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A Chatroom of Their Own by Kip Manley

Picture it in your mind's eye: the Artist, alone in her drafty garret studio, isolated from friends, family, the ten thousand distractions of the everyday world, the better to concentrate on her struggle with the ineffable. Breathing deeply, she takes up pen or paintbrush, chisel or keyboard, to seek out all on her own the elusive fruits of her solitary labor – her Art.

It's a persistent image. Downright iconic. It's pretty much how we think of artists doing art. It's also a load of malarkey.

Oh, artists do need to spend time in rooms of their own, yes. But to imagine that this image is all there is to making art is to miss more than half the story.

Artists travel in packs. They have ever since the first cave painters got together around a fire pit just outside Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc to boast about their color mixing techniques and argue whether the obsessive dicta of the Stick Figure School allow for truly expressive renderings of motion. Artists crave interaction as much as solitude, whether it's the carousing bands of poets and actors in the London of Shakespeare and Marlowe, the communal domesticity of early 20th-century painters the Red Rose Girls, or the cheekily Calvinist proclamations of the Dogme '95 filmmakers. They need to group themselves around common ideals – then tear them to shreds with bitter infighting. They support each other in times of trouble, whether emotional, financial, or artistic – then egg each other on through vicious competition. (Even Emily Dickinson, the famously reclusive Belle of Amherst, who could not bear to meet her visitors in person and instead spoke to them from a perch on the stairs outside the parlor, maintained a voluminous correspondence with other writers and critics.)

Certainly, the Internet has had a profound effect on how artists are able to distribute their work. You need only to look at the ease with which John Allison organized and published his guest cartoonist weeks at the end of May for his daily webcomic, Scary Go Round – twelve strips by an international smattering of webcomics stars and up-and-comers, put together on a shoestring; an effort that without the Internet would have cost a fortune in transoceanic phone calls and Fed Ex overnight shipping.

But as important (if not more so, in the long run) is the effect the Internet has had on these bitchfests and bull sessions, these support circles and dogmatic cliques. The Internet is, fundamentally, a way for people to say whatever they want whenever they want to whomever they want, and it's on this level that the most fundamental--and exciting--revolution in webcomics is taking place. It's just a terribly easy revolution to miss, because the tools are so ubiquitous they're practically invisible: Email. Chat. Message boards. LiveJournals.

These tools can, for instance, hold together a group of artists geographically scattered by circumstance. The members of Studio Splurd – Jeremy Kayes, Jason Roberts, Jenn Weaver, Josh Seffinga, Josh Siewert, Jeff Hindman, and Christina Rogers – are a group of artistically inclined friends who met in high school and college. "Our crew got together the old-fashioned way, geeking out together pre-Internet explosion," says Rogers.

Once graduation sent them packing to New York City, Virginia and Maryland, and Washington State, they hit upon the idea of using Splurd.com to keep up and in touch with each other. "The thinking was we all do our own thing to gain fans and promote our artwork, then we use Splurd to share the fan base that we all were gaining individually," says Kayes. "The plan has been quite successful so far."

Splurd.com offers portfolio space for studio members to display their efforts in comics, illustration, and animation, and a forum to discuss what's working and what isn't. They also use blog-like "newsposts" and the SplurdLink search engine to share links and opinions. "The ability to shout our opinions to the world from a centralized soap box does wonders to keep us a close-knit posse," says Kayes, the studio's resident code-wrangler, who programmed all of these tools except the forum.

So Studio Splurd is a highly centralized attempt to keep an existing group of artists together, one that originally met conventionally. It's working quite well for them, doing a great deal to obliterate the geographical distance between them and keep them engaging and challenging each other. But these tools are also being used – almost spontaneously, even accidentally – to create groups who do comics together, who meet and critique each other's work, long before ever actually meeting in person.

Take as an example the Pants Press cartoonists. They critique each other's work, and support each other with collective promotional efforts. There's no overriding approach to technique or theory that they share; just an appealingly voracious appetite for all things cartoony that draws as much (if not more) from animation as comics. And because they come from all over the US – New York City, Pittsburgh, Seattle, San Francisco – almost all of the work that's gone into making Pants Press what it is has occurred online.

"How did the internet facilitate our creation?" says Jen Wang. "I'd say pretty much in every way, for the most part." Bill Mudron agrees: "We would've never formed any cohesive group without the internet. It's hard to start a long-distance art-clique over the phone." Vera Brosgol adds, "I doubt we would even have met at a con. I would never have undertaken a webcomic without these guys. It would never have occurred to me."

Instead, the Pants Pressers first began to hang out together in the online forum of animator Aimee Major, a forum noted for a community that welcomed the posting and critique of members' art. Then, as Dylan Meconis notes, "We all babbled happily at each other through ICQ, and eventually got crushes on the LiveJournal technology, which allowed for all of us to have a little more breathing space than in a forum, while keeping a sense of community." They coalesced when Presser emeritus Kevin Hanna floated the idea of a promotional ashcan for the 2002 San Diego Comic-Con. Mostly Acquisitions, planned and put together through email, proved a hit, garnering attention from the likes of Neil Gaiman and Scott McCloud.

"This whole idea that you can ingratiate yourself to somebody living 2000 miles away with just a few drawings and an email or two is still a fascinating thing to me," says Mudron. "Of course, you still get to wondering just how well you can 'know' another artist just from flipping through their comics or laughing at their monster-filled drawings from a distance. That's when tools like LiveJournal become immensely handy."

LiveJournal is free, open source software that allows for the easy creation of blogs or online journals. "They allow you a sneak peek into other people's lives," says Mudron, "and how they slowly operate and evolve as artists over time. That's a pretty hard thing to discern from simple online chats alone." The real strength of LiveJournal, however, lies in the community building tools it offers, through affinity groups and friends lists that make it easy not only to keep track of a group of people, but also to spread links and ideas with astonishing rapidity. "Jen Wang and I," says Brosgol, "weren't terribly into comics until we all got together and recommended books and shared websites." There's also chat: "Chat-thingies are my personal favorite," says Erika Moen. "Y'know, AIM, ICQ, and MSN. That's where I typically send a URL to some new art and say 'Hey! What's wrong with this picture?' and we'll have a back-and-forth about improving whatever is in need of improvement."

"When you mess up," says Meconis, "it's painful – it's like having 500 copyeditors all phone you at the same time."

The final tool in the Pants Press kit is an odd one, not to be found on the hard drive of every undergraduate with an ISP: a Painter-like piece of Japanese shareware called openCanvas that allows more than one cartoonist to doodle in the same file across an internet connection. It's not so much a serious art-making tool as a virtual napkin passed around a virtual restaurant table after a virtual day at a con: "Our messy, incomprehensible doodles hold a special place in my heart," says Wang. "Usually," says Meconis, "the results are pretty lewd, but it's a damn lot of fun."

With Studio Splurd, we see email and chat and online forums keeping together a group of artists that otherwise would have splintered due to distance. With Pants Press, we see email and chat and online journals bringing together a disparate group of artists who otherwise would never have found each other. In both cases, the Internet is enabling artists to reach out much further to find those necessary cliques and claques. Cartoonists are no longer limited to the few fellow comics devotees they can find within their local neighborhoods as a source of the ego-boosts and dogfights they need to figure out where they stand and what they need to do to keep going. These online tools help them find what they need and hold onto it, from anywhere in the world, and from the most unlikely of sources.

"Heaven knows I hate my fellow Pants Press members with a bloody and embittered passion," says Meconis, "and I don't know what I'd do without them." Without the Internet, she wouldn't have had them, and without them, comics would be a poorer place. The cartooning being done now, and the cartoonists doing it, look unimaginably different than they did just ten years ago. And while there's a lot of the explosion of formal play that publishing on the Internet has allowed in that, a lot more of that difference is due to the simple tools we all use every day: the email, the chat, the forums, and online journals that allow a group of high school friends to keep in touch and keep working on their art – tools that allow animation geeks and high school inkslingers from opposite coasts to knock heads and figure out what they have in common and where they can work together. The Internet, after all, is at heart little more than a way for people – no matter where they are – to talk to each other cheaply and easily.

And sometimes, that's all artists really need.

Kip Manley is a contributing writer for the Comixpedia.

Re: A Chatroom of Their Own by Kip Manley

Iain Hamp's picture

This ability to have communities of all shapes and sizes on the internet is one of my favorite things about online comics, and has been since I started in the industry. Thanks for a great article, Kip.

Re: A Chatroom of Their Own by Kip Manley

Thanks, Iain. I should cop to Malcolm "Tipping Point" Gladwell's New Yorker piece, "Group Think," which, if you've seen it already, you probably guessed sparked the train of thought that led to this piece. Also, I should point out this journal entry from way back when, that looks (in a much more idiosyncratic fashion) at the contrast between groups with the internet, now, and groups without the internet, then. (And it's eerie to realize that "then" is less than 10 years ago. Whoa.)Also, I should point out this Clay Shirky essay, "A Group is its Own Worst Enemy," which is more about social dynamics in general than groupthink and art and creativity, but has some valuable insight and pointers as to the care and feeding of such a crew, once you've gotten it somewhat semi-together. Had I read it before I wrote this, I would have written something different; if nothing else, it's a nicely sober counterbalance to my rah-rah boosterism.(On the other hand, I think Shirky's just plain wrong on micropayments. "Mental transaction costs," indeed. Phooey!)