The webcomics blog about webcomics

Some Things Of Note, Plus A Little SPX Roundup

Quickly now: an outstanding use of the Dinosaur Comics template (via Dirk Deppey), the welcome return of Ugly Hill, and the Octopus Pie book on pre-order.

Okay, Small Press Expo, 2007. Fleen was proud to meet with a wide variety of webcomickers exhibiting at the show, including (in no particular order) Colleen Venable, who I forgot earlier, sorry!, Chris Yates, Aaron Diaz, David Malki !, Bernie Hou, Box Brown, Joe Sayers, Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman, Leah & Chris Riley, Kris Straub, Dave Kellett, Howard Tayler, David Willis, and Brad Guigar. Achewood won what I believe is its first major award, the Ignatz for Outstanding Online Comic (more on that later). Webcomics journalism was represented by Xaviar Xerexes and Mister T, and I had a nice conversation with Heidi MacDonald as well. Interesting tidbits & photos over the next couple of posts … for now, I want to talk about a session that took place on Saturday afternoon.

At the moderator’s mic was the able and amiable Josh Fruhlinger, who wrangled Bill Griffith, Nick Gurewitch, Keith Knight, and Ted Rall. The conversation ranged widely across the various experiences of the four creators in the world of print comic single panels/strips, but towards the end took a turn towards issues of the web. Asked about their use of the web as a medium for interacting with their audiences, Griffith replied,

If you have a website, the logical thing is to put your strip there for free … I have that little niche [online] and print, and at this point, I need both of them. My online sales account for half of my income.

Which sentiments ought to be familiar to all reading this. But following up the point later, Rall took a decidedly different tack:

If every cartoonist would agree to take their work offline forever, we would all make fifteen times as much money. We’ve done a really stupid thing [by putting content online].

Now let’s be clear about two things: one, Rall was not speaking in direct reply to Griffith’s point. And two, he’d just been talking about the history of specifically editorial cartoonists (of which he is one), and the rapid decline in their numbers (specifically cited: in 1960, there were more editorial cartoonists in New York City alone than there are now in the whole of the United States).

Still, this struck me as a monumentally absurd statement — from our researches here at the Fleenplex, it appears that only new cartoonists in this country that are able to make a living from their cartooning are the ones that do the exact opposite of what Rall proposes. Seeking reaction from webcomickers in attendence elicited a uniform disagreement with Rall, but I’d like to open the question more broadly. If you’re a webcomics creator that makes a significant portion of your living from your creation, can you see a set of circumstances where Rall’s assertion makes sense, or is it just crazy talk?

Memorable Quotes:

Tayler, in reaction to the Rall quote — We’re about to do a really stupid thing if we pay attention to Ted Rall.
Willis, ditto — I can’t hear him through my big wad of cash.

Ha! Did Willis really say that? That’s awesome. I love Willis.

On a serious tack: I can understand where, if you’re an average-15+-year-syndicated-cartoonist, and comfortably making between $80 and $300,000…it’s gonna be tough to espouse anything other than the business model which has made your career possible. And it’s going to be terrifying to contemplate how to recreate/rebuild/take-control-of such a business for yourself online.

My advice to that generation of cartoonists is to stay where you are: if print-only is paying your bills, and the web terrifies you…stay in print. The readers that are currently supporting you aren’t going to dry up tomorrow. The dwindling, older audience for newspapers will still be around for 5, 10, or 15 more years.

But for everyone else, I’d listen to David Willis.

Let’s be extra-clear that Rall is talking about EDITORIAL cartoons, which is a much more limited market than comics-in-general. Some facts seem to back him up, particularly the recent collapse of the online-based Cox and Forkum team and the way newspaper editors prefer syndication to employing a local.

But his hypothetical has no basis in reality. It was inevitable, and it remains inevitable, that editorial cartoonists will seek greater exposure and alternative revenue streams– especially since, even at the market’s peak, there were many talented cartoonists unable to find a newspaper to display their work. The slow decline of the editorial-cartoons-in-newspapers market is directly related to the slow decline of the newspaper market, and that market wouldn’t be doing much better if it had exclusively available editorial cartoons to prop it up.

Rall is correct to say that cartoons becoming available for free (instead of being “free WITH purchase of the paper”) does detract from their perceived value. But that isn’t CARTOONISTS’ fault. It’s the fault of the guys who created the Internet. Complain to them.

I do web comics and I work in a book store. I can’t tell you how many copies of newspaper strip reprint books we’ve sold over the years and continue to do so, even for strips that have online archives that go back many years. There is still something comfortable and familiar about having a book that cannot be duplicated in an online experience. Kids feel the same as adults in this matter, at least judging by what I see get scanned at the register.

I think an area Rall might have trouble with is timliness. Editorial cartoons are meant, in general, to address specific moments of time and news. After their time, a lot of them lose their impact and may not be as entertaining or feel as insightful years later. I think they have a more narrow audience as even more ‘adult’ strips, such as “For Better or for Worse” have appeal to younger audiences whereas editorial cartoons traditionally do not.

I like the model of ‘free comics’ with merchandise available. People might not feel there is ‘value’ in something given away, but a collection of strips, in higher res, larger size and nice paper isn’t free and does feel like it has value. Also, if one is fortunate enough to have marketable characters, it is impossible to replicate the feeling of having a toy or t-shirt online and far easier to purchase either than to make it one’s self.

Give ‘em away, I say, and sell merchandise on the side. I think it’s a good model and the web only broadens exposure. Hell, I’m a nobody and I had a collection of my work purchased from Italy and Australia. Makes me proud.

I’ve been trying to think of other industries that recognized the Internet as business opportunity and am coming up short (music, for one, has been a bit pissy about the whole thing, and industries such as self-publishing are only just now catching the wave). So at the risk of sounding silly (or that someone might run with the segue), is there any information from the “adult entertainment” industry concerning their revenue before and after the Internet?

It seems as though these would be the go-to guys for anyone who wants to know whether delivering free materials online or with a limited subscription service created a more exposure equals greater profits environment, a more exposure equals more eyeballs, but less overall profit because why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free environment, or something else entirely. These guys identified the Internet as a delivery mechanism almost straight out of the box, and they have industry statistics reaching back for decades. Or is there a difference because of the content of the product; broad appeal versus limited niche audiences?

I’ll take my answer in the form of hiding and cowering under my desk.

Online comics aren’t always “print comics that are on computers instead,” they are often their own medium. You can do certain things in the digital realm that are impossible in print, and vice versa. The question of whether to put a comic in print or online isn’t just a business question, it’s also an artistic one. Telling me to move my comics (which usually use infinite canvas) to a book format is like telling a drummer to play a guitar.

That said, my primary source of income is now online sales of t-shirts based on my comic. Also Willis is a funny man.

Oh man, SCREW this whole “webcomics” thing. In fact, screw publishers and newspapers too! The REAL money is in illuminated manuscripts. Or cave paintings!

I’m gonna go find me a cave.

Otter – webcomics is a direct comparison to pornography, in terms of the impact of the Internet on the business.

In the early days of comics/porn, only a very small set of individuals and companies were able to make any money off it at all. As the idea caught on, more people started trying to make and sell comics/porn. It gets to be about the late 1970’s, early 1980’s and both comics and porn see a large expansion in business. Porn because of VCRs, comics because of widespread adoption of color printing in newspapers and a perception of the value add – comics sell papers. So comics pages go from five or ten large print comics on one page, to twenty or thirty small print comics on two or three pages – in most newspapers. And Sunday comics pages turn into their own full section.

Come the rise of the Internet, and everyone can make and distribute their own porn/comics or porn-comics or comics-porn or etc… and make money off of it.

So now the market for both porn and comics is significantly larger, and the available pool of money is significantly larger. And everyone who was in the business before should be making more money, across the board. And lots more people are making at least SOME money.

Except newspapers, because nobody wants to buy a paper any more. And nobody will EVER buy a reprint of a year’s run of the New York Times, like they will of Calvin and Hobbes. Not even Gary!

Saying “We’ve done a stupid thing putting content online” is like 19th-century sailing-ship-makers saying “We’ve done a stupid thing crossing the Atlantic with steamships.” The stupid thing has been misidentified.

In the case of the shipmakers, they were stupid in that they did not adopt steam technology, and every last one of them went out of business. In the space of 40 years, the guys who built the ships that all trans-Atlantic trade relied on were relegated to building boats for hobbyists.

What Rall SHOULD be saying is “We (the editorial cartoonists and syndicates) have been stupid in the way we’ve held to the business model of the last 100 years. Somebody else is now making all the money we wanted to be making.”

I’m pretty sure Dave Kellet (to name one recently ex-syndicated webtoonist) is making more money than all but the top 10% of syndicated cartoonists, and he’s doing it with 1/1000th of the readers.

Rall’s “stuff the genie back in the bottle” idea is patently stupid (and not just because he knows it can’t be done.) If all comics were offline, there would be less of a market for comics because fewer people would know they exist. There would be fewer cartoonists, and the craft would be stifled under a fairly oppressive old-boys network, whose favor would have to be curried before a cartoonist’s work could be raised from obscurity.

I don’t doubt for a moment that editorial cartoonists are suffering. It is entirely possible that their particular art-form is one of those niches that the free-content business model can’t support, and will crowd out of existence.

So what? They can still draw, and they can still tell jokes. I bet that if they really WANT to continue to have careers drawing and telling jokes, they’ll find a way to change with the times.

Either that or they’ll be left making sailboats for playboys while the rest of us steam across the Atlantic.

Jeph beat me to it, but yeah. If everyone would just stop driving cars, then the horse-and-buggy industry could make fifteen times as much money! Phaeton-foundries would spring up in every sleepy burg, and honest, hard-working wagon-wheel makers could pay back their third through fifth mortgages. Those guys have families too! Why do you want them to starve, you selfish pig?

So, everyone stop driving cars, okay?

DAMMIT HOWARD

A small point: while I have no reason to dispute the assertion the editorial comics are in a serious decline, they do exist online (I don’t know if they make money) See, for example, Filibuster

I think the (very difficult!) trick is to make your editorials as accessible as possible to an international audience with varying political beliefs without descending into soft edged blandness. It’s interesting to note that the guy who does Filibuster is in his mid-twenties, and thus more typical web-comiccer than editorialiser.

Or did you mean editorial as accompaniment-to-news? Their fate is inextricably tied with that of newspapers I guess (and thus indeed looks dark)

As a sometimes-cartoonist and an avid follower of comics since I can remember, I *like* webcomics, but still like “dead-tree” editions; among other things, they tend to be crisper with fine linework (okay, so I’m a fan of CLASSIC strips, i.e. Krazy Kat, etc), and they’re far, far more portable. (The day’s coming where this won’t be the case; hopefully, the resolution issue will be, er, resolved at the same time.)

But, as others have already said, the genie’s out of the bottle, and it ain’t going back. And it is possible to editorialize and strip at the same time; look at Doonesbury (and, heaven forbid, Mallard Fillmore). :)

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