Last week, I may have had some strong, and perhaps uncharitable words towards comic book-derived media franchises and the superheroes on which they are based.
Let it not be said, however, that I am no fan of comic artists in general. Indeed, much of my superhero fatigue is due to the fact that there is so much untapped potential in the wide variety of comics and graphic novels. Unfortunately, Leeman and I did not make it to this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival. Such is being the parents of a toddler. But TCAF is always a good time to check out new quirky artists. Some series. Some, well … comic. But it is nothing if not a celebration of how diverse the art form of using pictures to tell all sorts of stories has become in recent years.
Though we didn’t get a chance to get to TCAF, we did at least try to make up for it by watching the documentary Stripped by Dave Kellett, one of my favourite web cartoonists. (I’m not sure what it says about me that according to Leeman Dave Kellett once [endearingly?] described the key attribute defining readers of his web comic “Sheldon” as an affinity for comfortable shoes.) It was a fascinating exploration of how the world of daily comic strips has transformed and continues to be transforming from the days when “comic strips” meant syndicated strips appearing in newspapers. The film spoke with many of the often unseen creators behind popular syndicated strips like “Cathy”, “Foxtrot”, “Pearls before Swine”, even getting a rare audio-recorded interview with “Calvin and Hobbes” creator (and fellow Kenyon alumnus) Bill Watterson. But perhaps more importantly, the film featured in depth interviews with the creators of many recent web comics, like PVP, Unshelved, and Hark a Vagrant (just to name some of my favourites).
There is much to be explored an discussed in the changing landscape of comic strips, as print media loses its monopoly on information distribution and more and more people look to digital sources for news and entertainment. But what struck me in listening to the traditionally successful syndicated artists vs. the emerging online content creators is an attitude of fear vs. openness. Sure, letting go of traditional models of content distribution is stepping into a world of uncertainty for these artists. And it puts a lot more burden on artists to “drum up” business for themselves. On the other hand, it also gives them direct control over their content and allows them to have direct access to their audiences, without having to go through mediators, like agents and syndicates. If you ask me, that’s good news for both artists and consumers alike. Honestly, the documentary reminded me that I have barely looked at a syndicated comic strip (aside from maybe “Calvin and Hobbes”) for years. It’s not that they aren’t good. They are just very … safe. You always know the sort of jokes that you’re going to get when you pick up Garfield or Peanuts, or even something as fun as Fox Trot. Web comics, on the other hand, are bound by no rules other than those they create for themselves. Even more important, direct access to potential readers leads to a truly democratic outlook on which artists might succeed or fail. This means more opportunities for women, minorities, or any other “non-traditional” artist to have opportunities for success, and they get it! It’s a wide, risky, wonderful new world out there for creative types. Just ask my husband. Literally, ask him … that’s what he does.
I get hesitant when we start making sweeping connections between some avenue of secular life and what that means for life in the church. So I shall refrain from doing so here. All I will say is that it is no secret to any of us in any avenue of life that we live in a period of great cultural shifts. How we consume media, how we relate to each other online, and how we think about our spirituality. It is worth considering whether we look at such transition with fear because it might not look exactly like what came before, or if we look at transition with a sense of wonder at what untapped potential might be found if we let go of a “business as usual” model.
The most fascinating aspect of Stripped for me was in how much the web cartoonist still identified themselves as … cartoonists. As in the same vocation as their syndicated predecessors. Many of them set up their online strips in attempt to become syndicated artists. In other words, they are not iconoclasts, with no respect for the foundations of their creative work. They do not see themselves as doing something radically new or different. They just refuse to be limited by the same set of arbitrary rules in a new technological world that opens up unforeseen and as yet limitless opportunities. That is absolutely fascinating to me. And it speaks to a willingness to see the changing world around us with hope and openness, but also with humility. That is powerful, challenging … and perhaps even spiritual.