Dilettante 034: Gratitude

Toucan reading a comic
Steve Lieber

The culture of comics sometimes seems to be built on complaints. We spend so much time griping about our problems that it can be easy to lose sight of the many, many things that are going well or at least progressing. As Thanksgiving approaches, I thought I’d take a moment to look at the world of comics—the business, the artform, and the cultures surrounding them—and talk about things that we can be thankful for.

Archival Reprints of Strips and Older Comics

When I was a comics-obsessed pre-teen, there were very, very few opportunities to read older comics. Most of what I knew about comics from before the 1970s, I knew from short, tantalizing glimpses in a scattering of hard-to-find (and impossible-to-afford) books and zines, and from tedious sessions tearing through my local library’s microfilmed newspaper archives, looking for the daily strips. It was tough. You had to be an amateur scholar or know someone with a huge personal collection to get a look at what comics had already accomplished, and this meant that just about every generation of new cartoonists had to become junkyard archeologists if they didn’t want to spend years reinventing the wheel. That’s no longer the case. There are handsome, affordable, and comprehensive reprints of dozens and dozens of classic strips and older comics, and more good writing about them than I’ll ever have time to read. And for a fan who can’t buy his or her own books, they’re all available at almost any library in the US or Canada through inter-library loan.

Ease of Digital Availability

Old comic books and strips were entirely out of my reach as a kid, but even new ones were tough to find. I had access to a couple magazine stores, a junk shop, and the local Carnegie Library to find comics, and if something sold out? Tough. I don’t think I ever saw both parts of a two-part story. Now with comiXology and other digital platforms, it’s easy to get that great comic you heard about from a friend. And that’s not even mentioning the unbelievable cornucopia of free-to-read webcomics out there. As a reader, I’m immensely grateful that I could spend the rest of my life digging through the comics that artists have put on the web and never run out of things to read.

A Wide Variety of Styles and Subject Matter

I’ll try to spare you any more “when I was young” talk and just say this: There has never, ever been such variety available in comics. We as readers have access to more stories in more styles and genres and approaches than we’ve ever had before. And as cartoonists, there are audiences out there for a much, much wider range of material. I know cartoonists who have supported themselves with comics about food, about tall-ship sailing, about sex education, about politics, about business, about science, about history, about family, about 17th century university life, about 21st century university life, and on, and on, and on. My tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older, and my ambitions as a cartoonist have too. I’m glad we have so many new stories and new readers. 

New Ways to Reach Supportive Fans

The days of being dependent on a few narrow venues to reach your fans are gone, and I am glad to see them go. Publish through a traditional bookseller, or a comics publisher. Publish it yourself. Put it on the web. Sell downloads via Gumroad. Sell books, prints, or original art via eBay or Etsy or a Big Cartel shop. If you’ve built an audience, you can run a Kickstarter campaign or start a Patreon. I love watching cartoonists mix and match and experiment until they find what works.

Ease of Communication and Transfer

I am thankful every day that I don’t have to Fed-Ex boxes of art to my publishers or collaborators and hope they arrive safely. I don’t have to watch faxes crawl creaking through a feeder and hope they’re legible on the other end. I don’t have to run up huge long distance bills to talk with other cartoonists. I can communicate privately or wade into my Twitter feed and share art and ideas at a convention that’s 24/7/365.

Comic Conventions Everywhere

And sometimes it seems that the conventions are 24/7/365! I love that every week of the year, there are multiple comics conventions, and I love the different audiences that they’re developing to serve. We have big pop culture festivals, and comics-centric extravaganzas, independent shows that focus on comics as an expressive art, and events that celebrate comics by and for people from marginalized communities. I love walking through shows as a fan and I love exhibiting at them, and there are more worthy shows than I or any cartoonist could ever possibly attend.

Translated Comics

I’m so glad to have easy access to so many great comics from outside the English-speaking world. It used to be hard to find the work of even the most famous and well-regarded cartoonists from Europe, Asia, and South America. Now we can read and be inspired by the work of hundreds and hundreds of established masters and new innovators.

Access to Educational Resources

Any artist in North America with a library card or the ability to get online has access to an endless firehose of first-rate instruction and advice from accomplished professionals. Libraries can get you great books on every aspect of the craft. And online there are thousands of how-to pages, hours upon hours of tutorial videos, even entire textbooks scanned and downloadable. I remember how hard it was to find helpful resources when I was young. I’m so glad to see that now if a young artist wants to learn about how to make comics, everything they need to know is easy to find.

A Vibrant Critical Culture

Comics can be too easy on itself, and can fall into the trap of self-congratulation. I’m grateful we have engaged and passionate critics and fans who are willing to speak out when we get things wrong. Whether it’s bad work on the page or bad actions in the office, we need those voices if we want things to improve.

A Community That I Love and Respect

And finally, I’m grateful that I’m privileged to work every day on projects I love, and that I get to do so in the company of so many bright, dedicated, and talented people at Periscope Studio in Portland, Oregon. It’s a gift I never take for granted.

Steve Lieber’s Dilettante appears the second Tuesday of every month here on Toucan!

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