[Comics] as Reading – Chapter 4 – [Comics] in the Web, or A Theory of Textual Infrastructure pt. 6

PREVIOUS: Chapter 4 pt. 5

3. [Comics] as Socialized Media

Because, in the very first chapter of this something-like-a-book, I denigrated the idea that [comics] could be defined as the more or less obvious outlay of a particular social structure, it perhaps behooves me to say what I do not mean when I speak of the overlap of social and material forms or, at least, say in more precise terms why beginning from a [comics] habitus is necessarily insufficient. The reason for this, as far as my argument goes, is twofold. First, as I state in the first chapter, there is the manner in which the argument for a “comics world” constrains itself too narrowly, often limiting the discussion to the supply side of [comics] production (e.g. publishers, creators, and so forth) or to a conspicuous (and thus quantifiable and easily observed) readership such as one finds in fan communities. The readership of [comics], though, has historically been a mass one and comics have, as Kunzle asserts, been a creature of mass media, even where their actual distribution numbers (for instance, with underground and small press comics) seem not to demonstrate this fact. So too with [webcomics], whose most popular exemplars quite often garner unique pageviews in the millions, at a time when print [comics] of the floppy variety would be doing well with circulation numbers in the tens of thousands. Moreover, these analytics do not even account for how often individual [webcomic] strips like PHD or XKCD are circulated through social media sites like tumblr or Facebook, due in no small part to their amenability to a fundamental textual infrastructure which HTML, whether deliberately or not, propounds. In doing no small part of the work of distribution, at least in aggregate, this broad if diffuse participation in the means of production of [webcomics] points toward the second fold of the two, wherein sociality—an unfortunate term that—functions as another ground of articulation much like the coded framework discussed at length in the previous section.

One of the earliest XKCD comics, in which its material base, the light blue-green grid of the graph paper, is still visible.

In addition to the hypertext framework of the Web, [comics] now exist within social media, which are, generally speaking, based in the same coded framework hypertext is and quite often use the Web as a means to interface, though not of necessity. Moreover, sociality, by which I mean, less prosaically, the tendency of human subjects to be social and, in this instance, make use of their particular relationships to media in order to participate in, maintain, and, in some cases, establish the communal groupings that make up their social lives and which, in turn, contribute to the construction of their identities—sociality is the condition wherein readers, either as direct patrons or as contributors to a system of patronage, provide creators with the means to produce at all or, more accurately, to continue to produce [comic] works after their initial forays have provided the grounds upon which creator and reader might come into more immediate and repeated contact than existing systems of consumer capitalism typically allow for. It is key to see the model of more-if-not-perfectly direct patronage so common in [webcomics] spheres in this way, because it demonstrates how communities of readers, producers, and other interested parties condition the material base, just as in the previous section a later ideology, Dijkstra’s “separation of concerns,” refashioned HTML as a textual fundament. Moreover, as with the HTML example, we shall see how older methods and assumptions in the world of publishing reassert themselves, like the return of the repressed, even in a realm of newer, more social media whose denizens quite often presume to have escaped the old way of doing things.

These social-as-new-media, then, are not, if we are to persist with a warily adopted Marxist critique, a mode of production in the classic sense but rather a means to produce, one which, admittedly, might easily be exploited but whose basis lies in ordinary human relations, including, I hasten to note, those forms of community which already exist, seemingly passé institutions like conventions or schools or shops or libraries—to which could be added various forms of online interaction, which ought not to be set aside as something altogether distinct. Even Sherry Turkle, the very creator of the idea (and thus ideology) of the “second self,” has come to reject the notion that these relationships exist in a world apart, preferring in her more recent work to assert that technology in our lives has effected a far more subtle transformation rather than a wholesale transposition. So too in the work of danah boyd, who shows how teenagers have turned to social media in large part as a response to the various ways in which they have been excluded from public spaces in which to socialize, in an effort to protect them from sometimes real but all too often merely perceived dangers in the world.

However, I choose to characterize how sociality reconditions [webcomics] production as a means to produce rather than a mode of production not to generate an entirely novel mode of understanding—it should be clear by now that sheer novelty is one of the many items under interrogation in the present work—but to indicate a slightly skewed perspective on the same object of a classically Marxist analysis. What we see with regard to sociality and [webcomics] is a form of late capitalism with oddly feudal characteristics, in which the historically aristocratic virtues of patronage are used as a means to resist or simply forego some of capitalism’s effects which contribute to the breakdown of a more ancient and more ordinary social order, what David Graeber refers to in Debt as “everyday communism,” the tendency in one’s immediate ken to regard favors and gifts (like holding open a door or lending one’s neighbor a garden tool) according to a logic that eschews accounting or rigorous economic calculation.

One might object, though, that buying merchandise or contributing to a Patreon account still renders one complicit in a capitalist, market economy. To be sure, but, as Gitelman noted, in an April 2014 talk at the Newberry Library on amateur printers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—the same could apply to modern zinesters as well—one can make use of the tools of capitalism (i.e. the mode[s] of production) without necessarily accepting its logic. This is not to suppose that the tools are “content neutral” but rather that the material base is always susceptible to an ideological reconditioning—which is to say the means developed according to one ideology might very well be amenable to others, just as, Carter might remind us, the world of type is one in which one’s output might be put to purposes not yet invented. Social media, produced under the sign of capitalism, regardless of what the disruptive set might say—after all, Google and Apple are the very opposite of workers’ cooperatives—nevertheless is susceptible to forms of sociality that capitalism might normally repress or, at best, seek to monetize.

[Comics], even as a creature of mass media in print periodicals—remember, I mean this as much conceptually as concretely—have historically been used (perhaps abused) in precisely this manner, whether we see it in the obsessive reproduction of the detritus of “advanced” economies (signs, power lines, and what have you) in the work of Robert Crumb or the appropriation of Shirato Sanpei’s ninja character Kamui as the incidental mascot of the student protest movement in 1960s Japan. In fact, one could argue that [comics’] tendency toward parody, caricature, and gross, comedic types would seem to point toward a likelihood (if not an absolute destiny) that [comics] would poach in this way. This tendency to view the world askew, to reproduce it with a mind toward seeing its many, often repressed, facets, which Ippei in chapter 2 regarded as an attitude or orientation rather than a formal construct, functions also as a form of engagement with and in that world, in the manner of Doc Yak at the close of chapter 3. So too, the failures and eventual suppression of the student protest movement came to be reflected in the final narrative arc of the first part of Shirato’s Kamui-den, his narrative grounded in the world even as the world was grounded in his narrative.

Consumer capitalism conceptualizes “the masses” one way and historical materialism in another, but in both worldviews this social mass is the terminus toward which textual production is directed, be it for profit or for edification, maybe even a mix of the two. Quite often, the edifying impulse takes on the cast of “we have enlightened you, now go forth and enlighten others,” spurring an otherwise passive readership to, according to a crude logic, seize the means of production and bend it back toward the general will or common good. What one sees with [webcomics] and their redistribution in social media is a milieu in which these two conceptualizations are held in tension with one another in a manner not always antagonistic or even dialectical—if there is a dialectic here, it is far more Kierkegaard than Hegel, but I will spare you, dear reader, an unnecessary digression as to why that is. What might begin as an egalitarian or more readerly/socially oriented project might, over time, develop into yet another consumer capitalist enterprise, just as, within the structures of late capitalism, one might easily carve out a space in which one might develop a craft whose drive and intent has little to do with a larger system of products and monetary exchange.

November 5, 2008: of course, the irony turns back once again to reveal how even the Penny Arcade duo might be aware of what is transpiring around them.

As noted earlier, an economic concern lay at the very heart of Tycho’s online spats with Scott McCloud, an economic concern that could not be easily divorced from questions of aesthetic propriety and the affordances of particular formats or media. Penny Arcade did eventually become profitable, but not as a result of straightforward consumerism—make a [comic], make it available, market it, sell it, etc.—but rather by developing a community of readers, for whom the [comic] came solely at the expense of time and having internet access, and, more importantly, developing in those readers a sense of loyalty, active participation, and desire to purchase merchandise—among which were, as one might guess, print versions of PA comics—and to attend events like the PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) conventions not merely as an external marker of one’s fandom, as one might don a Star Wars or Metallica t-shirt, but as a way to actively support and further a larger media project for which they might come to feel partially responsible, even if, in reality, the future of that project has little if anything to do with them. In turn, the producers of that project, in all its iterations, feel some responsibility toward that community of readers/consumers to use their financial support not just to extract surplus value, though the profit motive never disappears entirely, but also to develop and sustain the media content which maintain their communities’ loyalty to a particular project. PA, over time, became far more than just a [webcomic] and forum catering to the whims of gamers and their attendant culture but also a charity (Child’s Play), the aforementioned expositions, several web series, podcasts, gaming industry news, etc.

The Penny Arcade model shows how the initial problems resulting from creating a [comic] and trying to find a readership for it, as well as finding the means to sustain its production, can be solved by attending to the articulations and inter-relations that were already present in “old” media, the difference being how, in the absence of a [satisfactory] pre-existing infrastructure in which to interpolate their creative output, the PA duo built that media infrastructure up over time from both material and social conditions. I say this, because, as queasy as it may cause one’s utopian sentiments to become, “community” is but one aspect of the PA project’s creative output, facilitated as it is by the very infrastructure PA as media company, and “sociality” a product for sale both online and “in real life.” For, while one might be able to participate online “for free” (with internet access), attendance at a PA event requires the purchase of admittance. One must remember that the sociality of social media is not just a way of life—and I would never deny that it is—but it is also a commodity, made available by and large through the efforts of capitalist enterprise. The PA model is this very tension: real sociality inextricably bound up with real consumer capitalism, for the means to produce never stray all that far from classic modes of production.

Of course, the PA model is not the only one, and for an artist whose ambitions are more limited—say, to continue creating [comics] on a more or less regular schedule without going broke—the prospect of having to become a demagogue and forge a media empire from the ever inflamed desires of the masses might seem too daunting a task. Patronage can take many forms, be they indirect, as with the sale of merchandise, or direct, as with the modern systems of online, facilitated patronage such as Kickstarter or Patreon, all of which involve slight variations in how they construct the fiduciary relationship between reader and creator. Long before these services ever existed, however, there was simple patronage through direct donation, albeit facilitated in those cases by online payment services, such as Paypal, whose pre-integration in a web environment rendered it a more obvious go-to for a [comic] project distributed online than the classic system of wire transfers and bank payments.

NEXT: Chapter 4 pt. 7 (final)

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