Episode 86: Can There Be a Webcomic without an Author?

Thanks to one of the most recent installments of xkcd’s “what if” section, I have been including the term “gendankenexperiment” into my regular conversations. (check out how bouncy balls can be an instrument of death here http://what-if.xkcd.com/52/) This is the German word for thought experiments , as made famous by Albert Einstein when he would create hypothetical scenarios that would come to redefine our understanding of the universe. Today’s post fleshes out my most recent gendanken, in an attempt to further organize some ideas that have been ruminating for a while and to show people that some actual dissertation writing is taking place. My previous posts dealt with authorship and the author function, through Aristotle, Barthes, and Foucault and how they explained the presence/absence of the Author in our thinking around a text. This got me thinking about my own area of expertise, and how webcomics and other forms of digital publication use different kinds of author models, potentially even one without an author per se. Let’s put our thinking hats on and try, shall we?

First off, everything ever done has an author. Creator or point of origin are loaded terms that bring about more complicated concepts as to how nothing can exist without something beforehand making it possible. I am not fan of using the term emitter as per basic linguistics because I believe that the task of putting something into a particular form (in the case of my area of study, narrative) in a way that has a lot more effort than just conveying information. While a lot of the webcomic cartoonist do both the writing and the artwork, I hesitate to use the term artist (although I think all of them are) because this will always lead to an unnecessary debate as to what can be art. I’ve had my fair share of discussions as to whether webcomics fall under “art” or “literature” but most will at least accept that they fall under “narrative” so I analyze them as such.

For webcomics, the term author is a lot more encompassing than in other media. They are often one person operations, with the same individual being in charge or writing the story, drawing the panels, uploading them, creating and maintaining the website, marketing them through social media and conventions, and probably run the merchandise part of your sales as well. Only a handful of people get to claim that their webcomics are the sole source of their income, and many of the more professional ones employ some extra people to help with the workload. Most budding webcomic cartoonists that have to struggle with trying to lift off beyond the status of “hobby” or “side work”, barely have enough time and resources to fulfill all of these authorial responsibilities. In addition to all of these labors, your readers expect a presence from you. Let me go through the top webcomics in my feed and tell you how the author functions in each of them vary.

 

Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew http://www.giantitp.com/index.html

To say that I love this webcomic is an understatement of Xykon level proportions. This was my first foray into active digital serialization and large percentage of my master’s thesis is written about Burlew and his work. Still, Burlew the man is not a vocal figure in his work, especially over the second half of his now ten year webcomic endeavor. He rarely heads to conventions, has several moderators for the 70,000+ registered forumites (both for content and technical issues), blog points in the main page are spaced out in months, and the FAQ hasn’t been updated since 2005! The times when Burlew was most active directly towards the readership was during his epic Kickstarter drive that raked in over one million dollars (the original goal was 50k) where he provided almost daily updates and even mini comics in the process. His recent injury to his thumb on his drawing hand was another moment when he step in front of the curtain and explain that there would not be any updates for a while due to this occurrence. Burlew recently started a Twitter account but uses it mostly to indicate when new updates are published. Still, Burlew has been doing this for more than a decade and has a very well established and growing readership, so the added authorial job of creating and fostering a community is no longer necessary. A lot of the extra information and behind the scenes action towards his writing process can be found in a lot of the author commentaries that are in the print compilations and print only books out there.

 

Erfworld by Robert Balder with art Jaime Noguchi (book one) and Xin Ye (book two) http://www.erfworld.com/

Erfworld provides an interesting example of how collaborative authorship is strictly defined between writer and artist and what happens when new artists enter the fray. Starting in 2006, Rob Balder and Jaime Noguchi piggybacked off Burlew’s site for uploading installments until the end of book one. Rob is a very vocal author and will regularly go out to cons, participate in forum debates, and even sell his dignity through Kickstarter. I personally owe Balder a lot, as he was the one that first suggested that I study microserialization and how it affects narrative production during a forum discussion on how to use webcomics for my MA thesis. After book one, Jaime left and one of the fans, Xin Ye, became the new artist and the style change is very evident. One potential in story reasoning behind this is that Parson Gotti’s actions are literally reshaping the world. The two pronged approach to authorship has some issues. First off, Balder seems to have primacy of authorship, as blog updates for different installments are done by him, he is the one that mostly goes to conventions, and runs the text only updates.

Goblins by Tarol Hunt (Thunt) http://www.goblinscomic.org/

If there was ever a webcomic cartoonist that I could actively call friendly toward his readership it has to Thunt of Goblins. The man literally owes the roof over his head to his readership and he knows it full well. Due to Canadian border weirdness, he does not travel to many conventions but makes up for it in other ways. First off, he is quite active on Twitter and he keeps us informed and various things relating to his webcomic and to his everyday life. He has opened up on blogs and forums about his personal life (good stuff and bad). Hell, I cheered when I read that he was going to propose to his longtime girlfriend (who helps with coloring and shading). Through his Tempts Fate campaign and most recently with Kickstarter, Thunt has gained a lot of financial support directly from his readership, to the point that he got the down payment for his house this way. He refers to his fans as his “E-maginary” friends and wants to stay close to them. Thunt has even extended an open invitation to any of his readers to spend the night on his couch should they are ever in the area. No joke, a couple of people have already asked and did indeed have some Goblins hospitality, even if Thunt was preparing a new installment at the time. Thunt has upgraded the level of direct interactivity between author and reader by often live streaming his drawing and coloring sessions through a webcam and even participates in the conversations with his fans.

Darth and Droids by The Comic Irregulars (Andrew Coker, Andrew Shellshear, David Karlov, David McLeish, David Morgan-Mar, Steven Irrgang.)  http://www.darthsanddroids.net/

I honestly had no idea who were the actual authors of this webcomic until I took a look at their FAQ page. I knew it was a conglomeration of people but six of them to make a screencap comic seems a bit too much. They basically take the Star Wars movies and put dialog bubbles over the stills of each of the movies (mostly in chronological order) to tell a different story. This one I don’t follow too closely but I know they have been doing this for years. Not much when it comes to cons and merchandise, in large part because the legal issues and potential lawsuits would be horrific, so they keep it as a parody. I have not seen much of authorial voice in forums or other sources but they do provide some good commentary in each installment about the tropes of storytelling and role playing games. The aside comments also give some extra detail as to different elements pertaining to narrative construction.

Penny Arcade by Mike “Gabe” Krahulik and Jerry “Tycho” Holkins http://penny-arcade.com/

Perhaps the most famous webcomic out there and has been for a number of years, Penny Arcade pretty much invented the genre of two guys hanging around talking about video games. Their success is enough that they actually employ about a dozen people, which doesn’t even include all the extra work they do for the Child’s Play charity (they give toys video games to kids in hospitals) and PAX (their own video game and comic book convention). From the standpoint of authorship, Penny Arcade is an interesting exception to the examples that I showed before. First off, Mike and Jerry are often tapped as the webcomics  ambassadors for all things nerdy, almost like standard-bearers for the geeky community, and they have done a good job at this for over a decade. They were even in Time magazine’s person of the year issue under entertainers. They are vocal and public to stand up for gamers and webcomic enthusiasts when they are unfairly portrayed in the media. In the actual webcomic, you see something a little different. If you go to the site the first thing you see is the blog/comment page where they explain the issues of the day and what the current installment is referencing. All of this is done through their author-avatars Gabe and Tycho. They are the protagonists of the webcomic itself as well as the digital expies of the authors.  A lot of readers and fans will probably recognize them by Gabe and Tycho rather than their real names (and not just because they are hard to spell). This isn’t just a nickname, it’s almost like a completely different identity which happens to have some overlap. Now I’m the first to admit that basically only go through their comics every few months and just binge on a bunch of installments, often times missing the point of many of the references and rarely if ever do I check out the blog posts. If any of the more dedicated and informed readership wish to correct me on any of these things, I invite you to correct me.

Other ones that I love but don’t really add to the above argument: 8-bit Theatre and PhD Comics are definitely worth a read. There are thousands upon thousands of other webcomics worth mentioning but I only feel confident talking about the above. Any other ones that you feel I should add to my reading list, especially in the weird forms of authorship department, please send them my way. If you can add your own explanation and examples as to why they are cool I would be eternally grateful. Each of them show different forms of the author function beyond textual production. Time for the gendanken.

Let’s try and imagine a webcomic without any of the above factors. I’m not saying that they are done without being noticed or anonymously. None of these extra authorial features can exist. No twitter, no about me section, no contact link, no bio, nothing personal in the FAQ, no merchandise selling, no booths at the local comic con, nothing beyond a reader going to a website and reading the available installments. You could still get actual advertisement to grow your readership but you can never say when new installments are up besides the already established update section. You end up with a webcomic with no real reputation (which is actually pretty common once you take into consideration the amount of first time artists and writers that start out this way). Fans can potentially comment directly through forums but this information is going to be ignored, and once the readership figures this out they will feel disheartened. Financially speaking, unless you have anonymous donations or large amount of traffic that can be converted into advertising revenue, this endeavor will most likely be an economic disaster. You as an author have technically muted yourself towards everything that is not directly your text. The plus side is that your art is now your only voice and if you are really good, maybe that’s enough. Unless you are running a subscription service with no previews, that model is so outdated there is no feasible way for you to get a readership like that.

It’s one thing for Bruce Wayne and Batman to be entirely different people; it’s quite another to start your career as an artist by doing small paintings in dark alleys with no extra effort. Anonymity is pretty cool and sometimes necessary; Hell, my actual name is no where to be found on this blog and I keep it that way just in case I need to use the plausible deniability card. The author function goes way beyond narrative production and while webcomics may show these extra responsibilities done by individuals, just about every other form of publication involves other people providing these services, especially in the digital age. Authorship is now more extensive, some things you can do alone, others you can get help with, you can use your real name, a nom de plume, or whatever. Still, this extra work is there so that you can connect to your readership in a way that’s far more accessible and immediate (both in speed and separation due to medium of publication). To not perform these author functions means that you are only producing the text, which used to be enough, but now the job involves a lot more work. It’s not about making a port so that would be travelers can see the island which is your work but rather making a bridge almost directly up to the potential readership. At least, if you are lucky, you can get some readers to pitch in and do a lot of the work themselves.

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