Saturday, August 09, 2008

Web comics are the answer

In my last post, I talked about how I believed the comics industry, especially the mainstream "Big 2" publisher, should embrace the anthology as a means to deliver the monthly, serialized "floppy" comic book. Because of changing economics and industry dynamics I think the anthology is a way for the larger publishers to go back to their roots and return to the successful formula that launched their greatest creations, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and countless others.

Now I want to talk about how I think the smaller companies and independent creators need to take a harder look at web comics as their model to replace what used to be the means for unknown or underground voices to enter the comic book industry, the black and white indy comic. Although, I would also like to see more indy anthologies (and there area and have been a a lot- Mome, 24/7, Flight, Comic Book Tattoo, Drawn & Quarterly, etc.) but the problem in today's market is that distribution has devolved into a nearly mainstream-only delivery system in the majority of most direct market comics shops. Retailers, forced to place their bets on what they will sell and not get stuck having to keep (or if they do what might have a shelf life) are betting on Coke and Pepsi's big names and not stocking very deep into the distributor catalog.

In fact, in an average 6 months I shop at at least four area comic shops. A fifth I used to go to but gave up on. In the aftermath of the 90s these shops all slowly cut back on their ordering of alternative comics, even as that part of the industry developed superstars like Los Bros. Hernandez, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Chester Brown, etc. When retailers got stuck with the bill for thousands of unsold "hot" properties, they counter-intuitively dumped the stuff that appealed to aesthetic or literary interests and firmly entrenched themselves into the fanboy collector market by placing even more chips in the basket of the Big 2.

And so I have over the years found it harder and harder to find interesting alternative work. Stores that used to get an issue of The Comics Journal, Acme Novelty Library, or Optic Nerve might now just order a couple extra copies of Punisher War Journal or Catwoman. Because of the deeper discounts from the publishers who have signed exclusive deals with Diamond, retailers have gone with the products with greater profit margin and a "reliable" customer base- the every Wednesday crowd.

Now, I see where more and more indy comics creators have gone from publishing comics to making mini-comics. Higher paper costs and printing increases have helped this along. But once upon a time a tiny publisher or sole creator could expect to publish his book on a press, have Diamond carry it and see a fair amount of orders. Now these creators are forced to go to photocopier publishing or print-on-demand (POD) and hand-sell their creations, meaning if you don't live near these creators you have almost no chance of seeing their book. While some web sites have attempted mini-comic distribution on-line they were often plagued by poor site design and interface, a lack of preview art, little to no advertising, and perhaps in the early days a reluctance for consumers to engage in e-commerce (print fetishism may be an issue here- some of us still want to touch the merchandize- to "squeeze the Charmin" as it were), not to mention high shipping costs- unless you want to order a dozen mini-comics you may be paying as much for shipping as you are for the product you are ordering.

Meanwhile, we've seen a generation emerge that has been creating web comics for several years and already produced "superstars" that make a living at their work and are getting signed to book deals from major publishers. Sadly, most of the people embracing web comics seem to be humor-based strips often aimed at youth culture niches such as gamers of fantasy-based or furry-oriented. While it's nice to see these areas flourish there is a gaping hole where the traditional indy comics crowd and aspiring mainstream creators should be. While we've seen a start very recently with projects like The Chemistry Set, Transmission-X, and Act-i-vate, I still see a lot of newer creators dumping money into print without first establishing a desire for their product, something which can be created almost free by using the internet and web comics.

This lesson was one learned the hard way. Long gone is the time when creators could create the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon with a self-published black and white comic or the days where an R. Crumb could sell-sell his way from Zap #1 to a chateau in France. In fact, I'm not even sure it's still possible for a Dan Clowes to come up the way he did, starting with Llyod Llewelyn and then moving to Eightball, selling enough copies to at least keep going and progressing. I also think the fact that a lot of record stores used to carry indy comics was a boon to the industry, not only providing an alternate sales outlet by by having music fans get turned on to interesting artists that could provide cover art, helping further expand the reach of the artists and also help provide a more stable outcome. Alternative newspapers also serialized comics and bought illustration from comic artists which further made it possible to keep the young artists going and improving. A lot has changed...

Now, the best way for an artist to be seen is to put art on-line and hope it gets picked up by Boing Boing or some other outlet that bring eyeballs to a site and creates exposure for an artist. The upside is now you can be seen by millions, but the trade-off is that you are now not just competing against the artists in your city or region to get noticed but every artist in the world. While you can still make some money off print it seems harder than ye olden tyme days and I think that means artists have to be willing to make work available for free on-line- something which goes against the instincts of many people who value their creations and believe them to be of some worth. We live in a culture where people are supposed to be paid for their work, in fact that's sort of how capitalism works, yet we find ourselves in a time where there's billions of web sites with countless hours of free content available. Every artist has to compete against YouTube, MySpace, iTunes, and more.

It almost seems like some of us are doomed to have missed the boat of the black and white boom of the '80s or even the alternative comics explosion of the 90s, yet maybe aren't young enough or tech-saavy enough to take advantage of the changes of the Aughts. I can see a whole generation of younger people almost intuitively understanding the world they live in, while this thirty-something is caught between the rock of a withering print industry and the hard place of a constantly-evolving world of tech which seems to move every time I think I've grabbed it. But I still see others who haven't seem to have caught on. It amazes me how many comic book message boards I go to where some unknown author is looking for an artist for their 12-part mini-series to be printed ye olde fashioned way.

Print is still viable if you an art comix creator who wants to silk screen covers and hand sell at conventions which is great if you live on the East or West Coast and your goal to is to get printed in Kramer's Ergot. Print is still viable if you're looking to break in at Marvel or DC. But if you're one of those other people who wants to work in the middle- in that grey area between precious (sometimes pretentious) art comix and the commerical (sometimes exploitative) superhero industry, I think you're only chance of making a go of it is to put your comics on the web and try to build an audience to eventually sell books, prints and other merchandise to in order to be repaid for your work. The audience for that work is poorly served by the current state of the industry. Not that I think web comics are the perfect solution, but they are the best one we have right now.

One last note about the fact that web comics aren't the perfect solution, but the best one we have right now: A big problem I see is that the audience still wants to read stuff in print, except for the people who are actually fans of web comics- usually people following humor based comic strips since a four panel strip isn't hard on the eyes the way a 300-page graphic novel would be. Current fans of web comics expect one thing while fans of print expect another. We need more web comics portals that cater to fans of print-based comics looking to find what's new and interesting, to help those creators build an audience for their off-line work and we also need to educate the audience that the distribution and retailing arms of the industry are acting as a blockage that is preventing the next Eightball, Love and Rockets or Cerebus from being a success. At a time when comics are dominating Hollywood and boosting bookstore profit margins, it seems even harder than ever to find good comics in your comic book store.

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