TALES FROM THE DORK SIDE LIFE ON THE WEB
UPDATED MOST SATURDAYS MIKE'S HOME


june 4: finally got the style sheet nonsense straightened out for ya. with luck, something new this wkend.

mar 29: sorry i'm slacking (although technically i have been doing schoolwork and having a life, so maybe I'm actually slacking right now). the next piece will most likely be on the subject of "math hatred" but this could change. the folks at Internet Underground (hey, they're in print) gave Practice a nice review. at least i think it was nice; i'm not really sure. if you're at a newsstand, have a look and watch me bask in fame.

mar 1: the NS3.0 hack I just did really does have potential. and i made some cool little comic panels for it. go look. and i kissed the girl.

february 22 1997:
the truth about comics online

T


he New York Times' CyberTimes web site recently ran an article entitled "Comic Books Go Digital," all about the first furtive toe-dippings into a new medium on the part of an old medium that's always been slow to change. (The article's author Todd Krieger reveals how limited our ways of looking at comics are, when he concludes the first paragraph by wondering what the Web's answer to Spiderman or Batman will be.) The article tiptoes around the fact that so many of the examples it links to are merely shovelware - scanned versions of print comics - or are poorly written, conventionally drawn and dreadfully dull, with nothing but a button-and-sound effect or two to keep it from being printed on paper.

I am a bad cartoonist

april 4 96
choose yr own messy demise

april 13 96
style sheets & role models

april 27 96
summer reading

may 11 96
let's hear it for radio buttons

june 1 96
returning to the movies

june 8 96
just one person

june 15 96
cop fear

june 29 96
those darn trading card games

july 6 96
sex & hypnosis

july 27 96
people I've met from online

august 3 96
fat & happy

october 5 96
a cappella hell

october 12 96
the rockefeller suite

january 25
how's the homework situation

The truth about comics online is that so far, they suck. Sure, there are a few bright spots, the digital distribution of Joyce Brabner's suppressed Activists! among them, and all kinds of great discussion about printed comics. A growing number of online magazines have well-done comics sections. But by and large, comics on the web are badly shoveled in, or ugly, or stupid, or all of the above - to say nothing of those downloadable Marvel things on AOL that loop a few animated frames of Wolverine, as though Marvel comics weren't garish and crass enough already.

Comics and the web could be a match made in heaven, as many pundits in the comics industry will tell you. Scott McCloud, author of the germinal, much-cited Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art discovered Wacom tablets and Photoshop a couple years back, and gave an interview in Comics Journal #188 all about the possibilities of comics and digital media: "...when [comics] have to exist as objects, then distribution becomes disproportionately important, and whoever controls that distribution has a disproportionate amount of power over what you can read and what you can't. And of course the publishers themselves are a part of that distribution chain. ... What happens to supply and demand when supply equals demand? What happens to the choking of distribution if the moment you hear about a product that you might like, you can be looking right at it?" The "choking of distribution" is right: after various takeovers and exclusivity deals over the past three years, there is now essentially one nationwide comics distributor (Diamond Distribution), and innovative small press publishers generally flounder in the back of its catalogs. The Web is an attractive end run around this bottleneck, with the side benefit that it eliminates the market distortions that can be caused by comic book collectors who are more interested in investment potential than artistic quality.

McCloud points out in Understanding Comics that comics' nature as both a visual and verbal medium is shared by other "low" media like TV and magazines. Surprise - the Web audience is also accustomed to a complex and layered interplay of words and images. So far, the Web also tends to select toward fairly educated people who sample a wide variety of culture and entertainment - people who might be less likely to have preconceived notions of comics as a medium full of moronic trash. The Web is by and large a static, solitary medium (again, so far), matching the tendency of comics to take the visual immediacy of film and turn it into a more intimate, private experience, like books. You can make a good case that the Web could be a place where the medium of comics can finally flower.

It's not going to happen, and here's why.

Stanley Wiater and Steve Bissette wrote the following in the intro to their excellent book Comic Book Rebels: "Too often, relations between publishers and creators become adversarial. The complex dynamics of these relationships are only compounded by the illusory 'family' dynamics that have consciously and unconsciously dominated industry practices for years. ... This dynamic permits (or forces) the publisher to become a surrogate parent while the creator is relegated to the status of a child, to be rewarded, punished, elevated or disposed of upon the whim of the corporate 'parent.' " This is the way it worked for Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. You probably haven't heard of them, but they're the artists behind one of the dominant signs in American culture: Superman. Siegel and Schuster created Superman and brought him to DC Comics in the early '40's, when they were right around 18. Neither had any business acumen (unlike their contemporary Will Eisner, who managed to maintain control of all copyrights on his groundbreaking work The Spirit). DC assumed full ownership of Superman under their industry-standard work-for-hire terms, Siegel and Schuster were eventually replaced as the creative team behind Superman, and no royalties were in the offing. A handful of decades later, Superman was at his peak in public consciousness, and Siegel and Schuster died comparatively penniless. When they signed those contracts at the age of 18, they thought they were loved; they were wrong.

The first creator-owned, self-published comics were the undergrounds of the '60's, R. Crumb and such. As the head shops vanished, the so-called "direct market" comics stores arose and a new wave of small-press comics like Elfquest and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles achieved success. (TMNT creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are now millionaires, thanks to their full ownership of their creation, and have given back to the medium by founding museums, new publishing companies, and grant foundations.) Through all this, Marvel and DC maintained their grip on the mainstream, and by and large kept working with all creators on a work-for-hire basis. Things didn't really change in a big way until several of Marvel's top creative talents left the company and formed Image Comics, a cooperative publisher at which all material is creator-owned. Marvel had underestimated the value of its creative talent, and Image grabbed a significant share of the comics market away from them almost immediately. (Most Image titles are reprehensible in terms of content, but they have helped worthwhile, formerly self-published titles like Jeff Smith's Pogo-esque Bone and Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil reach vast new audiences.)

Today there's a surprisingly large body of small-press comics and xeroxed mini-comics that are actually taken seriously within the comic world, in marked contrast to the status of independent zines (and Web pages) compared to their slick, ad-supported mainstream magazine counterparts. Some self-published comics are competitive with the best mainstream titles; some are pale, half-witted ripoffs of same. Most have abandoned the narrow genre constraints of superhero comics. Many are great entertainment; some, like Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, approach high art. All are viable only because the creators fully own and control their creations.

The reason we won't see good comics online is this: good comics are costly and difficult to create, and someone's got to pay the bills. Most Web publications barely have the money to pay writers and remain profitable, and good comics creators should be paid at least $100 a page to make a decent living wage. That's at least. Dave Sim, creator of Cerebus, from Comic Book Rebels, page 101: "If you take an average illustrator out of commercial art, and tell him you've got to produce thirty pages, and you've got to be able to draw this character from any angle, keep it interesting, you've got to draw it fast, and you've got to be better than you were last month, and you've got to keep everybody's attention engaged and you have to do it for probably a tenth of what you made drawing that toaster, they would look at you like you were nuts! Our whole field is full of guys who could probably do the average commercial artist's year's worth of production in four or five afternoons and then take the rest of the year off. But we don't do that because the only reason to do comic books is because you love them."

The only web publishers with the money to finance good comics online are people like Microsoft's M3P and the AOL Greenhouse. M3P and AOL are in search of licensable content - content they can own. The web itself can't make any money, or so it seems, so leveraging (a word that always makes me think of a sweaty guy with a crowbar) is where it's at. They've got an eye out for comics because a popular comic character is the ideal blueprint for movies, cartoons, and machine-carved bars of soap in pastel colors. However, every comic character that morphs into a movie star reaffirms the public perception that comic books are nothing more than a proving ground, the place that superheroes (and nothing else) come from, a ghetto to be graduated from into the real media. That's all well and good, except that comics creators are no longer fools. I can't think of any major new comic characters created in the past five years that haven't been owned by the creators. (This is a major change for big mainstream comics publishers, who these days are clinging to their licensable properties to keep them afloat. DC, an arm of the giant Time-Warner squid, can afford to take more risks and has made some admirable leaps in both creator ownership and editorial policy - look for their Paradox Press imprint and you'll find some good stuff.) Therefore, the top creators in comics will stay away from the Web, because they won't go back to the days of "sell your creation or starve."

Comics is still trying to get on its feet as a fully realized creative medium, even after 100 years of comics as we know them. The Web as we know it has been around for just three years. The comics field has never been on stable artistic or financial ground; not surprisingly, the same goes for the Web. Until things change, we'll have to content ourselves with Web pubs that serve as just another syndication outlet for newspaper strips, and with hunting through little comic shops for good old fashioned, 24-page-stapled, kinda-overpriced-but-still-wonderful independent comics.

in other news...

Yes, I am feeling MUCH better. Thanks.


back to Practice
back to the home page
read more about it!

Comic Books Go Digital (this is that NY Times Web story. you need to have a (free) password.)

Lost the other links, d'oh

Tales From The Dork Side are copyright Mike Sugarbaker, email for permission to redistribute.
Updated Feb 17 1997
misuba@iberia.vassar.edu