The book that just moved to my Past Reading list, Chris Baldwin’s Uh…Hey…Mom and Dad, I’m Dropping Out of College, is a little unusual in that company. Not because it’s a comic strip book; my lowbrow (um, egalitarian) tastes should be pretty apparent from the rest of the page. Not because it’s brilliantly written and fabulously illustrated, and contains the story of an incredibly complex young independent woman fighting against her own worst enemy, herself. Not really because it’s autographed (though it is the only book on that page to have that distinction).
Mostly, it’s distinctive among my other reading because it’s not for sale via Amazon. It’s only offered through a small press site, Moody Cow. A site at which, in addition to ordering the author’s books, you can buy official “patronage” of Baldwin’s strip, “Bruno.” Also because it was hand packed and shipped by the author, complete with a gorgeous pen and ink sketch of Bruno and her cat which is also autographed to me. And with all the self-publishing touches, it’s still among the finest works of graphic fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. And the whole thing, minus introduction and some footnotes, is free to read on Baldwin’s site.
While Baldwin’s high-touch, highly personal approach is unique among the books on my reading list (though Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan certainly is in the same high quality circle), it’s not unusual among self-published graphic artists. I have similarly autographed works from R. Stevens, the cranky lo-res author of Diesel Sweeties, and am awaiting an autographed copy of the next book of John Allison’s Scary Go Round (together with a personalized sketch). And there are other similar high quality books being self published from free content that remains freely available, including works by Fred Gallagher and Drew Onstad.
What does this have to do with the content being free? Quite a lot, I think. The past few years were a fevered explosion of free comics content on the Web. Spurred by services like Keenspot, which automates the back-end operations of cartoonists’ web presences (and provides pervasive cross linking and site ads to get you to read more strips), there has been an explosion of free comic strips whose authors, if they make money from their creations at all, make it from t-shirts, coffee mugs, and the occasional printed collection. Lots of the strips are crap, of course, both well and badly drawn, but some are genius. And I think the daily competition, the close interaction with the readers (often directly through message boards), and, yes, the low cost of entry, both for authors and readers, had a lot to do with the explosion.
At the same time, there are fewer cartoonists getting their strips into newspapers than ever, largely because comics page editors are reluctant to bump unthreatening tired cash cow strips like Garfield and Beetle Bailey for newcomers who may be fresher but also controversial. In this light, the longevity of Bill Griffith’s Zippy and Trudeau’s Doonesbury must be applauded, though the latter survives mostly by virtue of being pushed to the editorial pages; and the widespread syndication of Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks, which while not always spot on is generally pugnacious and, at its best, howlingly funny, is a sign that there is a God in the universe. Meanwhile, the best the syndicates can do in the single panel format since The Far Side’s Gary Larson is the horribly drawn and insultingly unfunny Close To Home.
So why not self publish? You’ll be in much better company, with devoted readers and no editors. On the other hand, your book won’t be sold at Amazon. Which is why Chris continues to try to find the right material to make it in the confines of the newspaper pages—the only game where you can get to a broader audience of Joe and Jane Six-packs, and get access to their wallets. Blustering about micropayments notwithstanding.