A RESPONSE TO LAST WEEK'S FLAME WAR.
Posted Monday June 25, 2001:
The last eleven days have been interesting...
Friday June 15: I posted a long-delayed site redesign and a new I Can't Stop Thinking about micropayments. Also, Wired.com posted a news story (here and here) which talks about me, Reinventing Comics, and online comics in general.
Tuesday-Wednesday June 19-20: Chris Crosby, Co-CEO of Keenspot an online comics organization focused on online comic strips, asked in a Comicon.com thread why no one from Keenspot was on an upcoming panel I was organizing at San Diego. I explained that I was focusing on what I called long-form online comics rather than strips in "The Art of Digital Comics" panel because I thought that the artistic challenges facing online comic strips tended to be pretty similar to their printed equivalents. Chris said it was "...a shame that these artists are being ignored by you, considering you're sort of a spokesman for online comics to the mainstream media" I disagreed with the idea that I was "ignoring" them, but the whole thing wrapped up pretty amicably and I figured that was the last I'd hear of it.
Thursday June 21: The next day, however, online comics strip artist Jon Rosenberg (Goats) posted a rant about me and the newly-posted ICST including: "Scott McCloud is so busy writing about the "future of comics" that he doesn't realize that it's already here. We're (and by we, I mean the thousands of artists churning out content out there in internet-land) putting out real comics in the real world on the real internet, and we're doing it now." Each word is linked to another online comic strip or single panel artist I'm supposedly ignoring (including one, PVP's Scott Kurtz, that I'd just written about in ICST). He finishes with, "So, Scott, time to open your eyes and look around. You're only telling us what we already know. You're no guru; you just get better press than the rest of us." Again, the same two themes arise: I'm a "spokesman" and I'm "ignoring" online comic strips. Around this time, I also get flamed by Keenspot stripster Carson Fire on Slashdot regarding the latest ICST. (Slashdot is offline at the moment so I'm going by memory here.)
Friday June 22: Next day, the very popular online comic strip Penny Arcade posts a funny, well-done parody of me and ICST. Accompanying it, however, is an angry personal attack by P-A writer Jerry "Tycho" Holkins which I'll reproduce in it's entirety below. Though Tycho focuses on slamming ICST, he's clearly got a strong personal vendetta against me and it's coming from much the same source as the other comic strip artists who feel "ignored."
Before reading Tycho's rant, I hope you'll consider reading the Wired Stories (1 & 2), the Comicon thread and the Comic I drew that apparently kicked off what's become a full-fledged and increasingly personal backlash.
"Today's strip is basically a parody of this page and the self-proclaimed Lord of Comics Scott McCloud I. People have recommended his work to me on several occasions, both Understanding Comics and the more recent Reinventing Comics. I immediately felt a profound sense of gratitude to Mr. McCloud. I mean, here was this guy, taking time out to speak for all of us who write comics! Okay, so it wasn't gratitude - it was anger. Anger! Anger at his Sermons from the Mount, at his surreal and otherworldly dissertations, and anger at his condescension, even to those who operate in his own context. His newest episode of I Can't Stop Thinking is actually the sequel to an old one - they're very similar, in that they both consist of a congealed rhetoric with absolutely zilch in the way of solid mechanisms or conclusions. Well, unless you count "Artists Should Get Money" - Now that's bold! It's not like you could just jump out the gate with a micropayments system in place, that's nonsense. How can people find out about you, how can your concept spread in the viral way that is the Internet's strength, when people have to ante up for what is essentially an unknown quantity? For someone like Scott McCloud, somebody who is already established in realspace media, that scheme might work - but if this mechanism is chiefly of use to those already enfranchised, that takes his inspiring manifesto down a couple pegs. I consider myself to be, at my core, an idealist - are you surprised? But this guy's take on human nature is spun from pure fancy. He imagines that other people - in fact, that everyone - would gladly pay for things if given the chance to do so. That is demonstrably, empirically false - most especially so on the Internet, and most damningly so where content is concerned. But the final strike against his assertions is the most telling: that for all his pirouette, for all his flash and show, the very foundation of his argument - namely, the sub-dollar transactions called micropayments - do not exist. They are not real. Yes, we have facsimiles of these that operate now (you can see them on the left), but they are not elegant, they incur significant charges, and they are not available to many, many readers because, for whatever reason, they are not able to perform credit transactions. The most basic research eludes Mr. McCloud, who is quite satisfied with profits garnered in true and tested markets, who is quite satisfied with with the adulation of the press and the pundit. You go ahead and stick to the store shelves, pal - and don't mind us out here in the trenches. We were revolutionizing and reinvigorating comics long before you decided to Reinvent them."
Okay, let's take this one piece at a time:
Am I a "...self-proclaimed Lord of Comics"? I'd like to know exactly where he gets that. Yeah, I've been writing about comics for seven years, I do public speaking when invited and I'm on a lot of reporters' rolodex cards -- for now. But wouldn't I have to do a little more than that to deserve such an insult? Is Roger Ebert the "...self-proclaimed Lord of Movies" just because he writes about them, talks about them, and when some 80 year-old director dies, he's the one they call for comments? No, I think you'd have to find some evidence of it in Ebert's own words, wouldn't you? Can Tycho find even one comment in either of my books or any of my webcomics where I claim anything about my own superiority, anything disparaging about competing "Lords" or any other form of personal boasting. I think it's pretty obvious that what's really bugging him isn't what I think of me, but what others are saying about me -- and I don't understand why I should be blamed for that.
Tycho describes the two part ICST saying: "...they both consist of a congealed rhetoric with absolutely zilch in the way of solid mechanisms or conclusions. Well, unless you count "Artists Should Get Money" - Now that's bold! " Hopefully you've read, or will consider reading this comic now. If so, I'll let you draw your own conclusions. Be sure to click on the excerpt from Reinventing Comics contained in the comic also; the comic he's talking about is really just a part of an ongoing discussion.
"It's not like you could just jump out the gate with a micropayments system in place, that's nonsense. How can people find out about you, how can your concept spread in the viral way that is the Internet's strength, when people have to ante up for what is essentially an unknown quantity?" I answer those questions directly in the comic itself, so I honestly wonder how carefully he read it. I never advocated putting everything behind a paid gate as Tycho implies and I never advocated eliminating all free content or other options like subscriptions, and I talk specifically about how such payments would address the "unknown quantity" problem -- that was even the term I used!
"For someone like Scott McCloud, somebody who is already established in realspace media, that scheme might work - but if this mechanism is chiefly of use to those already enfranchised, that takes his inspiring manifesto down a couple pegs. I consider myself to be, at my core, an idealist - are you surprised? But this guy's take on human nature is spun from pure fancy. He imagines that other people - in fact, that everyone - would gladly pay for things if given the chance to do so. That is demonstrably, empirically false - most especially so on the Internet, and most damningly so where content is concerned." Dead wrong. I specifically said that there would always be piracy, that the promise of micros had nothing to do with eliminating piracy, but in bringing the price difference down to where most readers wouldn't mind paying and where getting it for free might actually be a little less convenient. The example I gave of Scott Kurtz's PVP came out to a penny a strip. Sure you might have guys that still want a penny comic for free, but that's only half the equation. You'd also need the cooperation of others willing to upload that pirated one penny comic, tying up their machines and bandwidth to save a bunch of total strangers one cent each. I just don't think piracy would be as prevalent in that environment. Anyway we have perfectly sound evidence that some readers do willingly pay us if they like the content and they're doing so at a price about ten to twenty times what I was suggesting -- just not enough of them, and I think the price has a lot to do with that! Again, I hope you'll read the comic yourself if you haven't already to see how Tycho is misstating my whole position. Oh yeah, and Tycho is a helluva lot more established on the Web than I am; strips like P-A and Kurtz's PVP would actually make more money than my weird formalist comics in all probability.
"But the final strike against his assertions is the most telling: that for all his pirouette, for all his flash and show, the very foundation of his argument - namely, the sub-dollar transactions called micropayments - do not exist. They are not real. Yes, we have facsimiles of these that operate now (you can see them on the left), but they are not elegant, they incur significant charges, and they are not available to many, many readers because, for whatever reason, they are not able to perform credit transactions." This is nuts. I never claimed that we had a working system of this sort in place now. I specifically said we didn't in fact, and clearly stated that the entire purpose of the comics I posted was to explore some of the reasons I thought micros were worth bringing into the world if at all possible. I acknowledge the problems with donation systems and describe them as a step in the right direction. P-A and I are both using donations now, so we both think they have some benefits. And neither of us is making a living from them, so we both think they're not enough. Tycho's problem with me isn't that this technology isn't available now, it's the fact that he refuses to acknowledge that it ever could. That's a discussion on which reasonable people could disagree, but reasonable discussion aren't usually started this way, are they?
"The most basic research eludes Mr. McCloud, who is quite satisfied with profits garnered in true and tested markets, who is quite satisfied with the adulation of the press and the pundit. You go ahead and stick to the store shelves, pal - and don't mind us out here in the trenches. We were revolutionizing and reinvigorating comics long before you decided to Reinvent them." Tycho doesn't know me -- as far as we know we've never met -- and from the above paragraph he obviously knows nothing about my personal or professional history. The fact is, I've been pissing off the owners of "store shelves" and everyone else in the print industry since 1994 with all my talk of online comics. Anyone who's read more than 5 pages of Reinventing Comics knows I'm NOT satisfied with the print industry, in fact I portray it as a bloated inefficient monster, and anyone who's seen my bank book or utility cut-off notices knows my profits off of anything in that market are a tiny percentage of what the reader spends. I would have been doing online comics full-time since starting my own site in '98, but since those paid NOTHING and I have a family of four, I have to say yes when some computer company or university offers to pay my rent in exchange for talking about something I love to do rather than doing it. For seven years, I've been advocating digital comics. I've argued until I was blue in the face with comics industry types who said we would never read comics on a computer in 1994, who said we would never sell anything over the Web in 1996, who said we would never create online comics with large loyal followings in 1998, and now with guys like Tycho who have a whole new list of things we'll never do -- especially if they're advocated by someone they don't like. We're in the same "trench", for chrissake, we've just been firing in different directions.
Tycho's attack against me is followed by this paragraph and it's here that the real source of his personal grudge comes into focus, even though it doesn't mention me once:
"I've been deluding myself about some things. That's actually not new, but I need to change which things I've been deluding myself about. I can't try to eke through a few more months the way I have been, endeavoring to make things function on my half of the site's proceeds. It's just not working, and it took me a long time to admit it. I thought that maybe if I just loved the site more, if I were more responsive with my mail, if I tried to do my damnedest where the post and strip are concerned that it would just start to make sense all of the sudden and I wouldn't be so worried all the time. I thought that maybe the site wasn't good enough. Since I find myself largely wrapped up in the site, I began to think that perhaps I was not good enough by association. The fact of the matter is that relying on a bunch of people you don't know to pay for your rent and groceries is a mechanism which has, shall we say, a couple fundamental flaws. The strip is going to be here, and the post is going to be here, PA as you see it isn't going to change - but once I start working (and that's sooner than later), it's going to break my ability to respond as readily as I have. It's not the way that I would have done it in a perfect world, but that's just not where we live. The page and our work will still supported by donations, shirts, and books - but that seems to drop by almost half every month, and it's just not safe for me to rely on it anymore. And since I don't want to resent Penny Arcade, I'm going to work things out offline, so that we can continue to milk hilarious cows for your refreshment here on the site. We shall endure!"
Goddamn it, Tycho -- why the fuck do we have to be enemies?
Neither of us is making a living at this. Both of us need "day jobs." Maybe both of us have families (I don't know anything about you personally and unlike you I'm ready to admit that). I'm offering one solution to the exact problem you describe and your only response is to kick me in the teeth for it in front of thousands of people!
Well I'm not kicking back. In this whole response, you'll notice I haven't once attacked you personally. Why? Because the idea of a feud between online comics artists over something like this is beyond pointless -- it's suicide.
You want a debate. Fine. Any idea that comes along should be subjected to every test we have. But this isn't how ideas get tested, Tycho. This is how ideas get buried.
Thank you to all those who've come to my defense in recent days on various message boards. Thank you also for keeping tempers low and staying on point when others proved unable to do so.