A long time ago, I promised a lot of people that I was going to do a write-up about what my comics research trip. I put it off for far too long, thinking I needed time to process everything that happened (and a lot did happen), but then finals and graduation and immediate summer projects came into play and there's no real sense in delaying it any further. So let's talk about what I found. This will be broken up into three parts. First, I'll be talking about a few things I learned specifically about the artists. Second, about their communities. Third, about some general life lessons I gained from the trip.
1: YOUNG ARTISTS ARE FORMING COMMUNITIES ONLINE FIRST
My original motivation for this project was wondering how artists were building communities. My hunch was that the artists were finding it easier to build relationships online than in person, and it seems like I was mostly right. A lot of the artists that I spoke to talked about their difficulties in finding like-minded people at a young age. Often it was a sibling or a parent figure that inspired them. Some mentioned schoolmates, but many lamented that none of their in-person friends were interested in the arts. Stories about schools lacking arts programs were depressingly common, and many of the young artists had little means to get around their towns (a topic I'll discuss in another post). So, with nowhere to go and no one to see, where'd the artists retain support? How did they reach other? Given that you're reading this on DeviantArt, I'm sure you already know the answer: Online.
DeviantArt has been around since 2000 and has for a long time been the de facto artists' social networking site. Plenty of other places like ConceptArt.Org and EnterVoid have emerged in its wake, and it's through all of these that young artists have been able to reach out to each other. A whole generation immersed in the internet developed its own distinct primitive culture from which all sorts of methods of creation and connection have sprung forth- artist memes, OCTs, RPs, etc. There is so much to be said on this topic alone, but the fact is that the students that I spoke to in each of these cities had some community online as well as offline. Oftentimes, their enrollment in their particular school was an attempt to foster an offline community as strong if not stronger than their online one.
2: YOUNG ARTISTS GREW UP WITH COMICS IN A VERY PARTICULAR WAY
The target group for my interviews was artists 18-30, around the same age as me. I wanted to see where these folks were coming from and where they might be heading. During the 30+ interviews I conducted, I began noticing a very interesting pattern. One of the topics I touched on with each artist was what comics they read growing up, to see what might have influenced them most as a kid. Our typical image of a comic reader seems to be focused on American gag strips and then a graduation to superhero comics and then maybe indie graphic novels. What I found was something totally different. Instead, the typical progression from elementary school through high school went something like this:
American gag strips > Shounen/shoujo manga > American indie/webcomics
This pattern was remarkably consistent, across states and gender- it was age that made the most difference, and that's likely to do a lot with the timing of the late 90s-early 00s manga boom. This boom was a huge influx of comics for preteen audiences alienated from typical American comics- obviously not all of them were good, but they certainly hit the right note that Marvel and DC weren't.
Which leads me to my next point:
3: YOUNG ARTISTS FIND DC AND MARVEL INCREASINGLY IRRELEVANT
A decent chunk of the artists interviewed said they had read superhero comics, but only within the last 5 years. Only two of the participating artists under 30 said they had grown up reading superhero stories. The rest knew about superhero stories through TV, games, and movies- everything BUT comics. And mind you, they loved the stories they could latch onto. Shows like Teen Titans and Batman: The Animated Series were fondly remembered, justly so. But a lot of the artists expressed numerous problems from trying to cross over to comics. Difficulties in finding shops, knowing which series to read (and which were age-appropriate), and being able to afford enough to keep up with monthly series- all of these led to the artists turning away or never even bothering with typical American comics.
It's worth noting that these artists are only just now becoming interested in Marvel and DC (albeit because of their films). This could mean that Marvel and DC's comics have been targeting an older audience, but it could also mean they are only now starting to draw readers back in after the problems in the 90s (which, looking at their sales records, does seem to be the case). Regardless, what we have here is a generation of artists who grew up outside of the typical American comics sphere. A great deal of the artists I spoke with shared their desire to work outside of Marvel and DC- Dark Horse, Oni Press, and Image were seen favorably, but at least as many desired to self-publish their own stories. This generation of new artists is developing stories and styles with a heavy amount of international influence, and that's going to lead to some very interesting work in the future.
4: YOUNG ARTISTS WANT A BALANCE OF DIGITAL AND PHYSICAL
This is probably the most important point of all this. Whether it was about community, about reading comics or making comics, selling or buying them, one common thread throughout all of the interviews was a desire for balance. Often, artists combined traditional methods with their digital works, such as taking digital pencils and inking them with an actual brush. Artists often preferred physical books and wished to make their own, but recognized the benefits of reading and publishing comics on the web. As mentioned previously, many of the artists interviewed grew up with a digital community, but also recognized the need for person-to-person interaction. It is arguably this balance that is going to be the defining struggle of our generation at large.
I'll have more written for you lovely people soon, but first I need to rest- my arms hurt. Thank you all for reading, and a big thank you to all of the wonderful artists I interviewed during my travels. You guys are so talented and friendly, I wish nothing but the best for you all.