From the Department of Corrections: Per Campbell’s response, this post has been edited to reflect the correct title of the book; Fleen regrets the error.
Editor’s note: Hoo boy, could this one devolve quickly. I’ve spent a month now very carefully reading and re-reading, very carefully making and cross-checking notes, very carefully writing what you’re about to read. As we discuss the book, please bear in mind that we’re not going to argue opinion on this one; whether or not Campbell is correct is for others to fight over. We will be looking at only whether or not Campbell has effectively made and advanced his points.
The redoubtable T Campbell began
The A History of Webcomics as a series of articles over at Comixpedia, later expanding it into a book via Antarctic Press. This book is for me: I’ve been into webcomics since nearly the beginning, I have a lengthy “regular reading” list, I know a lot of the people who make ‘em, and I know their history.
And it still turns out that this book really only comes together if you live in Campbell’s brain. Allow me to explain.
Campbell’s comic writing has a certain style that you may have noticed: a lot takes place off-panel and must be inferred from context. Sometimes, though, working a page (or strip) per day doesn’t lend itself to having that context right up front in your brain, and pretty much requires archive trawls to pick up on everything. This style comes through in
T AHOW, which being a single lengthy work ought to be an ideal stage for the style.
Unfortunately, Campbell also has a love of precise detail, to the extent that extreme minutiae can dominate whichever discussion he’s engaged in, and the “between the panel” approach may lead to useful context ending up missing. For example, in Chapter One (Prehistory), Campbell gives us five pages of biography on theorists whose work eventually (30 – 40 years later) led to the Web as we now know it and the history of the smiley-face emoticon. Okay, background, got it.
Three pages later (I’d like to give you a page number here, but Antarctic omitted page numbers everywhere except the table of contents), Tim Berners-Lee¹ is name-checked, but without any explanation as to who he is or why we should care about him in the context of webcomics. If you’re familiar with the history of computing, you know the answer; if you just use the Web to read comics, you can only wonder why Campbell bothered to bring Berners-Lee up.
The impression that one is left with is that Campbell has made some assumptions as to what’s common knowledge and what isn’t, and a number of those choices are likely at odds with his average reader’s experiences. This leads inevitably to a tough read, with much wondering of what’s being implied between the pages.
It’s not as if a quick note about Berners-Lee couldn’t have been included; Campbell includes 614 end-notes in a text 169 pages long; to be fair, some of these are helpful and provide sourcing or context that helps along whatever point they reference. But, perhaps burned by the early criticisms over the book’s methodology, Campbell seems to have embraced the notes as a means of showing his research rigor.
However, many of these notes are so general as to be pointless; by my count, 96 of them reference an entire web domain or book, without providing specific page reference. For example, talking in Chapter Three (Frontiersmanship) about Sluggy Freelance:
Sluggy’s plots often felt like old-school science-fiction, but he stirred in movie and television parodies, modern SF concepts, melodrama, horror, holiday mythology and more.
Note 137 reads:
Pete Abrams, Sluggy Freelance, http://www.sluggy.com. Strips surveyed from 1998-2005.
Given that the general discussion around note 137 dealt with how webcomics archives allow a new kind of comics experience (one that allows the reader easy access to any part of a strip’s history), linking to specific storylines (which, we’ve just been told, are easily accessible in the archive) would have been a far preferable approach to a single footnote — one which referenced an entire website, and over 80% of a strip’s content. It’s as if I decided to describe Campbell as “a smoldering volcano of virile manhood”, and then cited the quote as:
Berke Breathed, Bloom County
While true, this citation doesn’t help the reader get the context of the reference², barring the possibility of a freakishly-precise memory for comic strips (which, given the previously-noted tendency to assume esoteric knowledge as commonplace, Campbell may be counting on).
In addition to overly-broad notes, there are some that are meant to clarify text, but fail to do so; for example, note 40 references Robert Zakon’s Internet Timeline, and is attached to text that states:
Web use grew by 341,634% in the course of 1993.
Here it would have been useful to state that Zakon was referencing service traffic; Campbell’s use of the term “use” is open to other interpretations, especially when he continues:
That’s like starting with the population of a small town (say, 17,000) and ending with all six billion people on the planet.
This wording leads one to an interpretation not of traffic, but of users. Also, the math is wrong: a 341,634 percent increase from 17,000 would be about 58 million, not 6 billion.
Yes, it’s just a math error; it’s also presented as a critical fact in his thesis regarding the importance of webcomics. As such, it needs to be correct and unambiguous in order to avoid undercutting the foundation that’s being laid. Given that much of what goes on in webcomics is subjective and objective facts are thin on the ground, to get one of them wrong qualifies as a grievous error.
Back and Forth
We’ve established that Campbell has a tendency to forget that some of what he opts not to tell us isn’t necessarily common knowledge. We must now add to that a tendency to forget to tell us things that he probably meant to. Back to Chapter Three, in the section titled Inhuman Laughter:
Bun-Bun, like Goats’ Diablo, represented a growing trend in ‘mascots’, taken to the next level.
There’s a comic that includes Diablo at the bottom of the page (although it’s from 2005, and the text is describing occurrences in 1997), but the reader doesn’t necessarily know who “Diablo” is, or what “Goats” is for that matter, as neither has been discussed yet. If you’re reading this page, you probably have an idea about who Diablo the Satanic Chicken is, but how is a new reader of webcomics to understand this reference? This chapter (with multiple later references to Diablo, Goats, and creator Jon Rosenberg) reads as if there had been several pages of content in the manuscript at one point that were later excised.
Similarly, in Chapter Five (Category Search), Campbell informs us:
In mid-2003, Paypal [sic] stopped processing any transactions with “adult content.” Paypal [sic] played a central role in five of webcomics’ six major revenue streams. Its loss stung.
A full 34 pages later, in Chapter Seven (Money Matters and the Modern Webcomic), Campbell finally tells us what those six revenue streams are (advertising, merchandising, print, subscriptions, micropayments, and donations), but never gets around to telling us which one wasn’t affected by the PayPal decision.
This jump-about approach becomes even more misleading when Campbell opts to follow a single thread of discussion back and forth in time. In the section of Chapter Four (All Together Now) titled Unsure Giants, Campbell discusses the growing pains of Keenspot/Keenspace (as it was then). His discussion references:
- forum posts complaining about Keenspace downtime
- a Joey Manley blogpost about structural limitations of professional collectives
- a quote from Christopher B. Wright hoping that Keenspot never goes corporate
- an assurance from Manley that Modern Tales would remain non-corporate
- a reference to Manley critics who prefer free content over subscriptions
The discussion appears to provide a history of how Keenspot/Keenspace dealt with critics, and how Manley sought to differentiate his family of websites from the Keen group. Unfortunately, this discussion is an artificial narrative, with the items listed taking place (per the endnotes) in:
In conflating these radically disconnected events as if they were a contemporaneous sequence, Campbell has dealt a serious blow to any claim of historical validity in at least this section of the book.
Making The Cut
There are some stunning omissions from the book; perhaps the most startling is that while identifying User Friendly as an important webcomic (for its early launch, its influence on later strips, its place in the “nerdcore” genre), Campbell never mentions even in passing that creator JD Frazer attempted to transform UF into a media company, complete with the equivalent of an IPO. Given an entire chapter (Seven) devoted to the history of trying to make a living on webcomics, and given the unique approach taken by Frazer (not to mention the failure of the attempt, and resumption of private ownership), this seems worthy of mention.
Equally puzzling would be some of the topics that Campbell did choose to address, coming down on several creators in Chapter Eight (Screen Scene) for … well, I’m not sure why, actually. Starting from a contention that webcomics reach a global audience, but that certain groups are under-represented, Campbell seems grateful that Christian Fundin and Pontus Madsen are Swedish, but disappointed that Little Gamers doesn’t take the opportunity to educate its non-Swedish audience about life in Sweden. He seems grateful that the character “Hawk” from Applegeeks is identified as Muslim, but annoyed that his real-life counterpart, Mohammad Haque, doesn’t take the opportunity to educate a non-Muslim audience about Islam.
Leaving aside the fact that Haque is the artist of Applegeeks, not the writer (people always seem to overlook Ananth Panagariya), one is still left with the question: so what? Campbell has come dangerously close here to telling creators that they have a duty to represent “their people”, and to explain their charming customs to an eager world. Had Fundin and Madsen, or Haque and Panagariya wanted to do that sort of autobiographical story, they would have. I’m having a hard time reading this section as anything other than Campbell faulting Haque, a US-born college student, for being too ordinary and not exotic enough.
It’s only at the end of the book that Campbell gets some traction behind his ideas. For one thing, Chapter Nine (Stepping Into The Futures) is pretty much original throughout — two footnotes are attached to brief epigraphs, followed by four full pages of Campbell stepping out from behind citations and letting us know what he thinks. He lays out his ideas for where he thinks Webcomics (as a movement, a medium, a business) is going; had the previous 164 pages been more effective, these ideas would probably be readable as logically inescapable conclusions. But given the weaknesses of structure and organization in the rest of the book, it’s hard to know how convincing these predictions might be.
In the end, the most telling thing about
T AHOW is probably on the upper-right corner of the cover: the book is described as “v1.0”, and as even the most casual consumer of software can tell you, Version 1.0 usually has lots of room for improvement. Campbell clearly has worked hard on a topic that he loves. With a ruthless editor (one who doesn’t know webcomics inside-out), he should be able to make “v2.0” of T AHOW the book that this one could have been.
¹ Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, wrote the specifications for the World Wide Web, and is generally credited with its invention.
² Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things, p. 29. Fleen does not wish to imply that Campbell reads Cosmopolitan on the potty.