This is something I’ve been following for awhile now before commenting on and if nothing else it’s been a fascinating lesson in human nature and resistance to change. Scott Kurtz is the creator/owner/publisher of a webcomic called PvPOnline.com that has a huge following, of which I am a member, that he’s managed to turn into a full-time job despite the fact that it appears daily on the web for free. He’s done this mainly through sales of merchandise and then eventually publishing comic books with original stories in them—first through Dorkstorm Press and then later through Image Comics. Scott was at the recent San Diego Comic Con and he participated on a panel discussion about the future of the comic strip where he made his announcement that has riled up a number of traditional syndicated cartoonists:
This last year, I was contacted by Universal Press Syndicates about PvP. They know the strip and were very interested in syndicating it as a feature. I would love to see PvP in newspapers and we started talks. I let them know that there were six years of archives available and that I could edit the strips to conform to family paper editorial standards. The only thing I could not do was give up my ownership and rights to my creation.
Under no circumstances would I relinquish my copyright, book deals, merchandise deals, rights to market my strips, etc. If they wanted PvP, we would agree to a newspaper distribution deal and that was it. After six weeks the syndicates returned with their answer: They wanted PvP…all of it. If they could not have the rights to the feature, they weren’t interested. So we parted ways.
But I’ve already become attached to the idea of seeing PvP in the papers, and that’s why I’ve decided to start a new program. In the coming months, I’ll be putting into effect, a program in which papers can receive PVP for free. That’s right, free. They don’t have to pay me a cent for it. I will provide for the papers, a comic strip with a larger established audience then any new syndicated feature, a years worth of strips in advance, and I won’t charge them a cent for it.
That’s right, he’s offering PVP to any newspaper that wants to carry it for free. To an outsider like myself this is a brilliant move and a win-win situation for Scott and the newspapers. PVP already has a large readership and is popular with a demographic that many television networks, let alone newspapers, would kill to get a piece of and appearing in a daily newspaper would likely only increase its popularity which could lead to more merchandising deals and thus greater profits for Scott even if he doesn’t charge the papers anything for the strip. The papers get a popular strip at no cost with an already plentiful amount of material to make use of. So what was the reaction when word of this got out to the syndicated cartoonists? Well if this thread over at ToonTalk.org is any indication then to say a lot of them were less than enthusiastic would be a major understatement. Several folks said it would be impossible—free or not—for Scott to get into any papers without a syndicate. Wiley Miller who does Non Sequitur accused Scott of not doing his research as well as being ignorant of how newspaper editors work and predicted that Scott’s “in for a rude awakening.” Veteran cartoonist and author of the book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cartooning Arnold Wagner opined that he’s seen folks try this sort of thing before and it didn’t work then, probably won’t work now. Illustrator Bob Burnett questioned how one makes money when you’re giving your work away—something Scott is already doing—and suggested it was tantamount to “essentially throwing the profession under the bus.” Newly syndicated “Karen” (no information on who she is or what strip she produces was to be found) complained that Scott’s plan might be good for him, but bad for other cartoonists such as herself as she is not a go-getter and doesn’t have the “time OR the temperment to self-syndicate.” She continued to be baffled on why Scott would give away his comic as opposed to asking at least some money for it even if he self-syndicates concluding with “Where is the logic in this? It’s… why it’s CRAZY talk.” Things got progressively nasty from there. “Dawn156” stopped by PVP and opted to shift tactics from criticizing Scott’s idea to criticizing the strip that day saying, “In just a fast casual reading of today’s gag, I found one misspelling, one “typo,” and one comma error. You couldn’t PAY an editor to run this gag.” What she didn’t realize is that the strip that day was a guest strip by another cartoonist and not Scott’s work (Scott often invites other cartoonists to submit strips while he’s off at a convention). Probably the worst critic though is someone by the name of “Malky” (who also doesn’t provide a real name or what strip he draws, though he claims he’s not syndicated) as he’s dropped all pretense of discussion in favor of dictating to others the nature of reality while demonstrating an amazing ignorance of it.
Which isn’t to say that Scott doesn’t have his supporters, but the vehemence with which some of the opposition has responded in that thread is pretty astounding. Despite what many of them claim it’s pretty clear they’re worried about Scott’s venture undermining the status quo or, at a minimum, damaging the value of their own properties in the process of failing spectacularly. The number of people repeatedly asking Scott to consider charging at least some money for his strip makes this pretty obvious. Malky’s comments would be comical in their short-sightedness if it weren’t for the venom they also tend to contain. Comments like: “Yes, perhaps that’s what cartooning, like America generally, should be looking at. The Brazilian model. Where the nuts come from.” This is particularly amusing considering that not one reply earlier he was complaining about the quality of the debate by saying, “DJ, you sound like a sixth grade tattle taler. Glad you’re having a good time. Nobody’s deliberately twisting words, and your childish glee at what you imagine to be other peoples discomfort cheapens this debate.” I suppose he would know best based on his own comments. As a lesson in hubris, Malky is hard to beat.
Now I don’t claim to know jack shit about syndicated comics, what it takes to become syndicated, or why they’re supposedly the best model anyone can come up with. Nor do I claim to know that Scott’s vision is correct or that he’ll be successful with his undertaking. What I do know is that Scott has managed to be successful enough to make a living doing things his way on the Net despite the great “dotcom crash” and all the people who claimed it wasn’t possible. Part of that was hard work on his part and part of that was probably him not knowing what he was getting into and being too stubborn to pay attention to the naysayers. He had his stumbles along the way, but he’s still there and has managed to branch out into comic books in the process which also seem to be doing well. If anyone has a better chance of doing what he hopes to do I’d be hard pressed to name them. While I have no idea if he’ll succeed, I wouldn’t bet against him.