Critique Free Webcomics As A Cultural Statement

By | Tuesday, February 02, 2010 6 comments
Fizz, The Cranky Old Gnome, recently posted some thoughts on critiquing free webcomics. It's a good read and, for the record, I agree with him on the subject. But it got me thinking.

There have always been people that think they fart sunshine and crap gold, who think that they're above criticism, who think that they're entitled to anything they want and anyone else's considerations are immaterial. That's called ego. History is rife with tales of folks like that, and those are only the successful ones we know about. I don't doubt there've been folks lower on their respective socio-economic ladders who felt just as entitled, but wound up living very bitter lives because they weren't handed all the successes of others. That these people exist is not new.

However, there has been a noted increase in that mentality, at least here in the U.S., with the so-called Millennial Generation (or Generation Y or Generation Next or whatever the en vogue phrase is). Though there aren't firm dates associated with it, we're generally talking about folks born between the mid-1970s and the early 2000s. These are really the first group of people who grew up with computers and digital technology. When I was working at a public University, we were actively encouraged to study these kids because they were becoming more and more prevalent on college campuses. (For the record, I'm just old enough to precede this group. I was eight when my family got an Atari video game system and 11 when I first sat in front of a personal computer, the classic TRS-80. We got a VIC-20 later that year and my father bought one of the original Macintoshes shortly after they came out. Had I been much younger, I would absolutely not have a recollection of not having computers around.)

From Wikipedia...
The Millennials are sometimes called the "Trophy Generation", or "Trophy Kids," a term that reflects the trend in competitive sports, as well as many other aspects of life, where "no one loses" and everyone gets a "Thanks for Participating" trophy and symbolizing a perceived sense of entitlement. It has been reported that this is an issue in corporate environments. Some employers are concerned that Millennials have too great expectations from the workplace and desire to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace.

So what does this have to do with critiquing webcomics?

Well, who's making webcomics? Cartoonists, obviously, but more specifically, cartoonists who grew up with and are comfortable in an online environment. Cartoonists who quickly embrace digital over print. Interestingly, look at the ages of comic strip creators working in traditional newspapers versus those online. There's a split right around age 40 (i.e. being born in 1970); there aren't many newspaper cartoonists under 40 and not many webcomic creators over 40. Those floating right around that age seem to wind up taking more hybrid approaches. That means that most webcomic creators are part of that Millennial Generation. More to the point, webcomic creators are more predisposed to that "Trophy Generation" mindset. That they're out there doing a webcomic is more significant than any level of quality it may or may not have.

Of course, that's NOT to say all webcomic creators have this feeling of entitlement. There are webcomic creators like Phil Foglio (born 1956) working well outside the Gen Y birth dates, and there are webcomic creators like Charlie Trotman (born 1978) who have a less entitled outlook, despite being pretty well within in the Gen Y birth dates. Like any other assessment of an entire generation, it's a broad generality to say they all identify with a "Trophy Kids" label. But I think it does help to explain why there's more defensiveness when it comes to critiquing webcomic creators.

I don't agree with that outlook, personally. I don't think you or I or anyone else is entitled to everything we want, free of criticism. I think it's totally fair to call someone out (myself included) when they're screwing up or doing a half-assed job. And maybe it's just my becoming more curmudgeonly as I get older, but you don't get any sacred cows as far as I'm concerned. I can be polite and I'm not going to out-and-out tell you that you suck, but you have no right to expect my approval just because you're you.

There are a number of collective traits Millennials have that are quite positive. They tend to be more culturally tolerant, more politically active, more socially conscious... More power to them for that! But that doesn't give them a pass for enlarged egos. If they've got a great comic, awesome! If they've got a lousy one, they ought to be doing something else.
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Matt K said...

I'm usually torn on this subject (perhaps appropriately, being an age that doesn't really belong to either Generation X or Y).

On the one hand, some accounts of how "Millennials expect constant innovation and frequent promotion" are just laughable... only in Lake Woebegon can all the children be above average, kids.

On the other hand, I'm deeply skeptical of employers who fret about a "desire [on Millennials' part] to shape their jobs to fit their lives rather than adapt their lives to the workplace."

That sounds a lot like code for "these stupid kids just aren't buying the rule that says you have to 'pay your dues' by sitting in a cube and attending mind-numbing meetings and putting in hours upon hours of unpaid overtime; this jeopardizes our whole system!"

Darn kids! Darn grownups!

Are you kidding me?

There've always been whiny artists complaining that because they didn't charge you to put up with their work, you don't have a right to critique it. That's got nothing to do with "millenials" (God I hate that term) and everything to do with the stunted maturity of an artist, no matter WHAT their age is. You can argue that maybe the over-40's have had the snot beaten out of them enough to know better, but beyond that...

(Disclaimer: Born in 1986. I can still take it.)

Bill said...

Two points:

First: I’m shocked, shocked! at the idea that people in their teens and twenties might be overconfident and resistant to criticism. Surely that is unprecedented in human history! In my day, teenagers were humble and respectful of critiques from random strangers! Harrumph!

Second: “If they've got a great comic, awesome! If they've got a lousy one, they ought to be doing something else.”

And with that statement, you undermine everything that came before.

If your standard is “be good at it, or don’t try” then there’s no room for amateurs, and no point in trying to improve. Seriously, the only way to get good at something is to do it. I’m not going to claim that the art in my webcomic is good, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it was when I started six years ago. If I’d waited until I was I was “good enough” to start drawing, then I would never have started.

Maybe what you meant was “If they’ve got a lousy one, they ought to try to make it better”?

Overall response first: Keep in mind that I was intentionally talking in broad generalities, and the post wasn't meant as a comment against any individual in particular.

@Matt - And get off my lawn! ;)

@Rachel - I disagree. I went to school with nothing but artists (ranging from architects to fashion designers to fine artists to industrial designers) and most of them were pretty thick skinned when it came to criticisms of their work. Although I'm not in school any more, I hear plenty of anecdotes that point to a shift in how art students receive criticism. Again, not every single student takes it poorly, but it's an overall trend. As I said originally, here always have been people -- including artists -- who didn't take criticism well or stubbornly refused it at all. But there is, among the broad population of Gen Y folks an observable difference in how they receive criticism compared to other recent generations.

@Bill -- 1) I don't read the overall argument as Gen Y folks just being overconfident and resistant to criticism. As you point out, teenagers historically have tried pushing boundaries and have that wonderful sense of invulnerability. What I've seen and heard, though, is that "these kids today" tend to go beyond resisting criticism and outright reject even the concept of criticism. It's not that they might be wrong, it's that everyone has the right to be right all the time. I especially see it in members of my family who are only a few years my junior, but were raised in an otherwise similar environment.

2) I stand by my statement. But keep in mind that it's not an either/or proposition. A comic can be great, a comic can be lousy, and it can be all sorts of shades of grey in between. If it can be improved through the creator's efforts and the creator actively works to improve their craft, more power to them. But I'm saying that if a comic is lousy -- at the bottom end of the spectrum with no chance of improving or, alternatively, no effort on the part of the creator to improve upon it -- then it's time for the creator to move on. I'm probably not going to waste my time reading a mediocre comic, but I wouldn't suggest the creator stop if s/he were getting better.

Anonymous said...

How old is Scott Kurtz?

I tried looking that up before I posted the original essay but couldn't find anything concrete. My guess, based on the cultural references he makes in the comic, is mid-30s.