Editor’s note: So I promised you an established, respected creator, didn’t I? They don’t get more of either of those things than David Malki !, the man behind the thoroughly wonderful Wondermark. Malki ! tells us that there’s been something he’s been meaning to get off his chest, and here ’tis.
What if you’d never heard of an iPod, and I tried to explain it to you?
I might say, “It’s like a radio. You’ve heard of a radio, right?”
“Sure,” you might say, “I listen to the radio sometimes, but I don’t like it much. It’s full of commercials for eye surgery and car dealerships, and there’s a limited number of stations, and the music they play is usually crap.”
“Well,” I could then say, “you’ll love this personal radio, because it’s totally different.” Then I would go on to explain the features of an iPod. (Or alternative MP3 player of your choice, that’s not really the point.)
But because I called it a personal radio, you’d never be able to shake that comparison from your mind. “Why can’t I listen to real-time traffic reports on my personal radio, like I can on my car radio?” you might sniff. Or, “Man, I’m glad my personal radio can play video podcasts.”
In truth, an iPod is nothing like a radio. You can hear music on both, but in the same way that a car and a bicycle will both get you to the store. The underlying engineering and usage patterns are totally different, even if the effects can be similar. Nobody that picks up an iPod today expects it to be anything like a radio. They know what a radio does, and they know what an iPod does. The two things are fundamentally different. Calling an iPod a “personal radio” both invites awkward, unnecessary comparisons and marginalizes what each device does best.
So does calling webcomics “webcomics.” It invites a comparison with “comics”, which is both detrimental and marginalizing to webcomics.
The word “comics” has two meanings. In the Scott McCloud sense, “comics” means “a sequential narrative of juxtaposed images” etc. (Under this definition, by the way, daily Marmaduke isn’t a comic. It lacks juxtaposed images.)
But a more useful definition of “comics” is its second meaning — the culture of comics. “Comics fans” are part of that culture , not necessarily devotÃ©es of the particulars of the medium.
This is the problem, in my opinion, with purists who claim that everyone is a latent comics fan — that if only more people would read Watchmen, or whatever, they’d have their eyes opened to the power of the medium and be won over to “comics.”
I disagree. Some people just don’t like comics. Lots of people, actually. Not because they necessarily hate pictures that tell a story — rather, they don’t like the second definition of “comics.” Comics culture.
For better or worse, comics culture in its many forms — from shiny corporate Comic-Con to hipsters with their Kinko’s ‘zines to webcomics — is nerdy. Sorry, there’s no arguing with that. Comics are nerdy.
Sure, comics are starting to become mainstream, as comics fans grow up and begin to control mass media. And nerdy doesn’t mean bad. But still, the fact is that most people are just not interested in “comics” because the term (and its associated terms) are perceived as perjorative.
That leaves webcomics in an awkward position. Webcomics are different from print comics, and have the potential to succeed on their own terms, but they will always be fighting an uphill battle as long as they remain shackled to the cultural baggage of “comics.”
This is a hard pill to swallow for webcomics creators who are themselves comics fans, and many of whom grew up fighting (or resenting) comics’ negative social connotations.
But it’s true. Webcomics gain nothing from being linked to “comics”. There are plenty of people in the world who like particular comics, but who would not call themselves comics fans. Most people who eagerly flip to Get Fuzzy in the morning paper will never make the leap to actively searching (online or off) for more comics to read. These people outnumber “comics” fans by millions and millions.
But people who like funny, interesting things on the Internet in general are a dime a dozen. These people will read webcomics — they read comics in the paper, and probably like them. They don’t have anything against “pictures that tell a story.” They are your potential fans, but right now they think they don’t like webcomics, because they know they don’t like “comics.” Not comics, but “comics.”
Which is bad news for DC and Marvel, who will never see a dime from these people — but fine for me and you, because a webcomic site, down at the atomic level, is an entertainment website, and people love entertainment websites.
So instead of approaching the whole “webcomics problem” from the direction of comics — trying to win converts at syndicates, comics publishers, and mass media by saying “They’re just like regular comics! Honestly! Only online!” — we should be trying to win converts among fans of funny, interesting things on the Internet in general. The argument then goes, “They’re just as funny as YouTube videos! Just as interesting as blogs! Just as snarky as Something Awful or Fark or whatever! Honestly! Only in comics form!”
By refusing to draw a line around webcomics and say, “These are comics. Thus, they have to adhere to the nerdy conventions of ‘comics’ culture,” we increase our potential audience from “comics fans” to “the entire population of the Internet.”
(And the best part of reaching out to “fans of Internet entertainment” rather than just “webcomics readers” is that you’ll always have somebody for whom you’re the one comic that they read, instead of being #100 on their trawl and #100 in line when they decide to buy merch.)
“Idiot,” you may be saying, fingering your iPod and trying to tune in a radio station, “webcomics are comics. Claiming they’re not isn’t going to fool anybody.”
Unlike “comics”, you don’t have to go to a comic shop, or even open a newspaper, to find webcomics. They’re available for anyone to read, anytime. There is no investment of travel or money. There is no social stigma attached.
Plus, they tap into The Power of the Internetâ„¢. Is Kris Straub’s Time Friends a comic? Sure, it’s got panels and dialogue balloons. But the “comic” part of Time Friends isn’t the important part. The audience participation is what makes it unique, and that’s a characteristic native to the Internet.
Staying with Kris for a moment — is his Interweb, P.I. a comic? It’s interactive. It’s basically a Flash animation with dialogue balloons. But it’s shaped like a comic, so yeah, most people would label it a comic.
So what about Kris’ Deep King? Is that a comic? No, it’s a Flash animation, like Interweb P.I. But … one has dialogue balloons and the other has sound. That’s crossing the line. Deep King is not a comic.
Despite that they’re otherwise fundamentally identical — especially in the only way that matters, audience appeal — why does it matter that one is a “comic” and the other isn’t?
Answer: it shouldn’t.
The promise of The Power of the Internetâ„¢ is that it doesn’t matter. Online there are no bookstore shelves, where everything has to be classified as one thing or another. I can show Deep King to a non-“comics” fan and he’ll laugh. There is no need to label it.
On the Internet, the best things are unclassifiable, because they’re the most novel and creative.
So when the default approach to webcomics (a culture as novel and creative as any) is through the lens of “comics,” it’s limiting and regressive. It’s inaccurate, in some cases, and with that inaccuracy comes a stigma.
In other circles, an inaccurate, perjorative label is referred to as an insult.
Essays and comics.
They didn’t call PA “a webcomic.” Not “a comic strip.” Not “a comic strip with a blog.”
People in general don’t care about the medium. They assign no premium to something being considered a “comic” first and foremost.
People care about the content.
Tycho’s essays are arguably as much or more of the appeal of PA than the comic strips themselves. Not that the comics aren’t great, but PA’s appeal is broader than that. PA is an entertainment brand. “Penny Arcade” encompasses essays, comics, apparel, forums, a convention, and (soon) a video game.
Similarly, PVP isn’t just a “comic strip.” It’s an entertainment brand that encompasses online comics, comic books, audio livecasts, an animated series, and playing Warcraft with friends.
On the other end of the spectrum, A Softer World is a “webcomic” that isn’t even a comic. It’s prose poetry set to photographs. There are no word balloons. There are no drawings. And describing it as a “comic” cheapens it.
I’ve lost count of the “webcomics” that incorporate blogs, videos, podcasts, fiction, animation, toys, books, apparel, games, etc., etc., etc. In fact, webcomics are more similar to other entertainment websites that do all the same things but don’t have a comic than they are to printed comics.
You’re reading this on Fleen because a “webcomics community” has come together around a shared medium. That’s great! But we should always remember that it’s creative work — especially innovative, definition-defying, never-before-conceived-of creative work! — that will define us. Not “comics.”
Now, actual comics can be a part of that work, or even all of it. But as long as the work as a whole — that is, online entertainment that we as a community create — is defined via the term “comics,” it will always be marginalized by the audience.
Fleen thanks Malki ! for his contribution.