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What Is to Be Done?
April 10, 2011 11:30 AM   Subscribe

What Is to Be Done? Tim Kreider of The Pain muses about the future of cartooning as a payable profession
posted by Blazecock Pileon (41 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Krieder is a personal favorite. Really a great article.
posted by codacorolla at 11:50 AM on April 10, 2011


Recently.
posted by saturday_morning at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2011


The Germans have a party that's just called Die Linke, literally just The Left. Apparently it's pretty unpopular (compared to how liberal the Germans are) because it's has a lot of former East German apparatchiks.

The way he talked about "The Left" as an entity reminded me of that.
posted by delmoi at 12:08 PM on April 10, 2011


TIL apparatchiks are not scantily-clad Communist hotties.
posted by lemuring at 12:19 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It disgusts me that in the internet economy what’s called “content”—what we used to call “art”—is inherently worthless, and all revenue has to come from charity, advertising, or hawking crap like T-shirts and coffee mugs

I think he might be mistaking the role cartooning had even in the glory days of the '60s or whenever. To the newspapers paying for it then it was content, not art, and it's purpose was to sell advertisements.
posted by ghharr at 12:23 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I liked this comment from the comments section:
I don't think you took enough opiates. Opium is definitely the religion of the masses which means you probably need a massive dose.
Anyway, I thought there was too much complaining. The reality is, I think that art isn't devalued because of piracy or whatever, but rather anyone can add to the internet, and so a lot of people do. Whereas before you had to get a syndication deal before anyone could see you work, you now have thousands and thousands of people publishing web-comics. It turns out that what's popular isn't what's well drawn, but rather the quick hit jokes with crude illustrations.
posted by delmoi at 12:32 PM on April 10, 2011


He's not mistaken, there was actual income to be had from doing this in earlier decades. It may have just been content to the newspapers, but it was valuable content they paid for. Now, no one wants to pay for anything, you can get cheap filler shit from the internet off iStock. That's the problem.
posted by Mcable at 12:35 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It turns out that what's popular isn't what's well drawn, but rather the quick hit jokes with crude illustrations.

I wonder if there's a relationship there with the increasingly short-attention span of Internet audiences.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:35 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's also not about having people see your work, it's about getting paid for it somehow.
posted by Mcable at 12:37 PM on April 10, 2011


It disgusts me that in the internet economy what’s called “content”—what we used to call “art”—is inherently worthless, and all revenue has to come from charity, advertising, or hawking crap like T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Meanwhile, many internet-savvy artists who create "content" -- which they still call art, by the way -- are making good money on donations, ads, and hawking crap... and their print books. Kate Beaton has a book (which sold out, no less), and she sells a ton of prints. xkcd has a book. Order of the Stick has seven books and an adventure game. Etc.

Clearly, art isn't worthless online... it just has a different kind of worth, one which comes as much from the ongoing relationship between the reader and author as from the "inherent worth" of a scanned-in drawing. Getting people to pay you real money for something they can already have for free is different, yes, but I don't think it's necessarily any more hostile to creators than the newspaper model, which had its own myriad problems (namely, syndicators who took the rights to their cartoonists' "inherently valuable" work and then used it to sell ads and hawk crap like T-shirts and coffee mugs).
posted by vorfeed at 12:39 PM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


TIL apparatchiks are not scantily-clad Communist hotties.
Look up FEMEN
posted by delmoi at 12:39 PM on April 10, 2011


It's also not about having people see your work, it's about getting paid for it somehow.

This is a great example of what I'm talking about. xkcd and Kate Beaton understood that many, many people had to see and love their work before they got paid for it... and that's why they get paid for it. They're From The Internet -- they understand how this equation works.

The days of convincing exactly one guy (the publisher) to take a chance on you are just about over. Those who remain convinced that it's "not about having people see your work" aren't going to have an alternative, because having people see your work is the alternative; if "no one wants to pay for anything", how can expecting money up front be a winning move?

"I never understood how to make any money from the internet until it was too late". That's the real message of this piece. Like Kreider says, lamenting over the days when newspapers paid cartoonists is how can we make it be 1960?, and the obvious answer is "you can't".
posted by vorfeed at 1:03 PM on April 10, 2011 [8 favorites]


I didn't start drawing because I wanted to make money. I wouldn't start a webcomic with the intention of making a living off of it. Shit, my piddly little drawing blog gets like 4 hits a day, max. The only thing I'm whining about is having like 17 followers, but whatever, I get to draw what I want and people can see it. Some people have asked for prints.

Anyway, this has been the 2nd article on how Drawing Things is A Bad Way To Make Money that's been posted to mefi in the wake of MoCCA. They seem to go on about how materially worthless the artform is. It's...really kind of annoying from my perspective. It's like all the articles I read about game industry burnouts and bad companies. Eventually I just stopped reading them (and these articles too, I suppose) because creating the art is something I like to do.

What is to be done? I dunno. Topatoco seems to have the right idea, handle the t-shirt sales for webcomic creators, take a cut, and handle the busywork. If those Pizza Island girls can make rent in NY off drawings, then well...yeah.

Lastly: BLAH
posted by hellojed at 1:03 PM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


One thing that I really liked was the idea that capitalism's last great invention is the Internet, which is basically going to destroy it. Not sure if that'll bare out, but it's interesting to think about.
posted by codacorolla at 1:10 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


Man, Kate Beaton sure does like being referred to as a pretty girl, it is such an incredible compliment.
posted by Tesseractive at 1:25 PM on April 10, 2011 [5 favorites]


It turns out that what's popular isn't what's well drawn, but rather the quick hit jokes with crude illustrations.

I wonder if there's a relationship there with the increasingly short-attention span of Internet audiences.


I think the real distinction is that what's (generally) popular is the strip with the standalone joke versus the strip that requires a long-term engagement to pay off.

I'm actually struggling with this right now. I spent four years working on a webcomic about music, trying really hard to build characters, put gags in the background, and have a lot of long-running jokes that slowly paid off. And the thing was pretty well-regarded when people saw it; got coverage on MN Public Radio and in the Mpls alt-weekly, even got FPPd here. But still, readership has been tiny and has never really grown, despite plugging at it for years and doing my best (and going against my Midwestern nature) to promote it.

...And I've slowly come to decide that long-form engagement just isn't something the Internet usually does well (there are, of course, exceptions- in webcomics, The Order of the Stick is the first one that jumps out at me). I think my music strip was pretty good (although the art was a little gnarly early on), but it's pretty harsh on new readers to have to go back and read 100+ back strips to really get what's going on.

Lately I've been experimenting with a strip just based on jokes about books I've read. Each strip is standalone, no backstory. You don't even have to have read the book, usually, for the joke to work (although it usually adds something). Just throwing these up on FLickr, not even on their own site, they're getting way more views than my old music strip ever did.

So, yeah, it's definitely my experience that a quick joke strip that doesn't require much is way more popular. Of course, even then, I still don't really have any hope or expectation of making any money off of it...
posted by COBRA! at 1:25 PM on April 10, 2011


May I refer back to my post a month ago about Dave Kellett's decade-later follow-up to Bill Watterson's famous talk on the state of cartooning?

Kellett does one daily webcomic that is very newspaper-strip-like but funnier than most and a weekly sci-fi-satire thing that is somewhat deeper but still cartoony and makes a living at it all and tells how you can too, maybe. His message was not tat much different but more upbeat.

Few people ever really paid for newspaper comics; they were either one of a bunch of things they bought a newspaper for (bringing their value to nano-micropayment level) or something they got while buying the paper for something else so they look at them anyway.

Seeing a webcomic requires more intent (consciously clicking a bookmark or even typing a URL!) but is still seen as free content as is most everything on the Internet, even more so if there are ads adjacent (but so often they're for other webcomics). Getting very DIY in the design of a website, layout of the books and whatever other merch you're selling is probably good for most comickers - just not Bill Watterson. Also the webcomicker is unavoidably more closely connected to his/her (much smaller than a newspaper even in its decline) audience. That's better for some kinds of artists than others.

It's a different creative environment, but there is actual potential for many more cartoonists to make a basic living on the Web... just not for ANY to be Charles Schulz/Jim Davis/Scott Adams successful.

note to codacorolla: strictly speaking, the Internet was a US Dept. of Defense invention, expanded to the free world by Congressional Order (where Al Gore fit in), and Capitalism has been working to take it over ever since. Seth Godin had a GREAT one-liner today: "Companies that operate in a free market generally work as hard as they can to make that market not free." But I digress.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:27 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


In a way, the teen anarchist in me rejoices at the irony of capitalism having finally devised an invention to render profit impossible

Capitalism has always invented ways of not paying workers. The only way you could see this as ironic is if you think that exchanging your labor for money is the same as taking a very large sum of money and turning it into an even larger sum of money. This is a nice example of how the anti-capitalist critique of "greed" is turned back against the workers, not the capitalists.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:34 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the article:

Afterwards, at the bar, I talked to Aaron Diaz, another web cartoonist, who’s made a living for the last few years from online donations and merchandise sales

And later from the article:

All my fussy cross-hatching and detail and my elaborately constructed gags seemed labored and unnecessary compared to these clever little figments. The drawing is the minimum necessary to convey the idea—clip art, stick figures, Photoshop oblongs with dots for eyes, the kinds of images that are intelligible from half a block away on a T-shirt.

Aaron Diaz draws "Dresden Codak" which, like it or otherwise, can hardly be described as 'the minimum necessary'.

The (fan-fucking-tastic) "Hark a Vagrant" is painterly, detailed, and expressive. Doesn't seem to fit either.

I like Tim Kreider, but he's spinning a narrative here that's not really true.
posted by device55 at 1:36 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not the main point of the essay, but I really liked the line "Soon Don DeLillo will be peddling T-shirts too".

The more I think about it, the less crazy it sounds.

I'd pay $25 for a simple olive green T-shirt with a plain black muted post-horn, if I knew most of the profit was going to go to Thomas Pynchon.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:40 PM on April 10, 2011


Man, Kate Beaton sure does like being referred to as a pretty girl, it is such an incredible compliment.
I know this is the case, but how does that comic express that idea? All I get is that she is somehow displeased about the table of contents of "the new york thing". But what on earth does that mean? I have no idea what that even is.
posted by delmoi at 1:41 PM on April 10, 2011


And I've slowly come to decide that long-form engagement just isn't something the Internet usually does well

I don't think it's a thing any medium usually does well, at least if your goal is continuing to build an audience. I loved Battlestar Galactica, but its ratings declined pretty steadily after the first season, and the most likely explanation for that is that the time investment of catching up on all of the old stuff so that the new episodes would make sense just wasn't worth it for lots of people. Every time George RR Martin comes up, a bunch of people mention how they won't start reading giant book series because they're not sure the effort will be worth it.

I find those examples useful because they're both stereotypical nerd interests, and nerds usually pride themselves on being willing to invest time and effort in their hobbies. Even with stuff that's right up their alley, a lot of people just aren't willing to put their energy into long-form engagement with anything, or at least anything new. In the end, we all have limited leisure time, and even though I frequently choose to spend it on pursuits that reward persistent effort over time, not everyone is, and I can't exactly blame them for it.
posted by Copronymus at 1:44 PM on April 10, 2011 [1 favorite]


The (fan-fucking-tastic) "Hark a Vagrant" is painterly, detailed, and expressive. Doesn't seem to fit either.
He actually specifically mentioned Hark a Vagrant as an example of a crudely drawn popular comic, and it is. It's expressive, but it's not very detailed. It does look like it's drawn pretty quickly to me.
posted by delmoi at 1:45 PM on April 10, 2011


The connection between the comic I linked and the weirdness in the article made sense in my head. The comic expresses frustration at being referred to as a "girl-power" comics studio in what I think was a New York Magazine write-up, while the article this thread is about refers to their studio (Pizza Island) as the Pretty Girl Cartoonist Club. Hence the title of the cartoon: "this shit every time until you die". I guess it's not the Pretty but the Girl.

And I thought it was creepy. I wanted to like this article, but that bothered me, as well as the thing device55 points out: what he says about the nature of the art webcomics artists do is just not true. Not at all. While the sketch comics Kate Beaton posts on Twitter are drawn pretty casually, comics like the ones she does are not easy, quick, or offhand. Even if there is no crosshatching.

I'm a woman comics artist just starting out. I want to be encouraged by this article, but I think it just misses the point that webcomics people already know: you have to do it for free before you can make money, and it is super hard work.
posted by Tesseractive at 1:48 PM on April 10, 2011 [7 favorites]


It's expressive, but it's not very detailed. It does look like it's drawn pretty quickly to me.

Tho lumped in with in xkcd?

Each panel is probably drawn relatively quickly...after making 300 versions until nailing just the right one.
posted by device55 at 1:48 PM on April 10, 2011


after making 300 versions until nailing just the right one.

I find that kind of hard to believe. Anyway there is a huge difference in the detail in precision between Beaton's drawings Kreider's. I like Hark a Vagrant but the illustration style does look kind of crude to me.

Also, isn't there a webcomic that was actually started as a parody with 4-panel non sequiturs that ended up really popular? I can't remember what it was, though.
posted by delmoi at 2:01 PM on April 10, 2011


I find that kind of hard to believe.

Krieder's work is obviously obsessively detailed. Beaton's work is certainly far less detailed, but it is not crude.

Read about Ceasar.

Note the facial expressions in the first three panels. Ceasar is startled, alarmed, and disdainfulin each frame. Note Brutus and mincing hand gesture in panel two. Foreshadowing?

Note in panel 6 Ceasar is recognizable from behind without nary a cross-hatch.

That's all detail. If you don't agree, we can agree to disagree
posted by device55 at 2:15 PM on April 10, 2011 [4 favorites]


I just bought a $30 tie at xkcd's store, along with other goofiness, not explicitly trying to support* xkcd, but that tie is awesome!
* If you only support paypal, then my desire to support you is more than blanced by my loathing for paypal, meaning your shit better be awesome. Add bitcoin support bitches!
posted by jeffburdges at 2:16 PM on April 10, 2011


Why don't most of these cartoons make money? Because they are not funny, or well- drawn. Next case.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 2:37 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


I like Hark a Vagrant but the illustration style does look kind of crude to me

A note on "crudeness" - one of the most valuable lessons I took from my brief dabble into formal art education was when I was instructed to recreate Picasso's sketch of Don Quixote. Looks simple, right? Crude, even? Surely anyone could copy such a work.

Try it. It's remarkably difficult to render the two figures and their mounts with the same delicacy and confidence of form.

That experience taught me a lot about the value of minimalistic or highly-stylized art -- or any art that invites comments like "I/my child/my dog could do that."

Beaton's art may look "easy" to casual observers but I assure you it's the product of years of hard work and practice.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 2:38 PM on April 10, 2011 [9 favorites]


It disgusts me that in the internet economy what’s called “content”—what we used to call “art”—is inherently worthless, and all revenue has to come from charity, advertising, or hawking crap like T-shirts and coffee mugs

Didn't most successful per-internet cartoonists make the majority of their living through merchandising?

They didn't want to be Charles Schulz, with a merchandising empire and TV specials

Oh...

they just wanted to go to a desk, draw their four panels a day, and go home. It’s such a modest ambition, now utterly unrealizable. That job no longer exists; it vanished before they could get there.

Did that job every really exist?
posted by the_artificer at 3:44 PM on April 10, 2011 [2 favorites]


Well, I just paid a guy in California $200 to pencil, ink and letter two pages of a comic, so, from that data point, there's at least $200 in it for that one particular guy.
posted by tumid dahlia at 3:52 PM on April 10, 2011


The Internet enables some interesting ways for people to make a living with their art. For instance, sometime tonight I will be putting on my alternate identity and drawing some weird cartoon pornography for what works out to a pretty good hourly rate. I don't do it frequently enough to pay my bills - it's just fun for me - but I have a friend who does. He's not driving a Ferrari around, but he's keeping a roof over his and his wife's head with money to go out and have fun.

As to the "crudity" of web comics? Once you get away from the hyper-nerdy stick figure realm of XKCD and Order of the Stick, most successful strips on the web are no more or less detailed than the average newspaper strip - if you want to be able to crank out four panels on a daily basis, shortcuts must happen. Krieder's work has a lot more pen mileage in each drawing than Beaton - because he does all his tone work in hatching. Beaton takes advantage of the better reproduction of the screen to do her work in ink wash. And you'll find some very detailed stuff out there that comes out at a slower pace.

The "go to a desk, draw four panels, go home" job quite clearly exists. It's just that you have to be able to build an audience for your work at the same time, instead of relying on the newspapers to do it for you; you've got to find some way to get out of the daily grind of working for someone else to have time to dedicate yourself to the strip.

(Graphic novels on the web, though, I kinda feel like you have to be able to coast on savings for a while while you work on the damn thing.)
posted by egypturnash at 5:01 PM on April 10, 2011 [3 favorites]


It turns out that what's popular isn't what's well drawn, but rather the quick hit jokes with crude illustrations.

I wonder if there's a relationship
posted by orthogonality at 10:05 PM on April 10, 2011


Sometimes you don't get to make money off of what you like to do. Or even have talent in doing.

Plenty of people sing. And many have better vocals then, say, Robert Allen Zimmerman. But being in the right place at the right time means Bob Dylan makes bank.

And Tim hasn't been in the right place, right time and may never get there, not to mention if Tim made this bank he thinks he could make - could his liver/spleen/kidneys handle it?
posted by rough ashlar at 2:56 AM on April 11, 2011


I really like Kreider, he's honestly one of my favorite cartoonists and film critics - but the idea that promoting yourself relentlessly is somehow tangential to making it as an artist, any kind of artist, is absurd. The amount of self-promotion and hustling needed to just crack the surface is immense. It's a good chunk of the job. I don't know a single person making a living in the arts who didn't have to do it, hard, around the clock. Art is a tough business. All business is tough.

Honestly sometimes I think the "promotion is somehow tacky" stance is some way of keeping the masses in line. I know it makes some people uncomfortable, hell it makes me uncomfortable, but when you have big names like Shag saying "No one should self-promote, they should just use their media liaison." something smells fishy.

And people like Chris Ware who I swear is just projecting his own personality quirks onto an entire profession when he rails against promotion.


they just wanted to go to a desk, draw their four panels a day, and go home. It’s such a modest ambition, now utterly unrealizable. That job no longer exists; it vanished before they could get there.

Did that job every really exist?


There does feel like a lot of unresearched romanticism going on here. A lot of "Golden Age" cartooning was poorly paid, no-rights retained peicework rapidly churned out.
posted by The Whelk at 9:10 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I wouldn't call Beaton crude in anyway. That find of tossed off, casual messy line is so frustratingly hard to get. So much has to rest on so little.
posted by The Whelk at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


which I mean, the comparison to Mutts is apt.
posted by The Whelk at 9:27 AM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Note the facial expressions in the first three panels. Ceasar is startled, alarmed, and disdainfulin each frame. Note Brutus and mincing hand gesture in panel two. Foreshadowing?
Yeah, but doing facial expressions like that take skill but they don't take time. There's a difference between the time it takes to learn to do something quickly and the amount of effort you put into something once you have those skills learned. I'm not saying she doesn't have a lot of skill, or that it's not good work, or whatever. That's not what I mean at all. Just that each individual cartoon doesn't take a lot of time to do.
posted by delmoi at 12:57 PM on April 11, 2011


Kate Beaton's work is "crude" like Quentin Blake's work is crude. It's a style, it takes skill, and it fits the content.

And count me as another reader peeved by the "Pretty Girl Cartoonist Club" remark. What a dismissive way to describe a group of successful women who've been in this industry for years.
posted by cadge at 1:18 PM on April 11, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anyway - it's a nice little reflection piece, Kreider musing about how he ended up stuck in-between the end of the newspaper era but before the internet. It's funny to think it took over a decade for stuff like micropayments to become viable.
posted by The Whelk at 4:30 PM on April 11, 2011


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