I just got finished reading Worst Day Ever #1 by Luke Stone and Westley Schomer, produced through Tenacious Comics. Worst Day Ever is both my answer to why I hate reviewing indie comics and also why I hate most indie comics. As a creator myself, I try to make my regular pilgrimage into the realm of smaller, independently produced and created comics, movies, music and video games in hopes of pulling out diamonds and raising them to the sky to declare war against the mass-produced, homogenized drivel of the multi-billion dollar corporations. More often than not, however, I run into things like Worst Comic Ever and then I’m reminded that a critic’s job is not to champion creators, but to protect or at least advise and inform consumers and to remind creators that it is their job to sell things that are good, not because they ‘deserve’ money due to their humble origins. At least partially. I find myself also frustrated by having given a middling review for High Noon Rising lately, laboring under the false impression that it was a webcomic due to its public availability on the internet. That got taken away and I'm worried that I may have given people the false impression that a barren ground from whence interesting material may at some point appear was worth $2.19.
There is a common notion about independently created media that creators think that just because they’re small or outside the usual mainstream circles, they get a free pass on critical reception. I mostly reject this train of thought not because it’s not true, but rather because it’s a problem that usually fixes itself. Music and movies are extremely difficult to make and take loads of technical knowledge just to get started creating. Sub-par independent video games usually have trouble finding distributors (hey, I said usually, not always) so the market doesn’t get over-flooded with them but comics face this ‘indie problem’ worse than any other medium besides maybe "Let’s Plays" and novels. Even as I write this, the horrible words "What's Up Youtube" burn through my head like the scorching of a funeral pyre.
For new creators, indie creators or underground voices, there’s a concept of "paying one’s dues" before being trusted to oversee large creations and stories and projects. This may seem unfair to creators at the time, but other than the minority of creative voices who have been grand-fathered into their position, it’s a process almost every creator goes through. Go through hell, create something amazing or at least noteworthy on your own dime, your own money, in between shifts and against the rising tide of apathy that surrounds the perpetually ambitious.
Comics, however, play by different rules. While "paying your dues" is still a pre-requisite to some degree, it’s much easier to get a product out and distributed than any other medium for a few reasons. These reasons are a big part of why many indie comics exist in such a state as they do now, suffering poor art, poor writing and often not continuing past issue #1.
In the world of monthly releases, consumers usually expect a comic between 20-30 pages, and this makes my job as a reviewer much easier than, say, a movie reviewer who must dedicate 2 or more hours to absorbing their material, or video games reviewers who even on good days have to spend upwards of six hours making sure that the awful title they’re reviewing doesn’t get magically better at the end.
In regards to allowing a creator to pay their dues, however, this means that the gap between producing "something" and not producing anything is much narrower and much more manageable to smaller, penniless creators. Let me tell you: the gap between creating something and creating nothing is supposed to be huge. Paying one’s dues is a mark of dedication even under immense pressure. The creation of a novel is supposed to mark the distance between the author before making their novel and after making it by 60,000 words or more. If a director can stick with a movie through the hours upon hours of footage it takes to make a feature-length film, then he’s got dedication even if the film sucks.
The key to creating a published comic book, however, is 20-30 pages of script with art to accompany the words. If you have these two things, then you’ve bridged the supposed "gap" between not being a comic-book writer/artist and becoming a comic-book writer/artist. While creating a good comic book is by no means easy to do, creating a comic book with no regards to quality is. Thus, due to the indie comic industry’s lackadaisical nature (which I’ll be touching on soon) regarding comic book length and legitimacy, would-be creators are naturally drawn to it to prove themselves with the least amount of effort necessary.
The Small Teams Issue
Having worked in very small teams myself, I still feel as if I need to mark this point down as being strictly speculation because I am unable to transplant myself into the mind of someone who’s hoping to create a work as quickly and cheaply as possible without regards to quality. I take great pride in my comic The Dolridge Sacrament (produced by Alterna Comics, wink-wink, nudge-nudge) and I’m working with a small team for my latest project. Yet I can’t help but speculate…
Place yourself in the mind of an artist. Say that you’re a frustrated artist, still at the beginning of your artistic development and frustrated by the annoyance, benign nature or even the harsh, unforgiving throes of real life. Your art is fine enough, at least from where you're sitting, but you are getting bogged down in notability by the thousands of other artists that exist on the internet. You need a way to stand out. An easy way to do that would be to create a published comic. Like it was mentioned above, comics are shorter than webcomics and provide instant credibility. But you’ve never really written anything before and the big publishers have already given your artistic skills a pass. What do you do?
Now imagine that you’re a writer. You’ve not actually… written anything yet, aside from some short stories and you’ve got a ton of ideas! Either you’ve started your first novel or your first feature-length screenplay but haven’t finished yet or you’re determined to write comic books and aren’t going to waste your time on webcomics. You, too, are frustrated with the way your life is going and you want to cash in now on your talents.
These two people find each other and are willing to do get this comic created and published despite their still-developing talents and are willing to do the half of the work that the other won’t or is unable to. For an artist, that is 20-30 pages which could be upwards of 100 panels, so that’s still a big hill to climb, but it’s doable, it’s manageable, the end is in sight by the time you put pen (or stylus) to paper! For a writer, however, that’s 20-30 script pages which is going to, by design, take way less time than the actual construction of the pages. However, this is still a quick and relatively simple ride to the biggest point on their portfolio they’ve ever had.
Comics Are Expected To Continue
This is a small point, but for writers, it’s not only acceptable but expected that their first work have a cliff-hanger on the end so that the story can continue and the series can become a continuing source of revenue. This means that their first created work may not even necessarily need a decent conclusion to be considered legitimate.
This also means that a second issue is always less likely to happen because the gap between creating something and nothing is huge and rewarding, but the gap between #1 and #2 is not only much less fun to cross but is also less rewarding and many creators may find little use in continuing their work if issue #1 not only didn’t bring in a lot of money but also if no one was really paying attention or is even waiting for #2.
Without any obligation other than professional obligation (which is of little consequence to the most flighty creators out there), most indie comics creators are able to make a 20-30 page comic with little regard to quality of writing or art and without a satisfying conclusion or a strong promise to continue into issue #2 and then leave the industry with a published work to tag onto their portfolios in less than a few months.
But why? Shouldn’t bad comics not even be an issue when no one is willing to pick them up, much less so read them? Well that brings us to our biggest problem:
What Is Publication Anyway?
The only difference between being published and being self-published is whether the person publishing your work is yourself. This is an especially small distinction these days, thanks to the internet. Where a lot of indie producers have the badge of honor of having a publisher page on Comixology and thus are placed under public scrutiny and needing to be at least partially discerning about their work due to being on the same digital storefront as Marvel or Dark Horse, often many of the smallest producers have little else but a website and a PayPal account. To be published used to mean that resources and energy went into dedicating a work or a book to paper and while I’m not some octogenarian who believes that this is the only thing publishing should ever mean, it’s definitely time to rephrase the statement (“Published by who?”) or to let go of the concept of published as meaning tested or experienced.
To any publisher who’s still too small to have a large back-catalog or to worry too much about their image as publishers, they will take all of the work that they can get. An unknown publisher, writer and artist can come together with the most minimal amount of work necessary to create names for themselves underneath their own labels. The publisher gets to increase their extremely small back-catalog, quality be damned if they’re desperate for work. The writer and/or artist benefits from the legitimacy of being published (and not being dismissed under the dread knell title "self-published") and a sort of symbiotic relationship is born. This relationship, born of small resources and desperation for attention, is where the heart of the "indie comics" problem lies.
Make no mistake, anyone charging money for sub-par or lazy media hurts the industry they’re in. It would be easy to say that not reviewing sub-par comics or just ignoring them would mean that there’s no problem to begin with, but that’s not true. Being an independent comic creator should be a badge of pride when in reality it’s now a stigma where a clarification must be made between the writers and artists who really put themselves out there and the ones who are looking for quick and simple notoriety.
It is because of bad indie comics and the lax terminology regarding published creators that the public perception of what should be the most effervescent and evocative stories out there is actually of talentless writers and artists seeking a quick buck. I don’t want to let indie comics go, I don’t want to see them die.
I’d like very much to see people taking pride and joy in taking the path less traveled with their entertainment choices, but right now I would advise anyone interested to watch their step very closely, just in case they end up accidentally stepping in Worst Day Ever.