Webcomics, a Young Person’s Game?on June 5, 2014 at 10:39 am
When I was younger, I remember meeting an older guy at a comics convention. He had a strip that looked like a poorly done and blatant ripoff of Peanuts. He was complaining that he’d been doing it every day for 15 years and no one wanted to pick it up. He felt he deserved a career due to all the hard work he put into this strip. I wanted to tell him that there’s no such thing as seniority in comics. People buy your comics because they like it and connect with it. The fact that you’ve been doing it for 15 years is a complete non sequitur. Instead of telling him these things, I just shook my head and walked away feeling sorry for the old man. But I was secretly heartened by that fact that the wisdom of the market had not rewarded this guy for his amateurish and poorly done comics. The art form, I felt, was about as pure a meritocracy as could be had.
15 years later, I am that sad old man. Although it would be nice, my 15 year body of work, my Ignatz and Eisner awards, and ultimately my name mean nothing to a new reader. If I’d gotten a degree from CCS, that piece of paper wouldn’t mean anything either. All that really matters, I feel, is what’s on the page. If it’s gripping and captivating, looks somewhat appealing then people will want to read it. Unlike other industries, I can’t just put in 30 years and ride it out. I have to prove myself on the page every single freakin’ day for the thin trickle of readers that come to my site (thank you by the way!)
I’ve been wondering lately if we have a youth problem in webcomics. I’m almost 40 and man, I’m really feeling my age! Having a baby is like living with a colony of parasites slowly sucking the time and energy from my life. Plus mastering tumblr and pintarest and understanding these kids today with their tweets and uplikes, feels like navigating some martian landscape. Even in terms of interests, I feel webcomics caters to the stuff young people are into like video games, dating and breakups, friendship and ninjas. But it ignores the stuff that occupy the lives of older people like the unending dreary monotony of parenthood, suicide fantasies, existential dread and slowly watching all your friends and family wither away and die.
The frictionless meritocracy that is comics make up an amazing employment model for the few at the top, but a hellish landscape for the majority just scraping by. Cruelest for those getting just a little taste of success, an Ignatz nomination here, a part in an anthology there. Unlike some Texas high school football player who have their dreams crushed at age 18, cartoonists are floated along by other cartoonists, coworkers and friends who aren’t Calista Brill. Then one day they wake up in their late 30’s broke, with no family or marketable skills while their graduating class are just entering their peak earning years. They’ve walked too far down the plank to turn back. There’s an angry mob of cutlass wielding pirates 3 feet back and man eating sharks on either side, so they continue walking towards their eventual doom in the black waters of the open ocean. Literally (in my opinion).
Of course I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Cartoonists have a broad but very deep skill set: concise writing, drawing fast, staging visual concepts in a clear manner. There’s actually lot’s of great employment opportunities for older cartoonists… like teaching comics. Kidding aside, I have noticed a lot of cartoonists going into animation these days, like John Pham, Derek Kirk Kim, Hellen Jo and other cartoonists who learned how to draw.
As for myself, I’m pretty much in this for life. Despite all the frustration and misery comics has caused, it’s also the source of everything joyous and good in my life. I met my wife through comics. Comics has brought me to the top of the Eiffel tower (metaphorically speaking: it was actually hella expensive to get on the elevator). My partner, my son and my closest friendships are all in my life because of comics. Although, if I want to peek even further into my own future, I should probably check in on that sad old man.