Future Schlock

Hey, there’s another webcomics business-model brouhaha on the internets! Valerie D’Orazio got the latest snowball rolling down the mountain with this post at Occasional Superheroine, in which she predicts that Big Media will take over webcomics and find a way to monetize them:

1) If I was DC or Marvel (or any other media company), I’d pinpoint what the top 5% webcomics are. Offer those web cartoonists competitive exclusive distribution deals that includes a health insurance component. Then make a subscription-based site offset by sales of hard copies and merchandise.

An essential part of her argument is that the Big Two convey “authoritativeness,” versus the “amateur” status of most webcomics. In fact, she sees this happening with the internet in general:

The media companies are going to push “Authoritative” vs. “Amateur” within two years. Look for an all-out assault on the authority of blogs that are not connected with one media group or another. Look for the top-of-the-top independent blogs to get bought up by media companies. Look for an all-out assault on the credibility of Wikipedia.

D’Orazio seems to have missed several fundamental points. Yes, I want my hard information to come from a reliable source, and big institutions do convey that, but I want my entertainment to be just the opposite. Big Media produces bland, commercial crap (i.e., Garfield). Individual creators produce innovative, funny, comics (xkcd).

Furthermore, D’Orazio, a former DC editor who now writes for Marvel, has her head so far into the superhero world that she doesn’t seem to realize that the vast majority of comics readers don’t give a crap about superheroes, and that putting a DC or Marvel imprimatur on it would be a negative, not a selling point.

She also doesn’t seem to realize that those top webcomics bring in serious money, and several creators show up right away in comments to make that point. Here’s Howard Tayler, talking about how Schlock Mercenary has been very, very good to him:

My income is sufficient to feed a family of six, pay off a mortgage, and both cars (bought brand new) are now paid for. We’ve got health insurance, life insurance, and gym memberships.

Also, you probably haven’t heard of me. Think about that for a moment… I’m doing all that, and you haven’t heard of me. Who ELSE haven’t you heard of? Just how big IS this thing?

If Marvel or DC stops in to buy me out in five years, they won’t be able to afford me. I have no need nor desire to sell, so the price will be quite high indeed.

Several others echo his point, but Valerie just keeps repeating, louder and louder, that eventually they will have to come around, because she’s trending it out. It’s not that she wants that to happen, but the Big Media Cabal has decided they are going to do this and that’s that.

The comments thread is really very interesting and a worthwhile read for those who follow the business side of things. Also worth a click is Joey Manley’s response, which demolishes her arguments pretty efficiently:

Another truth: there are new “top” webcomics launching every day. It’s a slippery and ambitious field, with new xkcds popping up at an alarming (or delightful) rate and proceeding to take over the world. I picked xkcd as my example on purpose, by the way: what DC or Marvel editor would have picked that one up? No DC or Marvel editor would have, especially if he or she only had the first month or two of strips to go by. And the people who discovered xkcd and made it a hit? Most of them, I’ll wager, weren’t comic book readers, and would have been immune to any “anti-amateur” campaign waged by Marvel and DC’s PR machines. (I mean, come on: it’s stick figures for God’s sake).

I get that superhero readers like having that world, with the Big Corporation as the roof over a solid stable of characters that stay in predictable formats and genres. The thing is, that’s a small world and most of us don’t live in it. My daughters went through a huge manga phase, my nephew enjoys Amelia Rules, my husband reads a ton of webcomics, including Something Positive, Girl Genius, and Questionable Content, NPR listeners read Fun Home and Persepolis, your parents probably still read Blondie in the newspaper. I cover all sorts of comics for a bunch of different outlets. None of us ever cracks a Marvel or DC book, however, because superheroes are completely inaccessible to us: the art is too dense and the overlapping universes and interweaving storylines are too complicated. Webcomics actually offer a way out of this, which Manley hinted at in a second post:

Since the core premise of her post seems to be, “What I would do about the Internet business challenge if I ran a big mainstream comics company, like Marvel or DC,” lemme think about that. What would I do?

Hm.

Here’s what I’d do.

I’d post all the backlist online for free, stopping short a year or two from the present.

I’d geo-target the heck out of visitor’s IP addresses and give free banner ads to retailers in the areas where those people live.

I (and the retailers) would sell buttloads of trade paperbacks collecting those storylines.

Making the history more accessible could actually bring new readers into the fold, although they would still have to have a high tolerance for complicated continuity. Another possibility would be for the Big Two to make less complicated, more accessible webcomics involving their properties, to get people interested in the characters. That would be leveraging the new technology in a way that would serve your own commercial interests, without having to go all robber-baron and take it over.

Or as Gary Tyrell put it in his brief comment at Fleen:

If her merging of Big Media and webcomics does occur in whatever future timeframe, it won’t be because Big Media bought out webcomics — it’ll be the other way around.

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2 thoughts on “Future Schlock

  1. Nice write-up Brigid. (Yes, I found this while doing the weekly ego-surf via technorati.com)

    I didn’t try to follow the brouhaha after posting a couple of times. It became apparent that it wasn’t a discussion, it was a dogpile.

  2. Thanks, Howard. I agree that it degenerated pretty quickly, but the most interesting thing to me was seeing what you and the other creators had to say about the real (not theoretical) economic model of webcomics.

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