A: Webcomics: A Primer. The session started late due to A/V issues, but they were sorted out in time for Venable to invite each of the others to show a small sample of their work. Rall showed work by himself and others from the Attitude 3 collection, Stevens browsed the internets to show some of his latest web-only and newspaper strips, Telgemeier hooked up her iPod to show pages from Smile, and Haspiel had examples of Brawl and Billy Dogma to share. Yay, technology.
The question then turned to the philsophical “Why webcomics?”, with Rall providing the most cogent answer — immediacy. Unlike working in print where weeks can go by between original work, reader reaction, and counter-reaction, webcomics offer the ability to put the strip up and receive immediate feedback and community with the readers. Or, as Stevens put it, I get the strip up at 11:57, and by 12:02 people are emailing me with spelling corrections.
This led to the question of when to post — a simple question that appears to have no answer. Haspiel had a web-traffic expert tell him that Tuesday morning at 11:00am is the idea time to put content up and have people pay attention; Rall said that Friday is the peak day for editorial cartoons; Stevens noted that his peak traffic is on Mondays. Speaking authoritatively, Telgemeier noted that Wednesday is the peak day for dental comics.
Almost without prompting the conversation turned to who a webcomicker is; Rall noted that all cartoonists, in effect, are webcartoonists now. The work gets put up on the internet, which provides a larger audience but also makes it easier for people to send you death threats.
Asked if a uniform size for the comic help in eventual syndication/print efforts, Haspiel noted that he made every page of Billy Dogma a uniform block, but then thought about the possibilities for placing things inside the block instead of the restrictions of the form. Stevens once made a 58 panel comic because he got inspired, but wishes I’d been like Dean. I had to release PDF E-books of my old strips because I can’t print them.
The next question dealt with mobile devices. Haspiel points out that in a world where people can watch LOST on the subway, they may as well read my comics. Stevens noted that iPhones don’t require much in the way of reformatting, but Telgemeier worried about page compositions being lost in such a small space. Haspiel agreed with that being the major drawback, but Stevens felt that a good enough story would hook the audience and drive them to a book version.
Okay, you know how there’s sometimes an elephant in the room, and you’re just waiting for somebody to point it out? Elephant time. Venable then opened the floor to questions, and the first one dealt with the economics of free: “What does the boss think about you putting out on the net for free what they’re trying to sell?” Rall jumped in with both feet:
If I were in charge of the world … I would force everything offline. All cartoonists, all newspapers, no more archives, nothing. And every cartoonist would make fifteen times as much money. Giving it away, I think it’s insane and stupid.
For those who remember the qualifications that Rall made at SPX last fall, where a similar statement was couched in terms of specifically editorial cartoonists, there was no such qualification this time. It was a blanket statement, and it was made while sitting next to one of the strongest proponents of a business model where you (quoting now) Give away a ton of stuff, and edit down to things of value [that you can sell].
From this point, the dialogue got pretty fast; what follows is as close to verbatim as I was able to notate. Haspiel was the first to respond with a disagreement:
If it’s good, it’ll sell; Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, they put music out for free but also for sale. I would almost insist on new contracts with publishers that I could put portions of content online, because it builds an audience.
Only print pays. Otherwise, you have to be in two businesses. You have to be a cartoonist and a businessman, and not many can do that.
Stevens, not quite close enough to his mic:
Great! You’re trying to keep people out [of the cartooning business] and that’s great. It’s less competition for me. If you have a story that’s compelling …
I can’t make money on t-shirts. I can’t design a t-shirt that will sell.
You can sell novels and books. You have bestsellers.
A book will only sell for 6 to 12 months. They don’t pay enough to live on.
And what kind of hours do you have to work to make a living, Rich?
Not enough! I’d work 24/7 if I could.
[I believe that with that last line, both Stevens and Rall felt that his own point had been made — Rall because Stevens spoke of working insane hours, and Stevens because he thinks sleep interrupts his compulsion to work.]
The next question from the audience came from Calvin Reid, and came straight back to the issue just concluded: Rall spoke about the good old days, when many more cartoonists were making a living, some doing extraordinarily well in terms of today’s dollars. But wasn’t it just as hard to break in to big-paying syndication deals back then?
Rall thought the question was misleading, that there is no ‘breaking in':
You have the illusion of breaking in, but until you are paying the bills, you are not a professional, working cartoonist. It’s harder to break in now because the overall pool of money is smaller.
Is it? I wouldn’t have tried to break in [to syndication] if you hadn’t called me [editor’s note: Rall recruited Stevens into his current syndication deal]. And what if ‘professional’ isn’t your goal? If you’re not watching TV, you’re doing a comic and it’s paying your internet bill? That’s a better hobby than watching the goddamn Food Network.
And that’s where we’re going to end it, since my hands are getting tired and I still have to go back and format and linkify everything above. In any event, plenty there to argue about in the comments. Let’s finish up with some vaguely contextual quotes:
Rich Stevens, on Dean Haspiel — He’s hunky.
Colleen Venable, on Haspiel’s observation on the number of people reading webcomics from work — That’s a great thing about webcomics.
Stevens, on same — We’re why there’s a recession.
Haspiel, on the benefits of webcomics — Webcomics are lifting the veil between creator and audience.
Raina Telgemeier, on reader interactions — I’ve gotten hate mail over Baby-Sitters Club from 13 year olds with detailed reasons why I was The Devil.
Venable — At least they’re writing!
Edit to add: The spam filters are getting a little aggressive on this comment thread; from what I can tell, it’s mostly due to people that haven’t posted much in the past posting a lot now. Apologies to Eric Millikin and Ted Rall, who have had posts eaten or delayed. If you have difficulty, please send an email to us via the Contact page and we’ll do what we can.