I'm excited to see the new documentary, "Stripped," and will probably purchase it on iTunes unless I can wait until the showing at the Kansas City Film Festival next week. I can tell just by looking at the trailer that the film is going to prompt some interesting discussion.
Take, for example, the remark by Chris Hastings that "it's actually about independent artists vs. artists working for a corporation."
(Hastings draws the enormously popular and original Dr. McNinja, which combines the visual impact of a classic action comic book with the offbeat humor and quirky sensibility of a webcomic. I have a signed copy of "The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, Vol. 1" and am a big fan.)
Chris's statement places cartoonists into two camps, print/syndication vs. web/self-syndication, and hints at a struggle between old and new; aka the little guy vs. the "big corporation." A rousing and familiar narrative, to be sure, but is it really that cut and dry? Do all newspaper cartoonists sit in an office building and slave away at their comics while smug guys in suits siphen away the proceeds, while on the other side of town hip, young dudes and ladies kick back in a loft space, draw their strip whenever they please, upload to the web and watch the money roll in?
In both cases, the artists operate as individuals, working from home, a studio, or on the road, and keeping their own schedule. The difference between a syndicated cartoonist and a web cartoonist is that the syndicated cartoonist makes a business arrangement with the syndicate, hiring them to create sales kits and marketing materials, personally present it to newspaper editors and publishers with whom they have relationships, bill clients for their costs, promote the strip, negotiate book and calendar deals, identify licensing possibilities, handle permissions queries, introduce the strip to international clients/partners, handle processing and distribution of the files themselves, and answer client questions, sales queries, media requests, etc.
The cartoonist, meanwhile, is (ideally) able to focus on writing and drawing the strip itself, though of course they do have input and awareness of the other aspects as well.
Web cartoonists, on the other hand, are responsible for all aspects of their property, including writing/illustrating/publishing the strip, marketing and promoting it, and creating products such as books, prints, t-shirts or other merch to create revenue. While it sounds like a wonderfully simple and direct model of doing business, any successful web cartoonist will tell you that it's not as easy as it looks. You have to invent a unique, entertaining, successful feature to attract an audience, create a system for creating, selling and shipping merchandise, be your own communications rep / brand ambassador / director of marketing, and probably lots of other important things that I'm leaving out.
People like Chris Hastings, the creators of PvP, Questionable Content, Penny Arcade, Hark! A Vagrant and other successful webcomics demonstrate a crazy amount of discipline and hard-work, wearing many different hats in order to run what amount to successful, multi-faceted businesses. But not every cartoonist is interested in or capable of running that kind of an operation, especially when they've got daily deadlines to meet.
When I talked with former Universal Uclick president Lee Salem, editor of Doonesbury, Calvin & Hobbes and others, about how cartooning has changed in his career, he said he believed gatekeepers still have a role to play. The Web is wide open to anyone with a unique voice and a specific concept, but when it comes to identifying the kinds of features that might resonate with a wide audience, syndicates are in an extraordinarily good position to help the cartoonist reach those audiences. If Calvin was just starting out today, Salem said, he believes Bill Watterson would still work with a syndicate.
As for what the future holds for cartooning, I certainly don't have any more answers than the next guy. Newspapers look like they'll be around for a while yet, yet it's undeniable that most of the new, interesting, fun stuff to read is found exclusively on the web — free of the language, content and space restrictions of traditional newspaper strips.
Our flagship site, GoComics, manages to merge the best of both worlds, with syndicated strips running alongside independent creators who benefit from GoComics' visiblity and reach in order to develop their own voices, audiences and brands. It's a great starting point (and daily destination) for someone who wants to get started exploring comics on the web. But of course there's an abundance of comics worth exploring all over the web.
So, that's a bit of initial rhapsodizing heading into my first viewing of "Stripped" ... The only thing I know for sure is that syndicates wouldn't be here if it weren't for the incredible gifts and talents of our cartoonists. I also believe that truly unique writing paired with original art will always manage to find an audience, whether online or in print. Beyond that, it's anybody's guess what the future of cartooning holds.
I commend the directors of "Stripped" for their efforts in presenting such a well-researched conversation about the comics biz, and I look forward to hearing others' experiences and ideas as well.
(More an informative preview of the film and its content, check out this write-up on boingboing)