Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Comics Part 3: The Digital Dystopia

            One of the big hopes for the comics medium is the internet. There are some who feel the future of the form lies in digital downloads, and it seems as though the future of all media may be headed in that direction.

            Personally, I’m not convinced the computer is an effective delivery system for comics. The screen is the wrong shape, flipping back and forth between pages is klunky and navigating archives can be challenging. Personally, I have trouble immersing myself in the experience the way I can with a physical comic. But, I am an old guy and can’t speak for the younger and more tech-savvy brain. New hardware like the iPad and Kindle may help improve the interface if they catch on, but that’s a big maybe.
Can digital readers help comics?

And hey, even if comics was a good fit with the medium, I have to wonder if digital comics would be any better than print comics at competing with its major rivals, TV, movies, video games and social media.

I’m not convinced they would.

            The first thing one finds upon trolling for comics online, is that there’s just a shit-load of stuff there. The reason for this is obvious, the medium is cheap, fast, and allows for a very personal vision. Just like the blog or the podcast, almost anyone with an idea can throw a comic up online. It’s a truly egalitarian platform.

The trouble is, the overwhelming majority of this stuff sucks.


It really sucks.

I recently took a relaxed little stroll in the cyber-world in search of web comics. Of the first thirty or so online strips I checked out, most were either very badly drawn or created using some sort of dead-eyed, mannequin-like 3D computerized figures. The writing was no prize either, and many contained frequent errors in spelling and grammar. Several appeared to be the creation of people for whom English was a second language. A few strips had serviceable drawings and a few contained intelligible writing, but almost none had both. Additionally, many of the strips were egregiously derivative, sometimes to the point of being legally actionable.

This little stroll, during which I found only one title of relatively high quality, took me about three hours. Three hours to find one decent strip. It really doesn’t seem like the best use of my time.

At the risk of sounding somewhat elitist, the arts may not be an endeavor where egalitarianism fosters the richest creative environment. (I won’t get into the debate as to whether comics is art right here, but for the record, I believe it is.)

I also believe that some of the greatest art is created under the most strenuous restrictions.
The cartoonists at Warner Brothers
created some of their funniest work
under the stringent scrutiny of decidedly
unfunny production executives.

For the most part it seems there is no guiding editorial hand at work in web comics. Even a premium site like Transmission X, (http://www.txcomics.com/), where some truly talented individuals are posting quality comics, could use a more rigorous guiding hand. The stuff posted here is roughly the comics equivalent of literary fiction. By that I mean that most are not genre pieces. However, the Transmission X site is essentially letting the creators follow their heads. As talented as they are, (and almost everything there is worth reading), much of it suffers from a tendency to meander. A strong editorial voice might keep the digressions to a minimum and insist on a better overview of the big picture before embarking on the journey.
A keen editorial eye might help
improve online comics.

What I’m getting at is that it’s very hard to find a good online comic you truly enjoy. While a comic shop rack certainly has a lot of questionable product, and material geared to certain genre tastes, it is finite. Over a few weeks of Wednesdays you can give everything a peek and sniff out the stuff you like. In the online world the sheer number of strips available is practically endless, and much of it is so deeply crappy that it’s easy to get discouraged.

Just because a thirteen year old who loves Manga can post his badly drawn, incomprehensible pages online, doesn’t mean he should. Just because a forty-something dude in the thick of his mid-life crisis can post the comic he invented at age 16, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Just because no one would buy your screenplay doesn’t mean that a cobbled together comic version is going to take Hollywood by storm.

It’s not really their fault. These people simply don’t have the skills or patience required to create something of quality. Unfortunately, they do add to the coiling, strangling underbrush that obscures the good stuff awaiting you on the net. You have to machete your way through miles of this creative kudzu to find anything of value. It is tedious, depressing, and exhausting.

Honestly, I’m not here to discourage anyone who seriously wants to make a try at it. However, I do believe they should properly prepare themselves.

Teenager, you have energy and potential, but you need to develop your skills. Bad drawing is not a “style”. Learn to draw. Learn to write. Consult with teachers and professionals. Keep your work between you and your mentors until you develop a viable skill set. I’m not saying you have to be flawless, but you should at least be competent before presenting your work to the public.

Mid-life crisis man, 25 years of selling insurance has done little to improve your fiction writing skills. You are essentially the teenager, only you took a few decades before deciding to follow your heart. While I applaud this, you still lack the required proficiencies. Take drawing courses, join writers groups. Get good before you start clogging up the cyber world.

Screenplay guy, assuming that all those agents who wouldn’t represent your script are morons is probably incorrect. While it’s marginally possible you are an unappreciated genius, it’s much more likely you wrote a weak screenplay. Rather than getting all stuck on it, why not write another, and another. Practice makes perfect. Comics are not a shortcut to the movie studios.

Okay, that’s enough of that rant.

So now let’s assume you’ve waded through the ocean of crap on the web and found a few great strips. Can these be considered the hope of the medium?

Well, maybe, but it has to satisfy a few other requirements before we can rejoice at the renaissance. Here are the key elements I think it needs to fulfill:

1)    It has to be of high and consistent quality.
2)    It has to be produced on a regular schedule.
3)    It has to find an audience.
4)    It has to be successfully monetized.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s consistently good and it appears regularly. That leaves items 3 and 4.

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s awfully difficult to cut through the mass of crap online and get noticed, but a few have done it, and good sites like Transmission X are gathering multiple titles of high quality together in one place. So, let’s say that you’ve fought hard, done good work, zealously promoted your product and managed to find a loyal audience of regulars.

(If you have done this, I’d love to interview you, so drop me a line.)

Part of the problem with web culture is the idea that everything should be free. Some even think it’s their right to get everything online for free. While this may have some merit, it also makes it very difficult to successfully monetize anything. You must either charge a fee per use, beg for donations, include advertising, or all of the above.

Since comics are probably the last medium of choice for most people, I’m not clear on how we are supposed to compete. Does the average web-citizen spend his money on comics or porn? I really don’t like the odds on that gamble.

And then, even if some money starts to come in, when does it reach a level commensurate with the amount of work and effort the creators put into the work. It could take a very long time, during which some very talented people have to take other work and sweat paying the rent and the grocery bill every month.

It just doesn’t seem right.

To sum up, these are my major caveats for the future of comics online:

1)  The medium is a weak fit for digital delivery.
2)  Creators must compete against an unprecedented glut of bad material.
3)  The medium lacks positive editorial influence.
4)    It is difficult to monetize.
5)    It still has to compete with other, more popular media.

Sadly, I don’t feel it shapes up too optimistically.

However, I truly hope I’m wrong about that. My very best wishes to all those who are trying.

In the next few entries I will discuss some of the theories of comics good-guy Scott McCloud and how he recommends we strengthen the medium, and interview illustrator Michael Netzer about comics, the recent Creators Revolution, and his complaint against Marvel and DC with the Federal Trade Commission.


  1. Hey Sam,

    I would agree that it is hard to find good content on the web. The 'signal to noise' ratio is never that favourable. In the early days of USENET the older denizens referred to the growing prevalence of clueless n00bs as Eternal September, September being the month when all the new students at universities would first hit the net.

    By the time I've found most of the comics I enjoy they were already popular and linked to by a well known site.

    A few I enjoy:
    by Phil and Kaja Foglio. Since Phil is already an established name, his success here may not 'count'

    by Randall Munroe. A former NASA scientist who draws about geeky things. One could argue that his 'stick figure' style is bad art, but if you look through his strips he actually has the chops, he just prefers simplicity.

    Tozo the Public Servant
    by David O'Connell. Style reminiscent of a Tin Tin comic, but it's a weird Noir-ish tale set in a world of steam and modernism without so much of the punk.

    All of these I've found because they showed up on something like Digg, Reddit, or Boing Boing. So if a Cory Doctorow blogs about something it might find an audience.

  2. Thanks Scott, I will check these out.

    Yes, a popular web personality pointing out your work can be a boon to your strip, for sure.

  3. As for separating the wheat from the chaff on the web and finding and supporting the good stuff, as you said in your post you're not the only one thinking about it.

    Here's an interesting piece pulled from a panel discussion of the future of long-form journalism - also a field in crisis.


  4. I can assure you of one thing: no one in their right mind pays for porn online. While those same folks who aren't paying for their porn may expect to not have to pay for their comics either, for the most part, porn isn't going to be competing with comics for consumer dollars.