Dave Kellett is speaking (or maybe finished speaking) at the Ohio State University Festival of Cartoon Art. As previously reported, Kellett is speaking in response to Bill Watterson‘s fairly famous speech to the same conference 21 years ago, which was premised on the issue of quality:
If comics can be so much, why are we settling for so little? Can’t we expect more from our comics pages?
Well, these days, probably not. Let’s look at why.
Today, comic strip cartoonists work for syndicates, not individual newspapers, but 100 years into the medium it’s still the very rare cartoonist who owns his creation. Before agreeing to sell a comic strip, syndicates generally demand ownership of the characters, copyright, and all exploitation rights. The cartoonist is never paid or otherwise compensated for giving up these rights: he either gives them up or he doesn’t get syndicated.
Sacrificing ownership has serious consequences for the artist. For starters, it allows the syndicate to view the creator as a replaceable part. To most syndicates, the creator of a popular strip is no more valuable than a hired flunky who can mimic the original. Some syndicates can replace a cartoonist at will, and most syndicates can replace a cartoonist as soon as he quits, retires, or dies. This attitude is simply unconscionable, but it’s the standard practice of business.
By having complete control over the comic strip, the syndicate can ruin the work. Although there has never, ever been a successor to a comic strip half as good as the original creator, passing strips down through generations like secondhand clothes has been the standard practice of the business since it began. Incredibly, syndicates still today tell young artists that they’re not good enough to draw their own strip, but they are good enough to carry on the work of some legendary strip instead. Too often, syndicates would rather have the dwindling income of a doddering dinosaur than let the strip die and risk losing the spot to a rival syndicate. Consequently, the comics pages are full of dead wood. Strips that had some relevance to the world during the depression are now being continued by baby boomers, and the results are embarrassing.
After listing some alternatives to the dire state of the newspaper comic (which hasn’t gotten any better in two decades), Watterson came up with this gem:
Obviously, if I had any business savvy at all myself, I’d lump the whole business tomorrow and self-publish. See, that’s another alternative! My point is simply that cartoons are not necessarily doomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship. With the right publishing, comics can move into whole new worlds we’ve never seen. Moreover, I think any effort to improve the quality of comics would very likely be rewarded in the marketplace. Think of the people who cut out certain comics to put on refrigerators, or to put in scrapbooks, or to send in letters, or to stick on their office walls. Give them a nicely printed, big color comic on good paper and see if they don’t jump. I think the public would respond if there was a publisher out there with an ounce of vision. For too long, syndicates and cartoonists have been congratulating themselves whenever things don’t get worse. I don’t think that’s good enough. This very weekend we’ve got syndicate executives, cartoonists, readers, and newspaper people all together. let’s knock some heads together and see what we can do. Let’s ask people what they’re doing to improve the state of comics. [emphasis original]
Our boy Dave will be exploring Watterson’s concerns in his talk, and specifically making the case that the best of webcomics are the natural outgrowth of Watterson’s insight. Sure, there are plenty of crappy webcomics, far more than there are good ones. Consider them the latter-day equivalent of the reject piles that littered the desks of syndicate editors in the heyday of newspaper strips and were never seen by anybody. Instead of the syndicate providing that curatorial function, we readers provide it ourselves, and the webcomics creators (the best of them, the ones that make their living at it) are those self-publishers that Watterson called for.
We hope to bring you a copy of Kellett’s full speech early next week.
In other news, I have had this very discussion and variations on the dream in real life.