The market will never, effectively, support what the world needs creatively.
Patronage is essential for that. Naturally, publishers can function as patrons, but I see it happen less than I’d like to. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, since I heard that Annie Koyama was going to close the doors on her book publishing and transition to more focused arts patronage. I’m excited for that. The reason being that comics’ commodity form feels broken.
When publishers big or small say, “buy our books or we won’t be able to exist”, there’s a problem. It’s not on them, but it leads me to believe that our paradigm for publishing is broken. A short reflection on Eric Reynolds’ conversation with Timothy Hodler on Amazon’s disruptive print-on-demand practices makes this clear. The form is flourishing en masse, the distribution method is failing us collectively. This intersects with failures of capitalism and culture, of course – in other spheres you can separate them a good bit, but comics, being born as a commodity form wind up inextricably connected to the market.
To be clear, I see a huge issue, when the responsibility of the “success” of works implicitly falls on the shoulders of the consumer.
Crowdfunding is a hybrid of these ideas, so there’s an evolution there towards the future. Some extremely smart and creative people like Spike Trotman and others have figured out how to use this system to make their comics flourish in the market. Though they succeed in existing in a market, what often times happens is, the campaigns fail to integrate the work into existing ecosystems of libraries, stores and schools in a way that traditional publishers are able to engage with. In this way reader and consumer end up being one and the same. For it’s own needs, the comics market, inside and outside of crowdfunding conflates consumer and reader. If you’re not around to buy it, you’ll likely never experience the work.
To be clear, this isn’t a dig on crowdfunding, though I wish more crowdfunded publications were able to bridge that gap in how the campaigns were designed. It’s not easy! I know! I’m just thinking out loud here about the larger issue of how comics wind up “locked up” in their own cultural space.
When comics can be reproduced and shared, like music, by being saved to hard drives, by being clipped onto the fridge, by being shared with friends by loaning our copy of a book or pointing a friend to the library, we harness comics’ ability to “float” as cultural experiences. To connect us to each other, and to new knowledge. When this happens, comics occupy a role that becomes personal, independent of our relations to what’s going on in the comics market, a space that will likely never be hospitable to new ideas.
Though I own plenty of comics, I read most comics through the library. My students read comics online, webcomics via sites and through social media. These experiences allow stories, jokes, images and abstractions to flow through our minds without forcing our hand in financial transactions. In these experiences, comics, especially strips become viral, they become important, they become part of our stories.
It’s in this spirit that we here at Comics Workbook shout the mantra: commodity form as community form.
If you or someone you know is interested in private patronage for forward thinking and passionate comics making, please send me a message. I’d love to talk to you.
I’m working on a project through Comics Workbook that aims to create an equitable work environment for comics-makers, particularly oriented around comic strips. This is important work as comics are a vital, contemporary art form that has an extremely flimsy infrastructure.
This all comes from things that I’ve learned thanks to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater‘s Future Makers program, my work at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, conversations with Johanna Lasner and The Copacetic Comics Company‘s Bill Boichel and my time here with Comics Workbook.