So, Captain Nihilist, if a comic is any good, why is it a webcomic?

Not too long ago, a reader put comments up on this site questioning the general quality of webcomics. I thought it would be good to respond via post not to pick on the guy, but because his point is one that’s been made may times by many people, whether they’re proponents of print comics or casual webcomic readers or what not.

“comics not good enough to end up in print” sounds about right. We’d like to think that some vitriol-filled, scathing reviews would improve any of these end products, but the fact is, that, yes, just as the internet is a wonderful library of information in which every piece of information you never wanted to see or have contact with is usually in the path to your goal, likewise good webcomics are incredibly difficult to come by, and even most of the review sites that claim to point toward the higher-quality work are sycophantic droolers.

….

… Penny Arcade and Chugworth and Megatokyo and other low-quality comics may have acheived print status, finally, but they’re still webcomics, and will always only ever be “webcomics.” They will be “comics not good enough to make it into print, who’ve found a wide and mediocre audience that will eat dog food if you serve it to ‘em, and through the powers of the internet, gathered this niche of chowder-headed buffoons and united them into a market that might actually buy the crappy book.” It serves two purposes. It tries to elevate them to the same status as any other book of newspaper cartoons you might find in the humor section, and it gives ‘em something pretty to sign at conventions, and we KNOW how much egomaniac artists and writers love to sign things.

I’m sure that I probably shouldn’t be taking this post too seriously. However, his views are neither wrong nor a minority opinion. There really are a lot of awful webcomics out there. If this blog were to ever to reflect the true depth and breadth of all the webcomics I’ve read, 90% of them would be filled with zero-star reviews. That’s right, those not even good enough to warrant a write up. Half of them have no right telling jokes, half of them have no right telling stories, and almost 100% of them should not pick up a pen or pencil or Wacom tablet without taking a basic cartooning class or at least reading How to Draw Cars the Hot Wheels Way first. ’tis only my pity for these misguided souls that stays my hand.

But does this mean that webcomics, as a whole, are thus inherently an inferior medium to print? Around the same time, I ran across a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” The article wasn’t specifically about webcomics. However, it did examine the total mediocrity of everything online. Think webcomics are the only thing plagued by awfulness? How about Youtube vs. television? Blogs vs. newsprint? The problem is everywhere.

The writer of the article, Clay Shirky, takes things one step further. He mentions that this is hardly the first time the world has seen such a phenomenon. He compares the modern digital revolution to the advent of the printing press.

Every increase in freedom to create or consume media, from paperback books to YouTube, alarms people accustomed to the restrictions of the old system, convincing them that the new media will make young people stupid. This fear dates back to at least the invention of movable type.

As Gutenberg’s press spread through Europe, the Bible was translated into local languages, enabling direct encounters with the text; this was accompanied by a flood of contemporary literature, most of it mediocre. Vulgar versions of the Bible and distracting secular writings fueled religious unrest and civic confusion, leading to claims that the printing press, if not controlled, would lead to chaos and the dismemberment of European intellectual life.

We are living through a similar explosion of publishing capability today, where digital media link over a billion people into the same network. This linking together in turn lets us tap our cognitive surplus, the trillion hours a year of free time the educated population of the planet has to spend doing things they care about. In the 20th century, the bulk of that time was spent watching television, but our cognitive surplus is so enormous that diverting even a tiny fraction of time from consumption to participation can create enormous positive effects.

However, despite admitting that there’s a lot of garbage online, Shirky comes out in favor of digital media. Sure, we could be educated better on how digital media can best work for our society, but that’s going to take time. Quality is not inherently tied to the medium used.

The case for digitally-driven stupidity assumes we’ll fail to integrate digital freedoms into society as well as we integrated literacy. This assumption in turn rests on three beliefs: that the recent past was a glorious and irreplaceable high-water mark of intellectual attainment; that the present is only characterized by the silly stuff and not by the noble experiments; and that this generation of young people will fail to invent cultural norms that do for the Internet’s abundance what the intellectuals of the 17th century did for print culture. There are likewise three reasons to think that the Internet will fuel the intellectual achievements of 21st-century society.

First, the rosy past of the pessimists was not, on closer examination, so rosy. The decade the pessimists want to return us to is the 1980s, the last period before society had any significant digital freedoms. Despite frequent genuflection to European novels, we actually spent a lot more time watching “Diff’rent Strokes” than reading Proust, prior to the Internet’s spread. The Net, in fact, restores reading and writing as central activities in our culture.

The present is, as noted, characterized by lots of throwaway cultural artifacts, but the nice thing about throwaway material is that it gets thrown away. This issue isn’t whether there’s lots of dumb stuff online—there is, just as there is lots of dumb stuff in bookstores. The issue is whether there are any ideas so good today that they will survive into the future. Several early uses of our cognitive surplus, like open source software, look like they will pass that test.

There was a lot of garbage in the publishing world during the printing press era, and there is a lot of garbage in the publishing world now. A month ago, didn’t DC Comics just deliver Justice League — The Rise of Arsenal … quite possibly the worst comic of all time? Of course, that’s hyperbole… but visit your local comic bin at the Half Price Books, select a few titles at random, and find anything that’s above mediocre. Easy conclusion: there’s a lot of bad print comics, too.

So why are there so many bad webcomics? Obviously, it’s because access to the internet has made creation and distribution so much easier, or basically what MBA’s call “low barriers to entry.” Some clamor for some sort of editorial board that can filter out the chaff from the wheat. Yet that could take away one of the greatest benefits of webcomics: you really can write a webcomic about anything these days.

If you’ve ever had an economics professor, you’ve no doubt heard that a free market economy rewards the risk takers. Yet when the industry matures, and the start-ups become big fat giants lumbering in a mature oligopoly, risk-taking becomes a huge liability. A bad step can mean the downfall of a company. That’s why Toyota and Honda rake in the cash making ultra-bland cars that are useful to everyone but are exciting to no one. It’s why movies have to appeal to two out of four broadly defined sectors of the movie-going public before it can get greenlighted by the studios. That’s why MTV no longer airs music videos, the History Channel rarely airs history, the Cartoon Network is airing live action shows: advertisers have to be pleased, which means ditching the foundations of what you are and submitting to a common cultural paradigm that suddenly means all 500 channels on TV are airing the same thing. When a company does take a significant risk and fails — like when GM pushed out the Pontiac Aztek or when Microsoft put out the Vista — market forces slap them down and slap them hard.

What of the print comic publishing world, dominated by Marvel and DC? Comic bloggers love to tout the quirky side projects that the companies sometimes engage in, but at the end of the day it’s the superhero comics that sell.

When it comes to comic book publishers, this becomes more perilous. Books are losing ground in the field of media, and the subset of comics are even less influential. So the Big Two (Marvel and DC) have to keep producing the only genre that they know will sell: superheroes. Wait, let’s look at the April 2010 month-to-month sales from Marvel and DC: Brightest Day, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman & Robin, New Avengers…. Yup, they’re all still superhero comics. Not that I don’t personally enjoy superhero comics, mind you. The biggest projects, though, will always be tied to what’s tried and true and what risk-averse stockholders demand.

Even when comic writers break out of the superhero mold, their new titles are hardly more daring than the tried and true formulas from yesteryear, which leaned on westerns, crime fiction, and horror.

But webcomics? As mentioned by many observers, it’s still the Wild West, and we want it that way. Literally any idea can be put into comic form, and it’s up to the forces of the market to let it sink or swim. The penalty for failure is relatively small, and that’s why terrible webcomics tend to linger around so. But is that not a small price to pay for innovation? As I mentioned earlier this year, where else can you find an entire genre devoted to making video game jokes? Devote entire strips to math based humor? Tell a story about a monk wandering ancient China? Write about two slackers in an unsuccessful band? Or draw a comedy about a pregnant nun?

I’m not saying it’s impossible to do in the print world, as the success of Scott Pilgrim illustrates. However, due to the hurdles that have to be jumped, such successes are basically one in a million, hardly demonstrating the depth and breadth of what’s out there.

So be glad for the free market, and be glad that you’re not shackled to the narrow definition of what the publishers have decided you’re supposed to like. Embrace the Wild West at its rootin’-toonin’-est. It won’t be like this forever.

About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on June 18, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. If there were more publishers out there who could pay reasonable rates, I think a lot more webcomickers would seek out print. The marketplace is certainly growing, with major publishers like Scholastic coming on board with graphic novels, but right now unless your story happens to fit into specific genres there aren’t a lot of good options for getting published. So they self-publish. In the last decade self-publishing in print was the acceptable route to take, but with Diamond not willing/able to distribute small press comics anymore, webcomics have become the default method for many. If Jeff Smith were starting his comic Bone now instead of in the ’90s, he might well choose the web.

    Interesting post. :-)

  2. I agree with pretty much everything you’ve stated. But I wouldn’t limit mediocrity to just things found on the web. I think its found in every avenue of artistic expression. And even mediocrity finds and audience every once an awhile.

    One thing I would argue with, is I think that Webcomics are becoming less and less like the wild west. With the influx of more professional creators entering the arena and the hordes of amateur creators trying to mimic the successful Webcomic creators that came before them… its getting harder to find a standout.

    The best and worst thing to happen to Webcomics may be the “business” approach to Webcomics. I hate the whole business first aspect that has arisen in the past few years. Focus on writing and creating your comic, instead of trying to do a market analysis of what type of Webcomic the world currently needs and then trying to create something that you think will be successful. I get annoyed when I see a comic advertised all over Project Wonderful like its the next summer blockbuster, and they have 5 comics in their archives.

    This mentality coupled with the all access approach to Webcomics, is why 90 percent of them aren’t good.

    • Disagree that the influx of professional creators are making it harder to find stand outs. Warren Ellis’s FreakAngels IS a stand out, and Jason Brubaker’s reMIND is amazing. Karl Kerschl’s The Abominable Charles Christopher has been nominated for an Eisner, and rightly so. It’s an amazing comic. If anything we should be grateful more professionals are moving into webcomics, because, well, they’re free. And they’re good.

      As for the hordes of amateurs, those have always been around. It’s always been hard to find good webcomics… I’d say it’s getting easier, but maybe that’s my ‘glass half full’ point of view.

      Yes, there are genres that are very popular that people gravitate to, like the gaming one, but that’s always been true. If professionals find a way to make money off of people that are drawn to these sorts of comics, well, power to them. They have to work that much harder to stand out simply because there are so many.

      And the business point of view is a useful one for webcomic creators to take. It means that there will be less hobbyist people working on webcomics, and more who are serious and passionate about them. People who want to make a living off of this craft. And if they can, good for them, because I doubt it’s easy.

      I agree about the advertising, but also think that that’s not a “These days things SUCK” sort of thing, I think that’s just always how it’s going to be. Creators jump the gun. But they’ll fail if they don’t stick to it, so it doesn’t worry me.

      webcomics are still very wild west, in the sense that it’s a land of opportunity.

  3. I liked this article a lot , thanks for doing it.
    I blame the lack of editors , one of the greatest strengths in webcomics is the lack of editors but also their biggest weakness.

    Also since webcomic artists have no boss and the money still coming, there is no effort to grow and develop the art or the business.
    (to all webcomics artists I recommend to read bakuman manga when they are a lot of discussions about being a money and popularity whore, your personal artistic grow and analize the market)

  4. Honestly I think regular publishing is going to eventually go down in uh… percentage? What I mean is that self publishing is really the rising star. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, printers were created that could print books at a relatively low number for a relatively low cost, instead of having to print them in bulk (say, 50 or 100 books). Maybe it exists now and I don’t even know it.

    And I’d like to point you to what Jason Brubaker has to say about starting out on the web vs starting out with print: http://www.remindblog.com/2010/06/10/publishing-online-vs-print/

    I agree with most of his points.

    Printed books are not going to go away, simply because they’re physical. However, they’re going to lower in number with products like the ipad and ereaders out in the market now. Which means that they’ll be printed ON DEMAND. And isn’t that what webcomic artists are doing now anyway? :) They’re ahead of the curb.

    Thanks for writing this article. I found it very hard not to be offended by the ‘webcomics are just bad print comics’, especially with titles like lackadaisy, the meek, templar arizona, and riceboy floating around.
    :)

  5. your_homework

    The true problem with the Internet is that it is so immediate that development time is practically nonexistent. Instead of zero-star webcomics, I’d denote a large portion of webcomics as being simply Not Ready for Prime Time and ignore them. The same is done in the music reviewing biz because anybody these days can make an album without even a studio or a record contract. Film in particular does not have this problem because those artists who are still in the developmental period are so far out of sight that it is easy to miss out on the fact that they even exist (but they do, as anyone who has watched MST3K can attest).

    I do agree with everything the guy who inspired this thread. I can only think of five or so great webcomics–those worthy of thinking about and analyzing and truly enjoying. All else that is celebrated in webcomics is only due to its immediacy.

  6. As someone who did heed the urge to go digital, there were a couple factors to choosing this medium. They were: 1) I wanted to develop my storytelling; 2) I wanted to experiment with the comic medium; 3) I wanted the opportunity to get feedback/criticism; and 4) Hosting would cost nothing.

    As most have conceded, keeping something going for no material gain is tough. My first gig was an e-zine serialization, and, though it was a good experience in working to deadline, to this day I don’t know if anyone even read it. Webcomics may lack editors, but as has been pointed out readers are not in short supply — and readers can actually give some pretty good constructive criticism. The fact there are free hosting services is an enormous plus: since the product is going to be free, it takes commitment to toss time, energy, AND money into the interweb’s gaping maw.

    Sure, there’s a lot of crap, and okay, maybe some people will start out in the depths and remain there because it’s dark and safe. However, the internet’s also the perfect training ground. I started off without a clue what the hell I was doing, but through practice I learned small but important things like “leave room for dialogue” and “text should not be presented like a brick wall” (the latter directly from a reader) in addition to the expected technical improvement. Without such an accessible medium and ready audience I doubt I’d have garnered half the experience I have — if I’d bothered working in the medium at all.

    It’s an effort to slog through all the mediocre stuff out there, but the way I see it, that’s okay as long as at least a few of the creators learn from the experience. Before you can be any good, you will suck. You may in fact suck for some time, because the only way to improve is to do. The only way the internet has changed things is that it lets us see the learning process as it happens. And hell, these days the internet pretty much guarantees that our every embarrassing decision shall be preserved for all to see anyway . . .

    PS: Bad print comics are so abundant people now do vlogs about it. I like Atop The Fourth Wall myself.

  7. Sigh. It’s just another case of Sturgeon’s Law, really. 90% of webcomics are crud, and 90% of print comics are crud, just like everything else. Webcomics are just a new delivery method, and not inherently worse than print. I read some print comics that are better than webcomics, and vice versa. There’s no correlation between quality and delivery method.

  8. I think you covered the bases in your article… a lot of my favorite webcomics are too irregular/ inconsistent or too non-mainstream to be something that publishers would jump on.

    One big difference though is that a bad webcomic, unlike a bad book, has the potential of sticking around the internet forever. Even if nobody reads it, its there somewhere to give people and example of “wow look at the low quality of webcomics” or (worse) if its around for more than 10 years and has any modicum of interest to anyone, it may become popular and bring down everyone else that way too.

    Another nice thing about webcomics is that if you actually do put some effort in, you will see nice returns and expansion without a ton of additional work. People love to see the next big thing… and that leads naturally to expanding into other mediums.

  9. technology has eliminated our reliance on big corporations to make and distribute art — music, movies, comics — which allows more artists than ever to be involved. while i thought this post was a good look at that change, i was confused by the last line: “it won’t be like this forever.” maybe i’m just an optimist, but i tend to think the wild west of webcomics will keep getting wilder every day, and all for the better…

  10. There is one very simple and valid reason to go online: Exposure. Even if you’re a professional print author, it’s almost a given that you’ll reach a broader public through the internet. Especially so when so few publishers are expanding out into the internet in any meaningful way. For instance, I’m European, and all print comics I own are European, most of which I bet are hardly available in America or Japan (the other big comic cultures). This includes a comic series by the hand of Joe Haldeman (a direct follow-up of The Forever War). Given this, if I were to make a comic, and I’d want it published, I’d either have to publish in Europe, reaching only the European public and having to adhere to European comic conventions or I could take it on the internet and have it available to everyone, as well as just being able to do whatever the hell I want.

  11. I’m really, honestly baffled by the idea that comics publishers are some sort of gatekeepers of minimum quality.

    We’re talking about an industry where Rob Liefeld has had a long and prosperous career.

    Like, okay, if I go to a movie playing in wide release these days I can expect a certain degree of competence, no matter how shitty the movie is. Like, I won’t see boom mikes coming into every shot. The dialogue won’t be drowned out by ambient noise, that kind of thing.

    Has comics ever done that? Ever? Penny Arcade, Chugworth, and Megatokyo are all about a million times more carefully crafted then any Charlton comic I have ever read.

    • Whoa whoa whoa mentioning “Chugworth” and “carefully crafted” in the same sentence is asking for trouble. Next you’ll be saying Waterworld deserves a second chance!

      I totally agree though that the idea of publishers and editors gaurantee minimum standards is nonsesnse. In other realms of the media such as television and print news despite having one of the most efficient and hard working staff in the world, British news channels and newspapers have a poor reputation compared with their partners in Europe or the Commonwealth.

      Just because you have to go through someone else to get your stuff out there doesn’t mean its going to be streets ahead of the stuff made and produced by the artist or writers themselves. Again I point to Warren Ellis who is currently trail blazing with Freakangels. That most definitely is a webcomic and he’s proud of it.

      Alex makes a good point and its one that I find familiar as well. I follow webcomics which aren’t really going to go mainstream and are in fact more material for graphical novels along the lines of “Palestine” or “Pyongyang” for example.

      But then thats the beauty of the system. I wouldn’t be able to find these titles otherwise unless I go and hang out at a comic book shop for months on end which would mean my girlfriend would leave me and my friends torment me for being a sad demented old git.

      The internet is our boon and at the same time our curse and I’m quite happy to suffer Chugworth if it means I get to enjoy Freakangels or The Meek.

  12. I almost find it sad that you thought this article was necessary. Not to say it’s a bad article, it just seems…I dunno, common-sense-y to me?

    Then again, I get irritated with the people who say things like “you only publish on the web because you can’t get published on paper.” Any actual human being would know that there are as many reasons for publishing on the web as there are people who do it.

    Want to know one of my top reasons for publishing online? Aspect ratio. That’s right. I don’t like the way “standard” comic pages look. They’re too tall. I like a wider format. I think it looks better. If I wanted to go the traditional publishing route – overlooking how many revisions a publisher would force on me – I’d have to submit in a standard format.

    My problem with John Solomon groupies is they seem to think the only reason to invest yourself in online creativity is to be better than other people. Tim Buckley aside, most of the webcomickers I’ve met just want to do something that they find fun and/or fulfilling. If anyone likes it, it’s just a bonus.

    • Yeah, I think anyone who publishes to the web with the express purpose of making money (solo rather than as part of a subscription-type site, anyway, in which case it’s an actual job from the start) should spend less time with the sparkling purple unicorns. Sometimes money has come to me on the way, but it was a bonus, not the goal. (To be honest, I think that attitude is one of the reasons WHY people have been willing to put up money.)

      Also with you on the aspect ratio — I like the freedom to vary page sizes from full page to traditional strip to vertical to horizontal at will, which doesn’t fly in print. And that’s nothing on the open-canvas of things like Fans! and the animated gifs of Problem Sleuth.

      • Still, people have to make money, right? That’s why I wasn’t so down on Zuda when it first came out: sure, you could make money going independent, but that’s a very hit-or-miss proposition. Zuda’s a good place for folks who would have a hard time taking on such a risk. I’d have a hard time telling an artist with a wife and kids to work for no money for a while until the popularity of their comic becomes self-sustaining.

        But I agree with you. I like to emphasize that Robert Khoo came to help Penny Arcade with their business after they’d reached a substantial reader base. Most webcomics have not reached that stage yet. Delivering a comic that people like to read is definitely Job One.

        • I’d have a hard time telling an artist with a wife and kids to work for no money for a while until the popularity of their comic becomes self-sustaining.

          Or, you know, tell him to grow up and get a day job because he has a wife and kids to support.

        • While I’m not familiar with Zuda, lazy research indicates it looks like it’s sponsored by DC. With a sort of contract (and I assume compensation), I’d call that a job, freelance or contract or whatever it is — and as far as I’m concerned that’s a totally legit way to go. I know some people get upset about the idea of pay-for-content, but there’s really no logical reason webcomics should be worth less than online porn. And, like porn, the existence of pay-per-view sites is unlikely to kill the free-to-view efforts of creators who aren’t ready to go pro, don’t want to make it their job, or are simply insane and/or awesome (re: Warren Ellis, who does FreakAngels in addition to his approximately 879 professional writing commitments).

          (I realize that, by this logic, I seem to feel contracting yourself to a publisher is less whorish than starting out indie with the intent to make money, which seems a little bent. Maybe we’d just prefer to believe that anything done solo is an labor of love rather than just a way to make a buck.)

          • Well, not just sponsored by DC … Zuda is basically a DC brand of online comics (similar to Vertigo or Wildstorm). The comics are still free online, it’s jsut that I understand the creators are paid by DC Comics for their work (plus, I imagine, profit from the published books) rather than purely relying on advertising and merchandising revenue.

          • Ah, that’s cool. Prose writers have been doing similar things for decades by submitting one-offs to magazines or publishing serially like Dickons, so it’s hardly untread ground that’s going to kill the medium. (Though it is strange the aspect ratio appears restricted — I’m sure it’s for ease of publishing, but at the same time it’s not taking advantage of the medium’s possibilities.)

  13. Of course there are a lot of bad webcomics. But the good ones are among the best comics being made by anyone today.

  14. I don’t understand why people make this argument.

    Some people are good, others are not. Most of the webcomics are bad. Most of those same webcomics are not read by anybody apart from the creator’s mom. They are all equally available, so perhaps the perspective is skewed.

    The equal availibility messes with people’s understanding of what’s making money and what’s not. There’s no external force to “cancel” a comic, so a person can literally publish for years without finding much of an audience. The fact is, we can see all webcomics, that doesn’t mean that said comics are popular.

    AnyANYway, a lot of people who made terrible webcomics have grown up to make terrific webcomics. The entire sordid chain of a career can remain indefinately preserved on line.

    Perspective, perspective.

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