The modern history of art has been largely the history of artist subcommunities, bound by common interest and usually but not always by geography. Michelangelo fraternized with colleagues, burned with rivalry for Leonardo, and clucked his tongue at Titian. To be in Paris in the 1920s was to glimpse Pablo Picasso in conversation with Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. People may have called Harlan Ellison the chief prophet of science fiction’s New Wave in the Sixties and Seventies, but the movement began with Michael Moorcock and spread to include a dozen other "name authors." Marcel Duchamp may have begun Dada, but without the Dada community he would have been a lone egg-thrower in the museums, ignored by history.
There have been comics subcommunities like this—the underground comix culture, and to some degree the current manga movement. Additionally, there is an overall "community" to any major art form: the musician community, the filmmaker community. However, some ‘arts’ never tighten the communal bonds past a certain point of mutual self-interest. When Scott McCloud, Kevin Eastman, Peter Laird, and Dave Sim, among others, got together to draft a "Creator’s Bill of Rights," the two-day "Summit" was treated with the intensity of a Constitutional Convention. Although those cartoonists would drift apart eventually, their "sense of community" was undeniable. Editorial cartoonists, on the other hand, have little community besides the AAEC, which is a trade organization, not a social club. Geographically spread like peanut butter, and driven by differing political passions, they are as unlikely to form a true "community" as a group of mercenary spies for different nations.
This has cost the field of editorial cartooning as much as has the shrinking of the newspaper industry. Editorial cartoonists rarely compare art styles, compare editors, compare reader responses, support one another emotionally, take apprentices, or bounce ideas off one another. There are occasional gestures of community—the AAEC ran a few tribute cartoons from its members, to mark the recent passing of Bill Mauldin—but on the whole, editorial cartooning is "every man for himself." (The fact that there are only four female editorial cartoonists is another consequence of non-community.)
Do webcartoonists have more in common with McCloud-Sim, or with the AAEC?
Please note that we are not speaking about the small but energetic fan community, whose members socialize as well as current technology permits, through e-mail, chat, and message boards. Those have already been well-covered in recent articles at ComixTalk [part 1, 2 and 3 of Kelly J. Cooper’s Webcomic Communities series]. We are talking about the webcartoonist community.
Even so, the first community has brought some health to the second. I’ve found it all but impossible to avoid posting on the message boards of cartoonists I admire, effectively announcing to the world that I’m not only these cartoonists’ colleague but also their fan. Several of them have returned the favor, and though a formal poll is difficult, the practice seems fairly widespread. Crossovers like the short meeting between Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly have been driven by fan request. Still, two cartoonists can’t share their characters, even for a week, without sharing an essential part of themselves.
It would seem, then, that a webcartoonist community does indeed exist. But what about sub-community? The art movements mentioned above—Dada, New Wave, the Renaissance—were all subcommunities at first. They did not begin everywhere at once. The entire "art community" or "writer’s community" or "science-fiction writer’s community" did not march forth in lockstep, and they did not come right out in favor when the revolutionaries introduced their ideas. Many of the most violent reactions to new art movements have come from the art establishment itself.
Instead, when the right time has presented itself, a concentrated knot of innovators has formed. They have come together like tectonic plates before sending shockwaves through the larger system.
Some people may point to collectives like AltBrand, or "syndicates" like Keenspot or Modern Tales. The mailing lists of these syndicates are as lively and often as hopeful as the offices of a start-up. Some would say they are the offices of start-ups, the equivalent of the Marvel Comics "Bullpen" of the 1960s… but an office is not a community.
Managers often speak about the "Yahoo community," the "Exxon community," or the "[fill in name of company here] community." Good managers want to encourage teamwork and to get their employees feeling good about the work itself, so this adoption of the term and concepts of "community" is a useful white lie. Good managers also cannot hesitate to turn people loose or add new ones on, entirely because of their profitability and not at all because of their "community value."
The Keenspotters meet and discuss matters relating to Keenspot as a business, but outside of conventions, our discussions of webcomics as an art form have been brief and abortive. No one wants to be the arrogant one who tells other people how webcomics should be done. And such arrogance is a requirement for the beginning of any art movement.
What’s more, even publishing companies like DC Comics or Golden Little Books have more of a brand identity than these online collectives. AltBrand, Keenspot, and Modern Tales are bound together by mutual commercial interest or mutual respect, not mutual ideas about content or style. However, the recent Modern Tales spin-offs are a different breed, and offer some hope for an evolution.
AdventureStrips.com’s URL is self-explanatory. Serializer.net features a more aggressively "indie" vibe. Girlamatic.com is all-female creators, all the time. Through market experimentation, founder Joey Manley has stumbled onto something that might, in time, create subcommunity.
Still, it hasn’t happened yet. As a member of both the AdventureStrips and the Keenspot mailing lists, I can testify there’s not much difference between the two. In both, colleagues share thoughts about how to make the site more successful, enthusiasm for each other’s work, and occasional technical advice. What we don’t share, though, is the deep influence over one another that only long periods of personal contact can achieve.
If this sounds like groupthink, it is. Artistic subcommunity requires artists to sacrifice some of their most precious currency—their individuality—in order to become better artists in the long run. It requires us to regard our colleagues as not disembodied text, but real people—always a problem in "virtual" communities—and to speak aggressively, and listen aggressively, to them about what art should be.
It will be very interesting indeed to see whether webcartoonists can do that. Most of us are antisocial creatures, sitting in front of our computers and letting the information stream in (2:00, wonder if the new PVP is up yet?). Still, all artists are at least thoughtful of such things, and we have no shortage of strong opinions on other issues.
Such a movement may not be recognizable as a movement for a while… in which case, it may even already exist, unknown to you or me. As we speak, the next interlaced GIF may be downloading to history.