On Webcomics: Discarding the Artificial Culture

By | Monday, March 24, 2014 1 comment
Over the past several days, I've encountered a variety of largely unrelated instances where someone expressed a... disappointment isn't quite the right word, but it will have to suffice for now... that our cultural touchstones are disappearing. It used to be that everyone would sit down to watch Jackie Gleason or Lucille Ball on television, and then everybody would talk about how funny it was the next day. Even as recently as the mid-1980s, there were comic strips like Calvin & Hobbes which everybody read.

But media has spread out to such an extent now that those common touchstones aren't there. There are thousands of cables channels replacing the three networks that used to dominate everything. There are hundreds of thousands of webcomics where a couple or a few dozen might have populated any given city's newspaper. There are multiple TV shows even within a single sub-genre like Real Housewives or CSI. You can't reference a comic strip, even popular ones like PvP or Penny Arcade, and assume your audience knows what you're talking about. In fact, you can't even name-drop a lot of popular webcomics and expect an audience of cartoonists to know what you're talking about.

I don't know that's a bad thing though.

See, the touchstones we used to have were built on largely artificial ideas of geography. Pretty much every newspaper did carry Calvin & Hobbes but just about anything less popular than that was hit or miss. My newspaper growing up carried Andy Capp but I can't say the same about the next major city over. The commonality I shared with others, where we could superficially unite, was over an accident of where we both happened to be. Even if I did like Andy Capp, the next person might not.

"Hey, did you see the strip today? It was really funny!"

"No, it wasn't."

With the proliferation of webcomics out there being disseminated on the internet, I'm not limited to the handful of options that were singularly curated based on an individual editor's preferences. I can go out and find a variety of strips that I personally find entertaining or engaging.

Moreover, I can then share that entertainment and engagement with other people who share my sensibilities. As a fan, I'm not limited to the people who might happen to share a physical space with me. I don't have to share my engagement of something I really enjoy with the only other person in town who kind of likes the same thing but for different reasons and that's really the only thing we share in common and he's always awkward to be around and he has bad breath. I can instead share my engagement of that comic with a group of people who not only like it as well, but like it for many of the same reasons I do. We're not going to all have the exact same opinions, or come to the table with the same backgrounds, but we can share in that strip in generally the same way.

Not to mention the joy of sharing that same strip with a friend who you think might enjoy it as well, but hasn't seen it yet because there's so many things out there.

No, I have no qualms discarding the artificial culture of old and leaving behind the broad cultural touchstones that largely spoke to the lowest common denominator.
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Matt K said...

Agreed. This persistent expectation/longing for homogeneity always strikes me as sad and faintly insulting.

I understand perfectly well the pleasure of sharing something one enjoys. I don't, by contrast, get this wish that there be something--anything--enjoyed by everyone. Or, more to the point, by close enough to "everyone" that those who don't can be dismissed as weirdos.

I'm sure that the decline of a single, established state religion (where such has happened) was a challenging adjustment for people, too. But I don't see any reason to regret it.

(Likewise, "water-cooler conversation" must be one of the most absurdly overrated, not to mention considerably mythical, concepts of all time.)