There’s some disagreement about where it started, but it couldn’t have been much earlier than Steve Niles’ blog post, which is where I first heard about it. Some credit Eric Powell and it’s true that this is a drum that he’s been beating for a while now. As has Robert Kirkman and others. But Niles’ post last week called for specific action (that doesn't necessarily require walking away from well-paying corporate gigs) and inspired a flurry of opinions and commentary about supporting creator-owned comics and what that really means. Readers and creators alike have been talking so excitedly about it that some have called it a revolution. But is that really what it is? And if so, a revolution of what? Since most of the books this column covers are creator-owned, these are good questions to try to answer here.
When Kevin quoted Niles’ post for Robot 6, he pulled this piece of it: “Can I say something I’ve wanted to say for a long time? If you like something, tell your friends. If you love it, tell the world. But if you hate something, just throw it away, don’t buy it again and move on. We spend way too much time tearing shit down. I just want to try the other direction for a while.”
The commentary on that quote was split between defensive and supportive. “I don’t get that logic,” wrote one person. “That’s like going to see a movie and finding out it’s really, really horrible. Then you hear that a dozen of your friends are going to see that same movie. Wouldn’t you want to warn them about what they are about to endure, the time they will waste, the money they will lose, etc, etc?”
It’s a good point. Should comics commentary be 100% positive or is there room for serious criticism? I think that writer B Clay Moore’s comment on that same post speaks to this. “I’d love to see sniggering snark eliminated from comic book blogging and reviewing. A renewed focus on promoting the positive is something anyone should be able to get behind.” Without putting words into Moore’s mouth, I don’t hear him saying that there’s no place for serious criticism. For him, it seems to be more about the tone. I would agree.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about manga-blogger David Welsh’s distinction between criticism and reviewing. “Reviewers are offering advice to consumers,” he wrote, “while critics are engaging in a more canonical discussion.” Both of those are valid reasons to write about comics and neither is inherently nobler than the other. But they do have different relationships to less-than-positive commentary.
Criticism, by Welsh’s definition, requires some objective distance between the comic and the person writing about it. The critic has to be able to talk about what works and what doesn’t in a way that doesn’t take into consideration how much money was spent on it.
Reviewing, on the other hand, which is what the vast majority of online comics commentary is, is intimately tied to personal investment, whether financial or just the amount of time spent consuming the story. As the commentator said above, “Wouldn’t you want to warn your friends about what they were about to endure?”
Well, sure. But there are different ways to do that. You can calmly share your opinions and talk about what didn’t work for you without what Moore calls the “sniggering snark.” Too many readers and reviewers seem to take malicious glee in tearing apart comics that they aren’t enjoying without seriously engaging the work. Granted, not all work deserves serious engagement, but it’s not hard to tell which books those are and to avoid them. After a point, it becomes a case of “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If you know you don’t like a particular storyteller or type of story or tone of comic, but you read it anyway, you sort of lose the right to be taken seriously when you complain about it, don’t you? As another commentator to Kevin’s post said, “Maybe there’d be a lot less whining and curmudgeonry in Internet comic fan circles if people just read and talked about the comics they liked, and stopped buying the comics they didn’t.”
Not everyone agrees of course. That last commenter I quoted prefaced his remark by saying that he’s been told his opinion is naïve. And there’s certainly a reason that there’s so much snark on the Internet: people love to read it. I tend to be a positive-thinking hippie like Niles, but I’ve also caught myself chuckling at Abhay Khosla and Tucker Stone from time to time. I don’t regularly read those guys, because it gets to be a bit much after a review or two, but they’re excellent writers and I do get the attraction.
I kind of feel about them like I do hot peppers though. A little in the dish adds some zing that I appreciate and even like, but too much is overwhelming and ruins the meal. There are too many folks trying to be Khosla and Stone and it’s destroyed the online comics discussion for a lot of people.
Unfortunately, the traditional response to that hasn’t been very helpful either. Complaining about snark is just as useless as the snark itself. Less so, because it doesn’t even have entertainment value. So the Internet discussion has largely degenerated into a bunch of people complaining about everything. That's not news to anyone, I know, but this is what I see Niles and others trying to change.
When I hear words like “creator-owned comics revolution,” my first thought is that creator-owned comics are going to take down Marvel and DC as the top-selling comics in the US. I would love to see creator-owned books sharing the Direct Market best-seller lists with the Big Two, but I don’t know how realistic that is. At best, it’s a long term goal. (It’s already happened with self-contained graphic novels and bookstores, but the focus of the current discussion seems to be mostly on serialized periodicals and the DM.) So it’s not particularly valuable to see the current mood as the start of some kind of Big Two takedown, but then again, Niles’ comments don't even remotely suggest that. What he’s recommending is revolutionary in another way.
Skottie Young clearly identified the real problem on his Twitter feed. In response to Eric Powell’s continued (as Powell calls it) “farting and bitching,” Young wrote, “I'm interested in hearing your thoughts. Will you be providing actual solutions or just old fashion bitching?” Later, to Scott Wegener, Young wrote, “If you were to write detailed blogs about said books and why you like them, I and probably others would retweet. This would help direct me. Telling me what's wrong doesn't actually give me a direction. Tell me what's right leads me to it.”
Later, on his blog, he said, “As comic creators, we're lucky to have our fans, and in the day of instant social networking we have their ears on stand-by. So I'll put out the call for everyone who has a blog or Twitter account. Spread the word on the books you read and enjoy that may not get the attention you think they deserve. It's not about dissing the books that get attention, it’s about propping up the ones that need more. Give links to Amazon, or your local shop that has it in stock.” This is also what Niles is recommending.
In that initial post that Kevin quoted, Niles also wrote, “All I’m doing lately is attempting to call attention to creator-owned books. I think plain and simple, things are going to get even tougher out there and we have to find our place. Personally I believe there is severe lack of cooperation among creators. There’s a very dog-eat-dog mentality in comics sometimes and I think all we harm in the end is ourselves. My simplistic solution right now is to support as many of my fellow creators as possible. We just don’t have access to publicity budgets, so simple grassroots networking can help us all a great deal.”
To that end, Niles has announced that he’s going to start a column devoted to spotlighting creator-owned work and has requested that creators contact him about potential coverage. Young has already begun putting action to his thoughts on his own blog by recommending I Kill Giants and promising every Monday to continue showcasing a different book that he’s enjoying. And he’s rubbed off on at least Scott Wegener who also resolves to write occasional recommendations for books he’s enjoying.
That’s a revolution. Wegener in particular admits that this isn’t his default setting. For creators to take an active role in promoting the work of other, worthy creator-owned projects is huge and I’m looking forward to it. I hope it catches on in a big way. I’ll be closely following the recommendations of Niles, Young, and Wegener and any other creators who are willing to jump on board.
It’s one thing to read the opinions of reviewers and critics. Regardless of their respective abilities to put thoughts into words, their opinions only hold so much weight. But when a creator whose work I admire takes the time to recommend something that he or she is enjoying, I notice that more. “If you like my stuff,” it says, “you may enjoy this too.” After all, it was Steve Niles who introduced me to Charles Burns and Sam Hiti who turned me on to Richard Sala.
The creators can only do so much though. A revolution in their way of thinking and approaching their community is important, but it only truly affects the industry with the participation of readers. For my part, I promise to buy one new comic a week based on the recommendations of Niles, Young, Wegener, and anyone else who chooses to join them. This week, I’ll go to my shop looking for I Kill Giants. Chris Smits and Patrick Brower offer an additional resource in their Creator-Owned Comics blog, but however you get your recommendations and whichever creator-owned book you choose to try, I hope that that some of you will join me.