In the early 2000s, when web comics really began to take off, a lot of commentators and armchair critics began to speculate why they were so appealing. As I came into my artistic identity at that time, web comics had a profound impact on how I viewed the world (artistically and socially, which probably says a lot about me). As such, I paid a lot of attention to these discussions.
One issue was the democracy of availability. Thanks to net neutrality (something that has been and continues to be under attack, but thankfully is still in place at this moment), anybody could post a web comic. So long as people had reasonable internet access, they could read the comic. Distribution became instantaneous and universal (or as far as the internet reached at least). There was no issue of shelf space limitations, production costs, sales minimums, any of that. Draw pictures, post online, and boom. Instantly available. Now, available and successful are too very different things (as evidenced by the failed comics), but that’s another discussion.
Another issue was the infinite canvas. A web comic was not limited by the constraints of print comics. Whether we’re talking about newspaper strips (be it Archie, Family Circus, Liberty Meadows, or Prince Valiant) or comic books (Batman, Spider-man, you get the idea), these comics are limited by the constraints of the page. With the exception of novelty features (such as MAD Magazine’s foldable pages or color-coded pages requiring special-tinted glasses to read), you were dealing with ink on a page and little else.
Web comics had far more going for them. Want movement? All that was needed was a little extra drawing and a slight change in file format and boom, you can get a looped movement. Imbed a video or song? No problem. But this was more than comics. Want access to a color palette most printers can’t touch? All you’re limited by is the software you use to produce the image. Want to produce comic strips big or larger or more detailed than standard? Just change the file size. Granted, all of these little tricks carried their own problems, but the point is that the opportunity to expand the art form was widened vastly.
Jump forward almost two decades and web comics have dwindled. They still exist, and some of them are still doing amazing things, but they aren’t the dominant artistic force they once were. There are a variety of reasons for this, some natural and some nefarious. One element to this downfall has been the rise of digital distribution embraced by mainstream comics (read: Marvel and DC). Comic book apps have invigorated viewing by providing a more dynamic approach. Another is the increased ease of animation production. More and more artists have discovered that with just a bit more effort, their ambitions can go from still work to movement. Quite an appeal, that.
But still, the artistic model really appealed to me. The idea of draw-release-engage was very attractive. I won’t fault anybody for wanting to get paid. I have lived (and nearly died) off my writing and I still pursue avenues that will result in bigger royalty checks. However, that’s to facilitate producing more or as an indirect metric of the acceptance of my writing. If you got into the arts principally to make money, you’re delusional. Money and fame are byproducts of artistic success (though your artistic success may not be in the product but in the promotion of said artistic product, but that’s another discussion).
I say all of this because a recent off-handed comment has thrown me for a loop and got me re-thinking a lot. On the cusp of doubling my output, I find myself wondering if I’m still thinking in the old world of the literary business (books as king). I tend to think of books as the money-makers, and everything else tools to promote said books (I’m oversimplifying, but you get the idea). Social media engagement, posting short stories online, etc, generally seems to be about creating a community which will most meaningfully engage with me through the purchase of my books.
What if it doesn’t have to be that way?
What if it shouldn’t?
What if it can’t?
The literary industry is in tatters these days. Amazon is decimating the New York Publishing houses, providing distribution and royalties that those houses can’t touch (given the amount of support the Big Publishers typically provide – especially to new authors – Amazon provides about as much support too). Even if Amazon wasn’t destroying the old-world model, the Big Publishers are clearly seeing books as just a proving ground for IPs that they can then leverage into movie deals (a goal shared by Marvel and DC). I’m not going to fault them for that; I’d sell a kidney (not one of mine, just A kidney) for a movie deal. But it does mean there’s a real stagnation in the medium, at least on that front. If a book doesn’t have ‘movie potential’ that the publisher can immediately see, the chances of getting it published are limited.
If we add to the success of Amazon’s model (for better or worse, and there’s a lot about it that’s worse) the existence of things like Patreon and other outlets that provide direct-support-to-the-artist, something like a web comic business model makes sense.
In 2003, when Teach The Sky first went live, I published serialized stories as a means to promote my novels as well as a means to compete with web comics. At the time, web comics survived by selling merchandise, either collections of the strips or related mascot material. Today, building a Patreon community can create genuine support. I know cosplayers who are able to fully support themselves with Patreon and a vivid social media presence. Same too with YouTubers. A fiction author could do the same, theoretically. Forego the print model entirely and post stories, offering more features for higher levels of support.
I’m not necessarily keen to bypass the print stage of things: I like books and I know many of my readers prefer them (especially ebooks, I’m finding). But I am increasingly leaning towards a digital business model instead of an electronic version of the old model.
Daily updates were very challenging but also very rewarding. Given that I have a very consuming day job that I wouldn’t quit (I’d still work here if I won the lottery…albeit probably part-time), the money from the support would go into things like an editor and/or web-manager.
I dunno. A lot to consider.