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Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander

Through the Looking Back Glass: 2004 Is No More

Everyday of every month, news from the world of webcomics sweeps past us and we don't always have time to make sense of it all. In this new monthly column, our very own Erik Melander tracks down the headlines of the most recent month gone by and connects the dots for you in snappy prose.

Last year when I wrote similar overviews of the last month's news for the staff blog, 24 Hour Pixel People I would start by going through the headlines at Comixpedia as well as other news websites to find the most interesting events. I look for the kind of events that can cause discussion and speculation. For this first column I decided to take a broader look back at not just a month, but at the entirety of good ol' 2004. Since Comixpedia has already published a comprehensive review of the news in 2004, I instead tried to think back and remember what events had really stuck in my mind.

The first thing that springs to my mind about the beginning of 2004 was the topic of reviews. As I remember it all began with Comixpedia's review of Little Gamers, which was met with some... minor objections from its fans. And in the May issue, another review of Sexy Losers caused some controversy, partly because the creator, Hard, wrote a number of posts about why reviews of webcomics were undesirable. And right after that came the first issue of the Webcomics Examiner which stirred up even more discussion about reviews.

In many ways, all of these controversies over reviews were also about how seriously to take webcomics. But they also highlighted the question of whether or not creators making webcomics are forever destined to be amateurs or whether there will be room for professionals to make a living from their work in webcomics. In Comixpedia's year-in-review article, Kelly J. Cooper and Wednesday White summed up 2004 as "the year of BUSINESS and SERIOUSNESS."

As the year progressed this became more evident as several creators quit their day jobs to try and make a go of it fulltime with their webcomic, and all kinds of creators tried all kinds of ways to make some money from their webcomic. Some printed their comics as collections, or made concrete plans for printing. Others entered the newspaper game, seeking to change the current business model.

There was the Kurtz syndication scheme and the Keenspot syndication scheme. And of course several creators went professional.

Many webcomic creators also made their first ventures into print and found themselves taken much more seriously then before with some even winning awards. Derek Kirk Kim's graphic novel Same Difference and other short stories and the Flight vol. 1 anthology, edited by Kazu Kibuishi, springs to mind.

Although many saw this further blurring of the worlds of webcomics and print as a good thing others saw this as evidence that 2004 was not as good a year in webcomics as it might seem. In an article entitled "The Future of Webcomics" from the December 2004 issue of the Webcomics Examiner, there was a mix of opinions presented.

"At SPXPo this year," said Joe Zabel, "I had the unhappy feeling that print was surging forward and leaving webcomics behind. It was the gleam in the eye of a former webcartoonist I talked to, who now had a prestigious print deal, and confessed that he hadn't logged on in months. It was in the impassioned panel discussions of the print cartoonists, compared to the subdued and awkward forums devoted to webcomics. It was the general perception that print comics had finally gotten its act together and was moving forward into a bright future--while webcomics seemed to be stalled."

Not everyone at the roundtable shared Zabel's bleak view of the future. "I don't see the increasing shift to print as necessarily a bad thing" said Shaenon Garrity, "In fact, I think it has to happen for webcomics to survive economically and expand to a wider audience."

This talk of print as both something good and something bad is interesting. Just what are the goals of those webcomickers that decide to take things to the next level, to try to go pro? Does webcomics long for acceptance by the traditional media of comics, newspaper syndicates and comic books?

At the very end of 2004, writer Warren Ellis issued a call on his email list Bad Signal for people to send him the URLs of their webcomics. He then posted links to the ones he liked on his blog Die Puny Human. As a result of this, a thread was started on the buzzComix forums which congratulated those who Ellis had noted. The only thing was that a lot of the posters didn't actually know who Warren Ellis is.

Interestingly, Ellis noticed this thread and also made a commented on it in his next Bad Signal post. "It seems that an awful lot of webcomics creators don't read print comics. Some of them only read newspaper strips (which -- and I will be attacked for this -- I feel accounts for the stunted nature of a lot of webcomics). But an awful lot of them barely look at print comics at all.... I really like the idea of a new movement of comics creators who know absolutely nothing of print comics and who could care less. I want comics that go off in their own unique direction, uncontaminated by tradition. In print comics, the generation behind mine is entirely too polite, and entirely too male."

Now, it is possible to argue that just because they don't know who Warren Ellis is, it doesn't mean they don't know about or care about comics in print. It is quite possible that if you asked them what Chobits is, they would be able to give you an answer that was more extensive than you wished for. It is also quite possible that they would very much like to see their work in print in the future. Ellis is probably right, however, that there are a large number of webcomic creators that care little or nothing about the current comic book mainstream. But do these webcomic creators harbor any thoughts on making a living from comics?

As noted by Ellis, a lot of webcomic creators draw more inspiration from the world of newspaper strips than from comic books, which leads us to the other side of the coin. In December, the newspaper comic Non Sequitur ran a strip that quickly became the talk of the web because it appeared to directly comment on a webcomic creator, Scott Kurtz.

In brief, the background being that when Scott Kurtz announced that he would give the first year of his PvP webcomic to newspapers for free as part of his self-syndication scheme, Wiley Miller, creator of Non Sequitur, was part of a large group of creators who expressed the opinion that it would not work. Miller commented in a thread on the Toontalk forums:

Kurtz is apparently as ignorant about newspapers, particularly editors, as he is about syndicates and syndication. It doesn't matter if he offers them his strip for free. Hell, he could offer to PAY newspapers to run his strip. It won't matter. Why? Because editors will not buy self-syndicated material....

Adding this to the equation, it is hard not to read the Non Sequitur strip as a barb aimed at Kurtz. In other words, here we have a comic creator in a traditional medium that does not appear to share Warren Ellis's optimistic view on webcomics. It must be noted that there are big differences between the two. Ellis is unlikely to lose a writing gig due to webcomics any time soon, while Miller is active in what is probably the most competitive business there is for comics. And it is certainly not possible to generalize from these two for there are no doubt comic book creators that see webcomics as snotty kids who should abandon their pens and pixels forever and syndicated cartoonists who look on the Internet and sees possibilities for the future.

But are these traditional media where webcomic creators aim? Will webcomics be able to stand tall next to them or is it destined to be only the stepping stones towards them? Or should we perhaps not pay them any attention at all? Or perhaps we should only see them as a cautionary tale? Perhaps we should set our aim higher since the comic book world is clearly eyeing the bookstores and manga market.

Garrity's point that print is important in order to survive finacially and expand the audience rings true. But as a result of this, professional webcomics have also moved closer to traditional media. We have seen evidence that webcomics, such as Penny Arcade, can reach audiences that otherwise have little interest in comics and a large number of webcomic creators seem to care little about print. But if the section of creators that wish to make comics their living start to aim mainly towards more traditional media, then that would put us at risk of losing that which may gives webcomics an advantage.

Do webcomics long for the respect of traditional comics media? Both yes and no are probably correct answers as webcomics are not a homogenous group. The interesting question is not if, but why do we want it? If the next evolutionary step for webcomics is to continue to move towards the traditional media, then why is that? And what other options are there?

Erik Melander has read comics his whole life. Vir Bonus is his own attempt at creating one.