I’ve recently seen a few people upset by or about Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad, and the usual comments about that site have emerged, and as usual they are all wrong. No, the writer is not uncreative or lazy (writing a funny rant – and they are funny rants – is hard), and yes, they’ve almost certainly done professional writing of their own (they claim to in various comments, and given the talent involved I can believe it). No, exerting creative energy does not inherently make you a better person.
The reason I enjoy YWIBAYSFB is because one of the greatest fallacies inherent to the Internet that I see repeated, over and over again, from all sorts of people, is this:
“In real life, people don’t say nasty things about your work like this to you directly.”
And to that I have to go “whuh?” because, unlike most of the people who say this, I have a stack of rejection letters. From Asimov’s and Fantasy and Science Fiction and lots of other non-genre magazines and publishing houses. From script agents, from script competitions, from producers. I started submitting in my teens, under the mistaken assumption that I was the next Gordon Korman. (Go figure, I wasn’t.)
These are professional assessments, and let me assure you, not all of them are nice. Most of them are, because I when I submitted them I was in that category of “very rough, but there’s promise,” and editors tend to be pleasant to that level of talent (if for no other reason, because someday they might need a favour from you). But they aren’t all nice. A sample of a few of the less nice ones:
There is no way I can call this anything other than derivative dogshit.
Step one towards getting me to consider your submission: proper formatting. Step two: not copying the stylistic quirks of [writer] in a manner so blatant it’s frankly embarrassing.
You are, at present, years and years of bad writing away from even being tolerable.
I have one word for you to consider: accountancy.
Fairly rough stuff to get, especially when you’re in your teens. But you know what? They were right. I was writing shit then. I don’t write shit now, and yes, it’s partially because of those rude editors. I know some might want to attribute my improvement entirely to the helpful editors who went through the generic, tedious crap I was churning out then and gave me helpful pointers on establishing my own style and avoiding bad writing tropes, and I won’t debate for a second that they were all very helpful.
However. The rude ones were helpful as well, because they said one thing, over and over again, either directly or indirectly. They said “this form to which you aspire has standards which we expect you to meet.”
Think about that for a second, the concept of standards. The idea that your work is part of something that is larger and more important than you, that what you contribute in expression will help to define the movement, and indeed, in a way, all art with it. It’s something that’s steadily been dropping off the edge of the creative map over the last fifty years – maybe society as a whole has gotten more self-important, maybe it’s a shift in personal philosophy as a whole, I don’t know. But it’s an idea in regression, of that we can be sure; it’s one that merits a comeback.
Going back to Your Webcomic Is Bad again, what I think a lot of people don’t recognize is that it, and sites like it, have arisen in direct response to the internet’s total lack of editorial control. Don’t get me wrong: I think that, by and large, the creative freedom the web has given us is a good thing, allowing those artists who would otherwise get lost in the shuffle to make their voices heard. That’s valuable.
The problem is that said creative freedom is a double-edged sword, because without the channels the editorial system built up over the years, anybody can just put up any piece of shit, and with an essentially infinite audience, they will in turn eventually get a loyal horde of fans slavering devotion on what is, bluntly, horse crap masquerading as a story. The same goes for photography, or drawn art, or music, or what have you – in every creative industry there exists a system to separate the dross from the (relative) gold. Yes, sometimes it means we get Thomas Kinkade or Britney Spears because people use that system for material gain first and foremost, but take any art history class and you swiftly learn there have always been people like that and that the commercial crap fades away.
(An aside: in 1964, when the Beatles were breaking huge in the United States, somebody tried to make a buck off them by getting a girl group together, calling them “the Beatlettes,” and recording “Yes You Can Hold My Hand.” Ninety-nine point a lot percent of you have never heard that song, or indeed of the Beatlettes at all. That’s less than fifty years past and they’re already a footnote. That’s my point right there.)
Most webcomics are shit. Yes, there are webcomics that are not shit, from the philosophical, writer-driven hilarity of a Dinosaur Comics or XKCD to the artistic free-flow of a Wigu or Scary-Go-Round to the pure story-ambition of a Gunnerkrigg Court or the sheer professionalism on all levels of Penny Arcade or Order of the Stick. But these fine works are exceptions, and not the rule.
The reason for this is inherent in the philosophy of most webcomics, where “professionalism” is frequently treated like some sort of bizarre optional extra nobody would ever consciously choose, much like putting herring on a sundae. Create a sporadic updating schedule then don’t stick to it – because come on, you’re doing it for free! (Anthony Trollope wrote for two hours. Every day. Period. He did not publish his first novel until he had been writing for fifteen years.) “Draw” a comic in a lite cartoony style without ever having learned the fundamental rules of anatomy and composition first – hey, that’s just how you roll! (Most of the great early comic strip artists learned basic life drawing skills while in the Army.) Use an unoriginal, boring meme for your “punchline” in some desperate attempt to identify yourself to your readers as one of them – well, all the other comic people are doing it! (Charles Schulz – actually, I could just say “Charles Schulz” as a blanket response to every bit of webcomic hackery ever performed.)
And then, when some actual professional creative person, someone who sweats out work and gets paid for it despite never being certain if what he’s produced is good enough (and if you don’t have that gnawing demon in your stomach saying “it’s crap” every time you commit yourself to work in any artistic form, seriously, look into accountancy, because doubt is what creates all art) – when that person finally snaps at the umpteenth schmuck who pumps out generic, meandering, derivative crap in their spare time – it’s always in their spare time – and has found within themselves that precious nugget of superego and nurtured it into a towering colossus of self-important narcissism because they’re creating something, dammit – it’s always the professional’s fault for not being polite.
When did “polite” become such a positive attribute in art, anyway? Not “considerate,” you understand, that’s never the word used, it’s always “polite” – when did Miss fucking Manners dictate proper behaviour within the artistic community? Go back to your art history books and you’ll see again and again that art thrives when the artistic culture is rude and challenges the living hell out of anyone who would dare practice it for their living. Look at the Baroque and Romantic composers, who worked in a period where being a professional composer meant not only writing the absolute best music possible but also politically burying your rivals whenever possible. Look at the sheer chaos the Expressionists created, not just on canvas but in the salons and gallery halls.
(If Mark Waid ever loses his shit with me, I totally promise to take it with a smile, because it’s not like I wrote one of the best runs of Fantastic Four ever, you know? PS. Dear Mark Waid: I still think Kingdom Come kind of sucks.)
Why shouldn’t established professionals get a bit dismissive when amateurs with no real standing beyond a bunch of people they sort of know saying “I like this” – and you can find 200 people who are willing to say “I like this” about absolutely anything – demand equal standing? Because when a rank amateur says “I’m a writer” or “I’m an artist” or whatever their chosen artistic field is, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Robert Rodriguez, in his fun book Rebel Without A Crew, mentions that saying “I’m a filmmaker” (and you can of course extend that to other pursuits) is a wonderful ego boost, and a useful tool for motivating yourself to finish a project. And he’s right. But he also says that it’s only the first step, that next you actually have to become a filmmaker. Some people go to film school; others, like Rodriguez, make a shitty movie or two then come up with a business plan to make another movie. (El Mariachi wasn’t his first, and it’s worth remembering that his original plan was to sell it to the Mexican video market and maybe make back two or three times its cost.)
But absolutely nobody worth mentioning says “I’m a filmmaker” and then prints business cards saying “Chuck Sluckerson, Filmmaker,” and kind of half-asses their way through the basic steps of a project they’ll never really make, but it’s something to talk about at dinner parties. “Oh no, I just work at the insurance company to pay my bills. I’m really a filmmaker.” (This is not to say that this does not happen – merely that they are not worthy of mention.)
Worse yet, the ones who go out and buy a digital camcorder and, without understanding anything about shot composition or pacing a scene or anything that makes narrative film watchable, shoot their abominable short movies and now it’s “I’m a filmmaker – you can see my stuff on Youtube!”
And if you’ve got the temerity to point out that they don’t know what they’re doing, they defend their shit as “artistic choice,” because art can’t be wrong, man, it’s all about personal expression, man! And it occurs to me at this point that I’m getting a bit far afield here, but just pretend that I said Robert Rodriguez was a famous webcomics maker instead, if you like, because the parallels are exactly the same.
In summary: Editorial standards are good things, because art is not a one-way street and never has been. Art is a committal to the audience: you are standing up, proclaiming that you have Something To Say And It’s Important. When you do that, it thus falls upon you to do two things: to make sure that what you say is Important (at least to you if no one else), and that you communicate it effectively. The editorial process is all about creating people who are more skilled at said communication, and if a medium arises – such as webcomics – where that process is absent, don’t be surprised when people create it spontaneously and it’s less helpful than some would like.