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Shaenon K. Garrity Interview

 

[ Shaenon K. Garrity ]

This interview with webcomic writer and artist Shaenon K. Garrity was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Shaenon K. Garrity received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Shaenon K. Garrity was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in the Ohio suburbs, got a degree in English at Vassar College in upstate New York, and moved immediately to San Francisco. At present I live with my boyfriend and fellow cartoonist Andrew Farago, and have no life beyond drawing cartoons. I'm 24.

What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

Mixed-media forms of art, like comics, are interesting in that they blend aesthetic art—art we enjoy for its beauty or evocation of abstract feeling-with narrative art—art we enjoy for its ability to tell a story.

In this sense, comics are most similar to film, but comic art has its own unique strengths.

All of which is, I'm afraid, a million miles away from my very silly comic strip. But the blend of story and image is powerful even in the tightly-restrained format of the comic strip. People respond to comics.

Comics can communicate concrete ideas efficiently, evoke emotional responses with grace and humanity, and cross cultural barriers with relative ease.

Comics are strong stuff.

1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

What, the comics industry? In hindsight, it's pretty obvious: the big publishers mistook a fleeting trend—collecting comic books—for a lasting market change, and responded by turning most of their books into "collectors' items" that were, in many cases, unreadable as comics. They were shortsighted and, in many ways, did not prepare for the probability that the comics bubble would burst within a few years.

Marvel and the then-fledgling Image were perhaps the most egregious offenders (has anyone ever actually read an early Image comic?), but DC delivered one of the first and most crushing blows to the comics boom, by throwing all its marketing power into hyping a "Death of Superman" miniseries that was ugly as art, boring as a story, and, because it was massively overprinted, worthless as a collector's item. Excesses like this caused all but the most hardcore comics fans to flee the scene, leaving publishers with an audience consisting of a few handfuls of fanatical fanboys. That's still virtually all they have, which is bad news. Few industries can survive by catering only to their most passionate devotees.

For the past few years, we've seen the big companies trying to improve quality: better paper, big names from other industries, etc. Do you think that it had an impact on sales? What could be a key to solve the sales' problem?

There seems to have been a slight perk in the industry of late, especially at Marvel, but I think it has more to do with slightly smarter marketing and the opening of new sales venues (especially chain bookstores) than with glossy paper and the Kevin Smith brand name. The problem with the nice paper and the geek-celebrity writers is that they don't attract new readers; they just excite the fans who are already buying comics. The industry is in desperate need of new readers. Moving comics outside of comic book stores would attract new readers. Publishing and marketing comics aimed at a more diverse audience (and by this I mean ANY audience other than nerdy white teenage boys) would attract new readers. More creative advertising and marketing would attract new readers. Unfortunately, most comic book publishers hate money and would rather expend their energy on cloning the books they've already got to sell to the readers they've already hooked.

In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of-sometimes unnecessary-relaunches. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

In the short term, the gimmicks made money; in the long term, they turned buyers (I say "buyers," because I still find it hard to believe that most collectors even glanced through most of the comics they were buying in the '90s) off of comics. However, it's hard to feel sorry for people who bought (and, occasionally, still buy) variant covers. Either they genuinely liked the variant art, in which case they ended up with many pretty covers that made them happy, or else they only bought the comics in the hopes of cashing in on their supposed collector value, in which case they got exactly what they deserved. In either case, I can't really blame the publishers for providing what the public apparently wanted.

Too many relaunches in the '90s were completely unnecessary and confusing to readers, especially new readers. If a kid picks up the #1 issue of a comic and finds it in the middle of a long and incomprehensible storyline, the kid isn't likely to buy issue #2. This is another example of shortsightedness, poor planning, and badly-thought-out greed. Again, comic book publishers hate money.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

I hope that the monthly comic is not entirely replaced by the trade paperback, because monthlies, at least in theory, provide an ideal cheap testing ground for daring new comics. (In practice, of course, very little such testing occurs, because comic book publishers hate money.) However, the big publishers would be wise to invest more money and talent in trades. At present, Marvel, DC, and Image are getting their butts kicked in bookstores by smaller publishers with lots of initiative and high-quality products. Not only are the graphic novels produced by companies like Dark Horse, Oni, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and Viz often superior (and more accessible to ordinary non-fanboys) in content—they actually look better as books. Pick up the Ghost World trade put out by tiny Fantagraphics, or tinier Top Shelf's lovely Box Office Poison and Goodbye Chunky Rice books, or Dark Horse's pocket-size Lone Wolf and Cub trades. These are good-looking books. They look like something a normal person would like to buy. Marvel doesn't publish anything as attractive—or if it does, it prices it so high that only the hardcore fans will buy it.

Ironically, monthly comics and comic book specialty stores should be important to the industry primarily as venues for new, untested, small-press work: little boutique stores can nurture specialty and "art" comics, and the monthly format can give publishers a chance to test new material. Graphic novels and sales to huge chain stores should be the province of the big, successful, established comics. Instead, the reverse is happening: Jimmy Corrigan stands in the window of Barnes & Noble in bright, beautiful hardcover, while Superman cowers in small comic stores in flimsy monthly pamphlets. This represents lousy planning on the part of the big publishers, but, hey, small publishers and indies can clean up. Go us!

The early 90's saw the first digital lettering and coloring in American comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?

It certainly opened a new world of crappy coloring and lettering. Digital manipulation has indeed brought wonderful new possibilities to print comics, but I think that at present it's often clumsily used. There are precious few colorists working for the big publishers who do good computer coloring. Laura DePuy is one; Digital Chameleon also does some good work (and some garish work, unfortunately). The same goes for lettering: Todd Klein has quickly become the king of letterers simply by having some strong basic skills at creating computer fonts—skills almost no one else in the business seems to have. It's just embarrassing to open a comic by a major publisher and see MS Comic Sans Bold.

Already I see more good computer-manipulated work in mainstream comics, but I think it will take a couple more years to get the bad art flushed out of everyone's systems. In particular, I can't wait for colorists to get tired of giving everything on the page a glossy plasticine glow. Skin should not reflect bright patches of light. Fur should not reflect bright patches of light. Neither should brick, cement, rust, stone, or almost any other substance occurring in nature. Just because you *can* create an effect doesn't mean you should.

Also, although colorists and letterers have embraced computer manipulation, few other mainstream artists seem to be playing around with the possibilities offered by the computer. This is probably a byproduct of the penciller-inker system, as there really isn't a single artist producing the work, but I think the mainstream could benefit from an experimenter in the Jack Kirby tradition, someone who can't wait to jump in and play with Photoshop. Someone besides Scott McCloud, I mean. He can't do *everything*.

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

At the time, I was under ten, and had no opinions one way or the other.

I was aware of the Internet fairly early on, through my computer-geek uncle, and actually remember waiting for the first pages of Argon Zark! to slowly load on his little computer, but I didn't have regular Internet access until college.

My strip is two years old, which means that I came into webcomics at a time when the Internet was suddenly flooded with 'em. Right now is a very exciting time to be part of the webcomics world: there are literally thousands of comics available, and a lot of them are very good. We're getting more webcomics from people with backgrounds in art and graphic design; it's no longer the case that most webcartoonists are computer geeks first and cartoonists second. A lot of neat stuff is happening very quickly.

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward a male audience in its 20's?

Pretty much, at least the stuff from the big publishers. As always, indie and small-press comics are much more diverse.

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive?

Not particularly. People willingly pay five dollars and up for magazines. If they won't pay three dollars for a comic, the comic simply isn't offering anything they want.

When you go to comic book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising has to offer? What do you think of that merchandising?

I like merchandising! Really, I have no qualms about tasteful tie-in merchandise. And I like toys. They are, however, no substitute for good comics. The comic and the merchandise are very different things.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find paper and digital artists. Some paper artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

Not so much, now that more pro artists, cartoonists, and designers are moving online. Look at Modern Tales, the subscription collective to which I belong. We've got established webcartoonists who specialize in work for Internet publication (Cat Garza, John Barber), professional comic book artists who have done major print work (James Kochalka, Lea Hernandez, Tom Hart), up-and-coming cartoonists from the minicomics scene (Jason Shiga, Jesse Hamm, Dorothy Gambrell), and commercial artists and graphic designers for whom webcartooning is a way to test the waters of comic art (Chuck Whelon, Jim Zubkavich.) Some of the Modern Tales cartoonists fall into multiple categories; Roger Langridge, for example, is a graphic designer who started drawing Fred the Clown as a print comic, but moved it online when he lost his publisher; now he produces both print and online versions of Fred.

The Comics Journal loves to pretend that there's a vast gulf between print and web-based comics, and some publishers possibly resent webcomics because they've yet to find a way to make money on the Web (StanLee.net was a spectacular failure; CrossGen Online has a better chance of success but is still too young to produce definite results), but most smart artists, I think, see the Internet as just another available route to publication.

It's much the same as the supposed gulf between "mainstream" and "indie" comics, a gulf that's crossed on a regular basis by countless artists just looking for honest work.

Many forgotten artists who can't find a job in the industry because they are told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions on their personal websites. Others create those digital comics but don't really make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

I don't think there is a single solution to the problems in the comic book industry. However, one of the industry's biggest problems is getting comics where potential new readers can see them, and the Internet can be part of the solution to that problem. Another problem is the low influx of new talent, as the barriers to getting published and noticed grow higher; the Internet can provide a forum for new talent, too. In general, people working in the comics industry, including individual artists, need to think creatively and reasonably about all the resources available to them, and not shut out one potential resource because it's weird or new or threatening.

Every little bit helps.

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

For simplicity's sake, I try to think of every comic that appears online as a webcomic. I am, however, especially excited by comics that make use of elements that are only possible through computer and/or Internet presentation. These include the "infinite canvas" comics that make use of scrolling to take on interesting shapes, like Cat Garza's Magic Inkwell" or Demian5's When I Am King; comics that incorporate animation, like John Barber's Vicious Souvenirs; comics with clickable interactive elements, like Tracy White's Traced; and comics that rely on constant and immediate reader feedback, like Jesse Reklaw's Slow Wave (which also happens to be one of the earliest webcomics.)

There is a fine line between webcomics and web animation. At this point, I cannot say with any certainty where that line can or should be drawn.

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

Sure. Online, the barrier to publication is very low. This means that a lot of subpar comics make it online, but it also means that virtually every point of view is expressed. It's pretty cool.

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

Even with lots of money and resources, it's hard to fight piracy. For the individual webcartoonist, the best recourse may be simply to make it clear to readers that information theft hurts a real, live person. For example, about a month ago I learned that a guy had found a backdoor into Modern Tales (which is not difficult; Joey Manley built the site with minimal fortifications, on the logic that people were visiting MT to support the artists, not to steal from them) and was distributing my archived strips from his website. I wrote and asked him to stop, or at least to stop advertising it on his site. He did so immediately and was very polite and apologetic about it, and generally turned out to be a great guy. Of course, I'm dreading the day I attract a pirate who isn't so nice...

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

I would be very happy to think that my work helps to undermine the collector mentality in the comics industry. It's great that there are people willing to buy every single issue of a comic, no matter how lousy, just for the sake of owning it, but *relying* on these collectors to provide most of a company's income is a stupid idea, and it's one of the main reasons the industry is in such crummy shape right now.

Wanting to be able to touch and hold a comic is another issue entirely.

"You can't take it into the bathroom" is probably the single criticism webcartoonists are most tired of hearing (plus, if you've got the right hardware, it's not even true anymore). I think there will always be a desire and a market for print comics, but I also think that people will become increasingly accustomed to webcomics as well. Also, it seems that most webcomic readers are not comic book readers; webcomics are attracting a different audience. Again, I think it's smartest to see the situation not as competition between print and web, with only one emerging victorious, but as an opportunity for cross-pollination.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

I don't know yet, because not enough webcartoonists have gotten paid. I do think that it's wise for webcartoonists to be creative in finding ways to make money from their strips, and not rely on just one method. I've sold merchandise, books, minicomics, original art, commissioned work, and, through Modern Tales, subscriptions. The subscription system works best for me; it makes far more money for me than anything else I've tried (not that this is saying much), and I feel most comfortable with it. I like the idea that people are paying directly for the opportunity to read my webcomic, and not indirectly through merchandise or advertising space. (I do still sell merchandise, but I'd prefer that it not be my primary method of making money.) The subscription model has a lot of potential, and I hope it takes off.

lthough most of the established webcomic success stories (Sluggy Freelance, PvP, User Friendly) are solo efforts, I think that the next big step for webcomics will be increasing cooperation and group efforts.

Keenspot has provided a model that many webcartoonists envy and seek to emulate: a collective of webcomics surviving through cross-promotion.

Modern Tales is an even chummier effort, because the cartoonists all pool and split the money the site makes. Banding together allows webcartoonists to make more money and get more attention than any of them could manage individually. It also provides other webcartoonists with something to shoot for: you can start as a solo webcomic, then advance to the point at which you can join a collective. A usable system is slowly emerging; now we just need to see if it actually makes money in the long term.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. We can also use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. Finally, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story. Do you think that digital comics offer more possibilities as far as composition is concerned?

Certainly, although usually my comic is a traditional four-panel strip. The one unique property of the web I do use is the one least often mentioned by critics and web gurus: the ability to tell long serial stories. Newspaper syndicates now shy away from comic strips that tell long stories; comic book publishers love long stories, the more labyrinthine the better, much to the frustration of new readers. Online, following an ongoing comic is easy. Readers can see not only the most recent installment, but the entire archive—available at the click of a mouse. For me, this means an opportunity to tell long but complete stories in the style of classic comic strips, without confusing readers (much). I love being able to do this. The story I'm telling in Narbonic could not be told in a modern newspaper.

Do you think that scrolling is the main limitation of digital comics?

Absolutely not. I don't understand why people complain about scrolling. From what I can tell, the people who most frequently insist that webcomics shouldn't scroll are programmers or web designers who had it drilled into them at some point that Scrolling Is Bad. I don't think scrolling is a limitation. That's like saying that the main limitation of comic books is that you have to turn the pages. If anything, the scroll opens up a lot of cool possibilities for composition. Of course, it is very possible to create unpleasant, distracting scrolling. Some webcartoonists create comic book-style page layouts that translate poorly onto the screen, forcing the reader to scroll clumsily back and forth and up and down. A cartoonist should always consider which layouts are appropriate for his or her medium.

One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes?

What do you think of them? Haven't seen many. I don't know much about the online film world, so I can't comment.

We talked earlier about the unlimited space and animated digital comics. Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

I suppose so, but I'd have to see an example.

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

Definitely. The challenge is separating the good new voices from the not-so-good, and making sure that the really talented new artists get noticed amid all the noise.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

Either that, or potential new artists will flee in terror from the complete lack of money! However, I do think that the webcomics produced over the next few years will be increasingly inventive, exciting, and beautiful. It will be a fun time to be reading comics.

 

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