This month’s "Feeding Snarky" represents a milestone, at least for me. Up until now, the columns — for better or worse — have reflected my critical opinions as an observer and consumer of webcomics. They were, naturally enough, my opinions on the subject, and they came from an outsider’s perspective.
This month, however, the theme is "collaboration," and that’s a topic I have — dare I say it — first hand experience in. In fact, I have experience both in collaborating on a webcomic and in not collaborating on a webcomic, and therefore I can speak to the advantages of having someone on hand who knows what the Hell they’re doing with a pencil.
If we set the wayback machine to 2002, we’ll find Unfettered by Talent. This was my first foray into the world of webcomics — not as a critic, but as a cartoonist. I did the whole thing myself. I did the art, I scanned it, I did the Photoshop processing and lettering, I uploaded, everything.
It is therefore entirely my fault that it’s so bad.
I make a big deal about how crappy UFBT was, but to be honest, it’s not the worst comic strip out there. In a way, that makes it even worse — it’s not even horrible enough to be horrible. It’s a totally pedestrian strip in almost every way, and furthermore it has bad art. And said bad art almost breaks your heart, because if you go through the strips, you can see the artist (that is, me) is trying. There are shifts in perspective from one panel to the next. There are "backgrounds." I drew trees and buildings and the world’s worst automobile of any kind. And I put a frightening amount of effort into a teapot sign for the teashop my lead characters — Deke and Rhoda — were walking into.
And, well, maybe if I’d kept up with it for more than 12 strips, I would have improved (though there’s precious little evidence supporting that). But reading through those twelve again, I realize that while it’s not the best written strip in the world, it’s also not the worst written strip in the world. Absent truly horrific art, it’s… well, okay. Run of the mill Keenspace. Run of the mill "I’d like to have my own darn comic strip!"
It’s just that the art is really, really terrible.
Flash forward to 2004 and 2005. I get it in my head to try again. What’s more, I think I’d like to do more of a story comic than a gag-a-day. I have some notoriety in webcomics circles, which means I’d probably get more attention than most strips just starting out (a two-edged sword, to be certain). My art, however, is no better now than it was then. If anything, it might be worse. I know, the prospect scares me too.
I got a healthy response — notoriety has its perks — and I settled on Greg Holkan. And the results have been Gossamer Commons. And it’s gone pretty damn well. We’ve had some shakedown, as all new strips do, but we’ve found a voice. I’m liking how the writing is going, and Greg’s art is truly fantastic.
And it highlights to me the strength of collaboration — because it’s not as cut and dried as "I write, Greg draws." Greg made some character suggestions for Jack — a character referred to but who hasn’t shown up yet — a couple of nights ago that knocked me out. And he’s more than happy to make comments about the writing to tighten things up and improve them. And on my side, I make comments if need be on the art, and my scripts can be pretty darn detailed. Greg doesn’t take my directions as holy scripture, but they help him to understand what I intend. Then, he can apply his understanding of the visual form to convey that intent, whether it adheres to my specific directions or not.
Gossamer Commons really is by Eric Burns and Greg Holkan, not by Eric Burns with art by this guy. And as a result, it’s not just a better drawn strip (much better drawn, in fact — Greg’s damn good at this), it’s better in all ways.
I have another iron or two in the fire. There’s a couple of other people who put in for Gossamer Commons I’d love to work with, for example. And I’ve got another project going — and the convenient thing about being a writer is it’s possible to write more than one strip without your head exploding. But I’m not looking at any of this as "projects I want to do," any more. I’ve learned from my time working with Greg that it’s vastly better to be working with someone than working on something.
I wish there were better ways to match artists and writers up, really. There’s an increasing number of forums and the like that offer those services, but they turn into the artistic equivalent to Match.com — a whole lotta writers begging for artists, and a few artists feeling intimidated by all the writers. All I know is, collaboration is a very cool thing.
It even lets a guy like me have a webcomic.
Eric Alfred Burns is a staff columnist for Comixpedia. He writes the monthly "Feeding Snarky," as well as occasionally doing other bits and sundries.
By day an information technologist and systems administrator, Eric becomes a writer and critic at night. He is the founder of Websnark.com, a blog devoted to whatever he or his cohort feels like writing at the time. Often, that’s webcomics. He has also written for Steve Jackson Games, Decipher Games, and was a co-author of the ENnie nominated Sidewinder: Wild West Adventures for Citizen Games. He is listed as a "Contributing Author" for the Gold ENnie award winning Sidewinder: Recoiled, but one shouldn’t read too much into that.
A particularly bad artist, Burns was ‘noted’ for his rather poor webcomic Unfettered by Talent, which justly died after 12 strips. He is now the writer for the much better — and acclaimed — Gossamer Commons, which is drawn by the vastly better Greg Holkan.