The webcomics blog about webcomics

Cycles Inside Cycles, Messages Inside Messages

We at Fleen have been known to wrestle with what a webcomic actually is, and going on twelve years in the blogging game, hell if we know. It’s basically whatever feels like it fits the definition; if you can imagine related stuff being sold by TopatoCo, it’s probably webcomicky.

Which is why we’re engaging in a first today, and taking a deep dive into something nonvisual.

Standing Stones is the tenth album by internet musician Marian Call, now on tour (including a show in a week’s time adjacent to next week’s San Diego Comic Con). It’s been a long time in development, some two years, and it turned out to be rather more than an album. She describes it as a song cycle, which is not a term that you can use casually. It’s appropriate, though: there’s not just a theme to the album, but meaning in how the songs interact with one another; the order is particularly important, and it’s probably the best trace the stages of life collection since XTC’s Skylarking.

Call drops multiple references to The Twelve Ages Of Man and each song evokes an age, starting with a musing on both birth and death (Bones), continuing through the wild creativity of childhood (Paper), the realization that we’re not as fantastic as we thought (Oregon Trail), the desire to leave our mark on the world (Standing Stones), the reality of loss (Hope), the cynicism of modern life (Like This), the compromises that we fight against (Mediocre Algorithmic First Date), the need for community (Independence), the acceptance of pains and struggle (Vespers), our struggles with ourselves (The Devil), and a reflection on endings and the infinite (Grandpa Had It Right).

But here’s the thing — within that linear ordering, there are at other patterns. Through much of the album, there’s an alternating quick/slow tempo to the songs, moving quickly and then relaxing, like a heartbeat¹. Adjacent songs act as reflections of each other (Paper v Orgeon Trail looking at dreams; Standing Stones v Hope on what we build and lose; Like This v MAFD on how we present ourselves and who we really are). And Taking the Twelve Ages as reflecting both the progress of a life and seasons of the year, there’s a little cycle in each cluster of songs — dreams, building, relationships, sunsetting, each following a similar cycle.

As you noticed, there are only eleven tracks to go with the twelve ages, but Call’s got you covered there. Grandpa Had It Right reminds us that we’re only bones with stories on and carries us back to the start. Those bones show up throughout the cycle, and they’re an apt framework to hang the songs on. Another writer might have tried to get to the heart of who we are², but Call seeks to get to the bones of it; she knows that hearts break and fail, but bones persist. Long after our hearts are gone, our bones and the stories we grow on them will still be there.

I haven’t mentioned the music yet, or Call’s vocal performance, and it’s not because they’re lacking. I know words; I get them, I can pick them apart, find the meaning and truth (or at least a meaning and truth) in stories. My brain doesn’t pick apart music the same way; I can tell a good performance from a bad one (or more precisely, one that accomplishes what it sets out to do from one that doesn’t), but I can’t tell you about the importance of how this instrument plays against that, or how the scales line up. Hell, I’m practically beat-deaf.

But I can tell you that there’s a lot of richness to the playing, blending into an integrated whole that never overwhelms the most important instrument — Call’s voice. There’s discussion in these songs, as she talks to others we cannot hear (and sometimes, to herself). The emotional heft — from wistfulness to optimism, determination to acceptance — has a depth and breadth, drilling into the feeling part of your brain and not letting go. You won’t catch it all on a single listen, or even two. You’ll need to listen to think, and again to feel, and again to bring them all together.

And, if you’re like me, a half-dozen more times in short succession just because it all helps you make sense of the world when it’s not making a lot of sense on its own.

Standing Stones is available for download in a variety of formats, and as a CD. Marian Call is on tour through November; if you don’t see your city listed, email her.


Spam of the day:

Search Cell Phones For SENIOR CITIZENS

Ain’t that old yet. Get lost.

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¹ Is it my imagination that the strength of that heartbeat is greater at the beginning of the album than at the end?

² Or, in one writer’s equally valid argument, the liver.

Fleen Podcast Corner: Big Data

So this is probably a first — a podcast review at a webcomics site; but given that the podcast in question is by the webcomickiest of all webcomickers (the inimitable Ryan Estrada), I figure it probably works. Also, I should note that Estrada sent me downloads for all nine episodes (not to mention minisodes, and the reading of the related Machine of Death story, Shiv Sena Riot) so I’ve heard ahead of the three episodes now available for free listening.

Radio drama is something we in the US don’t have a lot of experience with¹, and the first thing you have to worry about is whether or not the voices and characters are different enough to follow easily. Estrada’s come up with a story conceit that lets him take a sprawling cast (more than 70 voice actors) across nine episodes and break them into manageable, discrete units that are pretty easy to follow. Apart from an overly-long, overly-narrated chase scene (which is not the easiest thing to depict in audio only) in episode one², the story zips along nicely.

The conceit is that a virus used by MRAs to spy on women has infected the phones of both teams of thieves and their targets. This works better than you might suspect, since everybody’s got a phone on them all the time, after all. The thieves are after the fabled Seven Keys To The Internet³, but that’s just another conceit for Estrada to tell a series of other stories about things he wants to talk about — criminal gangs in the digital age, Korean gaming police, secret hard drives in photocopiers, the history of magic, the history of abusive patents, venture capital and the tech bubble, put-upon phone center workers (a recurring theme, as this would be Manisha, star of Shiv Sena Riot and Estrada’s earlier Broken Telephone), relay phones for the deaf, and the prominence of Eastern Texas in patent trolling all come under his scrutiny … and as the end credits note each time, these are all real things.

The result is a series of I told you that story so I could tell you this story connections, with each story different in place, tone, subject matter, and (in large part) cast. So far, the best balance of all the competing areas of focus has been episode three, Motivation, featuring a lovely series of musical interludes derived from the verse of 19th Century spiritualist scammers and a lead performance (by Chris Tharp) that equally channeled Jeff Garlin and Penn Jillette.

The only thing that I’d ask for is that the show page link to cast credits on a per-episode basis instead of one big list. It’s a bit confusing trying to tie roles to particular interludes this way. Oh, and Jemaine Clement insists, in the opening titles, on pronouncing Data as dah-tuh instead of the proper day-tah. As another Data once pointed out, One is my name. The other is not. Get it together, Clement! Or, since Estrada’s the director and should know better, get it together, Estrada!

But these are minor quibbles. Big Data is a bunch of different stories on a bunch of weird-but-true side effects of modern life, and a fun journey through What Matters To Ryan. Give ‘er a listen, if only for the creative insults lobbed at Kickstarter supporters at the end of each episode.


Spam of the day:

MOVING SUCKS! LET US HELP YOU.

Got that right, which is why I’m never moving again. Pretty good pitch, though.

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¹ Not for lack of enthusiastic trying, sometimes. Waaaay back in college, I was part of a radio show that tried to put together a single, two hour SF radio drama in conjunction with the return of Comet Halley. It’s a creative endeavour that is very hard not to suck at.

² By episode four, a similar fight scene (also tough to do in audio only) was much briefer, reflecting either tighter scripting, tighter editing, or both. Much appreciated, either way.

³ It’s actually twelve, and full disclosure: one of my friends is actually a keyholder and she would find it hilarious to think that somebody might try to steal her key. She’d also kick their ass.

Also, A Movie

There two brief items up here before we get to the major point of discussion today: STRIPPED.

  • Via R Stevens at The Nib, itself at Medium: pixel Neil deGrasse Tyson. You know who else R Stevens has pixelized? Me. Is this proof that Dr Tyson and I are destined to be best friends? Probably.
  • For your consideration, Tom Siddell has added his previously print-only Annie in the Forest Part 2¹ to his website, free for you to read. Once again, Siddell’s done us a service, making an item freely available that could otherwise be making him money. Read it, enjoy it, drop a few bob via his donation link, or possibly by buying something from him next month at the MoCCA Fest in three weeks.

I watched STRIPPED over the weekend; anybody that caught my twitterfeed between Friday night and Saturday morning saw what I thought of it — it was masterful. But what I’ve been thinking about since was the choice of interview subjects that filmmakers Fred Schroeder and Dave Kellett chose to return to time and again. These folks were the centerpieces of the story of comics.

  • There was less of Bill Watterson’s (rightly) lauded contribution than I might have suspected, and the film was not the less for it; in a handful of voiced cutaways, he made incisive points, but he wasn’t used in the film merely for the sake of Being Bill Watterson. I never thought I’d say this, but I admire the restraint that must have been required to not include every syllable of Watterson’s voice that found its way to tape.
  • Darrin Bell is not a household name; Candorville and Rudy Park are both pretty damn good strips, but you likely wouldn’t place him or his work without prompting because we’re past the era of superstar comics-page creators. He’s disarmingly young, frighteningly smart, and wonderfully sincere in his many interview snippets. There have to have been many, many creators that spoke about their journey of becoming a creator, but there was a spark to Bell’s interview segments that made him a natural. I can’t wait to see the entirety of his interview.
  • Greg Evans is a man I met, briefly, at the NCS Ruebens Weekend; he very kindly took the time to make me feel welcome in a place where I felt out of place. His strip isn’t for me, and I found myself surprised and a little thrilled at how much he was in the film. He almost perfectly straddles the line of long-term creator recognizing the changes in the industry², looking at them realistically, and really wondering how he can ride that wave rather than rail against it. He might have been the decades-long syndicated creator that jumped feetfirst into indy creator endeavours if Bill Amend hadn’t beat him to it.
  • Patrick McDonnell is unapologetically Old School³. His tools are old school, the art style is old school — midway between Segar and Herriman, with a verbal sensibility perched directly between Schulz and Kelly — and his air of not concerning himself with the challenges facing the syndication model is older than old school. Syndicated cartoonists didn’t worry about their business model ceasing to exist in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s; it simply was and would continue to be. Around McDonnell, you get the impression — at least for him — that reality has not changed and will not. His approach to cartooning and the business of cartooning is as Zen as the spare, airy, light-filled studio where he was interviewed.
  • Jim Davis, who came up through the cartooning trenches as an assistant before catching lightning in a bottle with Garfield, is far more philosophical about cartooning than one would think he would need to be. He famously created Garfield with a businessman’s eye — there were lots of dogs on the comics page but not many cats, and he saw a market niche4 — and has overseen a juggernaut of success based on the broadest possible appeal.

    He is, as a result, richer than God — maybe richer than any cartoonist has ever been, barring only Sparky himself — and is reported to be sitting on a buffer longer than a year. He has a small corporation’s worth of people working with and for him to get All Things Garf delivered to the world on a daily basis. He needn’t involve himself in any aspects of Garfield at this point, he could walk away and live in luxury for the rest of his days.

    But he does. He does because (and this is from the Kickstarter backers-only full interview with Davis; the rest of you, I hope you get to see it) he thinks that one day, he could write the strip that makes the whole world laugh. Because that possibility matters more than every TV series, movie, and tchotchke put together.

  • Mort Walker has been in cartooning for more than six decades. He oversees strips that have been on the page long enough that your parents (or grandparents) read them. He could be everything that’s wrong with comics but it’s clear that he stays in the game not out of stubbornness or to show Those Darn Kids how it’s done, but because he remembers reading Moon Mullins on Sunday mornings with his father, back in the 1920s. He’s see the rise and maybe-fall of comics first hand and never lost his full investment in the medium.
  • Stephan Pastis is perhaps the one voice not completely in harmony with the others; he’s perhaps the most recent syndicated cartoonist to find widespread success (or at least, as widespread as it’s possible for any strip launched in the last 20 years to have achieved), and for all the success he’s had with Pearls Before Swine, there’s an edge in his interviews.

    In his segments, he seems like he’s pushing back against the changes in the model, like he wants to actively drag the entire industry back four or five decades. In his most telling exchange, his frustration becomes overt — and completely understandable — when he notes the odds of ever making it as a syndicated cartoonist, and then doing so just as the business implodes. I made it to the NBA, and the stadium is collapsing. His energy would make him a stellar independent creator/owner in the webcomics mode, if only he hadn’t spent so much time in the past openly contemptuous of it.

    His counterpoint, however, is absolutely crucial to the film, if only because he’s willing to express the frustrations that probably everybody in syndicated cartooning (or maybe those not named Davis or McDonnell) must be feeling. Pastis is not the enemy of progress, but he’s no friend of the particular path it’s taking.

Oh, yeah, some webcomics types said smart things too, and Chris Hastings gave as concise an explanation of How Webcomics Work as ever could have been.

Also Cathy Guisewite. And Scott McCloud5. And Lynn Johnston. And Jenny Robb. And RC Harvey. And Kazu Kibuishi. And Shaenon Garrity. And David Malki !. And more that I’m certainly forgetting now.

STRIPPED is sprawling, comprehensive, hilarious, heartfelt, honest, and wonderful. It went by in an eyeblink, with no wasted moments or times that don’t serve the narrative. It’s as good a history of comics — where they came from, where they are, where they’re going — as ever there has been, and it’s only the merest fraction6 of the material that was collected during production. It feels like the work of a lifetime, and I mean it as the highest compliment that it’s astonishing to think that it only took four years to produce.

If you haven’t seen it yet, there’s probably somebody in your circle of friends that has, given that you’re on this page to begin with. Ask around; I think you’re going to find that everybody’s that seen the movie is of one mind. Something uniquely American that’s touched three or four generations is changing, but will never go away; you should know its history, and barring a time machine that lets you experience the last century of comics first-hand, STRIPPED is the best way to do so.

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¹ More specifically, only available at the 2013 Thought Bubble Festival, now obtainable through the internet boutiquery services of TopatoCo.

² For example, Evans has produced Luann digitally for more than a decade.

³ Disclaimer: he’s also approximately a neighbor; we very occasionally run into each other on the street or in a restaurant and do that 20 second Hey! How are you? thing. It happened at the Reuben Weekend, which caused us both a moment of cognitive dissonance, as we were 3500km away from our usual random meeting stomping grounds. Finally, we chose the vet that took care of our greyhound for most of her life (and our new greyhound, who just had his first visit) based on his recommendation.

4 Which, if you think about it, is a very webcomics thing to do — find a niche that isn’t served and become their favorite. Only Davis did it in nineteen-freaking-seventy-eight, before a lot of webcomickers were born. Hell, if you go to his website, he’s got the entire 35+ year archive freely available — you can’t get more webcomics than that.

5 The full interview with McCloud — a couple of hours worth! — was released to KS backers last year. I really hope you get to see it someday because dang is that guy smart.

6 At just about ninety minutes, carved out of more than 300 hours of interviews, it would be possible to produce another 199 movies of equivalent length from material already on hand. Although I’m pretty sure that the 10 or 15 minutes that they spent talking to me needn’t be seen by anybody.

Adrift

The gallery space is very small, so most of these photos are going to be off-angle, and/or have weird shadows/light spots; apologies in advance.

I don’t want these to get lost in the shuffle so — lucky you! — it’s a weekend update at Fleen, as we review Scott Campbell and Leontine Greenberg‘s show Adrift, which runs at My Plastic Heart in New York for the next four weeks.

The theme of Adrift is floating, flying, wafting, and every other gerund you can think of that involves being aloft; I came because I love Campbell’s work, but once there was thoroughly gobsmacked by the delicate, insanely detailed work of Greenberg. The washes of color and loving details to her animal subjects would look right at home in an earnest, Caldecott-winning book with enormous pages to allow the art room to breathe. You may notice in the photos how Greenberg even cut the borders of her sheets in curlicue shapes; from a meter or two, it looks ragged and torn, up close it’s incredibly precise and cleanly cut.

Campbell, as usual, brings his cartoony-on-the-surface, insanely-nuanced-up-close aesthetic to his pieces; unlike Greenberg’s work within a predominantly pastel palette, Campbell went to the extremes of color, then muted things down. The overall effect isn’t so much “watered down color” or “grey wash over everything” as much as “this was a riot of color that has faded with time over the decades”. Although the designs that lurk in Campbell’s brain couldn’t possibly have been drawn 75 or 100 years ago, they present as if they were drawn on the walls of a child’s room — playful and joyous and optimistic — and rather than be subject to museum-quality conservatorship, they’ve been enjoyed for a generation or four (and, more than likely, had a mess or two wiped off their surface).

The only downside to the show (and this was purely a downside for me, not for Greenberg or Campbell) was the veritable sea of red pins next to title cards; from the moment the show opened I had sighted at least a half-dozen pieces that I would have bought in a heartbeat, but which were already spoken for. In fact, a very nice young woman told me later that she was in line behind me to purchase the very piece I had just bought, no doubt leading to a ripple effect of disappointed buyers having to settle for a painting that was only 98.816 on the Delight-o-Meter instead of 99.382. But with a sellout for both artists virtually assured, we will somehow soldier on and swallow our disappointment for their sake. I know, I know, sucks to be us.

Adrift runs until 13 December at My Plastic Heart, 210 Forsyth St (corner of E. Houston) in Manhattan. Photos below the cut.

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Fleen Book Corner: Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991

Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 (hereafter, Z!C) is an odd thing to be reading at this stage in my life. As a freshman in college, I was handed a copy of the LOUDEST comic book in the universe, giggled, and promptly forgot about the creators. More than twenty years ago, I started reading Scott McCloud’s first creator-owned series about a do-goodin’ title character with a perpetually sunny disposition; I kept with it after the initial ten, color issues (not in this collection) transitioned to the stories of this collection. A move after college and a lack of good comic shops meant that I missed out on the “Earth Stories” that formed the final arc of the comic series.

More than fifteen years ago, I rediscovered McCloud through Understanding Comics; shortly thereafter, the Kitchen Sink Press reprints found their way into my collection, but KSP went under before the fourth volume, which would have comprised the Earth Stories. Ten years ago, I was the guy that liked The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln. In the past two years ago, I met McCloud, devoured Making Comics, and bugged him more than once But when will you reprint the Earth Stories?

In retrospect, McCloud has taken up as much of my reading time, over so many projects, as any author I can think of. He created the one villain (in all of the fiction of my lifetime) so chilling, evil, and plausible in his malevolence that he’s given me bad dreams1. I’ve come to admire, respect, and treasure just hanging with the guy as much as I have valued his work — but here is this creation, from the beginning of his career, that I’d never seen in full. I paused before reading those final 200-odd pages, wondering if the past two decades would affect me and my reading, at long last, of the Earth Stories.

I shouldn’t have worried.
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Review-ettes

Gotta keep this one relatively brief, as there’s things to get done before the road trip tomorrow to pick up my new coffee table/art cabinet; this is what webcomics creators have driven me to: I no longer have enough wall space to display my originals and must invest in furniture to store them. Anyway, two webcomics to compare/contrast — one’s brand new, one’s been around a while, both new to me.

Richard Kirk wrote:

For your consideration… Semi-autobiographical cartoon. Nice, clean website. I have no connection except for being a fan.

and David Reddick wrote:

I’m proud to unveil my new twice-weekly fantasy webcomic and labor of love, Legend of Bill, presented by the fine folks at SoulGeek.

Em Cartoons is a nice autobio strip, and I dig creator Maria Smedstad’s art style a great deal — something about the face being so minimally rendered makes it easy to project emotions to the reader. But I have to disagree about the website. While clean, the archive links require an excessive amount of searching to make progress through the story of Em, and that’s death if you’re trying to get people to a) read your archive (especially one going back to November of 2006) and; b) fall in love with the strip and become a fan/evangelist. It would be a bit of work, but translating Em Cartoons to a design that features the standard <<, <, >, and >> buttons would be well worth the effort. I want those who might casually come across Em Cartoons to find it easy to be engrossed, because I think it’s good work.

Bill is just starting (only two updates so far), but features an intriguing premise: standard fantasy-type barbarian gets started not because he’s born on a battlefield and fated to adventure … he just got really bored with his intern gig. Although it’s not quite as obvious in the strips that are up, scroll down to check out Reddick’s sketches and wallpapers … his art is very Sergio Aragonés-esque, and that can only be a good thing. Nobody does loose, scribbly, and fun like Sergio, and the man may yet overtake Tezuka for most pages of comics drawn in a lifetime. If that’s where Reddick’s drawing (ha, ha) inspiration from, he’s in damn good company

Is Art Necessary? Hell Yes, But Maybe We Can Work Something Out

First up, a quick note from the Energizer Bunny of webcomicdom — Kevin & Kell, which has as good a claim on the title of “oldest continuing webcomic” as any contender I’m aware of, is releasing its thirteenth book next month. If, as they say, half of success is just showing up every day, Bill Holbrook’s a pretty damn successful guy. More details here.

Down to business. Recently received in my email:

Øyvind Thorsby wrote:
Hitmen For Destiny has reached 100 strips.

Short and to the point, I like that. A webcomic I’d not heard of, that’s good. And non-English character in the name? Gold. That was almost as far as I got, because Hitmen For Destiny is, sad to say, damn ugly. Not merely primitive in its art, but really, really, eye-hurtingly painful. Holy Assmaster I thought, it’s User Friendly with freakin’ big heads.

But we’ve talked about this before — the question of whether or not writing alone is enough to carry a strip. We’ve considered situations where the art is as minimal as will get the idea across, or deliberately taken out of the equation, but this is a case of Can writing save a strip where the art is just bad?

I think it might. There’s a clever idea serving at the core of Hitmen For Destiny — a pair of cadaverous (and in at least one case, otherwordly) goons work for Destiny (the proverbial Destiny — the anthropomorphic personification of What Will Be) making sure that prophecies come true, by killing anything that might get in the way. That’s a really interesting idea, but you have to sort of tease it out; it’s not explicitly presented to you. Along the way, a quite normal young lady gets thrown into a mix of prophecy fulfillment (even if she doesn’t realize it), leading to a cavalcade of bizarre monsters and absurd situations.

But balance that against the fact that Hitmen For Destiny contains an installment titled In which my throat inflation fetishist readers are catered for. Be warned: that link contains exactly what it promises.

Despite the visuals (and even if you didn’t click on that link, it’s in your head now — I had to see it, you have to see it, too) there’s a gleeful tone to the batshit insanity of it all, and even if 100 strips later the art hasn’t significantly improved from the first strip, damn if I couldn’t say I was curious to see what happened next. The story meanders, and the central conceit of an army of goons making sure Things Happen is only rarely addressed, but I wanted to see just what kind of whackjobbery Thorsby would come up with next.

If nothing else, a series of three different sets of antagonists fighting out in three-and-a-half different places in a house (there’s these portals, see, and they skitter around, and … nevermind, just read it yourself), with quick cuts from one confrontation to another, and space becoming not just where the action takes place, but an active component of the scene — it’s obvious that Thorsby is really trying to show us something that we haven’t seen before, and if the visuals don’t match up to the concept, I’m finding myself not entirely caring about the visuals. Except for the throat-inflation thing. That’s just — ew.

I Gotta Coordinate Things With Anne Better

But it looks like you get a double-shot of Anders Loves Maria today, which is odd because I’m quite angry at Rene Engström.

Wait, that’s a terrible topic sentence. Let’s back up to the beginning. I’ve been following Anders Love Maria ever since this gorgeous guest strip ran when Paul Southworth was slackin’ off (something about spawning, I dunno). Combine art that beautiful, that many webcomics cameos, and make fun of a Disney flick, and I am officially intrigued — but there was no URL associated with the strip.

So a name search led me to a blog, which deepened my intrigue; after all, we are talking about a woman who shares her most shameful perversions in comic form. And I still wasn’t to the webcomic.

And the webcomic is why I don’t think I like Rene Engström. It’s a romantic non-comedy, about Anders (photographer, in love with the idea of being in love, with a tabloid-fodder famous mom) and his girlfriend Maria (younger, less focused, in love with Anders but still able to get pissed at him when he’s an asshole). They have a comfortable relationship together when Anders drops a bombshell: he thinks they should have a baby. Maria recoils, an old girlfriend comes into the picture, Anders feels the tug of temptation, and Maria gets pregnant inadvertantly. It’s messy, they’re confused, but love wins out in the end. Fade to credits.

Yeah, that’s Hollywood’s version of romance; this is Sweden — we’ve only covered two days of story, and life hasn’t begun to get complicated yet. A brush with the law sends the couple to the far north, to Maria’s family, who treat Anders poorly (’cause let’s face it, he’s a pussy). Old crushes and old enemies enter, all concerned make bad decisions, and we’re reminded that nobody can hurt us as much as somebody you know loves you — but doesn’t like you very much right now.

And that’s where we are, on the cusp of 100 strips (my usual threshold for a review, but it appears that Anne has forced my hand; I shake my fist at her, thus!), with a pair of protagonists that I feel emotionally drained by. They act so utterly, confusingly, exasperatingly real, that I want to comfort them, scream at them, advise them, and kick their asses. Engström has put me through this wringer, leaving me enraged and empathetic towards her creations at the same time. The last time a character left me this deeply conflicted, he wore a red ski cap and a Speedo (for the record, that’s a very good thing to remind me of); seriously, I halfway believe that Rene Engström is really just a front for Wes Anderson. There is a precedent, after all.

One last thought — I’d emailed Engström earlier in the week that I was possibly going to hold this review to sometime past strip #100; I was waiting for a point of resolution in the story to say, Okay, here’s a good break, jump in. She pointed out that I might be waiting for a while if I was waiting for these latest emotional wounds to close — they aren’t even fully open yet.

And that right there is why I adore this strip — just like real life, there are no clear intervals in the story, there is no upswell of music at the end of the reel, there never will be a neat resolution where everybody gets to go Awwwww. There’s just more life and the choices we make, and I guess I really do like Rene Engström after all. Read Anders Loves Maria, and you’ll like her, too.

Zuda Thoughts: Final

Okay, so we’ve picked apart the contracts, and we’ve all had plenty of time to think about things. Let’s put this to bed, shall we?

The Zudadeal is both very, very good and very, very bad.

On the good side, it’s out in the open, completely above-board, fully-disclosed, and they even encourage you to take legal advice from an actual lawyer (that would not be me) prior to entering, because just entering requires you to sign the Submission Agreement.

There are even some bits in the contract that can only be seen as progress from what comics contracts used to look like:

  • retaining copyright
  • having the theoretical ability to recover other rights
  • defined payment schedule
  • audit rights
  • return of originals

These were all unheard of in years gone by.

But while the contracts may be better than what has historically passed for a comics contract, it remains explicitly work-for-hire and falls far short of what were identified as fundamental rights for comics creators nearly twenty years ago.

And that’s where all the bad comes in. If the Zudainitiative were all about finding “traditional” comics concepts, artists, and writers for the future, and it were positioned as, “Show us a good enough idea, and maybe you can come work for us”, I think I would honestly have no problem with it.

But it’s positioned in two very different ways:

  • Show us a good enough idea and you WIN!
  • Yay, webomics!

The first of these is less worrying — if you’re reading the contracts like they tell you to, and you’re getting legal advice like they tell you to, you should understand that this isn’t a case of “you’ve got the best stuff, we’re going to make all your dreams come true”. It clearly is a case of “you’ve got the best stuff, we’re going to buy it from you for what sounds like a decent chunk of money, and maybe you’ll make it big, but we will absolutely make more money off it than you will.”

This is not a knock on Zuda — it’s a fact. Royalty rates top out at 40%, and what strikes me as the most likely royalties to be paid (for print editions) are 1%. That’s what publishers do, and you’ve contracted to work for a publisher. You have not contracted to be partners and grow rich together; see the Rights Agreement, paragraph 24, and Services Agreement, paragraph 25:

INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR. Nothing herein contained shall constitute a partnership or joint venture by and between the parties hereto or constitute either party the agent of the other. (emphasis original)

The second item concerns me more. The prolific Mr T is of the opinion that the contract is pretty good, and it may be as far as the comics industry goes.

But Zuda has been specifically pitched as webcomics, and that’s a place with a decade-long history of not doing work-for-hire. Those making their livings from webcomics do it on their own, not by partnering with a corporation and giving away the rights to their creation (exception: Penny Arcade, who managed to do exactly that twice, and bought themselves a five-year legal struggle; you won’t be that lucky).

How much does the Zudamodel stand in contrast with the Webcomics So Far model? Let’s just take one thing that Zuda will do for you: print your webcomic. If you work with them:

  • they bear the costs of printing, publication, and promotion, but are under no obligation to do so (cf: Rights Agreement, paragraph 21 and Services Agreement, paragraph 22)
  • they could get your book into the Diamond catalog or regular bookstores, but probably the bulk of purchasers will come from Zuda readers on the web
  • they keep 99% of cover price for the book, you get 1%
  • they own trademark on your webcomic for as long as they want

If you do things on your own:

  • you have to produce the book, sinking money up front into printing books you hope you can sell
  • you have to handle orders and fulfillment
  • you probably won’t get into the Diamond catalog or regular bookstores, but the bulk of purchases would have come from your readers online anyway
  • you’ll keep about 90% of cover price, but must assume the risk of unsold inventory
  • alternately, you could use a print-on-demand service, which drops the risk and fulfillment from the equation, but you’ll only keep on the order of 40% of cover price
  • even 40% >> 1%, and it’s still your property

Put these two points together, and Zuda is equating You Win! with We Own Your Stuff. Yes, they’re a publisher and that’s what publishers do. Yes, they do all the things that you don’t want to do because you’re a creator and dealing with the business aspects gives you a migraine. But the cost/benefit ratio is all out balance here — this is not 1942, when the only way for a kid with a head full of dreams to tell that comics story was to partner with a corporation that had figured out the very expensive disciplines of printing, distribution, promotion, and sales.

We’re talking about webcomics here; the barriers to entry are as low as human ingenuity can make them, and the only bar to success is the quality of your work. If you truly have a meltdown when considering all those business-related aspects, or if you’re honest and decide that you have no talent for them, and if you do them on your own you’ll only screw things up, then the Zudadeal is still not what you need. You need to hire somebody to handle the business instead of a business hiring you to handle the creative.

Let’s play What If for a moment.

What If a company (let’s call ’em Aduz) launched a contest to highlight webcomics in a contest, with a promise of A Deal for the winner.
What If the winner was given the opportunity to have Aduz represent them and handle the business aspects of promoting and exploiting the webcomic.
What If the winner kept all rights and Aduz instead got a 50-50 split because it assumed the risk, and it’s going to have to balance the duds off against the winners.
What If this deal was entirely governed by the Comics Creator’s Bill of Rights (big thanks to Scott Kurtz for pointing out to me that the CCBOR as written applies beautifully to webcomics).

Is it not possible for a company to make money off that deal? Of course it is. Aduz just won’t make as much as Zuda, and Zuda is interested in maximizing its return while paying out as little as possible while still attracting talent.

All that business stuff that gives you a headache? Zuda’s got people that eat it up, and they’ve precisely calculated the point that maximizes their return and minimizes their payout, and enshrined it in these contracts. If it’s your dream to work in comics and this looks like your best way in, if you can honestly look at everything described here and say you’d be happy to exist under these terms, then enter the contest and I hope you win and prove me wrong in every possible way.

But as written, the Zudadeal stands in opposition to the creator ownership that has been one of the core strengths of webcomics since Day One. Webcomics can do better, and so can you.

Raw Zudanotes III: Services Agreement

Editor’s note: we continue our skim of the Zudacontracts, with Big Ideas to be developed later. Today: the terms under which you supply ongoing contributions.

First impression: the Services Agreement is between the Submission (short) and Rights (long) Agreements in length. As before, numbers are taken from the various paragraphs in the contract, and it starts with standard boilerplate about who you are and why you’re signing.

1. You are being hired (“engaged”, in the text of the contract) to produce 52 pieces of work (“Screens”) based on your winning entry. Unless you and Zuda agree otherwise, it’s weekly, at $250 each. That’s $13,000 you’ll be paid under this contract, plus the $1000 from the Rights Agreement, plus whatever royalties may apply.

2. By mutual consent, at the end of 52 weeks, Zuda may hire you at the same rate to keep producing stuff. Said stuff can be immediately after the 52 week run, or delayed until schedules work out. If you opt not to, Zuda can hire somebody else to do your webcomic. I’ve said it before in these write-ups: if your webcomic is your baby and you don’t want to wonder who it’s running around with after curfew, then Zuda (indeed, any work-for-hire arrangement) is not for you.

3. You have a schedule for delivering your work, Zuda has one for publishing.

4. In addition to what you get in the Rights Agreement, you receive your per-screen payment of $250 within two weeks of delivery, plus 4% of cover price of print works. Merch is 6.4% of SRP or 12.5 of gross receipts, reprints are 30% of net, and both foreign-language reprints and English reprints outside the US/Canada are 15% of net. The implication I’m getting here is that the royalties under the rights agreement are what Zuda pays you for their long-term ownership of the material, and this paragraph covers your payment to make it.

5. But there are reductions to the amounts in paragraph 4. If you’re part of a team, those that produce the work split the money; if you’re part of a collection or anthology with other creators, you get pro-rated; combination with other properties is likewise pro-rated (so if your ICSWAFP gets paired up with — I dunno, Batman — and they become partners, you get half I guess). And here’s the interesting bit:

If Zuda exploits any Print Work, Retail Product or Licensed Reprint Edition that includes Material for which You rendered Services in a way or on a media platform not contemplated by this Services Agreement, whether now known or hereafter devised, Zuda shall pay You in accordance with the consideration structure created by Zuda, in good faith, for such exploitation.

Which I’m reading as, “We’ll come up with a rate for that brain-beaming. Trust us.” Once again, it’s these ambiguous cases that I hate, because it lets whichever party has the advantage in a contract (one guess as to who that is) leverage things further to their advantage.

6 and 7. Except for the biweekly $250 installments, payments and accounting are as in the Right Agreement: every six months and only if you’re owed at least $200, and you’re allowed to audit the books at your own expense.

8. What you create under this contract is subject to the same rights transfer as the Rights Agreement.

9. You may be assigned an Editor, and you will do what (s)he says.

10 — 13. Boilerplate matching the rights agreement: you created this stuff, it’s yours to assign, nobody else has a claim on it; if either you or Zuda screw up somehow, the other is not to blame; you’ll get credited on things that Zuda produces/prints; you get free stuff.

14. Layin’ down the law — if you fail in certain ways, you’re in default of the contract:

  • not meeting deadlines
  • not providing satisfactory work
  • not doing anything else in this contract for any reason (including being incapable)
  • not being straight about who you are and being legally able to enter into this contract with respect to this work

Given that I’m not any kind of lawyer (much less entertainment/IP), I’m guessing that this paragraph is entirely boilerplate; it’s reasonable enough to have things like deadlines, and if Zuda were to become arbitrary about what’s “satisfactory” or make a habit of coming up with unworkable deadlines with the sole purpose of screwing you, word would get around pretty fast. Hell, just putting these contracts out there in advance of accepting any submissions tells me that they aren’t interested in screwing you in an arbitrary fashion.

Zuda are apparently going to be avoiding the all-too-common situation in comics where a “monthly” book slips to “bi-monthly”, then “quarterly”, then “we’ll let you know when we can re-solicit”. As a reader, I applaud them for this; when asked for advice about how to build a webcomic audience, pick a schedule and stick to it is always at the top of my list.

BUT if you have circumstances in your life where, at random times for unpredictable durations, you’re unable to work (health or family issues, crippling creator’s block, whatever), best to disclose that at the beginning and find out if Zuda are willing to amend the contract or not; being in breach (no matter how unpredictable the reason) is not somewhere you want to be. How much do you not want to be there?

15. You got 10 days to fix the situation after you’re in default, then you’re subject to termination. You’ll get nothing more (except for what you’d be entitled to from the re-presentation of your work in other forms). Let’s call paragraphs 14 and 15 the Howard Tayler sez, “Keep a damn buffer!” section of the contract. You don’t get to run guest weeks at Zuda.

16 — 27. Repeats from the Rights Agreement: you or Zuda can transfer your interests to another (but you can’t up and say, “Pay Bob over there for the strip ’cause he’ll be drawing it from now on”); Zuda can do business with other Time Warner companies; register all issues in writing; law of New York state prevails; in the event of dispute, your only recourse is a suit; waivers are specific to individual items; Zuda isn’t obligated to actually publish you; if it’s not attached to this contract it doesn’t exist; you can’t be compelled to do something illegal; you and Zuda are not partners; paragraph headings are descriptive and have no legal meaning; and there are no third parties.