Clone's Dream

Tuesday and Thursday

Sigh. I have to say this is one of the drawings I'm ashamed of at this point. The woman selling the ring above is badly drawn, misproportioned, dysmorphic, and offbalance. On the good side, I can tell my skills have improved, but on the bad side, posting this old art nearly a year after I drew it is embarrasing.

Webcomics and Syndicated Comics

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blog ranting!

Scott Kurtz has fired another salvo in the endless debate about the distinction between webcomics and syndicated comics. And, frankly, I think he's kind of missing the point.

Here's the scoop. Bill Amend, the author of the successful syndicated strip, Foxtrot, has announced that he's going to go to sunday-only update schedule with that strip in order to pursue other projects. Scott Kurtz is loudly suggesting that one of those other projects ought to be getting more webcomics syndicated and into more mainstream publications.

This would be good, right? It's good when you can be paid for your work, and Kurtz (and a lot of other people) have put an incredible amount of work into their comics. And hey, a number of them, including his PvP, are sufficiently capable of "offending none" to be printed in most newspapers. And hey, newspaper cartoonists get paid, don't they? So it seems like having the syndicates be at least aware of webcomics and consider them on a par with other possibilities would be a good thing, right?

Well, maybe. A few years ago I came across a half-grown cat, lying on its side in an alleyway, pitifully wheezing for breath. In front of her there was some morsel she had snagged somewhere, and she had been trying to eat. But she was choking instead, because the collar that fit when she was a kitten and had run away or got lost was way too small for the half-grown cat she had become. She was gaunt and bony from starvation and you could see the terror in her eyes as she was choking, probably to death, on the tiny scrap of food she'd tried to swallow. She tried to run away from me, but fifteen yards away she fainted because she couldn't get enough air. I don't want to be quite so morbid here, but you have to understand; this cat was dying. I cut the collar off, tugged a pathetically tiny chunk of fish out of her throat, and made sure she could breathe until she regained consciousness. Then I fed her some yogurt and took her to a local no-kill shelter.

Here's where I think Kurtz is missing the point. Syndicated comics are a lot like that cat. Comics as we know them got started with mass-market periodical publications, because those publications represented the earliest means that combined both the technical capabilities to print them and regular access to a market to make printing them financially worthwhile. The syndicates, like the kitten's collar, were put in place around that model, and like that collar they have constrained the growth of comics as a medium and threatened to kill it.

On the web, it doesn't have to be financially worthwhile to publish a comic. We don't, as a rule, get paid much if anything, but there are literally thousands of people publishing webcomics, because the technical capability requirement has been annihilated and comics creation has become accessible as a hobby. It no longer requires significant financial returns to recoup the costs of printing and publication. Indeed, lots of webcomic authors publish with no financial returns whatsoever, and aren't worried about it because it's no more expensive than any other creative hobby.

So we don't get paid much, but we've taken control of our own medium and in exchange for what we pay to do this, we get absolute creative freedom. Webpublishing allows comics to grow, finally, into a true creative medium. With webcomics, our work stands or falls on artistic merits more advanced than just a target demographic and a list of interests to avoid offending. With webcomics, we don't have to dumb it down. We make an artistic rather than livelihood choice about whether to keep it kid-safe. And instead of censorship as such, our market simply votes with its feet. If they don't like it, they go elsewhere.

What Kurtz et al have failed to realize is that this is the future. This is how comics as an artform can grow. This is what allows new things to happen. The syndicates are in the process of becoming irrelevant. Sure, they still control access to newspapers for comics, but newspapers are no longer important for comics. In comics, we now get as much space as we want, and our only challenge is to make reading it worthwhile for our audience. And if newspapers can't use it, that doesn't keep us from our audience.

Don't worry about newspapers though; comics aren't important to them either. They haven't been for years. If they were, then newspapers would still be according individual comic strips three inches by nine inches on weekdays and half-pages on sundays. Comics used to be a competitive advantage for newspapers, but since virtually all newspapers are now monopolies in their local market, they simply aren't needed in that capacity any more. Since the 1950's, newspaper strips have gotten smaller and smaller. The wonderful language and lush backgrounds of Walt Kelly's Pogo are completely unreadable if you render them at the sizes allowed for newspaper strips today.

So, if newspapers are no longer important to comics, and comics are no longer important to newspapers, then where does that leave the syndicates whose main business is trying to sell comics to newspapers? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, they're dying out there. The financials aren't readily available because they're not publicly traded, but they employ fewer and fewer people, and their offices are smaller and smaller. In a sea of media, where they're selling nothing superior to what anybody can get on the web, comics syndicates are rapidly going the way of the dodo. They have transformed from being the only access between creators and audience to being mere mediators of convenience in the printed form.

And, well, comics as an art form are growing, and can encompass that convenience. The printed form is achievable for a larger and larger number of authors, with no help from newspapers or syndicates. More and more webcomics have printed volumes, and have managed to get there with no help from newspapers or syndicates.

The syndicates that supported comics before the web and helped them to find markets, are now simply unneeded, and in their choice to continue to conduct themselves as though they are needed, they are choking the life and the possibility of artistic growth out of the comics they carry. Neither authors nor newspapers have compelling need for them, and for a comics author, accepting the editorial control they want and the loss of copyright, is simply not a good move as an artist. The syndicates will change or die, and they are very resistant to change.

And this brings us back to Kurtz and Bill Amend. Amend is ending a syndicated strip (the weekday edition of Foxtrot). From this, it would seem to me that he may be withdrawing some support from the syndication model. But Kurtz somehow reaches the opposite conclusion, that the syndication model is somehow even more desirable now that good cartoonists are jumping off it, and that Amend must believe it's so good that he should for some reason devote time to helping others climb on. This doesn't scan.

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