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Boxcar Comics and Community Affiliation

Fi Stewart-Taylor, University of Florida

While I didn’t expect us to be in the middle of a blogging renaissance when I wrote my abstract for this CFP more than a year ago, the pandemic’s impact on conferences has made a paper1 on digital communities unexpectedly timely. As we have all learned to be attentive to the visual-material properties of our new formats – self view on or off for your zoom meetings? How does a “blog post” conference paper use visuals differently to a slideshow presentation? – It feels like a good moment to historicize digital environments in comics, and to draw attention to how differences in cultural contexts and strategic uses of these digital environments has worked to create community, kind of like how zoom has helped us offer new kinds of community engagement while conference travel has been suspended.

I’ll be sharing some thoughts below about how and why webcomics are great objects for thinking about questions of digital community, and trying to draw out some links between webcomics and other forms of media. This is because I want to answer Leah Misemer’s call to action, in her excellent article “A Historical Approach to Webcomics,”2 to historicize the production and reading contexts of webcomics. Misemer asks us to be deeply attentive to the contextual elements of webcomics, including ads, blogposts, and links to other creators. Misemer’s essay suggests that “cooperative competition” between webcomics artists in the same comics “collective” challenges traditional “romantic” authorship because of the different economic demands of webcomics in the 2000s, when possibilities for monetization were essentially driven by search engine optimization and google ads. Rather than the artist as a solitary creator, webcomics artists organized themselves into collectives to cross-promote their work, and used paratexts, like blog posts, to send audiences to each other’s sites.

Like Misemer, I am interested in webcomics collectives as one of the most essential features of 2000s webcomics, but I suggest that contextualizing these collective practices, and their accompanying visual and design choices, in the broader world of amateur and DIY media can help us understand their community building. These practices are not necessarily rational “cooperative competition” as profit seeking behavior, but potentially closer to hobbyist and enthusiast print cultures, like zines. Challenges to the romantic author in such contexts are often accompanied by challenges to the idea that authorship necessarily needs to be remunerative, or even need to break even; in other words, challenges to capitalism. Webcomics are a site of robust amateurism, with hobbyist producers who make art for a range of reasons including finding community with their peers and with audiences who share those interests. Some webcomics, like punk comics Nothing Nice To Say and 21 Dead Monkeys, are connected with print cultures which are broadly anti-capitalist, in the case of punk zine culture, or which have traditions of hobbyist producers who expect to lose money on making comics, in the case of minicomics and some alternative comics.

Misemer focuses on Dayfree Press artists Jeph Jacques and Sam Logan, two artists whose popularity and marketing savvy have allowed them not only to professionalize but to build a sustainable career in comics. Both cartoonists are still publishing in webcomics, and both strips are nearing the two decade mark. Questionable Content has been Jacques’ full-time job since 20043, and Sam and Fuzzy author Sam Logan says that he was making as much from Sam and Fuzzy as from his day job by 2012, when the magazine he worked for closed its doors4. By contrast, I want to look at Boxcar Comics, a webcomics collective with comparatively few members who have gone on to make a living off their comics. Formed in 2005 by Zach Miller of Joe and Monkey, Boxcar was bolstered by Mitch Clem and Tom Brazelton, both of whom left Dayfree Press to join Boxcar. Boxcar webcomics tended to be hobbyist oriented in content, with strips focusing on topics including punk rock and movies, as well as the early webcomics staple of “20-something male roommates getting into trouble.”

Very few Boxcar Comics members were professionals, or had concrete ambitions to become professionals. Several were students; Liz Suburbia, of …Hey Suburbia! was a student for all of the strip’s run, as was Housd’s creator, Ali5. While Liz Suburbia has gone on to publish comics professionally, she also describes working a full time day job as of 20196. 21 Dead Monkey’s mmr21, or Boston, mentions school work in several blog posts. Others worked day jobs and drew comics without any intention of doing so as their primary income. Tom Brazelton of Theater Hopper was able to raise enough money to cover the site’s cost by selling merchandise and advertising but not enough to live on, and Mitch Clem describes working at various low wage customer service jobs during the strip’s run. It is Clem’s ambiguous relationship to the very concept of success or professionalization which marks the most significant difference between the “cooperative competition” model of some members of Dayfree and the Boxcar Comics approach to community publishing.

Clem produced a series of strips where angry teen punks took over his strip, declaring him a “sellout” and replacing Clem’s generally cleanly rendered black and white style with frantic scribblings. Clem’s character-driven editorial comments on bands and music are replaced with sometimes crass or homophobic rantings against “selling out.” Clem draws his teenage usurpers as pimple-faced rejects whose idea of “TRU PUNX” is to refuse to be paid for their art, even if someone wanted to pay them.  Clem, meanwhile, has escaped out back. Clem used these teenage “tru punx” to critique reductive and childish ideas about “authenticity” in punk rock. The “moral,” delivered in story book format in a homage to the grandpa from the Princess Bride film, is that “punks are a fickle and archaic lot who fear money and popularity the same way a caveman might fear fire” but Clem also rejected the possibilities of what “selling out” might look like for NN2S.

In another series of strips, Clem attempts to sell NN2S to a syndicate. To do so, he allows the syndicate to make his strip commercially acceptable, a process which involved a corporate henchman turning a lesbian goth into a straight blonde who giggles about shopping and replacing Cthulhu, then a regular cast member, with a kitten. This forces  his characters to eventually summon an army of chuds to stop the syndicate. During this storyline, Clem depicts himself on a tropical island with a pair of doting women. This is obviously hyperbole, meant to satirize the idea that he could gain any such wealth from “selling out” NN2S, but I think the point of the storyline is also that profitable syndicated comics in the 2000s were antithetical to Clem’s ideas about punk values. Clem critiques both the punk fear of success and the models of success available in the mainstream, preferring to continue to make his comic his way, even had the option of truly “selling out” been available.

Clem has maintained close links with zine culture, including publishing a split zine with longtime zinemaker Ben Snakepit in 2013. The split zine, a tradition in DIY culture, has two zine makers each produce about half of a zine and they publish it together. While this might drive sales and attention to fans of each other’s work, so few zines are produced for profit that it is more often a community-building exercise, or an opportunity for two artists to enjoy working together and produce community within zine culture. It is in the context of the split zine that the crossovers between Boxcar affiliates Joe and Monkey and Nothing Nice To Say, wherein Joe joins the NN2S casts’ band, make sense; neither artist necessarily stood to gain much from gaming advertising rankings, but Boxcar gave friends who shared an interest in making comics a site to work together and to think about their comics work as a communal endeavour. Clem notes in the NN2S Complete Discography that the crossover “made sense” because both Clem and Miller lived in Minneapolis, and both strips were set there; this is much more similar to a split zine born out of a social relationship than a marketing plan.

Similarly, the ad banners on Boxcar sites act more like the links in webrings in Livejournal and other hobbyist or blog sites. In fact, the web archive copy of the 21 Dead Monkeys site shows that in 2006, 21 Dead Monkeys still belonged to a “Ska Webring,” which pointed readers to other ska sites. The links pages of …. Hey Suburbia and 21 Dead Monkeys, a feature that was a staple of early comics, link not only to other comics or members of Boxcar, but to local bands and friends’ non-comic sites. These are strategically ineffective ways of gaming advertising numbers, since the band is not a comparable “product,” and likely will not “link back,” but make sense if the comics are read as hobbyist projects interested in producing a community of punks or ska fans online, extending existing fan networks into digital space.

Boxcar Comics, and Nothing Nice to Say in particular, represent an interesting midpoint in the economics of 2000s webcomics, neither as profitable as Questionable Content nor as strictly amateur as some strips hosted on free webcomics hosting. Clem was able to secure a contract with Dark Horse Press to publish a Nothing Nice to Say anthology, which Dark Horse advertised on the basis that NN2S received “about 10,000 hits per day.”7, and Boxcar cartoonists were generally although not universally able to pay for their own hosting, and related costs, through their comics … Hey Suburbia!, hosted on Keenspace, was an exception. Keenspace provided free hosting for webcomics in exchange for the advertising revenue generated, so “cooperative competition” between Boxcar affiliates and … Hey Suburbia! would have netted Keenspace, not Suburbia, revenue. As an interview with Keenspace founders testifies, the ad market, and the attention economy, were the business model for the hosting companies, but not necessarily for the comic artists, who found free hosting lowered their cost of entry into webcomics as a hobby, but who were not able to monetize advertising on their own site8.

Zine and alternative comics communities precede webcomics, but also exist alongside them, sharing space at comics conventions and small press events. Rather than distinguishing between an “attention economy” and a capitalist economy because of the immateriality of the product in webcomics, I want to remind us that the internet is not apart from capitalism just because we have moved from print to digital. Webcomics offer an example of how different shared community expectations about how and why comics should be monetized can help determine styles of authorship and readership, much more than differences in print and digital format.  I want to emphasize that this is in no way incompatible with “competitive collaboration” as an analysis; rather, that because there were so many webcomics, there are many models of authorship, even within apparently similar strips or organizations of creators. Careful, historical, attention of the kind that Misemer demonstrates in her thorough and scrupulous reading of the Jacques-Logan faux feud, applied to the many kinds of comics authorship in the 2000s, can only benefit us as scholars. In the case of Boxcar, connections with cultures and practices of community, as much as economic concerns, shaped the design and content of hobbyist webcomics in the 2000s and the approaches to authorship reflected therein.

 

Notes

[1] So to speak

[2] Misemer L., (2019) “A Historical Approach to Webcomics: Digital Authorship in the Early 2000s”, The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship 9(1). p.10. doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/cg.162

[3]  https://www.questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=178 

[4]  https://jjmccullough.com/index.php/interview-with-sam-logan/

[5] http://www.thewebcomiclist.com/news/51/an-interview-with-ali-graham-creator-of-housd

[6] https://smashpages.net/2019/02/28/smash-pages-qa-liz-suburbia/ 

[7] https://www.darkhorse.com/Books/15-563/Nothing-Nice-to-Say-TPB Silver Sprocket, a publisher with punk/DIY roots and a commitment to self-published work has now produced a complete edition.

[8] http://comixtalk.com/catching_keenspot_community_interview_crosby_and_bleuel/

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