The Death of the Creator

“Literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.” ― Roland Barthes, The Death o.png

I have the benefit of following several artists on Tumblr and Twitter and while social media is an excellent way for artists and creators to connect with their audiences: is the direct contact really helpful for all of us?

I’ve touched on this topic before but it hasn’t left my mind. Because of the illusions of closeness that social media can provide, many creators that I support and follow tend to be very candid on their social feeds. Many have expressed suicidal ideation, hateful messages, unfiltered rants and have flat out attacked their readers.

Let’s take a step back.

This is by no means something that just afflicts webcomic creators: I’ll take umbrage with an author whose work I love but who I can no longer stand: Jo Rowling. I love Harry Potter but Rowling’s overinvolvement with the fan community utterly exhausts me. While she could be spending her time recasting Johnny Depp or writing the damn Marauders movie I’ve been asking for. But she’s much more content to comment on fan theories, correct pronunciations on spells and micromanage what fans have been doing with her work for the last decade. Not to say she’s done a lot of good. She’s very supportive of cosplayers of color and queer fans but her input is not needed in the Wizarding World until she pens another great novel.

Here where I will pause for those in the back hooting about author’s intent.

Let’s pick up there. I’m in the camp that would rather separate the author from the work. While it is nice to get trivia and information from a still-living author, often times it ruins interpretations individuals make. Rowling doubling down on Harry and Ginny while also reminding us how miserable the Weasley marriage is doesn’t do anything for the fans who have been saying that Harry ended up with the wrong girl. Think of the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion who will swear up and down that he designed all of the things that make his series great because they simply “looked cool”. I’d love to know how he thinks because I rarely think of the Kabbalah or the different types of angels when working on a hip, fun fighting robots show.

The Death of the Author is not a new phenomena and is a helpful way to study the work and think of some of the influences but allows greater freedom to discuss any body of work. This is helpful from Kubrick films (considering that he was a bit of a monster) to fantasy novels. Now, there are times where you cannot separate the artist from the art. It is nearly impossible to remove Orson Scott Card from Ender’s Game and that did affect their box office numbers when the beloved movie became a feature length film. It’s almost impossible to remove Tolkien from Lord of the Rings for better or worse. It is almost impossible to remove Johnny Depp from his current controversy.  

And sometimes keeping the corpus and the creator together is okay. It’s nice to hear Stephen King rant about how much he hates The Shining and how many times he and Kubrick argued over the film.

Let’s get back to the crux of my concerns: webcomic artists specifically have really taken off in this new era of social media and self-publishing. Most of the time, this is great. I love being able to connect and share my enthusiasm for something that I love with the person who made it. Some of my best convention memories have come from meeting comic artists that I love. I love having my ships confirmed, my theories heard and even being acknowledged for literally wanting to cosplay most of the comics that I read. (Saint for Rent and Devil’s Candy are high on that list, all else will have to wait.)

And others have taken their platforms to correct simple errors in gendering characters or assuming where pairings go. Not to say that fans are innocent in this. Some are downright rude, nasty and condescending. The artist always knows best and challenging a creator is almost never the way to go. But that doesn’t mean that well-intending folks are to be barked now. Well-intending is a subjective term and it is up to each individual, it isn’t always the best PR move to fuss at people. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’m so selective with where I post and where I am active. I can be defensive just like the best of us so I’m careful with where I post and where I am opinionated. You’ve heard me mention before my issues with Sister Claire and how they’ve been handling criticism since the plot has seemed to fly away with all of my hopes and dreams.

How much an artist owes their audience is perpetually up to the person. Some have patrons whose word is law. Others value input from all and even more see art as a purely selfish endeavor and post and do as they wish. I’m in favor of the middle path, as always, patrons and those who pay are important but one need never forget the countless folks who support them silently just through being there.

This extends to when artists have…let’s be kind and call them ‘meltdowns’ online. Many have expressed thoughts of self-harm, candid conversations about addiction and personal confessions about mental illness. And while I appreciate the frank nature of such discussions, it’s almost frustrating and almost always heartbreaking to watch. I like I’m sure so many readers do, feel connected to these creators. As I hope you, dear reader, are connected to me in some way. It leads to questions about what readers owe creators and what responsibility audiences have to performers. Should I encourage an artist when they say they feel worthless? Do I correct someone else in the comments when they misgender a character? Do I defend a troublesome old tweet? What does an fan owe a creator? And does a creator owe their fans anything?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions: let’s bring this conversation down into the comments.

Audience vs. Author

“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”—William Zinsser.png

I’m a rather selfish writer. From an early age, whatever and whenever I wrote: I was writing fundamentally for me. I think it’s the big reason why I blog and panel: I write and say as I wish. If someone isn’t happy with my opinions, I adore discourse but no one is making any unhappy reader stay. I also tend to share my work with just close friends. They have plenty of things to say about my work but I rather defend my work from friends than strangers. But as someone who writes, reads and loves discourse between fans and creators: what does an artist or author owe their audience.

Well, to me the short order is nothing. Most of the time.

I read a lot of webcomics and webcomics have become the last stand for many artists and writers who want real creative freedom. Smaller audiences, you are your own editor and almost total freedom to write about whatever you want. Well, most of the time. Amazingly, despite the “freedom” that comes with abandoning traditional platforms and avoiding editors and publishing houses it puts creators and audiences in direct contact with each other. I’ve seen many a comment section grow into riots over canons, storylines and shipping. And amazingly, when you remove the buffer between creator and audience: it isn’t always pretty. I know plenty of webcomic artists that are damn near defensive of their work and refuse to accept any criticism. There are comics that will never properly end because the creator got so burned by their audience. Storylines have been changed. Plots retracted. And so so many arguments over pronouns and if a character is asexual, non-binary or whether a pairing is true or not.

And I can attest that as an author and creator: I get defensive, too. I’ve never quite argued with people nor will I often correct them but I also don’t usually bristle too much when a creator does dive into the comments to correct a misgendering or to assert that a “pairing” is in fact just a pair of friends. Hell, after a negative review on one of my panels, I bristled for days. Even though the criticism was in many ways valid and I did grow and learn from it.

What I will probably never understand is being so defensive to the point of being delusional. Sister Claire is a webcomic I love and have followed from the start but there’s a scene that…borrows heavily from the popular anime Big O. And instead of just owning “Hey, you’re right. We did heavily borrow from another series.” the creator and her partner spent many days in the comments saying that it was common Knights Templar imagery and verbiage as opposed to just accepting a spade as a spade.

But on the flipside of that, I’ve seen audiences completely steamroll over authors. There’s webcomics that will never be finished because the creators became so exhausted by the rigor of keeping a fanbase happy. Blaster Nation famously almost didn’t get a proper ending because the creators were besieged with negativity over ending the very popular comic in favor of one that actually made them money. I was sad as anyone else to see Blaster Nation end but I’d never spew venom to the creators. One of my favorite comics Saint for Rent is currently on hiatus for a year and from what I’ve been able to see everyone has been very supportive and patient in waiting for the series to return while the creator explores other creative ventures.

Now that we’ve discussed how an author should act, what does an audience owe the creator? Well, that’s a strange subject now. Things like Patreon make audiences even more powerful. If I am giving an artist money, like a patron, then I should have some influence on what happens. One of my favorite historical figures, King Ludwig II was the patron of Richard Wagner. And King Ludwig II did dictate what and when Herr Wagner should compose about. Audiences do especially in webcomics drive what creators can do. If you want full creative freedom, finance yourself. But even though audiences are paying for creative ventures now, that doesn’t mean an audience gets to be nasty. I do though even more so understand the frustration an audience has when a comic or property fails them. There are plenty of webcomics I wish would just end, they have strayed so far from their original plots. Dangerously Chloe has had an interesting run that has strayed very far from its original rom-com roots. But no one who loves a property or piece feeling like they’ve been taken for a ride. And there is a certain helplessness that comes with being a lover of a property or piece and having no control over the direction, plan or execution of a series. And that lack of control can be exhausting, scary and demoralizing for fans. That isn’t an excuse to be nasty to creators, but as someone who has watched a beloved series derail, I “get” where that feeling comes from.

I do also understand the strain and stress of performing for an audience. Why do you think I only panel a few times a year? It’s exhausting! Yet alone having to crank out pages while at times the unsympathetic herds can rant and rave about a page being later. Energy wanes and waxes, desire to post lessens and it creates a rather unfortunate feedback loop. And honestly, that pressure does keep me from wanting to publish more of my work more often. I luckily try to blog multiple times a month but I do my best not to beat myself up too much if I don’t. And I have seen many artists who openly admit to taking breaks or slowing down only to be met with extreme hatred and vitriol. There’s a reason I don’t quit my day job to be just a panelist and writer: 1) talent and 2) I never want a hobby to be anything more than a hobby. I know how quickly once you turn passion into work it can become exhausting. Anyone who knows me knows how stressed out I get before and after paneling and if I can do anything to lessen that feeling, I’m willing to do that. I can’t imagine the stress of making people happy and having to perform and if I displease an audience more than my general panelist rating is affected.

Is there a way to move forward or go on? I think so. Have meaningful discourse, at least in private. I may have issues with Never Satisfied or Sister Claire but I tend not to talk about those in public. I do have friends that read the same comics so we get to rant about those forever. If you do feel the need to talk about your concerns to the creator or in public: do so respectfully. If diplomacy fails and you do manage to raise the ire of the creator: keep things civil.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to read the comic if it irritates you that much even if that argument fundamentally makes me angry. I will never totally accept that rationale of “if you don’t like a thing, stop reading/watching it”. Even just as a reader, you invest time, energy, money and life into a work. Without audiences, creators cannot create. There has to be a balance of respecting the creator while also respecting your audience.