Triumph of the nerds

The Christmas (well, December 22nd) issue of the Economist has a great piece on the rise of web comics, beginning:

Triumph of the nerds: The internet has unleashed a burst of cartooning creativity

In 1989 Bill Watterson, the writer of “Calvin and Hobbes”, a brilliant comic strip about a six-year-old child and his stuffed tiger, denounced his industry. In a searing lecture, he attacked bland, predictable comics, churned out by profit-driven syndicates. Cartooning, said Mr Watterson, “will never be more than a cheap, brainless commodity until it is published differently.”

In 2012 he is finally getting his way. As the newspaper industry continues its decline, the funnies pages have decoupled from print. Instead of working for huge syndicates, or for censored newspapers with touchy editors, cartoonists are now free to create whatever they want. Whether it is cutting satire about Chinese politics, or a simple joke about being a dog, everything can win an audience on the internet.

Then: “This burst of new life comes as cartoons seemed to be in decline”, with an account of some symptoms of that decline; a capsule history of cartoons, going back before newspapers and carrying things through the golden age, in the 1920s and ’30s; and a survey on the current eruption of creativity on the web, citing:

Randall Munroe’s xkcd; Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant; Matthew Inman’s The Oatmeal; Zach Wiener’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC); Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics; Fred Gallagher’s Megatokyo; Tim Buckley’s Ctrl Alt Del (CAD); Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade; Alison Acton’s Bear Nuts; Dan Walsh’s Garfield Minus Garfield

(plus political cartoons in China and the Arab world). The piece notes how difficult it can be for new cartoonists to make money, concluding:

But then, as Bill Watterson pointed out, money and stability, combined with insufficient competition, strangled cartooning. Bored of fighting with his syndicate, and unwilling to let “Calvin and Hobbes” become stale, he gave up his strip in 1995 and retreated into the woods of Ohio to paint landscapes. The world in which he thrived is disappearing. The revolution he wanted is now unfolding.


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