I’ve written about Chris Onstad once before, when he announced Achewood was stopping down. An interview with him just went up at Comic Alliance discussing his return to Achewood. He is an artist whose work I respect, but have increasing difficulty seeing eye-to-eye with.
My understanding is that his readership is not the same as mine, in size or composition. I think though, that once you reach a certain tier of success, a particular type of reader emerges.
I have begun to see them in the last year or two, but thankfully not very many of them yet. They’re the kind of people who greet new updates only with criticism, and no semblance of enjoyment whatsoever. They appear to hate what the creator does, but they never stop reading.
It’s as if they want to impress you with how they get your work more than you do. They live for pointing it out. And maybe, just maybe, they believe you’ll respect and/or become good friends with them on the basis of their knowledge of your failures.
This type of fan will destroy you if you let them. In the interview Onstad elaborates on the hate mail he received after stopping his strip, and how it continues even now that it’s back. I’m not at his level, and I get some bad e-mails from time to time. I’m sure he gets a dozen every single day. I don’t begrudge Onstad his bad feelings toward hateful readers, or even how one cruel e-mail wipes out the good will of the hundred nice e-mails that came before it. It really does.
But as a non-crazy reader of Achewood, I absorb his “it’s back and fuck you if you don’t like it anymore” as his cruel e-mail to me. How can I not? I didn’t dislike it, before or now! But as a creature with eyes and literacy, he is ready for me to hate him, so he is hating me first.
You have to be able to distinguish good readers from bad. One thing I’ve talked about with various creators over the last couple years is being more firm with this kind of reader — just because someone buys all your books doesn’t give them the right to hold you emotionally hostage two or three times a week via bitter, nitpicking e-mails (or worse, full-on stalking behavior at conventions). But in this interview Onstad comes off as though he believes his entire audience is that kind of reader.
I’m also concerned about what takeaways other cartoonists and the industry at large will receive from an interview, which again seems to indicate that this is how you make money on the internet:
- Produce tons of free, great content, sixteen hours a day, without any ugly capitalist concessions (like advertising, site sponsorships or merchandise)
- Beg for donations.
This just isn’t true. I think asking for donations sets an awful precedent. It turns the creator, who is already doing all the work for free, into the supplicant. Unfortunately the entitled fan is just a product of our culture: to paraphrase The Odd Couple, they just come when you cook the meat. A handful of them are unavoidable. But you can’t bend over backwards to serve them. They trade in dissatisfaction. It’s all they contain.
By making your chief revenue stream the largesse of your readership, you risk turning everyone into an entitled fan. It lacks the clarity of “you paid for a book, so you received a book. Transaction complete.” If someone sends me $100, what are they owed? What do they believe they are now owed? That’s why I don’t accept donations for my comics.*
It seems like Onstad let these people get fully under his skin. I suppose if I had that much negativity coming my way I’d get that way too. But where was the upside? The relief? The success to be built upon? Where was all the help and guidance and positivity as far as the business side of things where Achewood was concerned?
No one enjoys the business side. No artist goes into this excited about signing up for ad networks. But with Achewood’s clout, Onstad should have been able to build something way more self-sustaining than what it was.
I’m a (comparative) idiot when it comes to business, and I’m making good money! And I’m not a 19-year-old living off Cup-O-Noodles out of an apartment I split with twelve other people. I’m doing about as well now as I would be if I had stayed a software developer. I hate shipping and store inventory management too! So I found entities to do it for me! He mentions making only $3.50 off a $25 transaction. How long did that go on before he severed that partnership?? If that’s all that was out there, you couldn’t explain the success of much smaller fish such as myself.
From what little I understand about Onstad, he’s the kind of artist who wouldn’t be satisfied regurgitating running gags, or churning out toys four times a year, or putting ads on his website. I suppose that is respectable? No, it is respectable. I respect it a lot. I used to feel like that too. But maybe if he didn’t rely primarily on donations, he wouldn’t look at Achewood as this nightmarish hellwork he has to crawl back inside of to survive.
Or maybe I’m misreading. Maybe he is re-energized to come back to the strip. I just didn’t get that impression from the interview. It doesn’t… sound like… he likes what he’s doing. Or what he’s finding it necessary to do.
I have learned that, at some point, you have to make concessions to commerce in order to continue doing the thing that you and your audience love — and hopefully will continue to love. There is a balance to strike that doesn’t involve selling the movie rights to your strip to an IP farm and cashing in on a rancid animated version with celebrity voices. Seeing a return on your work helps ward off the negativity and despair. There is no shame in trying to achieve that.
I’m sure he wasn’t having fun with Achewood if he was worried the lights weren’t going to stay on. But my God, he of any of us must have had revenue options beyond “I hope you’ll consider giving me a dollar.”
* It’s also why I was mad about being associated with Kachingle, a site that took donations on your behalf. I don’t want the money — I want to control how people relate to my work. I want your first experience with me to be “read these for free, and I also make books!” not “read these for free, and I also need lunch.”