If I was going to invent a platform and medium that would be a perfect marketplace of ideas, it would be webcomics. There’s nearly no barrier to entry, with webcomics: you need to be able to upload your comic to a site, but blogging sites are cheap as free (Blogspot, Tumblr, et cetera ad infinitum). You need to be able to make a comic, but everybody’s computer comes with some kind of simple graphics editor which is more than enough to create something in the style of Dinosaur Comics, to pick an example at random. Of course, the ‘everybody’ that I’m talking about here is really ‘everybody with ready access to the internet’ which is still far from literally everybody, but still. It’s easier to make a webcomic than it is to print your own paperback book, than it is to shoot your own movie, than it is to record your own music.
And all products are equal, on the internet. There’s no Big Webcomic that controls access to the distribution network, no Webcomic Network that acts as a gatekeeper, no Webcomics & Noble chain of webcomic stores that reserve their limited shelf space to the big winners of the webcomics world. There used to be Keenspot but that hardly counts.
So if any art form was going to be a perfect meritocracy, with the best comics rising to the top of the popularity charts and the less-deserving languishing in obscurity proportional to just how much less deserving they were, it would be webcomics. But even in an artistic ecosystem as fluid as the world of webcomics, there are inexplicable winners and losers.
David Willis, Christopher Baldwin, and Shaenon Garrity are three webcomics artists who have been working fairly continuously for decades. David started Roomies! in 1997, Christopher started Bruno (which for years I thought was titled Bruno Baldwin Comic) in 1996. Shaenon is a relative latecomer; she started Narbonic in 2000.
I enjoy all of their work. Hell, I love all of their work. I own copies of printed editions of Bruno, Spacetrawler, Dumbing of Age, Narbonic, and Skin Horse. I made my own Bruno coffee mug when my old one broke, because Christopher doesn’t sell them any more (it’s cool, I’m not pirating his design, I made one for personal use and I emailed him about it). I hired Shaenon to design my wedding invitations. I have multiple pieces of her artwork framed in my home (if you’re looking to get me a nice present, I’d love the original art from her ‘War of the Coryphages’ strip from Monster of the Week). I have a folder on my computer full of David’s designs, for reference to help me visualize NPCs in games and characters in stories.
David Willis has an active Patreon with 1200 supporters and a monthly gross of just over $4500. His most recent Kickstarter received pledges of more than $67 000 from over 1300 backers.
Christopher Baldwin has an active Patreon with 90 supporters and monthly gross of just under $275. His most recent Kickstarter received pledges of more than $32 000 from over 700 backers.
Shaenon Garrity (with Jeffrey Wells) has an active Patreon with 200 supporters and a monthly gross of just over $700. Her most recent Kickstarter received pledges of nearly $23 000 from just under 400 backers.
Hashing these out to approximate dollar values, and making some frankly untenable assumptions, I can assert that David’s 2014 output was worth $121 000. Christopher’s was worth $35 300. Shaenon’s was $31 400. These numbers are meaningless, and not just because I made some ridiculous assumptions when I did the math. They’re also meaningless because there is no world in which David’s art is worth twice as much as Christopher’s and Shaenon’s put together.
Which brings me to Skin Horse, the daily webcomic that Shaenon does currently, alongside writer Jeffrey Wells. It’s a follow-up to a couple of Shaenon’s previous webcomics, Narbonic and to a much lesser extent L’il Mell. But where Narbonic was about a couple of mad scientists struggling to find love in this mixed-up world, with its demonic invasions and its time traveling and its sentient yogurt colonies, Skin Horse is about mad scientists’ creations. Specifically, it’s about Black Ops Social Services, the group that shows up after the peasants have stormed the castle, to help the creature get a birth certificate, get a social security number, and join the work force. It’s also about the Wizard of Oz, and about what it means to be human, and there’s some time travel too but not as much.
By comparison, Dumbing of Age is about bisexual college freshmen struggling with their emotions, questioning their long-held beliefs in the new environment of the university, fighting crime (one of them is a ninja vigilante), and drinking. Way more marketable. I’m not slagging on Dumbing of Age in any way; it’s very very good. I’m just saying that Li’l Dee and Skin Horse are also very very good.
But I digress, and I’m already rubbing up against my wordcount limit, so I’ll wrap this up quicklike.
Skin Horse starts here. It’s in black and white for the first five and a half years of the run, but it’s been in color for the last couple. Man, have they really been doing it for more than seven years? Eesh. It’s absolutely worth your time to read through the archives, which remain freely available, and if you don’t like clicking every few seconds and waiting for the next strip to load, there are a variety of handsome bound editions available. Like a long-running television serial, there are secondary characters who capture your heart and become main characters. There are main characters who turn out to have less going on than you first assumed, and fade into secondary characters. There are secrets and mysterious portents and so far several of them have paid off, enough that I’m willing to trust that there’s a plan for the remainder. It’s also pretty funny.
(Not for nothing but originally this was going to be I Liked It: Smithson but man, Smithson was too good for this world, it turned out.)