It’s too bad you can’t bottle and sell irony. John Allison’s problems would be solved.
In a blog post on his site today, the cartoonist writes, “In the last few years, the Internet has begun to change fundamentally.” Worrisome, definitely, and Allison has made his living based on what I suppose we call the “webcomic model” of selling t-shirts and ancillary merchandise through his site (which we do a small amount of here). It’s worked for some, but is apparently in danger because of changes in how people read and share media. He singles out Tumblr.
There are people who put all their work up on Tumblr, and don’t put it anywhere else. It’s so easy! Drag and drop! Their comics exist, contextless, in a stream of other people’s work. They’re measured by a meritocracy of Notes, Re-blogs and hearts. They have little control over the environment in which their work is displayed. Pageviews on a website are how you make money. A website is a venue to curate your work. It’s how you get someone to PAY ATTENTION TO YOU AND ONLY YOU.
Tumblr is the “that’s funny” archetype writ large. A million bells and whistles going off at once. To attempt to “win” on Tumblr, you have to drive your work down to the lowest common denominator, collect your “that’s funny”, and then, that’s it! It’s the equivalent of pasting your work up on bus shelter glass in a rainstorm. The sun comes out, your work is gone, no matter how many people laughed at it.
Yes, Tumblr is the new “Internet.”(Follow me here!) I’m old enough to remember–I am in my twenties here, folks–when only print cartoonists talked like this. Back then a few particular cartoonists who had blazed a trail for themselves online loved to laugh publicly at people who lost their jobs in print. The web was democratic, they said, and if you can’t make it work you should go die in a corner. If you followed that whole “debate,” you know what I’m referring to. If not, you didn’t miss out on anything that made you a smarter or better human being and I envy you.
I don’t bring this up to mock Allison’s financial troubles. If he’s struggling, that’s bad for all cartoonists and I’m in this boat with him. I have a sense of solidarity and constant dread about what is happening. But if your model can be completely undone by a new website you need to be more nimble. “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near,” a belligerent drug addict once sang before he abruptly died. People are raking it in on Kickstarter these days. No doubt that well will eventually dry up and we’ll move on to the next platform kids with their gizmos seem to grasp while the old and out-of-it Millennials struggle to keep up.
An aspiring cartoonist wrote me for advice recently and I don’t know what to tell her. How do you make a living at this? The only known step in how to achieve success in comics remains “draw comics.” The rest I’m still trying to figure out.
A few signs of promise arise amid the crumbling economic models of our times. A reader bought me a bottle of whiskey yesterday, which sure was nice. If we moved to a whiskey and cartoon based economy I’d be a baron. Can’t we do something simple like that?