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Diving In

I remember The Comics Journal’s first webcomics column because I got reamed in it. This was back in 2003, when everyone was into hating on Scott McCloud because he thought the Web was going to be the next big thing, and where did he get off telling us what the next big thing was going to be, him and his perky little cartoon face. Gary Groth had recently written a two-part dissection of Reinventing Comics wherein he predicted that webcomics would turn into thinly-veiled shills for telecom conglomerates because it would be the only way to get into those essential AOL-exclusive portals, which is roughly equivalent to arguing that telephones are a bad idea because people will be forced to use them to talk about AT&T all the time.

For those of you who got on the Internet after 1998 or so, AOL stood for America Online. It was a company.

Anyway, TCJ’s inaugural webcomics column, written by someone I think was Milo George using a girl name, struck a sort of perversely pro-McCloud stance, judging webcomics strictly by their use of McCloud’s online “infinite canvas.” I’m too lazy to dig out my back issues now, but the opening lineup of Serializer.net, including Trunktown, a strip I did for a while with Tom Hart, was weighed and found wanting. Drew Weing’s Pup, a damn good comic, made it through with high marks, and, hey, Drew Weing is still out there, still doing damn good comics, although not so much with the infinite canvas anymore. Then TCJ got bored with webcomics and there was no second column, although in a later issue Tom Spurgeon described Trunktown as “a nineteenth-century blog,” which I liked even though I still have no idea what it means.

Maybe the Journal’s approach to webcomics back in the day was on the dismissive side, but that’s TCJ for you. If TCJ were sent to cover the Covenant of Abraham, the article would open with eight paragraphs complaining about how everyone is jumping on the stupid monotheistic-religion bandwagon and the writer is already bored with the trite device of divinely bestowing fertility on elderly patriarchs. The rest of the article would be about Robert Crumb.

In the end, everyone talking about webcomics in 2003 was wrong. Experimenting with the vast visual and structural possibilities of the digital realm, as McCloud dreamed, has turned out to be less popular than doodling gags that readers can send around to their friends, or, barring that, stuff with furries. Webcomics didn’t whore themselves out to telecom companies because it was the only way to drive traffic; they whored themselves out to video-game companies because webcartoonists are nerds. Serializer.net hasn’t updated since 2007, and blogs are probably not even a thing anymore. Now you have to whore for iPad.

But McCloud was right about one thing, and it turned out to be the biggest thing of all: the Web was a force the comics industry would have to reckon with. Not only is TCJ forced to pay attention to webcomics now, but TCJ itself is on the frickin’ Web. Because everything’s on the Web. And the Web is not, as it turns out, either McCloud’s artistically-unfettered, Omni magazine-inspired Land of Cockaigne or Groth’s bleak corporate-boot-stomping-on-a-cartoon-smiley-face-forever dystopia. It just is.

And it’s big. Looking out across the vastness of the Internet, I suddenly realize that, in 2011, choosing “webcomics” as a topic for a column is roughly equivalent to the time my fourth-grade gifted class chose “the ocean” as our research topic for the semester. It turns out The Ocean covers most of the planet and is full of all kinds of stuff: water and weather and fish and chemistry and geography and steamships and manatees and rocks and sand. In the end my class didn’t even begin to make a dent in covering The Ocean and instead spent most of the semester watching episodes of Voyage of the Mimi taped off PBS. From this I learned that The Ocean also includes this awesome episode where the crew gets shipwrecked on a desert island and the hot teenage boys have to snuggle together with their clothes off to fight hypothermia while young Ben Affleck learns why you shouldn’t drink seawater.

Young Affleck

What I’m trying to say is, it’s a big topic. Bigger than it was in 2003, when it was already too big to ignore. Now it covers most of Planet Comics. And for some reason I’ve agreed to cast my net into that ocean once a month and see what I can dredge up.

 
Last week news broke of the death of Bill Blackbeard, “The Man Who Saved Comics,” whose idiosyncratic obsession with collecting newspaper comic-strip pages resulted in the preservation of thousands upon thousands of comics that would otherwise have been lost to history. Because the comics were saved, they could be read and loved again. Blackbeard’s Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics, and the countless comic-strip anthologies that mined his vast archive for material, inspired Chris Ware and Mark Newgarden and Jeet Heer and Art Spiegelman and Scott McCloud and Drew Weing and Tom Hart and me. He was our equivalent of Henri Langlois, the theater owner who collected old film reels back when everyone else was throwing them out, and whose Cinémathèque Française sparked the French New Wave and, ultimately, most modern film. I don’t know if the comics industry deserved its own Henri Langlois, but it got one.

Bill Blackbeard’s warren of yellowed newspaper seems a galaxy away from the world I’m supposed to be writing about, the 256-color digital Boom Tube to the future. Nobody worries about preserving online comics, although maybe they should. (In 2003 one of the most celebrated “infinite canvas” comics was Patrick Farley’s trippy sci-fi spectacle Delta Thrives. Tried finding Delta Thrives online recently?) People talk about digital books replacing their paper counterparts entirely. No one will ever again save an entire art form by piling newspapers floor-to-ceiling in his house and dubbing the result an “academy.”

But to be honest I don’t see a difference. Never have. I’ve surfed the Web in search of that rare spark that illuminates a Kate Beaton or a Jenn Manley Lee, and I’ve sifted through crumbling National Lampoons in the back rooms of hole-in-the-wall bookstores to find a forgotten Shary Flenniken. It’s the same thing and it always will be. Diving into that ocean, letting it swallow you whole, and hoping you can surface clutching one thing that tells you, Yes. It was worth it. Today I won’t break your heart.


28 Responses to Diving In

  1. RobClough says:

    Your point about disappearing webcomics was something I was talking about with a cartoonist friend of mine the other day. Blackbeard was able to save newspaper strips as an art form thanks to the collecting obsessiveness of him and a tiny handful of others. Those strips at least existed in physical form, in the off chance that someone, somewhere might have saved them.

    Given that many webcomics just disappear, do you think that in ten or twenty years webcomics will need a similar figure who obsessively downloaded webcomics onto their computer? Do you know if such persons exist now? Has anyone ever attempted to actually catalog every webcomic that's ever existed?

  2. Well, I don’t know how popular these will become over the long term, but grassroots “rage” comics are an interesting web-specific comics phenomenon …

  3. Shannon_Smith says:

    Good point. A lot of web cartoonists don't even do much of a job keeping their own copies around.

    I need a collection of Pup.

  4. madinkbeard says:

    "The rest of the article would be about Robert Crumb."

    LOL. Love it.

  5. KristyValenti says:

    I constantly have the Voyage of the Mimi soundtrack in my head.

  6. Thank you Garrity for raising this topic. I think we need to put this to the forefront of all web discussion. On a personal note, my own webcomic is dead to the world, vanished off the face of the internet. Such an impermanent medium.

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  8. bradydale says:

    I don't really understand what you meant by the last line, but it gave me the chills.

  9. “Tried finding Delta Thrives online recently?”

    Yes I have. I go looking about once every six months or so, because I just keep freakin’ *hoping.* It’s particularly frustrating since it’s a comic I would desperately like to show to my students.

  10. richcbarrett says:

    It's funny that we worry about these things going away when everyone warns kids today that all the stupid shit they say on Facebook is going to come back and haunt them later on. So I guess if someone who did a webcomic in the early aughts ever runs for president someone will find a way to unearth their long lost comic.

    SeanMRob's comment about working in archival formats is a good one. Not only is it a mistake to create original works at screen resolution but you have to be careful about storing files and keeping them up to date file-format wise. JPEGs and GIFs have been JPEGs and GIFs for a long time but technology is always changing and file format and storage methods are constantly becoming obsolete.

    Anyway, great article and the comparison to the old newspaper strips is brilliant. Lots of comics have been created with the intent of being read in the moment and then discarded afterwards. And a lot of webcomics continue that tradition.

  11. nick marino says:

    I know you're using Facebook more as a joke than anything else — and I'm not trying to spark a huge discussion about where webcomics ideally should or should not be posted — but I think sites like Facebook are oft-overlooked venues for distributing webcomics. If you post the comic on your site and on a network, it's like a backup, not only for the the public but for you. Anyway, just thought I'd mention that cause I've been thinking about it lately.

    And to take that thought one step further about archival and saving, I don't think it's just a webcomics problem — I think it's an issue for all kinds of comics creators, especially the kinds that aren't getting paid for the work. I was shocked when I found out that my prolific friend doesn't even save one copy of the books he self-publishes. He sells them all.

    I think the thing is, and this applies to both self-published works and webcomics, when there's no financial or business incentive to keep things around, they rarely get archived (or at least, archived properly).

  12. madinkbeard says:

    I ended up moving my old webcomics from their page at a time archive into something a little easier to retain, pdf files. They probably aren't the most archival, but they at least allow easy downloads and ease of moving around (unlike years of archived single images.)

    Also I worry about people posting content to places like Blogger/LiveJournal. Remember what happened with GeoCities?

    (Apologies is this is a repost, but it didn't seem to appear the first time.)

  13. madinkbeard says:

    I'm wary of putting real creative content on Facebook. Their policies in re what they can do with what you put on FB is a little scary and not conductive to creative control.

  14. nick marino says:

    Yeah, I know what you mean, though I obviously feel differently about it cause I put my stuff up there. I think it's worth a consideration on whether or not you want to take that risk as a creator, but I also think that the current benefits of audience building on FB outweigh the potential risks for me. And — knock on wood — since Facebook is such a large venue nowadays, there's also a more public accountability for any borderline usage of content.

    But in general, my point is less about Facebook in particular and more about using any number of popular venues for posting work because it creates both an archive and an opportunity to reach a new audience.

  15. Shannon_Smith says:

    I'm pretty confident in blogger. They are Google. A future where they start charging me money would not surprise me but I'm not too worried about them going away.

    Backup your backup. Save in multiple formats. Multiple dpi. Get an external hard drive. My digital files are probably safer than my paper originals. I just throw those things in the basement.

  16. marc_sobel says:

    Very interesting column, Shaenon. I happen to work at a Foundation that funds a lot of digital library projects as well as other, more physical art conservation efforts. Virtual content preservation is actually a fairly hot topic in certain parts of academia, though obviously not focused on webcomics. Although I'm sure we could all envision some kind of online repository for webcomics, a virtual museum with metatext, search functions, fancy display/navigation features, etc. that aspiring cartoonists could submit to, it's a lot more complicated than you might think. First of all, the funding would need to come from somewhere, and unless you charged viewers to access content (ha!), it would have to be a non-profit model, at least to start. Then you have legal issues regarding intellectual property rights, as well as licensing and distribution rights. And, even if it were developed with open source, you would need some limited IT support, hosting resources and some kind of standard process for ingesting all of the new content. Still, it's a great idea, and hopefully somebody smarter than me will come up with a solution. But right now I think the best thing for cartoonists to do to preserve their work for posterity would be to self-publish them as mini-comics along with the web versions.

  17. SeanMRob says:

    Of course, unless you can afford offset printing, or you live near a really nice photocopier and happen to know what you're doing, it's all in vain anyway. Although 300 dpi short- run digital printing is several steps up from web-resolution files, it is several steps down from the quality that could be achieved by a fairly affordable offset printer in the eighties. Maybe that doesn't really matter in the long run- after all, other than Little Orphan Annie, early 20th century strips look pretty bad too–but it's frustrating to think that Adolescent Blackbelt Hampsters or whatever will be preserved for a pretty long time looking pretty good, and someone's mini printed by Lulu or Comixpress will, for as long as it lasts, have broken up linework, if it was drawn with any fine lines at all. Sigh.

    I guess you can add print technician, self-promoter and archivist to the list of jobs that a cartoonist needs to have some knowledge of…

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  19. TheWG says:

    All of my old "masters" are gone for my old webcomics.

    But that's okay because they were shite.

  20. VanDavis says:

    Try the Internet Archive. I found most of the images I used on a personal webpage in the late 90's, that I had thought lost for years. They keep JUST ABOUT everything…ever.

  21. EricOrchard says:

    I've always felt the McCloud was suggesting that webcomics will only matter if they conform to a formalism specific to the internet. I feel like no creator really wants to do this because it limits the ability of the work to see print. Also, I think the novelty is fatiguing. I couldbe misinterpreting McCloud. If I'm not I'm glad that content has become more important that formal qualities.

  22. vollsticks says:

    Re: fourth paragraph–completely pissed myself (with laughter!)! Funny as fuck.
    The rest of the piece wasn't bad, either…

  23. tym godek says:

    Formal experimentation has just about gone the way of the dodo, but formal constraints are still paramount in webcomics. Gag-a-day rules the roost, for the most part, pushing both experimentation and long-form storytelling to the fringes. I think it’s a function of how the Internet works (or how we work the Internet). We want something new every day, and we want that punch (or punchline) with every installment. Content is not king. The form itself governs the content.

    99% of which is nothing to celebrate anyway.

  24. tym godek says:

    Fantastic column! I look forward to more.

  25. That is not even sort of true.

    Nobody gives a shit about infinite canvass but longform and experimental comix have never been better.

  26. tym godek says:

    Despite a promising uptick only recently, I’d disagree. And web-specific experimental comics has never been all too healthy a tack. We’ll see how long this crop lasts.

    On reflection, I may have given long-form kind of a short shrift. There’s decent stuff out there. Still, there the web does seem like more of a way station for print. Or “promotional synergy,” or whatever.
    None of which should invalidate the effort, I guess.

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