The ComixTalk 2010 Roundtable
Submitted by Xaviar Xerexes on December 16, 2010 - 02:27
I’ve had both feet in online comics since about 1996 onwards. One of the most interesting things about to me has been that the “mainstream” of online comics has always reflected the online audience. Earlier on it was heavily technical and filled with video game references. More so now I see a really huge diversity of styles and genres... filled with video game references. Well I do see a lot of diversity online -- what are some of the niches and topics you thought digital comics did a great job with this year? What’s the most niche comic you saw?
Tyrrell: Is "insanely creative" a niche? Regardless, for catching the viral wave and riding that sumbitch for all its worth, you have to give props to Axe Cop. As far as niche topic treatments go, there were a lot of complex stories that require slow development and reward in-depth reading -- Sailor Twain and Zahra's Paradise come to mind (mid-1800s sea tales and the story of Iran's ongoing Green Revolution, respectively). I think the word I'm looking for to tie them together is "detailed", much the same as Family Man (Enlightenment-era university politics and werewolves). But the most niche comic I saw this year was probably the episode of Box Brown's Everything Dies -- dealing with The Great Disappointment -- a brief history of apocalypticism through a Chris Ware-ish lens.
MacDonald: I think it's just because it's the kind of work that I'm attracted to, but I am constantly finding young cartoonists working in this kind of "magical fairy tale world" vein. People with animal heads and forests and magic and snow. It's very common in foreign indie comics, as well.
Davis: The most niche comic I saw -- and the most successful niche comic -- has to be Matt Inman’s The Oatmeal. Here, he took all the things that appeal to certain social networks -- grammar lessons, listicals, the occasional bear -- and made a high-traffic comic. I know some people were offended that they were being so clearly marketed to, but I say more power to him.
I feel like the twenty-something diary comic is the new videogame webcomic. I realize there have long been diary comics in print, but I’ve recently noticed more and more cropping up online. And as with videogame webcomics, some are amazing and a lot of them just blur together after awhile.
Alverson: I like Sarah Becan's I Think You're Saucesome, which is really more of a foodie webcomic than a diet diary, although she does have some interesting meditations on body image. I'm surprised there aren't more foodie webcomics, now that I think about it. The most niche comic I have found is The Whiteboard, a paintball webcomic that has been around for a while, actually.
Cruz: You’d think there would be a natural crossover between Lovecraft fans and webcomic creators, but I haven’t run across many Lovecraft-themed webcomics in my experience. Are most webcomic creators just Lovecraft posers? Perhaps. So, the most niche webcomic I’ve encountered this year is perhaps The Watcher of Yaathagggu. It’s a webcomic about a girl who works at a lighthouse that stands watch over a sea crawling with tentacled beasties. Lovecraft Is Missing also gets its eldritch horrors game on, but that one is more approachable as a good ol’ fashioned adventure comic… no Lovecraft obsession necessary.
Marshall: Naturally, I end up reading myself (and getting forwarded links to) a lot of webcomics referencing recent and upcoming movies (and the movie and television industries), and I've been pleasantly surprised by creators' takes on the stuff I'm dealing with 24-7 these days. Like you mentioned in the question, there was definitely some aversion to acknowledging the mainstream entertainment industry in the early days of webcomics (and if it *was* acknowledged, it was to ridicule it), so it's been nice to see some creative commentary on the industries I'm covering in my day job. It's hard to cite any specific series for this one, as it seems to be something that pops up sporadically (or around the release of movie trailers) in various comics -- but I'm definitely seeing a lot more of it now than I ever did when I was covering comics full-time. And I love it.
Ack. There was a comic I discovered at this year's New England Webcomics Weekend that was all about someone's cat. I ended up buying a bunch of handmade cat toys from the creator at the show, and that reminded me to check out the comic when I got home. I loved it, but it was very much a comic by and for cat lovers... and now I can't seem to locate the comic (or the card with the website). A comic for cat lovers certainly isn't the most "niche" comic around, but I loved that it was so unapologetic about its audience. Anyone know what comic I'm talking about? Help me out here!
Tyrrell: Rick, I think you're thinking of Hey, Pais.
Shifting topics -- I struggle with what is the best way to honor great comic work published digitally. Initially, webcomics was off on its own with efforts like the WCCAs. More recently, most major comic awards have added a “webcomics” category. While the inclusion of digital comics at the big kids' table is a good step forward, it feels odd to me to lump everything digital into one category. Take this year’s Eisner nominees for the category of Best Digital Comic -- Abominable Charles Christopher, Bayou, The Guns of Shadow Valley, Power Out, and Sin Titulo. On the one hand - how do you compare some of these, but on the other hand, I think about how much work online is left unrepresented.
What’s the best way to recognize digital comics? If you were put in charge of things how would you run the “ultimate” comics award program?
Alverson: Webcomics are an awkward fit with current awards programs, probably for the same reason that manga doesn't do very well -- the judges aren't that famliar with the medium. In 2009, I complained that only one of the "webcomics" that was nominated for the Eisner awards in that category was actually a webcomic in the way we normally think of it -- a comic that exists primarily on the web, with continuity, reader engagement, a dedicated website. There is more to making a webcomic than simply scanning in your drawings and posting them online.
I would like to see webcomics included in the regular categories, especially for the Harveys and the Ignatzes, and then have a few webcomics categories that recognize different aspects of the medium -- best gag comic, best long-form comic, etc. Really, webcomics should have their own awards, designed by creators and webcomics publishers, but awards are a lot of work and realistically that probably won't happen. On the other hand, as the categories dissolve and more people shift their comics reading online, I think digital comics will naturally melt in with the other comics in the established awards.
Tyrrell: I'd like to see the abolition of "webcomics/digital comics/bandes dessinees web" as a category. If Karl Kerschl's work is that good (and it is), let The Abominable Charles Christopher go up for Best Artist against the best print has to offer. That being said, this is dreaming on my part, because it's infinitely easier for juries and nominating committees to keep up with the work of major publishers than it is for them to become familiar with the work of a hundreds of creators that aren't aggregated in one place so easily.
Heater: I think we’re heading into an era where it won’t be necessary to ghettoize such content (though it’s likely still some years off -- this industry isn’t known for moving all that swiftly in the digital space). I don’t think the issue is a lack of awards ceremonies -- we’ve got an ample number of those. Rather, it’s the ability to place the value of content over format.
Davis: It does seem a little odd that digital comics get their own category based simply on platform, but it does seem to be the only way digital comics will be recognized by many awards. If we’re going to fence off digital comics, I’d like to see more digital categories -- best digital short story, best webcomic that updates at least once a week, etc. The biggie for me, though, is just putting more webcomics in front of nominating parties. Certainly with the Eisners, we’ve seen that even the digital nominees tend to have strong ties to print comics. I’d like to think that the committee would happily recognize a wider array of webcomics if they just knew what was out there.
MacDonald: This kind of thing evolves naturally, I think. The Ignatzes recognizes work in both platforms in several categories and I think you'll be seeing this more and more as the "comics establishment", which makes up most Eisner judges, for instance, gets more comfortable with digital comics. Also, web comics are really the "third world" of comics. I notice that manga readers and superhero readers have nothing in common, almost nothing to talk about even, and so it is with webcomics fans and these two fandoms. I am probably even less into that community than I am manga, which is odd considering its online nature.
Marshall: I think the Eisners have a good variety of categories that should then be applied to webcomics specifically, since we all know that the only one of the Eisners that a webcomic will win is the "Best Digital Comic" category. Take the categories used in the Eisners and apply them to webcomics, then add one or two wink-and-nod categories that retain the fun, community vibe of webcomics (i.e., "Best Comic Starring A Robot"), and there's the award lineup. San Diego 2011 - let's do this! (Or maybe we should pick a convention that people can actually afford to attend...)
Cruz: I still like having a separate award [recognize] the depth and breadth of webcomics. The Eisners are great, but the winners get pretty predictable. That’s because the Eisner voters vote with the personality, and most of the time they have nothing to do with webcomics. The Eisner Digital Comic Award might as well be renamed “The Consolation Prize for Popular Mainstream Creators That Didn’t Win Any of the Other Awards” Award.
There’s a perception among some of my readers that awards are a waste of time, basically glorified vanity projects that don’t even drum up business for the winners. I can see where they’re coming from, especially given the popularity contest nature of the WCCA’s as the embarrassment over some of the winners. That view’s overly cynical though. I happen to love awards ceremonies given to every form of media. It spurs healthy debate on who should have won, or who should have been nominated, or what categories should be recognized. It gets people thinking about what qualities their passions should be judged against. And it’s always nice for anyone, anywhere to get recognition, no matter how trivial it may seem. It’s a vote of confidence from people who aren’t just your fans. The temporary confidence boost and the warm fuzzy feelings? That’s totally worth it, in my opinion.
So here’s my perfect awards scenario: a dedicated award for webcomics only. Judged as opposed to online votes. AND I would ditch the illustrated “awards ceremonies.” They’re cute, but they trivialize the award. If at all possible, I’d do the awards presentation live and at one of the conventions. Hey, NEWW is a thing now, right? Film the ceremony, put it online with links to the webcomics presented. Badaboom, badabing.
Give me a bold prediction about where webcomics will be at the end of next year (2011) and the next decade (2020)
Tyrrell: I think we'll see the last of the big-name publisher deals with webcomics for books. They just can't get their heads to a place where a creator with 25,000 readers can sell enough at a sufficient margin to make a living; they've spent too many years optimizing their process for mass sales. But that leaves plenty of room for boutique publishers (I'm looking at you, First Second) to get their feet wet. Especially if the Machine of Death distribution to major chains goes well, I could see the buyer for Barnes & Noble signing a bundle deal to carry the Topatoco catalog.
By 2020 "webcomics" will be a functionally meaningless term. I think monthly print comics by the big publishers will by then have gone the way of vinyl (still existing, but for collectors and purists of a particular bent), replaced by serialized digital offerings, with print largely being the domain of the trade collection. And just as the corporate types have finally settled into that pattern, the independent creators will be transitioning to the next model.
Heater: Bold is tough. As I said, I don’t think the industry moves swiftly enough for bold. I do expect to see a good deal more content being created to take advantage of the diversifying number of platforms, rather than a general repurposing of print. That’s an exciting prospect, no?
Alverson: I think manga will shift over to the web in a big way, as manga publishers (and the Japanese licensors) finally get off the dime. Viz led the way with its Shonen Sunday and SigIKKI sites, and now it is putting some Shonen Jump content online but available only to subscribers. Yen Press reconfigured Yen Plus as a subscriber-only web magazine, and Square Enix announced plans to launch a North American comics site. One huge difference between these and other publisher-run sites is that readers will be expected to pay for the comics, but since they are starting with already established franchises, it may work where other paywalls have failed.
By 2020, comics will have moved far enough into the mainstream that they will be a standard form of literature. Magazines, in whatever form they exist in by then, will include graphic storytelling as part of their standard mix, and people will read comics as easily as they read novels now. The iPad and its successors will help this transition along by making comics easier to find, but the real change began with webcomics, which allowed creators to make comics about the things they are interested in and attract readers who don't necessarily think of themselves as comics readers. xkcd is the index case here, and I hope the medium will blossom in the decade to come.
MacDonald: With Meredith Gran's announcement the other day that Random House dropped Octopus Pie, one of my great predictions of the past has come a cropper -- print webcomics collections have NOT taken the place of Garfield and Doonesbury print collections. I'm not entirely sure why -- maybe it is the fact that webcomics are native on another platform, and the audience doesn't want a print collection. I think webcomics readers interact with them in a different way. Nonetheless, I see nothing but upwards and onwards for webcomics. The next step, I suppose, is for one to become such a moneymaker for its creators that they can rewrite some of the monetary models. Online advertising will become more lucrative for one thing -- but we need a more reliable sustainable economic system that isn't so reliant on the "samizdat" method we have now.
In 2020 we'll be looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar. Barack Obama will be on the Tyra Banks show to talk about his new book. Shiloh Pitt-Jolie will be a movie star. Penny Arcade will be a multinational corporation and people will complain that its too powerful and controls too much of the business. Today's webcomics entrepreneurs will have staffs and worry about payrolls and hiring. And somewhere there will be a new renegade upstart who is figuring out how to change everything... again.
Marshall: BOLD PREDICTION: They will be in our brains, and we'll read them all "Minority Report"-style.
REALISTIC PREDICTION: We'll see the print industry continue to take occasional baby steps forward (and frequent leaps back) into the digital comics realm, while more and more existing webcomics will be reprinted and collected in print form by larger publishers. Mainstream publishers and webcomic creators will gradually drift toward a happy medium as far as expectations vs. return on investment, and we'll see even more creators make the move from comic hobbyists to full-time, professional, "I make my living doing this" comic creators. And there will be much rejoicing.
Davis: By the end of 2011, at least one high-profile webcomic creator will announce that he or she is starting a digital publishing house to publish on mobile devices, and I think we’ll see announcements for more group projects.
In 2020, we’ll be kvetching about the monstrous establishment that is Topatoco and how they don’t recognize hip young creators.
Cruz: In 2011, webcomic readers will eventually get tired or “wacky”/gimmicky pirate-ninja-cowboy-viking-robot mashups. There will be a movement toward solid storytelling and better artwork. Also, there will be a drastic decrease in Star Wars references/jokes, because … heck, that movies like over 30 years old! Get over it, grandpa!
In 2020, people will be reading webcomics … on the moon. Also, somewhere in San Francisco, there will be a Musée de Webcomic Arts, where there will be a exhibit entitled “Ctrl+Alt+Del: The Misunderstood Genius of Tim Buckley.”