It started in the first half hour of NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, when host Liane Hansen spoke with technology commentator David Kushner about Penny Arcade. It’s not a very detailed piece, running a little less than three minutes, and somehow Kushner managed to completely avoid mentioning the Fruit Fucker (despite talking about On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness), and nobody from PA was included, but still. This is probably the first mention of webcomics that many of NPR’s audience will have heard, and the outraged letters that they’ll write because of offended sensibilities will be amusing.
The day continued with a piece in the New York Times that’s really about how the challenges currently facing newspapers are confronting comic strips as well. This piece was notable in my mind for two quotes, which I will reproduce for you here. Quote the first:
Cartoonists are not waiting for the syndicates to develop new business models. They are posting to free sites like Comic Genesis and Webcomics Nation. Some Web comics, like â€œThe Argyle Sweaterâ€ by Scott Hilburn, have been picked up for syndication, but that is unusual. Even more rarely, a Web comic might attract a large following at a stand-alone site; such is the case with â€œPenny Arcade,â€ a video gaming strip.
I’m not sure that the second statement is factually true. I think that there have been more Web comics [sic] that have made it big on their own than have been picked up for syndication. The problem here likely lies in the idea of what constitutes a reader. “Generic Newspaper Comic Strip” may appear in 1000 newspapers with a combined circulation of tens of millions, but how many of those papers are actually read, how many copies get shared between people, how many readers actually read “GNCS”, and how many do so casually rather than actively?
By contrast, the active nature of having to go get (or at least, subscribe to an RSS feed to) the latest Penny Arcade (or PvP, or xkcd, LICD, QC, C&H, or any of the other high-draw webcomics) means that you have a dedicated reader. I would submit there is a greater potential to make a living with a few tens of thousands of dedicated readers, versus a million people that glance over “Cathy” only because it’s in front of them, requires no effort to do so, and is an ingrained habit of decades.
The more interesting quote was the second one:
But Brian Walker … warns that too much exposure â€œcan take away from the strip itself.â€ If a comicâ€™s characters are everywhere, he asks, why bother reading the newspaper strip?
And Mr. Walker, who is also a comics historian, believes that comics are best appreciated on paper. He likens reading a comic on a screen to watching a movie on an iPod: the general idea comes through, but some of the essential artistry is lost.
For reference, Walker is part of the creative team of two strips, and one may reasonably assume that some of the essential artistry he’s concerned about is from those two strips. Those two strips are “Beetle Bailey”, and “Hi & Lois”.
I can’t even bring myself to make a snarky comment about the words “essential artistry” being used in reference to those two strips, because even the best strips on the modern comics page are squashed into such a small space as to force the art to be reduced to a minimum of line, design, and dialogue. It’s not the screen that damages artistry (as proved by eye-poppingly gorgeous strips found here, here, here, here, or any other example you care to think of) … it’s the act of printing in newspapers itself.
Heck, take the shrinking space issue away, and you still have inherent limitations of the technology of fast-turnaround printing with ink on newsprint. Cheap paper plus rush jobs do not allow for great art. For a good discussion of the issues surrounding quality art on the comics page, I recommend Dave Sim‘s Glamourpuss; the guy may be really wacky, but his scholarship of the great draughtsmen of the comics page — Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond, Hal Foster, and others — is second to none. Read up on how badly the artistic efforts of strips produced without space limits were butchered to get them to reproduce on newsprint, then consider how those limitations don’t apply to screens.