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The State of the Press

There was a bit of drama erupting from the launch of Fleen, a new group blog on webcomic, mostly due to a post about the launch from founder Jon Rosenberg on the website for his popular webcomic Goats. But let's put the drama aside (especially since I think everyone has put their nose back in joint at this point) and ask some questions about the state of the webcomics press (such as it is).

Is there even such a thing as a webcomics press?

Without getting too technical about journalist versus commentator versus whatever, let's just assume that when we talk about "the webcomics press" we're looking at people who write about webcomics. And as we head into 2006, there is a growing amount of coverage about webcomics, ranging from large big city newspapers to entertainment magazines to online publications and blogs galore. For someone who has paid attention to this, we've come a long way even from the beginning of 2005. So it's great that more publications pay at least some attention to webcomics and more publications really focus on webcomics.

Yet there's still a lot that's lacking. Let's put some things into context though. Webcomics journalism, just like all journalism, isn't exempt from market forces. The more money coming in, the more (and presumably better) journalism coming out. Okay, it's not really that simple, a lot of us are writing because we really like webcomics and we get other non-monetary benefits from our work. (Or we suffer from a serious chemical imbalance. But let's not go there today.) Still there's no reason not to look at the "business" of webcomics journalism. Such as it is...

Most publications rely heavily on advertisements. Many offline publications still charge readers a purchase price, but that's almost unheard of online (with a few exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, New York Times Select and some specialty magazines) so on the web, the webcomics press is in the same boat as the rest of the press. If an online publication (and I'm including blogs in here) specializes in webcomics it's going to have to rely on webcomics for a lot of its advertising. It may get ad revenue from more general advertisers and from Internet advertising networks, but it's only logical to assume that webcomics (and related businesses) would be likely candidates to be advertisers. (That's actually been the case for Comixpedia to date).

Unlike even it's near cousin, the comics press, however, there aren't really institutional advertisers yet in webcomics. In contrast, just look at a comics news site similar to Comixpedia like Pulse or Newsarama, let alone the granddaddy of them all, the print magazine Wizard. These publications have stores, dealers in comic book collectibles, conventions and major publishers as advertisers. And that allows them to pay their writers and support an organization built around the publication. The webcomics press, with the exception of Comixpedia, doesn't pay anything. And Comixpedia isn't making anyone rich. In fact, it's no small point of pride that we were able to pay our writers throughout 2005, but as we come up on Comixpedia's third anniversary there isn't much more to the Comixpedia "organization" then when we started, in large part because you need revenues to support a more permanent organization.

Lest I sound too pessimistic here, let me tack to the flip side of the answer to this question. As it turns out, webcomics are melting into comics proper and every type of comic (and comics publisher) is finding a way to get on the web. Besides the hope that this should give folks who are pulling for a renaissance in the comics medium, it also means some exciting possibilites for "the webcomics press." It means that increasingly, if the comics press is doing its job, coverage of comics will include webcomics right in the middle of all kinds of comics. That could mean a future where the webcomics press gets supplanted by the larger print-focused comics press. It could, but it could also mean that the webcomics press can continue to grow and adapt as comics on the web grows and adapts. In my own opinion one key advantage for the webcomics press is the clean sheet we generally work from in deciding on what to write about. Sure we'll cover the long underwear book or two, but we're unlikely to devote 95% of our coverage to superheroes. To the contrary, I think most folks who write about webcomics are betting on the future growth of comics coinciding with the continued growth and maturity of creators working outside of the narrow superhero genre that so dominates the monthly comic book format.

Should creators write about webcomics?

Fleen was started explicitly as a blog for non-creators to write about webcomics. We've had a number of debates on Comixpedia over the years about writing about webcomics at all so perhaps it's a sign of progress that we're only debating who should write about them.

There are a lot of issues loaded into the simple question of whether or not creators can be journalists too. Issues of bias are often hard to tease out. But one could argue that creators have too much tied up in their own work or are too dependent on their publisher to really trust the opinion of a creator. In contrast to that, one could point to the totally uninterested, objective non-creator as an inherently fairer observor of webcomics.. But to assert that only non-creators can write about webcomics, requires one to buy into the ideal of the journalist as an objective, just-reporting-the-facts, give-all-sides person. For reasons having nothing to do with webcomics, my experience with journalists is that they're actually real, flesh-and-blood, flawed people and they're biased in lots of ways. So I don't think you want to read anything from anyone without knowing something about their biases, creator or not.

Another point just as important to this question is knowledge and expertise. Creators often actually know quite a bit about the webcomics that they're writing about. A non-creator may also know a lot, but just as likely may not. And some kinds of knowledge, like craft and technique can really only come from someone who has practiced in the field. I think the point here isn't to favor one group or the other, but to remember that just like we're better off knowing the biases of the writer, knowing something about what the writer knows is also a good thing.

Why are we even having this debate? I think I know why a lot of creators write about webcomics as well as make their own. First of all, the barriers to being a webcomics creator are incredibly low. It's not like heavily corporatized art forms like television, books, movies, and music where only a select few get to create for the masses. Webcomics is by definition a more participatory, a more democratic medium, then just about anything else going right now. Sure talent helps, but do you have a story to tell? Do you have something you need to express? I'm repeating something I first wrote circa 1999, but webcomics is our decade's punk rock. Not (necessarily) the punk of today, but the ear-splitting first explosion of bands and songs and noise in the seventies where people who wanted to say something, anything, picked up an instrument and played. And even if you hate that analogy just remember my basic point is that creating webcomics is easy to get into.

And at the same time there's lots of important ideas about webcomics and comics as a whole being thrashed out right now. So at the same time it's easy for anyone to get into webcomics, its also not so hard to participate in debates about webcomics. There's not a lot of infrastructure to the webcomics press yet so anyone can set up shop and participate in the webcomics press. There's no guarantee that you'll last for long and even less guarantee that anyone will pay attention to anything you say... but at the same time if people find what you write is interesting, is an important part of the debate, then you're as successful as anyone in the "webcomics press" is right now.

Creators and Critics and Carpers, Oh My

Quite a lot of food for thought here. Personally, I've never had any objections to creators or professionals in any field also acting as critics (as long as they *do* act as critics and don't dismiss everything with a flat "This is lousy, wait til you see what I'm going to do, it's much better!" [and I have seen such "reviews" in print)! To draw a parallel from another one of my passions, animation, while webcomics as such have been around for at most a decade, animation has been around for over 97 years, and yet in terms of critical writing, popular or intellectual, it's fairly limited compared to works about film in general. Though to date it has gained a larger presence in the mainstream press than webcomics (which are slowly inching in), at the present moment, only one print animation magazine is published regularly, Animation Magazine, and that's basically an industry rag which often focuses more on executives then on critically examining the subject or its creators. Another, Animation Blast, is thought provoking, but as its basically a one man press operation, it has been delaying its latest issue for close to three years now (looks to finally come out in February or March, but we'll see). It's still a fairly small field, but some of the best writing on animation has come from creators, in small magazines in the 70s and 80s or in occasional outside pieces. When Bakshi's "Lord of the Rings" came out, there were many letters and articles by old props decrying the use of rotoscope. Reactionary? Perhaps, but each piece was well-written and explained their aversion not just as a knee-jerk reaction but from having worked with live-action themselves overthe years, andtrying to adapt it to movement. Going much further back, the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, in 1938, wrote a pungent critique of Snow White, as becoming a slave to literalism, while at the same time admiring the step forward in scope. Again, the biases were certainly there, but the fact that these folks wrote and used their background in defense of their opinions, and not just a blanket "I'm a pro and it stinks, so there," makes these pieces more fascinating (and incidentally, Hirschfeld also wondered why no "serious art critics" had even bothered to discuss Snow White, which for all his caveats, he admitted was a revolutionary step for the art world).

Webcomic publishing has and is going through a similar evolution. We've already had much in the way of critique, as well as general commentary on the form and medium, from folks like Damonk, BoxJam, Howard Tayler, Kurtz, and others, though some webcartoonists still at times seem to display a reticence (or are just too darn tired!) to really discuss theirs (or others) work. However, I don't expect the creators to take over entirely. Already two print books have been devoted to webcomics, certainly a step forward, and both by Steven Wittrow, a non-practitioner. Indeed, one way that the state of webcomic criticism differs from animation criticism in the 70s or so is the existence of message boards. Amidst the "Lols" and "ur strip suxxorz" and the like, one can sometimes find some truly thoughtful comments on webcomics, from artistic technique to what traits most appeal to readers to debates over gag a day to serious, emotional serials. Similarly, debates amongst and between creators in these same forums, despite the odd lapse into flamebaiting, have oft provided engrossing reading. Comixpedia, Webcomics Examiner, and the various webcomic blogs are in many ways an outgrowth of this. Except with fewer random references to Hitler, hardly any spam, and (usually) better grammar. But the basic similarity is that, as webcomic creators "have a story to tell," the articulate forum posters, and the webpublishing critics, have something to say, truly wanting to engage not just with the fans and creator but with the work itself. Some may want to start their own webcomic, some have and failed, and others don't really care, but generally, if they truly *want* to be heard and have something to say, they'll do it (doing it for *pay* for Comixpedia is just a bonus).

It seems a common blind spot in a lot of creators to assume that - just because a person has chosen not to create a webcomic - they are unable to understand the finer nuances of craft, technique and the creative process in general.

Let's skip the obvious example of a regular comic creator who has Ludditely chosen not to publish their work on the web.

Is it reasonable to expect that creating webcomics is sufficiently different from the act of creating a painting - that Jasper Johns wouldn't be able to write credibly about webcomics? Do you think that J.R.R. Tolkien would be unable to write credibly about webcomics? What about Eudora Welty? What about... Dan Rather?

The William G's picture

While it's true that a non-creator CAN understand these things if they've decided to study the medium to the extent that creators (should) have, it's also unlikely they have.

The simple fact is that every reviewer comes with their own biases, which can range from "I feel to display the craft properly, one must do this" to "My favorite webcomic creator thinks a certain way, so I will too"

But when it comes down to it, everyone from Mike Krahulik to Kurtz, to Rosenberg, to fellows like myself... and everyone else... have opinions on what we feel is good and bad in comics. And unless we want to start policing personal blogs telling all of the above to shut the fuck up about other comics(kinda hypocritical, really), all of this recent whining (Funnily enough, mostly coming from the above people who all comment rather regularly on webcomics) about who's allowed to be a critic is an astoundingly self-serving cloud of smoke meant to direct attention away from the real problem:

The whiners dont want critics who aren't their fellow creators. They want critics who who'll be more likey to praise them as they feel they're deserved. And that's all this really is. Anything else is a lie.


I guess I was replying specifically to And some kinds of knowledge, like craft and technique can really only come from someone who has practiced in the field. .

Which denies what you started with - that someone not in the field CAN understand this stuff.

I'm glad you appreciate that it's possible. I mean, if I were, say, a Sociology major and ended up in a publishing house and worked in comics for 20 years, and never drew or wrote a comic of my own... It would be reasonable to think that I still knew quite a lot about the process of making comics from all aspects.

And I was suggesting that the craft and technique of webcomcis isn't sufficiently different from other schools of creative endeavor to merit it's own special set of craft and technique. Comic making in general is the blending of three arts - graphics, writing and cinematography. If one had exclusively studied those (without studying comics), doesn't it seem reasonable that one would know quite a bit about the craft and technique of webcomics?

Where does Lichtenstein fit in? Was *he* unable to understand the craft and technique of webcomics?

The William G's picture

Comic making in general is the blending of three arts - graphics, writing and cinematography. If one had exclusively studied those (without studying comics), doesn't it seem reasonable that one would know quite a bit about the craft and technique of webcomics?
Not any more than knowing how to play Led Zeppelin on guitar teaches you how to write classical music.


I didn't say that studying cinematography, graphics and writing would automatically mean you could CREATE webcomics.

Just that you would know a lot about the process.

Also, your analogy doesn't fit with what I said either. I agree that learning how to play the entire works of Led Zeppelin on guitar isn't going to teach you anything about writing classical music. But what I said is closer to "If one learns how to write musical notation, and studies jazz composition, and learns how to play the piano... should go a long way to learning how to compose classical music".
Don't forget that one of the key tools in cinematography is story-boarding.

Xaviar! I want a preview function!

The William G's picture

Well...

There are techniques that movies borrow from comics, but that doesn't mean a comic creator is qualified to discuss the art of film like an expert. And they definitely cant claim authoritative views on the making of films just because they watch all of the extras on their DVDs.

But if you have studied something then you're quite qualified to discuss whatever it is like an authority. If not, you'll be trying to force philosophies and knowledge onto something that it doesn't suit.

Anyway, since we're dancing around the main thrust of the article:

You don't need to justify your right as a comic reader, nor as a creator, to comment on them. Now Fleen was introduced as a "Only certain people I've decided upon are allowed to talk about webcomics" statement by Rosenberg. And even he recognized the idiocy of that idea and backed away from it.

But it doesnt matter. When it comes right down to it, there is NO "Webcomics journalism" the same way there is no entertainment journalism. Hell, we've never had real unbiased journalism. Never. Every reporter that has ever lived delivered information according to the agendas of the people paying them. From Hearst, all the way up to Fox News.

The unbiased reporter is a charming myth to keep us hoping that we're not as powerless as we are.

There are webcomic bloggers, and the are webcomic entertainment rags. That's it. There are no journalists. Much like Hollywood observers, everyone who takes the time to write about webcomics, are doing it too sell the idea that webcomics is a desireable product to persue. For whatever reason. So, everyone who comments on webcomics is a huckster... a shill... a used car salesman... a cult recruiter.

And EVERYONE IS BIASED. It's impossible not to be. Even one's choice in topics to blog about, and how they discuss them, shows a bias. The "Bias in webcomics journalism must be stopped!" line is nothing more than some screaming hysteria coming out of the heads of some big names who don't like the idea of influence (potentially) slipping out of their hands. It's just another webcomic drama McGuffin, like "art vs entertainment" is when it comes up.

I say we leave this particular bit of argumentative bullshit in 2005 and move on.

We're all here because we like webcomics and we want everyone to read them, right?


Xaviar! I want a preview function!

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

No preview function with this code yet - this is from Postnuke so I haven't messed with it. I could probably add a preview to it but it won't be at the top of my to-do list.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Xaviar! I want a preview function!

Greg Carter's picture

Damn straight, Mr. G! The beauty and the beast of the internet is that anyone with access can post anything. As they say in the movie Serenity, "You can't stop the signal". If someone wants to write about webcomics, then they can. If someone wants to make a webcomic, they can. Even in repressive societies like China people are finding a way around the blocks.

It's pointless to discuss who should or shouldn't be writing. It can be useful to write about the writings themselves. That is how value gets assigned (or not) to those writings. One thing people seem to forget is that everything that's posted doesn't need to be commented upon. Sometimes no comment is the best reply.

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Xaviar! I want a preview function!

DrSetebos's picture

I never thought I'd see the day where I agreed with The William G, but this:There are no journalists. Much like Hollywood observers, everyone who takes the time to write about webcomics, are doing it too sell the idea that webcomics is a desireable product to persue.is probably the most significant thought I'll read all year.

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Zoinks! Magazine contributing writer

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