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.