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.
What do you find
in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of
Mixed-media forms of
art, like comics, are interesting in that they blend
aesthetic artart we enjoy for its beauty or evocation
of abstract feeling-with narrative artart we enjoy
for its ability to tell a story.
In this sense, comics
are most similar to film, but comic art has its own
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 trendcollecting comic booksfor
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 contentthey 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 attractiveor if it does, it prices
it so high that only the hardcore fans will buy it.
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 fontsskills 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
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
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
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
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
Barber), professional comic book artists who have
done major print work (James
Hart), up-and-coming cartoonists from the minicomics
scene (Jason Shiga, Jesse
Gambrell), and commercial artists and graphic designers
for whom webcartooning is a way to test the waters of
comic art (Chuck
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
Inkwell" or Demian5's
I Am King; comics that incorporate animation, like
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
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
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
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
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?
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 archiveavailable 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
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