Scott McCloud was WRONG!!!
Ha ha! You see how I use my connection with Scott to lure you into my latest blog post? Except, the title is maybe partly apt given what I’m about to post. I want to preface this by saying that the opinions are solely those of my friend Shane Semler aka Shadowjack who wrote to ask me for some advice. I thought his email deserved to be shared with the interwubs that it might invite you, the silent few, reading this blog into some discussion about webcomics, the commerce of webcomics, and comics in general. comics! comics! comics! (why is it always about the “goof-em-ups”?!?)
Anyway, hopefully I didn’t make this out to be more inflammatory than it really is (and I don’t think it is, just honest question asking from a longtime reader and patron here at the inkwell).
I’m not writing this to you to beat a dead horse or dredge up old arguments. I’d like to bounce some ideas off of you because 1.) I like you, 2.) I think you’re uniquely qualified to have an intelligent opinion on this stuff and 3.) I have no one else to talk to.
You’ve worked in both the paper comics world and in the world of webcomics (I don’t know about you but I kind of hate that term). I’ve probably picked the absolute worst time to do this but I’ve decided to seriously pursue and follow through, to the best of my abilities, two artistic endeavors – an album/music project and a comic. And I’d like people to actually hear the music and read the comic and I’d like to make money with them. I know you’re trying to figure out the same thing and have had a seriously hard time doing it. I’m sorry if this is a tedious line of conversation, as you may have already had this discussion in one form or another with others but I haven’t. And I figure two heads are better than one in any case.
Now first, I’d like to review a really old line of conversation/debate/flaming. Please bear with me though, I’m going somewhere with this and I’m sorry if it touches on a few sore spots. I may be talking out my ass here but this is the way I see things with what little I know about the issues. Also, keep in mind that when I talk about comics, I’m talking about long format story-driven comics, not one-shot daily syndicated-newspaper-style Penny Arcade stuff.
I think Scott McCloud is brilliant. Understanding Comics is an amazing comic and important work on the mechanics of comics. I think Zot! is one of the best comics I’ve ever read. I also know he is a good friend of yours. But I think his musings on the future of comics have been largely (but not completely) wrong, both in the artistic sense and business sense. He’s not alone in this though. The concept of interactive comics predates the internet. There have been a fair number of interactive comics tried. And every one of them, I feel, have failed. They all feel like it’s just a bunch of bolted on gimmicks. Animation in comics doesn’t work too well. I know you’ve experimented with it alot and of all the attempts, I think you’ve had the most success. But still, it just doesn’t seem to jive. The infinite canvas doesn’t work either. Partly because of the mechanics of the computer interface but there’s another reason I don’t think anyone has touched on. I think this relates back to the interactive thing. Comics are linear story-telling, like literature. The reader wants to be led. Interactive stuff is a distraction, it breaks up the line people are following. Sure it might be fun to experiment with but ultimately, it’s either an annoyance or silly gimmick. It ends up feeling a bit like a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure” book. Sure they are fun for a bit but it eventually gets tedious and unsatisfying. Even when Scott revisited Zot! in digital form, the comic only scrolled one way, down. And the parallel bit in the last episode is something that could have been done on a printed page, though obviously, in slightly different manner. I notice pretty much all the successful web comics are easily readable in a few panels on a single page with a minimum of scrolling. So I guess what I’m saying is, the old methods of story telling in comics work because, well, they work. Interaction, animation, music, non-linear story-telling – these have already been done and done better in another medium – videogames.
Again, Scott had some great ideas but the reality has again turned out a bit different. We both know how the micropayments and subscription thing went. I don’t know how Modern Tales is working out these days but I have a hard time believing they are making any money. People don’t like paying subscriptions to access content online. Micropayments seem like a great idea. They should work… except to set up micropayments it’s as big a hassle to pay for something that costs more. It seems kind of silly to go through all the trouble to pay $0.50 as it would be just as easy to pay $5.00! So where am I going with this? It’s not to diss Scott, you, experimentation or anything like that. There is nothing wrong with any of the stuff Scott did and it’s always good to push boundries. But after watching that TED presentation he did, it doesn’t seem that he has adjusted his ideas to fit the current reality. I’m not dismissing him though, he’s too smart and I don’t think he’s completely off base. Maybe just a little too far ahead.
It appears the future of comics isn’t the internet.
Except, it is. At least partially.
So you might be going “WTF are you babbling about?” This isn’t news really but ad revenue in the print world is drying up fast, though comics have been dealing with this situation for over 20 years now. PC World completely got rid of their print version and are online only now. Electronic Gaming Monthly has done the same. More are sure to follow. The New York Times is on the verge of collapse. And it’s not just the economy, it has simply accelerated the the process. The internet is taking away ad revenue from print. Printing and distribution on a mass scale is too expensive. Along with this development is the emergence of e-ink, specifically the Kindle, which is a huge success. My dad even has one (and loves it btw). Interestingly enough, comics have been dealing with this situation for decades as well. Comics haven’t been a mass medium since WWII! And in the 80′s as the comics market got smaller, specialty shops appeared and comics survived but on a smaller scale. What am I trying to say is this: despite “print is dead” being a popular meme, predating the internet and despite saying it myself to sound like I’m saying something intelligent, I don’t think it is dead. Print will survive, just on a smaller scale. Hard copy is going to be a luxury.
People will pay for the luxury though. Even in a bad economy.
Where is the proof? Nine Inch Nails. Wait, NIN isn’t comics, it’s music so how is it relevant? The music industry is dealing with a parallel situation. Distribution is costly, their way of doing business is outdated. It relies on control of the distribution of the music and they lost control of the distribution of their product a decade ago. Trent gave the last two NIN albums away but he also sold a digital version of Ghosts for $5 (I bought it) – The Slip digital version was 100% free. Technically, Ghosts was free as well as he released it under a license that allows for non-commercial distribution. Anyway, how is it possible for him to make money like this? Other than touring, obviously there is also NIN merch like t-shirts. But here’s the amusing irony, he made a fucking killing selling limited edition hard copies of both albums!
Here’s what I’m thinking: both music and comics need a “hybrid” approach, if you will. Give away or make the digital version cheap and sell a limited edition “deluxe” hard copy version. This keeps the costs down because the production is small and the digital version acts as sort of an ad for the “real” version (I picture myself making air quotes every time I type a word with quotes around it and I want to smack my imaginary self for it). The digital version shouldn’t be any different from the print version format-wise. High-resolution, wide screen LCD monitors are common so it’s very easy on the eyes to read comics as double page spreads; there are some nice comic readers out now days so the issue of a long comic page fitting on a wide screen isn’t a problem anymore. It’s not even necessary to scroll. I think artists in both fields can make a living and control their art if they follow NIN’s model. I’m not saying everyone will be as successful but I do think it’s possible to make at least a modest living and really, that’s the best an artist can hope for as we’ve been getting kicked around since the beginning of recorded history. The difference now is that we are in the unique position of being able to have more control over our art than ever before.
Ok, I’ve yammered on enough for now. I really really want to hear what you think of all this. Also, I’m curious as to how your recent experience with Secrets & Lies went and what you learned from it.
Shane Edward Semler