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Webcomics Are From Uranus: Potentially Something

Webcomics are constantly being compared to comics made available in print mediums: pros and cons, webcomics breaking into print, print on the web, etc. Much of this discussion is generated from people who read and create webcomics, and is written in defence of webcomics. Oddly enough, it's not as if you hear the masses screaming that webcomics are inferior to print. Maybe it's simply inferred by everyone, the same way comic fans infer that their favorite medium is supposed to be inferior to prose or movies?

So maybe I'm just giving everyone a reason to argue their point when I say that right now, I consider webcomics to be not as good as other mediums.

Listen, I like webcomics. Sometimes I like them the same way I like the drawings the kids give me. They're cute, and full of potential. Potential isn't something to turn your nose up on. Potential is pretty awesome and I am not one to crush it.

But I have to say, I have never read a webcomic that I wanted to take to a desert island with me. One read, maybe two for the really good ones, and I'm done with it. But then, I've never read a comic that really stirred me, either. There are some I love, some I like to reread, but because of the dearth of subject and variety, there's nothing there for me, yet.

Comics are very young, and webcomics younger still. I see potential that this medium can produce a work that I will love the same way I love Thomas Hardy, J.D. Salinger, or Thoreau – something I can't imagine not having read. Something that by its mere presence physically in a room makes me remember how awesome life is – that I have read it, that it exists. I could name maybe 20 books, 40 albums, a dozen movies that stir me. But not a single webcomic or comic. I just read Craig Thompson's Blankets, for example, and for all that I really enjoyed it, it was missing certain things a better writer would have done or cut out. I kept thinking: this is the one before the big one, he's just cutting his teeth here, it's almost there. All we've got right now in comics is potential. We've got dumping grounds full of potential and the mound of comics is getting higher and better all the time, but it's still just potential.

I personally did not grow up reading comics. I'd seen Archies and strips in the newspaper, but the kids in Archie bothered me and the newspaper comics were only good for a laugh – you didn't get swept up in them. I didn't like superheroes, so I never touched any regular comic books. Illustrated books were always my favorites: Marguerite Henry and her horse stories, lavishly illustrated by Wesley Dennis. All those Serendipity books. But I had only a passing interest in the medium until I saw comics online.

I've always felt humbled when writing prose or poetry, even when I pulled a Salinger during all my creative writing classes in college. I couldn't be as good as my favorites. I couldn't be my own favorite writer. But maybe I could be my own favorite comic artist. Here I could write the stories for me that no one else had done. I could have potential, if nothing else.

I learned to draw by starting a comic. The pull of a story made me want to draw – it always has – and this was the best way to practice. I want the archives of Eat The Roses, my first online comic, online and available forever, because the best thing they can do is to tell people: "You can do this, too. You can learn to draw and how to tell a story with comics. Look at how I start, so clumsy. Just start and don't worry about it. See what happens. You've got potential, baby."

Everyone does this for a different reason. I do it for me, because I haven't found someone else doing what I want to read, and I put it online because I need feedback from others. It doesn't matter if it's a term paper or a comic – I know I can't see my own work well because it's all in my head as well as on paper. I need an editor. Everyone else has their own reasons and their own needs. It's a hobby, it's an expression, it's art, it's fun – it's complicated.

As a reader, I don't get into why an author does it. Comics is a medium, and like any other it communicates something between one person and another. I don't have to see exactly what the author intended, because this is a medium and not a brain transplant. That's why it's fun, both to read and create. It's interactive. You cannot do this in isolation or your comic is no longer a medium. At the same time, you are affected by your readers.

Which is where we come to reviews.

Reviews are not intended for the author, but for the reader. Like I said, however, it's interactive. Something twinges in me to think of a creator's potential being crushed by an unfavorable review. I don't want people to give up on something they love and their readers love because a reviewer looked at something negatively, or even objectively without any room for potential. Like I said, I don't truly love any comic I've read. If I review, do I judge by that standard? Do I judge a work as if it were The Mayor of Casterbridge?

The food critic in my home paper does that. If something gets 3 stars out of 5 from him, it's a good restaurant and I'll probably love it. 4's are reserved for the exquisite, and the 5 is for only the best, which sometimes doesn't even exist as restaurants are re-reviewed or go belly up. That's one way of doing it. It may even seem fair to be realistic with people. You are not that good, just because you are popular. You don't even go in the same room as some print artists, the real professionals. You may be on American Idol, but you don't hold a candle to true singers: Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Patsy Cline, and heck, Robbie Williams. They are true artists, deft and subtle in their singing, capable of great range and intense emotion. You're lucky if you're not off-key.

Of course, that's not exactly fair. Here are some kids with a lot of potential and a lot of drive. A reality check may be in order, but it's not exactly helpful when you're trying your best anyway. For some people with big ego (like, say, ME), it's actually encouraging to get negative feedback, because it is helpful in that it stirs me to prove the naysayers wrong. For most people, it can make all their hard work seem for naught. Their comics, those that they created for free and went out of their way to make available to everyone, ultimately are worth nothing because a reviewer told them that they're not good. It doesn't matter if they did it for a hobby – only that they don't measure up in someone else's eyes. Their potential, demonstrated in their hobby, in their practice that each and every comic is – doesn't matter.

Them's the hard knocks of real life (not the webcomic, bozos) and there's nothing for it. You've got to have thick skin to put your work out for others to read, period. Readers like reviews, reviewers should try to be objective and honest, and sometimes that comes across badly for the author of a comic. I'm personally torn between cradling potential and not subjecting people to reviews that hold their comic up to a higher standard than they aim, or just letting people deal with it the way you're supposed to if you're mature and living in the real world (not the MTV show, bozos).

In the end, though, the second option is all you have, because there's no stopping reviews or people just saying things all on their own. You can choose to not read it. You can hold it as one voice versus the many voices of your fans. You can dismiss it as opinion (which it really is, there's no getting away from opinion in a review, no matter how objective you try to be). Or you can take my route and take it as a challenge.

Just keep working on that potential, take it somewhere, and maybe someone will end up taking it to heart. Or a desert island, depending on global warming.

Re: Webcomics Are From Uranus by Meaghan Quinn

Neil Cohn's picture

Well said about the purpose of reviews. I'm recalling a line from Almost Famous on the advice of the veteran journalist to the rookie who says "If you want to be a true friend to them, be honest and unmerciful."

------- Studying the Visual Language of "Comics" - http://www.emaki.net

Re: Webcomics Are From Uranus by Meaghan Quinn

tynic's picture

Reviews are not intended for the author, but for the reader.

Exactly.

As someone who is not, has never, will never be a webcomic author/artist, I guess I'm precisely the target audience for reviews - a pure fan. And I like reviews. In fact, most of all, I like negative reviews.

There are various reasons for this. One is that a detracting reviewer will generally go to more lengths to describe and analyse a comic than a reviewer who is overwhelmingly positive. I've picked up more good webcomics from a well-written negative review than I have from a positive, but uninformative, one. Point of fact: I only started reading Sexy Losers after the comixpedia article. I'd been aware of the comics' existence before then, but seen no reason to investigate it. The review intrigued me, I checked it out, and I liked it. Now I'm a fan.

Another is that even out-and-out damnation from a reviewer does not necessarily equate to a loss of potential audience. There are reviewers out there whose tastes are so diametrically opposed to my own that I actively seek out any comic/movie/book they really dislike, on the grounds that if they hate it, I'll probably like it.

I never click on banner ads for webcomics, I generally ignore other webcomic authors' recommendations, but I do follow reviews. And I don't care if the reviewer liked or hated the comic, as long as they give me enough information for me to make my own judgement. This can be overt (examples, explicit critiques) or implicit (based on the reviewers known tastes or prejudices). Whatever. It all works.

In summary, perhaps artists shouldn't be so quick to shy away from negative reviews. Even if you don't value the critique of your work, remember that most people out there know that a review is an opinion, and not necessarily an opinion they will agree with. The primary function of the review is to bring the webcomic to peoples' attention, which can only be beneficial. What the review actually says is, in many cases, secondary.

critical of critics

Uncle Ghastly's picture

From what I see, generally speaking, reviews are for neither artist nor reader but instead are an indulgence for the critic him/herself. It's a way to grant themselves authority over something they have no authority over and to make themselves feel superior to a creative process they themselves have no part in. "Look at me! I'm better than the stuff I'm reviewing!". Writing reviews is just an ego wank for the reviewer especially online where many artists will link to their reviews and thus deliver the reviewer his/her much needed attention fix.

Most reviewers and I'm talking about everything from TV to movies to books, tend to come off as the kind of people who carry a big chip on their shoulders because nobody in highschool realized what a special person they were and so they're determined to make life miserable for anyone who is getting more attention than they are.

Of course even worse than these bitter attention-whore critics are the corporate shill critics. These ones are even more self serving than the bitter attention-whores. They don't dare give anything a bad review because then all those nice gifts and perks from the entertainment industry will dry up. So they pucker up and kiss as much ass as they can for a gift basket and a free trip to an exclusive event.

There are very few critics I actually respect. Roger Ebert is one of them. I may not always agree with his conclusions but at least I can respect his opinion. He's not carrying a chip on his shoulder and he's not sucking from the MPAA teat.

Amature critics don't really get much respect from me. They generally don't know what they're talking about. They don't actually research or understand the work they're criticising and if you call them to task on it they get all pissy and cry out "it's my opinion you have to respect other people's opinions" like all opinions are worthy of respect just based on the merits of them being an "opinion". They also tend to think, due to the fact that there are so many professional critics who are asses, that they have to act like an ass too or they won't be taken seriously. That's why they tend to be so snobbish and negative about everything.

Plus, there's the fact the amature critic is an amature. At least with the professional being a bitter asshole is a living. It gets them a paycheque. Amature critics are in the game simply because they love to be asses. Being an ass in and of itself is so high a reward that a paycheque isn't neccessary. Seriously, how twisted a person do you have to be that you would want to use your precious free time to tear down the creative efforts of others rather than use it to create something yourself.

If I want my work critiqued there are enough real artists I know I can present my work to and get an honest and constructive critique of my work. I certainly don't need some uninvited opinionated online-ass to tear apart my work just so he or she can get their rocks off and feel all better about themselves because they tore apart a popular comic and got to show the world how high-brow they are because they tore apart a popular comic.

And just for the record to the best of my knowledge my comic hasn't been reviewed so I'm not venting venom to get back at some reviewer who trashed my work.

Re: Oh oh!

Uncle Ghastly's picture

I have to agree with you there. I can't think of any print comics I would be upset about if they suddenly dropped off the face of the earth (at least now that Calvin and Hobbes is no longer in production). There are certainly a lot of webcomics I'd be upset to see disappear.

Print, for the most part, has just become a huge corporate wank feeding off its own feces.

Now there is a hell of a lot of crap on the web, tonnes of it. There are tens of thousands of comics on the web that arn't worth the bandwidth it takes to read them. However, the real talent, the real innovation, the people who are taking comics into new and interesting places, they're mostly online. They're not putting out #$@&*+!!!-less jocks in spandex pulverising super villians and they're not serving up safe and unchallenging pablum to aging baby boomers in between the sports section and the obituaries.

Re: Oh oh!

But also there are plenty of shitty films, novels, TV shows, etc. I think that there are quite a few worthwhile print comics (though I might have lower standards), also webcomics are currently growing and evolving as a medium so even if they are all rather crappy right now there is a good chance they will signifigantly improve with time.

Re: Oh oh!

Sorry to sound negative, but it's this kind of attitude that keeps webcomics from improving.

Webcomic artists are generally amateurs who are not seasoned in drawing, writing, or selling their work. I, as much as anybody, would LOVE to see more of them move to professional, sellable status. But this will never happen if we're so sure we've already got the print field beat.

Re: critical of critics

kjc's picture

Y'know, I've written 15 reviews for Comixpedia. They weren't indulgences, they were assignments. In several cases I'd never read the work before, I did not know the creator, and I had no vested interest either way. (Although in cases where a work that I liked was on the list of suggested pieces, I often asked for it.)

Although I've had some art training, it's all rusty. I'm also a writer and an editor, so I bring those perspectives with me, but I gotta say I do not have the ego to say I'm better than everyone. Better than some, worse than others. I don't have a webcomic to build up by tearing others down, I just like reading webcomics (and comics in general).

Your comment here is an insult to those of us trying hard to be fair. We spend hours or even days (WEEKS in a couple cases) reading the archives, making notes on most of the strips, thinking about the art and the writing and the unique combination of the two in order to deliver something coherent to the audience.

I'm often guilty of trying to provide a critique rather than a review, because I get so caught up in the work that I want to talk about every detail. But the review really is for the reader. It's not for you, the creator. It's not meant to be the helpful opinion of an expert to help the creator (or lorded down from on high).

It's meant to be a READER'S thoughts for other readers to use or ignore.

I don't get my "rocks off" on reviews. The possibility of flamage, controversy, and anger are way too high. I'm just trying to participate in the on-going support of an interesting webzine about a subject that I love very much.

Kelly J. Cooper
(Speaking as a reviewer and a fan, not as Comixpedia's Features Editor)

Re: critical of critics

From what I see, generally speaking, reviews are for neither artist nor reader but instead are an indulgence for the critic him/herself.

I just call those "bad reviews". And anyone who defends a review by saying it's their opinion is a big stupidhead. A good review should be an educated opinion presented in such a way as to make the opinion inconsequential. You can't have a review without opinion, but it shouldn't just be opinion.

There IS a difference between a critique and a review, though. hey get mixed together a lot. A critique IS for the author, or for people studying the medium. Critiques should only be read AFTER reading the work in question, anyway.

As for amatuer reviewers: You have to know the form, medium and be very well read in it to do reviews well. Too many reviews are by fans or by haters (I'm speaking of the entire web, not comixpedia, which I feel does a pretty good job with a volunteer staff), and the reviewer really has no frame of reference for writing about a single comic.

And I don't like Ebert, but I'll give him this: I can tell whether I would like a movie or not after hearing/reading his take on it. He gives enough for other people to make a basis for their own interest or not. That's the real goal here, I think.

Re: Oh oh!

Kiwi's right. You can't do much with your potential if you're already resting on your laurels.

Re: critical of critics

Uncle Ghastly's picture

Your comment here is an insult to those of us trying hard to be fair.

No. My comment is an insult to those who are trying hard not to be fair.

Re: Oh oh!

Most webcomics are shit too. Just like everyting else, 98% of both comics and webcomics are just not worth it.

That's why I don't think we're better or worst than anybody. I don't see why they should be more respected than webcomic artists just because they sell or make a living with their work.

Re: Oh oh!

One big thing that print comics have that hold them above webcomics (temporarily) is simple history. There are far more worthwhile print comics than webcomics because we have almost a century's worth of print comics to sift through, but barely a decade's worth of webcomics. Webcomics just hasn't had time to produce its great works yet.

Complicating this is the fact that most of the experiences creators are sticking with print. Take a sampling of work almost entirely by relative newbies, and compare it to a sampling of work by people with a wide range of experience, and it should be no surprise if you find a larger number of great works among the latter.

But as existing webcomickers become more exeperienced, this will eventually even out.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

Re: Oh oh!

There's also the issue of money. Print comics generally require a certain cash layout, which requires that either a publisher thinks it's worthwhile, or that the writer is sufficiently dedicated to lay out their own cash on self-publishing. This means, in a crude filter sense, that many of the absolutely excreable comics never see print, or see small, self-published runs that (if they're that bad) are immediately forgotten by the world. (Sure, publishers do publish absolute crap from time to time, as people will doubtless rush to point out, but nevertheless, they don't publish every single terrible idea people have.)

Webcomics have no such filter--if you think it's a good idea, even if you're wrong, it can hit the web with a minor outlay of time and virtually no outlay of money.

So to be a really solid comparison, you'd really need to take the inital ten year run of print comics, and include not only those in print, but those ideas people tried to pitch which were so awful that nobody'd touch them, and all the ideas that their creators were very attached to at the time, but wished, years later, they'd never had and god, what were they thinking?, and so forth. Then compare that block to webcomics. And I think the dross-to-gold ratio would probably come out surprisingly even, for whatever that's worth.

Re: critical of critics

Well, G, you got me. I wasn't doing it for the betterment of webcomic kind. I was doing it because I had free time and wanted a way to fill it with something. So, what are you gonna do about it? HUH, PUNK???

The opinion of an amateur critic is worthless. However, the opinion of any amateur who says "Critics suck!" is a solid brick of gold.

Re: critical of critics

Too many reviews are by fans or by haters
"You can tell I'm the biggest fan because I hate it more than anybody else!"

Re: Webcomics Are From Uranus by Meaghan Quinn

I don't mean this as an argument, because it's obviously a subjective thing, but I know that I have webcomics on my desert-island list. It would hurt me very deeply if I were told that I could never read Demonology 101 or Same Difference ever again. They may not be, from an objective literary standpoint as "good" as _The Great Gatsby_ or my other more traditional favorite works of art, but I feel an emotional connection at least as deep.

I agree with your points on reviewing, though. And perhaps it's my loss that I've found webcomics that go almost exactly where I want them too, because it denies me the drive to go do my own thing.

Re: Webcomics Are From Uranus by Meaghan Quinn

Actually, that's exactly what I meant. I mentioned the idea of certain comics being literary accepted good, but really what I'm looking for are comics that would hurt me very deeply not to read again. I adore D101 and many other comics, but they haven't affected me. I'm glad that you have found ones that really mean something to you.

Oh oh!

I tell you... if webcomics arent as good as print comics, we're all fucked, cuz most print comics are shit.

-William G