Comics and Community Service 4: The Internet
Submitted by John Baird on March 28, 2008 - 14:31
The recent discussion at Fleen on the topic of offline and online cartooning has provoked some contemplation about what paradigm the next generation of cartoonists will have regarding their approach to comics and the potential influence comic-oriented community service projects like the Create a Comic Project (CCP) can have. The classical view, represented by Ted Rall, is that giving away the product for free is bad, since it cheapens the value. The common Internet view, represented by Rich Stevens (a supporter of the CCP) and others, is that putting work online is a cost effective branding approach. The key difference is valuation: Ted Rall says that the comic itself is the main commodity, while Rich Stevens says that the comic is a means to an end, which is selling the surrounding merchandise. Stevens has the stronger argument here: a service oriented business model, where the core product is free and profit is derived from surrounding peripherals (ads, t-shirts, etc.), has proven successful in many new online businesses (Google, for one). Ted Rall is very clearly wrong when he says bringing things offline would improve matters. While wages may increase, this gain would come at the price of fewer cartoonists being able to release their work and a qualitative decrease in value as the diversity of viewpoints shrank to an infinitesimal point. Syndicates and newspapers have already come under fire for their lack of interest in appealing to broad markets - and it's broad appeal that has bolstered webcomicsto higher and higher levels of overall success. Rall's idea is fundamentally anti-capitalist: a free market thrives on competition from many sources. He suggests that having a handful of major syndicates determining which cartoons see the light of day would be better than numerous small entrepreneurs presenting their work for all to see. That kind of "corporatism of cartoons" is to the detriment of both the creator and the reader, the same way the RIAA and MPAA's control of music and movies has been to the detriment of the entertainment industry. Any decent comic program today should mention the Internet. Young cartoonists who want to get a head start on publishing experience would do well to seek their fortunes there. As one playwright said, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Unlike the traditional publishing world that values formal credentials and experience, the Internet community judges a person largely by content. On the Internet, no one knows if you're 50 or 15 - and they tend not to care. A matter of import is how much of this view to weave into the Create a Comic Project or any other comic-oriented volunteer project. The CCP is first and foremost a creative writing program, so going on too much about publishing muddies the water. An effort has been made to inform CCP students that the Internet hosts the majority of all new comic creations and to promote them to post their art online free for all to view. The shining stars that have risen thanks to their Internet fame have also been highlighted. Kazu Kibuishi is one such example: would any newspaper have printed Copper, arguably one of the greatest works of cartoon art since the turn of the century? Would the Flight anthology be a compilation well known to every cartoonist in the country without the Internet? The chance that any student in the Create a Comic Project could become as successful as Kazu Kibuishi is remote, but it will only happen if they are motivated to make the effort. Another issue with raising these points is the risk of demagoguery: as William G once asked, "Is the point of this to evangelize comics or is it to help people in need?" Mentioning the Internet should not be done to imbue children with a sense of revolution, but to prepare them for the way things are. For example, a course on the US Constitution wouldn't use books from the mid-1950's - it'd be missing 5 amendments! Likewise, kids shouldn't be taught about avenues of publicity for their comic idea as though the Internet doesn't exist. The best way to counter Rall's flawed economic model of cartooning is through education. Webcomic creators who've volunteered their time to help the next generation find their comic voice are in an excellent position to open the minds of their students to the concept of posting their art online. If this position of authority is used responsibly, the cartoon free market of the Internet can be preserved and expanded even further. It's in this manner, perhaps, that community service is most relevant to the business of webcomics.