Monday, May 11, 2009

The Consequences of Poor Role Models

Repeat something enough, and some people believe it. Tell them they believed a lie, and it will draw their wrath.

Let me tell you a bit about how I work. I am interested in the business of webcomics. To learn, I study a lot of comics: about 150 closely, and another 350 less closely or in rotation. When I feel I have learned all I want to know about a comic, I move it into a parking lot, and glance at it once in a while to see if anything has changed.

I also follow a lot of comic-related sites, including a few that won't admit me, but which have dissenters. who forward transcripts. After reading enough of them, I see no need to be secretive about it any more, because most of the contents is willfully ignorant. A lot confirms what I already suspect, which can be handy, but it's not quotable if I don't announce that it has become semi-public. Some of it's kind of sick, too, showing people with their guards down and language raw.

It follows that if I learn a lot about webcomics, and write about it, I will step on toes, because I will debunk lies and restore perspective. Previous attempts by others to debunk various webcomics were mere rants.

The problem is that many of the people who are easiest to puncture* represent "the dream" to younger comic creators. Thinking that brushing up against these success stories will be instructive and help their careers, they buy in. Sadly, even as they are flattered and pampered and getting their odd Twitter post answered, wheels are turning to keep them in place: indebted, loyal, but not a competitive threat.

Some creators are active in plotting. To some, it comes naturally, along with unpleasant personalities. To others, it's part of turf control: they were there first and no one gets pie until they have had their fill, if indeed the pie ever arrives.

By my estimation, the majority of these titles are in decline, many are flat, and some are doing pretty well. None have broken out, xkcd style, though they lie awake thinking about it.

I have about a half dozen items on a list that I regard as the biggest mistakes a serious webcomic creator can make in their early years, and it will have to span multiple posts, but one of them is trying to be part of someone else's peer group. Your best allies are people who haven't been contaminated, who are similar in comic age, who do work with obvious merit and who are friendly when you get to know them.

This group, different for every comic, is superior to a collective in that it's customized just for you and requires no government or other chores.

As I watch comics rise and fall, the ones that interest me most are the ones who trade lessons with their peers, avoid people who crave attention and are skeptical of the conventional wisdom as imparted in books, podcasts and blogs. A lot of that information is sloppy, deceptive or wrong.

A sign that someone might be trustworthy and conscientious is if they fix their mistakes, publicly. We all make them, there's no shame in it. But the authors of "How to Make Webcomics" would rather live birth a hog than own up to the serious errors in their book. Fleen seems under Supreme Command orders not to do it, perhaps under the notion that they extract vengeance by damaging their own credibility. That's true in a way, except the vengeance belongs to people who have criticized their behavior and find previous conclusions reinforced.

These people view themselves as having no stake in your success, and are wary of you as a threat. Large in ego, they burn when someone rockets past them, and with each passing year of playing "fake it till you make it" something inside them curdles. Many are from well-off families and can tap the money tree when they run short. Some had a chance at a decent art school but passed, perhaps wary of being just another decent artist in a room full of them.

I never intervene when I see someone marching toward doom, because I figure if their judgment is that poor, they're not going to make it anyway.

Trends suggest the bad actors are shrinking, and it's their own doing. Few of them have evolved noticeably since I first started watching, over a year ago. Another cartoonist suggests compassion is in order for some, like a few who want so badly to succeed and yet lack the talent. I lack talent for lots of things, and I don't need compassion, though I understand the impulse. In most cases, I see personal conduct, laziness in execution, arrogance toward expert guidance and ignorance of business basics as driving their failure, not lack of ability to create something that might succeed. Too much time on Twitter is another cause. The needy egos use it to self-medicate.

There is now enough opportunity to succeed in webcomics, though it is largely untapped, and talented print artists who might find refuge in our midst seem genetically hard-wired not to perceive it. Webcartoonists are incredibly free and in control, as symbolized by Randall Munro's recent decision to self-publish an xkcd book. Others have done it before -- often because they had no choice -- and I have too. I wouldn't do it any other way.

We do not have freedom from ignorance, and the human tendency to drift toward gurus lacking meaty resumes. Whether future success is a rarity or much more common will ride on the willingness of talented creators to pour the pee out of their sneakers and stand up to the hype of the atavistic relics who had their chance to lead, but wrapped themselves in a cocoon of paranoia, and failed. Hell, those blokes are so defeated you can simply insert yourself in their place, act responsibly, and forget 'em. Any constituency they claim as support is not a constituency you want anyway. Just keep a few of them around, as idiot-magnets, to test newcomers.

*Again and again I note that the most over-hyped role models not only engage in the worst conduct, but have the widest gaps between their incomes and their claimed incomes. They also appear notably less intelligent than their peers.