There’s a constant, looming spectre that lurks just over the shoulders of everyone involved in creating webcomics. Were I hosting a social mixer where it needed a nametag, I suppose I’d call it “professionalism”. Sooner or later, it creeps into the thoughts and stress levels of everyone who decides to try their hand at the art beyond just a momentary fling, and even the most successful are not immune to its insidious whispers.
If you don’t believe me on that last bit, I submit this Oatmeal comic as damning evidence. Love The Oatmeal or hate it, as web ventures go it’s a pretty successful thing. $500,000 in revenue this year alone. Matthew Inman is one of those few webcomic creators who does not need a day job.
And yet, as noted in the comic, Inman sometimes doesn’t update his site more than once or twice a month. He is on the one hand riddled with guilt by this, but on the other thinks that forcing himself to update more frequently would be a bad idea.
“I’m a firm believer that if you don’t have anything to say, you shouldn’t be talking. And if you don’t have anything to write about, don’t write.”
Does this make him unprofessional? Well, this is the spectre we all deal with, the idea that if we’re not working X number of hours a week, or producing X amount of content for consumption, we’re not being serious. We have no right to call ourselves professional. What we’re doing is dabbling, and while that’s cute and all, at the end of the day it’s just a glorified hobby at best.
The fact that even Matthew Inman still experiences this guilt despite his financial success, and that he still gets “Oh, you’re a web cartoonist…” comments at parties, speaks volumes about how it’s good to have some perspective on this. Who, exactly, is judging you? Who is setting the standards? Isn’t part of the whole glory of this modern webcomics free-for-all the idea that you are beholden, ultimately, to no one except yourself?
And yet that spectre looms. Is this business of creating comics a job, or a hobby? What determines the dividing lines? Level of enjoyment? Income tax categories? Page views (hah)? Invites to comic conventions?
Is it even worth stressing over? Inman is holding to the kind of schedule (or lack thereof) which according to most webcomic success models should be a recipe for failure, but it not only succeeds, it’s succeeding at a pace he’s comfortable with. According to wikipedia he typically spends about eight hours over the course of a few days getting a new comic together, which would be pretty enviable hours for a job. Of course, knowing what I do, I guarantee you that’s just the observable “work” of drawing and arranging, which doesn’t take into account all the stuff involved in collecting notes or even sorting out the contents of one’s own head into coherent communication with an audience.
We (and most other web creators) aren’t making nearly the money Inman does, but that to me seems like even more of an argument for proceeding at our own pace, and “professionalism” be damned. That’s not the same thing as saying we don’t care about our readers, but Dawn and I have this strange compulsion to find enjoyment in what we’re doing, and worrying too much about whether we’re working hard enough is a fantastic way to destroy that. Just a few months ago I had to force myself to step back from the brink and relax after becoming nearly obsessive about our self-imposed deadlines, to the point where even posting a few minutes after midnight on Wednesday felt like utter failure. A lot of you don’t even come to check on the comic until Thursday or later, so that’s kind of insane once I took some time to think it over. No one really cared about those few minutes except me and that spectre hovering over my shoulder. Well, and that one other guy… but he’s gone now since we refused to go five days a week for his benefit.
I do these blogs once a week because I feel that’s about the length of time I need to come up with something interesting to write about. We do the comic once a week because we feel that’s about the length of time we need to keep doing the story justice, and keep it rolling along without fear of our creative juices drying up like a Mojave waterin’ hole. I remember attending the Eisner Awards ceremony at San Diego Comic-Con in 2011, and although it was a largely sleep-inducing affair, I have this odd recollection of more than one person being introduced as “The Hardest Working Man in Comics”. In any case, the title’s already taken, right? Might as well aim a little lower.
If that makes us nothing more than hobbyists in some eyes, so be it. I have made my peace with that. Zombie Ranch may never be something well known in the webcomics community, much less beyond it. I have made my peace with that as well.
In this way, I remain polite, and I remain positive, and we continue to provide the contents of our heads to a small but enthusiastic section of the public, which I suppose wouldn’t be too far off to call returning customers.
And isn’t that, in the end, what professionalism is all about?