(Image from Star Trek: the Animated Series © Filmation)
Geoff's post responding to Frank Santoro's observations about the bifurfaction of the comics market has me contemplating my own geezerdom (Tuesday was my - yikes! - 47th birthday) and place in this fractured continuum. Like Geoff, I went to university art schools and like Geoff I underwent a pretty severe hazing. In my first year (1980) I produced a "comicsy" painting (suffice it to say the dancing frog from the old Warner Bros. cartoon was involved) and had the pleasure of seeing it held up to the class as an example of what NOT to do. Traumatic stuff, but I take solace in the failure of Google images to turn up a single example of that prof's own work.
I agree that these sort of experiences can't help but contribute to a profoundly different attitude toward making comics (assuming that they don't completely eradicate the desire to make them) among artists of say, the last quarter century but, per my last post here, I see the ruptures that Santoro and Geoff discuss between these types of comics and what's left of the comics "mainstream" in terms of a larger economic/technological process (yeah, yeah - Postmodernism) that's been splintering and re-splintering the whole industrialized world since the 60's. For this reason, I like Santoro's Boichelian tree diagram - and feel it's clear that we've already advanced pretty far in terms of the branching it illustrates.
There's been some discussion of a few of these sub-forms within "art comics" here on this blog: the Fort Thunder derived style I related to "Stupidism" and the "Abstract Comics" group coalescing around Andrei Molotiu are relatively recent examples, but there are plenty of others - artists working with a more literary sensibility for example, like Jessica Abel, autobiographical cartoonists like Joe Matt, surrealist cartoonists like Hans Rickheit, and so on. To me, the interesting point is that none of these new movements ever really replaces anything older - they just keep multiplying, as though they were born pregnant like Tribbles.
This has obvious ramifications for disseminating one's work: audiences shrink as choices grow. The 1980's "ground level" comics model that allowed Dave Sim to make a decent living selling 30,000 copies of Cerebus the Aadrvark was already a profound recalibration downward of what it used to take to be considered a success in comics. But nowadays artists are aspiring (!) to models like "1000 True Fans" which wouldn't come close to covering Dave's limousine bills.
As we slip below 1000 copies of anything, the economics of manufacturing and distributing these things (whether it's floppies, graphic novels, CD's, whatever) stop making sense. Of course, this is a moot point if all of these forms are able to migrate to the web for iTunes-style digital distribution, but the relative ease of entry that this entails poses an even greater problem for artists. Once everyone can live out their dreams of alt-cartooning without the bottlenecks of printing costs and disinterested distributors the amount of work available for sale (or for free) becomes truly mind-boggling - and audiences start getting really, really tiny. I recently read an estimate that 90% of the songs available for sale on the web don't sell even once in any given year. A year between sales is a long time even for the Long Tail.
Where does this trend lead? Do "art comics" differentiate into hundreds of mini-styles, each with audiences in the dozens? I don't know, but I think I see an interesting counter-trend: art forms like music, comics and literature that until now have relied almost entirely on "multiple" forms of reproduction have started to market "authentic" objects at much higher prices. One recent strategy in the music business has been to release extremely elaborate boxed sets of an artist's complete work, with lots of art prints, replicas of old tour swag, and other such tchotchkes.
(Image grab from http://bitstream.soundandvisionmag.com/blog/pearl-jam/)
In "art comics", we're seeing something similar with publishers like Picture Box offering free art prints or even original drawings to help sell their books - to say nothing of the recent practice of producing books of comics that seem designed more for art museum gift shops than comic book stores:
(Kramers Ergot publisher Alvin Buenaventura with a copy of volume 7)
Whether these contortions will do anything to staunch the long-term trend is uncertain (I'm dubious), but the trend itself - an increase in the number of artists and art forms coupled with the increasing fragmentation of their audiences - is clear everywhere you look. Its ultimate impact even has a catchphrase: "the death of the professional".
For "art comics" artists the idea of being a "professional" probably already sounds awfully foreign (this is a milieu where "careerist" gets used as an epithet - just ask David Heatley) but let's face it: wanting an audience is at the very heart of making art, the occasional hermit notwithstanding. My sinking feeling is that the modest pool of readers the "direct market" offered to a few hundred "art comics" artists may start to look like a mass market by comparison once thousands or tens of thousands of us are trying to sell downloads on the Net.