The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Guest Column: Anne Thalheimer In, “Closer Than You Might Think”

Editor’s note: I think I’m going to have to put her on staff.

In preparing to table at the Boston Zine Fair next month and in trying to more closely consider my current webcomics reading as part of this ongoing series, I’ve spent some time thinking about the relationships between minicomics and webcomics. This is also kind of tied in with continuing to think about David Malki !‘s recent article (we disagree; I don’t think an association with comics or comix is the death knell of webcomics, by any means. I’m still parsing through the particulars of what and why, though, so some of this piece is going to feel like thinking-out-loud). So I thought it might be worth considering minicomics and webcomics, which feel a little more closely related, maybe, than “comic booksâ€? or “comic book cultureâ€? with all their negative connotations (even though considering “comic stripsâ€? and “webcomicsâ€? might also be an interesting parallel).

Obviously there are certain, immediate similarities between the two. Both can be very cheap for readers to access. Both are—for the most part — free of publishing strictures (quick, nobody think “Patriot Act!â€?). Though webcomics seem generally easier to get than minicomics (even with having to remember to click onto the page for updates), that isn’t a hard and fast rule, and though webcomics may be more immediate in their readers’ responses, audience participation is not a “characteristic native to the Internetâ€? as evidenced by the sheer numbers of folks creating their own minicomics and zines, letters back and forth between creators, collaborations, and so forth. It’s slower, but it’s still there.

In all honesty, I have a great love of minicomics as well as zines. I’ve been publishing one since 1995, and am involved in a number of other projects, like reviewing for these folks. I also have a great love of paper, as previously established, and I’m kind of an indie comix geek (I wrote a dissertation about comix; it doesn’t get too much geekier than that), though, like Malki ! I’m not a fan of the negative aspects of “comics culture� (Who is, really? We all laugh a little too self-referentially at the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, right?). And I don’t think of webcomics and minicomics as so radically different from one another that a new, separate word that doesn’t have “comics� in it warrants coining to replace webcomics.

That said, I was pretty excited to find this fact while poking around the internet, because it sort of parallels my experience — it’s comics that got me into webcomics, not the other way around. (Still, there must be readers who do have that experience of reading webcomics and then getting into print-only comics. Or getting into webcomics which are then only made available in limited ways, like book collections, such as Mom’s Cancer). But I’m also really into certain webcomics, even though the actual reading itself is so different from reading minicomics. There’s a whole lot of webcomics out there, the same way there are loads of minicomics and zines. Minicomics are, in many ways, kind of a subdivision within zines, which have their own long, storied history.

Like comics do. And that’s a history to which, I think, webcomics refer, however indirectly or inadvertently. David Malki !’s recent article notwithstanding, I think severing webcomics from “comicsâ€? in general isn’t possible right now. Maybe in the future, when we’re two generations in to those readers who, y’know, grew up online, but not now. Webcomics are still kind of new-ish, in the proverbial big picture (maybe in their awkward teen years?), and “comicsâ€? (in all its permutations) have not always been regarded as illiterate kiddie fare (and, by the way, isn’t this a decidedly American sentiment?), and the cultural worth of “comicsâ€? has arguably risen in recent years. Webcomics, by many accounts, if I’m getting my history right, first started gaining force in early 2000 or so, even though many webcomics appeared online long before that date (I mean, ten years of Goats?!), and if we’re using the most open definition possible — a description of the delivery system only, with nothing to do with the content — surely there are others earlier even than 1986. Right?

And no, I’m not talking exclusively about Watchmen here, but it isn’t a bad book, and, like the other books usually uttered in the same breath — Maus and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, functions fairly well as a gateway drug for showing folks that there’s more to comics than comic strips or the stuff in the spin rack at the drugstore. Arguably, webcomics can do something similar, perhaps in part due to some of that immediacy we just talking about.

Like I said, I’m still thinking through this stuff….

Anne, how do you feel about occasionally-free beer?

I just wonder to what extent comics really can be seperated from webcomics given the convergence of the two. Most major webcomics now have print collections whose sales make up a large part of the revenues for the comic and it appears within the next ten years most print comics will also be web entities. There will just be comics.

And manga, more than anything, is steadily demolishing the old comics stereotypes and creating new ones. (For instance, if you want to talk about the most popular comics in 20 years, I will bet you anything they are American made, manga/american fusion styled harlequin romances)

Before graphic novels became “cool,” I’d say the possibility of separating webcomics from comics was quite possible: webcomics were the comics that hip people could read without feeling like they were slumming it in poorly lit dungeons of nerdery (obviously I’m generalizing a bit). You’d find them in the “links” pages of people you’d never imagine thumbing through an issue of Spiderman.

Now that there are reviews of Persepolis and Jimmy Corrigan in the Guardian and the New York Times, I’d say that the likelihood of a semantic divorce between webcomics and comics is slim if only because it gives people a common point of reference (you’ll like my webcomic, it’s sort of like Louis Riel, but with goth teenagers instead of Metis). People can read webcomics without the shame of having to explain that they’re not reading superhero comics, but -you know- good stuff like American Born Chinese.

Like minicomics and ‘zines, I think webcomics grew out of a generation of creators who had a love for a medium but whose creative impusles had driven them outside the mainstream.

A couple of things:

1. There will just be comics is an interesting idea, thinking of “comics” as sort of an umbrella term? But would it work? Would losing some of those modifiers be detrimental in the long run?

2. I totally agree with this point: Like minicomics and ‘zines, I think webcomics grew out of a generation of creators who had a love for a medium but whose creative impulses had driven them outside the mainstream and think it can potentially track back even earlier, to the advent of “comix” (though that’s a term whose history is in actuality more complicated than it seems) in the late 1960s.

But I think there’s also a possible middle ground in there as well for readers between webcomics and stealthy forays into poorly lit comic book shops, a third choice that might include indie-er stuff like some of the comic books Fantagraphics published (Naughty Bits, for one) or Drawn & Quarterly’s work, sold in shops that are a little more forward-thinking in their stock. It’s a matter, of course, of getting one’s hands on it…which makes it a lot like zines in terms of aquiring them, but arguably that’s the same boat one’s in for trying to get some self-published / small press comics (single issues of Hothead Paisan, for example).

Plus I might add in something as well about the delivery method; webcomics have great potential for quick, easy access from pretty much anywhere in the world. Minis and zines…not as much?

As for expectations of comic specialty stores being frightening, dark, unfriendly places–that can sometimes be a boon. Sending my students down to close-read Captain Blue Hen Comics in Newark, DE for every course in which I taught comics / graphic novels / trade paperbacks was one of the most fun assignments I’d ever given, and a major reason it was effective was because everyone went into it with exactly these low expectations; very few of them thought they’d find it, to steal a phrase, a clean well-lighted place. It’s a great shop.

3. Unrelated to comics: Yay for beer!

I think that now that graphic novels have greater cultural cachet, we’re seeing them in a wider variety of stores beyond direct market specialty shops (which isn’t to say that all direct market shops are bad: your local shop [and mine] being a good example). At the point in my life where I made the transition from mainstream comics to indie/alt comics (in a big city; that seems to be the common denominator for most comic snobs’ genesis), it was a forward thinking shop that fascilitated that change (the late, but amazing Danger Bookstore in Montreal).

If all people had access to a great comic shop/book store where mini-comics and ‘zines were readily available if webcomics would have been as important? (Though webcomics are more a global phenomenom; even the most aggressive of mini-comics and ‘zine creators is going to have a rather limited distribution.)

As for “comix”, I often speculate that the Comics Code Authority did more good for comics than harm, in that it helped spawn the underground comix movement in the United States. Sure, it means that most cartoonists labor in a horribly pruned marketplace without fiscal compensation, but at least we got some amazing art out of it.

I wonder what would have happened if the CCA had killed EC and its like today; would webcomics fill the role of Zap, Weirdo et al?

Hopefully this time I won’t butcher the formatting so badly…

Would webcomics have been as important if everyone could get to a well-stocked comic specialty shop?

I actually still think yes, in part because, as you mention, of their potential for unlimited access (both globally and in terms of time; unlike shops, the internet doesn’t close and you don’t neccessarily have to leave your house to get online) that (offline) ‘zines and minis just don’t have as, well, immediately, even with the rise of online distros. They also seem to be more globally accessible in a way zines and minis can be, but often aren’t. (I’m thinking here of language issues in addition to distribution.)

We’re also lucky–we do share an exceedingly good local shop & are not far from another really good one (Million Year Picnic).

I think there’s also a fair bit of potential cross-pollination between offline minis & zines and webcomics. I read Diesel Sweeties online, but haven’t yet in the newspapers, but I can’t wait to see what the new collection’s going to look like. I don’t know if I’ll like it, since I think it’s a webcomic so suffused with technology that reading it offline will feel really weird, but I’m interested to find out.

It’s true, though, that you don’t have to leave your house to get zines & minis. I’ve always loved getting a zine or a mini in the mail with a note from the person who made it, though there’s something sort of similar with webcomics, through email, blogs, etc., (personal vs. private discussion; receiving a private letter/email vs. publicly posting back & forth on a blog.[this suddenly got way more meta than I’d intended]).

(Full disclosure: after weeks of speculation on the topic, I think that reason–knowing, sort of, where your work is going–is why I never fully warmed to the idea of putting my autobio work online and is at the heart of why I don’t distro it very widely. That…and the print thing.)

Still, direct market specialty shops are on the whole, I think, so much better than when I started buying comics in high school (more geekery!). Part of that’s economics in that shops have realized the purchasing market beyond the bags & boards set (I’m generalizing, obviously) and have started revising their stock (and lighting) accordingly. (Neil Gaiman’s book about, basically, how to get girls into your comic book store, is sort of where I’m going with this).

On the web, that’s not (as much?) an issue.

It is, however, still surprising to see how mass bookstores dealt with graphic novels and trade paperbacks (and continue to do so). And though I generally agree that the Comics Code Authority did more good for comics than harm in the long-term. But in the (retrospective) short term it seemed pretty horrific; can you imagine having Senate subcommittee hearings on comic books today? (No, wait, it’s video games that are bad! No, wait–violent TV! No, I meant, rap music…actually, I have a much better suggestion for something for Senate subcommittee review…)

I wonder what would have happened if the CCA had killed EC and its like today; would webcomics fill the role of Zap, Weirdo et al?

Interesting question! Modern pop culture, obviously, would be so hugely different (think about all the ‘comic book movies’ for one), though I think counterculture would likely have taken the same arc? I wonder if international works, bande desinee & such, would then have gained more of a footing in the American market?

Pretty much the beginning and end of my argument on the matter is that there are a ton of people out there who don’t like comics and there’s nothing you can do about that. I like comics just fine, and obviously so do most webcomics creators and fans, but webcomics (or web-based entertainment that may occasionally be in the form of comics) also have a huge potential to reach outside of the niche audience of comics fans.

Obviously many webcomics are very similar to print comics in a lot of respects, and that’s fine. It’s just that there are also a lot of us who are more interested in making “web-based entertainment” than necessarily making comics for the sake of making comics.

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