or is possible in X, Y, or Z initiative. There's a "read it and weep, chumps!" element to a lot of the way entities present business success in webcomics. Don't get me wrong: making money is great. It's preferable to no money, that's for sure. But there are competing values, and that's true in webcomics the same way it's true in mainstream comics or editorial cartooning. The sooner webcomics folk stop talking about their financial news as if they're riches struck by an enterprising pioneer and more in terms of an industry and regular opportunities for artists, the better.

3) Not Only Do Most Webcomics Suck, They Suck in Particularly Aggravating Ways, And Not Enough People are Willing or Perhaps Able to Say So -- Most art is wretched. Most comics are terrible, too. It's not surprising, then, that most webcomics are awful. Further, any publishing platform with a low threshold for participation yields a lot of less than stellar work, and gives that work a pride of place that others might not. Still, I'd suggest that webcomics may outstrip even mainstream superhero comic books when it comes to ignoring fundamental breakdowns in craft and execution, both in their creation and during discussion of their overall quality. I don't mean the too-rigid applications of what good drawing or good writing means, something you see when mainstream and alternative comics fans do battle on this subject. I don't even mean failures in craft, which by themselves are a part of a lot of still-wonderful art. What I'm talking about are great heaving collapses married to what seems like aphasia when it comes to pointing out the broken thing in the room. As a critic, knowing that you're going to have to argue fundamental issues and first causes makes reviewing those comics a bit more daunting, and the resulting criticism a lot less effective.

You know, in this way webcomics has a lot in common with non-superhero comic books of 25 years ago, although I think on-line work is even more untethered. I experience the same thing when it comes to webcomics that I used to live through 25 years ago encountering people into alt-indy comics: folks recommending works as equally valuable where one seems obviously very good and one seem obviously not good at all (distinctions that were later borne out). Scenes around art forms or expressions within an art form tend to suffer from aesthetic myopia.

4) I Don't Think Much of On-Line Comics Interfaces -- I may be alone in this, and this may be my version of my parents not being able to work their VCR, but I have a harder time than I think I should interacting with the way comics are published on-line. I'm always scrolling around more than I like, or adjusting my screen size, or getting some things that pop up with new episodes and others with coming soon pages, and I'm not always sure how to read past installments. I'm also frequently uncertain if a strip is ongoing or has just ended or is in repeats or is current. I like to think I'm not a dope. I make part of my living on-line, and I'm passionate about the subject matter. I would be as hesitant to send one of my non comics-savvy friend into an open-ended search for webcomics as I would to send them to a standard-or-better comics shop. I'm never this confused with other art forms I like much less than I like comics. I don't know if this lack of a killer app for comics reading, or just a system of interacting with a public that's developed in a dysfunctional, obtuse manner, but I thought things would be a lot easier by now.

5) Do Such Discussions Really Matter? -- Recent news stories about print stalwarts For Better or For Worse and Funky Winkerbean had crucial and perhaps more significantly undiscussed on-line elements to their development. Book iterations of on-line strips like Micrographica and Jellaby have begun to hit their markets without being explicitly tied into their on-line version as an adjunct or as a tie-in or (god help us) as an ultimate goal. All of the strip syndicates are on-line, as are the vast majority of editorial cartoonists. Comic book publishers like SLG Publishing are mixing up how and in what form work gets released, and one can imagine most prominent North American comics publishers adding such versions of all their books as the field begins to open up to more readers in that direction. Livejournal-based collectives such as Act-I-Vate have done well bringing public and professional attention to their members' web work. People will also continue to put material up on-line on their dime, with a range of aims in mind.

While there will always be cultures inherent to forms of production, and art that takes advantage of formal differences, and repercussions cascading through business and art as one type of delivery becomes more prominent than the others, the basic interaction between medium and reader stands a good chance of remaining the same. I'd suggest that the similarities between my reading Achewood and my father reading Barnaby are more significant than the differences in our reading them. I look forward to the day when webcomics are simply, well, comics.

******

An Extremely Short List of Ten Comics I Read On-Line, A List That Doesn't Include Perry Bible Fellowship

To allow this article maximum linkage, to potentially provide some new comics reading experiences to those of you not webcomics-savvy in any way, to provide a snapshot of the riches of work to be found on-line and thus provide a reason why the subject's worth talking about it in the first place, and to test myself as to what I really think when I think webcomics, here are the first ten comics that popped into my head writing from scratch into an empty word document. There are dozens as-worthy reading experiences out there, from a more diverse array of creators than I came up with during this exercise. Hopefully, we can all find out about more of them in the weeks to come.

*****

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Achewood
The best comic strip of this decade?

*****

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AD -- New Orleans After the Deluge
Both the specific subject matter and the general treatment of disasters in art are subjects that interest me greatly, so I'm there.

*****

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American Elf
I'm a compulsive reader.

*****

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Ben Katchor in Metropolis
Some of the best looking work available anywhere.

*****

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Copper
I like the way this feature looks, and I like its general Sunday Newspaper ethos.

*****

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David Rees' Comics
Irregularly updated and thus I only check it irregularly. I like how Rees puts jokes wherever the heck he pleases.

*****

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Dinosaur Comics
I'm not sure why this one popped into my head over some others, except maybe there's something very webcomicky about its basic approach.

*****

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Dwarf Attack
I love Greg Stump's comics, and I'm delighted there's a place to read a lot of them.

*****

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Les Petits Riens
Lewis Trondheim's comics blog.

*****

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NYT Sunday Magazine's Funny Pages
Most of what I've read about these comics has been grousing about them not meeting some perceived NYT standard of justifying one's lifelong hobbies to everyone who raises an eyebrow at them, and the PDF system is odd, but I've enjoyed all of the serials.
 
posted 6:30 am PST | Permalink
 

 
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