(Editor's Note: This is the third filler post I'm writing while I try and figure out my Anti-Racism Sermon post. I hope you don't mind the relatively lighter content)
"Elephant Diaries" is the term John Fleck has been using over on his blog to describe the problem facing print media - it's dying, fewer people are subscribing, and where does that leave journalists? Perhaps just as importantly, where does that leave journalism itself? He's been hitting all the big points himself, and I was certain that what would draw me to write about this was Sarkozy and the State sponsorship of newspapers in France. But no - not even that would bring me into the discussion of print. What could compel me more than french government?
Whenever I'm given a newspaper that has them, it's the first thing I read. Childhood habit, nostalgia, early morning brain needing pictures before words, whatever it is, that's where I turn. And I am almost always disappointed. Comics today, as wonderfully satirized by The Comics Curmudgeon, are a mess of slow-progressing story, the trials and tribulations of rich white anglo saxon protestants, jokes that eight-year-olds are sick of, and the unending cancer-rama of Funky Winkerbean.
Sure, there are exceptions, but for every Get Fuzzy there are about seven strips no one would go out of their way to read. And that's the model that has sustained comics for years - hit everyone with a batch of non-offensive stuff, hope they like some of it, and then make sure you never get rid of the comic they liked when they were eight. For some people, and for some length of time, this worked out great. Jim Davis owes his very existence to nostalgia formed in childhood transforming into marketing opportunities instead of dissipating.
But for many people, that market was awful. The comics they wrote were too niche-audience, or too adult, or were mature and sophisticated while not being boring, or characters had things like opinions or politics. These comics creators went online, and if you check back at the early news posts of webcomics starting from 1997 to 2003, there is a lot of hope expressed that the comic could jump from the internet to print. Scott Kurtz of iconic PvP famously campaigned for entrance into the privileged halls of print comics. For his trouble, in 2004 he was mocked by one of the lesser mainstays of print comicdom for being "internet famous" and thus irrelevant to the real world. There's foreshadowing here.
Then, in 2007, webcomic Diesel Sweeties actually made the jump. The creator opted to create a separate print version, so as to keep his main comic and main revenue stream separate from the confines of print. Read that sentence again. This guy, who's job primarily (though certainly not exclusively) consists of making a comic and putting it online, was making more from that than he was going to make from the previous holy-grail of webcartoonists: syndication. And in late 2008, he canceled his print comic. Too much work, his primary income was suffering, he was actually losing money, and it just wasn't worth it to him. That club which Scotty had been kept out of four years prior? Totally not cool anymore.
In the space of their existence online, some webcomics (not all, and certainly not most), managed to flourish and create independent revenue streams. They could appeal to niche audiences, they could address more mature issues, they could afford to be actually interesting, and they were free to do this all without any restrictions placed upon them by a syndicate. And for those who succeeded, they created a successful business model in an environment whose challenges syndicate cartoonists are just now facing.
Jeph Jacques of the fantastic Questionable Content has a great takedown of a newspaper comic writer looking tentatively at the internet, and being afraid to take the plunge. It's fitting that the post being responded to is titled "The End of Alternative Comics" - being alternative comics is what drove webcomics into an awkward sort-of genre. Really, it's the end of comics sold as part of newsprint, and that's a death worth mourning. It overlooks, however, the whole world of comics that exists outside of print. And that world is huge, dynamic, and populated.
Which is really just to say: Print Media may be dying, but comics are going strong. It's not much, but it certainly is something.