Form is Function by John Barber

One of the interesting things about webcomics is that people come into the medium from different places, both physically and psychologically.

Presumably, all of the first people to make comics for the web had an interest (of some kind) in printed comics (of some kind). Nowadays, that isn’t necessarily the case – a creator’s interest in comics could be purely digital.

Nevertheless, people come to webcomics from certain traditions – some do comic strips like you see in the newspaper, some do action/adventure comics like you see from Marvel or DC. There’s a lot of other stuff, too.

For instance. Some of us come from the background of the independent direct market comic. And there was never a more successful example of that than Cerebus, which just ended its 27-year, 300-issue run.

I would likely not be doing comics without Cerebus creator Dave Sim (insert your own “another reason to hate Dave Sim” joke here). There are a few really, really strong influences on my thinking about comics – Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller, Scott McCloud – but really only two that can lay claim to “John probably wouldn’t be doing this without them”, and Sim is one of them (Bill Sienkiewicz is the other).

Cerebus covered two distinctive territories for young John Barber. One was that it was the ultimate in DIY; it was successful enough to earn a living from but owned completely by Dave Sim (and background artist Gerhard, with whom Sim voluntarily shared ownership). Sim had no one to answer to, nobody telling him he couldn’t show this or say that. The appeal this had on young John goes without saying.

The other terrain Cerebus blazed for me was in offering one of the first behind-the-scenes looks at how comics were produced. For a while, Sim was reprinting an early issue of Cerebus every two weeks. He opened each issue with an essay (which had originally run in the first collected editions of Cerebus) that went into great detail about the production of the comic that followed.

One essay might focus on a technical issue or a talk Sim had with a comics professional. Another might be about his personal life; his relationship with his wife or his nervous breakdown. Another might be about how he miscounted pages so a big surprise came on the right-hand page. You can imagine that that had an impact on me.

Then, in the regular Cerebus, Sim started using the front (and often back) of the book to publish his Guide to Self Publishing. He started from the beginning: what kind of paper should you use? Pencils? Pens? He laid everything out, acknowledging that there were other ways and that you should use the methods that work best for you, but still: here’s what’s useful about a Hunt 102.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this at the time. There were not the resources available that there are now. Creators – pros or aspiring ones – were not accessible via the Internet. The only guides to making comics that were around (besides Comics and Sequential Art and eventually Understanding Comics, which were both much more theoretical than the nuts-and-bolts approach of Sim) usually focused on how best to draw genitalia-absent naked men hitting each other.

There wasn’t the easy dissemination of information that the Internet provides. Sim literally wrote the book on how a normal person could create and distribute his or her own comic.

Now, that it was even possible to do this goes back to the very beginnings of Cerebus and the rise of the direct market. The direct market came about when Phil Seuling got Marvel and DC to agree to sell their comics to him at a higher discount than they gave to their regular distributors, but with the provision that he could not return the unsold copies. The risk became his, but knowing his customers and the material being sold, it wasn’t an insurmountable risk. This was the foundation for the distribution system that exists now between Diamond Distributors and comic book stores.

Anyway, this wound up being a good deal for both store owners and comics publishers. It was also a good deal for the independent cartoonist.

In the 60s, the “underground” artists had begun creating and printing their own comics, and were selling them through the network of head shops frequented by the counterculture. When the head shops dried up, so did underground comics distribution. Seuling’s direct market provided a new distribution channel, but the audience and creators were very different.

While the underground artists had their distinctive characters, they weren’t explicitly tied to them. An artist often had more than one major character/series: Robert Crumb had Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, but he also had scores of other comics, and was probably just as well known as for his non-major-character work.

The readers of the early direct market were the hardcore Marvel and DC fans, the ones that knew the creators’ names, but were still used to following specific characters.

The earliest (and even now, largest) independent direct market successes were Cerebus and Elfquest. Both of these series’ creators had their fates linked inextricably to the fate of their creations. They all did some other comics work (though I can’t think of a single Dave Sim comic that didn’t have Cerebus in it, after he created the character). This winds up having more in common with comic strips than with American comic books.

But unlike most U.S. comic strips, the early independent direct market comics were at the forefront of creators’ rights – the characters were owned by the cartoonists, who were free to do with them as they would. Sim chose to hire a background artist that he made full partner and co-owner of Cerebus, do the comic for 300 issues, retire, and bequeath the series to the public domain when he and Gerhard die. Wendy and Richard Pini (creators of Elfquest) eventually turned their comic into a work-for-hire property, and struck a lucrative licensing deal with DC Comics just last year.

Different as those two paths are, they both flew in the face of the status quo in the print comics world of the time, where characters were owned by companies and creators were employees. Even today, this remains the dominant paradigm for “mainstream” comic books.

It’s a striking contrast that the paradigm for webcomics – either self-published or from the web’s “Big Two” (Keen and ModernTales) – is complete creator control and ownership.

It’s a legacy we can trace back to those early days of self-publishing.

There are other things we inherited from the independent direct market pioneers. Now, I’m not sure at what point Sim and Gerhard started making more money from sales of the Cerebus reprint books than the monthly comic, but that definitely happened. In his Guide to Self-Publishing, Sim was pretty adamant about the value of keeping your old work in print. In fact, Cerebus was the first monthly American comic to optimize the pacing of the comic for paperback collections, rather than the individual issues.

I see this model at play in the most immediately profitable method of web distribution of comics: small (if any) profit from daily-to-weekly serialization of pages, followed by always-in-print (either through print on demand or some form of traditional printing) collections. The serialization helps build an audience, and keeps the creator on a schedule, while the collections provide the majority of income, and keep providing income forever.

Another variation on this is the ModernTales plan, where creators make a percentage of the site’s profit based on the number of times people read their comics. The more work the creator creates (and keeps online in the MT archives) the more money the creator gets. The value of old work is as high as new.

I’ve suggested before that comics that are physically similar to Cerebus – comics that are published in a utilitarian, inexpensive format prior to being reprinted in a more permanent format – are a dying breed. But the legacy of these comics is thriving like it never has before.

That said, it should be pointed out that there are potential pitfalls to total creative freedom. It’s widely regarded that Dave Sim didn’t end his 27 years on Cerebus in a prime mental state. Certainly – even leaving aside his opinions on women, religion, and international affairs – his writing became increasingly paranoid over the years.

And I don’t think it’s going too far to say that by the end of Cerebus there was a near-complete disregard for the reader, in pursuit of pure artistic freedom. Traditional dramatic structure went right out the window, replaced by page after page of unmediated Bible interpretation.

Is that a warning or a goal?

Complete creative freedom means your comic can do whatever you want it to do.
It means the freedom to alienate as much of your readership as you want.

Personally, I think Sim created two genuine masterpieces during the run of Cerebus: Jaka’s Story and High Society. I’d put those up against anything the comics medium has produced. Probably not coincidentally, those were the most accessible of the Cerebus novels. Maybe they’re even the least representative of the series as a whole.

Melmoth and Going Home were also very good, and Mothers & Daughters and the first 25 issues are fascinating curiosities. Latter Days, the last book, veered from near-unreadability to cringe-worthy parodies, but with some brilliant storytelling and illustration thrown in.

That’s what unlimited creative freedom can get you.

John Barber is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia. He would also like to reminisce about how good issues of Cerebus used to smell. They never smelled bad, but circa the beginning of Jaka’s Story, man, those were some good-smelling comics. Independent comics today smell really bad. Seriously. I – I mean, ahem, Barber – waited two weeks to buy 8 1/2 Ghosts, to let the smell die down at the store. Likewise the new Jason book. Barber doesn’t want that stinking up his apartment.

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