Sunday, October 19, 2008

Collective Success and Failure

What makes a good collective, and how many are there?

All collectives have to be evaluated from an outsider viewpoint and insider viewpoint. Those which have formed around sharing convention tables, or chatting with friends who do comics, are less concerned with what outsiders think than those which are pooling to promote a body of work. Collectives presenting a public face are more deserving of scrutiny. Those which recruit members are of greatest interest to many readers.

All have their place, but I care more about the ones that are accessible, friendly and open to member applications, because they are more important to the average comicker.

I have noticed that older collectives tend to either reach an equilibrium, or disintegrate. Collectives with comfortable equilibrium usually stop adding members.

The single most likely cause of failure seems to be the admission of non-participants. Sooner or later the people doing the work become tired of watching others coast, a fight breaks out, and suddenly it's over. 

Placing the collective URL in the hands of the webmaster is a repeating cause of failure. Bored webmasters don't cooperate, they walk, and this has been a huge blow to collectives like Cornstalkers.

Recently Comic of the Month, a friendly, down-to-earth group with a great forum, saw a fairly dormant member quarrel with the webmaster, who had long since put his own comic on hold. The webmaster pulled the plug on what had been a great site. The members are currently attempting to build a new site. This is one of the greatest mistreatments of good people I have seen on the internet.

Though I know people from both, I am not part of the Sage or Spider Forest communities. They have a lot in common: strong growth, some notable titles gaining traction, good sites and in the case of SF, a good media rep. Everything is out in the open and they are mostly doing things right.

What have I learned from watching?

  • Successful collectives are formed of leaders and doers, not doers and slackers. The activity level of recruits should be factored in. What will their contribution be?
  • Site URL and structure should be held in trust by a mature member -- never the webmaster;
  • It's probably wise to Google around and check out a potential recruit to see if they have a record of going ballistic or spamming forums;
  • There has to be something to do at a collective site, even if it's just sift through ads for a certain genre. Bios and pictures of creators are good choices. If you think you can get a forum to critical mass, great, but too many sites have forums like mausoleums. A lot of times, good ideas get talked to death in forums, and never get done.
  • Having guidance for members about being contacted is reasonable. Comics without contact info are sending a negative message;
  • It's almost impossible to get collectives to appoint a media person and have them keep blogs and directories up to date. The best example of someone really good is KEZ at Spider Forest or Lee Cherolis at Indy. Ideally, media reps would have their own direct email link. They would also send press releases to comics news blogs. Imagine all the work done to build a collective -- and then there is no promotion. Where is the press release for Sage's Zuda win, for example? The Whites' won, but the collective should be able to glom a little PR as well.
  • Some collectives do not answer their mail. Then if you write a review mentioning this, they become upset. Examples include Bomb Shelter Comics as the former and Boxcar Comics. Only Tom Brazleton, who does Theater Hopper, answers mail at Boxcar, and not even in an official capacity. He's just a good guy;
  • Some collectives circle the wagons if you give a member a bad review. This is human nature, but it's against the group's best interests. When collectives start to become gangs with enemies, something is wrong;
  • Researching collectives reveals lots of dead collectives, and the only story that out-competes the current Bomb Shelter Comics fiasco is The Rocket Pirates. Announced with fanfare usually reserved for an Olympic Opening Ceremony, cartoonist Warren Ellis asked the world if they wanted to be Rocket Pirates.  The world did, and hundreds of people submitted comics to what was to be the first online anthology produced by a collective. The hype amplified, and after a lot of foot-dragging Ellis announced he had picked the first couple of participants (not named). Then he was ill, then complaining about the number of submissions, then under contract obligations with print publishers, or announcing delays. His forum shut down, perhaps for unrelated reasons, then word was leaked that the project was on hold. One of the most thorough internet scrubbings I have seen followed, making it hard to piece it all together, and Ellis' pompously detailed autobiography on Wikipedia fills in the time period with minor projects. The lesson: don't hype the thing until you've got it up and running. Ellis isn't the only one who chickened out when he realized the work exceeded the fame.

The home page of Psychedelic Treehouse includes a form which collective people can use to submit update information. 

You can read about comics collectives in The Directory of Webcomics Collectives, a hobby of mine. I have trouble staying current with every group, but I expect to split the list into performing and non-performing groups, so that those who work hard to keep the directory up-to-date will not have to keep company with groups that are collectives in name only, dying, or dysfunctional.