About a year ago, we had a discussion about some comments made by Garry Trudeau
, the creator of the comic strip Doonesbury, which has been an institution for 40 years or so. That post was in response to claims by Trudeau that the web was no place for comics to make money, and that the only hope for comics in the new digital era was to have the newspapers "come to their senses" and gate off all internet content behind a paywall of some sort. He effectively was looking for ways to turn the new world back into the old. We noted that perhaps Trudeau should check out the success of webcomics like Randall Munroe's xkcd
, which showed how a webcomic could not just exist online, but thrive online -- with a very strong business model to support it.
Trudeau recently made some similar comments in a Slate interview
, where he again appeared to be dissing the whole webcomics space:
Slate: Where is the comic strip headed in the post-daily-print-newspaper age? Is the medium healthy?
There's not much future in being a strip artist now. That's quite a turnaround in fortunes, because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip used to be the closest thing to tenure that popular culture offered. If I were starting out now, I'd probably continue on the graphic design trajectory I was on before I got sidetracked with comics. Colbert-like TV would be OK, too, except you have to be brilliant. I advise young cartoonists now to get into graphic novels--or head for Pixar.
Again, in general, our response is similar to what it was last time around. Thinking that there's no future in a space where we're already seeing creative individuals carve out quite impressive models seems pretty silly.
However, there was a fascinating deconstruction of Trudeau's comments
on the PVPonline blog, suggesting that Trudeau is correct... in talking about the lack of a future for those who want a career like
the traditional syndicated comic strip artist. The folks who have lived off of that model for years probably don't
have much of a future, because they're so used to making money in one way, that they're not quite prepared to make the jump -- even if there is plenty of money to be made.
Furthermore, the post picks up on that line about tenure, and how that's really the key here:
Boy, isn't that the truth? And isn't that the real reason that syndicates are getting less and less for their features every year? Because presiding over an established syndicated comic strip is tenure for both the creator and their syndicate partner. Just put it on auto-pilot until the artist dies, then get a new artist and put the auto-pilot back on.
In this interview, Garry discusses his friends Gary Larsen and Bill Watterson, both who felt the time had come to retire from cartooning. And having read interviews with both of those cartoonists, they seem like creators very uncomfortable with the idea of "tenure." But again, how feasible is it for a cartoonist with 20 plus years under his belt to re-invent what they do or start from scratch?
I do a lot of soul searching about what I do for a living. I think about it a lot. The last thing I want to do is take it for granted. And as I reflect on my one measly decade of cartooning, I see an obvious pattern. It's during the times I was most comfortable that things started falling apart. And it was during the moments of struggle, upheaval, change and dissatisfaction with my work that I turned the most important corners.
I think there's actually a much larger point here that applies to much of what we write here at Techdirt. So many of the legacy business models that we talk about really are a kind of "tenure." They're on autopilot. The major record labels know how to sell CDs. Give them a certain type of artist, and they can sell a huge number of units. It's autopilot. But that kind of "tenure" and "autopilot" is going away (or perhaps is already gone).
To be successful today there is no autopilot. There is no magic bullet. It involves constant innovating and refinement -- and that's quite difficult to deal with for those who have had "tenure" for years. The idea behind tenure at universities is that it encourages professors to feel free to research what they want, free of pressure from the university. And that works for some. But, for many, it also means the opposite: with tenure, you can just keep going, without working on anything special or worrying about doing anything big. And that's what we've seen in all sorts of legacy industries that effectively stagnated, due to the easy money of a "tenured" sort of position. But the new digital world is one where there aren't any tenured business models. This doesn't mean you can't make money (or even lots of money -- you can). But it involves constantly evolving, experimenting and innovating. And many of us think that's a good thing.