I was disappointed by the news over at Achewood from Chris Onstad that he would be suspending his comics, or taking a sabbatical, or whatever exactly the situation is since he said he’d still be posting work to his private fanflow where he derives an income via paywall. I’m not disappointed in the slowing of Achewood, or his feelings of being burnt out, because we’ve all been there. It has more to do with his reaction to being burnt out.
There is a really difficult balance to strike between art and commerce, and it’s unfortunate that it even exists at all. Art demands that a work be produced for the sheer ability to say that the work was produced, for its own sake, in a pure and uncompromised manner. Commerce tries to steer that art in some broadly-palatable or monetizable direction. As an artist, I want to be compensated to just make what I feel. But as a businessperson, I think being able to do this in any capacity is a gift and a privilege. To me, if the trade-off is having to commercialize your work to some degree, I fully accept that.
No one likes having to run advertising. I imagine my readers, if asked, would prefer none at all. At best, I think ads are just tolerated. But while I appreciate the sentiment that says, “the hell with corporate ads! I’ll never compromise my website with banners and skyscrapers,” I really hope that the people with that mindset, once they become popular, consider the idea that those ads might prevent them from having to get a day job, which in turn will make producing their content much more difficult.
To me it’s a no-brainer. I will run ads. I will sell books. I will do whatever it takes to continue to be able to deliver this content to my audience, from a purely mechanical standpoint. At the end of the day I don’t think sheer, unfettered creative vision is worth the cost of being able to continue on as a full-time artist. You have to take a hit somewhere.
It is hard to produce the same style of content year after year and not get sick of it at times. I’m a wonderful example of this, as my lament these days is that I don’t have my “baby” or a singular body of work. I’m all over the place. I make work that I can stay with for a few years, and then I abandon it. A lot of things I make don’t even last that long. That’s the part I don’t think Onstad really needed to own up to. We’re all in the position to get sick of our work from time to time. He’s already been on an informal hiatus for months.
Maybe the reason why Onstad’s post got such a reaction from me is that I’ve been in a mental space where I felt like I was repeating myself, or phoning it in, or not pushing my limits enough. But I worry that that’s a fallacy; that maybe that type of thinking comes from a need to beat oneself up. In the same way that I don’t want to believe a poorly-drawn strip about poop men and spy cats could outperform my painstakingly-plotted, carefully-drawn space opera, maybe Onstad found himself stuck in the same writing traps.
Maybe he wants to believe better of himself and, just maybe, he’s afraid that his audience would gobble up Roast Beef lying in bed speaking in lowercase for the next twenty years. And what does that mean for him as a creator? What if he really couldphone it in and no one would know the difference?
In my eyes, to a large degree, that is somewhat of an obligation as an independent creator wanting to remain independent. I can slag on catchphrase comics where every panel contains two or three sentences that are being made into T-shirts and bumper stickers as soon as the strip goes up, but you know what? They were just willing to go further than me. There’s a wholespectrum of “selling out,” for lack of a better term. Monetary success doesn’t automatically equal the instant degradation of content. I love making art — but I also need to get paid.
It’s tough to slave for hours over something that a person can fully absorb in only thirty seconds. But that’s always been the burden of the cartoonist, perhaps the burden of any visual artist. It’s part of the job. If an audience would enjoy seeing me“phone it in,” and be sad if I quit, I’m not sure that’s the same as fan entitlement.
Onstad needs to listen to his heart, but I don’t think he needed to do anything other than shift the content over time into what he likes now. His audience just might have followed him. Hopefully, that’s what he’s up to next.