My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
Because this website is going to act as a comprehensive repository of all my internet writing, I’m transferring over my old work from previous blogs. This post was originally published 20 December 2010. It’s pretty embarrassing to publish this one, which I made with optimistic ideas about my own work ethic.
Before I begin this first of what will hopefully become many posts, allow me the luxury of a basic introduction. I started this blog because examples of in-depth webcomics criticism have recently become few and far between: Websnark is for all practical purposes dead, the Webcomic Examiner appears to have disappeared from the internet after its 2006 re-launch, and Fleen is really more of a news site these days than a criticism site, and only Gary Tyrell is keeping that part alive.
Part of this thinning of niche webcomics criticism is due to the larger mainstream acceptance of webcomics, as many artists move into the mainstream, and print collections of their works begin to appear on more mainstream pop culture sites. Webcomics have grown beyond the borders of the relatively insular online community that reached its apex of relevance around the years 2004-2006, and have become professional in a way that even the true professionals of that period didn’t seem to anticipate. Back then, having an RSS feed, a website design you could figure out in ten minutes or less, and three T-shirts for sale was a declaration of serious professional intent. Today, most serious webcomic entrepreneurs have a dedicated store with everything from t-shirts to posters to plushies available, regularly print out books with additional content not found on their site, and have at least a general strategy for making their work available on iPads and smart phones in the near future. Today, anyone who is generally considered a serious webcomic entrepreneur has at least the same amount of work put into their site, merchandise, and marketing that Scott Kurtz had put into PvP back in 2003, when it was the second-biggest comic on the internet. Back in 2003, Kurtz was a massive outlier on the box graph of webcomic professionalism. Today, he’s the mean.
This explosion of professionalism has led to a corresponding explosion in the size and variety of the participants in the webcomic community, which was originally one of the things that supposedly made webcomics such a Big Fucking Deal- anyone could do them! Anyone could read them! The possibilities were limitless! And the possibilities were limitless. The reality, on the other hand, tended to be a group of people with a large variation of artistic talent with Keenspot pages and LiveJournal accounts, many of them producing sub-par work that everyone was too friendly to justly criticize. Looking back, it’s amusing to see how much the dialogue around webcomics as a democratizing medium took place among an insular group of friends with little to no connection to the greater internet, and how hostile their reactions could be to giants like Penny Arcade that brought genuinely new readers to the medium.
So the old community has vanished, dissipated, or ascended to new levels of prominence, and the arguments around that community have changed as well. Although I wish he was still writing the type of long-form, in-depth criticism that was at once serious, entertaining, and funny as hell, even Eric Burns-White seems to recognize that Websnark doesn’t have the relevance it did previously. The last few posts of Websnark that have had anything to do with webcomics (and it’s worth pointing out that Websnark was never just about webcomics) were all decidedly old-guard. Least I Could Do, Real Life Comics, xkcd, Fans!- all of them were still good, and most were still relevant, but it was from the same basic grouping of webcomics that Eric’s been covering since the site’s inception in 2004. The most recent Websnark posting, as of this writing, is a think-piece on Flattr as a possible way for webcartoonists to fund their art. Which really shows how far the discussion has shifted. Webcartoonists have already found ways to fund their art. Jeph Jacques put a down payment for a house down purely on his ability to fund his art. Flattr has fulfilled Burns-White’s prediction that “it will all but die out except for hardcore users,” and webcartoonists are none the poorer for it.
What’s missing from Websnark is any mention of strips that someone with two years’ interest in webcomics would recognize. Kate Beaton is never mentioned. Neither is Aaron Diaz, Chris Hastings, Erika Moen, or KC Green. Danielle Corsetto is maybe mentioned twice. Meredith Gran is only mentioned once, in conjunction with a Checkerboard Nightmare parody of a strip of hers that is no longer available on the internet. PvP, Questionable Content, Achewood, and Penny Arcade are all mentioned, but only in their unrecognizable adolescences. It’s strange to look at old Websnark posts and remember that PvP was in black and white for well over ten years. An entire generation of webcartoonists have risen to prominence without a mention in the most popular stop for webcomics criticism on the internet. And this is because they have largely solved the questions that Eric and Wednesday Burns-White made it their business to answer.
Back in Websnark’s heyday, the essays that would truly rattle the walls of the webcomics community could largely (and somewhat inaccurately) be boiled down to monetizing strategies. You had Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub, Brad Guigar, really most of the current Webcomics.com crew back when they were called Blank Label or Halfpixel or whatever other collectives they’ve rebranded themselves as over the years, all advocating for free access to, and widespread merchandising of, webcomics. On the other hand you had Joey Manley and Shaenon Garrity and the Modern Tales folks advocating for a more Wattersonian approach, where cartoonists made comics, and charged for access to them- no heavy merchandising, no compromise of artistic principles, just money for comics, either through micropayments or paywalls. Kurtz’s side explained that readers wouldn’t put down money for online comics when so many were already available for free, while Manley’s side argued that a creator who could spend less time trying to work T-shirt slogans into his strip would prosper artistically, and justify the cost of accessing the comics. Each side was convinced that their method was the best possible way to make money off of webcomics, and each became enraged by the other side’s continued existence.
(there’s another argument to be made here that the two sides here were talking about much more than merchandising, and that the true conflict between the sides is more about whether webcomics should identify more with the alternative comics scene, or be the next natural medium for a new wave of mainstream, Garfield-esque strips, but that’s not an argument I’m intellectually equipped to outline)
Today, the argument is more or less settled; virtually no webcomics exist with subscriptions or micropayments as a primary monetary source, and most sell merchandise. But many webcomics do regularly place “Premium Content” behind a paywall, or put additional strips into books, strips that never make it onto their websites. And while PvP has never gone behind a paywall, Webcomics.com has, in a move that prompted what I consider the last true Websnark post, the last one that hashes all those old arguments up again, and lets you see Kurtz get angry at Eric, and Eric placate Kurtz, just like the good old days. But for the most part, the debates that used to be central to Websnark, because they were central to the early and crazy genesis of webcomics as an industry, have been resolved.
Which is not to say that most issues have been resolved. The long-term viability of the most popular current financial model for webcomics has yet to be proven, and new models may spring up in the future. More interestingly, we don’t know what new projects will spring up in the next few years, what new developments will occur in the webcomics we already know and love, and how webcomics will develop aesthetically and artistically as well as financially. I don’t doubt that Eric and Wednesday would be more than equal to the task of providing insightful, funny, entertaining critical essays on the issues that face this new generation of online artists, and for all I know they will publish some in the future. Maybe the various webcomic blogs that used to spring up all over the internet, most of which are now defunct, will stage a comeback, and maybe Scott Kurtz will even continue to read a few of them. Maybe the critical discourse on webcomics that has stagnated and been abandoned in recent years (with the exception of Fleen, which I visit regularly but mostly use as a news/gossip site) will re-emerge.
But personally, I’m tired of waiting.
I’ve been discussing comics in individual forums for the last four years under a variety of screennames, and occasionally contributed my opinion to criticism blogs. But I feel that something is happening in webcomics that goes beyond individual sites, goes beyond my interest in one or two creators, and I want to have some place to talk about it. And, yes, ideally, people interested enough to listen and talk back. With luck, I won’t end up sending these words into a void. Regardless of whether I find an audience or not, I will write.
My name is Doug Wykstra. It’s nice to meet you. Shall we begin?