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A Conversation With Joe Zabel

Joe Zabel is both a webcomics creator (most recently he finished The Ice Queen: A Trespassers Mystery) and the founder of The Webcomics Examiner. I really enjoyed our conversation - the topics ran all over -- from Joe's webcomic work to Harvey Pekar and journal webcomics to the future for webcomics in general.

I'd really like to start off with a little background. You seem to be best known for working with Harvey Pekar on issues of American Splendor. But what's your background creatively? When did you get started in comics and what attracted you to it? What other notable projects have you worked on throughout the years?

I got interested in doing comics in highschool and carried it over to college (circa 1970). In college, I did a series of minicomics and helped form the Youngstown Comic Art Association. We organized one of the first comic book conventions in Ohio, the Ohiocon.

After college I worked briefly for a company called Power Comics. After that I wandered the mini-comics wilderness until I moved to Cleveland, around 1986. In Cleveland, I met up with Harvey Pekar, and spent 10 years illustrating stories for American Splendor, mostly in collaboration with the super-talented Gary Dumm. Then I got interested in Dave Sim's "Spirits of Independence" movement and started self-publishing comics, first with a short graphic novel, Bulletproof, then with the Trespassers series. Most of these were also in collaboration with Gary.

 

What was it like working with Harvey Pekar? How do you translate his real life into pictures? I haven't read much of his work really, but of what I've read I've observed that his work is "slice-of-life" in way that would not be out of place with the many "journal" style webcomics that have emerged (e.g., James Kochalka, Jennie Breeden, Kean Soo, Todd Webb, Drew Weing, Neil Babra, etc).

Today's journal comics seem very much an outgrowth of Harvey's work. These folks may have never heard of him, but Harvey was a pioneer in taking an approach that many people in the comics field thought was extremely odd and self-indulgent.

I think the American Splendor movie is an excellent depiction of Harvey's life and character. I thought it was particularly astonishing that they captured on film Harvey admitting that he hadn't read the script for the movie, just skimmed it. I talked to Gary Dumm about this and we agreed, that's Harvey!

Harvey is a good example of the fact that many of the greatest artists have also been acutely maladjusted individuals -- like Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Franz Kafka -- with contemporary examples like Robert Crumb and Woody Allen. Their work is penetrating because it is the product of anxiety, and because they have the vantage point of the outsider looking in.

Harvey is a chronically depressed person; this is largely a matter of body chemistry. When I interviewed him recently, he mentioned that he had recently discovered that by simply taking Excedrin pills, he feels more relaxed for several hours. But nevertheless his entire life has been plagued by his compulsion to worry about things and feel miserable almost constantly.

What really didn't come across in the movie is that Harvey is a constant reader; in fact, he's extremely well informed about literary theory and historical movements like stream-of-consciousness. One time he was visiting my apartment with Gary Dumm and the subject of how well-read he is came up. So I randomly picked a book off my shelf that I'd recently gotten at a library sale; it was a War-and-Peace-sized tome by an author I'd never heard of. But Harvey'd read it -- he knew all about the author's works and his place in literary history. Gary and I were impressed.

And if you put that in context with the fact that Harvey couldn't be bothered to read the script of a major motion picture about his own life, that gives you an idea of the kind of guy he is.

What was it like working with him? It was a delight. I think other artists may have had different experiences, but for me, Harvey was a very open and engaging collaborator. 

 

What about Pekar publishing new material on the web? Would you advise him to pursue publishing on the web in addition to the print versions of his work that are coming out?

When I was editing Modern Tales Longplay, I arranged with him for several of his stories (which hadn't been anthologized yet) to appear on Longplay in color. But Harvey's print publishers are very interested right now in getting new material from him, so there isn't much justification for him to be doing new work for the web.

In general, I don't see any particular benefit to bringing well-established print comics to the web. Robert Crumb on the web? Art Spiegelman on the web? Los Bros Hernandez? I wouldn't expect any of their works to be really transformed by the web, so what would be the point? James Kochalka and Donna Barr, on the other hand, are not quite so well-established in print; you can't walk into any library or bookstore and pick up their work. And as artists they have younger, more open and transformative attitudes. So the web is a very good fit for them.

 

Let's start with your work in webcomics. I've read at least four series from you on Modern Tales. Three from your Trespassers mystery series: The Ice Queen,, The Fear Mongers and The Return of the Green Skull plus the short tale The Goodbye Man. Three of them mysteries and one sort of a supernatural mystery in a way. All using 3D artwork. Let's start with the approach to the art for these.

I found this quote from an old website of yours:

I turned to digital art and online comics because I'd become dissatisfied with print, having to work always in black and white, constantly at the mercy of my materials and the varying steadiness of my drawing hand. Digital art promised new ways of creating pictures, and the world wide web allows me to put my work at the fingertips of the entire planet. Furthermore we now know that every new work of digital comics pisses off Gary Groth, which by itself is all the reason I need to keep producing!

Putting aside Groth for a minute, what year did you begin working with digital tools and when did you turn specifically to a 3d style? What was it about the 3d approach that attracted you to it?

 

By all means, we should rag on Groth, for writing that horrible, misleading, thoroughly unprofessional hatchet job on Reinventing Comics!

Anyway, I bought my first home computer, a Macintosh G4, in 2000. I got several graphic apps with the computer, and on a lark I decided to get Poser; I thought it would help me with figure work. When I started using it, I was blown away by the images you could create, and eventually I was concentrating all my attention on working with that tool. The reason I fell so heavily into Poser is because I've always strived for a realistic style. With Poser 3D figures, it's possible to create images with an almost photo-realistic surface.

 

Technically, how do you create your artwork in this style?

I start in Photoshop, creating a photo-collage painting to represent the background for the panel. I import this background into Poser, and pose the figures over top of it. Then I "render" the figures and export the rendered images. I take these images back into Photoshop and add them to the original background image. Then I use a number of techniques to merge the figures into the image -- painting shadows, having elements appear in front of the characters, and other little tricks. I also do a lot of stuff in Photoshop to customize and naturalize the Poser renders, so they don't look so stiff and pre-fabricated; for instance, I add a lot of the wrinkles in the clothing by hand. (I did a step-by-step demonstration of my process for Steven Withrow and John Barber's book, Webcomics, Tools and Techniques for Digital Cartooning.)

 

In animation circles, there's been considerable discussion about the pitfalls of the Uncanny Valley" effect where more realistic 3D work gets so close to reality that viewers can be unnerved by the slight imperfections. I wonder if this is something you think about while crafting 3D artwork for a webcomic?

The term "uncanny valley" is new to me, but I've been aware of the concept as applied to 3D art. It's an irony that with 3D tools having become so advanced, artist find it necessary to step back from a fully realistic rendering because of this alienating tendency. When I did Return of the Green Skull, I deliberately used a set of less-evolved P4 models because the high-end models of that period (Victoria 1 and Michael 1) didn't work in humorous scenes, they simply couldn't be funny. With The Fear Mongers, one of the reasons I chose that particular concept was that it gave me an excuse to render in b&w, another way of stepping back from the highest level of realism the tools can produce. With The Ice Queen (using the latest Victoria 3, David, and Michael 3 models), I endeavored to step in front of the bus and see if I got run down.

Fashionable memes aside, 3D art generally has two problems -- first, that the 3D rendering has grotesque flaws that go uncorrected. And secondly, that 3D artists lack experience in graphic arts, so their compositions have problems and their figures are unexpressive. That hateful Final Fantasy movie had both of these problems, and an incoherent plot to boot! One way I try to combat the phenomena is to go over the 3D image very closely, correcting anatomical errors and fine-tuning the shading. In fact, I find that the hand-painting itself softens the image up, and that the reader's eye is a lot more forgiving when they sense this human touch. Even if it's not needed strictly-speaking, I always try to add a few strokes to the hair and a few wrinkles to the clothes. I don't really trust 3D-rendered images that seem okay right out of the box.

 

Okay, I'll ask about Groth too. I'm not steeped enough in comics to pretend to care too much about his back and forth with Scott McCloud over the value of all things digital in terms of comics and it's obvious (I hope) what side of that debate I come down on (McCloud). But he is the publisher of the most prominent critical magazine for comics in North America (The Comics Journal) and the owner of Fantagraphics, so he is someone who's been a force behind many cool things as far as comics go. Do you just write off his views on webcomics or is that something people continue to debate with him?

I have a lot of respect for Gary Groth; he wasn't the first to advocate the idea that comics are a legitimate artform; but for the past 30 years The Comics Journal has been a rallying point for those of us who believe it so. Fantagraphics has been one of the great catalysts for changing the face of the medium, and comics are immeasurably better for it. And they continues to be a leader in the exploration of comics of all kinds, including webcomics.

The Comics Journal is also the nexus of what Groth refers to as elitism, i.e. the favoring of an elite group of the best works in the comics medium. I think this is extremely useful, because it sparks a fierce ongoing debate that gets everybody thinking about how the medium works and what is really worthwhile and meaningful.

My one big beef with The Comics Journal is that it seems very resistant to criticism, even when the magazine is clearly in the wrong. The poster child for this dilemma is the Groth review of Reinventing Comics, titled "McCloud Cuckoo-Land". To their credit, TCJ published McCloud's rebuttal of the article which effectively discredited every jab Groth had taken at the book. But unfortunately nobody at the magazine apparently read his rebuttal, because Groth's misleading and inaccurate screed is cited to this day as an authoritative rebuke.

 

This is sort of related, but I wondered if you also had the perception that more of the comics press was taking regular notice of webcomics now? I can still recall when Dirk Deppey was blogging at Journlista! and he first began to pay some attention to what we were writing about on Comixpedia. Maybe it's silly but I thought that was important at the time. Now, a few years later I'm not surprised to see stories about webcomics everywhere online and even The Comics Journal has a regular feature on webcomics. I guess the real challenge now is the same for comics generally which is getting the larger American public to pay attention to the medium of webcomics as opposed to any one genre of storytelling heavily associated with it.

I'm happy about wider press coverage of webcomics, but I'm also a little wary. It's been difficult enough to get the wider public to understand what comics are really all about. If you add on top of that trying to get them to understand comics-on-the-web, you risk a breakdown in understanding. But I guess it's inevitable that the greater public will acquire some wrongheaded ideas that we'll have to patiently refute over and over again for the next twenty years.

 

I wanted to turn back to storytelling a minute before exploring the web a bit more. What is it about the mystery form that interests you? Could you tell me a bit about what is interesting to you when you start thinking about crafting another Trespassers comic? Where do you start your process and how much do find yourself improvising as you go from starting to doing the actual work of creating the comic?

I started doing comics in the mystery genre because it was a natural transition from doing American Splendor. After all, a traditional mystery involves realistic characters in a realistic setting. Beyond that, I've always been fascinated by the concept of mystery in the abstract; in other words, by enigmas where you don't have the answer, but believe that there actually is some kind of answer just outside your grasp. Like that film Picnic at Hanging Rock, for instance -- I find that concept really intoxicating.

Creating traditional mysteries has become increasingly difficult for me. Ideally they have a puzzle element, a clue that isn't obvious but reveals everything. It's very tricky creating one of these, and it's quite difficult to incorporate it into the story in a natural way. When you're thinking in terms of good story structure, not only does the clue have to work as a clue -- it also has to be discovered at the "right" time, and it's discovery has to be meaningful to the detective's character development -- to demonstrate the detective's ingenuity, for instance. Furthermore, there have to be false clues and other stuff - ideally an entire structure of falsehood that the detective has to find his or her way through.

Not that I don't like a challenge -- and I'll continue trying to create the perfect comics mystery. But the process is quite humbling.

 

What other types of stories or ideas are you interested in and what do you have planned for this year?

I'm interested in the mystery in the broader sense I described, stories that feature some kind of enigma. The Fear Mongers, for instance, are about aliens from some other world or dimension, a mystery involving monsters. The Fear Mongers is also an example of trying to recreate something from the past, in this case a "lost episode" of a '60s b&W SF shows.

As a matter of fact the project I'm working on now is another attempt at that; I'm trying to recreate a "lost issue" of an old comic book. What appeals to me about these projects is that they're opportunities to recapture storytelling qualities that have become lost or that have gone out of fashion. I don't idealize "the good old days," but sometimes its fascinating what you can discover.

 

Back to the web again. You've obviously written a lot about comics, particularly webcomics, mostly published in the pages of the Webcomics Examiner. I also saw that you had written online before the Examiner at Steve Conley's iComics.com. What motivates you to write about comics as much as to create your own original work?

My writing about comics goes way back. In college in the 1970's, I sometimes was able to get away with using comics as the subject of papers in some of the more open-ended humanities electives. I wrote about Steranko and Jim Starlin, and also illustrated an Edgar Allen Poe story. I was especially inspired by an article that appeared in the magazine Squa Tront at that time, dissecting Bernie Krigstein's Master Race in great detail. It was co-authored by future Pulitzer winner Art Spiegelman. (link to article) That article had a huge influence on me as a comics artist and also as a comics critic.

After college, I didn't find many opportunities to write about comics for publication until I got an invite to be a columnist for a 'zine titled Subliminal Tattoos. After it folded, I ran a few pieces in the back of my comics. Then Steve Conley helped introduce me to something called the Internet, and I began writing very heavily. I contributed to the online version of Indy Magazine, and ran two magazines of my own, Indypreviews and Amazing Montage Magazine. This was before I had my own computer -- I wrote up the articles on my desktop at work and uploaded them and managed the sites from a PC in the library.

Around this same time, I also wrote several comics theories essays which I posted on my site There's not a lot of audience for that sort of thing, but I really felt passionately about the subject. I was really gratified later on when John Barber cited my writing in a comics theory essay he wrote in college -- it doesn't get much better than that for fringe comics theorists, folks!

I got completely away from it while I was developing as a 3D artist. But then one Spring day in 2004 I suddenly decided to jump back in, and thusly (with a lot of help from my friends) The Webcomics Examiner was born.

 

How long have you been interested in comics on the Internet and what are your strongest interests in writing about webcomics as a medium?

Webcomics are incredibly appealing for a critical writer. There is an extremely vigorous tradition of experimentation in the medium with the unprecedented opportunities of electronic presentation -- you know, animation, sound, infinite canvas, hyperlinking. And even without the electronic gimmicks, the webcomics medium is a hothouse where exotic new strains of visual narrative are being bred.

What's more, there is no such thing as an obscure, inaccessible webcomic. We've come to take it for granted -- you link to the comic and your reader will be able to see the comic. But for The Comics Journal, there's only the scarcest chance that their readers will ever see the more out-of-the-way comics they write about.

 

That's an interesting point -- unlike the era of only mini-comics or independent print publishing, with the Internet there's no barrier to getting your webcomic out to a world-wide audience. Conversely though I wonder if it's even harder to find that great new story because of the amazingly large volume of work that's now online. I've always thought that's one of the primary reasons that writing about webcomics is necessary -- to draw attention to work that deserves to be widely read.

I very much agree -- if people aren't talking bout webcomics, how else are readers going to sort through the vast numbers of them? I mean, link lists are great, but everybody seems to want to link to the same dozen or so series.

This gets back to your earlier question, what motivates somebody to write about webcomics when they could be spending the time creating them. And I guess the answer is that the critic feels they are a part of the cultural cycle.

For instance, I spent a huge amount of time reading and analyzing Leisure Town for the Examiner feature I wrote. This was time I could have spent on my own comics; but I felt an urgency, a calling you might say, to write an interpretive essay on Tristan Farnon's work. Why? Because I thought that a lot of people had the wrong impression about it, and perceived it as simply a bizarre, profane sideshow of goofy humor. I wanted to do everything I could to alert people to the fact that Leisure Town has considerable depth and is one of the finest works ever produced in webcomics.

Many artists evidently feel that there should be no need for such interpretation. To them, the signal eminates from the source, and at the other end there should be only silence. But we critics make the presumptuous presumption that we have a role, that we're part of the process.

 

Just to take it up a level higher - how do you view the landscape of comics these days - we often talk about webcomics but the idea of using words and pictures -- comics -- is really something that transcends the medium it's presented upon. I say that as the publisher of a "webcomics" magazine and I do think it's useful to talk about webcomics as a subset of comics but I don't tend to worry too much about where to draw the line between webcomics and comics as a whole. How do you think webcomics, or really "non-printed-on-paper" comics these days, fit into the world of comics both from an artistic and theoretical perspective of comics but also how is it changing the ability of individuals to make comics?

Hmmm... well, I think of comics in the context of late 20th century culture. What is the dominant artform of the last 50 years? Cinema, i.e. movies and television. In terms of popularity and influence, all other artforms pale to insignificance next to it. The problem with cinema is that it's nearly impossible for an artist to produce a work of cinema by themselves; it's too costly, and in any case you need actors and various technicians. Comics are structurally similar to cinema, i.e., words and pictures. So one way of looking at comics is that it's an alternative that allows artists to create their own cinema without a cast and without a budget. It also provides greater freedom for the audience, who can read the comic at their own pace, and reread their favorite parts as often as they want without having to rewind a video tape.

But being consigned to a physical object, paper, makes comics less like cinema, less "alive." And traditionally, comics have tried to transcend the fact that they're on paper. They've adopted exotic art styles that require special training to render, and use flat, mechanized coloring techniques. The typical commercially-successful printed comic book doesn't look like a hand-crafted work, it looks like television on paper. So the migration of comics to the Internet, a television-like medium, is a provocative development. Potentially at least, it frees comics from physicality and brings them closer to cinema, more "alive." So with webcomics, maybe it's not as important for the art to resemble television, because they're already on television. Or maybe it allows them to push that cinematic connection a little further.

Now I realize the word "television" raises a red flag with a lot of people. Personally I'm a big fan of artists like Robert Crumb whose work have a strong sense of being hand-crafted. But most comics try very hard to transcend the physical, and I think the phenomenon deserves more attention.

 

That's an amazingly flexible view of comics -- one that I suspect not everyone would buy into though. It certainly is interesting to me though to see people experiment with the tools the web makes available whether or not they cross the line of "comics" (wherever that line may be). That's why, for example, I was interested in Broken Saints even though I constantly had people writing me to tell me that it wasn't a webcomic. I think they were missing the point that it was an interesting idea to explore.

We talked to a lot of people in webcomics in creating the December issue of Comixpedia and although this is a totally anecdotal observation my sense is that 2005 was not a year of great innovation for webcomics in terms of stretching the form and taking advantage of their digital nature. Do you agree or disagree with that and what do you think are areas of the comic form that are ripe for creators to push and pull on with webcomics?

I very much agree that Broken Saints deserves more attention from the core webcomics community; I think the work falls short in many ways, but the technique is fascinating, and could be used in many ways to advance webcomics.

It seems that the most of the notable experimental series of 2005 premiered in 2004 -- Dinosaur Comics, A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage is Irreversible, A Softer World, Perry Bible Fellowship. In 2006 we've had some remarkably innovative new series, though -- Nathan Castle's Nude Rollerdisco of Comics, T. Campbell's Search Engine Funnies, and the collaborative series Whispered Apologies. But none of these are really digital experiments like you're talking about. The one really outstanding example of digital experimentation that comes to mind is Five Ways To Love a Cockroach by my good friends Alexander Danner and Neal Von Flue.

I don't know if digital experimentation has slacked off or if I'm just overlooking the best new examples. It seems odd that things would quiet down at this point, because more and more websurfers have broadband, and almost everybody has the Flash plugin these days. But maybe artists have been discouraged by the earlier experiments -- maybe those experiments weren't inspiring enough.

Perhaps the digital experimenters haven't sufficiently answered the questions plaguing such experiments: Is animation a benefit or a distraction? How do you integrate sound and music into comics, when the medium is designed to be read at the reader's own pace? Is an infinite canvas that zigzags all over the place accomplishing anything besides confusion?

Nevertheless, I hope the experimenters keep trying. I'd really like to see new work that inspires me as much as John Barber's New York

 

One webcomic in particular that I've been hitting eople over the head with recently is Brambletown. I just don't see that much where others have followed up on the ideas there -- nonlinear storytelling, environmental sound and unobtrusive animation, for example -- these are all things that digital comics makes possible and yet I don't think Brambletown has had as much of an impact on creators as I would expect. Any thoughts? Am I just missing all of the Brambletown-like webcomics out there or do you also think this webcomic is one where some ambitious creators could look to as a starting off point for further innovation of the medium?

The first chapter of Brambletown is absolutely brilliant; I think Frank Cormier's essay in your January edition nails it precisely -- it is indeed an immersive experience. All the digital gimmicks are handled with moderation, so that they enriching the story and don't become distractions.

I also agree with Frank's characterization of the chapter 2 and 3 stubs as being a "cruel tease." Maybe that's why it hasn't been more influential -- people get so pissed off at Brent Wood that they don't go back to consider the substantial accomplishments he made with chapter one. I wonder if we ever will find out who the leather-gloved stabber is!

I guess the aspect of it that's most worthy of study is how Wood succeeds in weaving together several narrative threads, while keep you interested in each of them. As a mystery genre devotee, I'm intrigued by the potential of this technique as a way of setting the scene for murder and placing all the suspects in time and space.

 

My sense from reading up on you is that you've been involved in comics consistently for sometime now but that you really haven't involved yourself in the superhero-style work that is often considered the "mainstream" of comic books. Do you consider yourself part of the comics "industry"? Whether you do or not what's your impression of the state of the comic book business and why it's the way it is today?

I was never more than a fringe player in the comics industry, and I haven't been interested in superheroes since I was a freshman in high school. When I started working in webcomics, I felt no qualms about leaving print comics behind, and I've never really had the urge to look back.

It's easy to criticize the American comics industry as being too narrow and restricting, but they're just responding to the marketplace. The specialty marketplace, i.e., the Direct Market, saved the comic book industry when newsstand distributors were ready to choke them out; and the DM has at least partially supported a wide variety of non-superhero publications. But the DM's weakness is that it appeals to specialists, which has isolated the medium from the general public. So along comes the bookstore market, which shows promise, but I doubt that it's any kind of panacea. I wish my print comics brethren the best, but for me the whole print scene is dull, dull, dull.

Oh, and I wanted to add one other word on the subject of print comics. Pamphlet.

 

Let's talk briefly about the "business" of webcomics. You've been publishing your own webcomics with Modern Tales most recently. Do you still believe the subscription model is the best for yourself and your work or will you be exploring other options for publishing as well?

I joined Modern Tales because I recognized it as a movement of alternative webcomics that I wanted to be part of. In spearheading a strong alternative vision of the medium, I think Modern Tales and its sister sites have been incredibly successful, and I'm very proud to have been along for the ride. It's been really great fun!

The subscription model hasn't given me a significant amount of income. Others have had better luck with it, notably Shaenon Garrity and James Kochalka. For anyone familiar with the alternative comics market in the print medium, this shouldn't be surprising -- the market for alternative comics has always been weak. Only a talented, hardworking few have succeeded.

Proportionate to the number of people utilizing it, the advertising and tshirt approach hasn't been very successful either -- I guess you have about a one in ten thousand chance of succeeding that way. In any case, I believe in controlling the context in which my work appears, so advertising holds no appeal for me.

Right now my completed works are presented on Modern Tales, and they probably will be for a while yet. But for my next project I'm interested in setting up my own website which is not a part of a collective, where I can control the context completely. Like Brambletown, actually, except I plan to get the entire piece completed before I present any of it. I don't know if my website will have any "business" aspects about it, though I'm tempted to put some of my old series up with Bitpass, just to piss off Jon Rosenberg.

 

Where do you think comics as a whole is as we head into the new year and how do you see the immediate future panning out? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about future trends?

I'm certainly optimistic about webcomics!

One trend I see is webcomics having increasingly sophisticated and professional art styles. At one time Sinfest was just about the only webcomic you could find that looked like it was drawn by a pro. Nowadays its a lot more common to see that professional polish, in works like Butternut Squash, Chugworth Academy, Apple Geeks, Wapsi Square, Alpha Shade, and many others.

Another trend I've noticed is that a lot of the edgier, more avante garde comics are finding large audiences. Designmeme's tabulation of the most bookmarked comics, for instance showed that A Softer World, Dinosaur Comics, A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage is Irreversible, Achewood, and Nine Planets in Search of Intelligent Life are all in the top 50. I'm deeply gratified by that development.

I'm not as hyped about the trend of print cartoonists coming to webcomics. It doesn't seem to really matter where they publish, if their styles and outlooks are not transformed in the process. And since the artists we've seen arriving appear to be dedicated to collecting their work for trade paperback publication, it's unlikely that we will see any transformation that will make their pilgrimage a particularly meaningful development. I wish them well, of course, and admire their work; but their arrival on the scene doesn't match the importance of the adventurous artists who arrive here to change the medium and change themselves.

On the other hand, the trend I would like to see (and which I don't really see) is a move away from careerism. Too many artists are making creative decisions predicated on the hopes for some modest, probably inconsequential income from webcomics. What they should be doing instead is investing in the future, producing their best possible work in a context that allows for no compromises. We need fewer daily grinds and more quality grinds.

 

That's an interesting observation regarding the quality of artwork in webcomics. One thing that has always interested me is the very common approach of serialized publication of webcomics and the not-so-secret fact that many webcomics, even very well done ones, are created right before (sometimes literally the night before) their publication on the web. One thing that approach does allow for is a very public view of the progression of a creator. Especially when the creator improves over time I find it interesting to see that change over the archives of their work. I think that's really different from working on print projects and one that isn't for everyone. What impact do you think this nature of the web has on creators?

I enjoy witnessing the process of artists developing their skills. But I'm discouraged by the tendencies of webcomics to always be serialized works-in-progress. I'm as guilty as anyone else in using this approach, but I hope I can break myself of the habit in the future.

I want to see a webcomics medium where people are excited about reading a story from start to finish. I think it's fundamentally a different experience from reading an episode a day or once a week. I'm grateful for Alex Danner's Full Story website which hilights the longer completed works out there. But I think, inevitably, when an artist serializes their work, the interest in the work drops off sharply after it's completed. They'd be much better off if they developed the discipline to complete their work first, and then present it to the public as a finished piece.

 

I have to admit one of the things I love most about webcomics is that no genre really dominates like superheroes dominate comic books. I think it's a very democratic medium, obviously almost anyone can put something out and yet it's mostly a meritocracy, where good stuff can bubble up to the top in terms of the readers' attention. On the other hand, the more time creators can put into their work arguably the better they are going to be at it. I think I get the point you're making regarding careerism above, but without a way to make a living from comics aren't we risking more scenarios like with Brent Wood and Brambletown where despite the immense promise Wood exhibited in his one webcomic, he hasn't shown any interest in working in comics again.

Actually, a very large percentage of those participating in the cultural scene do so without making a living at it. Most authors make their living some other way. Most painters have other sources of income. Most theatrical performances are cast with non-professionals. It's a simple fact that in most artforms, there are more talented practitioners than paying patrons can support.

Since there isn't any windfall of new revenue around the corner, it's probably more worthwhile to maintain and build a congenial atmosphere in webcomics, to remind talented artists that their work is appreciated, even if it doesn't pay the rent. In that regard, Comixpedia, The Webcomics Examiner, Fleen, Websnark, Full Story, Webcomics Finds, Tangents, and all the other webcomics review sites may be contributing more to the artform that we know.

Let's try to be civil

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I deleted some comments b/c right now I have thin skin I guess. (I'm tired so sue me.) Nothing in the comments was about me but I'm struggling with the desire to have robust debate here but also maintain a tone of civility that doesn't drive everyone else from the room and today I guess I'm finally leaning in the direction of deleting things that seemed aimed solely at starting a flamefest.

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

A tangent upon a tangent...

Joe Zabel's picture

Fab, Aleph-- It wasn't my intent, in the cited remarks, to invalidate or cast aspersions on the approach to webcomics that anyone is taking. The medium should have room for all approaches; and artists may have personal reasons for choosing one approach over another.

The problem is not with individual artists, it's with the medium as a whole. Any medium that devotes 99% of its resources to one format and one approach will inevitably fail to realize its potential. We need to recognize, as a medium, that we've painted ourselves into a corner.

The format of the original presentation *does* make a difference. Reading a story one page at a time over months or years is obviously a different experience than reading it in a single sitting. And it is generally true, though not inevitable, that a work will be read as it is presented, not in its completed state when word-of-mouth has quieted down. "Evergreens" (i.e., works that manifest enduring popularity long after they are completed) are in fact very rare; and the evergreens we do have are not the traffic-mongers that some might think. Take Same Difference, for example. On the day the series completed, the website had one million visits. But an Alexis search will show you that the traffic has dropped off considerably (the spike in January 2006 is because Derek Kirk Kim started a new series.)

Personally, I think the encouragement of non-serialized longform webcomics should be the medium's highest priority.

A tangent upon a tangent...

I actually fall kind of right in the middle of this issue. Obviously, I do have a great deal of sympathy for Joe's point of view here -- it's why I started up Full Story, it's why I was a big fan of Modern Tales Longplay, and it's why I continue to publish complete stories in addition to my serialized work. I do think there's a particular sort of satsifaction that comes from reading a complete story at once, and I also believe there's a particular sort of artistic growth that comes from writing works that are meant to stand as a whole rather than accomadating serialization. And I believe these works have a place in webcomics.

At the same time, I do still serialize some of my comics. In the case of Panel One this was a creative decision; I wanted to play with a daily pseudo-gag strip, and this naturally demanded serialization. But my other comic, Picture Story Theatre, is clearly not one that benefits creatively from serialization. The stories work far better all at once than in serialization. In some cases, a single page won't make any sense at all without the context of the rest of the story. This decision was purely a business decision.

Which brings me to where I disagree with Joe. No doubt, Same Difference has suffered a dramatic dropoff in traffic since it ended. But at the same time--would it have had a million readers in one day if it hadn't been serialized in the first place? I don't think it would have. It was the constant updating that allowed it to steadly built its audience and it's word-of-mouth buzz that resulted in that impressive finale. Without serialization, I think it still would have made a splash, generating a flurry of links and discussion in the weeks after publication. But it would have been a considerably smaller splash, and would today still have a lifetime readership smaller than what it had in that single final day of serialization.

I do believe that this is an effect that can be countered, with work--I'm trying to make my own contribution to that effort--but I think Aleph is absolutely right that getting there will take a major effort and a cooperative business model.

Of course, I also believe that there are times when artistic considerations have to take precedence over business considerations--though when those times are is a very personal choice.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

Pretty mortifying typo

Aleph's picture

Ack I can't believe I didn't catch 'electronic' sheep. :( Been typing "E-sheep" for years now, but I didn't figure everyone would recognize what I meant. :(

Erratum: "I honestly can't

Erratum: "I honestly can't imagine Krazy Kat made to work in longform without changing its nature deeply." Sorry. :(

Absolutely, serialization

Absolutely, serialization has it's place artistically! It's not so much that I think there's too much serialization, as just that there's not enough non-serialization. It's a matter of seeking balance and variety.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

A tangent upon a tangent...

Aleph's picture

Ah, OK, Good to know :) I have trouble understanding peoples' intent from time to time!

I don't agree that serialization is the determining factor. I think it's the way creators approach serialization that creates that effect. It's quite possible to release what would, once finished, be indistinguishable for a long-form completed project, page by page. That's what I mean by the serialization not needing to affect rereadability. Even print comics try to deliver something on each page.

Yes, the experience of reading it is different when you see it page by page vs. when you read it long form, but the re-readability and sustaining interest is determined by whether or not it turned out to be a story interesting enough to read again, or it turned out to be a something that was just popular for a while because people were waiting to see what happened next. That's why evergreens exist.

Daemonology 101 and Cascadia were both put out bit by bit, and while Cascadia is still updating I still hear people talking about going back through the very first of her archives. 101 retained its popularity even while there was no work at all on it, just judging by fan response and word of mouth that came through forums and fans. Of course, some of the buzz is going to come off of any project when it's not new anymore, but if the story really is well constructed the 'you gotta read this' factor survives. I think what makes a comic 'evergreen' is as simple as how compelling it is and how well it is written, and I think we should encourage people to aim for good story construction rather than ask them to try to survive to the end of the work before they get any kind of idea of its worth. I think most people with the fortitude to do that would make better money working in print comics.

I agree with the idea that overspecialization leads to evolutionary cul de sacs, but here's the thing... I'll use an example: Electronic Sheep has been putting out some really remarkable completed long-form comics for a long time. I have never heard as much raving over a sustained period for completed long-form comics as I have for E-sheep. As far as I remember none of them were ever known for their serialized forms, I'm not sure if they were even put up as serials because I was rather late on the scene. (I'm talking pre-Apocamon, pre-Spiders, the Overheard at a Rave period.) It kinda irks me that he gets left out of the history of webcomics things, because he was way ahead of the curve on many occasions when it came to his use of the medium.

Despite all that, unless I'm mistaken, he was having a really hard time supporting the site, and it's not through any lack of merit on his part. He got wildly popular for, like, a day or two at a time, and judging from the old front page musings, it just about crunched the site. I've seen it shut down from time to time. People would link in, raid the archives, leave, and not come back for months. They didn't get enough attachment to donate, they didn't make it a part of their daily browsing, but he still got the bandwidth crunch as if they had. And he was there before donation fatigue, there for more than 5 years. Everyone who talked to me about E-sheep loved it, raved about it, but didn't DONATE to it. When he did make a premium comic that was pay-to-view, given the fact that it's still only up to chapter 3 and he has no other bitpass offerings that are not presented as donations, it doesn't seem to be generating much.

Serialized comics are going to be more attractive in a web-based medium on an individual basis simply because they get people used to coming back. People are gratified by getting new content often and if they don't see anything new for a while they wander off and forget. They form an attachment to the /idea/ of the artist. So only really big collectives are going to be able to hold interest with long-form comics, because I don't think any artist could survive trying to put out long-form stories at the pace web readers demand their updates. And yeah, that's going to mean that only really quality comics make a name. That's fantastic, I totally support that. But I question how you can ask comics at large to take that step.

I think it's well and good for the medium to advance the idea of putting full-length comics up but at the same time we have to ask what the medium is gonna do in order to SUPPORT it. Even a good listing site that lets you know when the long-form individual comics has updated is not going to help people develop the kind of attachment to the individual titles that they get nibbling that up bit by bit as it's made. If someone comes up with a really good, strong, long-form comic hosting company, and manages to make it turn a profit, then hooray. But I think it will take what the big publishing houses offer-- a promotional machine, a means of helping people form that attachment to the idea of the title and the person behind it. Sadly, that attachment is often stronger than the quality of the work itself when it comes to the public at large.

A tangent upon a tangent...

Aleph's picture

I think, though, if you read the rest of the paragraph, he almost gets at something valid here...

"I want to see a webcomics medium where people are excited about reading a story from start to finish. I think it's fundamentally a different experience from reading an episode a day or once a week. I'm grateful for Alex Danner's Full Story website which hilights the longer completed works out there. But I think, inevitably, when an artist serializes their work, the interest in the work drops off sharply after it's completed. They'd be much better off if they developed the discipline to complete their work first, and then present it to the public as a finished piece."

The issue here is not so much completing the work before showing it and creating a work that survives being ompleted. It's the last sentence that throws it all into the wrong light, I think he misses the point when assigning causality.

There ARE serialized stories which retain their interest once the work is completed. It's hardly 'inevitable' that interest drops off, and serialization itself is not the problem. The problem is actually constructing a plot vs. making it up as you go along. I hear a lot of fans talking about the particular stories they go back to time and time again, I don't want to get into naming specifics here because that's an even bigger tangent. Re-readability is NOT subject to how you posted it, good comic artists try to give you something on every page of a print comic as well. It's just not AS IMPORTANT that they do it.

Webcomics do enable artists who can't sustain their enthusiasm for a project in a vaccuum. They do help people who lack discipline in an audience-free environment keep going, and I agree, that's a good thing. The thing is, it's real easy for people who get a lot of attention to get removed from the experience of working in obscurity, and forget how easy it is to succumb to the 'this is a waste of time' idea. It's all fine and good to say, well they should build discipline, but all the discipline in the world isn't going to make it any easier to do something creative and expressive when you feel there's no point to it and nothing to show. Creativity is an emotional process, especially at the beginning, and it's really not a sin to look for some way to see the point of your work as you create it.

My story is already sketched out from beginning to end, and I know I'd never make it to the ending in a vaccuum. The fact that there are people out there who would feel let down if they didn't find out where this is going is all that keeps me doing this at all.

There's nothing that ought to be discouraging about having a wealth of comics out there cutting their teeth in an environment that lets artists get used to feeling like anybody will want to see what they have to show. Unlike print, more webcomics, at whatever level of progress, cannot POSSIBLY be a bad thing. There is no competition for space, no trees are dying, no baby seals are being clubbed to make ink from their cute black eyes and... well you get the idea. The only problem with more webcomics is the difficulty in finding any one of them, and that, quite frankly, is the job of reviewers and listing sites.

The discouraging thing is the way listing sites and buddy systems so jumble up the view of webcomics a reader gets that it becomes hard to find the kind of work you want in a sea of things you're just not interested in. For me it's big shiny eyes and characters you can only tell apart by their hairdos. For somebody else it's big words and complicated stories. Yes, it's a seething mass of amateurishness and laziness out there a lot of the time. But a reviewer is supposed to be able to sift through the noise and pick out the things nobody else is hearing yet.

To some extent, no listing or search engine is going to be able to replace a human with taste and discretion. We depend on people like, oh, say, webzines that revolve around reviewing comics, to get out there and read every piece of crap that hits the scene-- and rather than going out and stomping those people flat before they know what they're doing, sift through them for the ones that have matured into something people should pay attention to. If I were running a review site you can bet there would not be a single listing on a webcomic site that I had not seriously visited in a year-- that would be time consuming but important. It's why we need reviewers at all. Not to be mightily important vanguards of the quality of the industry at large, and tell us all how we're not living up to what we ought to, but to find the things that best exemplify quality and lift them up.

There is so much focus on telling people where they went wrong, and there is not nearly enough focus on going out and finding what went right. It seems like a lot of review sites wait for the comic to generate a buzz on its own, and then get discouraged by the fact that much of what gets a buzz is defined by repetitions of the familiar and half-assed mimicry of the popular. This is like being mad that the most popular food in America keeps coming up as fatty awful fast food. En masse, people choose what's easiest, most recognizable, and least intimidating-- and they choose what somebody they know is eating.

So, I wouldn't let this kind of discouragement get you down, Fab-- nobody out there putting out WHATEVER webcomic is actually doing a bad thing to the industry. It just gives us all more to talk about and more to learn from, and that's a good thing.

To balance things a bit: I

To balance things a bit: I think serialisation has its place artistically, it's not necessarily a compromise or second-rate option. I first came into comics as a fan of newspaper comedy strips, which I still am, and to my mind they're a form in its own right with its own particular properties and virtues. The strengths of Pogo and Krazy Kat largely came from the streams of daily nonsense and incident in them; Kelly did do some longer Pogo comics, but I honestly can't imagine Krazy Kat without changing its nature deeply. (I don't think it was coincidence that the Herriman pastiche was the shortest of all the stories in "Flick", at just three pages.) I'd make the same sort of argument in favor of the good newspaper-style webcomics.

A tangent...

Fabricari's picture

I want to start by saying I enjoyed this interview, as it gives me a lot to think about. Don't take my rambling as a critisism.

"I enjoy witnessing the process of artists developing their skills. But I'm discouraged by the tendencies of webcomics to always be serialized works-in-progress."

I want to underscore that I (and I think many artists) create webcomics for justifiably selfish reasons. I create Fabricari, because after 16 years I look back at all my talking about and drawing comics, and I don't really have anything sustainable to show for it.

I started with the goal to complete a graphic novel. But working alone in the art-studio for several years without any kind of feedback makes it easy to loose track of why you started on your project in the first place. I've been through this cycle several times.

I picked a format that works on the web and in print. I'll never be on the cutting edge of webcomics. But it's not about what I'm giving the medium, it's about what it's giving me.

The first and most important thing I get from the medium is an immediate audiance. Even if only a dozen people are reading, I don't feel like I'm working in a vaccuum. Feedback has made a tremendous difference on how I produce the book. It's my opinion that accessiblity and interaction is what makes the medium most fantastic, not the artistic innovation.

Also, webcomics gives me a deadline. Without a deadline, a two year project would end up stretching out to 5 years, or 10, or perhaps never get finished like hundreds of other pages in my art bin. My family has learned to work around my 3 day a week schedule, and we all know by this time next year I'll have something to show for it.

This is where the webcomic medium supercedes print - I don't have to feel incompetent because I can't produce a monthly pamphlet. Instead of lamenting my defeats, I can rejoice in my smaller victories.

Webcomics gives me a fantastic community of artists to share my victories and defeats with.

If everyone says you need to create art for yourself, first, then I think it's fair to want to take advantage of a medium because of what it can give you. I don't think artists need to feel compelled to create something on the bleeding edge to create something decent.

OK, I'm done. Thanks :D

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison

Excessive Serialization in Webcomics - Symptom of...

Fabricari's picture

I've been giving this more thought. And it occured to me that there may seem to be an over-abundance of serialized webcomics because the medium itself is relatively new. Prior to that, there were legions of artists who followed the Dave Sim mantra of a page a day keeps the plumber away, or at least I was one. We all spent years filling our art bins with pages.

Cut to a few years later, we have a new medium and a new audience. Everybody pulls out the old pages that never got lovin'.

I bet, once these pages have gone through the mill, that you will see more new content than you do recycled content. The scales will shift. Just a theory.

If I "republished" my old crap on the web I'd prolly have a couple years of daily comic. But since I hate all my old stuff, I'll spare you.

Steve "Fabricari" Harrison