DYLAN: Why, Bill, is it not indeed a fine and sunny day in this, the best of all possible Internets? Is this virtual agora not filled with the finest illustrators, writers, and experts in the use of the Photoshop lens flare filter?
BILL: Why yes, this is indeed a fine an sunny day amongst the windswept plains of the Internet, for there are many webcomics to peruse. Let us wander arm-in-arm into the Forest of Tired Pop Culture References, and through the wretched Swamp of Crappy Manga Bullshit. There’s a Valentine’s Day party at the Village of Burnt-Out-Part-Time-Job-Working-Hand-To-Mouth-Living-Webcartoonists that I don’t think we should miss. Scott McCloud promised a buffet table stocked with Aspirin, boxed wine and sleeping pills. Derek Kirk Kim will be on hand to dispense back and hand-massages to men and women alike. The evening will conclude with a viewing of Babylon 5 at 9pm, and then everybody will go home tired and bewildered.
But hark! Over yonder hill I doth hear the cry of The Legions of Artistically Corrupt Glen Keane-Wannabes, and Smarmy Pre-Teen Webcomic Fans Who Don’t Want To Pay For Anything They Read Online. I say we smite them with fire. Or with marshmallows. Whatever may be handy.
In all seriousness though… ugh, what in the hell am I talking about? I’m barely qualified to talk about webcomics. I barely read any of them, because most of them seem to be about as interesting as a drunken sorority chick. That’s not necessarily many creators’ faults – there’s a bazillion webcomics out there, so it’s easy to get lost in the crowd – but so many cartoonists spend so much time aping material that they’ve grown up with, that their comics suffer from an act of accidental homogenized. (Although to be completely fair, that’s not a problem specific to webcartoonists, either – almost anybody involved in any artistic pursuit has to hit that psychological roadblock someday, but still…)
Then again, I’m just as creatively bankrupt as anybody else. Look at my own webcomics – Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazis (which employs a gimmicky art style stolen from old Fleischer Bros. cartoons) and Peter Pan (*snort*), fer chrissakes. But then again, at least somewhere deep down inside, I know I’m being a derivative bastard. Unlike some poor folks. Ack.
DYLAN: Steady on, dear chap. I think there’s a spectrum here when it comes to derivation.
At the bottom end are those weird, brain-addled people who plagiarize directly and seem to think they’ll never get caught. Next up are the only slightly less deluded folks who essentially rip something off but add a few lame new touches. Next one on the chain are the genre zombies— that would be, say, the "Two Young Male Roommates Joking About Gaming" camp, namely people who seem to be producing their material by reading a rulebook.
On an entirely different train track are the satirists, folks who do a fine job at mocking the cliches worshipped in the last category listed above;
adapters, who are taking a pre-existing premise and intentionally warping it (and I think, based on what you’ve leaked about your upcoming Pan, is the case for that effort);
those paying tribute by emulating a style while still promoting a message different from the inspirational artists (which would be the slot for Anne Frank);
and those who are writing an original story but within certain formal or fictional conventions, i.e., folks who are producing good work but not necessarily out to either immediately emulate somebody OR push the formalist envelope.
And lastly there’re the experimentalists, who are trying to screw with form and/or content in new and interesting ways. This is not to say that they’re "true originals", since most of the experimentation comes from responding to others’ theses â€“ it’d be interesting to find out how many folks doing infinite canvas work would admit to starting it in part because of Scott McCloud‘s book Reinventing Comics, to pick an obvious example.
Goddamn that Scott McCloud, he’s like a facial tic.
What I find really cool is that the people who have been concerned primarily with playing with form (in webcomics, that is) are now getting practiced enough that there are starting to be some really excellent stories evolving.
This is where I tell everybody to read Patrick Farley’s Spiders over at e-sheep.
BILL: Can I take a quick moment here to extol the virtues of avoiding Hershey’s new "S’mores" bar at all costs? It tastes like the floor of a porno theatre, only mashed into a convenient candy bar-shape. I think I’m going to be violently ill in about… oh, three minutes now.
Regardless, yes, you’ve got people like Patrick Farley populating the more exciting end of the online-comics spectrum â€“ in fact, some of the infinite canvas stuff out there (and I’m thinking Patrick and Cat Garza, specifically) is so visually schizophrenic that it might intimidate potential webcomics readers as much as it could possibly intrigue them. So what we’ve got here is a kind of catch-22 situation for slack-brained comics readers like myself… On one hand, you’ve got webcomics that bore the pants off of many readers, either because they don’t do enough to indulge in the freedoms that are inherit to the webcomics format or the content of the comics themselves are shoddy as all hell. Then on the other hand you’ve got webcomics that break the ancient Sunday-funnies mold so effortlessly that they almost run the risk of making themselves unrecognizable (or unpalatable) to many casual comics fans.
But then again, we’re talking form over content here. All the infinite canvases and Scott McCloud-styled-posturing in the world won’t save a comic strip from The Clutches of Horribleness if there isn’t a germ of originality/quality in the cartoonist’s ideas (not that "originality" or "quality" should ever be confused with one another, but that’s subject to debate for another day).
There’s always something to be said for smothering lousy writing with snazzy art, though. Huzzah! As cartoonists, fulfilling the roles of both "writer" and "artist" can be a triumph, but more often than not can lead to tragedy. And to be completely fair to my fellow cartoonists who can’t write their way out of a soggy paper bag (myself included), only theatre people â€“ those poor schmucks who have to slog their way through singing, dancing and acting lessons â€“ have nearly as many pitfalls awaiting them in their craft as we do*. I mean, it’s hard enough to be an artist to begin with, but when you’ve got to try to develop a golden ear for conversation on top of that… YEESH.
(*Okay, skydiving-gyncologists aside, too. And polar-bear bowel-adjustment technicians.)
DYLAN: The last Hershey’s bar I had any fondness for was the Cookies ‘n Cream kind, and that was in middle school when I was doing aikido five days a week and weighed about thirty pounds, so I was probably just desperate for calories.
Also, I know a girl here who lives in Hershey, PA. She says that on a good day, it smells like chocolate; on a great day, it smells like peanut butter (from the Reese’s factory down the street); and on a bad day, it smells like cow manure.
I think that’s all that needs to be said on THAT front.
As for the Intimidation Factor, oh sure, if I’m trying to get a friend into reading webcomics, unless they’re "the right sort" I’m not going to send them to something as hugely orchestrated as Spiders or Magic Inkwell. I’d be more inclined to send them to well-done mainstream, more the sort of thing you’d find on Girlamatic.com (which was part of Lea Hernandez’s intent when choosing artists for that site, I believe).
(I’m not favoring the Modern Tales franchise over others here necessarily, but since the sister sites have reasonably clear focuses, they make useful examples for indicating a certain "kind" of comic.)
On the subject of originality, I again want to force other people to read my favorites by blathering about the third book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, "The Well of Lost Plots." The protagonist gets stranded in the world of books, and discovers that the ultimate commodity is an Original Idea. It’s like pure uranium. All the characters tremble at the mere mention.
And Joey Manley pointed out in a recent book review that a possible hallmark of genius is the repeated tackling of original ideas and the inevitable failure of the finished product to live up to the value of its idea. Like I’ve told you before, one of my personal loopholes is "am I good enough to pull it off, and if I am, doesn’t that mean it wasn’t very challenging to start with?"
Also, the mention of Scott McCloud-style posturing leads me to the inevitable image of Scott strutting, in heels, down a fashion runway; striking a pose at the end; then sashaying back.
His kids would be so proud.
As for artistic versatility… well, sure, it’s impressive when you find somebody who can write, draw, and has the discipline to keep it up. But "triple threats" in showbiz aren’t necessarily the ones who make it to the top; I don’t know about you, but finding out that the three stars of Chicago did ALL their own dancing and singing was a shock. I assumed they just slept with the producer and then had enough talent to sleep with better and better producers. (alright, that’s an exaggeration, but you know what I mean. Right place right time or you’ll end up in a cardboard box.)
If somebody draws like a bastard and has the ability to really conform their work to fit a writer, and vice versa, well good god, hurray for us all. We get the better volumes of Sandman.
But in the loosey-goosey freelove disappear-tomorrow-morning world of the Internet, abiding teamwork is necessarily hard to find. There are only a few people I would trust enough online to start a project with, and even then, Life can always interfere and can the whole works.
Thus we have a lot of crappy would-be do-it-alls, and a few real talents, and not as much collaboration as there could be.
BILL: I’ve been to Hershey, PA a few times. I remember walking the Hershey Kiss-lamp-lined streets as a child, touring the ghostly empty chocolate factory, while wondering the entire time why I felt like I was stranded in Transexual Transylvania. Really. The entire time I kept on expecting Meatloaf to come tearing out of a wall and run me over with his chopper. I was that weird little kid in the tour group who could alternately make the Chocolate Docents either laugh or cry, it seems.
The one other thing that drives me bonkers about webcomics is that you’ve got to use a clunky computer to read them. Now I know how stupid THAT complaint sounds (it’s like bitching about how sad it is that you must ruin toilet paper by shitting on it), but I think one of the greatest strikes that webcomics have to begin with is their utter lack of portability. It’s the same reason why e-books have largely failed, too – for most people, the act of reading (even funnybooks) is a brain-bustingly tactile experience…though a subtle tactile experience at that. There’s a reason why people are always hounding us comic dorks about when our material will be printed â€“ people want to read comics while riding the bus, or taking a dump.
Feh, now that I think about it, the fact that webcomics have to compete with all manner of other Internet-related entertainment is probably another subtle disadvantage that webcomics share in their current state. When you’re reading a wood-pulp comic while waiting for class to start (or what ever), even in that kind of distraction-filled environment you’re something of a captive audience. But when your access to comics is filtered through such an entertainment-drenched channel like a home computer, its impact is lessened. It’s not as personal.
DYLAN: Well, failing some economic/sociological supertrauma (which, let’s face it, is never as far off as we like to think. GIANT ASTEROID AAAAAAAAAAAA *kaBOOM*), electronic portability is going to improve in the coming years. There’s only moderate hope for my generation—those of us with the potential to be "paper fetishists" (as the edgy webfolk call them) are going to be that way forever at this point. I will willingly trade a hot meal for a nicely-bound trade paperback nine days out of ten.
(This explains why I don’t weigh enough to donate blood, maybe?)
I’ll be annoying one more time and reference one of Carla Speed McNeil‘s books in the Finder series, "Talisman", which is a wonderful treatment of book fetishism, from the tactile angle to the creative angle, in an Advanced Virtual Society. It’s a nice emotional, irrational counterpoint to the more clinical treatment the idea of e-books gets in Reinventing Comics and the like.
I also do agree that it’s much harder to sit down and read a webcomic when the temptation to flit off and check your e-mail is so strong. Part of that for me seems to be induced by the flickering monitor, and I hope that higher definition screens will mean fewer ADD symptoms after ten pages of reading.
As a webcomicker not yet in print (beyond Kinko’s level minicomics), I can say that I also really love the idea of the Internet becoming sort of a farm system for print publishers, at least for some transitional decades while digital-portable media sort themselves out. I don’t know how plausible it is, given the scanty number of publishers and their relative dearth of resources, but there are SO MANY gullible young talents lying around, waiting to be exploited.
Of course, I’d like to think we’re both examples of the above, so forget everything I just said and chalk it up to youthful optimism. Why the hell did they give this column to a 20 year-old again?
BILL: Oh, hush â€“ as a 20 year-old, you’re a voice for the very first generation of cartoonists to come "web-ready" straight out of the box. Whereas I’m the voice of all the cranky old bastards out there who still remember when yellowed 75-cent comics were choking with sloppily-printed 4-color ads for Hostess Fruit Pies and offers to sell "Grit" (in exchange for "exciting money and prizes", of course). And together, we shall raise our collective voices in song as the borders between the printed page and the infinite canvas blur into a technologically impressionistic rainbow of comic-creation and distribution methods!
(And yet despite whatever marvels of science and the ingenuity of the human mind may offer us in the not-too-distant future, our grandchildren will still be subjected to "The Son of Two Young Male Roommates Joking About Gaming". Son of a BITCH.)