This year’s Webcartoonists’ Choice Awards were announced several weeks ago – which is essentially a hojillion years in internet time – but I felt I should comment on them a bit anyway.
First off – I’m actually rather sad I didn’t make any predictions this year, as for once nearly all of the comics I was rooting for ended up as the winners. The main exception was Lackadaisy, a comic not on my reading list, which claimed quite a few awards this year. Given that it did the same last year as well, one would think it would stand as an easy choice to be added to my reading list, but somehow I still haven’t gotten around to doing so.
This was actually a really good year for the WCCA’s as a whole. Moments of drama were relatively few and far between – though not absent entirely. The ceremony itself (in the usual form of online comics) was incredibly well-done and easy to read, as opposed to the sprawling madness found in some previous years. The entire event felt more professional than it has in the past, and that is by far a step in the right direction.
This year featured the removal of the ‘genre categories’ – awards given out to the best sci-fi strips, the best superhero strips, the best romance strips, etc, etc. I was somewhat afraid of this change, largely because those fields gave some smaller fish out their a chance to compete while the usual big names swept the primary categories. But going through the awards now, I don’t really feel the loss as much as I expected – and looking over past years, it is definitely obvious that such categories often required a great deal of stretching to even find enough nominees for the ballot.
So, having said all the above good things about this year’s WCCAs… on to the complaints!
Only two, and the first one is merely to point out that, as usual, the event has an amazing lack of advertising. For something that is designed around getting input from webcartoonists all over the web, they do an incredible job of flying below the radar – from the beginning of the nomination process to the announcement of the results at the end. And I think that very lack of reaching out to the larger webcomic world as a whole is a key reason for the occasionally static results – we see a lot of the same winners and nominees, even in categories that aren’t necessarily the right fit for them.
And, yes, some of that is the natural result of this sort of event being a popularity contest at heart, and there isn’t anything wrong with that – but it also feels like it has one relatively small group of people involved in the entire show. If they can expand their audience, and draw in more participants, I think that would be a very good thing indeed. And the only way that is going to happen is if they actually make an effort to spread the word every year when the awards are actually happening.
Complaint number two is a more genuine one – I was appalled when I see PvP nominated for Outstanding Website Design. I know he pays people to professionally put together a website for him – that does not mean they do a good job!
His design last year was relatively slick and effective, but his latest site is completely out of control. There is no way to easily go to the first strip. I repeat – there is no easy way to go to the first strip!
There is not a button that takes you there. There is not a button that takes you to an archive! You can manually go to the little calendar widget buried in the bottom-right of the page, well below the fold, and select May 1998, the first month listed there, and then select the first comic. And it is not all that difficult a task, but it is about three steps more than such an act should require!
Similarly, when you click on an individual date in the calendar widget, it brings up, not a page with the strip itself, but a page with a thumbnail of the strip! Clicking on that then brings you to the comic itself.
Look. These are not horrendous, life-changing mistakes. Will it turn away some new readers? Sure. Will it frustrate regular readers trying to hunt through the archives? Probably. Are either of those problems that big a deal? Not really.
Seeing them on what is supposed to be one of the most professional webcomics on the net, on the other hand, is really disappointing. Normally, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. Similarly, I would normally be able to forgive the sheer amount of links and promotions and ads and other craziness plastered all over the page, because Scott Kurtz does have a lot happening and needs a place to put all that stuff.
But when the site is being nominated for being one of the most “Outstanding” around… well, as I said, it is disappointing. Not as a mark against Kurtz, really, but as a sign of how easy it is for a comic to be nominated simply because it is a big name, rather than because it is appropriate for the award at hand.
What Makes a Webcomic: In Which I Attempt to Overcomplicate an Oversimplification.
So, the other day I saw this strip over at Planet Karen. And it got me thinking about about what it said. And, interestingly enough, I find myself both in agreement… and in disagreement with the proposed statement.
To start with, this topic does drag us back to the time-honored debate over “What is a webcomic?” Is it something unique and exceptional? Or is it simply comics… on the web?
Eric Burns – after several years of being the greatest advocate of webcomics – finally set that aside, and threw down the gauntlet as he said the only difference is the “fucking means of distribution.”
Is that true? If so, how come so many webcomics have a hard time being fit into the standard print comics categories? There are some webcomics that feel like newspaper strips, yes, and there are some that feel like comic books – but there are also plenty that are a mix of the two. Or something else entirely.
For that matter, is he also saying there is no difference between newspaper comics and comic books? Is the only difference between them a matter of distribution?
So let’s take a step back, and ask the question – what are short form and long form comics? Looking up “short form comics” on the internet, wikipedia for once has no easy answer. While many seem familiar with the term, the only definition I can find (in an admittedly brief search) comes from the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, who define it as comics “comics with shorter formats with regular gags, or beats to it’s story to reflect each individual strip. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Strip’ formats.”
That seems, certainly, the understood definition. The Eisner Awards do not define it – but then, they are focused on the other side of the field in general, the long-form comic, so perhaps they need no such delineations. It may simply be understood that short-form works are outside their field of interest. Oh, they had a category devoted to them in, say, ’92 and ’93, and specific creators are occasionally selected for the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame… but those are the very, very rare exceptions.
So, moving on to long-form comics, which the WCCA offers up as “comics with longer formats and extended, continuous storylines. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Book’ formats.” Again, this seems the commonly understood meaning of the term. And, again, the Eisner Awards don’t directly define it – the only mention comes in during the “Digital Comics” category wherein they specify that the webcomics must be “long-form stories published online.”
(I apologize if I simply seem to be laying out obvious information – I am attempting, slowly but steadily, to work towards a point.)
So, the Eisner Awards seem to limit webcomics to only long-form works in the same fashion that they limit the rest of the rewards to comic books, or comic book related material. Fair enough.
But… wait just one second! In 2006, the Digital Comic award went to… PvP.
Now, you can say whatever you wish about PvP, but one thing that is undeniable is that it follows the standard conventions of newspaper comic strips. Four-panel layout, daily updates, color sundays, gag-a-day punchlines, etc, etc, etc. Oh, it tells a growing story, certainly – characters change and grow, new characters are introduced while older ones fade away.
But there are plenty of regular newspaper comic strips that do the same. For Better or For Worse was the poster child for this, but there remain others for which this is true. Hell – take a look at all of the soap opera style strips! Suddenly you have nothing but story.
What does this mean? Are they not short-form comics? Are they not newspaper comics? That is clearly their publishing format, yet they seem to defy other expectations of the genre. If PvP can be honored in the Eisner Awards, why can’t they?
Or is there something different about being online that allows PvP, despite its nature, to qualify as a long-form work? The presence of an archive could be the reason – it allows one to read the entire story in one sitting. On the other hand… that option is open for comic strips, too – it isn’t as immediately accessible, or as free, but it is there.
Or perhaps all of these categories are inherently flawed, and webcomics simply serve to make those flaws more apparent.
There are, after all, webcomics that are both about short-term laughs and long-term storytelling. There are webcomics styled like comic strips and ones styled like comic books. There are ones that use elements of both… and others that resembled neither.
Of course, the same might be said of some alternative comics, or various self-published works. I’m by no means an expert in such fields, but I’m sure there have been comics put forward before that defied easy definition or categorization.
What is a webcomic?
That is the question brought up earlier, isn’t it? If you asked me what I thought of when webcomics come to mind, I would list the following elements: Accessibility, lack of any direct fees for reading the comic, freedom from editorial control, open and comprehensive archives, supplementary material such as cast pages and story guides, and internal communities in which the reader and the audience could engage in communication. And yet – these are elements found in the majority of webcomics out there, and they are certainly a good guideline as to the quality of a webcomic… but they don’t define them. An online comic that lacks one, or two, or even all of these elements is still a comic on the web. Is there a difference between this and this and this?
Let me put forth a hypothetical situation. Currently there are many newspaper comics being updated online at the same time they are updated in the paper. The comic book companies are now, ever so slowly, beginning to place their own material online. Let’s fast forward a bit, and say that all such comics were now available online.
What defines a webcomic then?
I mean, clearly there will still be differences, right? Such as the elements I listed above – even when all the newspaper comics are posted online, they will still be under the control of the syndicates, still lack supplementary material, still lack internal communities.
For Better or For Worse. Classic print comic. And right there it has every classic webcomic element I listed. It is online, it is free, it has over five years of archives available, it is a comic that has shown itself willing to delve into territory normal avoided in the papers, it has a ton of supplementary material, and while I couldn’t hunt down a forum, it does have open lines of communication.
On the other hand, Mary Worth doesn’t, nor does Luann. Does that mean FBoFW has transitioned from a newspaper comic to a webcomic? Or is it both?
Clearly there are differences between most webcomics and printed material. Differences in style and format, but also in content and in context. But there are also equal differences between various webcomics.
Karen says “the problem is defining webcomics in terms of print comics, which they aren’t. They’re webcomics.” But right now, webcomics is simply used as this catch-all category for which everything is undefined. Despite – or perhaps because – of how incredibly diverse they are.
Karen is right – you can’t define webcomics in terms of print comics. But simply calling them webcomics is missing the big picture – eventually they will all be webcomics. The differences will still be there, though – will the old-fashioned terminology we’ve been using still suffice?
No. No it won’t.
We need new categories.
I, personally, don’t know what those categories will be. And I don’t know who is suited to decide. I don’t even know for sure if clear divisions can be drawn. But you have things like Narbonic, which tell a complete long-form story despite resembling a short-form comic on the surface. You have webcomics that pull style from one type of comic and format from another. Are they too diverse to be categorized? Maybe, maybe not.
Right now, the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards are the closest any have come to doing so. And, let’s be honest now – they haven’t met with any spectacular success. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy them every year, I like what they are trying to do, and I respect all of those involved for their willingness to try and get this right. But they also tend to make a variety of poor decisions, and even when they do things right, they still don’t represent the whole field of online comic creators out there.
Perhaps this is one area where the corporations and syndicates have an advantage – they are organized and largely unified. They have the resources to define their fields. Webcomics are a group of myriad individuals, often ones working hard simply trying to make a living from their work – they rarely have the time to try and form any sort of unified committee. And when they do, it ends up as the WCCA – a good attempt, but not enough to truly redefine the field.
I don’t know where one should go from here. I know that I disagree, strongly, with Mr. Burns and the idea that webcomics are identical to print comics save for the means of distribution. I know that I agree with Karen Ellis that online comics shouldn’t be defined by print comics – but I don’t know if simply labelling them as open-ended ‘webcomics’ is enough.
So, some 1,500 words later, I still haven’t arrived at a proper definition for webcomics. But then… I’m not sure I’m qualified to truly do so. I’m part of the audience – an observer and a commentator, but not much more. I’m not the one creating the comics – or relying on them for a living.
Nonetheless, I do think this is a question that needs to be answered – especially with the print comics digital initiative finally on the horizon. Because the terminology they use now is only barely adequate to the task, and will fall apart completely as they move their comics online and find differences in distribution becoming meaningless.
Sure, they are all just comics in the end.
But isn’t there just a little bit more to it than that?
Anything But This
One of the downsides to relying on Piperka for most of my comic updates is that it is awfully easy to fall behind on comics it doesn’t track. Strangely enough, however… is that sometimes this can be for the best. For one thing, when I notice, it means there is suddenly a nice big bulk of strips I’ll have a chance to read through at once. Something to look forward to – that’s a good thing, no doubt about it.
But sometimes, when I notice, I realize that I’m not looking forward to reading them… which means I need to start figuring out why.
Anywhere But Here has been the latest such challenge – and a challenge it is, given that there is nothing wrong with the strip on the surface. In its previous iteration it fell into some pretty ugly territory, with winding plots drawn out over years and melodrama that spiraled deeper and deeper into unreadability.
But, in a rare event, Jason Siebels – the creator – recognized the troubles he was having, and after a few attempts to salvage the current strip, decided to just wipe the slate clean and start back from the beginning. And he did a hell of a job doing so, cranking his artwork up several levels right off the bat – and it soon became clear that the writing was quick to follow.
Since then, the strip has remained far more focused than the previous version. The plot is coherent, the characters are well-developed and the interactions are all effectively done. The humor is able to drag a genuine laugh out of me at least once every few weeks – no easy task. The art has fallen ever-so-slightly; I understand the reasons for no longer using color, but it is sorely missed. Of course, given how much the color brings the strip to life – and given that’s the opposite of the message it is trying to convey – removing it makes perfect sense.
And – ding! – there we have the hidden problem with it. The one thing that has kept me from really enjoying it, no matter how well it is written, no matter how gorgeously it is drawn:
I absolutely loathe the premise.
I hate it. It simply fails, for me, on every single level. And not because it is a bad premise or somehow offensive – but it is simply not a story that interests me.
Because, in the end, it is all about watching the Dude – the main hero of the story – get screwed over by life again, and again, and again. It is about watching his parents completely ruin his college plans for no reason. It is about watching his classmates and teachers conspire against him, about seeing him friendless and miserable and played for laughs… and, in the end, to see him simply accepting all this. For all his complaints and frustration, he doesn’t actually bother to fight it – primarily because doing so would invalidate the scenario the plot has envisioned for him.
I have complained about this sort of situation before – it happened in Abstract Gender, where the main character hated the hand life had dealt her, but was constantly portrayed as simply going along with even the most outrageous things, simply because the plot demanded it. It bugged me then, and it bugs me now.
And I say this knowing that this isn’t how Anywhere But Here will end – knowing what I know of the previous iteration, I am fully aware that we will see the Dude overcoming his hatred for his situation and learning to make the best of it, and maybe – just maybe – finding some measure of happiness.
But… not for a while, yet. For now, it is about life grinding the Dude into the dust at every single opportunity.
And the author has a hell of a good reason for this – he talks about the origin of the strip here, but I’ll quote the key part:
“Anywhere but Here is about life taking a left turn…no, a series of left turns. Anywhere but Here is about life continiously trying to run you into a cliff no matter how hard you try and jerk the wheel away.
It IS Schadenfreude, make no doubt about that, but it’s schadenfreude with a purpose. It was my way of exploring how to deal with life when it keeps trying to grind you down. Do you shut down? Do you fight? Do you wrest the wheel away from the fickle finger of fate, or do you just crash into the cliff and hope you survive the impact?
That’s ABH in a nutshell I guess. Do you deal, or do you not deal, or do you deal with not dealing.”
Now, that’s a powerful statement. It is one that comes from the heart, and yes… it is one that makes for a good story, and good storytelling.
It just isn’t my kind of story.
Seriously – you know all those hi-larious movies out there, usually featuring Adam Sandler, that involve around the main character being constantly embarassed throughout the movie? Where you see them put through the most ridiculous situations again, and again, and again? I hate them. I loathe them beyond imagining.
And this story, right here – yes, its more than one of those stupid movies. Yes, it is building towards a much bigger picture, and one day it will answer the question it asks, and move on from there.
But right here, right now, it just isn’t meant for me. It is simply too much concentrated schadenfreude – something I might be able to handle in small doses, but not when it infests every single element of the strip.
It took me a while to realize this – each individual update is so well-designed, and each tends to work for me in isolation. But put them all together, and it had started to get to the point where I was physically cringing every time the Dude got screwed over, and it wasn’t until I finally sat down and examined things closely that I realized this was a recurring habit.
Does this mean I’m swearing off the strip for good? Probably not. If Siegels takes this story where he wants to, if he builds it up into the sort of work I suspect he’s aiming for, and that it definitely has the potential to be… well, that’s when I’ll come wandering back. When I can sit down and read through the entire story at once – or when it is published in print format, nice and whole and complete – that’s when I suspect it will work. When I can enjoy the transition beyond the undiluted cruelty being handed to the Dude… I will find all well with the world.
But until then, it gets set aside.
Which isn’t necessarily entirely bad. After all, no doubt about it – having something to look forward to is, in the end, a good thing.
Where’s the laughs?
So, I was somewhat startled by a post over at MightyGodKing wherein he calls PvP to task for the hypocrisy of indulging in a drama-laden storyline after previously mocking other strips that do so.
Now, his previous commentary on PvP, which was a spot-on piece of criticism about the strip’s current lack of focus and reliance on desperate in-jokes and pop-culture references, was a very nice piece of work – and, in fact, helped fully delineate a lot of the elements that had been bothering me about the comic.
Which is why it is startling to see another post about the comic wherein I disagree entirely in pretty much every regard.
Now to be fair, there isn’t all that much to disagree with – the recent post isn’t very detailed, just a juxtaposition of two strips from the comic (one current, and one four years old), with the apparent goal of pointing out the hypocrisy of the current storyline. If that isn’t truly his intention, then I apologize in advance for assuming otherwise – see the usual disclaimer about it being hard to get a sense for what people are actually saying over the internet.
But, on the assumption that he is attempting to take Kurtz to task… well, I have to object with the examples he is using to do so.
Exhibit A, above, is where Kurtz is presumably putting down how some comics in the so-called funny pages wander into serious storylines, which can be grim and even downright depressing. But here’s the thing – while Kurtz has certainly not disguised his disdain for the majority of the newspaper comic strips, that disdain has usually fallen on the ones relying on tired, formulaic gags… comics that haven’t changed or evolved in decades. The above comic was posted back when For Better or For Worse was still considered one of the true comics of quality in the paper, when the Boondocks was one of the few to challenge the status quo.
Even beyond that, Cole puts forward in the strip the opinion that there can be a time and place for serious storylines. Not a surprising opinion, given that for all of PvP’s own reliance on gags, it has also often been driven by some significant stories built around drama and relationships – in fact, it becomes even more amusing considering that Brent (and his situation with Jade) has usually been the one at the heart of such storylines. Brent just sort of ignores the point, but it is still out there providing a voice of reason despite’s Brent’s ranting.
Is Kurtz seriously saying that comics should be nothing but simple jokes day in and day out? That the rest of the funny pages – the ones he rather universally loathes – are the ones to aspire towards?
Of course not – he’s poking some simple fun at the serious strips, sure, but doing so firmly tongue-in-cheek.
Exhibit B is the current storyline, wherein, as you can see, Cole’s marriage is falling apart. Even worse – it is happening right while Brent and Jade are in the midst of planning their own wedding. Sure, this is drama-heavy territory… but I also would contend it is the best Kurtz has been in months.
Despite the drama, the punchlines have actually been funny. I mean, sure, Brent finding out he has no legitimate reason to be pissed at Cole, and thus becoming all the more pissed, isn’t some powerful new form of humor than will redefine the genre – but it is rock solid in characterization and easily got a laugh out of me. And most of the strips in the storyline have been the same – competent and humorous strips that have also advanced the plot. As compared to just another round of pop-culture references, or trying to find yet another way to work in a panda attack, or a well-meaning but ultimately weak storyline about Shecky the troll.
Honestly? The time to take Kurtz to task for any supposed hypocrisy about “serious issues” was in 2005, when we had Jade suddenly worried she might be pregnant, and Brent trying to deal with the possibility of being a dad.
Which – guess what – despite only being two weeks long, was possibly the best storyline PvP has ever had.
Several months back, the webcomics community took notice of Wowio, a site that gives access to free eBooks.
Most of that notice, unfortunately, was negative – some misreadings of the company’s policies led many to believe that they shared user’s personal data with outside corporations, a practice that, unsurprisingly, most folks would not be ok with. Given the nature of the information required to start an account – credit card data, a scan of personal ID such as a driver’s license, or a non-anonymous e-mail address – a lot of folks dismissed it as something of a scam, and turned their backs on it.
Three and a half months later, I think that is a damn shame.
Once it was made clear how the company’s policy actually worked, I got right on board. Over the next week, I downloaded the few eBooks I was actually interested in reading (less than a dozen), and then I stopped using it to acquire reading material. Instead, I started using it to support webcomics with money that was, essentially, free.
For each person who downloads an issue of a comic on Wowio, the creator gets 50 cents. That’s the reason they have such a relatively strict sign-up process – so they can make sure each new account is unique, since there really aren’t that many ways to do so over the internet.
You can only download three books a day. And I suppose a dollar and a half doesn’t seem like the hugest contribution to put in your favorite creator’s pocket. But on the other hand… it costs you two minutes to do so, and you can do it every single day. Sure, you are limited by how many different webcomic downloads are available on the site – but I just took a quick look through, and saw around 166 just from titles I recognized. $83 dollars is looking a bit more solid – even spread out between a dozen creators. Especially considering every single reader can be making the same contribution.
And in the months it takes to make those downloads, who knows how many more titles or issues will be added to the site?
I’m not holding this out there as something people have to do, not by any means. But it strikes me that Wowio got a pretty bad rap when it first hit the scene, and deserves to be recognized for the opportunity it is: a chance for people to easily give some money back to creators without spending any out of their own pockets.
I mean, let’s face it – if every webcomic made a dollar off of every single reader they had, there would be hundreds more webcomics making enough to support their creators, as opposed to the several dozen there are now. Unfortunately, getting that dollar is not only a challenge, but an impossibility, for any number of reasons. Even for those who are really devoted to the comics and want to give back, it can be hard – I read hundreds of webcomics, and if I tried to support every single one, it gets costly.
So most people tend to support one or two of their favorites. And the comics that succeed are often ok with this – they count on getting money (via merchandise, donations or otherwise) from only 10% of their readership, or maybe even less. There is nothing wrong with not being able to give that dollar out.
But for those who really want to do so anyway, but just don’t have the money, or the ability to choose which webcomic out there deserves it the most… well, therein lies the beauty of Wowio.
It takes maybe ten, twenty minutes to set up an account. All signs indicate the process of doing so is, actually, safe and secure. Once you’ve done so, another two minutes a day to download eBooks and give back a dollar fifty to some deserving creators. While you’re at it, you can enjoy the product itself! Or you can just toss it out, if all you were looking for is the chance to give back.
I’ve been keeping at it. I’ve been doing it with comics I’ve stopped reading – for all my criticism of the works of Chris Crosby a few months back, I’ve probably downloaded twenty-plus of his strip’s issue since then.
I’m going to go back to the premise one last time – this is a way for readers to contribute money to the webcomics they read for free. Ok, I get that it seems to good to be true, but it seems to work. You download eBooks, Wowio gets paid by advertisers who like being able to put their ads in each book, and some of that cash goes to the creators that deserve it.
How is that not a win-win situation for every single person involved?
Rejecting the Status Quo
In the last year and a half there seems to have been a slew of webcomics focused less on wacky hijinks and more on tightknit relationship-based drama. Punch an’ Pie, Scene Language and Octopus Pie all come to mind – and interesting enough, they are also all webcomics launched by creators with previous works under their belts.
What I have found most interesting, however, is that they are also nothing like what I have become accustomed to. Most such webcomics usually rely heavily on the tension of unrequited love – you have several character clearly attracted to each other, clearly meant to end up together, but events conspire to prevent them from doing so for years at a time. Sure, it allows for an easy hook to keep stringing readers along, but it also seems like the easy way out – and after seeing the same plot time and time again, it quickly grows boring.
Which is why I am very impressed with all these recent webcomics that decide to go in entirely the opposite direction.
Octopus Pie took only a handful of strips to break up Eve with her boyfriend – but it did a good job of focusing her personality and setting the stage for the dynamics to come, and how she relates to her roommate and how she deals with her newest potential love interest. Relationships are a fundamental focus of the comic – and not just specifically those of an intimate nature, but all the connections between Eve and the world around her, with her family, her friends, her coworkers.
Scene Language, meanwhile, has involved even more turbulence – the first major arc involved one of the four main characters, Charlie, breaking up with her boyfriend, while two of the other main characters discover themselves in something resembling a relationship. The arc concludes with what seems to be the status quo the story has been building towards – the four protagonists rent a house together, and it seems likely they’ve found their respective places in the strip dynamics. The second storyarc dispels that notion, however, as relationships continue to shift, develop, and fall apart.
Punch an’ Pie, on the other hand, features a split I never saw coming. Oh, it wasn’t done in a haphazard fashion in the slightest – but it still came as a surprise. From the beginning we were told that the strip followed the life of Angela, whom many still fondly remembered from Queen of Wands. But despite Angela being the star, her girlfriend Heather seems an equally vital part of the strip from the start – and given the strip largely begins with their relationship moving to a new stage (as they move in together), it seems like something integral to the entire comic, and unassailably intact.
Until it’s… not.
These three strips are not the only ones to deal with this kind of plotlines, and they all approach it in different ways – some have gone through changes that cannot be undone, while others leave plenty of potential for reconciliation. Yet I find one thing undeniably clear – all of them, within their first year, are willing and almost eager to break the status quo. They are not content with leading readers along through the same stories and the same situations, with the hope for an eventual happy ending dangling at the end of the string, eternally just out of reach.
Instead, they shake things up. People change, relationships change, and – in the end – the world moves on. This isn’t just more realistic storyline, it is also infinitely more ambitious storytelling. I mean, look at how long these strips have been around, and look at how much has happened within them. Some comics can take years to cover the events of a single day, or week, or month, and even when all is said and done, nothing fundamental has actually changed. Which can still make for a fun story, sure – but how much less rewarding is that compared to seeing a character genuinely grow, or seeing life actually taking place before your eyes?
These comics may not be alone in the route they’ve taken, but I still feel as though we’ve seen a growing trend towards this brand of comic in the last few years. Maybe because the creators have dabbled (or more) in the field before, and have learned from those experiences. Maybe because, with the vast number of webcomics out there, it requires a stronger story to get the attention of an audience. Maybe because the authors and readers simply have more life experience to capture within their tales.
Whatever the reason, the trend seems to be there, and the arrival of stories of this caliber is a development I can certainly get behind.
Quite a Few Things Positive
Man – stop posting for a week and suddenly everything happens in the webcomic world. It would be a bit of a drag to rehash them all – and most of the news can be found in this post by Howard Tayler, wherein he says pretty much everything I would have said.
As far as other webcomic developments this last weel, I must say I appreciated some of the dorkoriffic halloween costumes; I enjoyed the wrapping up of the latest story arc in No Need for Bushido, which managed to treat characters seriously without losing their personalities; I was impressed the surprisingly convincing flirtation going on in Nukees these days; and I liked the fact that the scariest image on Halloween was the future version of Penny that looks just like Aggie.
This is probably a low blow, especially to a man having his wisdom teeth removed today, but for the first three panels, I thought this was one of the most touching autobiographical webcomic strips out there.
All the little things aside, however, what I’d really like to discuss is Something Positive 1937.
Now, this is undeniably a cool little comic. It offers a more bite-size version of the classic S*P humor, which is nice. It is interesting to see the family connections and similarities – and differences – between the past and present generations. And the characters themselves are intriguing in their own rights, with their own stories to tell and lives to live.
But what really wows me about the entire thing… is how it seems to have come into being. Milholland had some extra advertising space on his website that was going unused for a short bit. Now, while most webcomickers would have used this opportunity to leave it blank or try and draw in more ads, he decided to create an entirely new comic that would fit in the spot.
Think about that – he added this little gem to his daily workload simply because he could. Because he had an inspiration and an opportunity to tell a story, and he decided to do so. I mean, that’s what most webcomics are in the first place, sure – but this was on top of all the other stuff he did. And now we’re over fifty strips into S*P 1937 and it appears to be a permanent fixture, and along the way he’s come up with a pretty awesome new advertising method along the way.
That’s just awesome. Not just because it means more free comics for his readers, but because it serves as a reminder of exactly how interested he is in the stories he is telling.
We see this in S*P 1937. We see this in bonus pages and world backgrounds and video miniseries. We see this in posting triple-size updates just for the sake of doing so. All of it evidence that these guys aren’t just trying to get an audience, it isn’t just about money or internet fame or any of that – it’s about telling a story, and they are just as eager as the fans to see where the story goes. It’s something easy to lose site of, and I’m always glad to be reminded of it.
Respect is not a weakness; compromise is not defeat.
So, there is a bit of a brouhaha that has arisen regarding a t-shirt produced by Jeffrey Rowland, overlord of Topatoco and producer of various webcomics.
The issue at hand is that Mr. Rowland produced a t-shirt design with an internet theme, which included a drawing of the O RLY owl. He recieved an e-mail, which may or may not be legitimate, claiming to be from the photographer John White who took the original photograph of the owl.
For purposes of simplicity, I’m going to assume the complaint is genuine and that John White does have copyright on the photo.
What bothers me about the entire scenario is that the response, when popular webcomics are accused of this sort of thing, is for the community to jump forward and say, “Oh, this is clearly fair use, and the accusers are just stirring up trouble with their claims.” But when an outsider attempts to do the same to webcomickers, the community forms into one giant fist to pound on them.
Now, I’m not saying that this situation is the same as the most recent scandal, because… it’s not. Todd Goldman stole art wholesale in an undeniable example of greed and plagiarism, and did so clearly without remorse. Rowland, in this situation, merely was making reference to a common internet meme, and likely didn’t even consider that the image might be copyrighted, and any violation was entirely accidental. So the two scenarios are most certainly different…
…but that doesn’t mean that Rowland was in the right.
Over at Fleen, Gary Tyrrell makes the argument that this is an instance of fair use. Specifically, that Rowland is commenting on the presence of the internet meme – and that since the image of the owl has so thoroughly nested itself (no pun intended) into the internet public consciousness, it is now fair game.
Of course – that would mean, by the same logic, that if a specific image from a webcomic suddenly became the basis for a wide-spread meme, there should then be no objection if it started getting printed out on t-shirts across the net, right? Right?
Well, no – webcartoonists would immediately get angry over this. They’d get roaring mad. Campaigns would be led, crusades waged. I am certain of that.
Now, I’m not actually saying if they would be wrong to respond one way or the other – just that the community as a whole would react in a completely hypocritical fashion from how they are doing now. It’s ok if one of our own does it, but criminal in an outsider. Even worse, when one of our own is accused, we don’t just disagree – we lash out at the attacker.
I’ve seen it on several occasions – if one suggests that a popular webcomic might have snagged an image or idea from another source, they are showered with ridiculed for the suggestion. They are accussed of trying to cause trouble, or simply being greedy. That they aren’t just wrong, but abusing the ideals of copyright protection. That simply raising an objection to the use of their art is an act worthy of contempt or annoyance.
A while back, another member of Dumbrella had a similar situation – they had a number of t-shirts that featured various references to Star Wars. Lucas and company said “Hey – stop that.” Fleen responded by mocking Lucasfilm. Rich Steven’s own response was, largely, about he could simply claim the t-shirts weren’t about Star Wars at all. Sure, they were stylized enough that he could make that argument, or say that when he used the name “Chewie,” he certainly wasn’t talking about old Chewbacca… but whether he could make the claim or not, everyone knew it wasn’t true.
The t-shirts were about Star Wars. He was selling stuff to make money through references to another dude’s intellectual property. Now, were his t-shirts really resulting in a big loss of income to Lucasfilm? Of course not. (Though once they give others free reign on their copyright, that can be a slippery slope.) But hey – just because the one getting ripped off is a giant soulless corporation doesn’t make it right.
I notice, just as I am starting to really get my rant on, that over at Overcompensating Rowland mentions his plans to take down the design if the guy making the complaint is the real thing. So – hey, major props to him.
Because, really, that’s what I’m trying to advocate here. We make all this fuss about plagiarism and respecting an artist’s work – but you can’t just pretend those ideals are only true when you want them to be. You want to champion those ideals, then do so. Don’t make excuses about how pixel art can be interpreted or how your art being used for a meme automatically makes it communal property. Even if you do disagree with the claim, then present your arguments in a civil fashion – don’t freaking villainize anyone who dares raise a complaint against your crowd.
Show what you’re made of – here’s the chance to be the better person. Sure, it might be a gray area, as it is here. Sure, you can probably put forward a legitimate argument or excuse and keep your t-shirt in print. But what does it hurt to let it go, versus demonstrating your respect for another artist’s work?
So, Jeffrey Rowland – congrats on handling the situation with class.
And here’s hoping, next time, the rest of webcomics follows your example.
A Few Notes on a Friday
Apologies for the sparsity of posts this week – expect things to remain a bit slow as NaNoWriMo approaches.
A few brief thoughts I meant to discuss this week, but which never had time for a proper post:
1) Halloween storylines are starting to emerge among webcomics, as they are prone to do this time of year. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised by both PvP and Schlock Mercenary, whose storylines seem to have flowed from the existing events in an entirely natural fashion, rather than feeling like the usual shoe-horned October spook-fest.
2) There has been a bit of hubbub in the last week about New Avengers #35, wherein superheroine Tigra is brutally beaten in a rather exploitative fashion. What really bothered me about the scene, however, was learning that the likely reason for the occurence was a simple one – the author, Brian Michael Bendis, hated the character, and wanted to humilate her in the worst way possible.
Might not be true, though thus far it seems otherwise, as apparently this is something he has done before. And, mind you, I like his work on a lot of other comics. Still, this is bothersome, since the entire idea of using one’s position as a writer to put the characters one hates in their place… well, it seems remarkably petty.
I recall a little while back where a similar thing happened between Garth Ennis and Frank Tieri. In Ennis’s Punisher, Wolverine got his face blown off, his legs chainsawed, and was run over by a steamroller, among other things. It was a ludicrous portrayal, the sole purpose of which was to make him look bad and the Punisher look good. The current author of the Wolverine series, Tieri, took offense to this – and so had Punisher show up in his title, wherein Wolverine kicked his ass, and to top it all off, pointed out the gay porno Punisher happened to be carrying around. Ha ha! You sure told him!
Look. This sort of childish nonsense might be something I’d expect in webcomics, if only due to the lack of editorial control – sometimes people want to lash out, and use whatever medium they’re skilled at to do so. But I really expected better from DC and Marvel – the entire point is for them to be professionals, and when writers stop worrying about producing stories, and instead simply about indulging their own illicit bits of fan-fiction… man, it’s just kinda sad. When people are actually getting paid for this, you would think they would be held to slightly higher standards.
So that’s my rant of the week.
3) So, I’m probably going to SPX this weekend.
I’m never entirely sure what to do at these sort of conventions – as cool as I find the concept of meeting webcomic creators I respect and admire, I pretty much end up just wandering around without any idea of how to actually converse with them, and I usually end up simply spending more money than I should on various webcomic paraphernalia.
But on the other hand, I really can’t come up with an excuse to not go to a con with so many webcomickers in attendance, especially one such a short drive away.