Thursday 16 May 2013

Future of Comics and the Democratization of Culture

We're experiencing a massive shift away from the elites. It's never been easier to get work out there, yet it's harder than ever to get noticed. The bar is being raised as millions and millions of talented people get connected and toss their creations into the global culture ring.

The pace of change has accelerated. A lot is in flux. The old paradigm is outmoded and the new one hasn't fully formed. How is culture going to be monetized in the future? How will piracy be dealt with? The answers haven't been settled upon. The result? Instability and uncertainty as industries struggle to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

We'll see more authors and artists taking their work directly to the public, bypassing the cultural gatekeepers. Pamphlet superhero comics will dwindle with their aging audience, while and graphic novels will split into high end art objects and digital downloads. Subject matter will continue to diversify. New territories will open up as talented creators plumb formerly unexplored topics. The market will atomize into a bewildering array of niche interests. Big budget material will only be available for properties that can draw a large enough audience, and publishers will pick only the very best talent from the internet farm for high end print editions.

As programs improve, we'll see dynamic translation. It will at first be crude. Eventually advanced modelling and animation software will allow laymen to create comics and even movies of their own. We've already seen the baby steps in this direction.

The gatekeepers of culture continue to fall away. The day of Network TV (when ABC, NBC, and CBS dominated the airways) is over. You no longer need a publisher to reach the public. Elites can't restrict the public's choices. Culture is out of their hands, to whatever extent they were ever able to control it.

Major motion pictures remain collective endeavours, requiring massive amounts of funding, and as such will remain the domain of the elite for some time yet. But comics is being rapidly and thoroughly democratized. Anyone connected to the net can put a web comic up. Instead of a finite number of stories, a few dozen, coming out each week at your local comic book shop, there are now tens of thousands every day on the net to choose from.

If I were so inclined, I could buy every published comic every week from the local shop, and conceivably read them all without quitting my day job. That's not true of web comics. I'd have to spend all day at it, every day. Top Web Comics alone lists over 2,600 of them. All vying for attention.

Publishers of the future are going to be like flavours. Do you like vanilla, or Rocky Road? Perhaps you like bacon products with a hint of maple. Publishers will sift through the enormous wealth of creative material on the web and pull them together, using a coherent aesthetic vision, and then set it before the public for consumption. People will be able to seek out the flavours they prefer and plunge in. The challenge now will be to reduce choice into time manageable amounts. Paralysis through choice will be a real problem in the future. It will be a job in itself to find good material, and those with solid, populist tastes will be able to make a living at it.

That's one way publishers will remain relevant. And most people still love the feel of a beautifully executed book. The best work will be turned into printed art objects. Lesser work will fade into the abyss of the net's infinite memory hole and be forgotten, at least until a future generation contrarian re-evaluates it and foists it upon an unsuspecting but retro-hungry public.

As a consumer, I look forward to it. As a creator, I am thrilled by the opportunities the future presents, but also daunted by the challenges.

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