Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Online Comics: The End of a Nerd's Dream?

Well, before anything, I must admit that I feel like somewhat of a 'tool bag' because I, too, happened to read the I Can't Stop Thinking! series by Scott McCloud. However, instead of discussing the application of "trails" in online comics, I would like to explore the effects of comics' new medium (i.e. the internet) on not only the genre as a whole, but the culture, too.

Though the series in general provides plenty of 'fodder' for my argument, issue #2 (so to call it) had got me thinking on this subject in the first place. The others, however, still gave me some food for thought.

To illustrate the benefits of moving comics to the internet, McCloud uses the music industry as an analogy, citing the vast options that one can find on an online music store as compared to your local music store. Now, fans of any music genre imaginable can find their fix: rap, techno, Russian folk, whatever. Accordingly, he continues with this analogy by bringing it into the world of comics; he argues that the internet will not only provide budding artists/authors with a place to display their work, but it will also expand comics' potential audience altogether.

Of course, this makes sense in the financial and creative realm of comics. McCloud admits that "comics currently only speaks [sic] to one out of a thousand potential readers." He also mentions how the internet greatly simplifies the production of comics. Thus, it would prove both beneficial and economical for them to move to the internet. This begs the question, though: what will this do comics in print and the culture that accompanies it?

To start with it effects on comics in print, I'd like to address his analogy of how the comic industry only selects the comics it knows will sell. More often than not, there's a reason these comics make it to print: they're good. Not only that, but the process of making a comic book is undoubtedly arduous and trying; take the mad (in that good, awe-inspiring sort of way) work Jimmy Corrigan. Will a comic book store keep comics around because they'll sell? Of course, this is capitalism we're talking about, after all; however, that should not distract us from the fact that the internet can marginalize an entire industry just as much as it can contribute to it. To work with the same analogy as McCloud, let's consider the current status of the music industry. Has it made a wider variety of music available to the public? Certainly. At the same time, though, networks like MySpace and Pure Volume have watered down the music industry to the point that I'm constantly bombarded by the work of every ass-hat that can incomprehensibly attempt to strum a G chord. What's more, programs such as Pro Tools have radically simplified, but arguably harmed, the extensive work that goes into making music.

Alright, I'm straying away from my focus a bit with this analogy, and I'm approaching my word limit here, but as Freddy Mercury always sang in that charming voice, "Don't Stop Me Now." (What's a blog entry without a good Queen reference?)

To take the 'trail' back to comics, namely Jimmy Corrigan, the expansion of the comic realm to the internet weakens the effect of a deliberately crafted masterpiece such as this. Yes, the internet allows the artist a wider realm of creative expression, but I would like to argue that the true, perhaps truer (if I may be so bold) creativity lies in one's ability to invent within a frame that tends to be rather rigid and confining--just as Ware does in his work. To make use of a wider range of options is a convenience; to redefine those options is unique. As our narrator says in Jimmy Corrigan, "With the inevitable forward march of progress come new ways of hiding things, and new things to hide." In the context of this post, I believe we are hiding or, rather, suppressing the potential of an art form.

Finally, I'd like to consider the cultural ramifications of this movement to the internet. Ok, I'm a pretty nerdy guy. Comics aren't exactly my thing, but I play imported, off-beat video games, I watch animated shows (both cartoons and anime) and I know useless trivia about things that should probably be filled with more useful knowledge. In other words, I know what it's like to be a fan of something "niche." McCloud argues that the internet would allow comics to open up to a whole new range of people and cuts the need for various production steps. What I want to know, though, is this: do we really want that? What I'm talking about is the marginalization of comics in an entirely different way; a push to make comics 'normal'. Ultimately, though, isn't the very essence of something "niche" the fact that it caters to a smaller audience? Consider the way a legitimate copy of Spiderman #1 acts as a status symbol amongst comic fans. Sure, maybe you've read it a couple times, but do you own it? In the preface to Jimmy Corrigan, we see that Ware admits to the cult status of comics at the time and that he wants to alter that. But at what point will the audience become so large that the industry can only be sustained by "crowd pleasers?" Is it not the "Comic Book Guy" and dedicated readers of comics that appreciate the meaning and woefully pathetic character that is Jimmy? Essentially, it seems as if, by catering to the interest of a new crowd, we are ostracizing the very crowd that kept comics alive in the first place.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

There are many thing to respond to here. I'm rushing, so I'll focus on one in particular, something which I actually talked about (or rather, I talked about a similar idea) the last time I taught JC.

"I would like to argue that the true, perhaps truer (if I may be so bold) creativity lies in one's ability to invent within a frame that tends to be rather rigid and confining--just as Ware does in his work."

I'm with you on this, and on your later critique of where the culture is heading. Yes, we get a "big choice" (Clerks reference) when we shop at an online music store (I've discovered Indian classical music in online stores), but as far as new music emerging from the internet, we mostly get variations on the same commercial schlock that the record companies love. Choice is a good, but it's not the same as innovation, and many choices is not the same as good choices.

Which takes me back to your point. The idea of comics as a restrictive medium is obviously engaging with what Ware is doing, especially by choosing small pages rather than expansive ones. It's the rough equivalent of The Faerie Queene, which is hundreds of pages of interconnected sonnets. A changing literary and print culture has made is pretty inconceivable for anyone to actually do something like The Faerie Queene. I fear that McCloud's leap to the internet will lead to watered-down, streamlined work with a mass appeal, and no space for a Chris Ware.