Monday, July 13, 2009

Webcomics Scene Teaches What Not to Do

For a while I thought that market expansion and emerging talent might make webcomics a serious medium.

I have changed my mind.
  • New webcomics are appearing at an accelerating rate, and the quality is disappointing;
  • The market is spreading sideways faster than it is spreading vertically.
What the last point means is more people are getting slices of pie, but the slices are getting thinner. The meme-and-irony t-shirt collectives are getting hurt the most, as they are forced to compete with people who actually can design and make t-shirts.

The effect on webcomics generally:
  • A person stumbling onto their first webcomic is more likely to be bored than impressed;
  • People with established comics are grinding out episodes long after creative decline, probably out of fear of attempting growth and lack of career options based on mythical self-portraits as successful webcomic creators;
  • People who don't get out much are building webcomics around dead-end topics like video games and sterile pop culture;
  • Most creators are illiterate about comic history and therefore re-create tired themes while lacking quality standards to compare their work
The best thing for webcomics might be a contraction that forces people to master the craft or do something else. I don't say that as a self-appointed master; I say it as a reader who sees the medium fossilizing just when explosive creativity should be occurring. The cost of print should be driving talent to webcomics, but veteran print artists look and see a tyranny of idiots and a sea of mediocrity. Our best efforts are just barely good enough, and many days I doubt even that.

Leadership does not generally arise in Romper Rooms, it comes from example:
  • As an anarchic free-for-all, we don't have appointed leaders, but we don't have standards either, so people emerge to fill the vacuum by hyping themselves;
  • Revolutions don't occur when the people in the streets are just tourists. Strivers, posers and art snobs squelch innovation;
  • Consultants and other purveyors of Power Point shows and software manuals, you lack soul, or more precisely, "authoriteh." It's only a matter of time before you are parodied on South Park.
What's a creator to do?
  • The only way to lead is to lead yourself. Get away from the quagmire - everything I ever said about networking is wrong and should be treated as poison. When everyone is huddled together, either making incremental gains or bracing for circulation declines, it robs you of the desperation that drives brilliance.
I'd like to promise I could supply examples, but Pug and I are in it for the adventure and everything else is expendable. We're handicapped by disappointing site developers who can't keep pace with us at any price, so we're always behind. Bottom line: don't look to us.
  • Escape the sweaty embrace of the Mayor McCheese gang and their webcomic hype, from HalfPixel to Fleen - they're pitching daydreams. The webcomics "scene" is an environment that seduces you into thinking you are doing something when you are merely standing in a sweat bath with 10,000 other people who think they deserve fame and fortune more than you;
  • Don't bother loathing the foul-mouthed buffoons, like the aspiring Harvey winner who writes me regularly, telling me what a dickwad I am. Save your contempt for the ones who are intellectually unwilling to engage, because they know they have no defense. Mr. Natural would give them a trademark kick in the ass. Odds are, if you haven't learned yet, you never will, but maybe there is some naive soul left to be alerted. Offenders include not just the embarrassed remainder of HalfPixel, but embarrassments like Gary Tyrrell and even Xaviar Xerexes, who clings to meek decorum while embalming a lot of rubbish in his shrine.
  • Another source of alarm: generally reserved and unquestionably genius-level cartoonists like Chris Ware and Bill Watterson look at what's online and use uncharacteristically negative language to describe it, like "garbage." I for one am guilty of going easy on substandard work by "that kid who might improve with time." The only ones who improve are the ones who are improving. Blunt critics, like Gary Groth, dismiss the medium despite forgiving a lot of honestly bad stuff published under his own company's imprint (Fantagraphics).
  • Finally, I'd be alarmed that an open-minded, truth-seeking sort like myself would enter webcomics, study it round the clock for several years, and find it mostly over-blown, in love with itself and falling out of fashion. I'd be even more alarmed that there are quality comics with quality accounting who far out-perform the alleged self-supporting titles, providing a valuable reality check to the people peddling your bright webcomic career along with your lottery ticket and Brooklyn Bridge. The ignorance deficit -- the difference between what most webcomic people know and what they need to know -- is so gaping, the typical aspirant's chances of success are rotten.
Some estimates:
  • 90% of webcomics are a complete waste
  • 9% have redeeming aspects but remain mostly expendable
  • 1% require consideration and an investment of time to measure their worth (2% if you have lower standards than me)
  • perhaps about 3% are walking dead that won't drop
  • less than 1 in 1,000 measure up to the best work from newspapers, monthlies, underground and vintage categories
  • comics that temporarily capture the imagination of a large demographic, like Penny Arcade or xkcd, immediately see their creators distance themselves from the "scene." XKCD's author didn't even want it known he was going to drop by the webcomic party in Massachusetts last March. Was it any surprise he was one of the few people there who didn't look like yet another dork with a dumb hat?
I don't regret publishing posts on the potential of webcomics. I do regret publishing anything that portrays me as a cheerleader of what is happening. Set aside the notion that your efforts will be rewarded. If you merely stop to calculate whether this is the best use of your time, the truth is very far from what others would have you believe.

Personally, I love doing comics and strive to improve. I would do them as a hobby or profession. But I wouldn't recommend myself as an example for anything except possibly straight talk. For the 99.9% who are in over their heads, this is a frivolous use of your time. Squandering youth, college, career experience, earning potential, family money and other resources on faux webcomic dreams is simply not in your best interest.