Skip

The Price Rollback of the Comics
March 11, 2011 9:04 PM   Subscribe

In 1989, Bill "Calvin and Hobbes" Watterson gave a famous address at Ohio State U.'s Festival of Cartoon Art: "The Cheapening of the Comics" (transcript). Twenty-two years later, successful webcomic artist Dave Kellett (of "Sheldon" about a boy and his non-imaginary talking duck, and "Drive" a sci-fi comic with a convoluted premise and funny aliens) offered a new-generation response at the same venue: "The Freeing of the Comics" (YouTube part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). While Watterson told how and why newspaper comics were (and are) dying, Kellett explained how webcomics can (and do) replace them (although not necessarily for Watterson).

If 42 minutes of video are tl;dyt for you, here are some quotes:

"(Bill Watterson) is 10,000 times the cartoonist that I was. But how important is it that if you've decided to take a life that steps away from fame, which it is very hard in America to do, that this is the one photo you're left with? I mean, God bless the guy but don't you think he ever looks at this and goes 'Really, that sweater? Really? The desk that looks too small for me? That's the one I'm stuck with? Come on.'" part one, 5:30

"Newspapers will survive the move to all-digital distribution but the syndication model - for comic strips, anyway - will not..." part one, 7:45

"Readers for the last 100 years have not been primed to pay for a comic strip. They've been primed to pay for a newspaper." part two 2:30

"Webcomics, the Business Model, is an ad-subsidized delivery of free content... which then monetizes audience passion by selling books, memorabilia, apparel and licensed goods to a small sliver of that total audience." part three 2:40

"So many artists say 'Oh, I'm right brain-left brain I don't want to deal with business!' The sad news is: Bullshit, you do have to deal with business. If you don't deal with business, someone else will deal with it for you and they will do it wrong. They will screw you over... We ask out doctors to go eight years to learn medicine; we ask lawyers to go six... years to learn law. They then have to set up a practice and guess what - they then have to learn business." part three 5:25

"If only (newspaper) syndication had existed, Robert Crumb would have been an unrecognized genius; he never would have found an audience. On the flip side, if Watterson had only the default of webcomics, his would've been a voice lost to a generation..." part four 4:55

"You won't have the (cartoonist) millionaires you had in the past.. but you will have, I think, more cartoonists who will make a comfortable living... interacting with an audience of 40,000 to 200,000 people around the world." part four 6:40

"My work is given away for free online, but the copyright remains mine. I got an email from a Russian lawyer who said there's a company in Russia who's using your work translated in Russian for selling some soap or something. I went 'hot damn, those s.o.b.'s' and he said 'I've already filed an injunction for you in a Russian court' and I was like 'HOT DAMN, that's amazing!' and they'd stopped using it..." part five 1:15

Webcomics Kellett name-dropped in the address: the frequently MeFi'ed Penny Arcade, xkcd and Achewood, the once-or-twice MeFi'ed Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Questionable Content and The Abominable Charles Christopher, and his own Herriman homage in Sheldon.
posted by oneswellfoop (28 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not to be acutely mean, but Dave Kellet's saying "Bill Wattersis 10,000 times the cartoonist that I was" is the the takeaway here.

Webcomics have zero economies of scale, so you can blather on in whatever graphics tool you choose ad infinitum, no audience necessary, no culling necessary, and you wind up with wecomics like this that wouldn't stand a chance in hell of being syndicated in the tiniest newspaper thirty years ago.

Is that democratic? Yes! Do we have better comics now?

. . .

I really don't mean to be mean, but I don't think so.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 9:18 PM on March 11, 2011


There are many of us who get the morning paper mostly because of the comics, the local news and the op-eds. Mostly the comics. It's been a tradition for me for a half an century. At five, the language of Pogo was difficult, but I loved it.

Unfortunately, many newspapers drop the best comics, which, frankly, appeal to their better-paid demographic, for the most part. Irony, etc.

I don't have the time to look up all my favorite comics online.

Newspapers do not do themselves any favors by appealing to the lowest common denominator when it comes to the comics pages. Axing Lio and Zippy? Stupid. So few column inches, so much richness. They don't have much else to offer. They should do what the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did in the 60's: offer comics in color seven days a week! This would be a better marketing technique than offering yesterday's news this morning.

What do we want over our morning coffee: color and irony and art and humor!
posted by kozad at 9:21 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


you wind up with wecomics like this that wouldn't stand a chance in hell of being syndicated in the tiniest newspaper thirty years ago.

Yet in today's papers, that would fit right in. Not edgy or really challenging, not niche humor or odd knowledge required.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:25 PM on March 11, 2011


Yet in today's papers, that would fit right in. Not edgy or really challenging, not niche humor or odd knowledge required.

Exactly! This looks like the dreck that's printed in the paper today. It just happens to be online.
posted by FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.) at 9:28 PM on March 11, 2011


For all of the mediums being (destroyed/transformed/altered?) by the Internet, I weep for comics the least. While web comics suffer from Sturgeon's law just like everything else on the Internet, the quality ratio of newspaper comics was little better, and suffered from the limited number of strips in the section. If the entire comics page was to vanish tomorrow, I would read the small piece on CNN about the loss, shrug, and go on with my day.

While there may be crappy comics on the Internet, and the ratio might be higher of bads to good, the fact that there are so many comics on the Internet means we make out slightly better in the end. In Flag's example, I at least get what humor the author is trying to impart, that's not always the case for things like BC and Hagar the Horrible.
posted by zabuni at 9:28 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Really, that sweater? Really?

I always thought he was trying to look like Calvin's dad.
posted by contraption at 9:35 PM on March 11, 2011


I don't have the time to look up all my favorite comics online.

Pretty much every webcomic has an RSS feed, man.
posted by girih knot at 9:58 PM on March 11, 2011


You know, there may be a reason that Watterson has more recently refused to allow new pictures to be taken of him.

If Calvin and Hobbes had been only released in the form of a book, maybe people wouldn't be grieving for it so much today. Instead people expected him to just keep on rolling with it, contributing his joke a day for the rest of his life.

Daily comics are an incredible meat grinder for talent. Most people don't come up with something truly funny to say once a week. Newspaper cartoonists are expected to do so once a day until they drop dead at the drawing table. No one writes with the same voice they have at 50 that they had at 40, or 30, or 20. It's impossible for any but the barest, most puerile strips to avoid changing tone as the decades roll by, maybe the ones that have already changed hands once and all that remains of them is formula.

I think Watterson recognized this and got out while he was still the person people wanted to read. Don't forget that he took more than one long vacation from the strip during its run. I think he recognized that he didn't have that many more jokes or stories in him and decided to quit while he was ahead. Which is largely what he says these days.
posted by JHarris at 10:03 PM on March 11, 2011 [4 favorites]


"If only (newspaper) syndication had existed, Robert Crumb would have been an unrecognized genius."

And in a climate where webcomics are the only outlet of cartoonists, R. Crumb would be lost in a sea of stick figures, rage comics, and video game gags. The whole webcomics model this guy's selling doesn't work for people who want to go beyond producing "amusing thing you read during a work break." This is mainly a symptom of, if you want to be successful, needing to post a comic and managing the business end every single day. This is manageable if you're doing a 3 panel gag-a-day strip, but it's a high barrier of entry for someone who putting more time into his work. He concedes all of this, though sort skirts around the issue that this model has led to 90% of the most popular webcomics being only marginally less boring than the comics in the newspapers.

It's great this guy's made it work and he sees the opportunities there, but I'm not sure if it's going to work from a quality point of view (not there haven't been exceptions).

Also, the webcomics business model seems to be a 'lightning in a bottle' situation. How many web-cartoonists are actually making a comfortable living on their work? How sustainable is it? Are people still going to buy xkcd t-shirts years from now? The best webcartoonists, like Chris Onstad, tend to burn out/have financial issues keeping things going.
posted by bittermensch at 10:10 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


While it seems to be pure love it or hate it webcomic, Megatokyo seems to have found quite a niche that let it's author quit his day job. It's less joke a day thing, and more a continuing story at this point, and with his schedule being far from consistent. Yet he does pretty well for himself, from what i gathered mostly from merchandise and printed volumes of the story, which flow much better on the page than they do on the web.

I guess my point seems to be the webcomics that do the best financially are the ones that do more than just the comics, like Penny Arcade and PvP also do along with Megatokyo. It also then gives them the freedom to have the comics be what they want it to be, even if the result is like the Penny Arcade "dickwolf" kerfuffle.
posted by usagizero at 10:12 PM on March 11, 2011


Excuse me, I think you mean The Ohio State University.
posted by OverlappingElvis at 10:20 PM on March 11, 2011


And in a climate where webcomics are the only outlet of cartoonists, R. Crumb would be lost in a sea of stick figures, rage comics, and video game gags.

There are quite a few really fantastic, well-known webcomics that don't involve stick figures, video game gags or 4chan memes. We'll never know if R. Crumb would have had success as a webcomic artist, but there is a place for work like his out there.
posted by girih knot at 10:37 PM on March 11, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is another really great Bill Watterson commencement speech, this time at his alma mater Kenyon College. Tells the story of him painting a replica of the Sistine Chapel on his dorm room ceiling.
posted by Corduroy at 10:45 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


God bless the guy but don't you think he ever looks at this and goes 'Really, that sweater? Really?

I think the speaker here has said a lot more about himself than about Watterson.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:17 PM on March 11, 2011


Don't judge Dave Kellett's taste in clothes until you've seen his Twitter avatar.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:55 PM on March 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


The future of comics is not the web, not newspapers -- it's the gallery and museum. Among comics artists are the few people in the world who can still draw, still produce an original artwork that rewards close inspection, repeated viewing, and physical ownership. Maybe the best route is the counterintuitive one of limited -- extremely limited -- distribution. In the age of mechanical reproduction, you build the value of the scarce object over the course of a few decades, then do your profit taking by releasing multiples into the pent-up demand.
posted by Faze at 4:38 AM on March 12, 2011


The future of comics is any number of different paths that are emerging as viable options for making a living off creating comics. I think we can all agree that newspaper comic strips are changed forever though.

I disagree with the idea that we haven't seen quality comics emerge in the past 5 to 10 years, especially comics that -never- would have gotten published in a pre-internet world. I'm thinking specifically of Ethan and Malachai Nicolle's Axe Cop.

From a creative perspective, I can't understand why the medium of the web isn't the best thing that ever happened to comics since the printing press. Free from the crippling restrictions of newspaper-imposed formatting and biased censorship, an artist is able to create works without having to sacrifice their complexity or craft.

Is the argument really "no will ever be as good as Watterson because the web is bad"? |:-|

I would say that the number of funny, insightful comics has actually increased. I think people are viewing comic strips of the past waaay too nostalgically. IMHO, there were (and are) A LOT of crappy comics in newspapers. What percentage of people can name more than 10 syndicated comics that they enjoyed reading?

The web is larger than 10 comics. It's bigger and it's better.
posted by lemuring at 5:41 AM on March 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


The web is larger than 10 comics. It's bigger and it's better.

It's just not more lucrative, and that's a creative problem if you consider it from the angle of creators only create as much as they can afford to. There are probably about as many financially viable comic strips right now as there ever were, if you figure that there were never really more than a couple dozen at any given time. But if your favorite strip isn't Dinosaur Comics, Axe Cop, Penny Arcade or xkcd, I hope you're prepared for the day when its creator(s) post the inevitable "well, it's been fun, but there's this crazy thing I feel like I should be devoting a whole lot more time to, and it's called getting a job so I can have insurance and stuff and not die, thanks to the five people who bought t-shirts in the last six years plus that one guy who bought a bumper sticker for 99 cents, you are rad" message. I mean, this is -- certainly from the consumer's perspective -- a much more exciting world than the one that existed twenty years ago, but let's not bullshit ourselves here. It's still a pretty tough world for artists, the same as it's always been.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 7:20 AM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


FLAG (BASTARD WATER.) (Acorus Adulterinus.): Webcomics have zero economies of scale, so you can blather on in whatever graphics tool you choose ad infinitum, no audience necessary, no culling necessary, and you wind up with wecomics like this that wouldn't stand a chance in hell of being syndicated in the tiniest newspaper thirty years ago.

My "is this webcomic shit?" flowchart in my head starts with: "Does it/is it trying to look like a print newspaper comic? Same 3-4 panels taking up the same amount of space and probably no color?" the "Yes" path leads to "Shit, don't read."
posted by paisley henosis at 8:08 AM on March 12, 2011


I would say that the number of funny, insightful comics has actually increased. I think people are viewing comic strips of the past waaay too nostalgically. IMHO, there were (and are) A LOT of crappy comics in newspapers.?

I'm not seeing it. Again, we're talking about webcomics that support the cartoonist. With maybe 4 or 5 exceptions (Kate Beaton and Andrew Hussie come to mind), those webcomics resemble the comics in the newspaper today, only with "dark" humor/lousier art. They're 3-5 panels long, are either black and white or are colored poorly, or are have a format that allows them to create content fast (Dinosaur Comics, xkcd).

There were crappy comics in newspapers (although I'd say as you go farther back in history, the quality improves). However, the newspaper model also allowed people like Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, Gary Trudeau, Charles Schulz to focus on solely on their work. There were problems with the syndicates, but they got rid of the pressure of building an audience and allowed the cartoonist to earn money for their content.

Also, in relation to this: "Readers for the last 100 years have not been primed to pay for a comic strip. They've been primed to pay for a newspaper." Webcomics are far more responsible for driving the price of content to zero than newspapers. With the latter, at least you were paying for the delivery of the work. Just because it wasn't going directly to cartoonists doesn't mean you thought you got the comics page for free. This isn't isolated to comics, it's true for every entertainment medium now, but the way he shifts the blame on newspapers for the price of content going to zero is sort of obnoxious.
posted by bittermensch at 9:10 AM on March 12, 2011


I don't know how recent or complete this is, but here is a list of syndicated newspaper comics in the US. That's way more than 4 or 5 names, right? But that's it. That's the club, right there, determined by syndicates. The model for newspaper comics provides salaries for a few hundred artists with a very strict format and regulations.

The web as a medium opens the door to thousands of people to attempt to earn a living from their comic, and even if they can't, at the very least give their comic exposure. Yes, it's harder to find good comics because there's no barred entry and no editor. But the potential it represents is an ocean compared to the tiny pond of potential in newspaper comics.

As far as it actually making a living for people? I wish that art in general could support more artists, but art isn't something you do to make money. You do it because you have to do it. The web at least allows people who won't make a living doing it the chance to show the world their work.
posted by girih knot at 9:33 AM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


contraption: I always thought he was trying to look like Calvin's dad.
I always figured Calvin's Dad was Watterson's thinly-veiled alter-ego.
posted by Western Infidels at 10:17 AM on March 12, 2011


Do we have better comics now?

I defy you to find me a webcomic that's been around for more than a few weeks that is materially worse than Cathy or Marmaduke. Do we have better comics now? There is absolutely no question about that: yes.
posted by mhoye at 10:59 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just one note about the list of newspaper comics girih knot linked to: it includes strips being syndicated as reruns (Peanuts, Cathy) and several for which I KNOW that the artists are NOT making a living on (there are two or three doing daily strips who have day jobs with Jim Davis' Garfield empire that they cannot quit).

If I took the time to make a list, there are at least as many webcartoonists making a full-time living as newspaper cartoonists now. There is also the example of Richard Stevens trying a newspaper version of Diesel Sweeties with the full support of a syndicate quitting the experiment because the time spent on it was MUCH less lucrative than the time spent on his web enterprise.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:29 AM on March 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


The web is larger than 10 comics. It's bigger and it's better.

It's just not more lucrative, and that's a creative problem if you consider it from the angle of creators only create as much as they can afford to.

Both of these I'd agree with. The signal to noise ratio in webcomics is beyond high-- and if you're just starting out independently (not with a collective) it's gonna be REALLY hard to cut through the butter.

I have, what's sort of an anomaly in the webcomic world-- which is a long-form comic (more based in the traditional print format)-- that I write/produce with a full team-- Artist, Colorist, Letterer, Editor. Unlike Freakangels, we update with one page a week. Our goal on the other hand, is not financial stability, but rather eyes on the comic.

We ran on DC's now defunct Zuda site, and in about a month, got 34k hits-- which was decent enough for us to land a small press deal after we "lost" and the rights were reverted back to us-- unfortunately, the contract kinda blew, so we passed on the offer-- instead electing to go out as a webcomic.
Our goal from the start was to use the comic as a portfolio builder-- to possibly catch the eyes of editors or use as work samples for other gigs.
To that, we've been successful-- But from a monetary standpoint? Nah-- The comic is a total loss leader.

We're a little more than an issue and a half in-- we've built up a humble audience, our colorist got a gig on Boom's Darkwing Duck, I and our artist have made some pretty decent connections, and best of all: We've had a blast making the comic.
I guess that's what I'm putting out there: If you walk into webcomics thinking A) I'm gonna be huge, or B) I'm gonna make cash! You should probably turn around and RUN away.
But if your goal is to make something cool and have fun while doing it-- by all means, get it up and send me a link!

My shameless plug is Spy6teen swing by and say hi!
posted by Ct314 at 12:19 PM on March 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


I defy you to find me a webcomic that's been around for more than a few weeks that is materially worse than Cathy or Marmaduke.

I will seize literally any opportunity to plug Boston and Shaun
posted by Greg Nog at 12:47 PM on March 12, 2011


You can link to any number of superlame webcomics, but I can counter with almost as many non-lame ones (but remember, IMO, Sheldon IS better than all but the best newspaper comics, even if it is kinda 'newspapery')...

Bug is a relatively new weekday 'gag-a-day' that usually delivers 3-4 gags a day (with an ingenious design for a creator who's much more writer than artist but far superior IMO than xkcd's stickpeople)

Basic Instructions with its how-to format, rotoscoped character design and sharp dialogue is a 3X a week delight.

Not Invented Here is a daily dose of "IT Crowd" nerdity with madly cartoony design.

And don't forget Sinfest, with its manga-styled devils and angels and pot-smoking pig, staying edgy and crazy for 11 years!

I like "Spy6teen" at first look, going to dive further in. Of course, Girl Genius and Dr. McNinja are the gold standard for graphic-novel/comic-book-formatted webcomics (and I am NOT an Axe Cop fan, I thought its one-joke wore out after the first 50 strips), but there are other fascinating semi-new offerings ranging from the "Warring spacemen stranded on ancient planet but with SUPER POWERS mythology mashup" Wayward Sons to the "Spider-woman as imagined by somebody who should've written for The Tick" Spinnerette (go look up the "Canadian Superheroes" for LOLs).
posted by oneswellfoop at 4:06 PM on March 12, 2011


> I always figured Calvin's Dad was Watterson's thinly-veiled alter-ego.

Well yeah, that too, but his sweater/pose/facial expression in that photo made me think he was hamming it up a bit. Maybe he's just that good at likenesses.
posted by contraption at 8:56 PM on March 12, 2011


« Older You set a magic missile on my heart and charm...   |   Zigguraticity, Pyramidality Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post