Friday, August 14, 2009

Troubles With Tribbles

(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.

(Dave Sim)

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

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.


  1. Interesting post. There have been a couple studies done recently on the insular nature of the Internet, i.e. people are now more likely than ever to expose themselves only perspectives that corroborate their views, rather than those that challenge them. It seems to me that the compartmentalization of comics is in many ways an extension of that.

    I agree with you that a possible result of this phenomenon is the 'death' of the professional, but I don't really think the solution is to follow the box set model, such as it is. Print is eventually going to become an art object unto itself, even without unreasonable superfan price points, which really seem like grasping at straws to me.

    Clearly, the comics industry will have to make some pretty radical changes to bring itself fully into the internet age. There's no doubt that this will likely lead to a number of casualties in terms of both creators and publishers, although it's important to note that the same is true for the record industry, the book industry, the newspaper industry....basically anything with printed merchandise as the end product. Actually, Picturebox's initiave for If-n-Oof and PowrMastrs 3 is a good example of the type of business model that I think merits more exploration in this sense; sort of a pseudo-NPR model where the consumer is actively involved in the production and preservation of a product they see as important.

  2. Andrew - well, I'm not sure I see much daylight between "Boxed Sets" and the Picturebox initiative you refer to, (or NPR fundraisers for that matter) - all of them reflect a "business model" that won't support the work on its own and requires external buttresses.

    It's not that I disagree with these attempts (I make my NPR donations religiously), it's more that I worry about them - because they represent art on life-support.

    I have no doubt that artists will find new ways to support themselves, but I'm starting to believe that the era when new artists wanting to work outside the comics "mainstream" could hope to do it full-time is nearly over.

    Instead, we're seeing complex hybrid models evolve: artists that make comics, design skateboards, do some Photoshop work for a record label, sell the odd painting, and live somewhere really cheap. Not necessarily a bad model (sounds like my life, except for the "living somewhere cheap" part), but it certainly has less room for sustained focussed work, not to mention an audience of any size.

  3. Well for me there are a couple key differences between the box set and something like the Picturebox effort.

    With Picturebox (which isn't a perfect example, just a current one) and similar efforts, the consumer is actively involved in the production of the end product; it's made pretty clear from the interview you linked to that the preorders are necessary (or at least will make it substantially easier) for If-n-Oof and PowrMastrs to be published. On the other hand, the Pearl Jam box set is a finished product intended for a consumer that is completely removed from the creation of that product; Eddie Vedder and co aren't exactly in dire financial straits or forced to have day jobs because they don't make enough from their regular music sales.

    There's also the question of price point -- a casual fan of Powr Mastrs who wants to read more can afford to preorder it for $18, but it takes a pretty committed Pearl Jam fan to give up nearly $200 for a rerelease of an album they probably already own.

    Also, I don't see these kinds of attempts as art on life support (although I can certainly understand that perspective) but more as art recognized as a public good instead of a for-profit business. That's why I think NPR is a good analogy. I also make my donations regularly, not because I think NPR would die off without public support, but because I know that without public support NPR would become just another news organization. The increased creative freedom and objectivity that comes from publicly supported funding is what makes NPR worth preserving. In the same way, I'm willing preorder a comic by a cartoonist whose work I feel is important if the work's publication is contingent on preorder numbers. A Brian Chippendale screenprint or an NPR coffee mug or whatever is just an added incentive.

  4. Hi, Andrew - although Eddie Vedder no doubt made his pile, it's the record industry itself which is in dire financial straights, having shrunk by fully half in the last decade due to internet downloading - with no end in sight. This is what's driving those boxed sets - they cater to the one segment of the market still willing to spend money, albeit on objects associated with music, not on the music itself (which as you point out they probably already own).

    For new bands, the dream today is less about getting rich selling a lot of records than it is about (barely) breaking even through touring and selling concert t-shirts - experiences or objects imbued with what Clement Greenberg famously called the "aura" of authenticity in art. Greenberg saw an opposition between the authenticity of "original" art and art reproduced by mechanical reproduction. The latter form drove the creation of multi-billion dollar culture businesses in this country (music, books, films and comics) which left traditional media like painting sidelined and vastly less relevant - the province, as Robert Crumb likes to say, of "cake-eaters".

    So it's ironic to see the logic of reproduction - digital now - carried to an extreme that threatens the very possibility of a livelihood in those same arts. I love the ways comics (and punk rock, and indie movies) have been able to use cheap reproduction to maintain an outsider status relative to the "cake-eater" world (which painters like me have no choice but to deal with, and which gives me the creeps) so any steps in the direction of that "aura of authenticity" are troubling to me.

    And (as long as I'm on the topic of perspective) as an artist who came out of the Canadian government-funded gallery system and fled to the US, I can tell you that "art recognized as a public good instead of a for-profit business" quickly starts to resemble its patron - a good, grey bureaucracy.

  5. I agree that record companies are driving things like the box set, which is why I see them as different from the Picturebox initiave or the NPR donation drive -- there isn't any articulated need or direct benefit to Pearl Jam.

    I can't really speak to the specifics of the gallery world since that's not something I know too much about, so I'll take your word there. I do think it's true that traditionally one of the notable aspects of alternative comics has been its status as outsider art. However, that outsider status can also be a barrier to entry; I remember how intimidating and hard to understand the alternative comics scene was when I first became aware of it. It seems to me that if you want comics to sell 30000 copies instead of 1000 they have to take some steps towards "cake-eater" authenticity (and the wider exposure/higher sales that would come with that). Comics don't need to become ultra pretentious "Art," but they can't be both financially stable and fully outsider can't have your cake and eat it too.

  6. "you can't have your cake and eat it too"
    Heh - nicely said, buts let's not torture that poor pastry. My point is that the previous model (the direct market, or more broadly print in general which we agree is in lots of trouble) provided a way for at least a few artists to reach an audience of some size and get compensated enough to devote themselves full time to their work.
    They were having SOMETHING and eating it too, although it sure wasn't cake. Macaroni and cheese maybe (or, for Canadians like Seth and Chester Brown, Kraft Dinner).
    More interesting to me, because of my experience in the "gallery world", is your point about how you felt alternative comics were "intimidating and hard to understand" when you first met them". Clearly you feel differently about them now, after some exposure, and yet you go on to say "...comics don't need to become ultra pretentious 'Art'". But what's the difference between "intimidating and hard to understand" comics and "ultra pretentious 'Art'"?
    I don't find contemporary art to be "ultra pretentious" (ok,ok, some of it is...) because I'm familiar with it. But most people in America do find it "intimidating and hard to understand" - precisely because they're unfamiliar with it. And that problem stems from two sources: they can't afford to buy unique (or semi-unique) art objects, and the ones on display in public museums require a pilgrimage (and $20 at MoMa here in NYC) to go see.
    My point in comparing elaborate "Boxed Sets" like Pearl Jam's to recent products from PictureBox or Kramers 7 is that, in practice, such steps limit the audience to those who can afford, for example, the $125 Kramers 7 lists for. You say: "It seems to me that if you want comics to sell 30000 copies instead of 1000 they have to take some steps towards 'cake-eater' authenticity (and the wider exposure/higher sales that would come with that" but the reality of such a move is narrower sales, not wider.

  7. You're right that outsider art and fine art are two sides of the same coin in that the culture they create around themselves makes for a sense of inaccessibility. On the other hand, they exist on opposite ends of spectrum in terms of the general public's perception of them as either low art (outsider art) or high art (fine art).

    I guess my point is that I see comics as being more on the outsider end of that spectrum right now, but being slowly pulled in the direction of fine art; i.e. the general public is become more conscious of comics as a 'legitimate' art form. I agree with you that movement too far in that direction isn't necessarily good, but I think there's a median 'sweet spot' that can be reached between the two intimidating extremes where comics can gain more widespread recognition/popularity without finding itself on the 'high art' end of the spectrum. I would think this median could lead to more financial stability as well, but maybe I'm wrong

  8. I agree with you about the idea of a "sweet spot" although I'd place it between Popular culture and Academic/Avant garde culture - mixing the juice of one with the rigor of the other. But I hope we can avoid the "aura of authenticity" trip. We'll soon see - downloaded comics are huge in Japan already and any number of startups (Longbox, Panelfly) are trying the same thing here.

  9. /cough/walterbenjaminnotclementgreenberg/cough/

  10. Arghh! It's the Alzheimer's starting up, Andrei, thanks for catching that.

    Um, yes, everyone, I meant to say Walter Benjamin above of course, not Clement Greenberg. I've had ol' Clem on the brain with all this abstraction talk around here lately...

  11. hey-does this mean that someday soon we can buy a $20 ticket at MoMA to view KE7 under glass?

    -hope they print a postcard--

  12. And the lesson for today, kiddies:

  13. I wonder about the 1000 true fan ideal.

    I can see where it makes some since if you are talking about having at least 1000 fans that you will know will pay every thing you put out but I the only way it will work if you have a lot more fans to ad to that with each product you do.

    you know the people that may read one comic you do because they are fans of whatever that's about but might not read something else you do because that subject matter doesn't interest them.

  14. Good point, Martin. Given the way people actually buy things (I'm a real fan of Chester Brown, but I don't own a copy of "Louis Riel" even though I'm from Manitoba!) the "1000 True Fans" model probably needs several thousand to work in practice.