Friday, September 16, 2011

Dave Malki ! of Wondermark Talks Webcomics, Twitter, Publishing

He's probably the only man on Earth who uses an exclamation point as a post-nominal honorific, which might be a shame if there were anyone else deserving of it.

David Malki ! is a dapper gentleman.
David Malki ! started Wondermark in 2003, a webcomic made not through physical or digital drawing, but primarily through the skillful combination of 19th century woodcut prints, scanned from the pages of original tomes Malki collects. The comic has been collected in several volumes, currently published by Dark Horse Comics, and from 2006-2009 ran in the print edition of The Onion. Yes, despite some very strong opinions we got into, Malik makes it clear he doesn't have an actual loathing of syndicated comics as an idea.

Which is actually how we first got talking. Back in college I was Fun Page Editor at the campus newspaper, Pipe Dream. (Alright, there was also the Free Press but that's its own feud.) Part of my effort to beef up the page involved getting top-tier webcomic artists to let me syndicate their comics on precisely zero budget. Dave was by far the most accommodating. Not only did he consent to letting me run old Wondermark strips, he mailed me a DVD with about 30 or 40 of his personal favorite strips when I asked about high-res files. I also imagine he did this via his clockwork butler as he sat in a leather recliner, donning his top hat, monocle, and smoking jacket.

So when I started in on this project of interviewing various artists and creators of webcomics for my book's long discussion of digital comics, Dave Malki ! was kind of a hope against hope. His views supported my original college essay that layed the groundwork for this whole project. I've spent almost a year now revising and gathering new material for the piece. The original Tweets and blog entries weren't going to cut it as far as original research was concerned. (That everything we ended up talking about supported my thesis was simply a grandly beautiful bonus.)

Short version: it would not be an embellishment to say that Malki agreeing to this email interview would make or break my idealized vision of the project.

Not only was he amiable, he was curious as to the idea, incredibly open with his thoughts and experiences in comics publishing and even considerate enough to offer clarification to anything I found "too heady." Frankly, if I wasn't six-years entrenched in these precise issues, it would have been. That said, I have amended a few notes and links for the casual reader who might be intrigued by parts of the discussion.

Me: What have your experiences been like with using Twitter to converse directly with your readers? Is it something like the next step in having comic forums, or is it something else entirely?

Malki: Forums are a particular type of culture that has a lot of great qualities: friendships and in-jokes and islands of weirdness can erupt in little petri dishes. I've met some great people on forums, and I know of lots of relationships that started on forums. Forums can also be a cesspool, of course, and I think on a long enough timeline -- or with the wrong crowd -- things tend to trend that way as communities grow insular.

Twitter's a different thing entirely. The remarkable thing about Twitter, and I think the thing that was kind of new about it, was and is its asymmetrical nature. I can follow you on Twitter without you having to follow me back. But I can still talk to you if I want, and you can still reply to me if you want. So it's more like broadcasting than conversing in an everyone-gets-a-turn forum sense, but still with this ability for conversation in a truncated way. Anyway you know how Twitter works.

I think Twitter is great for cartoonists, or people who do similar things. Twitter allows those who're interested to be involved, but without having to remember to go to a forum, or there being an embarrassment of desolation when there's nothing going on for a while. And people can be as involved as they want without feeling like they have to be a part of something official. Being accessible in return creates a bond between artist and reader that's really rewarding as well. I don't know that I have a lot that's groundbreaking to say here. I like Twitter? Twitter is good.

What are your thoughts on "premium content" webcomics that offer free updates but either rely on or at least supplementary content exclusive to paying subscribers?

"People sometimes mock artists for
selling merchandise, like there's
something bad about being a
T-shirt salesman."
I think it creates a huge burden on the artist to provide that premium content to satisfy the paying customer. I don't think it's a fundamentally flawed business model by any means, but I think it's a hard row to hoe and I don't think I'm up for that kind of pressure.

People sometimes mock artists for selling merchandise, like there's something bad about being a T-shirt salesman. But I'd rather sell T-shirts and give the art away for free, than the reverse. When I give the art away for free, I can make a bargain with myself that it's good enough, because you didn't pay for it. If you were paying for it, it'd never be good enough to satisfy me, and I'd be a wreck. Let me take your money and give you a T-shirt in return, because I know that'll at least cover your body. It's not going to seem like a good idea at midnight, and then reveal itself to be a threadbare misery in the morning when you open your closet.

Do you personally buy single-issue or trade comics from DC or Marvel, or any of the 'Big Time Fancy' publishing houses?

I don't anymore. I used to buy issues in, like, high school and college, then I bought trades for a few years as a grown-up. But I guess I just sort of stopped caring? I would buy a TON of comics, and I think the bar was so low that I just got frustrated. People would RAVE about any comic that was merely "not actively bad." I also got tired of waiting months between trades for the stories I actually did like. That plus the soap opera culture around superheroes is just silly to me -- I started to feel like a poseur in the comic shop because I don't care about any of that stuff.

I still like comics, and I read them on occasion, but I don't buy them regularly. I just don't have room in my house for more books! I don't buy any books if I can help it. Which I can't always.

Do you have any thoughts regarding DC' and Marvel's sale of digital copies of their monthly titles? Price-points on-par with single issues, proprietary file formats, subscription fees, that sort of thing?

Dustin Harbin just wrote a great piece about this on his blog, from the perspective of someone who's worked in retail for a long time. I don't have the same kind of perspective, but what I do have is no particular interest in either the success or failure of mainstream superhero comics as an institution.

So my dispassionate opinion, I guess, is that it makes sense. If you want to reach more readers, you have to take your material to where they are. I was home sick the other day with nothing to do, so I downloaded the Comixology app for the first time and browsed some free comics. I like their interface and I read some comics I otherwise wouldn't have. I don't think it's a bad app or a bad idea, and if people want their fix of comics without having to store the paper issues -- or if they don't have any particular sentimental attachment to paper issues -- then I'm glad that they have a way to read those comics in a way that's convenient for them. If they're willing to pay a few bucks for that convenience, I guess that's between them and the marketplace.

What I might do, if I loved comics and there was a sufficient backlog to make it worthwhile, is pay a Netflix-like subscription fee to read whatever comics I wanted on my iPad, whenever I wanted. I could finally read some famous old Kirby story on a whim, or look up an old Batman story that was mentioned in an article. Or sit and read decades of Peanuts without having to pull out my Fantagraphics books (I have them AND the old paperbacks from the '60s, but neither are coming with me on a plane).

I think -- and Dustin made this distinction too -- if you don't own the content, you're renting it and should pay a rental or subscription fee. If you download permanently and own the content, you should pay a purchase fee. Those are the models that make sense to the consumer. And maybe there are in-betweens -- if I read an issue of Batman on my subscription account that I really like, and I want to keep it in my local archive, I can pay a quarter and keep that one indefinitely. Get me DC on the phone, I got a scheme for them!

How to you feel about "Comics Piracy" as a concept and practice? I'm mostly just referring to scans and torrent/P2P sharing, but certainly you would have some experience with aggregator pages bleeding your page views, as well.

[Note: You can steal single issues, trades, full series, long out-of-print stories and pretty much anything that's ever been copyrighted on the internet, including comic books. Though webcomics tend to be immune to this, having all their content online for free already. "Aggregators," however, pull the most recent strips from various sites and display them on one page without extraneous content or advertisements, effectively stealing page views from the website and therefor ad revenue as well.]

A lot of webcomics people get super up in arms about aggregator sites. Frankly, I don't care about them one way or the other. As Cory Doctorow says, "the danger is not piracy, but obscurity." I'm in a rarefied spot because I make my money mainly from merchandise, not ad revenue or floppy sales (both of which could be hurt by the practices you mention) but on the whole, any "piracy" that results in more sales (down the road) than it removes puts me ahead. Being a crank about aggregator sites is just causing a tempest in a teapot, in my opinion.

I don't have enough experience in the floppy biz to know how much the torrents and scans affect their business. Are these people that would have gone to their LCBS [Local Comic Book Store] and paid $3.99 for XYZ #431 if they hadn't torrented it? I doubt it, in most cases. Are they people who might buy the trade as a gift now that they've read the whole thing? If the trade's available, maybe. The problem is that the trades aren't always available. With print-on-demand technology now, I have no idea why every comic storyline EVER isn't available as a trade.

You've expressed, shall we say, a relatively calm but seething hatred for most syndicated comics. From what I gather, your qualm seems to be commercialism making the work artistically "bland." Would that be a fair statement?

I think "hatred" is a strong word. It's a bit of a persona, this crank who hates the newspaper comics. I actually have a great affection for newspaper comics -- I grew up reading them religiously -- but there came a day when I realized that most of these people, especially the legacy artists, were squandering an opportunity that others would KILL for. That's mainly the thing that gets me riled a bit. Imagine someone says, "We're giving you a 30-second spot on the Super Bowl. Say whatever you want, do whatever you want." And you use that time to say...nothing. You sit there and stare at the camera and finally say, "Men like golf, women like to nag!" You'd be the biggest idiot in the history of television.

Now, I've been doing this for long enough that I know: (a) It's incredibly hard to be incisive every single day of your life. (b) It's incredibly hard to produce good work when you feel you are beholden to a huge cross-section of readers. (c) It's incredibly hard to take risks when you're extremely comfortable. I don't think the comics page is necessarily the appropriate place to be risky, so I don't, like, make this a crusade...but the REASON the comics page isn't the appropriate place to be risky is that it's been systematically dumbed down for decades. So at this point it's just fun to make fun of the fogies, I guess.

Jim Davis has retired from drawing new "Garfield" strips. (Let us ignore "Life According to Garfield.") Jim calls you up and says, "Dave !, save newspaper comics. Take my cat, please!" He tells you you can script and draw anything you want, save for gore, nudity, and profanity. Would you take the job?

No. I have things of my own to say that don't involve Garfield. I get what you're saying, and it's an interesting pickle, although complicated by the fact that the Garfield brand image in particular has to maintain a BILLION-dollar industry.

But let's say the Browne estate wanted to hand me Hägar the Horrible. THAT, I might take. Why not? I could turn that into something Achewood-esque.

You have your own merchandise, collected editions, and all your work with TopatoCo. [NOTE: TopatoCo is a sort of webcomics collective merchandising site owned and operated by Jeffrey Rowland of Wigu and other artists including Malki, designed to provide a resource for artists to design, sell, and ship their own merchandise without necessarily having to regulate every part in the process themselves.] Webcomics for many years had a stigma of being less 'legitimate' because the artists also sell merchandise, despite the likes of a myriad of Garfield and Peanuts licensing arrangements, and pretty much everything by DC and Marvel ever. Do you think this double standard was because webcomics are independently run? Is monetizing the same as "selling out" or more noticeable at that scale?

For one thing, I think if there is a stigma, it's a manufactured one. I don't think there's enough of a general webcomic audience to have a consensus on the issue, although there are always loudmouths of every stripe. The only time anyone gets riled up about anyone "selling out" in any medium, ever, is when they feel someone is enjoying undeserved success. In webcomics, where success comes in many flavors, someone who's spent a ton of time refining a wonderful drawing style might look at xkcd and think, "I deserve more success than him." Someone who's an editorial cartoonist performing A Valuable Service To Our Political Dialogue might look at a flighty gag cartoonist and think, "I deserve the kind of success that she's enjoying." There's always somebody feeling like they're getting a raw deal, especially because there's no proscenium arch that webcomics pass under that anoints them with Legitimacy -- in other words everybody feels they're every bit as deserving or legitimate as someone else. That's usually good, because it really is a meritocracy, and you can really just start from scratch and do something amazing and get somewhere with it. That's awesome and cool and valuable to the artform and the culture.

"There's nothing ethically wrong with designing T-shirts
I personally think "selling out" involves compromising the integrity of your message to
make it commercially palatable. I think Peanuts sold out when Charlie Brown started smiling on greeting cards. That's not the Charlie Brown that the comics portrayed; that's a different character, a more marketable character. But is there an ethical component to that? Ultimately the only person to whom the integrity of Peanuts has to answer is Charles Schulz, and he was okay with it. We comic fans can be disappointed by the decision, but millions of greeting card fans may have been delighted by it. T-shirt design is a good gig too. Plenty of people try to design funny T-shirts without even going through the formality of making an unrelated comic first. There's nothing ethically wrong with designing T-shirts.

I'll even go a step further and say there's nothing ethically wrong with pandering to an audience. There are greeting cards -- like that Maxine character -- that are ALL ABOUT pandering to an audience. There's literally nothing more to it; it's a narrative constructed for the express purpose of pandering to a card-buying public. Again, the question comes back to the author. A work attracts the kind of audience that is appropriate for it. If the work is shallow and pandering and cheap, the audience that comes to it will be the kind of people for whom that kind of work is the cat's meow. Is that the audience you want to surround yourself with and build a career atop? If so, fine, but know that's the bargain you're going into.

Speaking of TopatoCo, I read an interview you did with Shane Peterman for CNN in which you said, "The shirt shows the exclusivity and uniquenes of the wearer.…It makes them super cool." I've been thinking about that a lot in regards to my Questionable Content "IRONY" shirt I picked up a few years back. Am I cool because I wear a shirt that says "irony" blatantly when I am expected to wear an ironic t-shirt, which is not ironic, but is then ironic for not being ironic? Or am I cool because I have a shirt from something more obscure than Metallica? (Side note: Is it cool that I once dated a girl because she recognized the reference, or does it just sound like nerd bragging?)

The "irony" of the IRONY shirt is that it's not actually ironic. Shirts like that are designed to be read acontextually, and if it's recognized by someone else then it's just a bonus, like if you see someone driving your same model Saab. You wave. It's cool. It's not designed to be a tribal marker per se, but what it can be is an exclusive thing, a joke that your social circle hasn't seen yet. It's the same as being first to post a meme to your circle of friends. You're the cool guy. So to speak. (Did the relationship work out? No? SHOCKING)
[Note: It absolutely did not work out, but the immediate cause was distance. Being asocial nerds without social skills or outward displays of emotion was more of a subtle undercurrent.]

Finally, do you see major comic houses like DC, Marvel and Dark Horse surviving the next 20 years, and if so how? Could they change their business models, or will they just cling to the old ones in desperation until the last paper mill is demolished by iPad-driven bulldozers powered by flash-cloned whale oil?

DC is owned by Warner Brothers. Marvel is owned by Disney. They'll survive. The Muppets and Winnie the Pooh are still around, shadows of whatever they once were, decades after being bought by Disney. They're brands, and brands survive because brands make money for media companies.

Will the comics still be around? I dunno, maybe. I have a very foggy view into the future of the mainstream comics biz because I just don't operate on the same wavelength as they do. I don't know to what lengths they'll go to stay relevant, or what their priorities are. Telling good stories? Reaching new audiences? Or solidifying their hold on their existing market share?

The people I see doing better are publishers like Top Shelf, First Second, and Oni. These are people making honest-to-goodness books, rather than comic books. Graphic novels that appeal to people like me, who just can't be arsed to care about superheroes. There are still people doing good work for DC and Marvel, but I think the number of people with sentimental attachments to the tropes of that industry will surely dwindle in time.

As for Dark Horse...they're a different case. They, too, have dreams of being a media company. Right now the Hellboy properties and the licensed comics (Star Wars, Buffy) are their cash cows. They certainly make more money from their movies and toys than from the actual sale of their comics. So I'll go out on a limb and say that within 10 years they'll have been bought by an actual big-money media company as well. Hell with it...I'll guess Universal.

Wondermark continues to update every Tuesday and Friday. Malki ! is also currently involved with the compiling of solicited material for the upcoming second volume of the short story collection "Machine of Death," which you might remember from last year when it briefly ousted Glen Beck's new release as the most popular book on Amazon.

Stay classy, internet.

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