Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part VI: On Greatest Lists and the State of Webcomics

Finally, on to the second of the two topics that spawned this series.

The Floating Lightbulb is interesting enough that I’m considering adding it to my RSS reader. And I’m not just saying that to get onto its webcomic blog list. I have a feeling Bengo would probably berate me for focusing too much on the old popular, “self-promoting” comics and not enough on smaller comics that could actually use the attention, even though I do still have an open channel for people to e-mail me with comics they think I should review at mwmailsea at yahoo dot com, even if the comic isn’t their own. (Note, Bengo: for just the webcomics posts and not the other junk, be sure to include /search/label/webcomics in the URL!)

And really, that problem is at the heart of one of Bengo’s issues with Xaviar Xerexes.

I’m probably going to do a review of the Floating Lightbulb itself one day, and when I do I’m probably going to say that Bengo is a more cerebral John Solomon. Bengo doesn’t hate all webcomics – though the Floating Lightbulb doesn’t do much in the way of actual reviews at all – but he certainly seems to hate most of the personages in mainstream webcomics. In his eyes, most big-time webcomics creators are self-promoting jerks who probably cheated to get to the top and as such are bad role models, and most webcomic bloggers are ego-strokers, often with rampant conflicts of interest, who shill the same comics over and over again. Not every webcomic blog gets this charge, not even biggies Tangents and Websnark; mostly the vitriol goes to Gary “Fleen” Tyrell and Xerexes, proprietor of Comixtalk.

Xerexes has been working with his readers for the better part of a year now on a project to list the “100 greatest webcomics”. For Bengo, this project is more than a questionable idea producing an arbitrary and opinionated ranking. It’s serious business.

Back in November, Bengo published a lengthy list of objections to the project, and mused about it further about a month ago. One of Bengo’s bigger concerns is not merely that the list will route people to the same webcomics that are already popular while “impoverishing” smaller titles, but will mislead journalists in a similar fashion, “resulting in lazy, redundant coverage” and possibly discrediting webcomics itself (not to mention the list) if the aforementioned “bad role models” (not to mention just plain bad comics) are exposed and ridiculed (“THESE are the greatest webcomics?”)

I don’t think the situation is as dire as Bengo suggests, and Xerexes in his list’s latest incarnation has indirectly responded to at least some of his concerns. Bengo’s first post seems to be working on the assumption that the “greatest” list would in fact be a mutation of a “most popular” list. By contrast, Bengo would seemingly prefer it take the form of a “best” list, which would not only be forever under construction, but forever incomplete and to some extent influenced by popularity, since no matter how many webcomics you’ve looked at there’s probably some comic out there read by maybe five people that’s greater than whatever 200 webcomics you have on your list.

If we’re working on the sort of criteria that shaped the AFI’s greatest movies list (which all of these Internet “100 greatest” lists cite for some reason. My inspiration is VH1’s fixation with such lists, not exclusively AFI.), however, the exclusion of “quality” as a criterion in favor of popularity is to some measure excused by the fact that neither would really be as influential as influence, which is more influenced by popularity than in a medium as diverse as film. Making a “greatest” list as opposed to “best” or “most popular” also should make the list more useful as an entry point for journalists: we wouldn’t be saying these are necessarily the cream of the crop and the very best webcomics, but they are certainly important, and here’s why. One of the things I’ve been thinking about the role of the Greatest Movies Project is as a survey of film history for the layman; by moving from movie to movie, and reading what was said about each, a reader could get a better appreciation of “how we got here” and of the milestones of film history.

If Ctrl+Alt+Del were to make it on a “greatest webcomics” list, it wouldn’t be because of its popularity so much as the fact it’s had more influence on the form of copycat gaming comics, for better and for worse, than, say, Penny Arcade. (Mostly for worse, so if CAD is even in the top 75 of any list, I’d start sympathising with Bengo. And I’m at least a marginal CAD fan.)

But I do have some quibbles with Xerexes himself. For one, I don’t think webcomics as a medium are old enough or mature enough to support a full-on 100 greatest list; it’ll be definitely scraping the bottom of the barrel when you get to the bottom. You could maybe support a top 20, but I’d be hard pressed to think of enough webcomics influential enough to fill out even that list: Penny Arcade, Sluggy Freelance, Girl Genius, xkcd, PVP, Dinosaur Comics, umm, User Friendly, Order of the Stick (only because of the copycat webcomics it spawned), Irregular Webcomic… ummm… maybe Perry Bible FellowshipBob and GeorgeThe Devil’s Panties… does Dilbert count? can you tell I’m really reaching for candidates and I’ve only just now reached 13? Imagine the sort of webcomics Xerexes will have to come up with for the 80s and 90s!

More to the point, I certainly hope the lists he has now aren’t ranked yet, if not to fix some questionable-at-best rankings (Sluggy, quite possibly the most influential webcomic not named Penny Arcade if not overall, as low as #6 on the comedy list, and Diesel Sweeties at #5? OOTS at #13 on the comedy list alone, so probably lower on the final one? Kevin and Kell, which I just mentally added to my overall top 20 above, at #19 on comedy, which means it won’t make it into said top 20 on the final list? Dinosaur Comics at #24 on comedy? The drama list led by Nowhere Girl, a comic I hadn’t even heard of, whose main credential is winning an Eisner – worthy of my overall top 20 but hardly enough for #1? Dresden freaking Codak as high as #12 on drama? CAD not listed anywhere when neither list has reached #100 yet, regardless of what you think about its quality? That’s before getting into the classification of some of the strips in one class or the other…) then to avoid rendering the release of the final list anticlimactic.

To some extent, Xerexes has already ruined the anticipation for the release of the final list by putting out his various draft lists and involving the people in the construction; for someone who’s been running a comics news site as long as he has, it seems odd that he still has to hit up his readers for ideas. The AFI precedes the releases of its various lists by putting out unranked lists of 400-500 nominees for its panel to vote on; Xerexes’ most recent list being split into separate comedy and drama lists may reflect the wisdom of that approach. (I can’t begrudge no further splits or longer lists when neither list has even hit 100 on their own yet. Incidentially, the relative paucity of dramatic webcomics may also hint at questioning whether webcomics are mature enough to have this kind of list.)

To go further, I suggest that when the final list is revealed, if Xerexes isn’t planning to do so already, rather than release the whole thing at once the same as the draft lists and not only defuse the anticipation but reduce the distinction between the final and drafts (another concern of Bengo’s), reveal each comic one at a time, accompanying each with a short essay on the webcomic in question and why it belongs on the list. That would allow the list to be a real resource to anyone looking to dip their toe into webcomics, and allow it to be a potential help to webcomics rather than a potential hindrance in the vein Bengo fears.

I also have a concern about apples-and-oranges comparisons, but not those of Xerexes (comedy v. drama) or Bengo (ongoing series v. finished series), though it’s similar to Bengo’s and he touches on this in the first post. I started this series (paradoxically, in Part II) talking about how there were, for a long time, two forms of comic (books and strips) and how webcomics have joined them. (Xerexes is on record as agreeing with me here that webcomics belong at the same table with comic books and strips.) I’ve seen “greatest comic books” lists and at least one “greatest comic strips” list, but you’d be hard pressed to find a single unified “greatest comic” list combining the two. There are just so many differences between the book and strip forms, and they’ve had such a different history, and that’s even considering the fact a lot of comic books are periodicals much like strips. (How do you compare Action Comics as a whole with Peanuts as a whole?) In a form with facets of both, how do you compare the two? How do you compare one-shot infinite canvas comics of the sort Scott McCloud supports and other one-timers fairly with more periodical comics? If you exclude the former, do you risk excluding some of the real pioneers of the medium? (Are any true pioneers like Cat Garza represented anywhere as is?)

I think that, done right, a “greatest webcomics” list could do a lot to ease newbies into webcomics and help legitimize it as a medium (or a form of a medium). (A “greatest comic books” list helped ease me into that medium.) If nothing else, it would be an entertaining excersize and debate. But I have, as I get the sense Bengo has, a bit of a concern whether or not webcomics have done enough to deserve such a list yet. Are there enough “great” or influential webcomics? Do webcomics represent a diverse enough experience or are they loaded with nothing but ha-ha? And perhaps most important, are there webcomics good enough, serving as good enough “role models”, to truly justify the praise given to them? Even on my “top 20” list above, how many would remain on even a top 100 list in just 10 years if the potential of webcomics are sufficiently explored by then? I say PA, Sluggy, Nowhere Girl, Dinosaur Comicsxkcd, and some comics (Girl Genius, Irregular Webcomic) that will prove more influential later than they are now… and that may be it. Odd as it sounds, even PVP, Megatokyo, and User Friendly will have to fight for a spot, and only time will tell if even comics as critically acclaimed as OOTS and Gunnerkrigg Court prove influential enough and stand the test of time enough to make the list and score a high ranking.

This is webcomics’ identity crisis: this basic insecurity over acceptance in the wider world of comics, and in the world at large, rooted in our own insecurity of our own worthiness and conflicted with our quest for a separate identity from comic strips and books. We seek acceptance because we seek validation for this silly little ritual of ours, that what we’re doing is truly worthy of being considered an art form. It’s a battle that’s been waged before by all new media since the beginning of time. Even theatre and printing were perhaps once dismissed as a vulgar diversion for the masses. Comics fought long and hard for acceptance in the pantheon of art and it wasn’t until the 80s and 90s when they started to get it, thanks to material that finally showed comics had grown up, not to mention the birth of a scholarly tradition of the material with Understanding Comics. Even within comics, comic books were once dismissed as inferior to the strip format until Superman came along.

Webcomics have its Superman (called Penny Arcade) but they still have insecurity. I still have insecurity. Before I started this series and probably even after I wondered why I was focusing on webcomics, such a sketchily-defined subset of comic strips or of comics in general… I considered doing a 20 Greatest Webcomics project before I heard of Xerexes’ effort but wondered if it was worth separating from comic strips and comics in general… Thoughts like these could be holding webcomics back. (Don’t even mention its place as a subset of Internet art.) Webcomics are still a young medium (for the most part, significantly younger than I am, so very literally in adolescence – film started getting introduced to the world in 1893 but Birth of a Nation blew the lid off its potential in 1915, so we still have six years or so to go), not only unsure of where its future lies but of what its basic identity is. It still clings to Scott McCloud’s advocacy, though it is starting to wean itself of that, and only slowly starting to round into permanent shape. It still clings to the past, to its mothers. Most of what it considers “great” is still ongoing – which means most of what it will consider “great” probably hasn’t started (or been discovered) yet.

At the same time, webcomics have a lot to be proud of. We’re ahead of the curve compared to a lot of other fields when it comes to the Internet and making it in this strange new medium. At least some of us have found a stopgap revenue stream, and even that is enough to bring hope and promise that will attract more people to our little corner of the Internet. The quest for revenue models has blessed us with a lot of wisdom everyone else on the Internet would be wise to consider. We’ve developed a tradition of criticism already that challenges webcomics and pushes them to be better. Our artistic aspirations drive us higher and higher, and we’re starting to get some webcomics really worthy of praise compared to other media. There’s still a ways to go, but we’ve built a good foundation. Which is why right now we have one foot in two worlds.

This is a critical, exciting time in webcomics, one I hope no one takes for granted. Not only is our form going through the difficult, exciting process of maturation, we may now stand poised for a potential revolution that will affect the course of our medium for all time. Between the ongoing recession (which will have a profound impact throughout the Internet) and the changing circumstances of the rest of the comics industry, the future is now, and it has the potential, depending on the influx of talent from refugees, to take all of us for a wild ride. Perhaps these new developments will be what finally gets webcomics out of its identity crisis and allows it to come into its own as a cultural and aesthetic art form.

And perhaps it’ll propel us ever closer to that day when we will look at a list of “100 greatest webcomics” and not bat any more of an eye than we would for an equivalent list in any other art form.

I can’t wait to see what it would look like, and I imagine it would include at least some comics we can’t even imagine today (though some fledgling comics earning those first snippets of praise and pushing into Tier 2 now, like Union of Heroes, may well rank highly when that day comes).

But I also can’t wait to see how we get there.

At any rate, it appears I’ve incorporated the epilogue into this sixth part. So I’m scheduling this post for a post time of Friday, even though I’m wrapping it up at 11:30 PM.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*