Robot 6

Webcomics are for the children

Camp WheedonwantchaThe comic strip/webcomic documentary Stripped opens with an idyllic scene straight out of the Hallmark Channel. A little girl runs into the kitchen and sits on her father’s lap; he opens a newspaper, and together, they flip to the Sunday funnies, a well-remembered moment of childhood made possible by the magic of comic strips. It’s a scene that rings true, because many viewers have had similar experiences. Maybe you weren’t sitting on your father’s lap; maybe you just ripped through the paper, trying to separate the cartoons from the classifieds. Anything to get at those comic strips.

It’s a scene that may accidentally have put a chink into the “webcomics are the future of the newspaper comic strip” argument.

How many webcomics exist that seem like they can be shared by both parents and kids? Sure, the duck-centric Sheldon, by Stripped co-director Dave Kellett, does fall into that category. (Hmmm… I wonder, was Sheldon the inspiration for Bill Hickey’s comic strip efforts on Community?) As do other strips like Tiny Kitten Teeth, Wuffle: The Big Nice Wolf, Gronk and Magical Game Time. The documentary didn’t focus on that, though; it focused on the webcomics that have successfully picked up the most readers. They’re the Penny Arcades and Oatmeals of the world, which are aimed squarely at teens and above. That scene at the beginning would be far less adorable if the little girl was reading a comic strip about, say, Gabe and Tycho discussing their naughty parts. If webcomics are indeed the future of newspaper comic strips, does that mean comic strips for kids are a thing of the past?

I imagine Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik share the same sense of childhood nostalgia. Late last year, the Penny Arcade creators announced they were scaling back some aspects of their growing empire to focus on projects closer to the core webcomic. Many of the suggested items are properties they tried to develop within the flagship strip, and by and large they were of the kid-friendly variety.

During the Penny Arcade portion of the Stripped documentary, Holkins and Krahulik strike an interesting parallel when talking about their business partner, Robert Khoo. He’s often been credited as the guy responsible for growing Penny Arcade beyond its humble webcomic roots and expanding into games, conventions and charities. The documentary is also quite critical of the syndicate system, which saps money from the creators due to overhead costs. Interestingly, though, the Penny Arcade guys claim they have a similar system in which Khoo replaces the syndicate (which, I think, means lower overhead and more profit returned to the various projects).

Can this be what the all-new, all-exciting Penny Arcade is about? The genesis of a new online syndicate to replace the stalwarts, only with a more favorable profit-sharing plan in place? Last year, Penny Arcade‘s online video arm (PATV) ran Strip Search, a reality show competition where the winner would have their webcomic featured on the Penny Arcade site. The winner was Skadi creator Katie Rice, whose Camp Wheedonwantcha is a pleasant all-ages strip about kids trying to survive in a mysterious camp. There are weird creatures, paranormal powers, and supplies dropped from a mysterious source in the sky.

It’s the sort of comic that the little girl at the beginning of Stripped would be reading.

You could probably argue that Rice could have met success outside the trapping of Penny Arcade. Perhaps. I think she’s part of a system in development, though. One that reintroduces the editorial process, rather than simple online popularity, to help grow and foster webcomics that aren’t strictly aimed at teens. One where Holkins, Krahulik and Khoo are modern-day William Randolph Hearsts … but in a good way. One where a little girl is sitting on her father’s lap, perusing the landscape of comic strips that both can enjoy … but, in front of them, a tablet instead of a newspaper.

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I don’t think that a eighty and a hundred years ago, newspaper comic strips were assumed to be “for kids.” I think that some were for thought to be for children, others for adults, others for whoever and what’s really changed is American culture’s standards of what is “crass” especially after the social revolutions of the 1960s.

I think that what we consider “adult” art in modern days is determined by whether or not a work hits certain marks or crosses certain lines. In the beginning of comic strips, I don’t know that crossing lines or not crossing lines was the determining factor of what directs a work toward a youth audience or an adult audience.

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