If Charles Schulz were a young guy in the 21st century looking to get his cartoons out there, he might look something like David Malki, whose Webcomic “Wondermark” has garnered much attention and spawned two published collections.
Malki, a California resident, will be in Massachusetts to appear at the sold-out New England Webcomics Weekend, today through Sunday in Easthampton. The event grew beyond the proportions of its original conception. Originally a chance for Webcomics creators to get together in a more comfortable setting than a huge comic book convention, the event grew into a pilgrimage for fans to meet their favorite web cartoonists.
It’s a testament to how far the medium has come in the last five years. The publishing industry has scooped up numerous Web cartoonists for collections, including Malki’s own “Wondermark” books from Dark Horse — the latest volume, “Clever Tricks to Stave Off Death,” will be released at the end of April.
While so much mainstream attention has focused on the Internet as a delivery method for music and video, Webcomics have been slowly growing in acceptance naturally. Are they ready to supplant newspaper comic strips, comic books and graphic novels as the primary way people read sequential stories? That’s up for debate, but it’s clear that as each generation of Web users becomes more accustomed to reading comics online, the more the older receptacles will have to work to keep up.
Malki’s work stands out from others for one simple graphical reason — he doesn’t draw the “Wondermark” strips. Instead, he uses Victorian-era clip art in flawlessly-crafted panels that feature an absurdist and quite modern sensibility. It’s not that Malki can’t draw, it’s that the collage format was chosen to best represent his ideas visually to an audience.
“If I was just drawing a cartoon strip, I would one millionth-best cartoonist in the world,” Malki said. “In that way, I’m trying to be distinctive, but I’m certainly not trying to reinvent the medium. I’m certainly not reinventing the way that we interact with the world.”
Malki began cartooning in his middle school years when — for the sheer fun of it — he collaborated with a friend on a comic strip called “Bic Man,” a Batman parody based on the advertising mascot for Bic pens.
“We’d do it and pass it around,” said Malki. “It was never with the aim of anything — it was just for fun. That was the spirit in which I started Wondermark. It wasn’t anything deliberate — it wasn’t like I thought, ‘Comics on the Web are the new thing! Let’s make some money off this!’ It was nothing so calculated — primarily because I didn’t know anything about webcomics and because there wasn’t a lot to know about them in 2003. They were there, if I knew to look for them — which I didn’t.”
It was in 2003 that Malki, inspired by Scott McCloud’s book “Reinventing Comics,” began creating “Wondermark” and putting the strips online. Part of McCloud’s central thesis was that the Internet would open up creativity for a number of cartoonists who were previously shut out of the process thanks to syndicates, distribution, sales and many other concerns that created barriers to just producing and distributing their work.
Malki soon realized he wasn’t the only one influenced by McCloud. Two years later at the San Diego Comic Convention, the biggest comics industry show there is, he attended a panel discussion about Webcomics that gave him ideas about making income from that work. At the time, he was still doing “Wondermark” for fun — he had self-published some books through Cafe Press and sold them to all his co-workers — and his real effort was in shopping a graphic around to publishers.
“I had hired an artist to work on it and that was going to be my big comics project,” said Malki. “It was a fantasy story, one of these things that you see a lot of — there’s a dude that’s from our world and he goes to the fantasy world and he turns out to be the great messiah thing. In retrospect, it was kind of cheesy — well, it wasn’t so much cheesy as it was cliched.”
Malki began to think of his Webcomic as a business, of his readers as customers and of his ideas for “Wondermark” as part of his branding. He came up with strategies to build readership, to get advertising — and he thought about merchandising as well. Other Web cartoonists were doing the same and together they built a movement that has boomed in the last couple years — and lead to published collections of their work as a way of earning further income.
Malki also started networking and building relationships and, therefore, word of mouth via links online. It’s all about building momentum and then riding it.
“You can let that take you to the point where all you really have to do is keep supplying the content for people who are willing to evangelize for you,” said Malki.
Malki said that one of the dangers to a cartoonist’s success is to think of Webcomics in the same terms as comic books. He tends to take a broader view, equating Webcomics with Web sites like Post Secret or I Can Has Cheezburger that attract serial readers.
“The last time I checked the number one comic book monthly sales was something like 800,000 copies and the top Webcomics are in the millions of visitors per day,” Malki said. “ I think it’s really important — as creators and as people trying to build our businesses — to not limit Webcomics to what comics have been and their 5,000,000 fans in the U.S. and expand our view to the 100,000,000 people who read funny Web sites every day.”
Even as Malki and others walk away from the traditional delivery methods, they don’t disdain the comic strips that have come before theirs. They see themselves as part of a continuum, with plenty of artistic lessons to be learned from those same masters — just in a new medium for the same language.
“The comic strip tradition is very venerable — and I grew up reading comic strips and I love the comic strip format,” said Malki. “Sometimes when I’m worried about what’s a good way to phrase this or what’s a good way to make the concept clear, I’ll think about how Charles Schulz might have phrased it or how Bill Watterson has said it. These are people who use that four-panel template to all the potential it could offer. I have a great respect for that.”
Malki hopes that Webcomics don’t destroy the old ways, but create one more path of opportunity for cartoonists to get their work out there, as well as rightfully enjoy its status as an ever-evolving revolution.
“Hopefully there will continue to be venues for print cartoonists, but it’s definitely a different type of thing than just doing comics for a newspaper, or even doing comics for Marvel or DC,” said Malki. “It’s a wholly separate entity and business model than any type of comics I’ve ever seen before. In some ways we’re obviously still figuring it out and five years from now I’m it will be more different from now than it is from five years ago.”