Sunday, March 18, 2007

Web comics

Those two Peanuts SPPs look almost identical, but they actually are from successive strips (from forty-seven years ago.)

A while ago I left a comment on the Daily Cartoonist that I thought was pretty good. I thought I should unbury it and rewrite it here. It's about webcomics. It seems there is always a fairly successful web-cartoonist bitching about not being able to get a newspaper syndication deal. I'm generalizing here, I know, but often it seems that web cartoonists are simultaneously complaining about the state of newspaper comics and the business of them, while at the same time complaining that he or she can't break into the same business he deplores. I hate this club, they say, they're old and out of touch, have no appreciation for real talent, and, what I really hate about them, is that they won't let me in.

Web comics and newspaper comics are ultimately two different mediums. They have a different form, different rules, and, really, different audiences. As for stage and film actors, being successful in one medium does not necessarily guarantee success in the other.

Also, while I am not saying that one medium is inherently better than the other (even if I personally enjoy one more than the other,) newspaper comics do tend to be more professionally executed and edited than web comics. Even a dull, creatively bankrupt legacy strip like Blondie is more consistent and fundamentally sound than 99.9% of self-published web comics.

In all web publishing (comics, music, video, and, yes, blogs,) there seems to be a misconception that editorial guidance is the same as censorship, that any suggestion or criticism on the part of a publisher somehow contaminates the art. This is not true. F Scott Fitzgerald needed Maxwell Perkins, The Beatles needed George Martin, and, er, The Game needed Dr. Dre.

What is really desired by the web comics crowd is legitimacy. They seem to feel (and maybe not say it out loud) that publication by a syndicate somehow legitimizes their work. A web cartoonist may be extremely successful in his work, earning a living with a devoted fan base, but still feels he is missing something without the “legitimization” of newspaper syndication. This is silly. If you are successful, you are successful.

For web comics to be truly taken seriously, the community itself must take itself seriously. Cartoonists and readers must demand excellence. Cartoonists must not bristle at any criticism that may float their way. Readers and critics need to read intelligently and not engage in the this sucks/this is awesome school of criticism. The web comics community must develop its own standards of legitimacy and not look for approval from a different medium that really doesn’t give a rat’s ass about them.

In the course of this blog, the biggest complaints I got where when I dared to criticize lesser known comics like Barkeater Lake. There seems to be an unspoken rule in comics criticism that it's okay and funny to make fun of the Garfields and the Marmadukes, but pointing out the short-comings of small comics with devoted web followings is off-limits. For the web-comics community to fully mature, it most learn to accept Garfield-level criticism.


Anonymous Plumberduck said...

Based on my experience as a web comic reader, I'll grant that you make several good points here. Sturgeon's Law ("Ninety percent of everything is crud") is especially true in the editor-less world of self-published online comics. And, in a certain breed of online comic, there is exactly the undercurrent of "I want newspaper legitimacy without newspaper control" that you describe here.

However, I would contend that that is because those authors do not understand the important distinction that you draw, that web comics and print comics are two very different species of art. The people you describe in this post aren't really web cartoonists; they're print cartoonists who can't get a deal with a syndicate, and it shows.

In my experience, real web comic creators (Achewood's Chris Onstad, Scary-Go-Round's John Allison, and the guys from Penny Arcade, just for example) have no interest in being "legitimized." They're very comfortable with what they're doing, and the freedom in content and form it allows them.

There's also the interesting example of R. Stevens, the author of "Diesel Sweeties," who seems to have an excellent grasp of the difference between the two mediums. He produces two strips every day; one of them is the standard three panel black-and-white print strip, and the other is a longer, more elaborate web strip. Both are funny, but the print strips, by necessity, involve quick, punchy jokes, while the web strip is allowed to meander into odd, hillarious situations.

I apologize for the rant-like quality of this, but you made a lot of interesting points that I thought deserved addressing from a comics fan who leans more toward the web side of things.

Keep up the good work pointing out anywhere (print or online) where people are used tired, lazy humor!

10:24 AM  
Blogger Tony said...

Your comments are fair. It's true that many or most web comics are inconsistent at best. (I tend to read the consistent ones, myself, and ignore the rest.) It's also true that having an editor can, or at least should, result in higher quality -- they give you professional feedback, they challenge you when you are "phoning it in", etc.

On the other hand, we can all be forgiven for misjudging the contributions of the editors at the syndicates. The funny pages are, by and large, a wasteland of weak material, with a mere handful of gems. Do Jim Davis's editors challenge him when he phones it in? Why did the Boondocks stick around for so long after McGruder had clearly lost interest in the medium?

On the whole, there is probably more mediocrity in the vast world of web comics than in the smaller world of print -- but there's a difference. Good webcomics become popular and turn into money-making propositions; mediocre ones are ignored. Both good and mediocre print comics are paying gigs, on the other hand, and the mediocre ones seem to stick around forever.

11:04 AM  
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