It's 2010. I wanted to start the decade by talking about the future.
But, heck, I don't know anything about the future. This one is just about webcomics.
WARNING: this one is also particularly image intense. If that's a concern for your computer, you might want to skip this one.
If you google "overstimulated"-- the seventh link google finds, at the time of this essay, is for a webcomic.
The Webcomic List lists 15,075 comics at the time of this essay. That isn’t the total number of webcomics in existence; that’s just the number of webcomics that signed up for that particular website. So: more than 15,075. Maybe a little more, maybe significantly more-- either way, more.
Scott McCloud on March 20, 2009: "I expect webcomics to continue to grow in number and importance to the comics scene in coming years. [...] I was saying that I expected it to be a decade or two before webcomics 'slowed down' — i.e., stopped growing."
More and more and ever more.
How do you find the good one?
I wanted to write about the future. What does the future look like?
Like the goodly Mr. Hibbs, like maybe Erik Larsen, I was reading the Beat's Annual End of the Year survey-- the word tablet was used by the all-professional respondents 23 separate times. Tablets, tablets, tablets, tablets. The future is people reading comics on tablets.
Have these people noticed the numbers? It's never mentioned. But if you agree with their premise, if the future is even more demand for digital comics thanks to tablets that we'll all presumably be buying for... some reason(?), an increase in demand is likely to lead to an even further increase in supply. Which is to say: even more webcomics. More and more and more and more. What are people reading on those tablets?
When the number of comics available breaks six figures, which of the comics on the Webcomic List win? Do professional comic creators assume it'll be one of their comics? Why?
At the start of the last decade, there was a lot of talk about the “infinite canvas"-- the idea that webcomics would exploit the geographic freedoms of web-browsers in order to create an entirely new kind of comic. And I guess there are still experiments out there being done with how webcomics are presented-- this one, most famously. But I'm not aware of too many so either they're all getting by me (very possible) or they're in the minority. Infinite canvases didn’t turn out to be very good at selling ugly clothes, and ugly clothes seem to be the petrol that drive the whole webcomics engine. (Which-- comics relying on unfashionable people isn’t anything new, but I don’t know—do you ever feel like God is becoming less subtle with his metaphors?)
There’s Motion Comics, I guess…?
There are defense mechanisms slowly forming to that tidal wave of material. There are the "communities of cartoonists" sites like Act-i-vate, Transmission-X, Dumm Comics, cartoonist-curated sites featuring like-minded talent. Act-i-vate features about 71-ish comics, maybe; Transmission-X features about 13-ish, I think. If I get an urge to read a webcomic, I tend to stick to those sites. I try not to contemplate the 15,000 titles.
Why not, though, for a change of pace? Why not start the decade like that? Why not start by staring into the abyss?
At the moment, the “Most Visited” comic on the Webcomic List is COLLAR 6, “a comedy/quasi-drama with bondage and latex fetishism as the backdrop.”
Once we get past our initial Puritan knee-jerk reactions, that sex is dirty and Hester Prynne is a slut and… maize is delicious, COLLAR 6? It basically conforms to my most base prejudices of what to expect from webcomics visually. It kinda-sorta-almost-not-quite-not-really-okay-not-at-all looks like manga. It crudely imitates the surface elements of manga, but none of manga’s underlying intensity of craft. That seems to be the norm for a vast swath of webcomics; it’s to be expected: after all, manga won the battle for youth culture, for various reasons. (One reason: it showed up to the battle for youth culture, at all, in any way whatsoever.)
(A QUICK PARANTHETICAL DIGRESSION ABOUT PURITANS: After typing Puritan in the last sentence, I typed “Pilgrim porn” into Google Image—everybody needs a hobby. Of the 20 results, 7 were images of SCOTT PILGRIM comics, and 1 was an image of Deena Pilgrim from POWERS. None of the images were of Pilgrims celebrating a “Thanksgiving feast.” Conclusion: comics ruin everything.)
So, I don't think I'm in touch with my bondage/latex-fetishism fantasies enough to evaluate the story of COLLAR 6 in a helpful way...? Or maybe I need to start with a webcomic about necking or dry humping, and work my way up to COLLAR 6. I didn't find myself wanting to be handcuffed while reading COLLAR 6. I wouldn't mind a turkey sandwich...? Are there handcuffs made out of turkey sandwich? I want to be restrained by deliciousness.
What else is there to look at?
There’s a webcomic portal named Drunk Duck. Famous more for being run by shitty people, it nevertheless presently claims to be the home for 14,934 webcomics. 14,934 webcomics by creators left alone and ignored by "polite" comics society-- mostly kids, I think: high schoolers, college students, that sort of thing. Here is an excerpt from "How to Make Webcomics" Episode 5: on the subject of "Texting"--
So, the milk tastes a little funny at Drunk Duck, but it's a convenient microcosm. Drunk Duck categorizes its comics visually as follows: Cartoon, American, Manga, Realism, Sprite, Sketch, Experimental, Photographic, and Stick Figure.
What strikes me about that list is there’s a category marked “Experimental” that ISN'T supposed to include comics made of stick figures, photographs, or “sprites.” Think on that for a second. Any of those things being featured in print comics, me personally, I think would qualify as an experiment. Hell, I’ve read comics my whole life-- I don’t even think I know what a “sprite comic” is, actually. Sprite?
...am I close? Wikipedia says a sprite comic is a comic that uses computer sprites. Wikipedia defines a computer sprite as “a graphic image that can move within a larger graphic.” This raises a question: what time is Matlock on? Because I’m an old, old man, and I don’t understand any of you kids and your slang. A graphic image that -- ? Man, I just want to watch Andy Griffith solve crimes and/or have sex with the Mayflower. Something like Andy Griffith saying “I put the Magna in the Magna Carta, Aunt Bee.” Something like that. "Andy Griffith didn't penetrate Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock penetrated him!" Something with a story.
But imagine growing up taking that level of choice for granted. Imagine growing up and having equal access to COLLAR 6 and BOMBSHELL FIGHTS FOR AMERICA. BOMBSHELL jumped out at me the most of the "Featured" Drunk Duck comics-- it's paranoid science fiction, an alternate history thriller where upon killing herself, Marilyn Monroe is recruited across realities by a conspiracy run by Lyndon Johnson and Howard Hughes to battle a rival conspiracy lead by Richard Nixon.
All done with manipulated photographs of Nixon, Johnson, and Norma Jeane.
In print comics, colliding Phillip K. Dick and James Ellroy like that might generate some attention. If I heard someone at Vertigo had that in mind instead of ... instead of everything but SCALPED that they publish, I'd be pretty excited. But webcomics? It's one of tens of thousands.
It co-exists on the same site as PUTRID MEAT, another likable comic colored with what appear to be colored pencils(?). I don’t think I entirely understood the story—it appears to be about a garbage collector in a 2000AD-ish future, having what I think might be ultraviolent adventures. I didn't honestly comprehend what was going on exactly, but I liked it anyways-- I just like how the art looks like something I’d worry about finding in a locker, if I were a junior high school vice-principal.
Both on the same site as the apparently very popular (according to the Browse function of the site) I WAS KIDNAPPED BY LESBIAN PIRATES FROM OUTER SPACE-- that one with more traditional art taken and digitally "scratched up", chewed, manipulated to create the appearance of pages that had aged.
As the not-my-thing-at-all low-brow machinima comic CRU THE DWARF... As Hyperactive "manga"-style comics, funny animals in carefully shaded pencil, weird monster-looking stuff, etc. And that's just one site, one tiny corner of the internet I don't usually make it a point to visit. That's not counting Keenspot. That's not counting what happens when you go way off reservation.
Want to read German superhero photo-comics? Or would you prefer your superhero photo-comics to be by Americans? How many options do you WANT exactly? Want to read extremely Not-Safe-For-Work gag comics of Alan Moore ejaculating while having rough anal sex with his own doppelgänger? I don't either, but it's there if you want, need it, crave it.
It's there if you can find it.
And not just the sub-professional or the weird. Let's do a compare-contrast. Here is a page from BOXER HOCKEY.
And for comparison purposes, here is a page from COWBOY NINJA VIKING.
If you've never heard of either, can you tell me without looking which is available for free and which you have to pay for?
Answer: the previous page was free, on the internet; the latter page, Image Comics charged $3.50, for the pleasure.
How about art-comics? Here is a page of comic I strongly disliked recently, Danica Novgorodoff's SLOW STORM. That one costs about $18.00.
I googled "what is the strangest webcomic"-- what did I find? I found a bunch of photos of Myles Standish getting stuffed with cocks. What-?? How did--?? But eventually, I found my way to PERFECT STARS:
It wasn't my ideal comic experience, but whatever "odd and unique comic experience" itch I was hoping that SLOW STORM would scratch? It certainly did a better job of it.
Let alone the constant stream of classic material coming online everyday. Did you see those Winsor McCay drawings from Golden Age Comic Book Stories the other day? Holy shit.
In summary: have you guys heard that there's a lot of stuff on the internet? For serious-- stuff for days, guys! Maybe you hadn't heard.
If the future is digital comics, if the future is webcomics: how do people expect to cope with the deluge of material? How is anyone expected to find what they consider signal in that noise? Surfing through webcomics, past Achewood, past Kate Beaton, past "respectability," it's hard for me to stop and pay attention to any one comic. There's always some other comic to surf over to, you know? With that level of choice, how do you know when to stop and actually spend time on any one thing? How do you know there's not something just a little better a couple clicks away?
How do you find what you like? How do you find a needle in a haystack? How do you find a cliche to type into an essay? You ask me for one because you know how much I love them. You're welcome.
Webcomics, for me, are a prime example of the Paradox of Choice. The paradox of choice (which I think Jeff alluded to previously) describes how greater consumer choices invariably lead to greater consumer anxiety. Consumers with fewer choices buy more, are happier with their choices. But "consumer hyperchoice"? That usually leads to "frustration, fatigue and regret." I know a lot of people are waiting for an iTunes for comics, but frustration, fatigue and regret? Dude, that sounds like a stone bummer.
I probably shouldn't worry. There's a lot of free music out there, and that hasn't stopped iTunes. I'm not the guy to ask about that-- between youtube and mp3 blogs, not counting concerts, I haven't paid more than $10 in a year for music in more than a decade. But I guess somebody out there is...? The internet didn't stop Lady Gaga. Neither did ears. Go figure.
You can say: "Oh, there should be critics who guide you to the good stuff. 95% of everything is shit, so we need critics to find that 5%." Who can possibly wade through tens of thousands of comics in a meaningful way? With the number & range of webcomics both predicted only to increase, what will a "knowledgeable opinion" even look like?
If you believe that 95% of everything is shit, and only 5% is good-stuff, if you accept "Sturgeon's Law", at 15,000 comics? That means there should be about, oh, 750 great webcomics in existence. I would bet that I can name maybe ... twenty...? And I like less than I can name.
Comixtalk did a year-end roundtable in December 2009, in which they spoke to not less than eight people. Between the eight of them, roughly five billion webcomics are mentioned over the course of the round-table. So: be sure to check those out... I think the anxiety that the Paradox of Choice creates is... To find what you like, with that many choices available, boy, you probably need to have a very precise idea what it is that you like. Who has that? I sure don't. If hyperchoice creates an anxiety, isn't it ultimately an anxiety born of questions of self-knowledge?
What do you like? What are you looking for? Do you even know what you're looking for? What do you want OUT OF LIFE? WHO ARE YOU?
The other day, I watched a video by a 14-year old kid on youtube, this strangely affecting moment of him and his girlfriend in a convenience store set to music. It's going around the tumblr parts of the internet, I guess...?
The same day, I was looking for pictures of pretty girls on the internet—everybody needs a hobby—and I came across Look Book, a website of “fashion inspiration from real people”—regular ladies and gents, dressing up in their Sunday’s best, showing off looks they’d created, part-time models, pretty people celebrating looking fancy instead of, you know… consider the following example of the more official and “legitimate” industry of “Fashion”:
You guys know more about Batman than I do-- when did Joker decide to murder boners???
And then today, I started listening to this nerdcore mixtape, I AM JUST A RAPPER, by Donald Glover and DC Pierson of Derrick Comedy, Mystery Team and Community fame—you know, just comedy guys putting dopey, dorky rhymes over that Sleigh Bells song or Animal Collective songs.
Or, besides Jimmy Kimmel slaughtering Jay Leno on his own show, or that movie YOUTH IN REVOLT (which I thought was underrated), my favorite thing this week is Ask 60's Bob Dylan Anything. People send in questions, and “60’s Bob Dylan” answers them. It’s just started, but I don’t know—something about the idea of that website really makes me laugh…
The “democratization of media"-- I think that's the technical term for it all.
What I think unites the examples above, it isn’t just that the internet’s opened up an opportunity for more people to be in “show business”— it’s that it’s increased the total range of what’s "normal". These are all examples of things that really didn’t even exist when I was a kid, at least for all intents and purposes. Short films? Mixtapes? Man, I grew up in Cincinnati—we have good chili, but it’s not exactly the Sorbonne. Photos of pretty girls? A kid got in trouble for that sort of thing when I was growing up; well, he had a camera rig hidden in his closet, not 100% the same thing, maybe, but close.
What does normal even mean anymore?
With comics-- I grew up with “house styles”-- entire publishing companies, trying to recreate the styles of 2, maybe 3 artists. And I suppose if you asked me to picture a comic in my head, I’d picture something that existed in one of those house styles.
What would someone picture in their head after growing up with comics after this explosion of different styles and approaches?
What would it have been like to grow up with not just an explosion of comics, but amidst this entire cacophony of animated gifs, youtube videos, facebook status updates, blogs, twitters, texts, chaos? My attention span is swiss cheese-- I can't even do simple math anymore; that part of my brain is gone. And yet comics seem to have thrived in that environment, have thrived in that chaos, now even themselves reflect that chaos.
What does the future look like? Do you just picture one thing-- can you just picture a tablet? Or is it just a jumbled, writhing, shrieking mess? Did you know if you google "overstimulated"-- the seventh link google finds is for a webcomic?
Wait, wait-- did I say that already?