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The Artist Bureaucrat

Today, DC Comics (home of Superman, Batman, and 3,500 lesser-known “-mans”) announced they’ll be dipping a toe online…and getting into webcomics. (The lengthy, breathy announcement can be read here.) The short of it is, DC is offering comics creators an American Idol-esque chance at getting their creation signed onto a new, online, DC contract. Tellingly, no amounts are promised: it is the DC name that’s being dangled, rather than the beer-n-pizza money which will no doubt result for the “winning” creator.

Even though this announcement mainly speaks to the current, panicked state of print superhero comics, and the resulting editorial decision to try to find something…please Lord….anything that could click with today’s audiences, DC’s move also represents a broader trend among print-based syndicates/publishers/distributors.

The trend I’m talking about can be seen in today’s NY Times article on the subject. In one paragraph, you can see a particularly revealing — but unsurprising — corporate admission: this online push is more about snatching up (early, nascent) works for later exploitation in other, bigger media:

“The company, a division of the Warner Brothers Entertainment, part of Time Warner, views the initiative as a chance to increase its library of intellectual properties, which can be lucrative as films, television shows and toys. DC Comics will also have the right to print the comics in collected editions.”

Short version: We can no longer make enough money in print to make this work, from a corporate standpoint. Our only hope is to snatch up the rights to 10,000 creations, in the hopes that we can turn one of them into a three-picture deal.

That’s painful to see, as a lover of comics as comics. But for a company like DC, which has to pay two marketing guys, three saleswomen, a licensing gal, three lawyers, four secretaries, a VP of finance, and a janitorial staff…they’re essentially admitting that printed comics don’t pay the bills anymore. They only work as a loss-leader for securing that three-picture deal or a contract with Electronic Arts.


A lot has been written about Andrew Keen’s new book “The Cult of the Amateur: How The Internet is Killing Our Culture”, about the dangers of free, online content — where every amateur and creator has a voice, and where paid, professional journalists and content specialists no longer have the economic underpinnings to compete against their “free”, online competition. Keen’s argument is that this free, user-created or repurposed content will create a dumbing down of news reporting, a diminishment of TV and movie budgets, and the removal of economic incentives for creative work and long-term reporting that take significant time and investment.

For journalism, I think the crux of Keen’s argument might have some merit (wrapped as it may be in a dash of paranoia)…but I’m far, far less concerned about the creative world. And DC’s announcement today is why. Online, the creative world of comics is flourishing in ways not seen for decades. DC’s move is an acknowledgement that the submissions they’re vetting — that the whole print medium they’re vetting — may not be as compelling as what’s being read online. Genres, subgenres, and entirely new voices are breaking out. But the twist of it — and where a lot of media critics like Keen get it wrong — is that no mass-market hits are being created. And that confuses the heck out of them. After 60+ years of post-war, mass-market, gen-u-ine hit-making… media analysts don’t know how to quantify that…so the pros making a living online end of getting lumped in with the 13-year old posting his comics on a free-hosting site. We are all, apparently, the Cult of the Amateur.

And that’s where the discussion consistently goes off course, I think: the assumption that the removal of a corporation from the process removes the “expert” status of the creator. Am I less of an “expert” on comic strips, because I left the auspices of United Media syndicate? Do my two Masters degrees in the art and history of cartooning suddenly become worthless? My 12 years of daily cartooning go out the window? The quality of my work diminished? No. Not at all. But a lot of Keen’s book will tell you that I’m now in this amateur class of creators.

Here’s the truth of it: the removal of a corporation doesn’t remove my “expert” status, nor make me less of a creator….it only removes my hit-making ability. Sheldon will never have the reach of Dilbert, and that’s the bottom line. It will never have the marketing and sales muscle to get in front of 10,000,000 people. If anything, I’m closer to the busker playing guitar in the metro station than to Stephen King — as I lack the support staff of 78 corporate employees to implement “synergies” and Burger King toys to get Sheldon more eyeballs. But the quality of the work, the professionalism with which I approach it, and the consistency upon which you can rely for decades to come…none of that has changed. And for the tens of thousands of people who read the strip everyday…Sheldon is just as much an “expertly” created strip as the one brought to them via their metro paper or a globe-spanning media corporation.

So, regardless of what “The Cult of the Amateur” might say, creators like those behind PvP, Unshelved, Girl Genius, Goats, and Schlock Mercenary are experts in their field. They are professionals, making a living from their work. They just do it on a different scale than a lot of media analysts are used to. A scale that may not support a corporate overhead — but which supports the creator themselves.

What that creates is the rise of the Artist Bureaucrat. These are the artists who run their own ships — from the editorial, to the sales, to the pr, to the production, to the fulfillment. They are solely responsible not only for the artistic vision of their creations — but for bringing it to market with all the tasks that that entails. (…”Real Artists Ship”, as Steve Jobs once said.) It’s a lot of work, and a lot of mastering fields and specialties you didn’t know before. But the payoff is…we don’t need things like DC Comics’ terrible, terrible, terrible online contract.

I’m smiling about that. I’m happy to be in “The Cult of the Artist Bureaucrat”.