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As other print media flounder in digital sea, comics catch the wave

Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 8:15 p.m.
 

The Internet has not been kind to the makers of physical media. From CDs to DVDs, books to newspapers, and even video game consoles, the only difference seems to be whether “new media” decides to nibble at them around the edges awhile, or devour them completely in a few ferocious bites.

There seems to be one exception — comics. Here, at least for the moment, physical media and the Internet seem to have declared a truce.

Online comics never have been easier to find, even if you aren't really looking for them. A few online strips seem to be becoming what “Dilbert” and “The Far Side” were to a previous generation — except, instead taping them to your cubicle, strips like “The Oatmeal” and “xkcd” tend to be shared on social media.

Others, like Kate Beaton's “Hark! A Vagrant” (humorous takes on history, literature, Canada) and Allie Brosh's “Hyperbole and a Half” (about childhood, dogs and mental illness, made with primitive-yet-expressive use of Microsoft Paint) continue to push the form in new and interesting directions. Both have led to book deals with major publishers.

Although he's quite attached to print, acclaimed comics writer and artist Ed Piskor (www.edpiskor.com) sees the advantages of online comics.

“When I was a kid, and I was frustrated because I knew I wasn't getting published doing comics, I spent a lot of time going around painting graffiti,” says Piskor, who's based in Munhall. “I just wanted to share my work and express myself beyond my sketchpad. I'd never have done that if I could have done web comics.

“If I was a kid coming up today, I'd have started cartooning earlier than I did. There's no barriers to distribution. Anyone can make a WordPress site and get their work out there.”

Piskor's current project, “Hip Hop Family Tree” — a graphic retelling of the music's birth and early years — was first published serially on BoingBoing.net, a tech- and geek-culture site. Although hip-hop isn't one of the site's usual interests, one of Piskor's previous comics — the self-published “Wizzywig,” about the early days of computer-hacking — was right in BoingBoing's wheelhouse.

“My strip on BoingBoing acts more like a billboard for the actual physical books,” Piskor says. “The editors have their finger on the pulse of what they think their readers are into.

“I'd discover they'd reviewed it when my email would blow up. When I finished ‘Wizzywig,' I asked if they were interested in another comic. ... So I get this little plot of real estate (boingboing.net/tag/brainrot), where I get to put up whatever I want.”

This was the opening “Hip Hop Family Tree” needed, apparently.

“Every single page of the book is easily available online,” Piskor says. “My philosophy is to deliver work in any format the reader wants. The end goal, though, is always the book. When ‘Hip Hop Family Tree' first hit shelves, it sold out in days. We finally got the reprints in, and it took about eight days for the second printing to sell out at the distributor level.”

Another Pittsburgh-based artist, Tom Scioli (www.ambarb.com), wasn't interested in doing anything online, at first. He's a bit of a purist — his Jack Kirby-style comics “(“Godland,” “American Barbarian,” “Transformers vs. G.I. Joe”) are created in the spirit of a very specific style of classic comic book.

“I'm very set in my ways by nature,” Scioli says. “Now, I get that there's different ways to make people understand and relate to your work. The idea that (online) takes away from book sales has been fully debunked. It's vital. It's how I communicate with fans. It's how I build a following, it's how I disseminate work and build a readership.”

He's even grown to appreciate the way some comics look on the web.

“Online, it's displayed in this really flattering, glowing screen,” Scioli says. “A lot of work looks really good in that format. I think working in print deserves all my attention because it needs it.”

To make money, you generally have to sell physical books and comics. But there are ways to derive revenue from online comics.

“I think it can be mutually beneficial,” Piskor says. “I think it's old, crusty logic to castigate the online comics.

“The money-making thing is easier for some people online. They'll have Google AdSense — the ads are sort of heuristically cultivated by the content on the page. One strip might be a more traditional newspaper strip. One gag can be about working at an office. Another can be about sitting on an airplane. They can be spread around through Tumblrs (a micro-blogging platform and social network) and Twitter to create a huge readership.”

Although there's a very broad range of web-only (or web-first) comics, Piskor thinks they tend to have some things in common.

“There are tropes to what I think of when I think of web comics,” he says. “An antiseptic line created in the computer, on Adobe Illustrator. It's precise. Those comics are almost mechanical in their construction.”

No matter how good it looks online, it will never be the same as holding a comic book in your hands.

“I can't stand reading it online,” says Bill Boichel, owner of Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill. “There's obviously a tactile element, but also a craft element in the production of the object, that's lacking when you see it on the Internet. It's the difference between seeing a Coca-Cola commercial on TV, and going to buy it.”

Even the paper in Piskor's “Hip Hop Family Tree” is chosen for a specific reason.

“It's got that fake grain, like it's in ('70s-era) ‘Marvel Treasury' paper,' Boichel says. “It adds this whole extra dimension.”

Artists have so many options now, that they have to choose how to budget their time with care.

“Every one of these people has a Tumblr site or a blog, and post their comics,” Boichel says. “A large number have a way to be read online. Then they print the hard copy. That's the paradigm. Some only sell them (or) share them online and print nothing. The majority do both.”

Jordan Crane (“The Clouds Above”), the Los Angeles-based artist who assembles the online anthology whatthingsdo.com, seems to have found a happy medium. His site publishes work by underground-comics giants like Kevin Huizenga (“Ganges,” “Or Else”) and Jaime Hernandez (“Love and Rockets”), as well as many new and lesser-known artists.

“I imagine it as a beating heart,” Crane says. “I'd get excited when I'd see artists working hard and making new work. That fire that some people have when they work — it can catch, when other people see what you're doing and get excited.”

Comics on whatthingsdo.com are faithfully replicated and easy to read — just remember to scroll down. There's always a link to buy the finished product, as well.

“The idea is that when I finish a few pages, I'll put up four or five that you can read and have it be a little satisfying,” Crane says. “I'll put one up there every few weeks. Then there's an ongoing thing, people come back to it and read it. It's a way of having a short-term deadline, which is good.”

The ability to get instant feedback on a work-in-progress from readers can be gratifying, to a point.

“I had to work against my own mind to not be checking early ‘likes,' ” Crane says. “That sort of quantification can be a pitfall. I think it's worth struggling past that. You know you're not alone. Being a cartoonist is spending a lot of time alone in a room.

“I think it's a mistake to quantify the Internet's effect in terms of sales. Certainly, that would be a good thing to know. Just the exposure of a work of art — the more eyes it passes in front of, the more life it has the potential of living. If it's trapped in a book, it can't be seen until it's opened.”

Publishers always like a sure bet, too, which a large online following almost guarantees.

Those who make comics for a living are usually used to barely getting by, which can help them cope with transformational change.

“A lot of these other media weren't nimble enough,” Scioli says. “They were so secure in the structures that had been in place for decades, that they didn't see (the Internet) coming. Whereas comics have always been under fire, always been on the run, always been a day away from total collapse. There were a lot of points where it was just close to closing up shop. In this really treacherous environment, a really hardy comics industry has come about. We were ready for the flood.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

 

 
 


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