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

April 16, 2007

It's Rarely About One or the Other

The formidable blogger Kevin Melrose recently assembled some opinion pieces by a few artists working in the OGN format, roughly defined in this case as formats longer than traditional comic book forms and released more like books rather than periodical. The artists seemed to be suggesting that doing that much work might not be financially tenable for a whole lot of people, something that seems to be borne out by various historical examples of how artists have found time to work on original longer form work (Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse spring to mind).

What's important about this isn't the usual waved-hand judgments of which format is the future, which format is over, which format is dead, which format satisfies and which one doesn't. Such pronouncements are silly. I don't know why so many people in comics have a binary fixation, but if the history of comics teaches us anything it's that multiple formats and launching points are possible and profitable. The newspaper strip format has been in decline since the late 1940s for pity's sake, but there is still a significant number of people making a middle class or better living solely off the profits from that market. Should the strip market have been abandoned or neglected in the 1950s in favor of a big push for the new paperback market? Of course not. And no comics market should be abandoned or neglected or even pooh-poohed right now, let alone vastly profitable ones.

Instead, let us push for reform and exploration of all markets based on the value that is just below the surface in Melrose's posting: a market for an art form should be judged by its ability to serve its artists; if it doesn't work for the artists, it doesn't work, period.

The only thing that rivals the either/or fascination of comics culture is the bottom-line worship, the conviction that a huge runaway success in a market or with a company benefits everyone. This isn't always the case. If American comics culture hasn't learned that from its history, it is likely unable to learn anything at all. There are ways to structure an industry other than boosting the bottom line and hoping that artists will be taken care of, there are models whereby more artists and more creators can make a good living from the fruits of their craft and imagination. We only need to fight for them: for market diversity, for ethical contracts, for open and equitable access to the various marketplaces, for long-term health over short-term gluttony, against unethical practices even when someone profits, against lionizing businesspeople that exploit artists, against celebrating the bottom line for the bottom line's sake.

If comics is only willing to take the future it's given, it will be given the future it deserves. I doubt anybody wants that. Luckily, futures can also be shaped, at least in part.
posted 11:30 am PST | Permalink

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