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Monday, August 25, 2008

A comment on a blog, and a manifesto for this one.

Warning, this post contains uncensored obsenities.

Perhaps it's cruel to pick on Your Webcomic is Bad and You Should Feel Bad when it hasn't posted since April (which may or may not be part of an extended joke on Dresden Codak). Perhaps it's needlessly keeping alive a meme that was stale from the start to pick on a site that was only really extant for five months, plus another two of much slower posting, and whose current hiatus spans its first birthday. Perhaps it's a blatant ploy for hits, since YWIB uses a trackback feature that links to any post that links to it, which has resulted in more than a few people coming over and looking at my Dresden Codak post.

John Solomon never intended to create, depending on your point of view, the whipping boy or the alterna-Websnark of the webcomics community. YWIB was originally intended for a small circle of friends, essentially for them to go, "This is a pile of crap! Look and laugh at the pile of crap and the crapper that produced the crap!" But word started spreading around the blogosphere, and Solomon found himself bogged down with readers (which he continues to disdain the existence of) both praising and critical, neither one exactly as brain-using as the group surrounding Websnark.

The resulting dynamic is interesting to say the least. Solomon (or one of his friends) finds a webcomic, goes on a profanity-laden tirade against it and rips it to shreds (Solomon is more prone to profanities than his friends but the tone isn't much different), and the fans of the blog go "gr8 j0b, u dun it agin!!!!" and the fans of the comic show up and go "u sux f0r r1ppn teh b3st com1c in th3 hole wrld!!!!!" Lather, rinse, repeat until you've lost all respect for humanity.

Although Solomon has said once or twice that he originally started YWIB to "entertain" a few people, he's also, far more commonly, seen himself as a white knight saving webcomics from themselves, despite his own observation that most webcomic creators are not interested in listening to suggestions for improvement. In his eyes, the webcomic community is a place where everyone is nice all the time and where someone needed to come in and throw around some of the meanness common elsewhere on the Internet, that the majority of comments made towards webcomics beyond his own blog were made by "sycophants. Circlejerking little plebians who feel it is their solemn duty to fellate the creator for every single thing, regardless of quality or anything." He would review comics that were popular "for reasons that God himself could not begin to fathom even if he spent all eternity working on it."

Which might have been a good point, but from the very beginning he claimed that YWIB was "a wholly objective blog where I take it upon myself to discuss, at length, these webcomics and the multitude of reasons why they are excruciatingly terrible and are worse than Hitler." He actually continued that "objective" tack, attacking people for claiming "it's not bad art, it's a STYLE" or "font choice doesn't matter" or "you can't be objective about ART". So far as he's not talking about the "broad content" of a strip, only the "plots, the dialogue, the art," he's sticking to that goal of being "objective". And he can talk about the plots, the dialogue, and the art all he wants and still be "objective". (Let's not forget the font choice for the dialogue as well.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Ideally, no comic that was "objectively" bad would get the popularity of a Ctrl+Alt+Del. I say "ideally" because in any medium, complete bullshit gets released and becomes inexplicably popular. Some people liked Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans enough that they're now putting out Disaster Movie. Rob Schnieder kept putting out the same sort of shitty movies for years. Far be it for me to try to explain why. But although anyone can take whatever crap their dog shit on the sidewalk that morning, post it on the web, and call it a webcomic, webcomics do actually have a survival of the fittest system that weeds out the crappy comics, or at least keeps them with only one or two readers, and rewards at least a semblance of quality. Webcomics grow almost exclusively through some form of word of mouth. Yes, there are webcomics that advertise elsewhere on the web, sometimes in other webcomics, but those webcomics have the money to advertise in the first place. That means they already grew an audience, probably through word of mouth. That means people linking to it on forums, and sending it through e-mails, and recommending it on their blogs.

Neither YWIB nor Websnark ever really advertised anywhere, yet both became incredibly popular almost immediately. Neither Da Blog nor Sandsday has anywhere near that level of popularity, despite what I would consider to be some pretty spiffy webcomic reviews on the former and some actual linkspam on my part, and most of what it does have is off the back of one link from David Morgan-Mar's LiveJournal. There aren't enough people who are reading either, thinking "you know, this Morgan Wick cat is pretty cool", and telling their friends about it through whatever means. That means one of two things: I just don't have that critical mass of readers yet that starts feeding itself, or what I'm doing here is absolute bullshit that no one needs or wants to tell their friends about. If I eventually got that critical mass of readers while still putting out complete bullshit, I could see someone wanting to go around and tell people "why are you reading this guy? He's got complete bullshit." But I only have fifty readers on my very best days. I'm suffering enough; I don't need someone going around telling people I suck. Besides, even if people do go around saying I put out complete bullshit, it's not really going to stop people from coming if they enjoy what I write anyway; after all, like television and any other website, they don't directly pay for it.

Yet Solomon tears into webcomics no one has ever heard of, which is just counterproductive. He may disdain the readers he has and accuse people who perceive "more readers" as a good thing as attention whores, but he must realize that they are attention whores, and when he goes into one of his trademark rants saying "this strip is absolute crap", he isn't doing anything that needed to be done, because the strip he's pointing at didn't have any readers. On the other hand, because he's linking to it from his blog, there are now going to be people who are going to come over and read the strip, and some of them may decide they don't agree with Solomon's assessment and stay there for good, and perhaps even become the kind of sycophantic, "you're doing a great job" fans that's exactly what Solomon hates. Far from destroying a bad webcomic, he's fostered the culture of bad webcomicdom. Perhaps it's better, if you're trying to improve the culture of webcomics to foster quality, to just point out what the webcomicker is doing wrong and how the comic could be improved into something better, if you think the comic could be improved into a quality product, and if it can't best to just leave it alone and suffer its fate, only tearing into it as it becomes popular.

The flip side of it is when Solomon reviews a Ctrl+Alt+Del or a Dominic Deegan or a Shortpacked! and attempts to tell the masses "who can't tell trash from gold" why their favorite webcomic is, in fact, shit. As mentioned before, the problem with the internet isn't that anyone can put out a webcomic, it's that anyone can read any webcomic, at least any webcomic that isn't behind a paywall. Nothing Solomon or anyone else can do or say can decrease a webcomic's audience appreciably, except maybe the creator himself (see Buckley, Tim, re: Miscarriage). If the person enjoys the webcomic, all it costs him is a little bit of time each day, so no matter how Solomon goes about his business, he isn't going to persuade anyone to stop reading, and might make people start reading just by bringing attention to it.

To the extent he can show people the comics they read are bad at all, and actually dissuade people from reading them, it's by showing them the good comics and what they do well that other comics don't. If fans of some webcomics only like those webcomics because they don't know any better, you could say "the art's bad, the plot goes off in random directions, no actual person would say this dialogue", but it's not likely to change the person's mind because all he knows is that he likes the comic. But if you expose him to a Gunnerkrigg Court (a comic Solomon is on record as liking) or an Order of the Stick, and you tell them "this is what good art looks like, this is a tightly-wound plot, this is what real people sound like" (or in the case of OOTS, "this is actually passable art for these reasons" and "this dialogue is actually funny, unlike the excrement you read" - I'd say "this is what expressions are supposed to look like" except that to some extent, Rich Burlew's expressions bear a disturbing similarity to the infamous Ctrl+Alt+Del B^U), there's a chance they won't be able to go back to their old bullshit ever again.
Those aren't the only problems with YWIB, and it would be beating a dead horse to point out that the tone and insulting manner he takes is a bit of a turn-off and tends to obfuscate the points he makes. But even so, I could still at least say he might be just a little misunderstood if he really was as "objective" as he claims. But as will become apparent in Part II tomorrow, he quite simply allows too many personal opinions and even personal pet peeves to influence his analysis.
I really think Solomon's stated goal was a noble one, but if he is gone from the Internet for good I suspect it's because he's realized he's lost. He completely failed. There are people who started looking to Solomon's rants for recommendations for webcomics they might like, on the grounds that if Solomon hates it, it must be good. Almost from the start of the blog there were people actually asking Solomon to tear into their comics, apparently desperate for the hits they would bring. Some progress seems to have been made - at least one comic reviewed by Solomon doesn't seem to be on the Internet anymore, and one of the comics whose review I will look at tomorrow has undergone a reboot, presumably chasing fixes for Solomon's criticisms - but regardless of whether or not it was intended as parody, regardless even whether or not it's still intended as parody, YWIB has become a self-parody even in spite of itself.
I do agree that we shouldn't let webcomics be dominated by absolute bullshit, or let the webcomics community become too much of a self-congratulatory happy family, but if the creators of that bullshit are anything like, say, Tim Buckley, it's sort of a lost cause to attempt to chase out or fix the bad apples. It's still worth it to point out the bad apples - after bashing "Bobby Tangents" became a running gag on YWIB for supposedly sucking up to any comic he reviewed, Robert Howard has subsequently taken on a more critical tone - but if it's necessary it's probably not all that bad, and if it isn't necessary it isn't necessary. What's needed is to reward and expose the good apples, and show what it is that they do right, and how we can compare that to the comics that do things wrong, and challenge the wrongdoers willing to listen to do things right. We could even work to improve webcomics in general if that site would update at some point since October. That's the manifesto for Da Blog's webcomic reviews, and that's what's really needed in the webcomic community. If Solomon ultimately helps to create a webcomic community that's a tough but firm mother, not only working to get the medium respect as a medium but also challenging webcomics to earn that respect, perhaps his seven months of profanity-laden tirades wasn't a complete waste.

(And really, folks, "John Sololame"? You pass up the far better "John So-lame-on" pun?)

1 comment:

Fire Cock said...

"...or what I'm doing here is absolute bullshit that no one needs or wants to tell their friends about."

Your reviews are pretty long and don't provide the same payoff as someone like Solomon's. His (earlier) reviews, for all their hateful energy, entertained even those who'd never heard of the webcomics he reviewed. He provided an experience independent of what he was reviewing.

If you want some advice - not that you probably do - focus on providing your own 'product' as well as commenting on the product of someone else.