Clique, Clique… c’est du webcomique politique?
Walking home with my wife and a dozen tallboys of beer strapped to my back, I playfully babble out some brainstormy thoughts as to how to compare the various webcomic camps to the American Political Beast. Meaghan, much more politically savvy than yours truly (my political bent goes about as far as rooting for the Silly Party), quickly goes on to show how easy it would be to put everyone in type. As I listen to her words and explanations, I marvel at how right she is.
Even though webcomics have only been around for about a decade and some, it’s remarkable to note how quickly webcomic politics have evolved, with the entire baggage gamut of the good and the bad that must come saddled along with it.
In the beginning, it was pretty straightforward: There were no politics. Popularity didnâ€™t seem to be an issue, because no one was really trying to be popular â€“ there was no precedent encouraging people to shoot higher than entertaining whomever happened to stumble on their little corner of the web.
But October 1999 had to go and change all that forever.
I look back at the Fright Night event of 1999 a little wistfully, because I see the primeval webcomic jam shindig as perhaps the last time a truly innocent and non-agenda-obsessed group of webcartoonists got together to do something entertaining and original with NO other motive than to just have fun. (an interesting tangent: looking at the list of people who were part of the event, I’m impressed to notice that more than half of them are STILL producing a webcomic to this day!)
If you look at the list of names there, you will see a healthy mixture of both marquee and unknown monikers there â€“ particularly, you’ll see the granddaddy of them all, Pete Abrams, in that list. I’d argue that no-one who was part of that event was taking part solely to better their own station in the webcomic world…
…primarily because there was yet to be a webcomic world.
(tangent #2: some would say that Sluggy has lost a lot of its clout in the webcomic world these last few years, with a number of other young bucks rising up and taking over the spotlight, but even if Abrams’ popularity has peaked, the comic still counts among the heavy-hitters to this day. Another interesting note: to my knowledge, Abrams has not participated in any subsequent webcomic event since the 1999 FN jam. I’ve always been curious as to why, though I figure he’s just been very busy trying to eke out a living.)
However , when 2000 rolled around, and that inexplicable webcomic boom literally exploded onto the scene, suddenly there were a gaggle of new webcartoonists hungry for attention and readers, ‘toonists who were willing to do anything for extra pageviews. These folks had seen Fright Night 1 â€“ saw just how successful and popular an event it proved to be â€“ and in their minds, saw an opportunity for exposure first rather than fun. The precedent had unwittingly been set: participating in events meant you could have your name alongside big boys and girls.
In fact, 2000 and 2001 probably saw the MOST webcomic events created/attempted to date. We had Bikeeni Summer (and a Keenspace version), we had the April Fool’s swapovers, more Fright Nights, a Christmas Event, a Party event, a Lace event, a Webcomics Awareness Day, a Shakespeare Day, a Moose Day, a Keenvention event, â€“ hell, I myself even went and cobbled together a huge 60-plus comic crossover event on my own (and boy, do I have a LOT of lessons learned about THAT monstrosity). All of these events were popular because all these fresh cartoonists were signing up in droves, hoping to be grouped together with someone who’d help boost their own readership, their own status in the now-growing community.
Events weren’t the only political jockeying going around in this time, either â€“ 2000-2001 also saw the birth and rabbit-like multiplication of Top 100 lists â€“ The Funny Pages List, the Cartoonists Top 100 list, the Keenspace Top 100 (and when accusations of cheating were tossed about, the Keenspace Top 99 list came out), and a few others were the first (but certainly not the last). And one of the cream of the top lists was arguably the Big Panda list… and wow, but did people ever find ways for creative ballot stuffing with THAT list (ask me! I was unwittingly one of them!)! ‘Toonists were literally soliciting everyone for a vote, bribing them with bonus material, special art, you name it. A desktop wallpaper of a chicken in every pot, right?
Awards came out around then, too â€“ the (Web)Cartoonists’ Choice Awards started up in 2001, and everyone and their Acadian had been handing out little personal awards and accolades for a few years already. Some attempts at subsequent webcomics awards failed (WCA), and others so far seem to be surviving (Buzz). At the moment, though, the general webcommunity still seems very undecided as to the value of these awards events, and yay- and nay-sayers still hash it out on message boards here and there.
And let’s not forget about the dropdowns… oh my GOD, but how many dropdowns were created from within the Keen collective and without in 2000 and 2001!
And how funny was it to see people desperate for maximum exposure to try to justify their comic being on as many dropdowns as freakishly possible? (factual example: a certain webcomic artist [name withheld] lobbied hard to have their comic on "GaySpace", despite not having any character who was of an alternative lifestyle. Their argument: "Well, [character name] is actually secretly gay, and I’ll probably be revealing that fact in about two years." When asked if they were going to hint at it or make it apparent in the interim, the response was something like: "Well, no, of course not! I donâ€™t want people getting the wrong idea!"
I think I also remember someone trying to be on God Save the Keen [a dropdown for Brits], claiming that one character’s great-grandmother was from England, even though said great-grandmother had never appeared, much less been mentioned in their strip… *sigh*)
Giving gifts was also the in-thing in this early period â€“ 2000-2002 saw oodles of fan art and guest strips crossing cyber palms as quickly as their growing dial-up/ethernet speeds could allow. The first few years, you would be hard pressed to find a webcomic site that did not have a fan art page. In fact, one could say that fan art was used as a literal badge of one’s rank or station in the cartoonist hierarchy â€“ the more fan art you had, the more popular you were. Of course, you got major bonus points for having fan art drawn by marquee players, and some cartoonists stopped putting up art that wasn’t from a "name"…
(semi-tangent: one webcartoonist who continues to impress me is Zebra Girl‘s Joe England, who to this day not only publicly thanks EVERY PERSON who sends him fan art, but showcases it all, no matter how good or bad, or how popular or obscure the artist may be. Joe, you’re a rare gentleman, and I applaud you for encouraging so many people to take up pen and paper for the purpose of FUN!)
Guest strips and crossovers were likewise the vogue in this period, and many a small comic tried to get more readers by begging more visible webcomics for some crossover of guest comic play.
By 2002, though, new ideas and new people were coming into the scene, and they weren’t happy with what they were seeing. They hated the then-wonky and unstable Keenspace hosting, they hated how "all the big boys are only giving play to each other", etc etc. But rather than try to jockey for power within the system, they instead went and started creating their OWN systems.
Thus were born new webhosts and new webcollectives â€“ Drunk Duck, Moderntales, the never-saw-the-light-of-day-but-boy was-it-ever-a-good-idea Creature Feature.com,and so on and so on. (semi-tangent again: Dumbrella needs to be mentioned, if only for the fact that they have somehow managed to totally AVOID the political crap and went off on almost innocently their own, marketing and producing by themselves, and as a result continue to thrive and grow at a slow but very stable pace. If only more people would be able to follow their example…)
Thus was arguably being born the webcomic uppercrust, the webcomic class mentality, and the different political camps.
And I’ll get to arguing that point, to how ALL of this equates/translates as politics, to what the current state of webcomics politics are, and I’ll prolly even toss in my wife’s clever webcomique politique breakdown… in next month’s column.
In the meantime, Damonkey debate, anyone?