Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Comics and Community Service, Part 4

(You can read Part 3 here.)

Fleen has an interesting article here about a recent debate between "old school" editorial cartoonists and several well known Internet cartoonists. One line that stuck out: "One point that seems to be close to consensus is that the editorial cartoonists are boned in the internet age."

This got me thinking about what paradigm the next generation of cartoonists will have regarding their approach to comics and the potential influence comic-oriented community service projects like the CCP can have.

The classical view, represented by Ted Rall, is that giving away your product for free is bad, since it cheapens the value. The common Internet view, represented by Rich Stevens (a supporter of the CCP) and others, is that putting your work online is a cost effective branding approach.

(There also appears to be some who try and distinguish those who do "cartooning" with those who do "comics." Clearly, every artist who creates comics is also a cartoonist, though not all cartoonists do comics. Trying to separate comic makers from the field of cartooning - or worse, treating them as occupying "lesser positions" - is silly at best and purposeless elitism at worst.)

The key difference is valuation: Ted Rall says that the comic itself is the main commodity, while Rich Stevens says that the comic is a means to an end, which is selling the surrounding merchandise. I side with Stevens on this: a service oriented business model, where the core product is free and profit is derived from surrounding peripherals (ads, t-shirts, etc.), has proven successful in many new businesses (Google, for one).

Ted Rall is very clearly wrong when he says bringing things offline would improve matters. While wages may increase, this gain would come at the price of fewer cartoonists being able to release their work and a qualitative decrease in value as the diversity of viewpoints shrank to an infinitesimal point. Syndicates and newspapers have already come under fire for their lack of interest in appealing to broad markets - and it's broad appeal that has bolstered webcomicsto higher and higher levels of overall success.

Rall's idea is fundamentally anti-capitalist: a free market thrives on competition from many sources. He suggests that having a handful of major syndicates determining which cartoons see the light of day would be better than numerous small entrepreneurs presenting their work for all to see. That kind of "corporatism of cartoons" is to the detriment of both the creator and the reader, the same way the RIAA and MPAA's control of music and movies has been to the detriment of the entertainment industry.

Any decent comic program today should mention the Internet. Young cartoonists who want to get a head start on publishing experience would do well to seek their fortunes there. As one playwright said, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." Unlike the traditional publishing world that values formal credentials and experience, the Internet community judges a person largely by content. On the Internet, no one knows if you're 50 or 15 - and they tend not to care.

Where I struggle with the issue is in how much of it to bring into the CCP. The comic project is first and foremost a creative writing program. So going on too much about publishing muddies the water.

I have made an effort to inform children that the Internet hosts the majority of all new comic creations and to promote them to post their art online free for all to view. It's why I have released all the artwork created by the students to the Creative Commons license. (One thing that keeps me from putting the CCP under the Creative Commons is I'm not sure if I could then still use webcomic art covered by traditional copyright.)

I also point out the many shining stars that have risen thanks to their Internet fame. Kazu Kibuishi is one such example: would any newspaper have ever printed Copper, arguably one of the greatest works of cartoon art since the turn of the century? Would the Flight anthology be a compilation well known to every cartoonist in the country without the Internet? (Seriously, if you ever meet someone who considers themselves knowledgeable about cartooning and they haven't heard of either Kibuishi or Flight, they're just pretending.)

Another issue with raising these points in the CCP is the risk of demagoguery: as William G once asked me, "Is the point of this to evangelize comics or is it to help people in need?" I speak of mentioning the Internet not to imbue kids with a sense of revolution, but to prepare them for the way things are. For example, you wouldn't teach a course on the US Constitution using books from the mid-1950's - you'd be missing 5 amendments! Likewise, you shouldn't teach kids about avenues of publicity for their comic idea as though the Internet doesn't exist.

The best way to counter Rall's out-dated economic model of cartooning is through education. Webcomic creators who've volunteered their time to help the next generation find their comic voice are in an excellent position to open the minds of their students to the concept of posting their art online. If this position of authority is used responsibly, the cartoon free market of the Internet can be preserved.

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