Pioneering the page

By Sarah Dorchak

Archie. Dick Tracy. Felix the Cat. Maus. Watchmen. There’s no doubt that these titles are recognizable– they’ve become part of our social literary memory. Even if you’ve never read any of the comics themselves, you still know Archie is constantly torn between two women, one blonde and one black-haired.

While it seems inevitable that the print culture of comics– and many other industries– will die out, the process appears sped up due to the sudden rise of webcomic popularity. Most webcomics remain underground and unheard of in most social circles, but some, like XKCD and Penny Arcade, have broken through the marginalized niche of webcomics and become more mainstream. It makes sense that the relationship between print comic decline and webcomic increase appears causal– why pay for entertainment when you can get it for free?

In Calgary’s comic scene especially, it seems the economic turn has hit hard. Several comic stores, including Tramps on Macleod and the campus location of Words and Pictures, have had to close down in the past several years.

“For this type of business we need a really good economy because this is a disposable cash business,” Robert Clark, previous owner of Words and Pictures, said in an interview with NUTV on Dec. 9 2010. “Nobody needs comic books, it’s not like food or clothes.”

“By the 1980s the comic book stores became the dominant way that people could buy comic books,” English department head and comic enthusiast Bart Beaty said. “Comics really retreated to the comic book store and it became the only way to find them. There was a narrowing of the audience, of people who already had an interest in comics.”

Now, Beaty says, “nerd culture has taken over and comics have entered the mainstream as fodder for movies, as fodder for television. This has allowed a new audience to emerge and for comic book stores to no longer be the only place to find this material. The comic book store has lost its exclusivity.”

Print comics have had to adapt to survive with the emergence of the digital culture and webcomics, Beaty added, mainly by changing their form.

“I just got this book from Amazon and it’s a big, beautiful book. Theoretically, someone could scan it in and put it on the web, but why would you want to? That’s a big beautiful book! I wouldn’t want to read that on the screen!”

Looking lovingly over at the book that takes up a major part of his desk, Beaty added that the attitude changes when there’s less effort taken on behalf of the product design: “When it’s this week’s Superman comic, you could scan that and read it on the screen and not be missing anything.

“The ubiquity of the digital culture has made the print industry more aware of design and in how it markets its books. Then you have artists asking what can we do here to justify having a beautifully published book; they’ve become more aware of taking advantage of the book form.”

Print culture, besides updating the form, has kept the content relevant to today’s issues. Specifically in the comic industry, this month Marvel Comics introduced its new Ultimate Spider-Man, Miles Morales, a teenager of African American and Latino descent. According to what Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Axel Alonso said in the article, “Axel Alonso: Reinventing Today’s Heroes,” they created the new character because “[they] realized that [they] were standing at the brink of America electing its first African American president and we acknowledged that it was time to take a good look at one of our icons.”

“Comics are more relevant now than they ever have been,” commented Beaty. He explained that a major sign of this is the huge influx of academic courses that focus on print comics.

“In a lot of ways, the world has caught up with the fact that comics have had a lot going on for a long time, but also the cartoonists have changed what they want to do,” he said. “We still have a whole tradition of superhero stuff that’s more escapist, but we also have a whole other tradition of mature, sophisticated stories being told.”

When asked about webcomics and their growth in sophisticated content, Beaty likened the digital medium to an underground movement. He claims “the underground is the moment where we break free and can do comics about anything. The internet is freer that way– you can do comics about sex or drugs or anything.”

Similar to the ’60s movement with artists like Robert Crumb, Beaty remarks, “There was a long process of people realizing they could use comics as a legitimate means of artistic expression.” This realization took a lot longer in the comic industry than in the webcomic industry, as webcomics are already on the margins of society. This marginalization, however, comes with a price. “Few webcartoonists have been able to make a huge impact outside the world of webcomics [as opposed to print comics and cartoonists like Robert Crumb],” Beaty added. “It still remains this small, very marginal niche.”

No matter how small the webcomic niche may be, there’s still room for a huge variety of content. As Ryan Sohmer of Blind Ferret Entertainment and writer/creator of the webcomics Least I Could Do, Looking For Group and Gutters said, “The web levels the playing field– any playing field.”

The leveling of playing fields is one reason why the digital industry has been able to overtake other, more common creative arenas. Anyone can make a webcomic, it’s just a matter of gaining an audience. While this fosters the underground movement Beaty touches on, it also gives the webcomic industry a sense of illegitimacy: the content isn’t scoured over by syndicates (organizations that act as the agent and distributor of comics or other media), nor is it regulated.

“The business model of the web, which seems to be, ‘If I put this up for free hopefully I will be able to generate an audience for it and they’ll buy the book collection or merchandise or ad,’ has meant that you get incredible diversity on the web that would never find a publisher, yet have incredible success, like Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant,” Beaty added.

Sohmer had a different story to tell. His project Least I Could Do, he says, was his “first comic strip attempt.”

“I made the decision to switch from journalism into a career of making stuff up,” Sohmer explained.

The digital medium let Sohmer ease into the webcomic industry without financial worry. “It allowed me to take the time to learn to write while doing, as opposed to shopping an idea around to syndicates or book publishers,” which, he added, had led to the creation of his entertainment company.

Sohmer’s company works as a production and publishing house for other webcomics, helping the webcomics get merchandise and expand into other media. For example, Least I Could Do will soon be released as a television cartoon. Sohmer has also branched out into different forms of the webcomic, like through his project Gutters.

“Gutters is a series of standalone pages that parody the comic book industry and the heroes and characters that dwell within,” it explains on the website of Gutters. “Think of it as an editorial cartoon targeting comic books.”

The webcomic industry, while being easily broached by anyone of any skill set, also opens doors for anyone of any financial standing. Danielle Corsetto, as well as most other webcartoonists, started her project Girls With Slingshots on the web because she had just graduated college.

“It was almost free to put the project online as opposed to printing books. I wasn’t sure if it was going to sell well enough to spend a whole bunch of money on printing.” Corsetto added with a smirk, “I think you’re more poor right out of college and at the time it seemed less risky.”

The decision, she agreed in retrospect, was a good one. “It forces me to keep a deadline– originally if I didn’t have a deadline I would just do my regular day job, and I really like the immediacy of the web, of having people respond to you immediately with their feelings and feedback on the comic.”

While she listens to her viewers, it doesn’t mean Corsetto directs her content towards a certain demographic. In fact, she said, she doesn’t even think of demographics. “It shows when you really enjoy what you’re doing. I think that my work is a lot higher quality because I’m writing what I enjoy and what I relate to without worry.”

Despite the openness of content, Corsetto agreed that it can be difficult to find ‘professional’ webcartoonists and projects. She decided, though, that it all comes down to a personal standard.

“Generally how I gauge if somebody’s ‘made it’ is if they make a living at doing webcomics. I feel that a syndicate would not have picked up those professionals’ work, however, and definitely not mine.” She said with a laugh, “it’s not PG-13 enough!”

But just because a project has gained a syndicate’s attention doesn’t mean it is a quality piece of entertainment, added Corsetto. “For print media and comics, writers can start rehashing the same jokes over again and syndicates will keep them around because of the brand name. If I start phoning it in and doing a crap job, people would stop reading and I would stop making a living.”

Fans often hold producers accountable to their projects, but this phenomenon is not exclusive to the webcomic industry– the only difference is when the project is independently produced the owners gain more from listening to their fans. Major comic corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics, being more established than an independent producer, don’t have to worry about keeping their fans satisfied. In actuality, these companies skirt around this issue by targeting demographics on a large scale.

“Publishers like Disney test-market to death to make sure every detail is what people want,” Beaty said. Just because a project tests well doesn’t mean it explores meaningful avenues, or even is a worthwhile read, he added. Beaty cited Brian Lee O’Mally’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World as a project that, published by independent Oni Press, would not have been overly market-tested.

“I don’t think O’Malley consciously sat down and thought, people like romance, video games and drama, and if I combine all these things it’ll be a great hit with people.” It’s been a continuing trend since the ’60s, he added. “We’ve seen more and more cartoonists say ‘Today I’m going to do my own thing and if it finds an audience then that’s great.’ They don’t sit down and figure out what the world really likes first.”

The influx of artistic and creative opportunities gained the upper hand when the internet got off the ground. The first webcomic Witches and Stitches debuted in 1985 on CompuServe, an internet service provider predating the world wide web. Just as with YouTube and blogs, you could self-publish your own uninhibited content. Now, even most professional webcartoonists continue with the tradition of publishing what they want to write without worry over demographics.

“The people who really want to read it are the ones who stick around. Demographics are something I’ve never concerned myself with,” Sohmer said. The trick, he added, is not getting hung up on restricting content despite the project’s accessibility. “Yes, it is accessible by anyone, but no one is forced to the website.”

Corsetto agreed with Sohmer: “It’s much easier to write stories [when not concerned about targeting audiences]. I knew that Girls With Slingshots would find its demographic through word of mouth. In that way, the demographic would mould itself around the strip.”

“People can gauge it for themselves, like anything on the internet,” she added. “There is an internet culture and people are choosing what they want to read.”

The anonymity and self-regulating characteristics of the internet allow webcartoonists this lack of concern over demographics, but more than just webcartoonists can write what they want.

The one-year-old, Calgary-based comic production company Maad Sheep Productions, headed by Daniel Lenfest-Jameson and Calan Lovstrom, publishes what they want, when they want. The duo manage Maad Sheep, as well as writing and drawing their own stories, while working at their full-time jobs.

“It’s a labour of love,” Lovstrom said when asked what motivated them to start Maad Sheep. It first started with Quiver Street, Lovstrom’s original idea and the writer and illustrator, and Lenfest-Jameson helps with the writing while working on his own project Willie Lightning.

“It’s a way for us to put ours and others’ work out there,” added Lenfest-Jameson. “We write out of what we love and what we want to publish– we don’t stifle our material to a certain demographic.”

“We’re not making comics to make money,” Lovstrom interjected.

The idea of creating, writing and illustrating a comic just because you enjoy it is common among webcartoonists, however both Lovstrom and Lenfest-Jameson are strongly set against online comics.

“Staring at a computer burns your eyes out and most of the time the work is shit. It’s almost like a cop-out,” Lovstrom said.

“More than that, to really tell a full-length story you need multiple issues,” Lenfest-Jameson added. “It’s great if you do what you enjoy and if you make people laugh, but there’s a limit to the project’s depth and how much you reach your viewer.”

“There’s nothing like holding a physical comic and collecting those,” he continued. “It’s almost a traditional thing– parents pass their collections onto their kids. How do you pass on your webcomic collection to your kid? Give them a USB stick?”

Along with their own projects, Maad Sheep accepts submissions from other Calgary artists, stating that they leave the submissions “uncensored.” Their aim is to foster not only Calgarian artists and content, but the comic culture in general.

“We know the culture is here,” Lenfest-Jameson said, adding that the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo is the second largest convention in Western Canada. “I mean, Todd McFarlane came from here– Calgary spawned Spawn!”

“There just seems to be a lot of underground works,” Lovstrom added. “There’s no advertisement for these projects. We want to make it louder.”

The fact that both the comic and webcomic industries are able to publish original and controversial content, push boundaries and are open for almost anyone to join in doesn’t hide the fact that most people consider webcomics to be less legitimate than print. Part of this opinion derives from the lack of webcomic syndicates and of an editing process. The mindset is that if it’s a recognizable name and product, it’s legitimate.

Bart Beaty, who’s been working on what he calls “intermedial comics,” sees comics as gaining far more legitimacy in other media rather than an all-out legitimacy battle between comics and webcomics.

According to Beaty, intermedial comics are mixed media that take two distinct art forms to create a new form. “There are comics artists who are expanding beyond one medium. For example, Art Spiegelman worked with the Pilobolus dance theatre where he helped choreograph a dance. They projected panels on the stage and the dancers stood in them– it looked like a comic with moving people.”

“These kinds of hybrid projects led to a weird reaction of ‘that’s not comics, it’s something else,’ that these cartoonists have betrayed comics by mixing two things together,” added Beaty. “People are dismissive of webcomics in the same way.”

“The medium,” Sohmer explained, “doesn’t legitimize the work. The work itself does.”

Leave a comment