Whence Webcartoonist Subcommunity?

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.

T Campbell


  1. I’m not sure how this will work out on it’s own. Being a part of a community can take a lot of time, which might even be more valuable to most webcomic authors than individuality. Most keep a set of links on their site of comics they like, and introduce themselves to some of their favorite comics. I would like to see some discussions from artists about what they like in webcomics, what they like, what makes a good webcomic and so on. But, again, time.

  2. There are sub-communities, but like all of webcomics, they are small and sometimes hard to find.

    Take the Four Toon Tellers (disclaimer- i’m in it), a collective modeled after Alt-Brand that, with the loss of the site due to the keenspace crash, is really nothing more than a bunch of buddies. We go to each other weddings, go visit each other randomly, and talk a lot about everything- not just our comics. One of us is going to stand in a requisite male at the all female college I went to for one of my old college buddies. We talk religion, politics, love- the whole gamut of human experience. And I don’t believe we’re the only group out there that does this. Like I said- it’s hard to find.

    Also, I believe you meant to say “girlamatic.com” and not “rumblegirls.com”.

  3. An interesting column, T.

    I agree with you that a particular community (or sub-community) may not be visible for quite some time.

    Within the various teams of the AdventureStrips creators, I believe there may be the seeds of bunches of sub-communities. Surely between you, John Waltrip and David Willis (team RIP & TERI) there’s more than a little discussion of craft. Adding to that we get your collaborator on FANS and other collaborators that may be in your sphere. Pretty soon, we’ve pinpointed a basic T-universe of the folks with whom you collaborate and who tend to share both similar and dissenting views on what comics (and/or webcomics) are and should be.

    By the same token, I fall squarely into an AdventureStrips sub-community as well, populated by my ATHENA VOLTAIRE collaborators, Paul Daly and Chad Fidler. Our paths intersect with my former studio-mate, Jason Millet (with whom Chad and I still do advertising work), and the rest of Paul’s St. Louis comics mafia (and AdventureStrisp creators) Don Secrease and Rick Burchett. Betwixt the batch of us, there’s plenty of discussion about the furthering of our craft (both collectively and individually).

    I’m sure that if you broke down the KeenSpace, Modern Tales or AdventureStrips families, you’d find further evidence of these sub-communities developing. Whether or not any of us actually achieve anything, beyond the cross-pollination that a sense of community creates, is up to all of us.

    Still, thanks for some fascinating food for thought.


  4. I’m reposting Journalista!’s comment this morning on this article and another opposing viewpoint:

    In the latest issue of The Comics Journal, Tom Spurgeon argued against the attitudes behind what he called “Team Comics”. Arguing from the “pro” side at Comixpedia, writer T. Campbell examines the intricacies of Team WebComix.

  5. oh, thanks for correcting it, damonk. now it looks like i’m out of my mind! “where does it say “rumblegirls.com”? this person is crazy!”


  6. Here I thought a whence was an olde english serving maid.

  7. Hate to be stubborn, but I pretty much disagree with all three.

    1) I do… you’ll see me on the IT’S WALKY board a lot lately, and I’ve posted on CRFH, ELF LIFE, several AdventureStrips, SLUGGY, PVP, Scott McCloud’s site, and elsewhere.

    Unless you mean, “why don’t I announce I’m their fan,” in which case I just did.

    2) No, “whence” means “from where,” with no verb tense implied. It could mean “where did they come from,” “where are they coming from,” or what it means here, which is “where MIGHT they come from?”

    3) Sorry, but no. Groupthink means conformist decision-making, thinking that values group harmony over an exploration of all alternatives. Leaders are not required– the Borg were a perfect example of groupthink with or without a “Queen.” When Irving Janis coined the term, he spoke of it as a danger. In the piece above, I’m saying it can sometimes be desirable.

    Thanks, though, for letting me know I haven’t been clear enough!

  8. yeah, but i credited you, so it’s all good, right? ^__^

  9. 3 Points:

    1) “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.”

    Why don’t you, then?

    2) I think you simply meant “Where are the Cartoonist Subcommunities?” “Whence” means “Where did they come from?”, implying they exist.

    3) “Group Think” means everybody agreeing with a leader because they are afraid to disagree.

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