The things is, working on The Next Way Of Doing Things isn’t enough. As Dave Kellett clearly stated as the final thought of his talk, his analysis and recommendations are only good for 12 – 18 months tops; after that point, the complexities become too pronounced, the future path too hard to predict from here and now. In a lot of ways, for a lot of people, The Next Way Of Doing Things is arriving just in time to become irrelevant, since everybody already engaged in The Next Way is currently developing The Way After That.
This situation leads to Rashomonesque situations for observers, and where participants who just now are coming to realize that they’re a generation behind on business practice are unable to even perceive that they’re actually on the verge of being two generations behind¹. I have to imagine that such a realization would lead to — at the least — disorientation, and likely anger.
Before Jim Davis’s talk, word was already making the rounds about something that happened at the closed-door NCS member’s meeting that morning. Jon Rosenberg was busy being taught the secret handshake as a new member, business items were taken care of, and the floor opened to anybody that wanted to make comments.
Cue the ominous music.
The NCS has a hefty contingent of members that are extremely elderly²; some of these guys remember what it was like 50, 60 years ago, when there weren’t no dames, everybody looked alike, and the engineers that would someday invent the tools these digital whippersnappers would eventually use were still in diapers. Change is the last thing you want at that stage in your life, but most people are too polite to shit over somebody in public. One guy, though….
Okay, I want to go out of my way to be fair, here. I don’t know the gentleman in question, haven’t ever met him, and for all I know he loves his dog and his great-grandchildren and is motivated more by fear than by malice. In my head (for I was not there), I imagine that one slightly crazy great-uncle that every family seems to dread inviting to Thanksgiving, because while he might profess to be joking when he complains about all of the <insert minority here> you can’t shake the feeling that he’s “kidding on the square”. Good ol’ crazy Great-Uncle Slappy. Yeah. Pass the yams.
So Great-Uncle Slappy engaged in what others have described (accurately, I believe) as a “screed” against them young’uns, and how there need to be different tiers of membership because real cartoonists use paper, and anybody using digital means should have to pay more to belong³. Welcome to the NCS, Jon.
I might not have brought Great-Uncle Slappy up, except that for the rest of the weekend, I heard one thought repeatedly expressed: people were angry about the rant. Maybe he was kidding, maybe he wasn’t, but to act in such a manner towards fellow members was not acceptable. I heard people that wished they could have told G-US to sit down and shut up, but felt constrained by politeness and the fact that he apparently always gets the last speaking slot to complain. I heard one board member apologize to Jon personally, saying that he’d wished he’d been able to cut the mic. I wonder if Cathy Guisewite, Lynn Johnston, Hillary Price were wondering if the bile would turn in their direction.
So there’s the crux of the problem — a generation that remembers How Things Used To Be, a generation that sees How Things Must Change (which, to be clear, seems to incorporate the entire leadership of the NCS), and a teeny-tiny generation that have been working on their own and decided to find out what the NCS might have to offer. For actuarial reasons, it is imperative that the second generation increase the numbers of the third generation and rapidly, because without new blood, the organization will age itself out of existence. While we’re at it, the NCS probably needs to be a whole lot less male, a whole lot less white, or what appeal will it have to the extraordinary talents that surely have better things to do than be berated — he’s kidding! really! — by Great-Uncle Slappy?
And there’s the rub. To a person, every member I met and spoke with (especially the board members) recognizes this reality and the importance of making changes. I think that the new division award for On-Line Comic Strips (one last time, imperfect; one last time, potential to be what people want and need it to be) is just the first step. Making the organization institutionally friendly to younger creators isn’t just a good idea — it’s a survival strategy.
People like Mike Krahulik and Dave Kellett may have first picked up a pen because of Garfield or Bloom County or Calvin and Hobbes, but what of the half-generation that came behind them and may not have had the habit of reading newspapers? Is being in the room with history — but not personal inspirations — enough to entice them 10 or 20 years from now?
But what if the current generation of creators4 were there to greet them? Do they have an incentive to join for the sheer love of the medium and wait out the generational shift? Heck, will they see value in going to another city for the weekend and not sell stuff?
If I seem to be more identifying questions than proposing answers, it’s because I don’t really have a say in the matter. I’m not eligible for membership, I don’t draw, I am very much the consumer instead of the creator. To the extent that I’m able to work a small part of the transformation5, I am happy to do so. But right now, the future of the organization depends on how much potential members value being part of a continuity to the history of comics. There’s a big dialogue to be had among the interested parties and I think it’s going to be fascinating.
¹ Or perhaps merely haven’t processed it into higher realms of acceptance yet.
² I heard the number 91, being the count of members over the age of 80.
³ I imagine that Gregg Evans, who has produced Luann on a Cintiq for years, was thrilled at this notion.
4 Off the top of my head: Gran, Beaton, Brosgol, Telgemeier, Larson, Vernon, Moen, Meconis, Corsetto, Allegri, Sugar, Ward, Jones-Quartey, Dreistadt, Ota, Carroll, Miller and Mercer (yes, I’m still on about them, they’re terrific), and shall I go on?
The careful reader may notice something most of these creators have in common.
5 I’m actually torn about this — I have great affection for webcomics and some people think the depth and breadth of my knowledge are enough to make me useful in the ongoing process of coming up with an award everybody can be proud of. On the other hand, from a philosophical standpoint, I feel it would be better for the NCS if it had a wide enough swath of members with enough exposure to webcomics that my services weren’t needed. That’s probably pretty synonymous with “there’s a lot of younger members what joined up”.