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

July 20, 2011

Why It May Have Been Time For The Xeric To Go

Near the end of this site's hiatus, the cartoonist, publisher and philanthropist Peter Laird announced that the Xeric Grant is no more, ending after the next cycle of monies dispensed to (mostly) young cartoonists hoping to fund a comics project. The foundation will continue to serve regional charities.

Kudos of every kind should go to Laird for this significant contribution to the comics art form. If there's an award for which he qualifies for the money he poured into comics over the last two decades, Peter Laird should win that award immediately. This was an overall great thing that he did. Not only were dozens of creators given a splendid opportunity at what was likely a key point in their careers, thousands of readers have richer lives for the art he helped make available. I am one of those readers.

imageWhile the knee-jerk reaction is to bemoan the loss of a publishing opportunity of any kind, and to look back with kindness on all the material that the program put into paper form, there are reasonable arguments that the program as it exists today had become far less necessary than it used to be.

I mostly agree with the statement given in the Xeric press release that more publishing opportunities exist today, chances for cartoonists that did not exist at the time of the program's founding. For some reason, I've seen in a couple of places this become a very limited and boring debate on the virtues of Kickstarter. While crowd funding is one such new opportunity for cartoonists, I think there are a number of changes in play. There's the more basic, next-to-free distribution of your material on-line, for instance, a kind of publishing that seems more directly on Laird's mind. In many cases when a promising talent is involved, this kind of distribution has led to the exact same kind of career-establishing moment that a Xeric book used to (or that it was hoped it might): an offering that could be brought to the attention of potential future publishing and distribution partners, a chance for talent refinement and development in the act of executing the project, and the chance for a core fan base that might make that journey and subsequent ones with you. Another factor is that there are many more publishers now, a lot of them more firmly devoted to smaller books that might not have had a home 18-19 years ago. The books that most resemble exciting Xeric books of the past are the strong first books at smaller companies like Koyama and AdHouse and PictureBox and Secret Acres.

There are other factors that have cut into the Xeric's potency. As someone who's read nearly all of the Xeric books on this list, I feel that on balance the quality of submissions and cartoonists involved is heavily stacked towards the early years. As an active critic back then, I'm measuring this according to my estimation of those talents at that time in comparison to my more current estimation of more recent winners. I also thought the program was a tad more effective early on because the act of self-publishing received greater emphasis. There seemed to be a tighter focus those first few years out on having the artists go through roughly the same self-publishing experience that made Laird a wealthy man, with the faint hope from some circles that this might help create an army of DIY-savvy creators that wouldn't be afraid to strike out on their own if companies didn't provide enough in return for the percentages they took. This is a feel thing, so I could be shouted down, but it felt to me like the emphasis shifted a bit at some point during the Xeric's history to simply placing a printed comic in the winners' hands. As the program progressed, more grant winners seemed to to secure arrangements with established companies that made it possible to outsource some of the work that would normally fall to a classic comics self-publisher. Finally, one has to consider the overall calcification of the Direct Market over the last several years and the general flood of material available now as opposed to the years when the Xeric was getting underway. It's hard to imagine that a Xeric book -- no matter how good -- could by itself secure a toehold in a market where more and more store owners are scrambling to find the money to stock what the established companies offer.

I'll miss the comics aspect of the Xeric Foundation. I think what Peter Laird did was a wonderful thing. I'm happy that I got to read those comics. At the same time, let me suggest it's far too easy in this case to apply an ethos of "more." By such a standard, calling for the continuation of the grants or for finding someone else to provide that same service might be an unstoppable argument. I'm sympathetic. It was probably just as great for the first group of creators as it will be for the last group to open that printer's box and hold an actual printed comic in one's hands, a comic made possible by some wonderful benefactor's money and interest, a comic with their name on it. It's everything else that's different now.
posted 1:20 am PST | Permalink

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