Future of Comics

Years ago, while I was discussing the idea of going behind the subscription wall at Moderntales.com, I happened to make a point that – when considering the future of cartooning – still resonates today.

You will always be able to find comics to read (for free on the internet), but unless there’s some way to adequately compensate specific creators for their work, those specific creators will not continue to produce that specific work.

A few years later I read – somewhere – a lesson about economics that relates to this idea. Acceptable economic adjustments can include the death of one million people due to starvation. Economically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with that – the market and human race survives. In other ways of thinking, there’s a lot wrong with those specific people dying and other people act to do something about it.

We’re seeing a practical demonstration now in the current economic crisis. There’s nothing wrong with the free market, it’s working the way it should. But in other ways of thinking, a new great depression isn’t something the majority of people want to live through so they’re trying to do something about it.

So, in the wider sense of things, there’s really no reason to worry about the future of cartooning. As long as someone can somehow make a cartoonish mark on something, cartooning and comics will survive. That’s the easy answer.

The harder answer comes from this question: Will people make a living as a cartoonist in the future?

I don’t know if there will be more full-time cartooning jobs in the future, but I do believe that more cartoonists than ever will have the opportunity to make money from their work. To do so, they’ll have to be nimble enough to take advantage of all the different ways digital information can be delivered. They may do so alone, with a publisher or join larger organizations – maybe whatever form the comics syndicates or newspapers end up as.

But while they do all that, they’ll likely be holding down another job. Or jobs.

And there will be more responsibility on the side of readers too. Remember, free comics will always be around, but specific comics won’t be if they don’t receive support. Quite a few webcomic readers already know and do this stuff now: If you’re reading a comic and you like it, figure out what you can do to support it. Book for sale? Buy it. Don’t have any money? Spread the word about it so other people will find it. And thank you to all those webcomic readers! But more need to get used to the idea of compensating people in some way in order for the work they enjoy to continue.

And where there’s a need, there are people working hard to answer that need.

Look, disruptive change is a continuing process for creators and consumers, and to believe that once things change they can’t or won’t change again is unrealistic. Look at Napster – not as a model for how iTunes is the way to make money on the web, but as a model for how change can occur and create opportunity. Think about it: The culture of "free" on the internet essentially lost a fight. The work of file sharing became potentially too expensive – especially when a legal, low cost alternative arose that gave value to consumers AND creators.

In the future, there will be other ways to read digital content than on a computer with a conventional web browser – look at the rise of cell-phone culture in Japan, the iPhone, the Kindle and other e-paper products in development. It’s already happening. And one thing is becoming clear: the new ways of reading digital content involve delivery for a price, which is an opportunity for creators.

This isn’t all that new. I first ran across this vision of the new economy in a story – maybe by Harlan Ellison or in his anthology "Dangerous Visions" – where people’s status was based on the number of jobs they had. Later, "Snowcrash" by Neal Stephenson had people paying for information or ideas and that information could come from anyone, anywhere.

Google may now be developing just such a “Snowcrash” system because they realize that paying compensation doesn’t necessarily get in the way of a consumer, and that it does solve a problem: How to make sure specific information can continue to be readily available in the marketplace.

So cartooning will be fine and comics will survive. But everyone’s going to have to get used to a new paradigm, the new concept of work expressed in the seven-letter title of my cartoon. It’s more than just a funny catch-phrase, it’s a philosophy that guides me as a reader and as a creator. It’s driven me to keep my skills current, to watch for coming trends and adapt as necessary. To be nimble and ready for change.

You see, I really do believe that someday, all jobs will be odd jobs.