This morning, I read something by Erik Larsen that has me thinking.
Given that the Image crew can be a lighting rod for controversy (not to mention how my own opinion of them as a group and individually has fluctuated, sometimes quite wildly, since 1992), I think it important to establish my feelings on Larsen. On the one hand, Larsen can be amazing. He's a comic fan who got lucky and hit it big and can't wait to help others buy the ticket and take the ride. The behind-the-scenes stories of the making of the comic book Ant paint a picture of a guy with a "I won't let you give up on yourself!" vibe that would make any empowered female TV drama green with envy. That said, he does enjoy honking people off. Is it intentional, or is he just outspoken and unaware when to reel it in? I have no idea (and I'm friends with someone who has worked with him professionally and jawed with him at cons as an acquaintence).
Larsen first set tempers ablaze with the infamous "Name Withheld" bullshit from around 1992. A LOC (letter of comment, for those of you who never had to deal with analog media like newspapers) appeared in the Comic Buyer's Guide, which basically aided and abetted a massive trolling raid -- CBG's policy was not to print any letters anonymously, they needed at least a name, but they bent the rules in this one instance (probably against their better judgment, once they saw the shitstorm that erupted from it). "Name Withheld" claimed that comic artists don't need writers as the artist is the one selling the book. This was treated as unrepentant arrogance and a number of people commented, and you could pretty much tell who was a writer and who was an artist based on what side of the debate they came down on. Even me -- I remember taking a few unrepentant shots at Larsen at the time. What? What makes me so sure Larsen was "Name Witheld"? I suspected it was one of the Image crew just because of timing. But for certain? I'm no industry pro, not even then, but industry pros love to gossip. And everyone pretty much knew who "Name Withheld" was as soon as the topic paragraph was reached. From there, everyone dropped enough hints that, if you read closely, you could piece it together. And if you think I'm wrong, I will point out that, shortly after the Image launch, Don Simpson (Megaton Man) did a comic called Splitting Image that goofed on the creation of Image. The character that would have corresponded with Erik Larsen was a cypher identified as "Name Withheld". I rest my case.
Larsen's boisterousness has landed him in hot water both socially (Name Withheld) and legally (Neil Gaiman got a judgment against him after Larsen jumped into the "Who owns Marvelman/ Miracleman quagmire). And despite his bending over backwards to help people hit it big (he was publisher when PvP got picked up by Image, his assistance with Ant, etc.), he also has a very tough reputation among people in the trenches (one guy at C2E2 flat out stated that he believed Larsen was the one who ultimately stopped Quantum Redshift from being accepted for publication). So either Larsen has one massive image problem (grin) or he is as flawed as any of us, it's just more tempting to call him on it because he makes it too tempting to ignore him.
This is just to establish that I honestly have no axe to grind with the guy. For example, the whole point of "Name Withheld". Yeah, I thought that was bullshit, but the fact is, at the time, he was 100% right. People didn't really follow the writers as enthusiastically as they did the artists. The dynamic has flipped now, with names like Millar, Bendis, and other writers being what everyone talks about in comics and the artists being supplimental. But at the time, yes. Image was founded by a bunch of people who sold comics based on how they drew. Several writers tried starting their own companies at about the same time (Gorilla Comics) and saw their dreams crash and burn. Right, wrong, or indifferent, that was just how it was at the time.
Now, Larsen is getting some people's delicates in a twist over his recent blog post on CBR. He wrote:
"Every crappy submission can 'see print' on the web -- every reprint book that would sell three copies in print would work on the web. The web is the great equalizer. Every crappy thing can get tossed up there. If it all went digital nothing separates a pro from an amateur. Print is far more discriminating. There are fixed costs which can't be ignored for long. It's not the wild west like the Internet is. That's why the web doesn't excite me a whole lot. Every nitwit can put stickmen telling fart jokes up -- there's nothing special about it."
Now, keeping in mind that I have stated flat out and repeatedly to several people, including people on my f-list here (both in private messages and in my blog posts) that I don't consider my work on Stress Puppy all that special because any mope can do a web comic. Yes, my opinion is just like Larsen's.
I haven't really thought about the web comic thing in a while, I've been too focused trying to make headway with my comics. And the thing is, I've sort of had a change of heart. Not a complete change of heart, mind you, but sort of. And I think it has to do with a few things Larsen is overlooking.
See, I'm a lot like most people. Self-publishing isn't enough. It just doesn't have the legitimacy that getting some big company whose job is to find and promote new talent saying they think you got the stuff has. Hey, I have a book published and several comics! Yeah. Big deal, I'm doing it myself. I have yet to convince an editor or publisher that I know my shit.
Oh, wait. Yes, I have! I had a few things published through Alterna Press while working with Hard Way Studios. The Morbid Myths Halloween Special 2007 saw actual print, and the 2008 edition, plus the first issue of the never-completed Final Shadows saw online release. So there we go, a publisher who liked what I had written enough to roll the dice on it. Atomic Pop Art was onboard for The Supremacy. Stress Puppy was a regular feature on the Hard Way Studio web site, and they talked it up every chance they got. Isadoo Publishing liked my style and technique enough to make me a regular contributor to Video Game Trader magazine, both in reviews and feature articles.
I was so anxious and desperate for those credits. It wasn't so much that I thought it would change my life, but because I wanted, for lack of a better phrase, character references. Every time you talk to a publisher at a higher strata than you are currently at, they tell you you need experience. They want to make sure they can count on you to deliver quality work in a timely manner.
Well, guess what? That's a bunch of crapola.
So many writers and artists can't hit deadlines. Joe Quesada, the current EIC of Marvel, bragged that he never once made a deadline. Several books from DC's Final Crisis and Blackest Night and The Return Of Bruce Wayne shipped late, blowing the big surprise twists happening in connected titles. Mark Millar, one of the biggest names writing comics today, blows lots of deadlines. I remember how furious I was over Ultimate Hulk Vs. Wolverine. Written by a guy who also wrote for lost, it was over a year between issues #2 and #3. They tell me they want someone they know can make deadlines, and this guy is kept on the title?!? What the fuck?!?
The comic industry at the pro level likes character references, but not as far as how professionally you do your job. Editors nowadays want someone who functions as an extension of themselves. They want to see that you would write, draw, color, whatever a comic the same way they would. All the indie credits in the world don't mean jack shit in those circles.
So, "professional" credits are useless. Now, let's take a look at my self-published stuff. One studio saw me talking about Hannah Singer and said, "Oh, you're a writer?" and wanted to see my stuff. No, nothing came of it. Archie was impressed enough with Sound Waves that I almost got in as a freelance writer. No, nothing came of it. Quantum Redshift got Zenescope to ask to see writing samples from me. No, nothing came of it (so far, but let's face it, it hasn't even been a month).
These publishing ventures, self-published projects, have gotten me a lot more attention and interest from editors and publishers than anything I ever did with an "official" stamp of approval. Why is that? No clue. Maybe because they see me doing something different. These places see thousands of submissions for things they already do. Which means they know how to make it work and can pick up on any subtleties in your work that will actually be detrimental to whatever they are considering you for. But taking a side road? They think about how you can fit, not how you are fitting at that moment with something they already do. Maybe. Like I said, I don't know. But the fact is, I'm at least getting my foot in the door and getting attention even if I'm not getting actual deals.
All by doing something anybody can do.
It's only technically true that anybody can do a web comic. I mean, just because you get published it doesn't mean your stuff is automatically great. Likewise, publishing yourself doesn't automatically mean your a loser and no one would dare touch your stuff. The converse is true -- just because you self-publish doesn't mean you are an unappreciated artistic genius, either. But it's like the comedy circuit or rock clubs. These little venues, where you are usually playing only to fellow heads, helps you hone your talents and your craft. You develop the skills that can help you move forward, and, if you're lucky, maybe even something that can break through to the big time. There are lots of crap web comics out there, no argument from me. Looking For Group or the self-satisfied masturbation of Megatokyo come to mind. But they aren't all automatically crap. User Friendly, PvP up until relatively recently, the first few years of Sabrina Online, web comics give creators a chance to stretch their wings. And because the cost is so low, they can chase their muse until they catch it and see if it's worthwhile. Sound Waves was a series I couldn't wait to just get over and done with so I could move on until I discovered the angle of focusing on the friendship between Rhapsody and Melody. Now, I can't wait to keep it going (and for some stories that focus primarily on Rhapsody instead of her and Melody together, it feels very odd working on them).
In Rattatouie, there's a great line, "I still don't believe anyone can be a great artist. But a great artist can come from anywhere." And web comics are one such place. Just because something is common, easy, and readily available doesn't mean that anyone who employs it is worthless. It all comes down to what they do with it. Can they make something worthwhile? I've created things that are worthwhile to other people. And their reactions are not diminished in the least by the do it yourself nature of self-publishing. They just don't care. All they care about is how much they love Rhapsody and Melody. How much they identify with Amber's inner turmoil. How they know just how Raff and/or Holly feel. How they hope to exhibit the strength, intelligence, ingenuity, and bravery of Hannah Singer.
Web comics only matter if you let them. Ultimately, the work should speak for itself, not how the work gets out there. Here endeth the lesson....