Would it be too much of a stretch to connect this to Penelope’s death?

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized fatal family tree.)

The chickens, they are coming home to roost.

Much to my chagrin, Rich has once again confirmed a wild forum theory, though this one at least seemed vaguely plausible at the time. Because as it turns out, V’s pride and shortsightedness has completely screwed over the Order of the Stick, or at least the world. (For the record, it’s doubtful that the IFCC planned on this in any way.) Funnily enough, in my last OOTS post I scratched my head at V’s willingness to allow Belkar to use Yukyuk for his own purposes; perhaps this is the universe’s way of reminding her where that path leads.

If the primary theme of this book has been “family”, a secondary one might be “secrets”, namely those of Haley and her father (the latter of which I’ll talk about if and when he turns up again). Up to this point, V was probably willing to try to forget about that whole episode, and had no reason to divulge anything about it to anyone. Now, does he decide to fess up to her culpability in this matter? Doing so could sow distrust, but not doing so will cause this to haunt her for the entire battle, maybe the entire rest of the comic.

This also keeps us from meeting any former Scribblers “in the flesh” at this gate, and thus from getting any further insight into that group’s breakup, and it suggests that the reason Rich seemed to float the possibility of Girard still being alive, as unlikely as it would ordinarily seem, was to make the point hit that much harder here, the guilt weigh that much more heavily on V’s shoulders. (On the plus side, at least the illusion the Order triggered a while back turned out not to lead to any confrontation with anybody!)

Ultimately, the end result of this is to clear the battlefield, wiping out the forces that were already set up to guard the Gate, as well as most of the magical defenses surrounding it. The Gate is more vulnerable than it was ever intended to be, its only defense now consisting of the Order of the Stick themselves. The stage has been set for the showdown for the Gate, and I fully expect the first shots to be fired imminently.

I can’t help but wonder if Roxy’s had an encounter with her before…wouldn’t that explain a lot?

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized woolb-easts.)

The constant, overpowering troll presence in this session continues to get curiouser and curiouser.

We’d already been graced by the presence of the “thirteenth troll” and Roxy’s still-unexplained “wriggling day” reference, but some more surprise appearances in recent updates have made it quite apparent that the new session has their own batch of trolls to contend with. Said troll’s appearances with Dirk gave us a better glimpse at her than ever before, but that’s nothing compared to what’s happened since. First there was the appearance of not-Vriska in Jake’s dreams. Now, after God Cat causes Roxy’s fenstrated-plane connection to be cut off, we find out just where she’s connected those planes through: evidently, whatever planet these new trolls call home, where she’s accosted by someone who most definitely is not Feferi.

There’s a considerable case to be made that these are either the trolls’ ancestors in their youth, or the universe where said ancestors were the ones to play the game. This seems like too easy of an explanation, though, especially if we think this new group of trolls includes the aforementioned “thirteenth troll”; the closest existing troll she’s likely to approximate to is Karkat, but aside from the gender shift and unique typing quirk, the horn pattern is very unique. Another explanation may relate to the numerous hints in this act that Kanaya will, ultimately, be able to recreate the Matriorb and revive the troll race.

However, there are a couple of factors that lead me to question the entire nature of what we’re seeing. The first is the fact that Jake was able to see one of these new trolls by blacking out after his robo-fight (notably, after his dreamself had already been killed). The second is what Roxy saw when she successfully moved through the plane in the other direction: her own dreamself. Take these two factors together, and I can’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing is going on in the Medium, or someplace even weirder.

Of course, that raises its own questions regarding what these trolls are doing here and interacting with our heroes…

The OOTS Effect, Part II

I’m probably going to drop the “OOTS Effect” name next week:

  • We have a new candidate for the next big thing to come out of Kickstarter: MATTER, which met its $50,000 goal within 38 hours and blew through that to $82,204 by now, becoming the second-most funded project in the history of the Publishing category, and might hold the top spot by the time you read this. It slowed down considerably upon reaching its goal and probably can’t reach a million dollars, but a quarter of a million isn’t out of the question, which would be good for the top twenty at the moment. (The same disclaimer from last week about not all projects being listed with their categories applies.)
  • The HuMn Wallet raised only half of its goal in its first 48 hours, but take a look at that end time: the creators gave themselves 40 days to get the job done, meaning if they can sustain the same momentum throughout the project (a big if), the top ten is very possible. In the last day or two, it’s blown past its goal to nearly $82,000.
  • In the end, Code Hero finished just short of the category record. On the other hand, Benign Kingdom finished with more than $13,000 more than the previous third place in the Comics category, while Erfworld Year of the Dwagon has already moved into third itself. Once it finishes, the entire top three and four of the top seven (counting the Diesel Sweeties eBook-Stravaganza) will have something to do with webcomics. The previous record for a webcomic-related project before OOTS came along, to the best of my knowledge, was Girly: The Complete Collection, at less than $30,000. Again, now you know why Rich Burlew was skeptical he’d even meet his goal.
  • Idle Thumbs has crossed the $100,000 barrier, while the Ramos alarm clock may have lost some momentum and is sitting at $93,710. It should cross $100,000 by the end of the week, but the top ten may be more questionable now.
  • Finally, we must address the strange case of A Show with Ze Frank, which blew through its $50,000 goal in seven hours, making it a very good candidate to become the next million-dollar project… if it weren’t for the fact that Mr. Frank only gave his project ten days to raise its money. It’s still got an excellent shot at the top ten if it maintains that pace, but I wonder: was he paying attention to the recent spate of wildly successful drives and decided that, with his pre-existing audience, the short time span was worth the risk?
  • Oh, and as for the OOTS drive that started it all, I got my shipping survey for that, so the first steps are being taken towards fulfiling the tens of thousands of rewards people pledged for there.

Because when I got on Twitter, I said that thoughts too long for it would go here:

It is currently the 1 PM hour on the West Coast (4 PM ET), and Fuse is showing a “sneak peek” of the top 10 of its “Sexy Beats” countdown, with the “real” premiere coming later at 8 PM ET.

What’s crazier: that, the fact that Fuse is still advertising the “real” premiere during the “sneak peek” of the same hour that’s being advertised, or that my cable company’s guide lists the “real” premiere as “new”… and this airing as a “repeat”?

The only way this makes sense is if they hold off on revealing #1 until the “real” premiere, but I don’t know how they could do that…

Transcending webcomics

I wanted to follow up on something from yesterday’s post, because I was rather intrigued to find out that the Erfworld creators, having funded the creation of a motion comic for their first book, had set their sights on a far grander prize: to “turn Erfworld.com into a fiction, art, and gaming community.”

Beyond the sizable jump in ambition this goal represented, it also seemed like an odd direction to go with Erfworld, of all webcomics. Despite its origins on the same Giant in the Playground site that’s best known for The Order of the Stick, I haven’t read, um, any of Erfworld, but the impression I get is that it’s a fairly heavily story-based webcomic. Sure, there’s humor sprinkled in there, but it hardly seemed like the sort of thing that could support a community of that general an interest; it’s certainly not, say, Penny Arcade.

As it happened, a few days later PA unveiled the next step in their plan for global domination, called the “Penny Arcade Report”, which Gabe described as “what we want to see from games journalism…The PAR is focused on longer form journalism with in-depth research and interviews”, as well as links to similar journalism on other sites. Back when it was first revealed that PAR head honcho Ben Kuchera was heading to Penny Arcade, Gary “Fleen” Tyrell recalled a conversation he once had with Robert Khoo where he claimed that PA wasn’t a webcomic at all, but “a content-creating company focused on the videogame industry, with the webcomic just one part of it. Granted, the comic is the dominant part, but he didn’t commit to that always being true.” Considering that Khoo is an absolute god within webcomic circles without ever writing a line or drawing a panel and literally every webcomic creator not named David Morgan-Mar aspires to PA‘s heights of success, this seems relevant.

I once wrote a review of Penny Arcade the webcomic in which I expressed my bewilderment at its popularity. To be perfectly honest, the webcomic is mediocre at best (and the artwork has, to be honest, gotten worse since I reviewed it) and not that much better than the morass of video game webcomics aping them and Ctrl+Alt+Del. I voiced my suspicion that the comic was not actually the reason for the site’s popularity, but more the blog posts and thoughts on the game industry that occupy PA‘s actual front page. Everything I’ve learned about PA since then, especially that Tyrell/Khoo encounter, has backed up that hypothesis, and that Khoo is a mad genius who took a relatively modest webcomic about video games and turned it into a globe-spanning empire. We’re not at the point where PA the webcomic is little more than an editorial cartoon accompanying a larger Internet magazine covering the video game industry, but only for lack of content to fill it out – and the PAR is a pretty big step in that direction.

For Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere looking for a ridiculously successful role model to follow who’s swimming in the cash their webcomic makes them, I think Penny Arcade is a bad example – unless you’re not so committed to this “webcomic” thing and more committed to this “making money off a Web site” thing. To reverse a common saying, the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success.

That brings me to Erfworld. What sort of “community” is Rob Balder trying to build? Well, it seems he wants to “completely redesign the Erfworld website to include blogs for fan art, gaming news, and sharing your game-related stories, art and video.” Balder wants the site to be “a framework for collaborating and sharing your art, writing, music, games, and other entertaining stuff, centered around the comic. Erfworld readers are smart, creative people with a lot of overlapping areas of interest….You can do at least as much to entertain each other as I can to entertain you.” There’s a lengthy document on Google Docs with more details, open to input from the fandom. Essentially, the name “Erfworld” would no longer refer to the world of the comic and would refer to the world of a miniature social network, complete with a tradable “currency”, allowing anyone to share their creative work and spotlighting the best of it.

Now, I’m not familiar with Erfworld‘s existing community and what it’s like now, but this definitely seems like Balder wants the site to transcend the comic and cater to his fans’ specific interests. Much like Penny Arcade is less a webcomic and more a video game community, Balder wants to turn Erfworld into less a webcomic and more a social network for amateur fiction and game aficianados. It’s an interesting way to re-think the concept of a webcomic: to take a webcomic that caters to a specific audience and turn it into an entire website catering to that specific audience. To think of a webcomic as one thing that goes on a website, possibly the most popular thing, possibly even the thing that everyone comes for, but for the site itself to cater to the community that forms around that comic and what they have in common. A sports webcomic becomes a community built around sports. A webcomic about toy collecting becomes a community for toy collectors. A webcomic for IT pros becomes a community of IT pros.

Now, anyone who would be depressed at what this says about the viability of webcomics themselves, as opposed to webcomics that hitch a ride to something else, need look no further than the OOTS Kickstarter to be disabused of that notion. If anything, OOTS is successful, and Rich Burlew’s lifeblood, despite his past efforts to make Giant in the Playground into something more; OOTS started as a way to attract visitors to the site to read the articles on gaming and game design, and the fact that it still manages to dominate the site is a testament both to how excellent it is and also to Rich’s failure to turn OOTS into the PA of D&D-style gaming – a track that looked very plausible back when it was still a bunch of gags about a party of adventurers trawling a dungeon, and already something that just about every D&D-player out there had heard of. Artistically, the comic and the world would have been far poorer for such a move, but in terms of success Rich Burlew could have attained far higher heights.

All webcomic artists, unless they put their comic behind a paywall or aren’t making any money at all, are in some business other than webcomics. If you’re following the ever-popular T-shirt selling route, your webcomic is really just a testing ground for new T-shirt ideas (and elaborate advertisement for the shirts themselves), which tends to lend itself more to being a meme factory than anything else. That’s a bad sign for anyone looking to stand by artistic integrity and a more story-based comic. Luckily, Burlew, the Foglios, and Tom Slidell have been able to make money off of story-based comics by selling print collections of the comics, with some occasional T-shirts and other tchotskes thrown in. Balder seems to be considering a very different route. He’s discovered what binds his readership together, and making sure his site caters to all of it, not just the webcomic that drew them there. In so doing, he has a chance to allow his site to cater to anyone to which that would appeal – and introduce them to the comic in the process.

The OOTS Effect, Part I

I was astounded by how quickly Kickstarter saw three million dollar projects within a month after not having any the first few years of its existence. As a result, Kickstarter has sort of become my latest obsession, as I wanted to see what effect the OOTS (and Double Fine) drives had on the success of future drives on Kickstarter, especially comics (and video game) drives.

I’ve seen some limited effect already:

  • Erfworld, which started out hosted on the same site as OOTS, saw its drive to make a motion comic out of the first book succeed within two days, and is now pushing to remake its entire site, with potentially more big changes coming depending on how successful it turns out to be.
  • R. Stevens’ drive to make an e-book out of his Diesel Sweeties comics has actually been getting more publicity within the webcomics community than the OOTS drive, with Gary “Fleen” Tyrell being the only webcomic news blogger to write about the latter more than once to my knowledge. The Diesel Sweeties drive has made over ten times its goal.
  • However, the first true beneficiary of what, in their case, may be more accurately termed the Double Fine effect may be the Idle Thumbs podcast. They made their $30,000 goal in two hours and shot to over $70,000 seemingly out of nowhere by late Monday night, about a day after launch, now standing at about $87,500 with a month still to go. Becoming the next million-dollar Kickstarter may be out of reach (if only because I have no idea what a podcast could possibly do with that much money), but people probably said that about the OOTS drive; certainly cracking the top ten drives in Kickstarter history is very much within reach. It’s worth noting that like OOTS and Double Fine, Idle Thumbs has a pre-existing audience; I’d say that makes it all the more incredible that the first million-dollar project was able to crack that mark without one.
  • On the other hand, keep an eye on the Ramos alarm clock as well. That drive made its $75,000 goal in about a week (including a steep rise at one point from around $40k to over $60k in less than 48 hours) with five and a half weeks still to go, and now stands at $83,514. I really don’t think a million dollars is likely there, but the top ten overall certainly is, and the rave reviews posted on the project page remind me a lot of what was said about the Elevation Dock.
  • I’m also interested in whether we’ll see new frontiers for individual categories. In the Comics category, for example, OOTS broke the record held by the Womanthology at $109,301, but that was a fairly exceptional project in its own right, with a pretty big gap of its own between that and third place at just over $46,000, less than OOTS’ original goal. (Now you know why Rich was skeptical of the prospects of his drive.) Well, Benign Kingdom is changing that, raising $51,000 entering its last 48 hours and making the $50,000 range seem like more of an attainable goal for a comics project.
  • Meanwhile in Games, Code Hero is making such a late push as its drive comes down to the wire that it has an outside shot at holding the category record for the time before Double Fine finishes, becoming only the fourth Games project over $100,000. Third place among completed drives is held by the Schlock Mercenary Board Game at $82,056, a mark Idle Thumbs has already passed, putting them sixth in the category overall. Third place could be as much as double that depending on how high Code Hero climbs, and that’s before Idle Thumbs moves past that territory. I caution that I have reason to believe that some projects are not being listed with their category and so aren’t showing up on their category’s “Most Funded” list.

Summing up the OOTS Kickstarter

When the book is written and the legacy and history of OOTS is summarized, it will be noted that in early 2012, the comic’s fans took a donation drive with a goal of barely over fifty thousand dollars and raised one and a quarter million dollars by the time it was over. With the improvements to the site and comic likely to come, the demonstrated devotion of the fans, and the increased popularity of the comic both as a result of the Kickstarter itself and with the books restocked on store shelves, I’d argue it’s as big a milestone in the history of the comic as anything that’s occured in the comic itself.

To gain some perspective on just how much OOTS’ fans have done over the past month:

  • The initial goal was broken in barely over twenty-four hours.
  • Within 48 hours, the drive was the highest-earning in the history of the Comics category, a record it has now broken ten times over.
  • By the time the drive was three days old, it had already succeeded beyond Rich’s wildest expectations (he only ever expected two books to be reprinted from the drive).
  • Within nine days, the drive had paid for reprinting every book that needed to be reprinted going in, cracked the top ten drives in Kickstarter history the next day, and reprinted every single book in the series the day after that, with two-thirds of the drive still to go.
  • Thirteen days into the drive, Rich was able to realize a longtime dream to print an OOTS coloring book, a dream he couldn’t make work until the sudden influx of cash caused by the drive.
  • What started as a fairly standard chart for the progress of the drive turned into a 26-part mini-epic, complete with dragon fight, that in many ways was a microcosm of the progress of OOTS itself (which may foreshadow something about how the comic will end).
  • At no point in the drive did its progress really slow down in any substantive way, with the only possible exceptions coming over weekends.
  • With a week left in the drive, Rich had basically paid for everything he could have dreamed of paying for (with most of the money raised in the preceding week going towards paying for additional costs incurred as a result of the drive’s success), and the drive essentially ran on fumes (and Rich’s continuing to put up new goals and rewards regardless) the rest of the way, with much of the remaining money going into a general operating fund, including sprucing up the site and getting new drawing tools. The wild success of the drive will end up giving all OOTS’ fans “more OOTS, better OOTS, and…faster OOTS” for years to come.
  • During the last week, Rich also attempted to put up a new OOTS comic every day for eight days, but wound up late by a missed day. Rich has also committed to another stretch of nine comics in a row later in the year.
  • OOTS is the third drive in Kickstarter history to raise over a million dollars. The drive finishes as the #2 project in Kickstarter history until the Double Fine drive (which just crossed two million) knocks it down a notch in a month or so. The drive raised nearly ten times the initial goal just in the final push.
  • When all was said and done, nearly 15,000 fans raised $1,254,120, for an average of nearly $84 per donor – an average of two books per order. Some fans have taken this high average as a sign of how “devoted” OOTS fans are, to which I ask: are they really more devoted than other fans, or just richer?
  • As the drive became more and more successful, it attracted attention from all over the Internet, not only from the webcomics community, not only from the comics blogosphere, not even only from the halo surrounding Kickstarter, but from sites as high-profile as Boing Boing.
  • For just ten dollars, over 14,000 OOTS fans will receive a book’s worth of new stories in PDF form: a new tale of O-Chul’s past, a new tale of Elan’s past, three prequel or interquel stories on characters decided by fans, two stories following up on tales in a limited-edition book published last year including a parody of Romeo and Juliet, and a parody of a D&D setting, plus four sheets of cut-out monster miniatures drawn in the OOTS style for use in D&D games and a magnet with Roy on it. Only the magnet and O-Chul story were planned at the beginning of the drive.
  • In addition to the above, Yours Truly will be getting the aforementioned limited-edition book (one of over 25,000 books to be sent out as a result of the drive), the aforementioned coloring book, a sheet of stickers with OOTS characters on them, and a notepad primarily for use in D&D games. Others will be receiving an art print with the entire cast on it, a “mini-expansion” for the OOTS Adventure Game (with quite a few getting the game itself), crayon drawings of them and their characters, and commemorative patches.
  • Many rewards won’t be sent to people until possibly as late as June, and a few that became available late in the drive will only be done after the others, so they could arrive at any point in the remainder of the year, meaning this drive will effectively define all of 2012 for OOTS.

It’s all quite astounding, really, and somewhat humbling for me. Although OOTS is one of the most popular webcomics on the Internet, it doesn’t normally get the sort of press as a Penny Arcade, xkcd, or Girl Genius, nor is it the same sort of critical darling within the community as a Questionable Content, Schlock Mercenary, or Gunnerkrigg Court (or the last two of the “gets more press” group, for that matter). It can feel like OOTS is still kind of a niche comic that only me and Robert A. “Tangents” Howard (and a little bit of Eric Burns(-White), back in Websnark’s heyday) are really paying that much attention to. So for a comic that I happen to have as my personal favorite and all of its fans to do something this huge… I mean, it’s kind of hard to put into words.

I keep writing Jake’s name as “John” for some reason. Also, this is the second time I’ve censored one of Hussie’s comics.

(From MS Paint Adventures: Homestuck. Click for full-sized mixed-up feelings.)

I’m starting to get worried about Roxy.

We already had the revelation that she was the one behind Jane’s exploding computer. Then the “thirteenth troll”, already having problems seeing her, revealed to Dirk that Roxy would cause a “blackout” similar to the one caused by Rose’s turn to the Dark Side… only this one would black out the entire session. (Incidentially, this could have been predicted, but the troll is starting to look less like the omniscient oracle she started out as, having problems with her server player and getting reassurance about her own session from Dirk.) Then she demanded that Jane reveal her feelings to Jake before Dirk does, almost to the point of forcing her, even blackmailing her, against her own misgivings (and apparently unaware of their ectobiological relationship).

Add all this up, and you get the sense that, despite getting a piece of her viewpoint as a future player, there’s still a chance Roxy has her own agenda we’re not yet privy to, that I was right to wonder whether Jane will regret agreeing to believe everything she says for 24 hours, that the “blackout” may prove to be much more intentional than the “thirteenth troll” thinks. This is before we even get to her “wriggling day” reference in the last act, which certainly should be considered to add fuel to the fire.

Now, it’s possible the last of these acts can be construed as her being a more active shipper than, say, Nepeta; she just has such an interest in seeing Jake and Jane get together that she then proceeds to pester Jake into contacting Jane. Even knowing the case against her, I found myself having an interest in the same thing after the way the conversation between the two went. Her standing threat to Jane, though, keeps me from really taking Roxy’s side in any way, and I can’t help but wonder how much of Jane’s reaction is really “I missed my shot” as much as “OMG, Roxy is going to kill me” (and we don’t know how literal that may prove to be).

(Dirk’s auto-responder is also showing signs of going all HAL on everyone – Jake even calls it that – but that’s more obvious and there’s not much to be said about it, other than my being perplexed at how it can apparently control Dirk’s computer.)

The conversation between Roxy and Jane was immediately followed by a lengthy flash I’ve been remiss in not addressing, though there are only really two things – and one very tantalizing hint – in it, Jake getting pwned by Dirk’s robot and Dirk himself carrying the head of the Hegemonic Brute through the streets of Derse (seemingly evoking WV’s rebellion in the process), sticking it on a pole, and attaching a message to it. The Draconian Dignitary is dispatched to investigate the latter by his new boss… who sure as hell looks like the Condesce, former ruler of Alternia last seen getting enlisted as a servant of Lord English. Whether it is really the same character making her way to this new session somehow, or whether (as has been seemingly heavily hinted for the Condesce and speculated for the new boss) she’s also Betty Crocker, is (as with several other apparent refugees of the pre-Scratch universe) yet to be confirmed.

Oh, and Jake blacked out (did SOPA make that join Homestuck‘s repository of arc words?) and had an encounter with a troll who is probably not Vriska. One wonders if this is a hint at the identity of the “thirteenth troll”‘s universe, as well as that “wriggling day” reference…

The Future of Content, Part III: Newspaper Comic Strips in a World Without Newspapers

I think I’m going to have to drop Comixtalk from my RSS reader. As it turns out, in both my “just continuing my post every day streak” Penny Arcade and PVP posts, I touched on issues that started minor conflagrations in the webcomics world (or in PA‘s case, the video-game world), and Comixtalk was silent on both of them (and now it’s silent on the OOTS Kickstarter too!). Somewhere in my archives I have a mostly-finished Comixtalk review I never posted lamenting its descent from its status as an “online magazine” about “comics in the digital age”. I can’t say Fleen is the most interesting read (it’s way too full of cutesy in-jokes), but if I want to keep up on “webcomics news”, Fleen is probably going to be the most complete I’m going to get.

I want to return to the topic of Scott Kurtz’ offer to whore himself out to the syndicates to help them transition to a future without newspapers. When I ran across the original blog post on PVP, I noted that it was just another case of Scott Kurtz declaring himself the “Certified Webcomics Genius(tm).” But what of the larger point of the future of syndicates?

On one level, I want to say that if the syndicates go away as the Internet (however defined) becomes the main distribution model for what we now call comic strips, good riddance, because they’re not needed. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of “webcomics collectives”; there are gazillions of success stories of people who managed to achieve success (however defined) with their webcomics, and I’d wager that most did so pretty much on their own (and in fact, this may be Bengo’s influence talking, but I have more respect for people who did it that way than people who are successful because their successful friends or some big corporation pimped them). In this perspective, where Kurtz (and Brad Guigar) could help (if they can help) is in transitioning newspaper comic strip artists from the old syndicate model into a new web-based model, but quite frankly, newspaper comic strips have been rather stagnant with shockingly few real stars coming along since even well before webcomics came along.

I have my doubts that even Garfield and Dilbert (two comics I remain fans of but have to admit have been past their peak for some time) would continue their current success, as they have been coasting on the heights of their respective first decades-plus for so long that at this point, even the most successful comics like them probably largely owe their success to people simply happening upon them as they read the newspaper each day, and wouldn’t survive a move to an environment where people would have to actually choose to read them, as much as things like RSS readers, smartphones, and tablets make it easier to do so. Considering how successful those two creators are already and how Web-savvy Scott Adams in particular is, if you need Kurtz and Guigar’s advice, they probably can’t help you (with the possible exception being critical darlings Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy). Besides which, it’s not like there isn’t already a metric buttload of advice out there for how to succeed on the Internet (including from Kurtz and Guigar themselves); as Kurtz himself would likely admit, the trick is convincing them they need it.

On the flip side, webcomics hosting sites like Keenspot have clearly played a vital role in webcomics history, and given the syndicates’ resources that may be a direction in which they can survive and thrive. Already most newspaper comics have their archives freely available online, such that to someone who doesn’t read a newspaper (an inexorably growing group), there’s not much difference between a newspaper comic strip and a webcomic, between a webcomic host and a syndicate. In fact, syndicates were such early adopters of the web it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t figured this out already.

A smart syndicate would be looking at the business models of such webcomic hosting sites and preparing for a future where they make money primarily by splitting advertising and merchandise revenue with cartoonists. The most directly comparable outfit would probably be Keenspot, which reserves its hosting only for the best, most popular comics, with the hoi polloi posting their comics to the lesser sister site Comic Genesis. In this vein, it’s worth noting Keenspot’s attempt to effectively shut down some years ago. Because a cartoonist can set up their own site, their own ads, and their own merchandise without splitting revenue with anyone else, syndicates need to “offer new and better reasons not to go it alone”, as Scott McCloud puts it (referring to comic book companies) in Reinventing Comics.

There are two important advantages a syndicate can offer a potential webcomic creator. One, syndicates can take on the burden of promoting a comic, both by bringing it under a larger brand along with all the other comics under the banner, and by (if necessary) promoting it outside that banner. Two, syndicates can handle the production, sale, and distribution of merchandise from a comic, something that the existence of outfits like Topatoco suggest a clear demand (and need) for. This latter point would allow a motivation for a popular comic to remain with the syndicate rather than branching out on their own, thus providing a draw that can be used to attract people to other comics.

By offering these two advantages, a syndicate can allow a cartoonist to focus their time on making their comic, while potentially delivering their work to a broader audience and – even with revenue splits – allowing them to make more money than they possibly could on their own, and allowing the syndicate to survive and thrive in the age of the Internet. Whatever they do, however, it should be obvious by the many years of handwringing over the future of newspapers that syndicates, like many outfits, need to adapt or die. And if they’re not interested in taking on the services of Kurtz and Guigar, let alone little old me, might I suggest Robert Khoo?

The Future of Content, Part II: The End of Television (Or, Has ESPN – And Everyone Else in the Sports TV Wars – Already Lost the Future?)

By 2050, television as we know it now may be a thing of the past.

Of course, we said the same thing about movies when TV itself came along, which is why I don’t want to make it a definite. But here’s the difference: everyone who brings you television is jumping headfirst into this future like lemmings off a cliff (aside from the negative connotations of that analogy). TV manufacturers now allow you to watch YouTube and other Internet videos, cable companies now heavily emphasize their “on-demand” offerings, and three of the four major television networks have teamed up to put virtually all their shows on the Hulu website. All of these have the effect of rendering superfluous the traditional network schedule. You don’t need to wait for a programmer to tell you when to watch an episode of your favorite show; you can watch it when (and where) you want.

Of course, if this renders the traditional network schedule obsolete, it shouldn’t take much to see that it renders the networks themselves obsolete as well. The networks exist because in order for a TV program to exist in the past, it needed to be broadcast at a certain time for people to see it, and spectrum – broadcast or satellite – was limited enough that networks were needed to clear time for those programs. Now, to someone who watches their favorite programs on Hulu or “on demand”, the association of a program with a network seems arbitrary at best. At some point, watching shows on the Internet could become mainstream (and profitable) enough that producers – possibly even including major studios, even those associated with networks – may increasingly forego distribution via the networks and set up their own Web sites for distribution of their shows, or otherwise distribute through YouTube or other such sites – a process already in its infancy. (And I’m still convinced HTML5 will eventually make sites like YouTube obsolete too.)

One aspect of television programming, however, will be resistant to this process. Most TV programs do not have a particular reason to be broadcast at a particular time, but live events are inherently restricted by when they happen. The process of moving to the Internet has begun here too, as streaming capabilities are popping up all over, but it is an order of magnitude more technically advanced and needs to be able to deal with a large number of people accessing the stream at once in order to catch on – we’re a long way away from the Super Bowl being able to move exclusively to streaming.

But once it does happen, the networks will be completely superfluous here too, as teams and leagues decide to cut out the middleman and produce their own streams of all their events. It’s an open question whether they’ll want to, as they’ll no longer get the extensive rights fees the networks pay them and may have to take on the cost of production themselves, but sports events are loss leaders for the broadcast networks, their sizable audience usually failing to pay for the cost of production, and their point is mostly to direct that audience to other programming. Once that other programming dries up, the networks won’t be as interested in sports anymore. As for cable networks, much of the profit that comes from airing sports comes in the form of the mark-up on the subscriber fees they charge, something teams and leagues will want to get in on the action on, especially if those cable networks try to increasingly become streaming services.

In other words, as streaming becomes more technologically advanced and common, teams and leagues may increasingly decide they don’t need a sports network like ESPN and may decide to stream their events themselves. A streaming service like ESPN3 is little more than a middleman that degrades the brand of the teams or league and takes money that could go directly to the team or league. That explains why last year, the Outkick the Coverage blog could write a provocative post entitled “Why ESPN Has Already Lost the Future“, which explains the situation better than I do here, though I’m hesitant to say all this will happen within a decade.

But ESPN isn’t the only loser: every outlet that airs sports could find themselves left behind by teams and leagues increasingly deciding to go it alone. For the past year, I’ve been tracking the efforts of NBC, Fox, and others to challenge ESPN’s hegemony over the world of sports, when the same force that’s most likely to ultimately break that hegemony will render all their efforts in vain in the same fell swoop. As a result, there have been times when I’ve wondered whether any of it has really mattered, whether it’s all much ado about nothing.

There is one place where “networks” may still have a place, and that is in the coverage of breaking news (or even some form of newscast). But here, there’s not really that much difference between a news network (CNN, MSNBC, or Fox), a broadcast news agency (ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS), or things like the AP, the New York Times, USA Today, NPR, or even blogs. The Occupy Wall Street movement even set up its own UStream channel to control, to some extent, its own message and coverage of the protests.

As such, I think there will ultimately come a day where the medium of television itself will be rendered completely superfluous and will be folded into the larger Internet. I see a day where “televisions” are sold that are really super-large netbooks adapted for video, streaming and otherwise. I see a day where the FCC ultimately decides that broadcast spectrum is an artifact of the twentieth century that is mostly going unwatched and reclaims all of the remaining spectrum, with most of it going towards providing free wireless Internet, and (I hope) a good chunk of it being reserved to improve the streaming capabilities of the entire Internet.

And I see a day where we gather around and tell our kids how, before there was the One Great Network, there was this “proto-Great Network” called television that ruled our lives for over half a century, just as the baby boomers heard about how their parents listened to the radio before there was television. Yes, television really did make another medium obsolete, which makes it all the more plausible it’ll now suffer the same fate.