Trouble with Comics

Kicking Kickstarter

I’m told there’s a Kickstarter for Sabre, an ancient, creaking sci-fi bloatfest that was also a trailblazer in the era in which independent comics were first gaining a toehold in the market.

I’m sure it makes me a terrible, terrible person, but I see Kickstarter as a real negative for comics, as counter-intuitive as that is. It encourages projects that the marketplace should really decide the value of based on the actual work, not on PR, past work by the same creators, or fanboy delusions of patronage.

Kickstarter is a nice idea in the abstract, empowering creators and readers and adding further irrelevancy to the most venal, malingering publishers. In reality (I’ve see no evidence otherwise, years now down Kickstarter Road) it devalues the idea of patronage by making quality and worthiness secondary ideals to noise and hubbub. Instead we find a mediocrity-empowering dynamic of 10,000 entitled fanboys with five bucks each burning a hole in their Paypal accounts’ pockets, and the biggest unknown not being whether the work will be any damn good at all, but whether it ever even gets created in the first place.

Alan David Doane

Look at ‘em Go, Look at ‘em Kick

The idea behind Kickstarter seems very 21st century, does it not? As we become one global village, constantly connected by iPhones and Twitter and that new one where you pin stuff to your computer (which seems to me like it would damage the screen, but what do I know?), more and more we’ve seen people use technology to reach out and hit somebody up for a buck or two. In the internet age of comics, we’ve seen publishers successfully use the World Wide Web to ask for a hand up when times were tough, by posting special sales and spreading the word on websites, blogs and social networking sites. Hell, I’ve held a few fire sales on my websites myself, turning to my readers when times were tight and asking them to consider buying stuff from me to help me keep the sites going, or keep my kids fed, and if you have a website that operates at or near a loss, you know at the end of the day the lines blur and it all comes under the heading of cash needed to continue operating as usual. 

People looking to publish their comics with financial help gained through Kickstarter aren’t, as a rule, looking to maintain their operations, though. They have some new idea or new iteration of an old idea, and they work up a presentation with various levels of participation, and then they make their pitch for all the world to see. In this changed financial environment we now inhabit (and have since at least 2008), it’s not just newcomers to the industry who are looking to crowdfund their project, but even names you know have raised their flag to see who salutes it. The idea seems to have created a division in comics, from those who see it as the ideal expression of the intersection of creativity and technology, to those who frown upon it with great disdain. I guess I’m in a third camp, in that, like the majority of people living on the planet, I don’t much care about Kickstarter comics projects one way or the other. I figure, no matter how you fund your comics project, if it’s good enough, if it will appeal to me, eventually I will hear about it.

The truth is, and this is the dirty little secret of many comics critics, I don’t care about 95 percent of the “projects” that I see. The majority of the review copies I get from would-be “indy” comics creators demonstrate an overabundance of funding and a staggeringly underwhelming amount of talent. In this era of capital contraction, many wannabe publishers are relying on PDF files instead of sending out hard copies of their comics, and that’s beneficial in a number of ways. First, it costs them less. Second, it takes critics much less time to evaluate whether the project is worth reading in full. And third, it’s better for the environment, go hug a tree and congratulate it for still being alive, yay the environment.

As long as I have been writing about comics, and that goes back to the latter days of the Clinton administration, there have been too many people dying to get into comics, and too few with anything to actually say within the medium. And I think that’s where things often break down for these untested, unseasoned hopefuls. They grow up on a steady diet of professional comics, and they are absolutely dying to get into the industry and make a career out of it, but they have little life experience to inform their comics and even less talent with which to express whatever minor thoughts or ideas have shot across their brains in their fervor to “be a part of comics.” The very worst, most discouraging review copies I see are from people who have huge ambitions to be comics creators, apparently hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend sparking their little dreams, and little to no talent with which to pry their way into an industry that is already chock-full of mediocre hacks. See, for example, the recent documentary Comic Con Episode Four: A Fan’s Hope to see the sort of energy people with no real hope of ever making a splash in comics devote to, well, trying to make a splash in comics. And when one ponders what a miniscule portion of the overall entertainment dollar that comics manages to seize every year, it’s a wonder that the obituary columns in newspapers across the country aren’t filled to bursting with tales of would-be creators who decided to end it all rather than continue not living the dream.

I don’t understand it, I really don’t, this impulse to swim upstream against the surging tide of disregard and rejection that sweeps thousands into the vast ocean of never-gonna-happen every year. I think deep down I suspect that if you truly do have the talent to write or draw comics that are better than mediocre, that eventually you will find your way in somehow due to nothing more than the quality of your work. It seems to me, and this is advice I have given more than one wanna-be comics creator, that if you truly get down to it and practice your craft, if you keep making your comics and focus on making them as good as they can be and as powerful an expression of your inner voice as you can, that eventually you will have samples that are so superior to those of your competitors in the slush pile that publishers will be knocking down your door to let you have a seat at the table. 

In the old days, the big publishers had anthology titles in which starting creators could hone their craft and experiment with styles and approaches until their true gifts became apparent. There’s a reason no one publishes anthologies like that anymore, and that’s because they sold poorly, and that’s because they pretty much sucked. I’m thinking of the old issue of Weird War Tales that I spent months tracking down and scores of dollars to buy because Frank Miller had one of his first handful of professional jobs in it. Yeah, it really blew. And these days it probably goes for a buck or two. 

I don’t begrudge anyone trying to raise funds for their project on Kickstarter, or anywhere else. Presumably most people doing so are sincere in their efforts, and nobody is holding a gun to the heads of the people lining up to donate their fifty cents, or fifty dollars, or whatever the going rate is. I assume the system will eventually find out who the fraudsters are on there and treat them accordingly. But for those who really, really want to get into comics? If you have something to say within the comics medium, then say it. That doesn’t mean you have to immediately get it published, or even just posted to the internet, but if you must do the latter, I guess, go ahead. But be aware that almost no one’s earliest work is worth looking at, and that the more you practice, the better you’ll get, and eventually, if you’re good enough, say, five or ten years down the line, you might be good enough to get published. If that’s not good enough for you, if you want more and you want it now, then good luck to you, but you’re probably not going to make it, and your eagerness probably outpaces your talent by a ratio of 100 to 1. But go for it, because the recycle bin for my email account is emptied every day, so there’s plenty of room for your must-see project.

Alan David Doane