Kleefeld on Webcomics #62: An Unseen Division

By Sean Kleefeld 

Last weekend, the University of Chicago hosted a three-day conference called Comics: Philosophy & Practice with the intent to “explore comics autobiography and journalism, the current shape of the ‘graphic novel,’ the power of hand-drawn images to shock and provoke, historical print culture, the narrative impact of comics style, and where and how today's most exciting work is happening.” The guest included some of the most long-standing, influential names in comics, including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel and Joe Sacco to name a very few. Unlike a comics convention, everyone was there exclusively to talk about comics in the context of an academic setting. There were no autograph lines or cosplayers or rows of long boxes with bagged comics. The whole event took place in a lecture hall, with people on stage discussing their thoughts and ideas about comics. It was a fascinating event with lots to take in and process. But there was almost no discussion of webcomics at all.

There were several reasons for this. In the first place, most of the guests did their most known and well-respected works well before webcomics existed. Many did their most known and well-respected work before home computers even existed. The youngest guest was 40-year-old Chris Ware. My understanding is that was deliberate in that the organizers wanted creators with more than two decades of experience in comics. Naturally, this is going to skew the age range a bit.

In the second place, the guests were (for reasons I never heard expressed) pretty exclusively from the alt-comics scene, and largely those who’ve won several awards. While there wasn’t any overt indication that the creators all knew each other before-hand, they had a chummy vibe about them. Granted, that’s a pretty subjective and ephemeral interpretation on my part, but one distinctly got the impression that cartoonist outside of that niche group wouldn’t fit in very well.

The focus was primarily on print, but some of the creators had some experience with their comics going on the web. George Sprott (1894-1975) by Seth and Mister Wonderful by Dan Clowes both were serialized in the New York Times Magazine both in print and online. Both creators noted the limitations they faced in creating the print version; namely, that magazine-dictated masthead took up a large chunk of the page’s real estate.

These artists in particular expressed a great deal of pride they took in seeing their work printed well. They spend a lot of time on the design and presentation of not only their individual pages, but on the whole book as well. End papers, cover weights, wrappers, etc. So they looked at these works the same way, and tried to take the best advantage of the magazine’s format.

It should come as no surprise, then, that they were disappointed to see how their comics made it online -- as a series of PDF files made directly from the magazine, leaving even the page numbers in tact. Clearly, this was a poor format to showcase these works designed precisely for another venue and, as their first real venture into online publishing, it left a decidedly sour taste in both their mouths. Seth especially noted that he asked to have his work removed from the site but, as you can see from the link above, that has not happened in the five years since the work first went online.

The creators largely seemed to be reluctant to even use a computer. In part because, as noted earlier, they honed their artistic talents before home computers were available and, in part, it seemed, on general principle. While there seemed to be a consensus that the computer was a tool, in some respects not unlike a brush or pencil, Ivan Brunetti seemed to get to the crux of their concern, stating that the ability to undo anything tended to get in the way of experimenting with your art and being able to take advantage of mistakes.

Interestingly, one of the biggest advocates for computer usage in comics was one of the oldest guests: Justin Green. Although he spoke quietly of his interest in experimenting with Photoshop and other programs, his wife Carol Tyler noted that he expressed his enthusiasm quite a bit more upon actually making some new discovery. He’s even taken to posting his cartoons online, although he has not been able to post anything since January.

But, despite these topics, there was no discussion of webcomics. Nor was there discussion of Marvel, DC, Dark Horse or Archie. Newspaper comics got a passing mention but, aside from an amusing anecdote from Barry around Family Circus and a quick nod to Bill Griffith from Crumb, they were summarily dismissed. There wasn’t really disdain for webcomics among this group, so much as total ignorance. And this is a set of people who make their living -- and have made their living for decades -- making comics.

As much as those of us who read and appreciate webcomics and what goes into them, and as much as we like to point to success stories like Dorothy Gambrell and Spike Trotman, webcomics still have not really passed into the greater consciousness of our culture. Whether or not they need to is another discussion, though, as those successes seem to be doing well despite not really breaking out of what could still be called a niche audience. If memory serves, Crumb himself was once selling Zap Comix out of a baby carriage on the street corner at a time when comic books didn’t even register on most adult’s radar. Why can’t webcomics folks do the same thing now digitally, and eventually gain enough money and notoriety to move to France too?

Related Posts:

Kleefeld on Webcomics #61: Going Mainstream

Kleefeld on Webcomics #60: Social Commentary


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