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Ooooh boy.

I don't have the words for it, but perhaps the following from WebSnark will do just fine. (Be warned: you are in for a read!)


March 02, 2006

Eric: On History, Spin and Advertising: or drama.

My e-mail program has developed an aversion to webcomics drama, apparently.


Seriously. Wednesday just mentioned the current ongoing Webcomics Fracas, and was surprised to find I hadn't heard anything about it. In part, that's my own fault. It's been busy around these parts, so I'm behind on blog reading and rant-scoping. That apparently includes seeing the rant on PvP's front page. Perhaps I was distracted by Francis's new hair style. (And I like the new hairstyle, for the record. Though now I'm wondering if he still uses troll snot as 'product.' But I digress.)


Anyhow, as happens when there is Drama, I got several e-mails about it. As has not happened, just yet... every last one of those e-mails ended up in my spam filter. Every last one. I got other e-mails about other things, but anything to do with T Campbell, Scott Kurtz, Rodney Caston, The History of Webcomics, Antarctic Press or Previews magazine found its way into my spam filter, and there it sat, lurking.


Clearly, my e-mail spam filter took one look at the drama and said "oh, no fucking way. If I give this to Eric, he'll just write a post. And no matter what he says in that post, it'll angry up the blood of countless people. And when their blood is angried up they'll write hundreds of e-mails, and I'll have to sort through them. Fuck that. Fuck that in the ear. I declare this argument spam."


Sadly, for my e-mail program, it doesn't get to make those decisions. That's falling on my shoulders.


So. Here we are. Hi there.


You might have heard that T Campbell has a book coming out.


A caveat. I have not actually read The History of Webcomics. This is not due to lack of opportunity. Campbell solicited opinions and the like from a number of people, and I was one of them. If I remember correctly, I did have some input on a section from several months back, and I'm vain enough to be pleased that Websnark is covered in the book and Campbell asked permission to reproduce a Gossamer Commons strip for the book. However, with everything else that's been going on, I simply didn't have time to actually read the book itself. As such, I can't weigh in on the core of the arguments about it. I do know that Scott Kurtz actively dislikes a number of points about the book, and he elaborates on them well in a rant on PvP's front page. Rodney Caston also had some harsh words when he saw Campbell's depiction of the end of Caston's involvement with Megatokyo. And T Campbell responded, most notably in two posts on his blog (entitled Why You Weren't Interviewed and Wow, I'm Famous, respectively).


Those will give you a precis of what Kurtz, Caston and Campbell have to say about the content of the book. I encourage folks who have any interest at all to read and judge for yourselves.


However, I can comment on a couple of the core areas of contention, one of which I can comment on because I can see it for myself, and the other of which I can comment on as an issue of methodology, without speaking directly to execution.


Don't worry. I'll explain myself better than that when I get to it.


However, I'm going to start with the area that Campbell has, to his credit, acknowledged is problematic. An area that I can see for myself and, to be blunt, I think Scott Kurtz is completely right about. And that's the solicitation that Antarctic Press did in Previews for the book proper. (Seen Below):




Now, have a look at the ad. You see a cover for the book, featuring characters from Argon Zark, Penny Arcade, Suck.com, Megatokyo and the avatar Scott McCloud used in his books Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. You see a splash bullet at the top announcing that "millions upon millions of readers can't be wrong!" And you see 48 point text announcing "PvP! Megatokyo! Penny Arcade!" And then they go on to talk about "world renowned historian web comic historian T. Campbell."


Well, setting aside the fact that Campbell doesn't put a period after the letter T (apparently it's his first name, now -- or at least the first name he uses -- which puts him in the same category as "5" from 60's Peanuts comics. But I again digress), there's something disingenuous about calling him "world renowned." I mean, I suppose if someone in England and/or Canada said something nice about him, it could be called accurate, but that's splitting hairs. There isn't anyone -- not Jerry Holkins, Scott Kurtz himself, Fred Gallagher, or Scott McCloud -- in webcomics who constitutes "world-renowned." To then go to the far more removed niche of "webcomics historians" and give Campbell that title is to border on the ridiculous. (Which Campbell agrees with -- remember, he didn't write the ad copy.)


More than that, however, we have those three examples in big text. PvP, Penny Arcade and Megatokyo. Those are indeed three of the very biggest webcomics out there, and no doubt are heavily referenced in the book. However, any casual reader would take their placement in the ad as both endorsement of and heavy participation in the book -- that the book was by Campbell, Kurtz, Holkins, Krahulik and Gallagher. As this isn't the case -- and as Kurtz at the very least emphatically does not endorse the book -- it doesn't just deceive. It creates potential rancor. Why wouldn't the webcartoonists in question look at that ad, furrow their brows, say "wait a second -- why is my comic in this ad?" and write annoyed stuff on their comic's front page.


The adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity" is a lie. If you manage to piss off the fanbases of three of the largest webcomics for your book about webcomics? You're not going to sell more books than you were before. Just putting it out there.


To me, that's just made worse with the bullet splash above it. "Millions upon millions of readers can't be wrong!" Well, first off -- of course they can. Millions upon millions of people read The Bridges of Madison County, and I'm here to say they were to a man, woman and child wrong. I mean, seriously -- that book was turgid. I never saw the movie, but since Clint Eastwood was in it, I figure they threw in a few gunfights just to raise the level a bit.


However, the other side is, it's a lie. Millions upon millions of people haven't rendered any kind of judgement on The History of Webcomics. You could almost get away with making a claim like this if this were The Webcomics Experience or The T Campbell Field Guide To The North American Webcomic or something -- then, you're describing a cultural phenomenon, and it's something close to fair to invoke the fans of that phenomenon.


This isn't a book about a phenomenon, however. It's a history book. And so the only possible reading of that splash point is that seven figures of readers agree with this history's interpretation and have signed off on it. And that, to use the industry term, is horse shit.


None of which is T Campbell's fault. He didn't write or lay out this advertisement. However, it's creating the initial conditions for what "buzz" the book is going to get, and that buzz right now is pretty harsh.


The cover? The cover's in Campbell's court, and that brings up the next aspect of this little adventure.


You see, we have folks like Piro and Scott McCloud hanging out, looking for all the world like the Breakfast Club, with Argon Zark taking the place of Judd Nelson in the ceiling tiles. Makes sense, right? A group picture of some of the seminal figures in webcomics identified in the book proper.


Well, there are two problems with this particular interpretation. One is composition-based, and the other is... well, etiquette based. The etiquette based problem has gotten some play -- Campbell didn't think to ask permission to use the characters on the cover.




Scott Kurtz covered his in a PvP strip, yesterday. (CLICK HERE to see it) It's not that Campbell needed permission to use these characters -- there are fair use issues involved, of course. It's that not getting permission was... well, dickish. It takes liberties with the webcartoonists and their property. In Kurtz's words, it's asking forgiveness instead of permission.


Campbell has acknowledged it was a mistake, and sought permission of the involved parties -- and indicated a willingness to replace the cover if they said no. The parties agreed. So hey -- that makes it better. Life is good, right?


Well... I dunno.


See, looking at that cover, I don't see a montage of webcomics characters crossing the spectra of the webcomics experience. I see a group picture of webcomics characters who are apparently about to go off on an exciting adventure, during which Argon Zark is going to nail Molly Ringwald in a supply closet. Once again, the feeling of the cover art -- to me -- is less one of subject matter and more one of endorsement. "Join Gabe, Piro, and some chick from Suck.com as they go on an action packed adventure through the history of webcomics." I'd rather see a montage of actual strips by the actual artists, laid out in some way that conveys the sense that we're talking about a history book here.


(And for that matter, all apologies to Terry Colon, but why Suck.com and not, say, User Friendly. Or AfterY2K -- a strip that was astoundingly popular in 1998-1999. Or GPF or Superosity. Or Fans for that matter? But that's a matter of taste, on my part.)


This creates a condition where people feel pissed off. Pissed off because they have expectations raised that then aren't followed through. ("Hey -- wait! There's not really any Piro in this book! It's all just words!") Pissed off because their characters or brand are being used to imply an endorsement they may not actually feel. Pissed off because they perceive a violation on the behalf of the webcomics they love. Pissed off because... well, because that's what happens in Webcomics when things come out.


And we haven't even gotten into the book itself yet. We're just talking about an advertisement and the cover.


Fasten your seatbelts, kids. This really is going to be a bumpy flight.


The other thing I can speak to, that I alluded to all the way back up in the paragraph laying out what I was going to talk about? Is methodology. Specifically, the method that Campbell has said he used to gather information for his webcomical historical.


You see, the core of Caston's complaint is that apparently Campbell discussed the breakup of Caston and Gallagher ("Piro" and "Largo") in Megatokyo. In so doing, he quoted statements of Gallagher's. Statements Caston disputes. He feels that Campbell should have solicited responses or interviewed him, and by failing to do so he has permitted a skewed interpretation of the events to be entered into what, after all, purports to be the historical record.


(Much like 'rigamarole,' I have to admit I like using the word 'purports' in a sentence. It's so... woody. But I digress.)


Campbell responded that he restricted the total number of interviews he did for the book to around 50 -- which is actually a pretty small number when you consider the breadth of webcomics. Hell, I personally read several hundred webcomics a day, each with their own set of webcartoonists and the like. Instead, he researched what was actually said online at the time of the events he laid forth. In his own words:


I had reasons. I started distrusting the interview process after a while. When somebody's asking you to sum up five to ten years in comics for posterity the temptation to "spin" your answer has to be overwhelming.


Some of my interview subjects seemed to resist the pull, but I still found myself preferring to consult the typed word, because:


a) there was no shortage of written words on ALMOST every topic that related to webcomics,

b) typed words were often composed in the past, not in the present about the past,

c) words in cyberspace could be contradicted by other interested parties or the general public and

d) if the words had been typed instead of spoken, there was a greater chance they were words the author stood by.


There is validity to this method. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't. However, it is less valid than Campbell might believe, in part because it believes it's drawing off primary sources, when it isn't.


Let me go into the theory of research, for just a moment.


When you're doing research on an academic subject -- be that history, English, or what have you -- there are several kinds of sources you can draw off of. Primary sources are just what they sound like -- the specific materials in being interpreted. If you're writing about a book, quoting from that actual book is using a primary source. Using a piece of videotape of an event is using a primary source. A well researched piece of journalism, reporting the facts of an event with a strong effort towards objectivity, can be seen as primary, though it's a fine line sometimes.


Eyewitness accounts, interviews and the like, on the other hand, are secondary sources. You're getting your facts put through the filter of another mind -- through "spin," as Campbell said on his blog. You're getting an interpretation of events, not actual events.


This can be tremendously valuable, especially when doing historical research. In many cases, secondary sources are all we have. However, to get anything approximating an accurate picture, you need to gather as many points of view as you humanly can, picking and sifting through conflicting stories and interpretations until you can find a set of facts that can be verified... or simply highlighting the controversy and presenting a summation of the different viewpoints when a single course of events can't be demonstrated indisputably.


Campbell made the conscious choice to work from primary sources -- or as close as he could get -- in researching this book. This was the reason, along with sheer considerations of time, why he didn't interview eight or nine times as many people as he ended up interviewing. Rather than interview, say, Gallagher and Caston over their professional breakup, he found what was on the record from the time and drew off of that.


The problem is? Those quotes, and posts, and writings from the time? Weren't primary sources either.


We have almost no solid primary sources for news and information about webcomics right now. Comixpedia does all it can in that regard, but a tremendous number of its news items come, essentially, from press releases put out by the webcartoonists themselves. Newsarama, Comicon.com, the Comics Reporter and the like all do some webcomics coverage, but it's hardly comprehensive.


And websites like The Webcomics Examiner, I'm Just Saying, Fleen, Tangents, and, yes indeed, Websnark are one step removed from standard secondary sources. Websnark isn't news -- it's analysis. There isn't a thing that appears on this site that hasn't been filtered and altered by my or Weds's opinions and interpretation.


Now, the breakup of the professional relationship between Rodney Caston and Fred Gallagher is a watershed moment in the history of webcomics. Let's not pretend otherwise. There is a standard by which we can say Megatokyo is the single most successful webcomic to date. Simply put, it's the one that's in every major bookstore in America. It charts among the top selling manga titles in America (and the top selling Manga collections significantly outsell the top selling "pamphlet" style comic books, these days). Before Caston left, Megatokyo was a very specific kind of comedy. After he left, it was far more centered on Gallagher's storytelling and shounen romantic plot points. And while many people -- myself included -- preferred the Caston era Megatokyo, the simple fact is the post-Caston Megatokyo exploded into the mainstream, and had tremendous impact both on the Webcomics form and on sequential art in general. This breakup had impact. It was, in fact, a historical event, in a field that hasn't had many of them.


And in the end, the only two people who were in the room for it were Rodney Caston and Fred Gallagher. And the two of them currently dispute how it took place.


So, when Campbell quotes Gallagher from the time, he's not getting an objective accounting. He's getting Gallagher's interpretation. Because Caston elected to not go on the public record in the wake of his leaving Megatokyo, his interpretation of the event is being left out of the historical record. That reduces the accuracy of the work, and ultimately codifies disputed events into accepted ones.


And that is a significant problem of methodology. Because if I read the section on Megatokyo in this book, not knowing the above, I'm sure I'd accept it as given. That's the nature of writing down history. It becomes History, capital-H, and errors get written in ink. If that's indicative -- if Campbell sifted through reams and reams of forum postings, rants, blog posts and the like in putting together his history, in the end we're only getting his interpretation of others interpretations. By not getting fresh 'takes' on these things by as many of the involved parties as he possibly could, he is ultimately getting spun far more thoroughly than if he'd conducted the interviews in the first place.


Of course, if he had done the interviews in the first place, I doubt he'd be a quarter of the way through the book. But that might not be a bad thing.


I haven't read this book. One day, of course, I will. And I expect it will be a standard reference for some time to come. But the book says "Version One" on the cover, and that's good -- because I suspect Version Two will be significantly different.


When it comes out, I hope the advertising doesn't make peoples' blood boil before they ever see the book. Because if there's real issues to discuss with Campbell's methodology, having PR that makes people mad before they ever consider it just adds gasoline to a grease fire.


On second thought, maybe my spam filter had the right idea.




and an amusing comic today from indietits:



Lycaon will most likely have more meat to add to this than I can.

What's everyon's thoughts on the matter?

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Lycaon will most likely have more meat to add to this than I can.


Why? I didn't know much about it, beyond what the Yelling Bird from Indie Tits was pictured saying (Which I probably would've posted as well, assuming no else had. But you beat me to it, to which I say :p). I may read more webcomics than you, but I tend to be a bit lazy (Damn straight I'll admit it, I've actually raised it to an art form.) and wasn't immediately compelled to look into the nature of the drama (Probably would have eventually, but fortunately you saved me the trouble of searching about it.). I do think the book, may be more than a little pretentious and the effort put into it minimal at best, assuming the article's accurate.


Thanks for the thought, though. :2T:

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  • 2 months later...

I don't see how anyone could mistake this for an endorsement of the book, it's The History of Web comics, not the Penny Arcade/ PvP/ Megatokyo Big Bumper Fun Book. For an essay I'm doing for University, I'm currently reading a book called Film Architecture: From Metropolis to Bladerunner*, and at no point reading it did I think "that Fritz Lang really likes to talk himself up, and that Ridley Scott too, it's just one big circle jerk."


The cover, it's fair use I'm sure, and while it's discourteous not to ask, I'm sure Penny Arcade don't ask permission if they want to use Mario or the Prince of Persia in one of there comics. ( I don't know much about the other two comics, apart from that they look a bit rubbish, prove me wrong)


Has anyone got or seen this book? I wouldn't mind flicking through it and see if the site I did work for (but no comics) Opi8 (it's still going! kind of) gets even a foot note.




[*yeah, I'm just going to throw that one out there, I'm reading a book, with more words than pictures. I am super-brain]

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