Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Forest of Comics

Imagine the comic community as a forest.  You have the tall, older trees who have the full benefit of the sun and the rain.  Their deep roots can draw plenty of nutrients from the soil.  They've withstood harsh winters, severe droughts, spring rains.  They're not going anywhere.

Then you have the saplings.  They've been around a few years, but don't really get much of a shot at the sunlight.  They stretch and reach, contorting around other trees in their quest for light and fresh water.  Their roots aren't as deep as the older trees, many of these roots may just be surface level.  Some of them could possibly survive what the older trees have, but they are yet untested.

Then there's the ground cover, the trees that aren't even knee height.  They've barely emerged from the soil, many may still rely on the seed they sprouted from for nutrients.  They get very little sunlight, compete fiercely for any nutrients, and many are washed away by even a light rain.

The established artists are, of course, the older trees.  They've been around for awhile.  Many have insanely successful webcomics, Kickstarters that astound onlookers with their massive success, have published several books, or have won prestigious comic awards.  They've paid their dues.

Saplings haven't been around quite as long as the older trees, or if they have, they may have taken longer in their quest for the sun.  As comic artists, they may have attended a school specifically for comic craft, they practice daily, they solicit and offer advice, they attend a variety of conventions, and they keep hammering away in semi obscurity.  Saplings may have a hard time earning respect in the comic community, as it takes an audience to build an audience.

The youngest trees, the sprouts, are the teenagers dreaming on DeviantArt.  They may take art classes in high school, practice infrequently (and often just the things they enjoy drawing).  There's a lot of potential, but they're very much reliant upon their parents for guidance, and may never choose to pursue a career in art.

All of these parts are important to the forest.  The saplings and sprouts are the future.  The older trees are experience and wisdom.  This ecosystem works best when there's synergy between the three classes.  The saplings and sprouts consume the works produced by the older trees.  The older trees, in theory, share their wisdom and experience with the saplings and sprouts.  In terms of numbers, the undergrowth outnumbers the saplings, the saplings outnumber the trees within the canopy.  It's a pyramid, with everything resting on a base of undergrowth.  

A Meltdown in the Ecosystem

Unfortunately, there's sometimes a breakdown.  Sometimes the chain breaks at the older trees.  Sometimes they get complacent, forgetting that most of their audience is composed of their fellow artists, many of which aren't as experienced as they are.  They forget that their tumblrs, blogs, and Twitters may be public access, and that they may alienate their audiences with unprofessional behavior.  Of course, this happens with saplings and sprouts too, but they have less to lose as they're not in the public eye.  These meltdowns aren't as publicized.  There's an opportunity for a rebound.

Sometimes the chain breaks at the saplings, artists who have received help and advice from an existing art community, but fail to share this help with others in need.  They may guard secrets like a dragon guards its hoard, jealous of anyone may benefit from this knowledge and surpass them.  Saplings can be as dangerous to one another as to the undergrowth, refusing aid and community participation when its desperately needed for the health of the comic ecosystem.

The chain can even break at the undergrowth level, when these new artists refuse to progress, don't utilize the help given, and continue to stagnate.  At this level, so long as the problem isn't widespread, it causes little harm to the overall ecosystem.  Every year, many artists realize that they're not cut out for art- they may be unwilling to dedicate the time necessary toward improvement, they may wish to keep it as a hobby only, or they may realize that the struggle is difficult and sometimes not rewarding.

Right now, there isn't a whole lot of sunlight to fight over.  The comic industry is going through some major growing pains, and a lot of publishers just aren't looking for new talent.  Quite a few are happy to rely on the old payoffs, but aren't looking for new risks.  What was new and exciting in 2004 (like an anime style) is now seen as crippling, and sapling artists are encouraged to find their own voices when they draw from inspiration similar to that of the older trees.  The new and fresh of 2004 is dated and played out in 2013, and we're encouraged to find our own inspiration.  Many artists find this frustrating.

In a forest, eventually older trees are cleared, making room for a little more sun to reach the saplings.  Those fit to survive and thrive, will.  In comics, our timeslot for sunlight is far shorter than that of trees, and established artists are reasonably loathe to share the sunlight or to step away from lucrative jobs.  While I personally believe that one with great power has a great responsibility to aid others, many do not share this sentiment, and I respect their decision, although I lose respect for artists who go out of their way to inhibit the growth of others.

Responsibility Towards Others

I do feel like established artists who have adopted a public role should serve as role models to younger, less established artists.  If they cannot do this, they should at least behave like professionals, and barring that, adults.  If this is impossible, they should strongly consider locked accounts for social media.  Part of this has been ingrained in me during my time at SCAD, where we are taught one thing above all others.

As a comic artist, you need to be two of three things:

1. Fast (or reliable)
2. Nice (professional)
3. Amazingly good

The easiest two are nice and fast, as it costs little to be nice and professional, and reliability can come from understanding one's limitations, and working within them when creating work for hire.

A Real Life Example

I've noticed a lot of annoyance among my fellow saplings following the SPX registration, mainly towards the entitled snarkiness emanating from a few more established artists.  Although these artists were in the vast minority in their spoiled behavior, it can still leave an impression.  A few realized their faux pas and deleted said offending tweets within hours, but a lack of apology, while mitigating future ill will, will not heal the ill will garnered during the two hour dash for tables.

A Simple Solution

 For this, I have a simple solution.  If you don't like how an artist behaves, you are totally free to BOYCOTT THEIR WORK.  We saplings are the  major audience for many more established artists; we appreciate their work, we verbally sell it to others.  We share their websites, we loan copies of their books to friends, we introduce it to our classmates and professors.  If you have been offended, STOP SUPPORTING THE OFFENDER.  There are plenty of other deserving artists who will appreciate your efforts and treat you like you matter.  There's no need to blacken any names, burn any bridges, or point fingers.

Boycotting the offending artist does not invalidate the quality of their work, but it may prove a point to this artist.  A few established artists have become distanced from the main body of their audience, and encourage said distance.  While this may have worked in the time before the internet, fans now demand interaction, and if not interaction, at least some respect.  If an artist has shown disrespect toward you, or toward a group you are part of, you are under no obligation to continue to support their work.  If enough of the audience is offended by their treatment, the artist will see some financial loss.

Maintaining the Balance

At all stages of growth, it is important for an artist to stand up for what they need, and for what their artistic community needs.  The undergrowth needs room to grow, tutorials and guidance to feed upon, and the ability to make mistakes without drastic punishment.  Saplings also need room to grow, but they need the opportunity to be tested, a chance to prove that they have what it takes.  This can come in a variety of forms: comic conventions (a chance to sell their wares, an opportunity to make new wares, a shot at meeting other artists, an opportunity to create an audience for themselves), publishing opportunities (both the ability to produce garage prints, participate in anthologies, create webcomics, and produce Kickstarter campaigns), a chance to make a name for themselves online and in person (Twitter, Tumblr, blogging, Facebook).  Even established artists can grow in a variety of ways.  They can become more professional, more friendly, more engaging, they can extend their reach, and grow their audience.  I believe that every stage of growth is reliant on the other stages, and that some form of recognition is in order for the cycle to continue.