Kleefeld On Webcomics #87: Let’s Back Up For A Second

By Sean Kleefeld

When I started this column, I said it was my intent to cover all aspects of webcomics. Now you could either look at that as an attempt to be as comprehensive as possible, or you can look at it as a cop-out statement that gives me a lot of leeway in trying to figure what the heck I’m going to write about. Neither position would be wholly inaccurate.

But as I was talking with the folks at the Webcomic Beacon Newscast recently, it occurred to me how much I’ve focused on the business end of webcomics, moreso than the art itself. I haven’t spent much time discussing artistic styles or brush techniques or Photoshop tips. Nor have I spent much time looking at writing ongoing serials versus gag strips versus some sort of combination, or how strip size and frequency might impact story pacing. I have yet to do a proper, full-on review of any webcomic here.

As that direction wasn’t a fully conscious decision on my part, and just my following the whims of my own interests, I sat back for a bit to reflect on why I’d been pursuing that direction. And I think the conclusions I came to are worth expressing openly here because, frankly, they’re not discussed much.

What really got my hackles up when I was chatting with the WCBN people was a reference to Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis, who said in an October interview, “Now, to make it, you have to go that web route. Many of those guys, from Penny Arcade to Cyanide and Happiness to The Perry Bible Fellowship — which are all excellent — claim to make a living, but how do you know? I can tell you that even if someone does a strip and it’s fairly popular online, the money is not online. I question a lot of claims about the money being made, and the question remains that if things continue to go that route for newspapers, and you have to make money online, how do you do it?”

I’ve never met Pastis, but I read his comic regularly and I generally enjoy his style of humor. But the attitude that he expressed here bothers me because it’s entirely dismissive of webcomics as a profession. He’s effectively saying that Rich Burlew and Tatsuya Ishida and Tom Siddell and the dozens of other webcomickers who’ve expressly said they are making a living from webcomics are lying. Despite the fact that many of these have gone out of their way to show exactly where their financing comes from, and the conditions under which they’re living.

(Amusing side story. Ryan Estrada recently got married. But before he did, his fiancée pointedly asked him if he could make enough money as a cartoonist to support them. He told her to Google it and the first link that came up was one of my columns from early this year, in which Estrada graciously let me run all of his finances, with his own analysis, from the past several years.)

It’s not exactly that Pastis doesn’t believe them that bothers me; it’s his attitude that leads to that conclusion. Despite his note about the quality, he’s dismissive of even the possibility that webcomics are anything more than a hobby. As if you can only be a professional cartoonist if a large corporation pays you. As if it’s impossible that a single person can both create art, and have enough business savvy to earn a living on their own.

There have been several comic creators in the past year or so that have actively tried to step outside the standard system they’ve known for years and years. Julie Larson, Rina Piccolo, Mark Waid and Karl Kesel to name a few. They’ve encountered varying degrees of success, but how much success they achieve seems to be, at least in part, dependent on how much they reach out to other webcomickers. I give Waid in particular a lot of credit because he was extremely upfront about saying he didn’t get all the ins and outs of webcomics, and he actively solicited help from folks who’d already been successful.

But all this leads back to the reason why I take the approach I do with this column. I think there’s still a large perception out there that it’s just something creative types do in their spare time after working in a retail outlet all day. While there are certainly people who develop their webcomics that way, webcomics are a business. Webcomics are a nascent industry and very, very few people are talking about it as such, outside of the occasional mention in relation to a specific Kickstarter campaign.

There’s a lot to be said about artistic quality and the cohesive integrity of stories and whatnot, but that’s being pretty well handled already. What’s more interesting to me personally, and what I try to share with you, is watching an industry develop and flourish right before our eyes. We’re watching creative people come up with any and every idea they can to do something they love, without The Man telling them what to do. I think that’s just fantastic, and those successes are worth sharing with the Stephan Pastises of the world.

Related Posts:
Kleefeld on Webcomics #86: Size Matters
Kleefeld On Webcomics #85: Beg Borrow and Steal

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