The Comic Strip as Model in the Digital Age

I just watched a fun little documentary film called Stripped (2014) made by David Kellett and Frederick Schroeder about comic strip creators. The film features interviews with veteran artists whose careers were born in the syndicated market as well as contemporary cartoonists whose work never graced a newspaper but instead found an audience in cyberspace. Every artist interviewed generally seemed to agree (editing notwithstanding) that the digital revolution resulted in an explosion of fresh, bold creative work in the medium and even provided a path for both new and established artists to make some kind of living in response to the shrinking newspaper market. Although Greg Evans, creator of Luan, does say that the Web is “pennies to the syndicate’s dollars,” several voices in the film did echo most, if not all, of the major talking points that critics like me tend to ascribe solely to those “tech-utopians” we like to remind our readers are not creators themselves.

These comic strip artists talked about adaptation, new models, new revenue streams, P2P relationships, the whole shebang. And I admit that I haven’t thought about comic strips in years because it’s been that long since I last spread a Sunday Times across the dining table. (Plus, I’m not really over the demise of Bloom County.) But having watched this film, it makes a certain amount of sense that the comic strip might (and I mean might) fare better in the digital age than other media. Or to look at it another way, what can work well for comic strips is instructive with regard to what does not work for other media, including of course comic books and graphic novels, which are different animals altogether.

As I say, I hadn’t thought much about this medium in this context, but several qualities unique to the comic strip do seem well suited by the new-model mantras of our times. In fact, the first image that popped into my head was one of those spreadsheets used to compare and contrast products or services. While there are always exceptions, if we’re going to consider these columns honestly in a way that reflects general rules, this is how it might look:

Comics Comparison

Each of the media listed might theoretically receive a check in every box, but I think it’s notable that comic strips seem to run the table, at least from a casual observation. Stripped also highlights a tradition of adaptation among these artists, citing the interesting fact that  the comic strip as a medium was the result of a class of talented book engravers put out of work by the invention of photography. And though the digital revolution may require some adapting by the contemporary comic strip creator, it does seem less like the kind of radical and unsustainable metamorphosis our new-age gurus presume to demand of creators in other media.

Comic strips are serial in nature, traditionally change daily, and are short-form experiences, which are all attractive qualities to a Web-based audience one hopes to draw consistently to a single site. Comics are also typically produced by a single creator who almost never relies on skilled outside labor to complete the work. And because comics create unique, iconic images, they are natural foundations for potential merchandise opportunities that can become primary rather than ancillary sources of revenue. Fan interaction is, of course, possible with any medium, but based on what I gleaned from the documentary, I got the sense of a natural symbiosis between creating a daily dose of humor or poignancy and regular interaction with loyal readers.

Overall, the qualities of the comic strip that seem to complement the opportunities of the digital age also appear to make them resistant to the threat of the digital age — piracy. And I imagine comics could be relatively piracy resistant, inasmuch as there is no inherent reason a fan won’t go to an official site to see the day’s strip rather than an unlicensed site, when both options are free and equally accessible. Nevertheless, some “fans” still fail to honor artist’s requests to not repost works without permission; and predatory site owners do scrape official comics hosts just as they do with photographs, lyrics, or just about any other asset they can use to siphon web traffic that a creator has legitimately earned for herself.

This is relevant because so many of the new-model theories presuming to tell creators how they should produce and distribute their works are repeated either as justifications for piracy or as proposed workarounds to render piracy irrelevant. Yet, we continue to see that even as low-cost or free alternatives for accessing media are employed, either outright pirate sites or semi-legal predatory sites continue to hijack valuable traffic away from producers. Meanwhile, even if the comic strip artist does prove to be one of the best poised to diversify and take advantage of the digital revolution, the piracy apologists and “copyright is dead” crowd remain eager to cut off alternative revenue sources, like merchandising, which would be meaningless without a legal framework for licensing.

No question the comic strip is an interesting medium to watch, but there are a lot of assumptions floating around out there that what might work for one medium or creator will work for all others, and this simply isn’t the case.

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