By Serhend Sirkecioglu
For the past seven years, The Intellectual Property Creators Challenge has been held to bolster Malaysian creators of Interactive Comics, Games, and Animation through this annual competition with numerous cash prizes ranging from RM15,000-RM25,000 ($4000-$8000). Going through the past winners, I see predominantly manga-esque work. Nothing jaw dropping, but a decent crop of work overall. Alongside this initiative is The Creative Industry Lifelong Learning Programme, several grants and internships for Malaysian students launch their careers and professionals to impart their skills through teaching workshops. Stepping back, this is part of an effort of the Malaysian government to attract foreign tech companies to its country by building up a creative and tech savvy workforce through these annual competitions, workshops, and grants.
This is a really interesting initiative and I wish them the best of luck and hope to see a strong interactive comics tradition emerge from it. In Japan, comics competitions are one of the staples of the manga industry. Young artists and college students submitting work to anthologies for whatever cash prizes and prestige they can get. Many well known mangaka like Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Tite Kubo honed their cartooning chops in these competitions as kids/teens and went on to be assistants and/or break into manga soon after. In China and Korea you also see this “measuring up” of artistic ability through competitions and rankings, which begs the obvious question: Why has this not had a strong foothold in North America and Europe?
I personally think the 90’s DIY/Indie generation of cartoonists took us in a different direction in the west, where if you wanted to be known, you had to not only had to have the cartooning chops but also print and promote your own work through hustling the conventions floors and later having a web presence. Waiting for someone to find your work and submissions were and are still a dead end without an online audience (unless you’re aiming to be the next Darger or Bill Traylor). In the us one competition, Tokyopop’s Rising Stars of Manga, successfully energized the ameri-manga fandom and was something to aspire to, but not for long. Deviantart rose to even greater prominence and then Tumblr and other media facilitation sites distracted people from the idea of competition and encouraged just appealing to those who will like your work. Why go through the trouble of submitting if rejection is a possibility and when you have can have a circle of online friends/fans to encourage you?
The good that came with it was the decentralization of criticism, where not one group of people have a say in who gets published or not. The readers were able to make their own choices about what they liked and a more democratic assessment of comics came about. With this decentralization though, came broader a lack of discernment and consequently the best of the bunch sometimes did not get their due spotlight; i.e. memetic comics and fan art garnering many more views over a much more accomplished and original cartoonist who struggle to develop a fan base (art school owl covered this too lol) for which all can be said is c’est la vie.
I think something was lost in the process from the lack of competition in comics today, that being creativity. Have good comics come out? Yes, of course but in familiar places and in established and semi-established voices, unlike the early 2000’s where the manga boom brought us a new generation of artists via Tokyopop OELs, Flight, Meathaus, Oni Press, and the Xeric Grant; this new generation of cartoonists are not bursting onto the scene, it’s more of a trickle.
I think this “peace-time” in comics has made the 2010 generation more complacent and not in a rush or need to make great strides. Coupled with the lack of venues to compete in, fewer and smaller grants to vie for, a more cynical crowdfunding community, and the demands of having a pre-established fan base to be even be considered by risk averse publishers. This next generation of cartooning might be a slowburn and won’t pick up until much later.
Now to clarify, my definition of making great strides is brand new artists (25 and younger) being published, garnering critical reception, and word of mouth. I personally think that the opportunities granted to the Flight generation in North America and the emerging voices of indie comics in the UK and Scandinavia in part had to do with (aside from better economic times) the the expansionist attitude of the industry at time, where Fantagraphics and Pantheon quickly published a young talent like Dash Shaw, or Stu Levy’s push for “OEL Manga” which launched the careers of Felipe Smith, M. Alice Legrow, Amy Kim Ganter, Brandon Graham, and many others. An over-reliance on the internet can lead to creative stagnation, alienation (already felt by some web-cartoonists) from the publishing world, resulting in more trite and lesser quality work drowning out the outliers. The internet is not the magic bullet we want it to be, but a very useful stepping stone. Still a reliable second step is needed between the first and third.
Needed in this new generation is more support through grants like the SAW micro-grant, Prism Comics Queer Press Grant, or a comparative successor to the Xeric Grant which could be the adrenaline shot for a new wave of freewheeling cartoonists to step out on their own. Cartooning competitions with obviously better contracts than Tokyopop can get the younger generation to butt heads over something and push their creative limits beyond memetic click-bait and fanart. If the pro-active cultivation of new blood that brought us here today is absent in later years, the momentum we’ve gained so far could very well slow down.
[Serhend Sirkecioglu graduated from SVA and is an art teacher by day, rookie cartoonist and wannabe publisher from dusk-till-dawn. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat.]