Thoughts on and around Stripped

So Stripped, a documentary on and around the newspaper comics industry, is now on Netflix. And yes, you should definitely watch it if you can. I’d been hearing good things about Stripped ever since it came out a year or two ago, and the moment it showed up in my Netflix feed I took the dive right then and there.

And again, yes, you should definitely go watch it. It’s a great look at the rise, slight fall, and then shifting culture of newspaper comics. Stripped goes over the early days of the newspaper comics, the days of full-color spreads, the days when comic artists were high-class, pop culture icons. Then it moves into the 80s and 90s, talks about syndicates, the shrinking size of the paper, the way newspaper comics began to change. And then it jumps to the modern era and the birth of the webcomic, a contentious shift in the comic space that has both supporters and detractors. And all through this, Stripped is liberally sprinkled with interviews and observations from dozens of individuals, everyone from the creators of Cathy or Foxtrot, to the syndicates, to Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade, to even a recorded interview with Bill Watterson himself (if that last name doesn’t ring any bells, he’s the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, one of the greatest comics of the modern era).

Simply put, Stripped approaches its subject matter well, letting many of the creators speak for themselves about how they got into the business, how hard the business is, what the business is like, and then—and here’s the little bit of contention—where the industry is going. Even if you’re not a fan of comics, you should definitely sit down with your Neflic account and spare an hour of your day sometime soon and give Stripped a well-deserved watch. It’s worth the time.

But there’s something else going on with it that I wanted to talk about here. A similarity, a more than passing resemblance to a storm that the book industry is only just moving into. Even though I read newspaper comics when I can, and watched Stripped largely for that, there was a vague sense of familiarity that started coming through the screen about halfway through, a sense which soon flared into outright similarity—right down to some of the quotes that were being bantered back and forth by the interveiwees, quotes that were almost identical to quotes that are starting to arise now, in the publishing industry.

Because there’s another story that Stripped tells, dutifully, as a part of a larger machine. Stripped tells the story of the internet, and its effect on the newspaper comics world. It’s a story that’s been repeated in many other areas of the entertainment industry already.

And book publishing is next.

Actually, book publishing isn’t next, so that’s not quite true. No, book publishing is already in the opening stages of this evolution. It’s an evolution that it has staved off as long as possible, because it doesn’t promise good things for some of the established power bases, but its an evolution that, judging from every other entertainment medium, is inevitable. Basically, it’s the battle of content controllers versus content creators. And for publishing, it’s just getting started.

I’m not going to explain the background in great detail, but Stripped lays it out pretty well. Newspaper comics are largely controlled by syndicates, large publishers who take a lion’s share of the profits in exchange for choosing what strips they send out to newspapers, as well as handling all the management aspects of things and leaving the comic creator free to draw comics—with a little bit, Stripped points out, of creative control here and there to keep things within guidelines. Which is fine. The catch is, though, and as one syndicate interview points out, a syndicate gets at least 5000 submissions per year, of which two will be chosen and pitched at newspapers alongside all the established comics. And even the syndicate admitted that sometimes, this process of picking what was selected was as much luck as anything else.

Sounding familiar yet?

Then comes the internet, and a few aspiring comic artists started putting their comics up on the web. On their own sites. And started gathering their own viewers. Making their own income. All without a syndicate. And here’s where the similarity for me really started to hit home.

‘I never liked comics,’ one webcomic artist says, paraphrasing a letter he’d gotten from a fan. ‘But I found your site and I love it.’

‘Webcomics aren’t the same,’ says a syndicate. ‘People rely on the syndicates to deliver them quality, and there’s no promise of that with webcomics. We filter out what’s good.’

‘Webcomics are a fad,” says a comics historian. ‘It’ll all die off, and people will come back to newspapers. That’s the way it’ll be.’

Sounding familiar yet? That’s because it should. These are some of the exact same types of phrases that are coming out of the book industry right now, in response to e-books and the rise of the indie author scene. I have read reviews of fantasy or science-fiction novels that have declared ‘I don’t like fantasy, but this was awesome!’ I have seen people posting about how e-books are a fad, and everyone will go back to paper eventually because “that’s the way it’s always been,”

And I’ve seen publishers arguing that people will flock to them and should avoid the indie crowd because they, the publishers, are the bastion of quality, the gatekeepers of what’s good. And to their credit, they’re doing their best to reinforce this. Some time ago I was given a look at the powerpoint slides from Hachette publishing’s investor meeting, and there was a whole segment dedicated to this idea that they were the gatekeepers of quality, all about how they needed to convince the public that the publishers were the standards of quality, that if you wanted good books, they had to come from a publisher. As long as they could convince readers to only trust the publisher’s choices, the segment concluded, they could exert control over what people buy because the people trusted them, and they could keep them from going over to the enemy—indie writers who aren’t signed with Hachette.

Here’s the thing though. As Stripped shows, webcomics haven’t gone anywhere. Artists have made very successful livings writing webcomics, despite all the doom and gloom from the syndicates. Moreso, webcomics have become—freed from the restrictions imposed by the syndicates for size, color, and space—more like the newspaper comics of old than ever before. Webcomics can ignore throwaway panels, step outside of the frame, just as some of the ancient classics can.

The battle is already over. The internet and its independent, non-syndicate comic artists have won. Webcomics are here to stay. And the fact that I watched Stripped, a kickstarter-backed, independent documentary, through an internet streaming video service, also, I think, says a lot about what the internet has done to the film medium.

And books are finally sliding into it. Each year, it seems, the big publishers remind everyone that e-books are dead, that print (and their books) will come back stronger than ever. I think they’re wrong. They’re in a position just as the syndicates were in Stripped. They see the writing on the wall, but they’re so desperately trying to hold that back, trying to keep the public mindset from latching onto the idea that indie authors can and are just as good as the stuff they’ve been promoting, if not in some cases better. Because there are no restrictions holding back the indie author, no editor to say “Well, I don’t think that’s something we’re trying to sell right now.” There are just authors and readers.

No middle man.

Now look, I’m not saying print is dead. Just as Stripped doesn’t at all suggest that webcomics will wipe out newspaper comics. The balance of power is going to shift a bit, that’s all. When the dust settles, both will still be there.

But the futility is in trying to pretend it won’t happen … something that many publishers and readers alike seem to be trying to do. But historically … well, if we look at every industry that’s facing the revolution brought about by the rise of the internet—games, movies, television, comics … the list goes on—and then try to convince ourselves that books are somehow exempt? Well, that’s a stance I can’t get behind. Sorry.

Watch Stripped. See the future of the book industry.

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