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Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

One of the dilemmas I have been faced with this fall is when and where it is appropriate to get into political discussions. This is a pretty heated time to be politically active in the United States, and it seems like everyone wants to talk about their views with others. In general, I absolutely applaud people debating the issues of the day; as Garrison Keillor recently reminded us, "Dante said that the hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral." It certainly seems like as we get closer and closer to election day here in the USA, people are acting more and more as if the decision we make about our next president is of vital importance to our nation’s future.

As a result of the recent political atmosphere, many webcomic creators seem to be making their political stances known through their websites and webcomics. I think it is important, though, to make sure their urge to become more politically active does not distract from the original intent and focus of their comics work. Some online comics, of course, are political comics by their very nature, so speaking about the political events and issues of the day is not only welcomed by the readers, it is expected. But what if your online comic isn’t strictly political? Where should one draw the line before you’ve gone too far and lost readers? Or should that even be an issue if it is the emotions and convictions of artists that motivate them to get political?

David Wright, the creator of Todd and Penguin, recently posted a parody advertisement on the front page of his website, directly under the comic and where the site news normally was. After some discussions with family, friends, and fans, however, he decided to remove the image. After removing the image, Wright commented on why he reconsidered:

I do think there is a place for that stuff, but I don't think that place is here at Todd and Penguin. I have to censor myself on this occasion, and think what is better for the comic, and the readers in general. When you create a comic and a site, you sort of enter into a contract with the readers of what is to be expected. If you opened up the newspaper, expecting to read Garfield, and instead found Jim Davis going off on the war, you would be startled. You might be impressed, too, as the comic hasn't broken new ground in ages, but that's besides the point.

Regardless of how cool Jim Davis' anti-war strip was, it wasn't what you expected, it wasn't the Garfield you came to see. You read Garfield for one reason, you are comfortable with Garfield, you aren't expecting Garfield to challenge your views on things, or enrage you to do something political. Somehow, I too, have created a comic like Garfield, safe and warm and fuzzy, though I prefer to liken it to Calvin and Hobbes, in the feelings it inspired (I hope) and at this point, it would seem strange for it to get political, or to push those kinds of envelopes.

He and I discussed some of the considerations involved in placing such strong political statements on the front page of his comic's site. In this particular case, I find myself agreeing with Wright’s decision. By placing a political parody on his website right next to Todd and Penguin, his readership was forced to look at something very different from what they had come to expect from the comic. Wright put his personal politics into a context, the website for Todd and Penguin, that had been previously largely apolitical. He had in a sense put his personal politics into the world of the characters he had created, without intending to do so. By moving the image and moving his personal thoughts to a blog where he already frequently wrote freely about things on his mind, he maintained some distance between his comic and his personal beliefs.

In contrast, there are creators that have successfully intermingled their personal feelings about politics with their comic. Jon Rosenberg, the creator of Goats, certainly doesn’t hide his views from visitors to the Goats website. He has been successful with politically-related merchandise that is often unrelated to the comic, and frequently expresses his viewpoints verbally on the front page of his site and in his forums. So why does this work for Rosenberg when it wouldn't necessarily at Wright's website? In my mind, the main difference is that while Goats is not a political comic in the strictest sense, it certainly tackles political subjects at times, so in contrast to Todd and Penguin, at least the precedent is there.

Scott McCloud also posts about his political views, primarily on his blog (though his views have snuck into his comics now and then). At first I thought that McCloud can get away with this because of his celebrity within comics circles and it may in fact play a role, but I think the main thing that allows this to happen smoothly at his site is that it is scottmccloud.com. By that, I mean that it is not therightnumber.com or understandingcomics.com, but a site filled with all things McCloud: his artwork, his comics, his theories, and links to the sorts of things he supports. Those of us who read his comics and visit his website pretty much expect to hear his opinions at least some of the time, so for him to mention his political views occasionally doesn't disrupt the flow of things.

My point in all of this is not that creators should or shouldn't begin actively expressing their political viewpoints in their comics or on the website for their comics. The last thing I want to do is discourage someone from striking out for or against those things they feel are important. I am simply observing that it is worth thinking before making that decision about the ramifications to the webcomic, how readers will react, and what the best course of action really is for the creator to reach his or her goal.

Illustration by Catherine!