FiF Postscripts by John Barber

Well, the column ended last month and yet here we are again. Back. Still here. Whatever. Dragging it out for that last paycheck.

But seriously. Welcome to the first of a two part interview/conversation with Brendan Cahill, where we talk about a whole range of subjects, from webcomics to things tangentially related to webcomics.

Brendan is an old friend an collaborator of mine, and is best known (in the webcomics world) as the creator/writer/artist of the slightly mystical individualist Flash noir comic Outside the Box, at ModernTales.

Hi, Brendan. What brought you into webcomics?

Well, you did.

Yeah, well, we both started from a print comics background, but didn’t get too far.

I never made it very far because of the difficulty and risk of the initial cash outlay and because of the exacting standards of Diamond Distribution.

That’s one way of putting it. When there were more distributors (like up to the mid-’90s) there was economic incentive for the distributors to compete for a greater breadth of product. This doesn’t exist anymore.

Do you think the comic book direct market has, like Warren Ellis says, made it’s decision to be a superhero industry and we should respect that and find alternate channels for other comics, or is the direct market a battle worth fighting?

I haven’t really thought much about this (he says, as he starts a five-graph answer). A lot has been said about the direct market, probably much of it true—I won’t rehash that here. I will say that I think a lot of the problem has to do with Diamond’s (quasi-) monopoly. As you say, there’s no economic incentive to innovate. (My comment about their standards was intended to be at least half sarcastic, but that doesn’t really come across in print.)

I guess I mostly agree with Ellis. God knows I haven’t set foot in a comic book store or thought much about one for quite a while now. The last time I was in my local store, I was drawn into a (friendly) argument with the proprietor, who was vehemently opposed to DVDs for some not-quite-specified reason. Something to do with his having a vast library of Ranma 1/2 VHS tapes and… geez, I really don’t remember his point. Anyway, geek though I am (see fantasy section below), the last thing I want in a shopping experience is a luddite diatribe on entertainment technology.

That digression is a way of saying that in a lot of ways the direct market has earned the geek-outcast ghetto in which it lives.

I think the best thing we (meaning independent creators) can do is to build our own market–something I think you, John, have commented on before. Where there’s demand, find a way to effect a supply; where there’s a supply, build a demand. The smarter print creators are bypassing much of the direct market (or at least using it as a secondary channel) and going through book distributors to get into bookstores. I don’t see why that method can’t expand. My local Borders just expanded its graphic novels section from two half-height shelves to four-and-a-half full-height shelves. They would only do that if the demand were there. It’s interesting to note that the direct market (comic stores) are stigmatized, but people seem to have no problem buying a handful of graphic novels from a “reputable” bookstore. It suggests that people have more of a problem with comics stores and less of a problem with comic books.

A last side note: I think the serialized monthly format is dying, dying, dead. As a consumer, I’ve only been interested in graphic novels for a few years now. I can’t be bothered to keep up with a monthly book when I can wait a few months and get a complete storyline, on better paper, in a more portable format, cheaper. My print aspirations are now completely aimed at graphic novels—monthly serials are a waste of money and, I believe, a less effective product from a consumer point of view.

When did you start putting comics on the web?

Mid-2002, I think. I pitched Outside the Box to Joey Manley just before Modern Tales launched, and he showed interest right away, but it took some six months or so before we could work out the kinks and actually get it up there. That was my first and current gig—I wasn’t really interested before the pay-for-content model became a reality, and I probably won’t stray too far from it.

I know you’ve done things with your stories (and possibly even format) that you’ve thought would cost you readers. How do you balance art and commerce?

I’m comfortable going in both directions: commercial and non-commercial. I never start a project looking for commercial palatability. I build a project based on what I think is the right way to do it, and the right story to tell. If, when I’ve roughed out the look and feel of the thing, if I think it’s got commercial legs, then great. If it looks like a career-sinker, that’s okay, too. I’m pretty confident that if I turn out a quality product, people will appreciate it—maybe different people each time, or maybe not.

The moves I’ve made in my work that I thought might “cost me readers” were mostly ideological moves. That is, I’ve done work (most notably the latest OTB story arc) that has an ideological message that might trouble some people. But if the work is still of high quality, it will find an audience—often even one that’s ideologically opposed. I’ve experienced and enjoyed a lot of literature, comics, movies, etc. that run contrary to my personal ideology.

Anyway, you have to take chances. You can identify commercially-appropriate elements in a story, work to enforce them, and turn out something that should do well… and flops. You can build the weirdest, most contrarian project and find an untapped audience that throws money at you. You just never know. The error that Hollywood (and many entertainment ventures) continually makes is identifying what was successful last time and trying to reproduce it. This almost never works. When it does work, it’s usually by accident (i.e., the second venture has something original about it that escaped the producers’ homogenizing), and when it doesn’t work everyone seems shocked and frustrated. (“But My Baby’s Mama 2 tested through the roof with the focus groups!”) The nature of art (and capitalism—commerce—for that matter) is creative destruction. The old will always eventually give way to the new—those who don’t innovate fail, and those who approach a problem or an issue from a new direction will often succeed.

It’s all risk-reward. You can take a small risk for a small reward (Mona Lisa Smile) or a large risk for a large reward (Lord of the Rings). Of course, I have the luxury of a well-paying day job, so my comics don’t have to make me money. Yet. If I ever have to survive on income from my projects, it will be an interesting test of my cavalier attitude toward innovation.

It’s certainly arguable that concepts like “pride of ownership” will become diminished as more and more products and services become virtual. Likewise, there are many doe-eyed startups working on physicality issues (digital paper, etc.). But for the foreseeable future, I think these remain huge obstacles to the ubiquity of webcomics.

Yeah, I think iTunes and that digital cable thing, where you rent the movies for a day and they work like a VCR, will really change things. Once they set up a real library for the digital cable thing—why not have every movie ever from anywhere in the world—that will destroy, well, Netflix immediately (which is an absurd business benefiting from a weird hole in technology that will be closed by, I think, 2006) and probably the entire rental (and possibly sales) market for films.

I’ve been saying ever since I first used it that the “digital cable thing” (InDemand, I believe it’s called, at least on my cable system) will eventually destroy the rental market. The sales market, I’m not so sure about, because “pride of ownership” will be a lot more persistent than “pride of rental.” And remember that the sales market as it is now didn’t even exist before DVDs—there was a small VHS sales market, but nothing like what sprang up overnight with DVDs. The DVD standard has been so successful so quickly that a lot of entrenched interests—most notably consumers like me—will fight for it because they’ve bought so heavily into it.

And anyway, people buy DVDs because they like to have a physical collection—otherwise they’d just rent them. People rent DVDs because there hasn’t been a better system to get video on demand… until now. InDemand is in its infancy, but it will eventually destroy the rental market completely. And I won’t cry when they start tearing down Blockbusters, even if they replace them with Starbucks.

And InDemand will, in its turn be crushed—or at least forced to change course significantly—by fatter Internet pipes and convergent entertainment technologies. Eventually, we will just have monitors and hard drives and chips that run everything. Your computer and TV won’t be disparate entities, and your cable, Internet, messaging, phone, etc. services will all work together over the same technological pipe. This is coming sooner than you think.

As to Netflix… I don’t understand how they even made it this far—it’s a ridiculous business model and it’s a honeypot for pirates with a little bit of cash and a lot of blank DVDs. I think 2006 is a pretty good guestimate—if they make it even that long.

Back to webcomics, though. Have they widened the potential audience for comic books? And/or does the web allow for a greater ability to narrowcast comic strips at specific audiences?

I think webcomics has widened the potential comics audience to some degree—the degree to which non-comics-inclined websurfers randomly stumble on webcomics and enjoy them. On a purely anecdotal level, I would say that the current webcomics community is made up mostly of print expats and aspiring webcomics creators. But there is potential here. It has long been the contention of most serious comics aficionados that the potential comics audience is huge and that it is limited only by ignorance, ineffective marketing, stigma and narrow distribution. The Web can certainly work to correct these ills.

Narrowcasting is definitely one of the Web’s strong suits (e.g., Google’s AdSense), but in many cases it’s limited by an algorithm’s opinion of your inputs. It can work better in web ring or forum contexts. The primary advantage to webcomics in this arena probably derives from immediacy—a customer can sign up for a mailing list and instantly receive direct communication from a creator.

Tracy White tells me a comic she did about getting drunk the first time has been linked to by sites about, like, guys getting drunk. You know, sites that have nothing to do with comics but interest in the subject of this particular comic.

Like with OTB, if you were going to the direct market with it, you’d be selling it to fans of superhero comics who also like comics about supernatural mysteries, or fans of comics as a medium who also like supernatural mystery. On the web, you could—possibly, this is the question—go directly to fans of supernatural mysteries.

I mean, there are a lot of popular strips about videogames and computer maintenance, people who probably spend some serious time on the web.

I think this specific-audience-reaching is the web’s biggest potential, but I wonder how much getting bogged down into a “webcomics community” will hurt this.

Yeah, good point. The Web is all about narrowcasting. Remember at its essence (underneath all the PHP, ASP, eCommerce engines, Flash, etc.) all the Web is—what makes it the Web and not another Internet protocol—is a system by which one thing can be nonlinearly linked to another.

Your suggestion about the “webcomics community” hurting the horizontal marketing potential of webcomics is perspicacious. Any time a “community” forms around a shared interest, it necessarily breeds elitism, jargon, and polarity, regardless of its stated intent. (“This is a site where, like, all flower lovers can, like, groove on each other and exchange messages of peace and unity, man. If you’re not a flower lover, get lost! This forum is for flower lovers only!”) Observe that elitism, jargon and polarity are the source of much of the direct market’s pain.

The Web has been hailed as a democratizer of information, and it is. This includes information such as an artist’s email address. I mean, you can go to great lengths to avoid being part of the community, but in the absence of active evasion, you have tacit conformity.

We’ll stop right here, but come back next month for the conclusion of this conversation with Brendan Cahill.

John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.