Letter to a Young Cartoonist

kolinsky-weaselFLATDear Young Cartoonist,

The Internet is real, it exists, and to insist otherwise would be an act of folly. There are several hundr- okay, millions of people who make their living from the Internet, so it must be real. As I stare out the back door this gloomy morning, watching raindrops land in a puddle to form beautiful concentric rings which immediately vanish, it seems almost possible to convince myself that the Internet never existed; that the developments of the last twenty years were all just plot points in a '90s movie about Virtual Reality, perhaps starring Winona Ryder as Chelsea Manning.

But then I realize the random patterns of the raindrops resemble nothing more than... a screensaver! I jostle the mouse of my psyche to get rid of this natural reverie and return to our shared tech reality. The Internet is real! and must be reckoned with.

What is the meaning of the Internet? And what can be done about it? I am 36. Like Virgil in Dante's Inferno I come from Another Time, the pre-Internet era, to guide you, Young Cartoonist, through the architecture of Hell. Young Cartoonist, born in 1990 (shudder!!!), I ask you, what does the Internet mean to you? Is it your preferred medium? Is it your Life? Is it your Wife? An altar of sacrifice, at which you offer up your artwork, hoping to feel like someone cares even tiny bit? Even one Like?

Historically cartoonists drew on paper. Why? Only because it's available and cheap. People who draw will also draw on tables, on their clothes and shoes, on walls, and on bathroom stalls. People will draw with sparklers and with lawnmowers to create crop circles. People will draw with invisible lines to connect the dots in the Milky Way. It is evident that people who want to will draw in any available format, whether it is a beautiful sheet of hot-press watercolor paper or a virtual 3D space in Google Sketchup or the skin of a water buffalo. The desire to make marks comes with no predetermined appropriate surface.

(Speaking of art supplies, Y.C.: did you know that there has been a shortage of sable watercolor brushes for the last year, due to the possible endangered species status of the Siberian Kolinsky Weasel? It seems that sable hairs are not plucked from horse's tails, as previously thought, but from this beautiful mammal, which hopefully bred like crazy in 2014. Among certain circles, the scarcity of Winsor Newton Series 7 brushes is tantamount to, say, every iPhone 6 being held up in the factory due to an investigation of child labor violations.)

Advances in technology may alter the aesthetics of cartooning, but will not have any real effect on people's desire or ability to create interesting cartoons. Yesterday the Kolinsky Weasel, today Photoshop.  But real economic changes have been wrought by information technology, and especially by Social Media's influence on distribution and behavior.

I have some questions, Young Cartoonist. Did you ever wonder why there are more of us than ever? Is it because comics are getting more and more popular? Does it sometimes seem like there are more creators than readers? Does it sometimes seem like despite the "renaissance" comics are experiencing, the opportunities for making any money in the art form are pretty scarce? Does it often seem like an industry that barely breaks even? Do you make any money at conventions? Break even? Or take a loss, buy a bunch of books and enjoy it as a social occasion? Why?

I have some ideas and they have to do with the Art World. I know you might hate or fear Art and that's understandable, so  just bear with me. The increase in popularity of comics is tied to the huge influx of people entering the Arts sector in recent decades, for many reasons. Among those might be: Art is cool, Art is fun, Artists are sexy and connected, Daddy pays for my studio, Jay-Z wants a Picasso in his Casa, etc. Despite what people might tell you or themselves, the reasons underlying the increasing numbers of people becoming artists have more to do with economics rather than a philosophical or idealistic mission. Art is an increasingly lucrative business venture, especially for those in the upper classes. Investment capital is being "parked" there.

Art is also a good bet as a career in our Information Age. Over the past thirty years or so, due to Free Trade agreements and the like, the Industrial base in America has mostly shut down or been shipped overseas, leaving America between twin poles of Information/Management and Service industries. Would you rather 1. Sit in an office managing a database; 2. Wear an apron and make espressos...or 3. Be the master of your own destiny as an Artist?! Perhaps sipping one of those selfsame lattes, in a loft building that used to be a factory?

Increasing numbers of well-educated Art Experts with MFA degrees (though maybe not actual skills) are pumped every year into the "Art World", a specter which is accepted as a reality, a competitive shared dream world to be entered into and validated by. Much like the Internet, though you may try to ignore it and focusing on trees and puddles of rain, its reality will still be there when you turn around, ready to accept or reject you.

But where does that leave comics???

Good news Young Cartoonist!

You are the real artistic avant-garde.

People are drawn into comics for all sorts of reasons, but there has been huge growth in the last twenty years and I believe it has to do with the increasing commercialization and corporatization of Fine Art. Comics are lately functioning as an avant-garde escape hatch for people who like to make challenging work, especially if they want to draw or have an interest in narrative, and prioritize making good, lasting work over "blowing up" in the art market.

The amazing work of many cartoonists active over the past twenty-year period is comparable to the fabled flourishing of avant-gardes in places like Paris in the 1920s, San Fransisco in the 1960s, The Lower East Side in the '70s, Providence in the 2000s, etc etc. etc. Those are all physical locations and they were all cheap.

Comics is an international avant-garde, because it is always cheap to make a zine and have it seen.

Isn't the Internet a crucial tool to help this geographically scattered avant-garde... cohere? I understand the simple arguments apologists will make in its favor. But the Internet, and specifically Social Media platforms, undermines the avant-garde, it undoes the professional. It takes away your ability to make a living. It distracts you from your work. The Internet promises community, but in fact is engineered to foster alienation.

For instance: many people post their artwork online for free. (Or comics, movies, music, writing, etc.) But it's not really free. The cost of your labor is absorbed. The value of the work goes to Big Tech. Everyone viewing your work has paid for whatever screen or computer through which they view your work, and also for their Internet access plan. But your audience doesn't value you, Young Cartoonist, so much as the device that frames you. You are disposable.

In effect, Young Cartoonist, you become part of a package deal included with the monthly payment of Internet service. The artwork is consumed by the viewers online as part of their daily steroidal dose of information. For the consumer, it's as though they subscribed to a newspaper with an infinite amount of funny pages! But for the artist... you get paid in "likes" and those don't translate into dollars.

A radical shift in human consciousness regarding "content" has occurred over the last twenty years. People expect to receive information for free, and they will post that information online whether or not they are paid (The Artist also must "pay to play," since posting information costs the Artist the price of a computer and an Internet subscription plan).

Artists continue to publish their work online because everyone wants publicity. Everyone wants to become famous, everyone wants an audience. I do not begrudge anybody wanting fame, fans, and followers. To build an audience is to build sustainability for your practice, and of course artists will build buzz for their work by any means possible.

But in the end, this system is only financially rewarding to the corporations who provide the platforms you pimp yourself out to. Worse, the Social Media companies proceed to harvest your information -- Metadata -- which is then shared between corporations to advertise their products to you. Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube are not giving you something for nothing.

Are we this desperate?

Committed artists should be able to make a living. Illustration work is scarce, and often the meager payments arrive too slowly. Publishers are increasingly unable to pay artists anything approaching a livable wage in royalties and advances because the overall number of people buying books is diminishing.

People find their entertainment and education solely through the Internet. Instead of buying your books, people are spending innumerable hours watching soap operas marketed to them as a "Golden Age of Television": Mad Men, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, True Detective, True Blood... all of these shows make me want to vomit in the face of the indoctrinated fool who invariably speaks of them in rapturous tones. I'd rather spend my time cleaning out a ten-year-old Rapidograph, or picking a scab!

Is this the future you want, Young Cartoonist? To work full-time, make comics when you're not watching television shows that go on longer than some people's entire lives? To travel to conventions where you can't sell anything because people are jaded by seeing it all online? To self-promote rabidly on social media, performing your "self" to the point where your online persona turns into a distorted Kabuki mask?

Wouldn't it be preferable to turn in a daily or weekly strip, or a ten-page comic story a month, to a publishing platform that actually pays? Like a printed magazine or newspaper? Even one online that pay a reasonable rate? Publishers need to step up, and Artists need to step away from the screen. By posting work on Social Media, you are falling into a trap encouraged by Big Tech that says: more buzz is a replacement for actual physical transaction of goods.

In opposition to this trend is the beauty and craft of self-publishing. Even if you, Young Artist, can't make a living producing zines, simply to produce them and claim responsibility for the fistful of dollars you might make, is incredibly empowering. Sharing, trading, and selling comic zines, and meeting the other people who make them, fosters a real community, in opposition to the Panopticon of Social Media. If, after working for hundreds of hours on a zine, to give it away to someone, or sell it for a low price that could never compensate your labor, is to participate in a true gift economy.

A kind of Methadone clinic for information addiction is found in your local Library. I go there almost every week, checking out tons of comics,  but also to make the effort to learn about all kinds of other things... Art of all kinds, music, history, novels, poetry, science: information resides there, the branches of knowledge in physical proximity. A library is a truly free institution, a temple of learning! It's a gift to you from the State, or from yourself, as you pay the taxes to support it. It's actually hard to believe that something so anti-capitalistic and humane exists, when contrasted with the dark, competitive future being accelerated by the Info-Pimps.

It's stopped raining, Young Cartoonist.

Thanks for your time.

See you in the checkout line,

Matthew Thurber