Form is Function by John Barber

Form is Function

Mother Earth speaks, in Her low, rumbling voice: What the world needs now is another Internet column about comics.

Not for the first time, the world turns its eyes to John Barber.

And it is to you, My People, that I give myself.


It’s taken me an inappropriately long time to realize and admit this, but… the most important thing about comics on the Internet is distribution. I realize that’s not exactly news to most of you.

Now, I continue to be impressed and inspired by artists who take advantage of the possibilities available to comics on a screen-based medium (like Scott McCloud, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, Patrick Farley, Brendan Cahill, Drew Weing), and I think utilizing these new and unique formats to tell stories is an inherently good thing.

Nevertheless, the basic forms of printed comics don’t completely suck, whereas the basic forms of distribution of printed comics do completely suck.

I mean, OK, we all know about comic book distribution. Do a Google search on “comic book distribution essay” if you don’t, and I bet none of those essays will say “this is a good and effective system”.

Don’t get me wrong, the Direct Market literally saved American comics in the seventies, and allowed for the growth of unprecedented variety of comics (seriously), but it worked a lot better when more than one distributor was operating in the English-speaking world.

Newspapers are no better, and certainly more difficult to break into. The newspaper strip is a uniquely American invention – old European comics tended to run in comedy magazines or broadsheets – and we’re so used to them that we don’t pay attention to the underlying immorality of newspaper comics’ existence.

The Yellow Kid might be a beloved mascot of American cartooning, but in journalistic circles, “yellow journalism” (so named for the Kid) is a serious pejorative. The rise of the comic strip was emblematic of the sinking standards of news propriety; serious issues being crowded away by crowd-pleasing theatrics.

The comics themselves were, of course, often really amazingly great. Like Marshall McLuhan said, “Art is anything you can get away with.” I’m just saying the mode of distribution wasn’t ideal.

The Internet bypasses as much of this as the creator wants. As we all know, anybody can post a comic, and can see themselves as following an idealized version of either the newspaper or direct market system (or any other system).

In many ways, the current online comics world reminds me of the small press of 10 years ago, which was filled by all manner of strange beasts – some wanted the fame and fortune of mainstream work, and wanted to showcase themselves; some wanted the same but were too hopelessly inept to do anything but churn out cheap knockoffs of mainstream comics; some were fiercely independent and want to tell their own stories in a completely uncompromised fashion, regardless of sales.

The world of the Internet gives us all that and no cash prohibitions (at least for somebody getting started). Anybody “could” have self-published a comic book in 1994. Hell, anybody can still do that now. You just need a couple thousand dollars and a place to store unsold comics (I used to use “under my microwave”, until my kitchen flooded).

But anybody anybody anybody can put a comic online.

If this means we get even more unreadable garbage than mediums that require a cash outset, well, so be it. It’s worth sifting through the stacks of junk pixels to find a gem.

What’s interesting, though, is that not only do we have the types of comics creators listed above, but we also have people who come in from a day of work and instead of turning on the TV, they sit down and draw a comic. Then they post it for their friends’ amusement. These people don’t want to advance the form of comics, or make a bundle of cash – they want to relax and have fun.

The pure amateurs have always existed, but never before has there been a medium so ideally suited for their comics. Even photocopied minicomics require an outset of money and the storage of leftover copies.

By democratizing comics to this degree, by moving comics out of the ivory tower and into the desktop tower, comics become – without losing any qualities they already had – a true form of communication.

How do you get started in comics…? Well, these days, how do you not?

John Barber is a contributing columnist for the Comixpedia. You can see his own function here.

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