On the way into Easthampton, I joked to myself that it was good I had Mapquested the event, because just following strange-looking people in the Northampton area wouldn't necessarily get you to the webcomics gathering. But I found that there weren't a lot of obsessively odd people in the crowd.
Webcomics skew notably towards science fiction and geek humor, but they are a mainstream medium and the level of purposeful eccentricity at NEWW was very low. Even the level of unintentional eccentricity was no higher than you'd see at any book signing.
In fact, I've been to a Harry Potter midnight release party and it was considerably more off-the-wall than NEWW, and J.K.Rowling wasn't even on the continent, much less in the room.
There was a lot of laughter and a lot of conversation, but it was basically a mass book-signing event, with this important difference:
What makes webcomic fans so loyal is the sense of community that springs up around a successful webcomic. This doesn't necessarily mean a lot of emailing back-and-forth with individual fans, but it does mean creating place online where they can feel their input and their presence is of value to you and perhaps has some effect on the cartoon itself. "Success" and "community" are inseparable, and it's a major reason why, as mentioned yesterday, you can't hide in your garret churning out amazing art and expect to succeed in this medium.
I even heard Scott Adams spoken of with admiration, not because Dilbert is a brilliantly drawn strip and not because it has retained its cutting edge relevance but because he has created an empire based on spinoff products and web toys. And Adams has always solicited ideas and commentary from his readers; he was active on line almost as soon as there was an online upon which to be active.
The praise surprised me because, among many syndicated cartoonists, the vibe is that Dilbert is a strip that has lost its freshness and that Adams has become a commercial hack, simply exploiting the strip's popularity among cubicle dwellers. (Which would be a more stinging criticism if syndicated cartoonists weren't also working to please an audience and prone to settling into a comfortable groove that is often indistinguishable from a rut.)
But, upon reflection, Adams is a model for web cartoonists. The trick in web cartooning is to create something that appeals to a niche audience and then assemble that niche and mold it into a community. For the majority who can do this, it's not a trick. It's just what is.
There is a generational issue here: Syndicated cartoonists, like other over-40-year-olds in the communications field, talk about getting online, getting on Facebook, getting on Twitter, and it's a bit like the capital-P Playboy who sets up his love nest with the right music, the right lighting, a bit of champagne. It's just a bit too much conscious effort. If you have to try to be cool, well ...
I finally got to meet Dylan Meconis, an artist I've worked with for about five years, ever since she was a senior at Wesleyan, which means she was a year old when I bought my first computer. What I had to learn, she was born into. You don't have to explain the concept of "wet" to a fish, and you probably couldn't.
She is brilliant and funny and one helluvan artist, and there are specific reasons why she is successful online. Some of it is some fortunate timing: Her graphic farce, "Bite Me!" is about vampires in the French Revolution, and you may note that vampires have a certain appeal in the current culture. However, she drew the comic when she was still in high school, which is not that long ago in Old Fart years but is well before "Twilight" hit the market.
Dylan sells stickers that say "Real Vampires Don't Fricking Sparkle," but admits to feeling some guilt over slagging the teeny-bop romance series, since she owes a fair amount to the fad launched by Twilight.
But timing works both ways: She's trying to get a graphic novel on mythology commercially published, and is finding that the Percy Jackson books have stolen the niche and made her work seem redundant. And young readers are not reachable online, she suggests and I agree. Reading things, even comics, isn't what they do online. For them, print is still the medium of choice.
Her other, current project, "Family Man," is darker and is set in 18th Century Germany. So far, no teeny-bog romantics have latched on to the universe she describes in the introduction to this continuing saga: "The Age of Faith and the Age of Beauty have both run their course, and now it’s Reason’s turn to try to explain the human condition."
"I hear from a lot of history teachers, and history nerds generally," she cheerfully explains, but that's how webcomics work: You don't need a huge mainstream demographic, because, if you appeal to a well-defined niche, it doesn't matter how widely they are scattered.
What matters is how you help them find you, and this is where serendipity and being born in an on-line world combine with grassroots marketing. When I first worked with her, she was part of a small group of a half-dozen artists who shared the cost of traveling to conventions and generally getting by, but she is now in a collective of two dozen artists who also share studio space and marketing leads. There is also an interactivity within these ad hoc communities, so that someone visiting one website is apt to be sent on to another, and this is how audience builds.
It's not that syndicated cartoonists couldn't do all this. But having a nice comic is only the beginning. Not everyone who can sing will end up in a Broadway musical. And not everyone who can draw an appealing comic will make it through the hurdles to success on the web, any more than they will make it through the hurdles to syndication. It ain't that easy.
But, just as a syndicated cartoonist may find it easier to get a second bite at the apple for having had experience, so, too, web cartoonists are able to shift projects, in large part because they also have "contacts," but their contacts are the public.
In Part One of this report, Jonathan Rosenberg spoke of moving his entire "Goats" audience over to his new strip, "Scenes from a Multiverse," and he's not alone. David Willis was also at NEWW, and he began with a web strip called "Roomies" that then morphed into "It's Walky!" and he now does a different strip, "Shortpacked," bringing along his original audience while building new readers each time.
You can even shatter your format entirely and still have fans who will follow to see what you are up to next, and I'll close with this interview with my long-time collaborator, Christopher Baldwin, who has been on the web so long that, as he says here, he used to mail his strips to a friend with a website.
(And to forestall corrective emails, I do misspeak here in talking about self-syndication. I said "Arctic Circle" instead of "Tundra." Tundra is the example I was reaching for.)