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The 2009 State of Webcomics Address

It’s been said that kids say the darndest things. It’s been said in many different ways by many different people. In fact, that’s essentially the lesson of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. All the adults who praise the emperor’s threads without actually seeing them fear the consequences of calling him out on them – but the kid who points out that the emperor is, in fact, buck naked doesn’t know any better, can’t grasp the consequences that the adults fear might befall him for saying such a thing.
What often isn’t said is that this tendency doesn’t go away all at once, but in fact, tends to slowly dissipate over time, with the accompanying cynicism increasing separately. At no time in history has this been made more clear than in the past 50 years. Time and again, it has been people in their 20s that have changed the world – people with enough learned cynicism to know the world as it is but enough residual idealism to feel that isn’t the way it has to be.
It is this group – the generation of people in their 20s – my generation, the Digital Generation – that has sought to explore every aspect of what the Internet could be, often without regard to the potential concerns and problems raised by the older, more cynical generation. Whether it’s blogs, YouTube, or really any number of things, my generation has colonized the Internet and made it our own, revolutionizing the way we live in the twenty-first century, without worrying too much about that little “money” thing, or the effect their experiments will have on the institutions they’re replacing.
Such is the case with webcomics. The unprecedented creative freedom of webcomics have led them to attract many would-be comic strip creators away from the newspaper, right when comic strips were most needed to fill the role they filled so capably back in the days of true competition within a market, and as I explained in the “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series they are on the cusp of doing the same for comic book creators. But it has still been difficult for webcomic creators to find a revenue stream. I don’t think webcomickers should be glorified T-shirt salesmen, but that and the sale of compilation books (seemingly unnecessary when all the strips are available online anyway) have so far been the main sources of income for webcomic creators. That helps explain why so many popular webcomics are gag-a-day comics: ongoing, dramatic storylines don’t lend themselves well to pithy T-shirts. (Order of the Stick is the exception that proves the rule, because while it has a dramatic storyline, it’s still ultimately a humor comic, and its books mix “deleted scenes” and behind-the-scenes info with the old strips and have all-new storylines in two cases.)
The Floating Lightbulb, in my opinion, was always a must-read for aspiring webcomickers, regardless of whether you agreed with Bengo’s advice or his seeming obsession with Scott Kurtz and his ilk. But if there’s one thing about TFL that disillusioned me more than any other except maybe said obsession, it was the fact that a lot of Bengo’s advice, especially of late, basically concerned increasing ROI on T-shirt sales. The message I got from such posts was that even the best webcomic in the world wouldn’t be financially successful if it wasn’t a vehicle for presenting T-shirt ideas. Bengo has said he wants quality, but the way he’s willing to compromise quality for money suggests that, if anything, webcomics may actually have less room for creative freedom than their print counterparts, at least as far as making money off them is concerned. At least in print, you’re paying for the story itself.
The story of webcomics is the story of Web 2.0 in general, only arguably further along. Webcomics and the webcomics community, at the core, have always been less about the works produced in the medium than the promise and potential of an idea. That simple idea was the idea of putting images side by side to tell a story, and putting the resulting story on a Web page. Dreamers like Scott McCloud evangelized about the tremendous potential of this idea, speaking of infinite canvases and micropayments and all sorts of cool stuff. Once the finances were worked out, people said, webcomics would be a revolution.
The reality has so far fallen far short of the promise. Some strips, like Girl Genius, The Order of the Stick, and Gunnerkrigg Court have been critically acclaimed and produced works worthy of the best (or at least critically acclaimed) of any medium, but even they have been bound by the comic book format; the infinite canvas, in the lack of a reliable payment scheme (as I chronicled in “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”) has proven to be a gimmick at best. With people everywhere shunning paywalls of any kind and preventing the creation of real demand for compilations as anything other than a charitable excersize without “DVD extras”, and the ad market slumping while webcomics aren’t popular enough to make a lot of money out of a slumping ad market even for the most popular of webcomics, the most successful comics, as Bengo has pointed out, have been those gag-a-day strips that serve as meme factories so they can get people to buy more T-shirts.
I decided to institute a star rating system for my new webcomic review index, and it reveals that with the exception of OOTS, Sluggy Freelance, and (depending on your definition) the David Morgan-Mar comics, the most popular and successful comics (that I’ve reviewed so far, but I’ve reviewed most of the really big ones) are decidedly mediocre. There are a lot of two-star and two-and-a-half-star comics on there, including Penny Arcade, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, and even Ctrl+Alt+Del, which I actually like and read. (That’s before we get into the 8-Bit Theaters and Dresden Codaks of the world.)
The idea of a new Golden Age of artistic experimentation and accomplishment has driven many webcomic promoters. But a disturbing number of webcomic creators, especially those first exposed to webcomics by PA or CAD, have been driven by a different dream: slapping together comics and earning fame and fortune with minimal work instead of getting a real job with real skills. Webcomics are the geek’s version of the black community’s dream of basketball or rap superstardom: many will enter, few will win. Thus far too many webcomics are crappy video game comics that basically copy-and-paste the CAD formula (already heavily hated) onto personages from the creator’s own life.
It may actually be worse when those people actually achieve webcomics stardom, because the reason they got into webcomics into the first place was that they desired the attention that comes from fame and not necessarily because they had genuine artistic concerns, so the fame often goes to their head. If you don’t believe that I have two names for you: Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley. Say what you will about Bengo’s obsession with Kurtz or the Internet’s hatred of CAD, but the fact is that neither creator has really endeared himself to very many people. (Well, Kurtz endears himself to people who praise or agree with him or who he’s trying to impress, but still.)
Buckley’s control-freak tendencies and desire to live in his own little fantasy world where he’s the greatest webcomicker evar and everyone loves him is well known. Kurtz’s problem is different: he’s not living in a fantasy world necessarily (and he’s even self-depreciating about his own foibles), he just talks out of his ass a lot. Kurtz has been known to pick fights with various other webcomickers and webcomic bloggers for seemingly no reason, sees himself as the new Voice of All Webcomics even if others would rather he wasn’t, and has occasionally revealed a protectiveness against pretty much any other new webcomic that might conceivably steal one penny – or even one hit – from his own comic. (That didn’t stop him from co-writing a how-to book for aspiring webcomickers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that part of Bengo’s beef has been accusing the Halfpixel foursome of cooking unrealistic and unsupported numbers to inflate expectations in Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere so they won’t challenge the established webcomickers like themselves.)
The proliferation of crappy video game comics is probably to be expected as a result of Sturgeon’s Law, but for some reason some of them have actually attracted a decent-sized following, and that, combined with the face people like Kurtz tend to present, has led the creation of a sizable group that seemingly hates webcomics in general, most prominent among them probably being John Solomon during his 15 minutes of fame. That the webcomic community rushed to the defense of many of the comics Solomon reviewed only allowed him to paint the community as an insular group that praises everything all the time uncritically, and when Solomon revealed an appreciation for such strips as the Court, OOTS, and to a limited extent PA (by contrast to other, inferior tag-team comics) it led some people to hate on them for the sole reason Solomon liked them. Thanks in part to Solomon, some even within the community have joined in the hating of bad video-game comics, and some have turned on the Kurtzes and Buckleys of the world, but they still exist, new Voices of All Webcomics have yet to appear, and sweep out the crap and the egos and you don’t have much left. You’re left with just the idea. And that idea has become shrouded by all the excess baggage.
Bengo doesn’t share my enthusiasm, expressed during “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”, that an increasingly hostile comic book market to small publishers has put comic books on the cusp of a new flowering of greatness. In his eyes, the people that would flock to webcomics are instead turned off by all the crap and egos. Personally, I wouldn’t normally expect comic creators to hold the crap and egos produced by the medium now against the medium as a whole… but consider the following potential obstacles for an aspiring webcomicker:

  • Having Scott Kurtz or some other prima donna creator pick a fight with you for no reason.
  • Webcomic blogs can’t find your comic and won’t review it in the morass of other crap, so it doesn’t get discovered by the webcomic community. This is especially a problem for comics that release all in one installment, because of certain webcomic blogs’ policies not to review comics that have “ended”.
  • The general public (outside the webcomic community) sees webcomics (if they’ve heard of them) as a bunch of crappy video game comics made by arrogant college students and doesn’t find your comic, even if they wouldn’t otherwise need the help of webcomic blogs. This makes it especially difficult if your comic doesn’t appeal to nerds.

This last point seems especially salient considering the potential Scott McCloud saw in webcomics in Reinventing Comics. McCloud thought webcomics could appeal to more audiences than comic books heretofore had, appealing to women, minorities, and lovers of genres outside superheroes. He also thought webcomics could become much more mainstream than comic books were at the time. And the viral nature of the Internet meant that someway, somehow, even if the old gatekeepers didn’t like your work, if it was quality, it could find an audience.
But once again, here – as elsewhere – webcomics have fallen far short of the potential evangelized by their supporters. The Web is a marketplace of ideas, but it doesn’t change human nature, and that means stereotyping. If comic books have suffered from the notion that “comics are for kids” and “comics = superheroes”, webcomics may be starting to suffer from their own stereotypes, at least in some corners – stereotypes that have already irredeemably sickened web prose fiction, which became almost wholly identified with fanfic, which itself became almost wholly identified with bad fanfic. Because there are no barriers to entry, someone looking at a random webcomic is not likely to be impressed, and even the faces of webcomics, comics that have managed to shake the stench of Sturgeon’s Law to some extent, are Penny Arcade and xkcd, not Girl Genius or The Order of the Stick.
There is a silver lining for webcomics: slowly but surely, all media are starting to migrate to the Web in some form. That means they will all be subject to Sturgeon’s Law to some extent. (I’ll discuss some of the implications of that fact later in the week, but it won’t be a webcomic post.) Every medium will run a risk of becoming identified with crap. The barriers to entry are greater for art forms that require more and more expensive stuff, so more good stuff and less bad stuff will make it through in those media that combine moving images with sound – the descendants of movies and TV – and webcomics could remain very low on the totem pole as a medium, ahead of only prose, podcasts, and music. (And as it gets easier to create a simple webcomic like I did with Sandsday, webcomics could even fall behind podcasts and music!) Still, eventually we’ll get used to the fact, as the ever-popular blogosphere already is, that there’s a bunch of junk out there, and we’ll just have to follow what we’re familiar with and hope word of mouth will lead us to the other good stuff. When that happens, maybe – maybe – webcomics will be able to play on a level playing field. But to do so, it may need to completely jettison any memory of its video game legacy.
Sturgeon’s Law may explain all the crap in webcomics, but how to explain all the egos that (at least to Bengo) are seemingly attracted to webcomics like moths to a flame? It turns out that, at least in our dog-eat-dog society, most people are predisposed to jerkdom. I myself may admit that I might come across as a jerk in real life. Under the old ways, the jerks were weeded out or reformed by the need to network and negotiate to get anywhere in their desired careers. But that’s no longer necessary to put your wares on the web with no barriers to entry, where you can talk to anyone you still need to network with in a purely utilitarian mode and hide behind the abstraction of text with no face-to-face contact, with ready-made audiences on many sites where you don’t have to talk to anyone, and with some people willing to promote your work without even knowing what you’re like as a person.
But none of that really gets to the heart of the matter as far as Bengo is concerned: To him, the webcomics community itself is the problem.
Jonathan Rosenberg started Fleen to have a webcomic blog unencumbered by a creator who runs his own webcomic on the side. In Bengo’s eyes, he didn’t succeed, since Dumbrella was almost as much a dirty word at TFL as Halfpixel. As far as Bengo is concerned, a lot of the webcomics community is either consisting of people who ultimately want to promote their own wares, or driven by those people and blinded to those people trying something new, instead led around in circles to keep propping up the same old Penny Arcade and PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Moreover, because of the small size of the medium it can throw the moniker of success onto people who really don’t deserve the term, people who in actuality are wallowing in mediocrity whether aesthetically or financially.
But in Bengo’s eyes, the root of this isn’t far from that of webcomics’ density of prima donnas. Any new idea is going to come with a good dose of idealism, since idealism is the only way new ideas are born, but also some of the lower aspects of human nature, simply because rules for professionalism haven’t been established. What’s more, an idealism about the potential of a new idea and a blindness to the faults go hand in hand. Idealism is a double-edged sword; it allows you to try something that’s never been done before, but that can be because it blinds you to the problems that are the reasons why the skeptics are skeptical in the first place, both potential and practical. What’s more, the latter problem is often compounded with youth, who owe their idealism to not having experience with the problems. Especially since youth often comes with a seeming immaturity, or at least inexperience, that compounds the problems of human nature. Sometimes this is itself defended as idealism, sometimes it’s just subconscious, but always it can hold the idea back from acceptance by the old gatekeepers.
When Bengo rather condescendingly claims that what sets webcomics further back than other fields with some of the same problems is that “many people are young and lack the critical skills to recognize these realities”, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an old fogie yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. After all, he’s effectively claiming that he is the only one capable of properly sizing up the webcomic landscape – an outsider who’s barely spent a year immersed in the webcomic community. Anyone else is just too blinded by their youthful idealism. (After all, it’s not like Scott McCloud has a career in comics dating back to the 80s.) They’re too wrapped up in an insider mentality, can’t see the forest for the trees, they’re blind to what everyone else thinks of them. They think everything’s coming up roses for webcomics but only because they’re shielded – whether subconsciously or by demagogues – from the Truth(tm).
I think Bengo may be misreading the motives of some observers – many webcomic promoters don’t care that the fact of webcomics is in rough shape, because they only care about the idea. They’re not blind to webcomics’ problems because they “lack the critical skills” to ferret them out, they’re blind to them because that’s not where they’re looking. And that’s a good thing – better to look at the webcomics doing good things for the medium than the demagogues. But Bengo’s concern is for an aspiring webcomicker who’s either young and set to ruin their lives following an avalanche of bad advice, bad role models, and their own inexperience, or more experienced and trying to avoid getting wrapped up in a scene that produces a bunch of jerks – and where the financials might not have been figured out to the extent people think.
Bengo thinks webcomics are even smaller than those within the community give it credit for – and shrinking, with even the top webcomics enjoying less success and less self-sufficiency than they sometimes get credit for. Many webcomics creators, in his experience, are not just egotistical but private and unwilling to give hard data. The number of truly artistic, great webcomics – especially those noticed by the successors of Websnark, the mainstream webcomic blogs – can probably be counted on one hand. The number of webcomics that have had even fleeting breakout success outside the webcomic niche are even fewer. The webcomic community is still more committed to the potential of an idea than the actual realization of that idea. Much of the webcomic blogosphere consists of not so much coverage of actual webcomics but coverage of technological developments that might, one day, if we’re lucky, have an influence on the future of comics. (Comixtalk seems to prefer to see itself as a site for coverage of “comics in the digital age” than a webcomics blog.) Even webcomic reviews have, since Websnark near-fell off the face of the earth, concentrated less on the comics themselves and more on how lessons from them might apply to Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere.
Say what you will about his conclusions, or even dismiss them entirely as someone too jaded to realize how times are changing and bitter about not succeeding the way “better” cartoonists did, you should still be sobered by Bengo’s announcement that he would be leaving “webcomics” entirely, feeling the term too poisoned, and urging others to isolate their sites as much as possible from the “scene”. And cheerleaders for the idea may want to listen to what Bengo had to say before that, directly to them:
I’d be alarmed that an open-minded, truth-seeking sort like myself would enter webcomics, study it round the clock for several years, and find it mostly over-blown, in love with itself and falling out of fashion. I’d be even more alarmed that there are quality comics with quality accounting who far out-perform the alleged self-supporting titles, providing a valuable reality check to the people peddling your bright webcomic career along with your lottery ticket and Brooklyn Bridge. The ignorance deficit — the difference between what most webcomic people know and what they need to know — is so gaping, the typical aspirant’s chances of success are rotten.
During Bengo’s farewell series, Scott Kurtz left a series of comments so mean-spirited and trolly it may have been hard to believe he was actually responsible for them. But that can’t be said for his tweeted response to Bengo’s announcement he would be leaving the “webcomics scene”, which regardless of what you may think of Bengo and his conclusions, has to be a wake-up call to anyone:
I think @krisstraub and I forced a man to quit webcomics. I’m proud. Proud of what we’ve acomplished [sic].
Really, Scott? You’re proud that a man who wanted to enter webcomics, who saw the potential of the core idea of webcomics and wanted webcomics to be the best that they could be, someone who could have – for all we know – been one of the great forces and driving figures to help webcomics achieve their potential, instead saw a cesspool of jerks and crap and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? You’re proud that you forced a man to quit “webcomics”?!? How could you, self-proclaimed Voice of All Webcomics, possibly be proud of driving someone from it? Is it just because he didn’t bother kowtowing to you and dared to challenge you and your infallible statements? Is it because you think he’s bitter about not being good enough and you see him picking a fight with you for no good reason, oblivious to the fact you’re making yourself as bad if not worse, and taking webcomics down with it? Or perhaps we should take your nonspecific phrasing at face value, and decide this is one instance of you letting slip your real goal, that you don’t really want webcomics reaching their potential, that you don’t want anyone escaping the cave to discover the true mediocrity of your work, that you’re willing to bring down an entire art form so you can remain self-proclaimed king of it?
This one statement, more than any other – even any from Bengo – is telling about the state of webcomics today, held back by those who would wish that Sturgeon’s Law continued to hold as much as possible, that it would remain a niche small enough for their own delusions of grandeur to seem realistic, that its reputation could be sullied enough that it could remain their own little club. It’s possible that one day, when the history of comics on the web are told, we will say that once upon a time, there was a community of people, led by those who created the early successes and tried to ensure there would be no others, who produced a body of work and built their own insular community around it known as “webcomics”, and their actions nearly set the cause of comics on the web back years, and their community initially attracted those who would defend the idea, but decided that to avert the fate of the idea being slaughtered in the crib, they would have to distance themselves from it and start over, ditching the roots that “webcomics”, an outgrowth of the dumb Internet culture of the Web’s childhood and adolescence, laid down.
I would love to come back in a year, at next year’s State of Webcomics Address, and say that this period of webcomics history is not quite as bleak as I just described, that we have found a new Voice of All Webcomics that can rescue it from the damage Kurtz and his ilk are doing, that Bengo’s description of the potential missed opportunity facing us did not turn out to be as tragic as he feared. I’d even like to be able to say the state of webcomics wasn’t as bad as I made it seem even now, that Bengo was wrong all along, that webcomics’ own quirks – even its propensity for egos – were good enough to grow and thrive in the context of the Internet. But not only am I not holding my breath, I’m not sure if I’ll even know the answer from the webcomic blogosphere.