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.