The 2009 State of Webcomics Address

It’s been said that kids say the darndest things. It’s been said in many different ways by many different people. In fact, that’s essentially the lesson of the fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. All the adults who praise the emperor’s threads without actually seeing them fear the consequences of calling him out on them – but the kid who points out that the emperor is, in fact, buck naked doesn’t know any better, can’t grasp the consequences that the adults fear might befall him for saying such a thing.

What often isn’t said is that this tendency doesn’t go away all at once, but in fact, tends to slowly dissipate over time, with the accompanying cynicism increasing separately. At no time in history has this been made more clear than in the past 50 years. Time and again, it has been people in their 20s that have changed the world – people with enough learned cynicism to know the world as it is but enough residual idealism to feel that isn’t the way it has to be.

It is this group – the generation of people in their 20s – my generation, the Digital Generation – that has sought to explore every aspect of what the Internet could be, often without regard to the potential concerns and problems raised by the older, more cynical generation. Whether it’s blogs, YouTube, or really any number of things, my generation has colonized the Internet and made it our own, revolutionizing the way we live in the twenty-first century, without worrying too much about that little “money” thing, or the effect their experiments will have on the institutions they’re replacing.

Such is the case with webcomics. The unprecedented creative freedom of webcomics have led them to attract many would-be comic strip creators away from the newspaper, right when comic strips were most needed to fill the role they filled so capably back in the days of true competition within a market, and as I explained in the “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series they are on the cusp of doing the same for comic book creators. But it has still been difficult for webcomic creators to find a revenue stream. I don’t think webcomickers should be glorified T-shirt salesmen, but that and the sale of compilation books (seemingly unnecessary when all the strips are available online anyway) have so far been the main sources of income for webcomic creators. That helps explain why so many popular webcomics are gag-a-day comics: ongoing, dramatic storylines don’t lend themselves well to pithy T-shirts. (Order of the Stick is the exception that proves the rule, because while it has a dramatic storyline, it’s still ultimately a humor comic, and its books mix “deleted scenes” and behind-the-scenes info with the old strips and have all-new storylines in two cases.)

The Floating Lightbulb, in my opinion, was always a must-read for aspiring webcomickers, regardless of whether you agreed with Bengo’s advice or his seeming obsession with Scott Kurtz and his ilk. But if there’s one thing about TFL that disillusioned me more than any other except maybe said obsession, it was the fact that a lot of Bengo’s advice, especially of late, basically concerned increasing ROI on T-shirt sales. The message I got from such posts was that even the best webcomic in the world wouldn’t be financially successful if it wasn’t a vehicle for presenting T-shirt ideas. Bengo has said he wants quality, but the way he’s willing to compromise quality for money suggests that, if anything, webcomics may actually have less room for creative freedom than their print counterparts, at least as far as making money off them is concerned. At least in print, you’re paying for the story itself.

The story of webcomics is the story of Web 2.0 in general, only arguably further along. Webcomics and the webcomics community, at the core, have always been less about the works produced in the medium than the promise and potential of an idea. That simple idea was the idea of putting images side by side to tell a story, and putting the resulting story on a Web page. Dreamers like Scott McCloud evangelized about the tremendous potential of this idea, speaking of infinite canvases and micropayments and all sorts of cool stuff. Once the finances were worked out, people said, webcomics would be a revolution.

The reality has so far fallen far short of the promise. Some strips, like Girl Genius, The Order of the Stick, and Gunnerkrigg Court have been critically acclaimed and produced works worthy of the best (or at least critically acclaimed) of any medium, but even they have been bound by the comic book format; the infinite canvas, in the lack of a reliable payment scheme (as I chronicled in “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”) has proven to be a gimmick at best. With people everywhere shunning paywalls of any kind and preventing the creation of real demand for compilations as anything other than a charitable excersize without “DVD extras”, and the ad market slumping while webcomics aren’t popular enough to make a lot of money out of a slumping ad market even for the most popular of webcomics, the most successful comics, as Bengo has pointed out, have been those gag-a-day strips that serve as meme factories so they can get people to buy more T-shirts.

I decided to institute a star rating system for my new webcomic review index, and it reveals that with the exception of OOTS, Sluggy Freelance, and (depending on your definition) the David Morgan-Mar comics, the most popular and successful comics (that I’ve reviewed so far, but I’ve reviewed most of the really big ones) are decidedly mediocre. There are a lot of two-star and two-and-a-half-star comics on there, including Penny Arcade, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, and even Ctrl+Alt+Del, which I actually like and read. (That’s before we get into the 8-Bit Theaters and Dresden Codaks of the world.)

The idea of a new Golden Age of artistic experimentation and accomplishment has driven many webcomic promoters. But a disturbing number of webcomic creators, especially those first exposed to webcomics by PA or CAD, have been driven by a different dream: slapping together comics and earning fame and fortune with minimal work instead of getting a real job with real skills. Webcomics are the geek’s version of the black community’s dream of basketball or rap superstardom: many will enter, few will win. Thus far too many webcomics are crappy video game comics that basically copy-and-paste the CAD formula (already heavily hated) onto personages from the creator’s own life.

It may actually be worse when those people actually achieve webcomics stardom, because the reason they got into webcomics into the first place was that they desired the attention that comes from fame and not necessarily because they had genuine artistic concerns, so the fame often goes to their head. If you don’t believe that I have two names for you: Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley. Say what you will about Bengo’s obsession with Kurtz or the Internet’s hatred of CAD, but the fact is that neither creator has really endeared himself to very many people. (Well, Kurtz endears himself to people who praise or agree with him or who he’s trying to impress, but still.)

Buckley’s control-freak tendencies and desire to live in his own little fantasy world where he’s the greatest webcomicker evar and everyone loves him is well known. Kurtz’s problem is different: he’s not living in a fantasy world necessarily (and he’s even self-depreciating about his own foibles), he just talks out of his ass a lot. Kurtz has been known to pick fights with various other webcomickers and webcomic bloggers for seemingly no reason, sees himself as the new Voice of All Webcomics even if others would rather he wasn’t, and has occasionally revealed a protectiveness against pretty much any other new webcomic that might conceivably steal one penny – or even one hit – from his own comic. (That didn’t stop him from co-writing a how-to book for aspiring webcomickers, so perhaps it’s no surprise that part of Bengo’s beef has been accusing the Halfpixel foursome of cooking unrealistic and unsupported numbers to inflate expectations in Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere so they won’t challenge the established webcomickers like themselves.)

The proliferation of crappy video game comics is probably to be expected as a result of Sturgeon’s Law, but for some reason some of them have actually attracted a decent-sized following, and that, combined with the face people like Kurtz tend to present, has led the creation of a sizable group that seemingly hates webcomics in general, most prominent among them probably being John Solomon during his 15 minutes of fame. That the webcomic community rushed to the defense of many of the comics Solomon reviewed only allowed him to paint the community as an insular group that praises everything all the time uncritically, and when Solomon revealed an appreciation for such strips as the Court, OOTS, and to a limited extent PA (by contrast to other, inferior tag-team comics) it led some people to hate on them for the sole reason Solomon liked them. Thanks in part to Solomon, some even within the community have joined in the hating of bad video-game comics, and some have turned on the Kurtzes and Buckleys of the world, but they still exist, new Voices of All Webcomics have yet to appear, and sweep out the crap and the egos and you don’t have much left. You’re left with just the idea. And that idea has become shrouded by all the excess baggage.

Bengo doesn’t share my enthusiasm, expressed during “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”, that an increasingly hostile comic book market to small publishers has put comic books on the cusp of a new flowering of greatness. In his eyes, the people that would flock to webcomics are instead turned off by all the crap and egos. Personally, I wouldn’t normally expect comic creators to hold the crap and egos produced by the medium now against the medium as a whole… but consider the following potential obstacles for an aspiring webcomicker:

  • Having Scott Kurtz or some other prima donna creator pick a fight with you for no reason.
  • Webcomic blogs can’t find your comic and won’t review it in the morass of other crap, so it doesn’t get discovered by the webcomic community. This is especially a problem for comics that release all in one installment, because of certain webcomic blogs’ policies not to review comics that have “ended”.
  • The general public (outside the webcomic community) sees webcomics (if they’ve heard of them) as a bunch of crappy video game comics made by arrogant college students and doesn’t find your comic, even if they wouldn’t otherwise need the help of webcomic blogs. This makes it especially difficult if your comic doesn’t appeal to nerds.

This last point seems especially salient considering the potential Scott McCloud saw in webcomics in Reinventing Comics. McCloud thought webcomics could appeal to more audiences than comic books heretofore had, appealing to women, minorities, and lovers of genres outside superheroes. He also thought webcomics could become much more mainstream than comic books were at the time. And the viral nature of the Internet meant that someway, somehow, even if the old gatekeepers didn’t like your work, if it was quality, it could find an audience.

But once again, here – as elsewhere – webcomics have fallen far short of the potential evangelized by their supporters. The Web is a marketplace of ideas, but it doesn’t change human nature, and that means stereotyping. If comic books have suffered from the notion that “comics are for kids” and “comics = superheroes”, webcomics may be starting to suffer from their own stereotypes, at least in some corners – stereotypes that have already irredeemably sickened web prose fiction, which became almost wholly identified with fanfic, which itself became almost wholly identified with bad fanfic. Because there are no barriers to entry, someone looking at a random webcomic is not likely to be impressed, and even the faces of webcomics, comics that have managed to shake the stench of Sturgeon’s Law to some extent, are Penny Arcade and xkcd, not Girl Genius or The Order of the Stick.

There is a silver lining for webcomics: slowly but surely, all media are starting to migrate to the Web in some form. That means they will all be subject to Sturgeon’s Law to some extent. (I’ll discuss some of the implications of that fact later in the week, but it won’t be a webcomic post.) Every medium will run a risk of becoming identified with crap. The barriers to entry are greater for art forms that require more and more expensive stuff, so more good stuff and less bad stuff will make it through in those media that combine moving images with sound – the descendants of movies and TV – and webcomics could remain very low on the totem pole as a medium, ahead of only prose, podcasts, and music. (And as it gets easier to create a simple webcomic like I did with Sandsday, webcomics could even fall behind podcasts and music!) Still, eventually we’ll get used to the fact, as the ever-popular blogosphere already is, that there’s a bunch of junk out there, and we’ll just have to follow what we’re familiar with and hope word of mouth will lead us to the other good stuff. When that happens, maybe – maybe – webcomics will be able to play on a level playing field. But to do so, it may need to completely jettison any memory of its video game legacy.

Sturgeon’s Law may explain all the crap in webcomics, but how to explain all the egos that (at least to Bengo) are seemingly attracted to webcomics like moths to a flame? It turns out that, at least in our dog-eat-dog society, most people are predisposed to jerkdom. I myself may admit that I might come across as a jerk in real life. Under the old ways, the jerks were weeded out or reformed by the need to network and negotiate to get anywhere in their desired careers. But that’s no longer necessary to put your wares on the web with no barriers to entry, where you can talk to anyone you still need to network with in a purely utilitarian mode and hide behind the abstraction of text with no face-to-face contact, with ready-made audiences on many sites where you don’t have to talk to anyone, and with some people willing to promote your work without even knowing what you’re like as a person.

But none of that really gets to the heart of the matter as far as Bengo is concerned: To him, the webcomics community itself is the problem.

Jonathan Rosenberg started Fleen to have a webcomic blog unencumbered by a creator who runs his own webcomic on the side. In Bengo’s eyes, he didn’t succeed, since Dumbrella was almost as much a dirty word at TFL as Halfpixel. As far as Bengo is concerned, a lot of the webcomics community is either consisting of people who ultimately want to promote their own wares, or driven by those people and blinded to those people trying something new, instead led around in circles to keep propping up the same old Penny Arcade and PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Moreover, because of the small size of the medium it can throw the moniker of success onto people who really don’t deserve the term, people who in actuality are wallowing in mediocrity whether aesthetically or financially.

But in Bengo’s eyes, the root of this isn’t far from that of webcomics’ density of prima donnas. Any new idea is going to come with a good dose of idealism, since idealism is the only way new ideas are born, but also some of the lower aspects of human nature, simply because rules for professionalism haven’t been established. What’s more, an idealism about the potential of a new idea and a blindness to the faults go hand in hand. Idealism is a double-edged sword; it allows you to try something that’s never been done before, but that can be because it blinds you to the problems that are the reasons why the skeptics are skeptical in the first place, both potential and practical. What’s more, the latter problem is often compounded with youth, who owe their idealism to not having experience with the problems. Especially since youth often comes with a seeming immaturity, or at least inexperience, that compounds the problems of human nature. Sometimes this is itself defended as idealism, sometimes it’s just subconscious, but always it can hold the idea back from acceptance by the old gatekeepers.

When Bengo rather condescendingly claims that what sets webcomics further back than other fields with some of the same problems is that “many people are young and lack the critical skills to recognize these realities”, it’s tempting to dismiss it as an old fogie yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. After all, he’s effectively claiming that he is the only one capable of properly sizing up the webcomic landscape – an outsider who’s barely spent a year immersed in the webcomic community. Anyone else is just too blinded by their youthful idealism. (After all, it’s not like Scott McCloud has a career in comics dating back to the 80s.) They’re too wrapped up in an insider mentality, can’t see the forest for the trees, they’re blind to what everyone else thinks of them. They think everything’s coming up roses for webcomics but only because they’re shielded – whether subconsciously or by demagogues – from the Truth(tm).

I think Bengo may be misreading the motives of some observers – many webcomic promoters don’t care that the fact of webcomics is in rough shape, because they only care about the idea. They’re not blind to webcomics’ problems because they “lack the critical skills” to ferret them out, they’re blind to them because that’s not where they’re looking. And that’s a good thing – better to look at the webcomics doing good things for the medium than the demagogues. But Bengo’s concern is for an aspiring webcomicker who’s either young and set to ruin their lives following an avalanche of bad advice, bad role models, and their own inexperience, or more experienced and trying to avoid getting wrapped up in a scene that produces a bunch of jerks – and where the financials might not have been figured out to the extent people think.

Bengo thinks webcomics are even smaller than those within the community give it credit for – and shrinking, with even the top webcomics enjoying less success and less self-sufficiency than they sometimes get credit for. Many webcomics creators, in his experience, are not just egotistical but private and unwilling to give hard data. The number of truly artistic, great webcomics – especially those noticed by the successors of Websnark, the mainstream webcomic blogs – can probably be counted on one hand. The number of webcomics that have had even fleeting breakout success outside the webcomic niche are even fewer. The webcomic community is still more committed to the potential of an idea than the actual realization of that idea. Much of the webcomic blogosphere consists of not so much coverage of actual webcomics but coverage of technological developments that might, one day, if we’re lucky, have an influence on the future of comics. (Comixtalk seems to prefer to see itself as a site for coverage of “comics in the digital age” than a webcomics blog.) Even webcomic reviews have, since Websnark near-fell off the face of the earth, concentrated less on the comics themselves and more on how lessons from them might apply to Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere.

Say what you will about his conclusions, or even dismiss them entirely as someone too jaded to realize how times are changing and bitter about not succeeding the way “better” cartoonists did, you should still be sobered by Bengo’s announcement that he would be leaving “webcomics” entirely, feeling the term too poisoned, and urging others to isolate their sites as much as possible from the “scene”. And cheerleaders for the idea may want to listen to what Bengo had to say before that, directly to them:

I’d be alarmed that an open-minded, truth-seeking sort like myself would enter webcomics, study it round the clock for several years, and find it mostly over-blown, in love with itself and falling out of fashion. I’d be even more alarmed that there are quality comics with quality accounting who far out-perform the alleged self-supporting titles, providing a valuable reality check to the people peddling your bright webcomic career along with your lottery ticket and Brooklyn Bridge. The ignorance deficit — the difference between what most webcomic people know and what they need to know — is so gaping, the typical aspirant’s chances of success are rotten.

During Bengo’s farewell series, Scott Kurtz left a series of comments so mean-spirited and trolly it may have been hard to believe he was actually responsible for them. But that can’t be said for his tweeted response to Bengo’s announcement he would be leaving the “webcomics scene”, which regardless of what you may think of Bengo and his conclusions, has to be a wake-up call to anyone:

I think @krisstraub and I forced a man to quit webcomics. I’m proud. Proud of what we’ve acomplished [sic].

Really, Scott? You’re proud that a man who wanted to enter webcomics, who saw the potential of the core idea of webcomics and wanted webcomics to be the best that they could be, someone who could have – for all we know – been one of the great forces and driving figures to help webcomics achieve their potential, instead saw a cesspool of jerks and crap and decided it wasn’t worth the trouble? You’re proud that you forced a man to quit “webcomics”?!? How could you, self-proclaimed Voice of All Webcomics, possibly be proud of driving someone from it? Is it just because he didn’t bother kowtowing to you and dared to challenge you and your infallible statements? Is it because you think he’s bitter about not being good enough and you see him picking a fight with you for no good reason, oblivious to the fact you’re making yourself as bad if not worse, and taking webcomics down with it? Or perhaps we should take your nonspecific phrasing at face value, and decide this is one instance of you letting slip your real goal, that you don’t really want webcomics reaching their potential, that you don’t want anyone escaping the cave to discover the true mediocrity of your work, that you’re willing to bring down an entire art form so you can remain self-proclaimed king of it?

This one statement, more than any other – even any from Bengo – is telling about the state of webcomics today, held back by those who would wish that Sturgeon’s Law continued to hold as much as possible, that it would remain a niche small enough for their own delusions of grandeur to seem realistic, that its reputation could be sullied enough that it could remain their own little club. It’s possible that one day, when the history of comics on the web are told, we will say that once upon a time, there was a community of people, led by those who created the early successes and tried to ensure there would be no others, who produced a body of work and built their own insular community around it known as “webcomics”, and their actions nearly set the cause of comics on the web back years, and their community initially attracted those who would defend the idea, but decided that to avert the fate of the idea being slaughtered in the crib, they would have to distance themselves from it and start over, ditching the roots that “webcomics”, an outgrowth of the dumb Internet culture of the Web’s childhood and adolescence, laid down.

I would love to come back in a year, at next year’s State of Webcomics Address, and say that this period of webcomics history is not quite as bleak as I just described, that we have found a new Voice of All Webcomics that can rescue it from the damage Kurtz and his ilk are doing, that Bengo’s description of the potential missed opportunity facing us did not turn out to be as tragic as he feared. I’d even like to be able to say the state of webcomics wasn’t as bad as I made it seem even now, that Bengo was wrong all along, that webcomics’ own quirks – even its propensity for egos – were good enough to grow and thrive in the context of the Internet. But not only am I not holding my breath, I’m not sure if I’ll even know the answer from the webcomic blogosphere.

Blog of Webcomics’ Identity Crisis: The End of “Free Content”?

A “case in point” on the thought-provoking nature of the Floating Lightbulb: Today Bengo argues that webcomickers should stop thinking of themselves as giving content away for free.

He makes some good points but since he emphasizes preparing comics for later print distribution, I suspect that Scott “Infinite Canvas” McCloud would scream bloody murder at him…

By my standards, I think I’m a month late with this.

In February, at the end of my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I said this about The Floating Lightbulb:

I’m probably going to do a review of the Floating Lightbulb itself one day, and when I do I’m probably going to say that Bengo is a more cerebral John Solomon. Bengo doesn’t hate all webcomics – though the Floating Lightbulb doesn’t do much in the way of actual reviews at all – but he certainly seems to hate most of the personages in mainstream webcomics. In his eyes, most big-time webcomics creators are self-promoting jerks who probably cheated to get to the top and as such are bad role models, and most webcomic bloggers are ego-strokers, often with rampant conflicts of interest, who shill the same comics over and over again. Not every webcomic blog gets this charge, not even biggies Tangents and Websnark; mostly the vitriol goes to Gary “Fleen” Tyrell and [Xaviar] Xerexes, proprietor of Comixtalk.

Shortly thereafter, Bengo wrote a post explaining, among other things, that he didn’t hate all mainstream webcomics, he just reserved his vitriol for those grouped under the names of Dumbrella and Halfpixel. And even though he never mentioned me by name and I’m still not sure if he even knows of Da Blog’s existence, I started to panic and planned to start this post with a comedown, stating that maybe I’d overstated his hatred.

Well, earlier this week he banged out a post that seemed to show where I might have gotten the idea he was a curmudgeon. Apparently a large number of webcomic creators are engaging in an e-e-evil plot to mislead Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere in order to maintain their own standing and keep webcomics mired in a cesspool of mediocrity. Oh yes, what they disseminate is nothing but a mess of LIES! But they won’t succeed, oh no, even now their kingdoms are falling, and soon the curtain will fall away and THE TRUTH SHALL BE REVEALED! They can’t keep it down forever! Ha ha ha, ha ha ha, aha ha ha ha ha hahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!

(This isn’t the first time I’ve sat through Bengo putting his tinfoil hat on, either. He seems to think that people who think Scott Kurtz is “nice” are victims of an elaborate charade and front so dead-on and uncanny he should be an actor, not a webcartoonist! Because it can’t possibly be that Kurtz is just a complex, contradictory – GASP! – human being who feels nice in some circumstances and egotistical in others! Not that Kurtz being an arrogant jerk who thinks he’s Scott McCloud’s heir as Representative of All Webcomicdom but always ends up putting his foot in his mouth in doing so is exactly a secret…)

I don’t want to give the impression I find TFL the conspiratorial ramblings of a madman. In fact, TFL is one of the better, or at least more interesting, blogs you’ll find when it comes to advice for aspiring webcomickers. About a year ago, Bengo started trying to research webcomics in preparation of a new project he hoped to do with his wife Pug. Distressed at the paucity and contradictory nature of information, he started the Psychedelic Treehouse website as a storehouse of his findings, and started keeping a running log in TFL. Bengo nonetheless plowed on and ultimately contributed to two webcomics and a side project, while continuing to look for information on what to expect on the financial front. He became so distressed at the information in the HalfPixel group’s “How to Make Webcomics” that after a bad interview with Dave “Sheldon” Kellett and Brad “Evil Inc.” Guigar, he wrote a scathing post casting severe doubt on the book’s business model that made him a lifelong enemy in Kurtz and is largely singlehandedly responsible for much of TFL’s popularity, such as it is (which is to say “more than that of Da Blog”).

The metaphor implied by the title is probably the most succinct summary of most of TFL’s contents. Well, kind of. Sort of. Actually, according to an informal overview I did, only a little more than half Bengo’s posts were classified as “ideas webcomickers can use, perhaps to increase their revenue or help their art, sometimes taking their cue from things existing webcomickers are doing. Often this takes the form of cool stuff on the Internet people can use. Other times it’s highfalutin’ ideas, concepts and classifications that would make Scott McCloud and Eric Burns(-White) blush.” The rest, for the most part, is split fairly evenly between actual webcomic reviews, mere observations about the webcomic community, or ripping into people Bengo hates.

All of those three categories, to some extent or another, furthers the same goal as the first: educating aspiring webcomickers. Bengo reviews webcomics so we can learn from them, his recent posts on webcomic traffic trends were made with an eye to trying to find out why so aspiring webcomickers wouldn’t fall into the same traps, and he doesn’t want anyone looking to Scott Kurtz as a role model or have their business plan ruined by “How to Make Webcomics”. This isn’t just generic stuff you can find anywhere else on the Internet, either. Bengo pretty much assumes you’re looking to enter webcomics for the long haul, and make some money from it at the same time, and maybe even join the Tier 1 Pantheon of Popular Webcomics. I can’t vouch for the effiacy of any of the advice Bengo gives – I’m afraid I would have to classify his comics as Tier 3 and unreviewable until proven good (or at least potential-filled) – but there’s a lot of stuff you won’t find anywhere else (by which I mean you won’t find any competing or affirming advice) and a few things where Bengo seems to be downright pioneering, daring to go where no one has gone before. Where else are you going to find stuff like this?

All of which means TFL has a rather interesting clientele in that it is written primarily not for the general public at large, but for aspiring webcomickers. What really makes this interesting is that a blog written entirely for aspiring webcomickers would ordinarily go entirely into the advice pool. Bengo writes for a specific subset of that clientele, yet he’s also calling out the webcomics community at large for their practices that derail aspiring webcomickers. I think the closest thing to an equivalent I can think of would be Bengo’s mortal enemy at Halfpixel at, yet even that site doesn’t really go into current events or reviews or that sort of thing, yet despite the tagline of “webcomics news,” TFL isn’t really a news site either (by which I mean it’s not much of a news site at all). (The tagline used to be “Webcomics Eureka”, which was a little more accurate if a little redundant with the title and not entirely sensical.)

Now so far, my webcomic blog reviews have been of review sites, so I should probably say a few words about TFL’s reviews. Briefly, they tend to focus on obscure webcomics, and somewhat surprisingly for TFL’s normal subject matter, they tend to be rather basic, focusing on such things as what the setting is, what the format is, how good it is with mechanics, and what Bengo likes and what he thinks could be improved. They’re short, general, and to-the-point, without too much of the rambling or dwelling on specifics of the Burns(-White)/Howard/Solomon/Wick crowd.

The Floating Lightbulb is the closest thing I’ve yet found to the Order of the Stick of webcomics blogs, in that it’s hard for me to find anything (well, much) bad to say about it. If Bengo’s insights into webcomics are vindicated – which really only happens when you become popular, as people either deconstruct your arguments or tell people how much you helped them; it’s damn near impossible to do what the opposite of vindication is, since you generally don’t get popular if you’re wrong, and in any case Bengo may be well on his way – TFL (and Psychedelic Treehouse) could become an absolute must-read for anyone looking to jump into webcomics, as well as anyone else examining the field. And the Webcomic Blog List is not only a useful form of webcomic blog promotion, it’s a useful resource for anyone looking for webcomic blogs to read, such as someone like me who’s looking for more webcomic blogs to review.

The one big elephant in the living room where TFL is concerned is Bengo’s sometimes-obsession with Dumbrella, Halfpixel, and their cohorts, which can come off as just trying to drum up attention by picking fights and proclaiming “everything you know is wrong!” (If Bengo decides to respond to this post in any way, I fully expect him to go on another possibly-conspiratorial rant about all the damage Kurtz and Co. do to webcomics just like all his others.) When Bengo isn’t ripping into the self-proclaimed “role models” of webcomics, his posts are thought-provoking and insightful. Even when he is they can be enlightening and affirming. Either way, you’re guaranteed to get your recommended daily allowance of brain food just about every day.

The Floating Lightbulb is, pending verification of Bengo’s advice, most highly recommended. And I’m not just saying that to get on the Webcomic Blog List – TFL’s on my RSS reader for good. As I said back in February, I’d bet anything Bengo would rip me and Da Blog to shreds, both for lavishing praise on him and focusing too much on popular webcomics for my own good (and maybe echoing Robert A. Howard’s critique on top of that).

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part VI: On Greatest Lists and the State of Webcomics

Finally, on to the second of the two topics that spawned this series.

The Floating Lightbulb is interesting enough that I’m considering adding it to my RSS reader. And I’m not just saying that to get onto its webcomic blog list. I have a feeling Bengo would probably berate me for focusing too much on the old popular, “self-promoting” comics and not enough on smaller comics that could actually use the attention, even though I do still have an open channel for people to e-mail me with comics they think I should review at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com, even if the comic isn’t their own. (Note, Bengo: for just the webcomics posts and not the other junk, be sure to include /search/label/webcomics in the URL!)

And really, that problem is at the heart of one of Bengo’s issues with Xaviar Xerexes.

I’m probably going to do a review of the Floating Lightbulb itself one day, and when I do I’m probably going to say that Bengo is a more cerebral John Solomon. Bengo doesn’t hate all webcomics – though the Floating Lightbulb doesn’t do much in the way of actual reviews at all – but he certainly seems to hate most of the personages in mainstream webcomics. In his eyes, most big-time webcomics creators are self-promoting jerks who probably cheated to get to the top and as such are bad role models, and most webcomic bloggers are ego-strokers, often with rampant conflicts of interest, who shill the same comics over and over again. Not every webcomic blog gets this charge, not even biggies Tangents and Websnark; mostly the vitriol goes to Gary “Fleen” Tyrell and Xerexes, proprietor of Comixtalk.

Xerexes has been working with his readers for the better part of a year now on a project to list the “100 greatest webcomics”. For Bengo, this project is more than a questionable idea producing an arbitrary and opinionated ranking. It’s serious business.

Back in November, Bengo published a lengthy list of objections to the project, and mused about it further about a month ago. One of Bengo’s bigger concerns is not merely that the list will route people to the same webcomics that are already popular while “impoverishing” smaller titles, but will mislead journalists in a similar fashion, “resulting in lazy, redundant coverage” and possibly discrediting webcomics itself (not to mention the list) if the aforementioned “bad role models” (not to mention just plain bad comics) are exposed and ridiculed (“THESE are the greatest webcomics?”)

I don’t think the situation is as dire as Bengo suggests, and Xerexes in his list’s latest incarnation has indirectly responded to at least some of his concerns. Bengo’s first post seems to be working on the assumption that the “greatest” list would in fact be a mutation of a “most popular” list. By contrast, Bengo would seemingly prefer it take the form of a “best” list, which would not only be forever under construction, but forever incomplete and to some extent influenced by popularity, since no matter how many webcomics you’ve looked at there’s probably some comic out there read by maybe five people that’s greater than whatever 200 webcomics you have on your list.

If we’re working on the sort of criteria that shaped the AFI’s greatest movies list (which all of these Internet “100 greatest” lists cite for some reason. My inspiration is VH1’s fixation with such lists, not exclusively AFI.), however, the exclusion of “quality” as a criterion in favor of popularity is to some measure excused by the fact that neither would really be as influential as influence, which is more influenced by popularity than in a medium as diverse as film. Making a “greatest” list as opposed to “best” or “most popular” also should make the list more useful as an entry point for journalists: we wouldn’t be saying these are necessarily the cream of the crop and the very best webcomics, but they are certainly important, and here’s why. One of the things I’ve been thinking about the role of the Greatest Movies Project is as a survey of film history for the layman; by moving from movie to movie, and reading what was said about each, a reader could get a better appreciation of “how we got here” and of the milestones of film history.

If Ctrl+Alt+Del were to make it on a “greatest webcomics” list, it wouldn’t be because of its popularity so much as the fact it’s had more influence on the form of copycat gaming comics, for better and for worse, than, say, Penny Arcade. (Mostly for worse, so if CAD is even in the top 75 of any list, I’d start sympathising with Bengo. And I’m at least a marginal CAD fan.)

But I do have some quibbles with Xerexes himself. For one, I don’t think webcomics as a medium are old enough or mature enough to support a full-on 100 greatest list; it’ll be definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel when you get to the bottom. You could maybe support a top 20, but I’d be hard pressed to think of enough webcomics influential enough to fill out even that list: Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance, Girl Genius, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, umm, User Friendly, Order of the Stick (only because of the copycat webcomics it spawned), Irregular Webcomic… ummm… maybe Perry Bible FellowshipBob and GeorgeThe Devil’s Panties… does Dilbert count? can you tell I’m really reaching for candidates and I’ve only just now reached 13? Imagine the sort of webcomics Xerexes will have to come up with for the 80s and 90s!

More to the point, I certainly hope the lists he has now aren’t ranked yet, if not to fix some questionable-at-best rankings (Sluggy, quite possibly the most influential webcomic not named Penny Arcade if not overall, as low as #6 on the comedy list, and Diesel Sweeties at #5? OOTS at #13 on the comedy list alone, so probably lower on the final one? Kevin and Kell, which I just mentally added to my overall top 20 above, at #19 on comedy, which means it won’t make it into said top 20 on the final list? Dinosaur Comics at #24 on comedy? The drama list led by Nowhere Girl, a comic I hadn’t even heard of, whose main credential is winning an Eisner – worthy of my overall top 20 but hardly enough for #1? Dresden freaking Codak as high as #12 on drama? CAD not listed anywhere when neither list has reached #100 yet, regardless of what you think about its quality? That’s before getting into the classification of some of the strips in one class or the other…) then to avoid rendering the release of the final list anticlimactic.

To some extent, Xerexes has already ruined the anticipation for the release of the final list by putting out his various draft lists and involving the people in the construction; for someone who’s been running a comics news site as long as he has, it seems odd that he still has to hit up his readers for ideas. The AFI precedes the releases of its various lists by putting out unranked lists of 400-500 nominees for its panel to vote on; Xerexes’ most recent list being split into separate comedy and drama lists may reflect the wisdom of that approach. (I can’t begrudge no further splits or longer lists when neither list has even hit 100 on their own yet. Incidentially, the relative paucity of dramatic webcomics may also hint at questioning whether webcomics are mature enough to have this kind of list.)

To go further, I suggest that when the final list is revealed, if Xerexes isn’t planning to do so already, rather than release the whole thing at once the same as the draft lists and not only defuse the anticipation but reduce the distinction between the final and drafts (another concern of Bengo’s), reveal each comic one at a time, accompanying each with a short essay on the webcomic in question and why it belongs on the list. That would allow the list to be a real resource to anyone looking to dip their toe into webcomics, and allow it to be a potential help to webcomics rather than a potential hindrance in the vein Bengo fears.

I also have a concern about apples-and-oranges comparisons, but not those of Xerexes (comedy v. drama) or Bengo (ongoing series v. finished series), though it’s similar to Bengo’s and he touches on this in the first post. I started this series (paradoxically, in Part II) talking about how there were, for a long time, two forms of comic (books and strips) and how webcomics have joined them. (Xerexes is on record as agreeing with me here that webcomics belong at the same table with comic books and strips.) I’ve seen “greatest comic books” lists and at least one “greatest comic strips” list, but you’d be hard pressed to find a single unified “greatest comic” list combining the two. There are just so many differences between the book and strip forms, and they’ve had such a different history, and that’s even considering the fact a lot of comic books are periodicals much like strips. (How do you compare Action Comics as a whole with Peanuts as a whole?) In a form with facets of both, how do you compare the two? How do you compare one-shot infinite canvas comics of the sort Scott McCloud supports and other one-timers fairly with more periodical comics? If you exclude the former, do you risk excluding some of the real pioneers of the medium? (Are any true pioneers like Cat Garza represented anywhere as is?)

I think that, done right, a “greatest webcomics” list could do a lot to ease newbies into webcomics and help legitimize it as a medium (or a form of a medium). (A “greatest comic books” list helped ease me into that medium.) If nothing else, it would be an entertaining excersize and debate. But I have, as I get the sense Bengo has, a bit of a concern whether or not webcomics have done enough to deserve such a list yet. Are there enough “great” or influential webcomics? Do webcomics represent a diverse enough experience or are they loaded with nothing but ha-ha? And perhaps most important, are there webcomics good enough, serving as good enough “role models”, to truly justify the praise given to them? Even on my “top 20” list above, how many would remain on even a top 100 list in just 10 years if the potential of webcomics are sufficiently explored by then? I say PA, Sluggy, Nowhere Girl, Dinosaur Comicsxkcd, and some comics (Girl Genius, Irregular Webcomic) that will prove more influential later than they are now… and that may be it. Odd as it sounds, even PVP, Megatokyo, and User Friendly will have to fight for a spot, and only time will tell if even comics as critically acclaimed as OOTS and Gunnerkrigg Court prove influential enough and stand the test of time enough to make the list and score a high ranking.

This is webcomics’ identity crisis: this basic insecurity over acceptance in the wider world of comics, and in the world at large, rooted in our own insecurity of our own worthiness and conflicted with our quest for a separate identity from comic strips and books. We seek acceptance because we seek validation for this silly little ritual of ours, that what we’re doing is truly worthy of being considered an art form. It’s a battle that’s been waged before by all new media since the beginning of time. Even theatre and printing were perhaps once dismissed as a vulgar diversion for the masses. Comics fought long and hard for acceptance in the pantheon of art and it wasn’t until the 80s and 90s when they started to get it, thanks to material that finally showed comics had grown up, not to mention the birth of a scholarly tradition of the material with Understanding Comics. Even within comics, comic books were once dismissed as inferior to the strip format until Superman came along.

Webcomics have its Superman (called Penny Arcade) but they still have insecurity. I still have insecurity. Before I started this series and probably even after I wondered why I was focusing on webcomics, such a sketchily-defined subset of comic strips or of comics in general… I considered doing a 20 Greatest Webcomics project before I heard of Xerexes’ effort but wondered if it was worth separating from comic strips and comics in general… Thoughts like these could be holding webcomics back. (Don’t even mention its place as a subset of Internet art.) Webcomics are still a young medium (for the most part, significantly younger than I am, so very literally in adolescence – film started getting introduced to the world in 1893 but Birth of a Nation blew the lid off its potential in 1915, so we still have six years or so to go), not only unsure of where its future lies but of what its basic identity is. It still clings to Scott McCloud’s advocacy, though it is starting to wean itself of that, and only slowly starting to round into permanent shape. It still clings to the past, to its mothers. Most of what it considers “great” is still ongoing – which means most of what it will consider “great” probably hasn’t started (or been discovered) yet.

At the same time, webcomics have a lot to be proud of. We’re ahead of the curve compared to a lot of other fields when it comes to the Internet and making it in this strange new medium. At least some of us have found a stopgap revenue stream, and even that is enough to bring hope and promise that will attract more people to our little corner of the Internet. The quest for revenue models has blessed us with a lot of wisdom everyone else on the Internet would be wise to consider. We’ve developed a tradition of criticism already that challenges webcomics and pushes them to be better. Our artistic aspirations drive us higher and higher, and we’re starting to get some webcomics really worthy of praise compared to other media. There’s still a ways to go, but we’ve built a good foundation. Which is why right now we have one foot in two worlds.

This is a critical, exciting time in webcomics, one I hope no one takes for granted. Not only is our form going through the difficult, exciting process of maturation, we may now stand poised for a potential revolution that will affect the course of our medium for all time. Between the ongoing recession (which will have a profound impact throughout the Internet) and the changing circumstances of the rest of the comics industry, the future is now, and it has the potential, depending on the influx of talent from refugees, to take all of us for a wild ride. Perhaps these new developments will be what finally gets webcomics out of its identity crisis and allows it to come into its own as a cultural and aesthetic art form.

And perhaps it’ll propel us ever closer to that day when we will look at a list of “100 greatest webcomics” and not bat any more of an eye than we would for an equivalent list in any other art form.

I can’t wait to see what it would look like, and I imagine it would include at least some comics we can’t even imagine today (though some fledgling comics earning those first snippets of praise and pushing into Tier 2 now, like Union of Heroes, may well rank highly when that day comes).

But I also can’t wait to see how we get there.

At any rate, it appears I’ve incorporated the epilogue into this sixth part. So I’m scheduling this post for a post time of Friday, even though I’m wrapping it up at 11:30 PM.