Webcomics as a Microcosm of American Capitalism

By | Tuesday, May 25, 2021 2 comments
There are a number of webcomickers these days who are able to make a living doing (or at least primarily doing) webcomics. That is fantastic! But a lot of them aren't making much (if any!) money from their webcomics yet. Maybe they're just new to the game, or maybe it hasn't been their focus, or whatever, but their primary income derives from some kind of day job. I've seen several that work as graphic designers; I don't doubt some work in retail environments; there are probably as many different occupations as there are webcomickers out there.

But if someone is getting paid to do a job that is not webcomics, that frequently means that webcomics by necessity become a secondary project. After all, you don't see CEOs and hedge fund managers making webcomics where they've got plenty of vacation time to take off if they need to. The people who are making webcomics typically have day jobs that are farther down the pay scale, often as hourly employees. With their the lower incomes comes less financial security. With less financial security comes a greater need to make sure you don't lose whatever income you're getting.

All of which means that webcomics that aren't make much money are going to take a back seat to a paying gig.

Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Perfectly reasonable approach in our capitalistic society.

But it does make for a big challenge in getting a webcomic up and running. After all, if the time a creator normally allots for working on their webcomic disappears or diminishes for any reason (change in job hours, relocation that requires a longer commute, etc.) the webcomic goes on hiatus. While on hiatus, a webcomic will almost inevitably lose some percentage of readership it has and the creator will have to work extra hard later to coerce them back.

A webcomic can run guest strips or maybe re-runs for a week, maybe two, if they've things to take care of (convention travel, planned family events like weddings, etc. -- I mean, there's not much of that going on now, but it has happened and will again... eventually) but generally a hiatus comes unexpectedly and for more extended periods, often months. Sometimes, even a month-long buffer can be eaten away almost before you realize it!

And as I sit here thinking about the webcomic hiatus, it occurs to me that it mimics some of the social strata we see in American culture in general. The people who are living paycheck to paycheck have the most to lose, and have to fight the hardest to even keep up, much less make any headway in their lives. They are less likely to become financially secure because their daily fight is one of just surviving. Whereas someone higher up the career ladder has more flexibility; they have some measure of savings they can use as a security net should they lose their position, and their resumes look more impressive to give them a greater advantage in locating a new job.

Now compare that to webcomics. The people not making a living off their webcomic yet have the most to lose. Their small handful of followers diminishes noticeably even if only one or two people leave. By contrast, Randall Munroe doesn't give a rat's ass if I read his strip or not because he has so many readers that one more or less is insignificant. Similarly, if that first webcomicker drops their strip to start something new, it will be an incredibly hard uphill battle, but Munroe has a huge following that will undoubtedly jump over to (and fund!) whatever his next project might be. Munroe's comic might be, qualitatively, total crap next to this new person's but he will continue to be successful because he already is.

It just strikes me as interesting that the webcomic industry has become essentially a metaphoric microcosm of American capitalism. Where claims of meritocracy still abound and the American DreamTM of becoming anything you want if you just work hard at it is still widely believed. Even though neither is a terribly accurate method of describing what actually goes on. Webcomics likewise don't rise in popularity just because the writing or artwork is especially noteworthy. They rise in popularity when they're given attention by someone with connections.

Doing a great webcomic is not enough. But doing an okay webcomic that you're able to get your friend with an already existing audience to promote on your behalf might be.
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Matt K said...

Earlier this year I read a long interview someone did with Kate Beaton, in which she basically spells out how she came along at exactly the right time by chance, and got a huge following mostly due to factors completely external to her work.

I adore her work, but I agree that her webcomic career arc is an example of how breakout success has very little to do with smarts or quality or working hard etc.

Yeah, I've talked with some webcomic creators that came a little later who've actually shown animosity towards Beaton. Not that they dislike her or her work per se, they just resented that she had that kind of accidental success they have no hope of re-capturing.
I've also heard Scott Kurtz, when asked "how do I achieve the same webcomic success that you have," say something along the lines of, "Don't ask me. How I broke in was entirely dependent on what the internet was like when I started; those specific circumstances will never happen again."

The idea was really hammered home when I was doing research for my book. A lot of those early successes came about in large part because there was no competition. There is NO WAY Penny Arcade would even have survived it's launch if it happened any later than when it did.