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EUOLogy #19: Webcomics and the Future of Entertainment

Everyone: I wrote something a bit more in-depth this week. This is more an essay than one of my quick little notes. But, this is a topic I find very interesting, and it is something that I think we should all—whether we’re consumers, artists, or aspiring entertainers—spend a little time thinking about.


Introduction: In our Hearts, We’re all Sell-Outs

Money. That’s what it all really comes down to, doesn’t it? Would I write books if I weren’t getting paid? Probably. Would I have spent almost a decade writing book after book, working a graveyard shift so I could have time to write, if I hadn’t dreamed of getting published and someday making a living at my writing? Probably not.

It’s an odd balance, when you think about it. Writing is what I love—and yet, it’s become what I love because I’ve spent so much effort doing it. And, I spent so much effort on it because I wanted to someday get paid for it. Artistic integrity is great, but I don’t think that any artist in any medium would complain about getting paid a bit more for their masterpieces. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that secretly, no matter who they are, they believe that they deserve to get paid a bit more for their masterpieces. . . .

But, this week’s column isn’t really about writing. It’s not even really about publishing. It’s about webcomics—Scott Kurtz and PvP, specifically. Perhaps you’re tired of hearing about Scott—he does, on occasion, tend to stir things up in the community. Mostly, his remarks seem to be made in innocence—or, well . . . they at least seem to be made without any serious premeditation. (He kind of reminds me of my friend Alan, who once accidentally ‘outed’ Santa Claus from the podium at church.)

If you follow webcomics at all, you’ll know of Scott’s offer to let his webcomic, PvP, be carried free of charge by any newspaper that wants it. I’m not going to weigh in on the current argument regarding this move—we’ve had enough random philosophizing on this topic recently. However, I’d like to talk a little bit about the climate of the industry that allowed Scott to make an offer like this.

I see Scott Kurtz—and others like him, including Pete Abrams, the guys of Homestar Runner, our homicidal friends over at Penny Arcade, and any other number of successful web-run entertainment enterprises—as representing an interesting shift in the way our culture views and acquires amusement. If you are involved in any entertainment industry—whether it be writing fantasy novels, working in cinema, or drawing comics—I suggest that you take a long, hard look at what is happening in the webcomics community right now.

Part One: History Lessons for Fun and Profit

So, let’s start with a the past. How, historically, did artists make a living? Specifically, how did artists make money before the arrival of the modern era? Looking at things reductively, I’d say that most writers, painters, and composers who weren’t themselves independently wealthy had to depend on the kindness of wealthy benefactors. If an artist was well-connected, he could hopefully find wealthy patrons to support his work. If he wasn’t well-connected, he generally ended up on the street, working for tips.

Now, I’m very grateful that we now have a literate, leisure-oriented populace who can afford to buy entertainment in great quantities. Those of us who are willing to ‘sell-out’ can write their books—or paint their pictures, draw their comics, or film their movies—and earn a decent living at it.

However, the advent of this modern era has also lost us a few things. The artist is no longer directly connected to his audience. In order to mass-produce entertainment and deliver it to the large populations, a corporate presence needed to enter the picture. Agents, editors, syndicates, publishers, and corporations became a necessary force in the industry. The job just got too big for a single man to do on his own. How could you publish your material, negotiate bookstore contracts, hire cover artists, and get the necessary advertising for your stories and still spend time writing them?

Perhaps you see where this is going. In the internet, we have a new medium for the transference of information. And because of this, entertainment will change. The big corporations are becoming outdated—in truth, they were never there by choice, but only by necessity. In a way, they were an unnatural step placed between artist and consumer—a wedge that, for all its usefulness, forced the two apart.

Part Two: Webcomics as the Metaphor (and other Philosophical Ramblings)

Webcomics are a small, quirky segment of the market that really only draw the interest of a ‘geek’ crowd. Fifteen years ago, that same geek crowd were the ones interested in an obscure thing known as the internet. Even if you’re not amused by the comics themselves, even if you dismiss their market segment, I suggest that you consider their business model.

Because some of them are successful. Surprisingly successful. I don’t know for certain how much Scott Kurtz made last year, but I’m willing to bet it was more than a lot of novelists earned. I can guess, from interviews, what the Brothers Chaps made—and it seems easily in the mid six-figures. And yet, both forms of entertainment—PvP and Homestar Runner—give their product away for free. They do this through the use of a simple, time-honored business model: begging.

Yes, Penny Arcade sells t-shirts. Yes, Scott Kurtz has advertisements. But, the soul of what these guys are doing is the same as that of the street performers of old. They charm you with their wit, make you laugh at their antics, then bow and extend their hats, hoping you’ll toss in a bit or two to help support their families.

And it works. It works amazingly well. I consider myself to be something of a tightwad, yet every time I visit a webcomic, I have to hold myself back from buying their products. Not because I need another T-shirt, but because I see a simple and honorable motive behind what I’ve been given. These people entertain me for free, then ask that I support them so they can continue to do so.

This may seem like a small thing, but philosophically, it is majesty. In the internet, we—as a public—finally have an opportunity to vote securely for the entertainment we want to see succeed. Our money isn’t drawn, extorted, or forced out of us. Instead, we give it freely, because we gained true enjoyment. This is a more face-to-face, direct method of supporting the artist, and it turns us each into a kind of ‘wealthy patron’ of the arts.

This doesn’t happen anywhere else in our current culture, at least not on a large scale. Television is paid for by advertisers—and they control its content. Movies are paid for by viewers, but the payment comes BEFORE the movie is seen, and so our dollars don’t go to the movies that we truly think worthy of patronage—but to the movies whose advertisements and packaging enticed us best. With novels and music, perhaps, readers tend to support those artists that they come to enjoy. However, nothing seems as direct to me as the ‘Did you like my comic strip? If so, please pay me’ method.

Conclusion: Yes, I’m a Sappy Idealist

I know I sound a little utopian when I talk about things like this. And, truthfully, there are problems with the webcomic business model. It seems like it will only work well on a smaller scale—the ‘solitary artist’ working for a living, rather than the large scale production of a movie, or even a novel, which requires the work of editors, copyeditors, and other personnel. This model works well for webcomics because they can be enjoyed in a brief period of time, allowing them to cater to the general ‘short attention span’ websurfing mindset.

And, to be honest, I kind of like my industry the way it is. I like advances and royalties. I like working with an editor to improve my work. Yet, a piece of me wonders if this model couldn’t work for writing. If, during my years of trying to get published, I had been printing my daily creations on the web, would I have gained the kind of popularity of PvP or Penny Arcade? Would I be publishing novels for free, selling my own merchandise, and depending solely on the generosity of strangers for my upkeep?

It is a somewhat daunting way to live, I think. Yet, I give Scott and the others my earnest vote of support. There’s something pure about the way they are struggling to make their living. Perhaps the business model is flawed—perhaps only a few select people will be able to make their livings this way, and the internet won’t have the same impact on other forms of entertainment that it is beginning to have on the comic industry.

Either way, I’ll probably be sending Scott, Mike & Jerry, and Pete all copies of my book come May. They’ve made me laugh—they’ve made me think—for years. And they’ve done it completely free of charge.

Keep up the good work, guys. In a way, I envy you.

Brandon Sanderson
February, 2005

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Visit Homestar Runner

This article originaly appeard February 04, 2005 at The Official Time-Waster’s Guide.

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