The webcomics blog about webcomics

Rational Thoughts

Firstly, a quick note: work will take me to a no-internet zone for the next couple of days; any updates that occur during the day will be tapped out a character at a time over cell tethering, or very late. Please adjust your brains accordingly.

Secondly, everybody remembers that it’s Machine of Death Day, right? As of this writing, it’s #2 on the Amazon sales charts in the category “books” (as well as #1 in “science fiction anthologies”, and #3 in “literature & fiction”), and you can help push it over the edge to #1 right here.

Thirdly, today is the 40th anniversary of Doonesbury, which would under normal circumstances immediately qualify it as dead wood on the comics page, except most newspapers run it in the Op/Ed section these days, and but for the fact that it’s not being written/drawn by ghosts or the no-talent [grand]children of the originator. Garry Trudeau continues to bang out the strip and comment on the state of the country (and the world), and occasionally opine on comics themselves:

Slate: Where is the comic strip headed in the post-daily-print-newspaper age? Is the medium healthy?

Trudeau: No, we’re all in free-fall together. And Web comics don’t seem to be an alternative, unless you’re uninterested in making a living. There are so many entertainment alternatives to comics now, I’m not sure they’ll be much missed. In their heyday, comics were a dominant force in popular culture, but that’s over.

There’s not much future in being a strip artist now. That’s quite a turnaround in fortunes, because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered. If I were starting out now, I’d probably continue on the graphic design trajectory I was on before I got sidetracked with comics. Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant. I advise young cartoonists now to get into graphic novels—or head for Pixar. [emphasis mine]

When I read that bit that I’ve helpfully bolded for you, my first thought was a paraphrase of something the inimitable Rich Stevens (speaking of whom — massive close-out sale on the only pop-culture t-shirt measured in radians) said at SPLAT! back in 2008 which boils down to Think you can’t make a living at webcomics? Good! Less competition for me.

The people who are going to make a living at webcomics are already making a living at webcomics. Scott Kurtz had the best take on it, though, and you should go read what he had to say:

[W]e need not get angered by his comments until we’ve decided which you’re he’s talking about.

Personally, I take his comments to mean that Webcomics are not an alternative for he and his colleagues. And he’s correct. It’s not a viable alternative for them at this point. [emphasis original]

Even better was Kurtz’s take on something a bit further down in Trudeau’s comments:

Honestly, if anything in this interview upset me it was the following sentence:

“…presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered.”

Boy, isn’t that the truth? And isn’t that the real reason that syndicates are getting less and less for their features every year? Because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip is tenure for both the creator and their syndicate partner. Just put it on auto-pilot until the artist dies, then get a new artist and put the auto-pilot back on.

In this interview, Garry discusses his friends Gary Larsen and Bill Watterson, both who felt the time had come to retire from cartooning. And having read interviews with both of those cartoonists, they seem like creators very uncomfortable with the idea of “tenure.” But again, how feasible is it for a cartoonist with 20 plus years under his belt to re-invent what they do or start from scratch?

Bravo, Mr Kurtz, bravo. That would have qualified as the best comics-related bit of thought that saw print yesterday, but for the inconvenient fact that Ms Shaenon Garrity (Funk Queen of the Pacific Time Zone and surrounding domains) busted out a manifesto of things to know about the future of comics (formulated while “occasionally sober”). Her item #1 (Newspaper comics are dead) ties nicely to the points above, but don’t miss out on the rest. While lots of people have (rightly) been talking about #8 (The line between fans and creators is razor-thin), #9 (They are mostly girls) and #10 (They are very good at making comics) and her cautions to publishers to make ready, I was most struck by:

5. But there is a canon. As best I can determine, the majority of comics-loving people under 30 have at least a passing familiarity with the following:

  • Calvin & Hobbes
  • Bone
  • Naruto
  • Death Note
  • Watchmen
  • …and a handful of webcomics, but the latest big thing in webcomics shifts so frequently that I can’t even add titans like Penny Arcade and xkcd to the list with any confidence.

    Is this the canon I would have chosen to lead the next generation into the great big beautiful tomorrow of comics? Probably not, but it’s not bad. Definitely better than the canon I cut my teeth on, which contained far more Batman than was healthy for the nerds of Generation X.

    Verrrrry interesting.

    I’m actually sort of surprised by Garry Trudeau’s comments re: web comics. He’s been the one big syndicated cartoonist who really seems to have a grasp of the web. Long before the syndicates were putting strips online (and only a few at that), Trudeau has had most of his entire archive available online. (Before that, including the entire archive of his comic on a CD bundled with one of the print collections.) He’s had a dedicated site (now hosted at Slate) for roughly a decade. He sells prints of his strip (and has for a while). He’s sold books and originals and has done all sorts of new media experiments (a CG Duke running for president in 2004, for example). He’s done a number of Child’s Play-like charity events, caching in on his notoriety and controversial status to raise money for some pretty good causes.

    Sure, perhaps he couldn’t make the same sort of money he makes (or made at height of his popularity), but I’m sure that with a little bit of semantic adjustment (a cartoonist who makes a living selling ancillary products is still a cartoonist) he’d be fine.

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