Prior to the web, people spent several of their formative years learning and then basically stopped. This was evidenced in the journeyman system that many trades exhibited. Once a child was old enough to handle physical labor, they went to work for their parent. In the case of boys, they would often work under their father’s tutelage and learn his profession; in the case of girls, they would often work with their mother to be educated about domestic duties. Once a formal public education system was established, the parents would send their children to school where they would learn reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Many would learn the basics and then drop out to take up a trade; a few might go on to a higher educational institution like college and earn a degree. In either case, once they left school, their learning largely stopped. Although the specific numbers of students changed over time, this system lasted throughout most of the 20th century.
By and large, that was fine. A peasant tilling the fields in the 1600s wasn’t likely to experience any significant cultural or technological changes in his lifetime. What he learned by age 12 would likely be sufficient to carry him through his entire life. Even as late as the 1950s, cultural and technological shifts were slow enough that you didn’t have to adapt to very much very quickly, especially if you didn’t want to.
One of the shifts we’ve seen more recently, however, has been that technology and culture has begun moving at an exponentially increasing rate, such that people have to continually keep adapting to new changes on an ongoing basis. One of the challenges that educational institutions have had is that they were originally set up to teach a finite list of facts to memorize, but are struggling to switch to a mode where they teach students how to learn. The long lists of people and dates are less necessary to memorize because they ubiquitously accessible online, whereas learning how to learn provides a model for how to adapt to the constantly changing status quo.
What’s significant about that with regard to webcomics is how creators are willing to dive in and learn new things for their art. Evil Inc.’s Brad Guigar recently noted how he was talking with Sheldon’s Dave Kellett about lettering. Guigar has long been lettering his strip on the computer, but liked the additional expressiveness in Kellett’s hand-drawn lettering. After seeing some of the guides and tools Kellett uses, and borrowing them briefly himself, Guigar was still a bit unsure about changing his process. But when he noted his own lack of hand-lettering skills, Kellett responded: “Only because it’s a skill you don’t practice.”
With that, Guigar made his own guides based on the ideas he got from Kellett and began hand-lettering his strips with the ones that ran at the beginning of the month. After working on his strip for a dozen years — using a process that he was quite happy with — Guigar dove in to change his lettering process when he learned another way of doing it. That’s not to say he wasn’t nervous about it — he used the word “scared” actually — but he was willing to adapt to a change in his methods.
But that’s nothing compared to the reflections I recently heard from W. Byron Wilkins. In 2007, Wilkins was 50 years old, and only then decided that maybe he might want to try drawing comics. Only after doing some research on things did he really learn about webcomics, and figured that might be the way to go. Not only did he basically need to re-teach himself how to draw — he used quite a few expletives in describing his art from that time — but he also taught himself how to draw digitally. That’s how he started 1977 the Comic. And he was putting his experiments up online as the comic itself, fighting his learning curve in full public view. Keep in mind, too, that Wilkins not only had to re-learn how to draw, but he also had to learn comic storytelling, marketing, branding, the whole ball of wax that comes with webcomics.
I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s something of rift between webcartoonists and newspaper strip cartoonists: there’s a fundamental difference in their approach to learning. The webcomics folks seem to embrace learning new things and trying new methods, regardless of how many years they’ve been doing something else. It’s a more progressive approach to learning. Newspaper folks, by contrast, seem more content to do what they’ve always done. It worked 20 or 30 years ago, so why change now? I think that applies both to the functional aspects of the work (actually drawing the strips) as well as the philosophy behind them (the repetition of the same gags over and over). It’s a difference in an overall mindset, and I think it will be increasingly difficult not to adapt as the world continues to change, and relying on static knowledge base becomes increasingly anachronistic.