Thursday, June 24, 2010

Comic Darwinism

I was talking with a friend of mine from college some weeks ago. A few years after we'd graduated, she cut back on her to design work to raise her kids. Her husband made a decent enough living, so she eventually stopped designing altogether to keep up with her three boys. When I was talking with her, she noted that her boys were getting old enough now that they didn't need quite as much supervision, and she was thinking she might try getting back into design. But, at the same time, she was a bit nervous because, after all, it had been a few years; her design skills probably weren't as sharp and they've probably made some software and hardware improvements -- she'd have to learn a whole new version of QuarkXPress.

Speaking as designer, that was kind of an amusing statement because no one much uses that program any more. The company really dropped the ball back in 2002, which Adobe quickly scooped up with InDesign. Adobe's product has been the de facto standard for page layout programs for nearly a decade, and Quark is largely only kept around at agencies for legacy projects.

That's actually been something of an ongoing concern for me. I design and develop web sites for a living and, if I want to remain employable beyond the next year or two, I absolutely HAVE to keep up with the technology. The design software, browsers, smart phones, operating systems, screen sizes/resolutions... not to mention needing at least some familiarity with server configurations, back-end databases and programming languages. And on top of that, I need to keep abreast of design and usability trends. Technological, artistic and social Darwinism. It's a life-long challenge that I think I'm up to, but time will certainly tell.

That said, I also recognize that the world will continue to change around me. There's a very real possibility that the skills I use today, with regard to design and usability, will become obsolete before I retire. All the more reason I need to keep on top of technological and social changes: to stay employably relevant. If the landscape changes around me, that's no one's fault but my own if I can't find a place in it.

My thoughts today are brought about, actually, that oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico caused by BP. The still-growing oil slick has wrecked havoc on all life in the area, and there are any number of reports on dying marine life, long-term environmental impacts and people loosing their jobs. But many of those people, to a great deal of credit, are figuring out how they can continue to make a living without being able to shrimp or work on an oil rig or sell ice cream along the beach or whatever it was they used to do. They adapted to the changing conditions around them.

(Which does not BY ANY MEANS excuse or even lessen BP's responsibility for this obscene mess!)

But what about those people who don't adapt? Who, for whatever reason, can't change quickly enough?

One (but certainly not the only) reason they can't is because they don't know how to learn. They were never taught how to discover things for themselves, they were never taught how to convert specialized knowledge to generalized knowledge. The curiosity they likely had as children was never encouraged or, possibly, even discouraged.

In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler quotes psychologist Herbert Gerjouy...
The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction -- how to teach himself. Tomorrow's illiterate will not be the man who can't read; he will be that man who has not learn how to learn.

That's something I'm very grateful to my parents for: they taught me how to learn. They really encouraged both my reading and analytical skills. I absolutely could not have written my book without that background, and I made a point of saying so in the dedication.

And why is this relevant to a blog about comics?

Look closely. Look at some of the schisms that have cropped up within comicdom the past few years. Old guard newspaper cartoonists damning those young webcomic creators, who clearly don't know what they're talking about because they've made a reasonably handsome living drawing Beetle Bailey and Mary Worth and The Lockhorns, thankyouverymuch. Local comic shop retailers saying that publishers can't release new comics simultaneously online and in print because that would undermine sales and cause everybody to lose money, despite having no actual proof of such claims.

Julie Larson has gotten a reasonable amount of attention lately because she got fed up with doing the old school syndicate route for her comic The Dinette Set only to go back to that same model after six months because she couldn't figure out a way to do what she had been doing without them. That's not proof that a self-syndication model doesn't work; that just shows that Larson couldn't adapt herself to a new environment before she opted to give up. (I don't know that I've seen a specific reason as to her timing on that. I don't know if she just got tired of trying it on her own, or she was running out of money, or what.)

I'm big on the in-group/out-group model of identity, as I'm sure any of my regular readers will know. And while I wouldn't classify learners and non-learners as groups in and of themselves, I would suggest that certain groups do tend to favor one over the other. How many webcomic creators, for example, dove into the business just because they wanted to draw a comic, but didn't really have any idea how to publish it? They didn't know jack about uploading files or RSS feeds or anything. But they got that to work somehow. Maybe they figured it out on their own, maybe they got a friend to help, maybe they paid someone to set it up for them. But they learned how to make it work. They learned to set aside the fear or ignorance or whatever it was that might be holding others back, and learned how to get their comic out to people.

That requires an ability (and willingness!) to learn. Maybe not every webcomic creator has it, but it seems to be a trait common to many of them. And that might be why webcomic creators tend to be younger -- older cartoonists were taught facts and figures by way of rote memorization; they weren't taught how to learn. And that's what the industry needs more of. Not people who hide behind "that's the way it's always been done." Yes, it will absolutely be painful to watch as those who can't adapt somehow fall by the wayside but, ironically, this "adapt or die" form of business Darwinism is how it's always been done.

I do web design for a living. Some day, that job will become completely irrelevant. And like everyone else, if I don't adapt to the changing world, I will absolutely be left behind. And if that happens, you'll find me standing next to buggy whip manufacturers and newspaper cartoonists.

1 comment:

Matt K said...

FYI, I started something of a lengthy comment, which really went off into a broader essay of its own on some of the subjects your post considers. My own post is here:

http://www.stickybuffalo.com/2010/innovation-is-a-contact-sport

I'm not sure that SB allows comments by non-users, so if you have any thoughts, just post 'em here or e-mail me or something. (As noted, I began writing a reply to your post but then kind of went off on my own, so please don't take the whole thing as specific criticism of you or your blog post.)