The hum of a million keyboards
Over at Comics 212, Christopher Butcher grapples with the most fundamental question about online comics journalism: “Why?”
He states, in reply to a customer who’s going to start up a pop-culture/comics website: “All through his description of what he was talking about, I couldn’t think of anything other than “Why bother?”
To which I’d reply “Why not?”, but then I’ve been accused of being difficult and contrarian for the sheer joy of it. Not wrongfully accused, I’ll add.
Particularly in the face of the 7th or 8th relaunch of PopCultureShock a few weeks ago, in the face of “The Blogosphere”, in the face of Newsarama, Pulse, and AICN and their absolute dominance of the field. I mean, as it stands there are sites like Comics World News and Broken Frontier and PopCultureShock and not only do the same people seem to be writing for all of them (and they all have blogs too), but I can’t seem to tell much of a difference between them. In aim or intent or purpose. Then factor in the ‘older’ sites, like Sequential Tart or PopImage or NinthArt or whatever and the level of redundancy seems to factor even higher.
Well, speaking as one of those contributors to an online website who also has a blog (and has given up the former for the latter), I’d argue that a blog and a column, while different, aren’t all that far apart from one another. You could, particularly if you’re just looking at raw audience numbers, argue for a greater “authority” on the part of a column (and certainly they’re a lot closer to being an actual ‘job in the industry’, particularly if you’re getting paid to write ‘em.) Ultimately, though, they serve the same purpose, in terms of getting the author’s voice out of his/her head and into the seething ocean of white noise out there.
Of course, it’s only a seething ocean if you’re trying to take in all of it at once. And if that’s the case, you have more free time than I do. You need to be selective, or else you’re going to drive yourself crazy with the sheer volume of the thing (not even counting issues of “quality.”) I’ve a shameful admission to make. Even when I was writing for Broken Frontier, I never read all the columns, much less the messageboard attached to the site. Some of that had to do with the quality of the writing, but a lot more of it had to do with the fact that most of the subject matter at the site didn’t really hold my interest (and much of it was being covered elsewhere.) So yes, there’s Chris’ redundancy in action. But that’s not only an issue in net-based comics journalism (and I hesitate to call it that), but in nearly any field you care to name. There’s only so much to cover, and anyone who covers it is going to run into overlap with other writers working the same vein. I remember noticing this years and years ago when I followed science fiction and horror films closely, and later when I was involved in 3D animation.
There’s only so much content to go around, and if you’re strictly sticking to “news”, then everybody’s going to be talking about the same things. There are always folks who cover their own angles on things, and shed light under rocks that other people forget to turn over, but they’re not in the majority. Sometimes you have to go looking for them, and sometimes, just maybe, if you don’t see things being talked up that you want, you need to take matters into your own hands and start contributing yourself.
I asked this question over at Ed Cunard’s The Low Road a few days ago:
“I want to write a meta-article one day about comic newsmagazines, and sort of get them all to talk about what it is they think they’re accomplishing, particularly in competition with one another… ”
I didn’t intend that to sound quite as mean as it could, but at this point I honestly think I’d like to ask all-involved what the point is?
Ed’s already covered some of this, particularly in respect to the fan-turned-pro side of things, where people use their online presences to further their comic ambitions. I’ll point out that my column didn’t do a damn bit of good in that respect, other than getting me into conventions for free and giving me a chance to talk process with other writers. If you want to just make comics, then do that and worry about the creation side of things. Name-dropping gets old fast, and from where I’m standing it hasn’t advanced your career. Sure didn’t do squat for mine, but then I spent most of my columns actually talking about comics and not hyping my secret projects.
As for “what the point is”, I’d say that just getting your voice out there is a big part of it. Everyone from the columnist to the blogger to the messageboard poster is at least engaging the subject material. Sure, some may do it a hell of a lot better than others, and some make no effort to engage anything beyond their comfort zone, but at least they’re making an attempt instead of being a passive consumer.
Of course, some would point out that a lot of comics journalism consists of rubber-stamping approval (or rubber stamping dis-approval) and knee-jerkery. Sure, I’ll give ‘em that. But there are folks who are out there, talking up stuff that other people don’t (you do have to look for it). The “problem” with the big commerical news sites is that they’re primarily ad-revenue driven (which may lead to the Wizard sydrome, where the only things that get slammed are those that aren’t bringing in the mad advertisement dollars.)
I’m sure that the point for some writers is that it’s a job and they actually get paid to write (wonder what that’s like…) Some people are making a living out of this. I’m not entirely sure how, but it seems to happen nonetheless (though not at the level of staff writer, I’d bet.)
Of course, blogs, though not commercially-driven, may have their own hidden agendas as well, whether it be industry-climbing, or death to the enemies of Hal Jordan.
Chris asks further: “Who are they trying to reach with their material, and what are they doing to reach that audience?”
Seems to me that most sites don’t do too much to reach an audience other than exist and put the word out on other comics sites. I’m not sure what else there is to do in that regard, other than to keep doing what you’re doing and have people gradually notice and organically form an audience. As for who they’re trying to reach, that’s an interesting question. Mostly it seems that the big sites would like to reach everyone (and at least have some nods to alternative/independent material, even if the bulk of their coverage is mainstream). Ideally, they could reach any comics reader with an internet connection and ten minutes to read. I’ve no idea if this is actually the case or not.
Most bloggers worth reading seem to be doing their own thing and don’t really care if they’re being read or not. Alan David Doane, for instance. Frankly, that makes them more interesting to read, the whole saying what they have to say thing. Most bloggers don’t seem to be too worried about speaking their minds. There’s a bunch of columnists like that as well, Steven Grant being a good example of that. Sure, I read Lying in the Gutters like everyone else, for the same reason that I’m hopelessly addicted to Fanboy Rampage (even if I miss Graeme’s more directed column, Grim Tidings.) There’s lots of columns that I read in a much more cursory manner, and occsionally they give a decent kick in the head, but mostly just aren’t all that great. Of course, they don’t cost anything to read other than a few minutes (which I can usually wring out of my schedule).
Chris continues the questions: “What is their focus? What are their columnists saying that isn’t being said, their reviewers reviewing that isn’t being reviewed?”
Some sites want to be everything to everyone. They generally have some money, which makes trying to pull that off a little easier. No one site can cover everything, though. There’s just too much of it (a familiar theme being uncovered in this conversation.) The smaller fan-sites definitely have their areas of expertise, and blogs sometimes have a microscopic focus (but are put together interestingly enough to make that focus seem expansive.) But really, most sites cover the mainstream and the comics/creators that want to be part of the mainstream. There’s that damn word again. Hell, we don’t even know what it properly means and here I’m bandying it about…
Supporting a blog is significantly easier than keeping a whole site afloat, for a variety of reasons. The personal nature of blogs may let writers get away with sloppiness that wouldn’t be tolerated in a formal column setting (though that hasn’t proven to be true in my case, as I was messy and uncontrolled in my column as I continue to be so as a blogger.) That and most blogs are basically free (just so long as you have decent image hosting or you’re judicious with your pictures.) Sites require a hell of a lot more work and cash up front (which sometimes creates a feeling of being more real than a blog that can be slapped together.) Of course, that’s a deceptive mindset, as some of the most thoughtful writing I’ve ever read on comics has been done on blogs (and sometimes even in the comments section of a blog, a place often reserved for potshots from the peanut gallery.) Consequently, I’ve seen some real awful and thoughtless writing on sites that I know paid for the work. The price tag is no indication of quality. You have to dig a little deeper for that.
Chris adds: “More importantly, how can we tell what’s noise and what’s static (without Kevin Melrose linking directly to it?).” Ah, gawd bless Kevin Melrose’s Thought Balloons, because we’d be lost without it.
Chris ultimately hits the nail on the head: “Or maybe everyone just wants to be the boss?”
Ayup. There’s something to be said for being able to say what you want to say when you want to say it. That doesn’t entitle you to an audience, by any means, but you may find yourself with one.
Somehow I know that I’ve missed a lot here. Oh well, I’m sure that someone else will shine light on an aspect of things that I’ve forgotten. That’s the sort of thing that happens when you throw a whole hive at a problem. A lot of the drones might miss something, but eventually one of ‘em will find the missing piece.
Thanks for the food for thought, Chris.
I’ll also add that this has been the substance of Larry Young’s probing of a chunk of the Blogosphere, over at CBR.