The birth of webcomics gave a freedom to creators who wanted to work in shortform, but were too raw or idiosyncratic to even knock on the door of the walled garden of newspaper syndication. Able to build audiences, sustain themselves through sales of merch and printed collections, and occasionally self-syndicate to print outlets, the pioneers even built a generation of readers for whom soap operas and gag strips and pop-culture parodies on the web were the entirety of their comics-reading experience.
This short oral history at The Verge surveys a handful of cartoonists who’ve sustained careers to this day, and is basically celebratory of their achievements. But many of the accounts have a desperate undertone of how the financial model has had to shift multiple times.. In the same time that Facebook and Google have decimated the 300-year-old newspaper business (online as well as in print), the filtration of the web through social media has also trashed the ways people came to webcomics in less than 20 years.
Regulate Facebook globally, make political advertising illegal, and give Elizabeth Warren a giant cartoon axe with ANTI-TRUST written on it.
(Amongst many other things, Ford also wrote two Star Trek novels in the ’80s. One, from 1984, was a serious worldbuilder about Klingons using RPGs to train children in battle strategising. The other, in 1987, was a musical comedy featuring Neil Gaiman as a singing alien sorcerer.)
I tapped out on Berke Breathed back in the ’90s when Bloom County had become the weekly strip Outland, and had only seen a handful of reposted examples since he brought it back as a Facebook-exclusive strip with really ugly computer lettering. So I’d totally missed, until this week, that Bill Watterson has been doing guest jams once or twice a year (!!) with Calvin & Hobbes appearing in Bloom County (!!!).
Back on April 1st 2016, Breathed posted that Watterson had signed “the franchise over to my ‘administration’,” followed by a “Calvin & Hobbes 2016” daily by Watterson and Breathed (with some even clunkier computer lettering on C&H).
In 2017, they teamed up again for a full-on Calvin County comic, in which Spaceman Spiff is accompanied by Bill The Cat in place of Hobbes. This April Fools’ strip was also accompanied by a fake news story about Breathed and Watterson (revealing that Susie Derkins has grown up to write for the New York Times), discussing the likelihood of Donald Trump appearing in their fully-merged strip*.
In November that year, Hobbes made a two-day guest appearance, filling in for Steve Dallas – portrayed as an antediluvian PUA even in 1981, now benched from the strip for harassment. This pair very nearly manages to feel like 1980s Hobbes invading 1980s Bloom County!
2018 saw Spaceman Spiff back again for April Fools, and the classic vibe of a Spiff Sunday is really in effect. Though some effects lettering by Watterson, sloppy though it is, really shows up Breathed’s “Watterson” font, created for this instalment.
The pair now have a full-on tradition running, with Spaceman Spiff appearing for his third April 1st this week. Breathed has given up and just used his regular font for Calvin’s dialogue this time around.
Beyond Breathed’s joke announcements in 2016 and 2017, there’s no word from either on how the collaboration has worked. From the look of the strips, I’m assuming Breathed is digitally inking and colouring pencils sent by Watterson. With some squinting, though, one can imagine the latter scribbling on an iPad in a shared document, just for this once-a-year-ish fuck-about. (All Watterson’s other public 21st century work has been analogue: a 2011 painting of Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac strip, a 2014 poster for the Stripped! documentary, and a full-colour one-page comic for Angoulême FIBD later that year.)
*Bloom County, whose inital run covered late 1980 until 1989, couldn’t escape the influence of Trump in its acerbic, humanist view of 1980s America. In the final year, Breathed did a month of strips where the repugnant, incoherent Bill The Cat had his brain replaced with Donald Trump’s, to become even more incoherent. Then, months later, the entire comic ended because “Trump” purchased the strip, and rebranded it as his own nonsensical vanity project to himself, before firing everyone. I was a child on the other side of the planet, reading these clipped and mailed from a newspaper in another state. Breathed’s depiction of Trump’s stunning narcissism and complete inability to convey humour or understand other humans having a place in the world were a valuable grounding in, 30 years later, living in an entire country purchased and rebranded by the racist hot-air balloon.
Tom Spurgeon notes that S. Clay Wilson’s partner & caregiver Lorraine Chamberlain “could use some help negotiating some patients rights issue” at a hospital that he’s currently admitted to, entering the ICU a week ago. The longtime underground cartoonist, Checkered Demon and Captain Pissgums creator and Zap! comics squad member suffered a brain injury in 2008, through assault or misadventure, and has required constant care since. After some other health issues exacerbated by his condition, the 77-year old is now additionally suffering dementia.
Various fundraisers have been held for Wilson during the decade since his coma, and Chamberlain has a Paypal donate button for Wilson’s Special Needs Trust. Spurge says ” We as a community can do a much better job with things like this,” and from the context of other appeals he’s made for GoFundMes and such, I take him to mean the community of comics creators and readers, rather than Americans in general.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the continent from Wilson, today the mayor of Baltimore is taking fully-paid “sick” leave after completely coincidental revelations that she took $500,000 ($100k/pa) in bribes from one medical service whose board she also sits on, $114,000 from another commercial health insurance provider to which the city subsequently awarded a $48,000,000 contract, and $90,000 from a charity which had raised the money from other entities, including another commercial health insurance entity that receives city funds. The mayor’s salary is $185k, which is more money than any human needs, but when you can grift merely half that again in exchange for 48 million, I guess that reads as a public service mentality in action?
The best part of this affair is what a sloppy, organised-crime approach she took to the rort. The bribes were laundered through sales of children’s books she’d written about healthy eating. She has sold no copies commercially, only through these grifts. But she had the charity send them unsolicited to the school system, then sent staff from her own office to the loading dock to steal shipments of up to 20,000 copies back, presumably to fill other bribe-based orders. By 2017, five years into this dodge, she just stopped bothering to even print the latest books she was “selling.”
Anyway, America, any time you have the choice in the next two years, please don’t vote for anyone at any level who doesn’t have nationalising health care as a core platform plank.
For the last two decades, Steve Martin has chosen to write funny only in miniature, with tiny performance bits on Letterman, or one-or-two page Shouts & Murmurs in The New Yorker. Staying in the latter but going even smaller, Martin has started writing gag cartoons for Harry Bliss.
With this as the only example so far, it’s too soon to make any wider predictions… but the visual gag is basic enough here that one imagines Martin himself could have gotten it over in drawing? His main personal interest is visual fine art, so maybe he’s overly aware of his limitations. Still, he’s chosen to team up with Bliss for the latter’s simplicity, and the NYer is full of cartoonists for whom accurate draftsmanship isn’t a major concern.
Nate Powell’s essay-in-comics About Face was published on Popula a month ago, and has been echoing with me since. An examination of how American violence culture has merged lawlessness and rectitude, nondescriptness and visual marketing, rebellion and conformity through his life, it’s compellingly drawn in bold lines and water-colours. His brushwork is personal enough to draw the reader in to the mix of reminiscence, observance and analysis, never being as didactic as web-journalism comics often lapse into. Works well with the one-scroll format, too.
Without indicting any creator on the comics, he examines the cross-cultural bleeding of Marvel character The Punisher’s skull logo into an unmoored symbol of masculinity and resistance. The comics have often reveled in white rogue cop The Punisher slaughtering brown-skinned lawbreakers, but Powell links the visual to modern white supremacism on its own merits as an icon.
I’m a half-Australian, half-Kiwi living in the US in 2019. Two weeks ago, an avowed white supremacist from Australia murdered 50 people in New Zealand with military-type weaponry. The NZ government rushed to ban assault guns, the Australian media rushed to air the shooter’s troll-meme-laden maninfesto, and get talking heads from the most explicitly anti-brown-people political party on air. Yesterday, a three-year Al-Jazeera investigation revealed that America’s tiny-but-wealthy gun lobbyist organisation has been training that party in how to use massacres to campaign in the media for fewer restrictions on guns of any kind.
The party’s leader is an idiot, whose only message for 23 years has been that people who aren’t white are scary. She changes which colour of people she’s scared of, from time to time. In the 90s, Australia was being “swamped by Asians.” Later, treating displaced indigenous peoples was going to be unfair to the displacers, somehow. Recently, she switched to arguing that eating takeaway kebab meat with chips was indoctrinating “our” children into terrorists. She has been unable to form a coherent argument in sentence form in those 23 years, but still gets invited to try on television or radio, month after month. More focused racists also get to air their views if they opportunistically link up with her tiny party.
Two teenage survivors of one of America’s 2018 high school massacres committed suicide last week. Teachers at another high school were injured after being shot with projectiles by hired trainers during a preparatory drill for future shootings. Three hours down the road from me, police coordinate with white supremacist groups before and during protest marches, to avoid arresting their members when they interfere.
About Face is a good comic. I’m going to read it again more than once this year.
If your favourite Grant Morrison comic is A Glass Of Water, you:
-still enjoy liking things not everyone has read -prefer comics to be drawn by people who can write their own comics, even when they’re just drawing -think that stapled anthology comics from the ’90s are probably the apex of the popular form
Here’s Iron Circus publisher Spike Trotman offering a clarification on twitter:
And… idk, I can get Americans not really getting what Viz is, or seeing a couple of Johnny Fartpants or Buster Gonad one-page strips from the ’80s and concluding that it’s all juvenile toilet humour. But edgelord? Trolling for shock value, to one-up competitors? Back when Viz was big enough to prompt multiple imitators (like Cracked and Eh! to America’s MAD, Oink! and various others rode Viz’ coattails onto international newstands across the cusp of the 1990s), the contenders tended to make up for not being clever, or funny, or capable cartoonists* by outdoing Viz in terms of offensiveness, the results of which easily showed up that offensiveness wasn’t actually any part of Viz’ mission. The small group of 50-something probable-grandads still churning it out today, still refusing to move to That London surely aren’t sniggering to themselves about triggering snowflakes as they clock in to the office in a large shed and sit at a drawing board or layout a newspaper feature.
*(Frank Quitely stood out immediately in Electric Soup for being all 3, as well as following another obvious antecedent than the Baxendale-derived core style of Viz.)
If anything, the magazine has spent the best part of its forty years on a stealth mission to instill notions of understanding, reading behind surfaces, and social justice into young readers.
The three biggest, longest-lasting strips are probably the Fat Slags, Sid The Sexist, and Roger Mellie (the man on the telly).
Okay, even in Newcastle, you mightn’t launch a feature with the title The Fat Slags in 2019. #problematic. (Then again, I just checked, and Geordie Shore is up to its 19th series in 8 years.)
But Sandra and Tracey have never even treated it as a derogative that needed to be reclaimed. From the off, they were joyously sex-positive, and nearly as unrestrained about their carb-based appetites. Every shag was a victory (even if they struck out and had to get Baz to take turns). Their figures were never an impediment to them scoring – or, if their size made certain positions impractical in cramped quarters, like an impromptu session in the back of a car, this was just a problem to be solved. One of them might pay lip service to slimming early in a strip, but if so, they’d surely be eating victory chips from greasepaper while walking home in the last panel (or waiting for the other one to be finished getting her rocks off). Yes, they were figures of fun, but no more so than any other Viz regular, and their unexamined hedonism was played as a triumph, unlike the core premise of many pagemates.
Like, say, Sid The Sexist. SD was a teenage boy when he started writing & drawing Sid, but the butt of the joke was always the complete repugnance of the toxic masculinity through which Sid thought he had to mediate every interaction with women his own age. His drinking pals laugh at Sid’s reported stories, or his planned chat-up lines, but his actual deployment invariably results in a knee to the knackers, or a bum-up trip to A&E. Occasionally he’ll treat a woman like a human and get somewhere with her, but if he realises someone else sees them, start dropping single entendres and and trash a human connection he’s made. Even over the life of the strip, his mates stop admiring his banter, and turn more and more to mocking his ineptitude and masturbatory desperation. But Sid stays locked in to a form of masculine performance that his peers have learned to move past (or at least not to take seriously), to his permanent detriment and loneliness.
Roger Mellie (the man on, lest we forget, the telly) is more successful with his own predatory sexism, and the reader is often a little more complicit in laughing at his priapic exploits. But the character is reprehensible: his charisma comes entirely from self-confidence, and financial success, both of which are entirely undeserved. Whether Mellie is convincing someone to shag him, pitching a conflict-of-interest business opportunity, or making it through an entire television broadcast without soiling himself or making a racist outburst, his victories are cast as losses for anyone decent in his orbit. Teen boys reading might giggle at some naked boobies or Roger’s huge arse, but they’re still being told that most people who want fame are just hideous shits, willing to do anything without a moral centre if it means a tiny advancement or attention for themselves.
Comics aside, most of the material that makes up more than half of any issue of Viz is explicitly teaching kids not to trust the media or society. It’s Kurtzman’s MAD, or the They Live sunglasses, applied to the insidiously banal shit their parents read. The letters pages mock the constrained little-Englander worldviews of suburbanite olds, and encourage readers to do likewise. Advert parodies are of things like mail-order commemorative royal wedding plates, a product entirely designed to reinforce a placid acceptance of One’s Place below their betters. The Profanisaurus actively rewards a creativity that undermines good taste. The fumetti undermine not just the acceptance of true-love narratives as bland entertainment, but the societally-implanted marry/consume/die ethos as a whole.
And here in 2019, when Downing Street is about to plummet the UK into a generations-long destruction spiral due to Rupert’s papers and gammon satellites, and the White House is actively (if ineptly) being run by Rupert’s TV news, we should be hailing Viz as heroic for decades of tabloid parodies’ efforts at un-indoctrinating immature readers’ against their influence. That has to count for more than Millie Tant or the Modern Parents taking the piss out of hypocrites that happen to be on the left?
They made it several metres before it turned out that she and her boyfriend had not known how to build an engine, or, indeed, a boat. The wild self-belief that led to them lasting several weeks of crashing and being marooned in various places has at least led to her, a decade later, living with a billionaire lunatic and complaining that climate change isn’t fun & polar bears make her want to kill herself.