Mike Peterson goes to NEWW2

Mike Peterson of Comic Strip Of The Day blog typically checks out syndicated comics. (His mission statement, as encapulated in his sidebar: “I read some 120 comic strips a day. Each day, I post a strip here that made me laugh, made me think or impressed me with its artistry.”) However, he took a break from his perusing over synicated strip to go to New England Webcomics Weekend 2 (NEWW2, for short). His “outsider” standpoint is refreshing… though I should point out that he’s not totally alienated from the webcomic scene. Peterson has worked with Dylan Meconis, after all.

In his two-parter (Part 1 and Part 2), he recognizes that webcomic creators, compared to the syndicated cartoonists, are more attuned toward sci-fi and geeky humor yet still taking great lessons from the cartoonists who came before.

To begin with, I really didn’t know how big a deal the New England Webcomics Weekend was until Saturday morning, when I discovered that the place was sold out for that day and I’d have to scramble to get in on Sunday. Fortunately, I discovered this on-line and not at the door, so I dropped Christopher Baldwin an email and a text (the electronic equivalent of belt-and-suspenders) and he set aside a Sunday ticket for me so I wouldn’t drive two hours and find myself on the outside looking in.

NEWW is a pretty big deal. The place was full but not crowded and the majority of cartoonists had a steady stream of fans, to the point where I felt sorry for the newcomers who weren’t well-known enough to draw a constant crowd. But people did wander by their tables to have a look and a bit of conversation, and I think they made some good new contacts over the course of the two days.

Webcomics skew notably towards science fiction and geek humor, but they are a mainstream medium and the level of purposeful eccentricity at NEWW was very low. Even the level of unintentional eccentricity was no higher than you’d see at any book signing.

What makes webcomic fans so loyal is the sense of community that springs up around a successful webcomic. This doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of emailing back-and-forth with individual fans, but it does mean creating place online where they can feel their input and their presence is of value to you and perhaps has some effect on the cartoon itself. “Success” and “community” are inseparable, and it’s a major reason why, as mentioned yesterday, you can’t hide in your garret churning out amazing art and expect to succeed in this medium.

I even heard Scott Adams spoken of with admiration, not because Dilbert is a brilliantly drawn strip and not because it has retained its cutting edge relevance but because he has created an empire based on spinoff products and web toys. And Adams has always solicited ideas and commentary from his readers; he was active on line almost as soon as there was an online upon which to be active.

The praise surprised me because, among many syndicated cartoonists, the vibe is that Dilbert is a strip that has lost its freshness and that Adams has become a commercial hack, simply exploiting the strip’s popularity among cubicle dwellers. (Which would be a more stinging criticism if syndicated cartoonists weren’t also working to please an audience and prone to settling into a comfortable groove that is often indistinguishable from a rut.)

But, upon reflection, Adams is a model for web cartoonists. The trick in web cartooning is to create something that appeals to a niche audience and then assemble that niche and mold it into a community. For the majority who can do this, it’s not a trick. It’s just what is.

There is a generational issue here: Syndicated cartoonists, like other over-40-year-olds in the communications field, talk about getting online, getting on Facebook, getting on Twitter, and it’s a bit like the capital-P Playboy who sets up his love nest with the right music, the right lighting, a bit of champagne. It’s just a bit too much conscious effort. If you have to try to be cool, well …

Dylan Young artists don’t have to be told how to get online. They are online. Beyond that, there is an element of serendipity at work.

His last paragrapsh on the hurdles involved in developing an online comic I found to be very interesting:

It’s not that syndicated cartoonists couldn’t do all this. But having a nice comic is only the beginning. Not everyone who can sing will end up in a Broadway musical. And not everyone who can draw an appealing comic will make it through the hurdles to success on the web, any more than they will make it through the hurdles to syndication. It ain’t that easy.

But, just as a syndicated cartoonist may find it easier to get a second bite at the apple for having had experience, so, too, web cartoonists are able to shift projects, in large part because they also have “contacts,” but their contacts are the public.

In Part One of this report, Jonathan Rosenberg spoke of moving his entire “Goats” audience over to his new strip, “Scenes from a Multiverse,” and he’s not alone. David Willis was also at NEWW, and he began with a web strip called “Roomies” that then morphed into “It’s Walky!” and he now does a different strip, “Shortpacked,” bringing along his original audience while building new readers each time.

The A.V. Club recently did a piece on how much interactivity belongs in entertainment. The discussion begins with the “are video games art” discussion, but then expands to include all other art forms (though not explicitly comics or webcomics). They argue that, whether you ignore it or not, interaction with fans is an integral part of the future of art:

The value of interactive entertainment, as with the value of any art form, is bound to fluctuate wildly. Anyone who’s read a lot of fan fiction or seen the comments on message boards from viewers spelling out what they would have done differently in a TV show or movie can be forgiven for hoping that the level of interactivity in entertainment stays at a bare minimum. But it’s something we should be thinking about now, because it’s only going to become easier and cheaper for people to interact with their art, and when something gets easier and cheaper, it inevitably becomes more common. Changes are coming that will moot the question of whether this or that medium is truly art; the only reason we’re still arguing over it so much is because those media aren’t quite there yet.

There was a time when photography was thought of as a relatively specialized scientific tool. No one today would deny that it’s now an artistic medium. The Internet was designed as a specific delivery vector for military and scientific data; its value as an art form is hard to deny anymore. Computer imaging began as science and turned into Pixar. Humans have such an uncanny ability to turn anything you can imagine, from leaves to cell phones, into artistic media, you could argue that it’s an intrinsic part of what makes us human. Telling stories is part of who we are. Interactivity on a currently unimaginable level is coming, and once it gets here, we’ll no more question its value as art than we will that of film. We’ll still be having the argument over which art is good or bad when the sun blinks out for the last time and the final Rocky movie is released, but we’ll become accustomed to the reality of interactivity in entertainment so quickly that the we’ll forget we ever even argued about it. There may always be a professional creative class, but the delineation between makers of art and consumers of art is going to continue to fade—and that’s not just inevitable, it’s desirable.

When it comes down to it, the increased interaction between fans and creators may be the biggest advantage webcomics have over their print brethren, even the ones that are trying to transition over to iPad apps. Interaction is a strong paradigm shift when it comes to art, yet webcomics are already there at the front lines.

(h/t Brigid Alverson at Robot 6.)


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on November 11, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. … but it does mean creating place online where they can feel their input and their presence is of value to you and perhaps has some effect on the cartoon itself.

    From this comes two results:

    1. A creator that constantly bullshits their audience into thinking they’re part of the process when they’re not. (The Stan Lee method)

    2. A creator with no artistic vision and a shitty comic. (The Jim Davis method)

    That supposed adults keep falling for this “We’re all best buds!” bullshit being fed to them by creators out to get their money makes me sad to be a comic geek.

    That this is the only way to earn a living from the medium makes me even sadder.

    • Those represent extremes. I think there’s an entire middle ground being glossed over. Homestar Runner, for example, is more recent and operates within the parameters of the online environment. It does well parlaying fan interaction into entertainment, i.e. The Strong Bad Emails.

      • Sorry. It’s an either/or sort of thing. The same way you’re never partially pregnant, you’re either the creator of a work or your not.

        Those reader emailers are not participants. They’re joke fodder. They’re as much a part of the process as Glenn Beck is for the Daily Show.

    • Also Templar Arizona, where readers often notice things that Spike misses about her own world. And the forums for Penny and Aggie are REALLY intense. I didn’t think they’d make a huge difference– but T’s changed his comic because of reader input. In one of his latest story lines readers were complaining that the arc jumps were too jolted, and he took the time to change it. It’s not because he’s spineless, it’s because he took into consideration readers arguments and ideas.

      • There is a difference between letting the readers shape the comic, and letting them point out where you failed as an artist to make your comic well.

        I realize that getting that validation for your ideas is like gold for geeks. A lot of people have gotten rich telling people what they want to hear. Look at Rush Limbaugh: Complete piece of shit. Fabulously wealthy because he validates the biases of his listeners. Only fools like me are repulsed by easy money like that.

        But I think that if you’re old enough to stop believing in Santa Claus or Jesus, you’re old enough to stop believing that the guy who needs your money to pay his rent actually cares about what you think.

  2. I personally prefer the Watterson aproach, a comic strip is made beacuse the creator has a need to speak his mind about the world while respecting itself as a true art form.
    I find it sad how many webcomics sell themselves in such a shallow way or how they wallow on such pointless pursuits as are gamming or similar stupid toys.
    Still people like Kate Beaton, Katie Rice, Aaron Diaz, Brian MacLachlan and many other cheer me right up.

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