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Collaborative Webcomics Are No Sin by Michael McGovern

I blame Frank Miller.

Back in the days B.F. (Before Frank) the comic book Editor Gods had decided that the job of making a comic book should be broken down so that hordes of different people worked to create it together. This way the people who were best at these specific tasks could put out more work. After a while it got out of hand, with jobs like Plotter, Scripter, Penciller, Inker, Colorist and Letterer (eventually they would have broken this job down even further: "Ted, you letter the consonants. Bill, you’re on vowels, and sometimes 'Y'").

Then along came Frank, who blew the doors off, and suddenly every artist thought they could write.

Finally, The Man had been shown the error of his ways, and the artist was free to take 100% of the profit- umm, I mean enjoy 100% of the creative process. In webcomics, artists and writers tend to want to work alone. There are so many examples of terrible work on the Internet that they figure they couldn’t do worse, and it’s pretty grim to make almost nothing profit-wise doing a webcomic and then have to split that pittance in half.

The problem, of course, is that not all artists can write. I’m fully prepared for the mobs with torches and pitchforks, because in recent years this simple statement has become blasphemy. "But anyone can write. It’s about what’s inside of you. Everyone has a story to tell."

Yes, everyone does have a story to tell, but not everyone has a good story to tell. Some people have stories to tell like my Aunt. Once upon a time, she goes to the store, finds the price of peanut butter is way too high, sees a seagull in the parking lot and then she forgets how it ends.

I’ve worked with artists who were desperate to make joke strips, but had no sense of humor. I’ve written for artists who couldn’t wait to tell a complex story, but weren’t aware of the existence of capital letters or periods. Then there are some who can write, but with certain impediments. John Byrne springs to mind. Here’s a man who, even if he was writing the sequential art version of The New Testament, would still insist on having Time Travel as the central plot point.

There are also some very successful "artists" who not only can’t write, but can’t actually draw either (see Liefeld, Rob), but that’s a soapbox for another day.

Why can’t every artist write well? My crackpot theory is that when they’re really in "The Zone" and drawing well, all artists say the same thing: "I lose all track of time."

The best artists are in The Zone a lot, and I think, theoretically, this is why some of them make such poor writers. Writing a story has a good deal to do with time, specifically beginning, middle and end. Instead, many artists are far more concerned with, "Does this arm look real?" and "Do you think her spine would shatter in real life if I drew her boobs even bigger?"

This is not, by any means, a bad thing. These are the questions an artist simply must ask to be successful at what they do. My point is that it is the rare individual who is also capable of next asking, "How can I use the breasts as foreshadowing?"

On the other side of the coin, there are a tremendous amount of writers who can’t draw who are also insisting on making comics all by themselves. Clip-art comics, sprite comics and stick-figure comics litter the web, the very names of their genres inspiring flame-wars on forum sites at this moment.

There are, of course, exceptions that only the most hard-headed ideologue would dismiss because of the genre alone. Aaron Farber’s Men In Hats is so brilliantly and hilariously written it wouldn’t matter if the figures were just pairs of eyebrows talking to each other. Rich Burlew’s Order of the Stick is one of the best written and drawn webcomics, though you can tell from his f.a.q. page that the questioning of his artistic skills makes him more than a little testy.

Q: How come your art sucks so much? Can’t you draw?
A: Grumble. Let’s be clear: I choose to draw stick figures because I think they bring the right air of humor to the strip, and because they create a unique style. People often criticize the OOTS style under the assumption that I am incapable of doing "better." I would argue that there is no "better" or "worse" involved. I use stick figures because the stick figure style is what is right for the comic. If I were doing a serious fantasy epic, I would draw more realistic pictures.

The questioner undoubtedly has seen too many stick-figures scribbled by writers who have deluded themselves into believing they are also artists. Poor Mr. Burlew is left to defend his work, even though a cursory scan of his art reveals a comprehensive understanding of expression, depth and movement.

There are certainly many webcomic artists who can also write well. John Allison, Scott Kurtz (can we please just give him a pass on the whole template thing, please? The guy can draw.), Kristofer Straub, Zach Stroum, Nicholas Gurewitch and many more are wonderful one-person shows. But with their success, in a way, they have become the Internet’s Frank Millers (no pressure). With every strip, they’re proving that it most certainly is possible to do it all by yourself and do it well, inspiring hordes of artists who can’t write and vice-versa to go out and make fools of themselves trying.

Because so many webcomic creators decide to go it alone, the "middle-class" of webcomics is light on writer/artist partnerships. A survey of Websnark’s mammoth daily trawl reveals a grand total of only seven collaborative webcomics. However, one of those, Penny Arcade, happens to be one of, if not the most popular webcomic, and a perfect example of the benefits of collaboration. Gabe’s art is superior and has only gotten better over the years, but his blogs often sound as if he’s afflicted with a severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome. Meanwhile, Tycho’s blogs can be almost as much fun to read as the comics themselves. Over time, the two of them have seemed to become more attuned to each other’s strengths, and the dual nature of the strip tends to keep it fresh, another benefit to collaboration.

Taking collaboration to the extreme, we also have community webcomics, or "jams," where different creators contribute their work to create a new story together a few panels at a time. The whole concept of community webcomics is frankly so bizarre that you just know it was first invented through the power of a drunken, late-night dare after a comic book convention. I mean, can you imagine if other mediums employed this method of creation?

Literature

Ernest Hemingway: My paragraph’s done. Your turn.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: Does it end with someone getting gored by a bull like all the others?

Or Cinema

William Wallace: Freedom!

Jar-Jar: Me-sa scared, Mister Braveheart!

Community webcomics tend to be thoroughly enjoyable to their creators, and an odd curiosity to most everyone else. They usually veer along unsteadily for a few strips and then one of the artists decides to ignore virtually everything that has gone before and go for some cheap one-off joke that leaves the next person nowhere to go with the story. In short, it’s difficult imagining this type of collaboration really taking off and gaining large popularity, it seems flawed as an art form, and it also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. I can’t wait to try it.

In conclusion, webcomic collaboration is a Good Thing, but at this point there just isn’t enough of it. Too often an artist or writer decides to do everything themselves despite their deficiencies, and the result is a waste of time, talent and bandwidth. There has never been a tool for connecting people more powerful than the Internet, but we have yet to fully harness that power and reach out to others whose abilities complement our own. We’re not all Frank Miller, we can’t all go it alone, and there’s no shame in admitting that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see Sin City again.

Michael McGovern writes fantasy, superhero parody, sci-fi, political humor and horror comics at mcgoverncomics.com.