Sergio Aragones v Mark Waid on free content

Via Tom Richmond’s blog is a story on Comics Beat detailing a heated exchange between famed MAD cartoonist Sergio Aragones and Comic book writer (and Harvey Award Keynote speaker) Mark Waid over free content – the topic of Mark’s speech.

It was mostly pep talk, partly an entreaty “not to be afraid of the future when we can still affect it.” On that part, it was hard to find fault.

But at least one other attendee, namely Sergio Aragones, a cartoonist whose name is regularly preceded by the word “legendary,” took issue with Waid’s idea that ideas should be free. After the speech, according to witnesses, Aragones went over to Waid and the two had a heated exchange. While we heard several reports of various folks storming out and slamming doors, we also heard that after all was said and done, Aragones and Waid literally hugged and made up.

We had a chance to talk to Sergio later on – it was an off the cuff conversation in the middle of a rather chaotic night (the Hyatt bar was shut down early and everyone was in a tizzy). Paraphrasing here a bit, but Sergio was advocating more for the idea that the spread of free content has devalued content, making it harder for people to make a living at it. He said a couple of things that I tried to jot down, one that (I’m paraphrasing) “quality has to be considered again” and the one I tweeted “If you give everything away for free, you have ruined everything.”

Read on for the rest of the story.

31 thoughts on “Sergio Aragones v Mark Waid on free content

  1. I see so a guy who probably needs help from his granddaughter to check his e-mail is going to be your guide to intellectual property issues for the future and in consideration of the internet and file sharing.

    Yeah good luck with that. Let me know how it goes.

    I’ll be over here trying new things.

  2. Yay.

    I can’t wait for the Daily Cartoonist peanut gallery full of people who can’t draw to save their life and earn about 12 a month from their work chiming in like experts on this subject.

    It’s going to be amazing.

  3. @scott – right because everybody who does a webcomic draws like Michelangelo and because they give away their product for free – they’re effing geniuses on how to make money.

    Has it already been six months since the last Print V. Web flame-fest. Time sure does fly.

  4. Not all of us web cartoonists are going in blindly without a game plan. I am only planning on posting three months worth before I stop and beg for syndication. Then when I fail, I can say that I gave it a shot. Did I say “when”? I meant “if”…

    If some more slots would open up for us newbies, most of us who love to strip for the public would not have to give it away. Man, that REALLY sounded “cheap”… and a bit dirty. I just want to see if I can draw an audience with free strips so I can see if I have what it takes to do this. So far so good…

    For me, I am doing like the movies and running some free screenings before I start charging admittance.

    NOW, I do agree their are some who are going in with no game plan and ARE watering down the system. We should flog ’em all.

  5. The debate whether free content devalues paid content is over. We’re herein 2010 and content has been free on the web for over a decade.

    Instead of rehashing contentious debate regarding which model is better, can we keep the discussion focused on… how does an artist make a living (or better) wage in this era of free?

  6. The speech itself is not controversial, unless you are a big supporter of the Sonny Bono act and believe that Walt Disney’s stockholders should benefit unto the fifth generation from what a few dedicated artists (whose families derive no financial benefit from it today) did in the 1930s. I don’t think my granddaughters’ recent trip to Disney World would have been made any less profitable to Walt’s stockholders if they had been able to download “Steamboat Willie” for free before going.

    Beyond that (for the benefit of those not bothering to read it), his speech basically says that filesharing and downloading has become inevitable and artists have to find ways to make a living in this new world. If you want to argue with him, you have to take a position that people don’t share files. Not that they shouldn’t, but that they don’t.

    Good luck with that.

  7. It’s very easy to overcome this obstacle. Do what cartoonists do best – provide content for others. If you establish clients (not individual readers) you’ll get paid and you don’t have to worry about all the other junk. It’s what comic strips were meant to be and how they should remain. Trying to build small empires around your own comic strips is not working for everyone – and if it’s not working for you – go back to what comic strips were meant to be – content for other publications. And let them worry about who’s stealing content that THEY paid you for.

  8. I have no intention of wading into this well-worn discussion… except to say that comments like the one from Rob Tracy are beyond rude. I’m guessing he doesn’t even know Sergio… and has little appreciation for who he is in the world of cartooning.

    Sad. Sergio doesn’t deserve the disdain. Watch out, Rob, you’ll be on the other side of that comment someday.

  9. I’m fortunate. I have a newspaper ad design job that (for the most part) pays the bills. I also draw an editorial every week while on the clock, so that I don’t end up drawing for free. Also I work some on the side by drawing for T-Shirts and the like for which I accept small cash, food or beer (beer being the official currency of the town I live in).

  10. >>>Watch out, Rob, you?ll be on the other side of that comment someday.

    No he won’t Jan. That would require him having an ounce of the talent, success and esteem Sergio is held in the cartooning community.

  11. Jan,

    I’ve been reading Mad since I was a kid. I know exactly who Mr. Aragones is. If I’m being completely honest I’ve never been crazy about his artistic style but that’s beside the point. I happily concede he is an icon in his field who has accomplished amazing things in cartooning and had and have no intention of taking anything away from him on that end. Not that I could.

    But just because someone is a genius at one thing, loved and respected for his accomplishments and all that, doesn’t mean he can’t be wrong. And the fact that he is loved and respected is certainly not a reason to defend him when he makes comments outside of his area of expertise. It’s deflecting. If you can prove to me that Mr. Aragones is some sort of 73 year old wunderkind internet genius then I’ll eat my words. But when this first came to light I went and read up on him and I didn’t see anything that made me think he was the man with the answers for how the comics and cartooning business should proceed into the 21st century.

    And he is wrong. He was wrong in what he said and he was wrong in how he said it. I’m sure someone born in 1938 finds this new world of tubes and downloads very frightening. I’m also sure that there is nothing that you, me, Mr. Aragones or anyone else can do to change the reality that print as a business model is dying and file sharing is an ongoing reality that will not change for the foreseeable future.

    Mr. Waid’s premise, that rather than fearing these realities they should be harnessed is the right message of change for the future.

    Mr. Aragones’ fear and indignation and desire to try and force a genie back into the bottle (something that worked out really well for the RIAA and the movie industry) is not an idea that will help anyone.

    I have zero disdain for Mr. Aragones as a cartoonist; his accomplishments speak for themselves and I have no place to criticize him on that account. But yes, I certainly am disdainful of his ideas for the future of the comics industry (as expressed by the reported comments from that night). No amount of righteous anger will get someone to pay you for what they can get for free. The industry needs real solutions and new ways of creating revenue not this desperate clawing to old ways.

    Jan we’ll all be on the other side of that comment some day if we’re lucky and make it to 73. I don’t think it’s beyond rude to point out that someone that old may be a bit behind the times. And there’s nothing wrong with his granddaughter helping him check his e-mail (if that indeed happens). I taught my grandmother how to use a VCR before she passed away. She was a great real estate agent in her day. That doesn’t mean I’d want her advising me on my business decisions.


    I don’t know who you are so I don’t see how you could possibly sum up my life’s potential like that. But whatever. You don’t like me taking a shot at someone who says something I disagree with that’s fine. I’m here to talk about ideas. I’ll keep the personal attacks to myself.

    I’m in Seymour by the way. Maybe I’ll see you at one of the local conventions some time. You can stop by and tell me what a lousy writer I am.

  12. After listening to the speech, it made a lot of sense. It’s an opinion I’ve had for a while, in relation to the music and movie industry. All of the old folks who have been running their businesses the same way for the past fifty years are being dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age. They’ve become extremely paranoid and are treating all of their customers like criminals. That’s no way to make money or get repeat business. The power to dictate how businesses are run and how content is shared has been in their hands for so long, and now that it’s out of their hands they don’t know what to do. The consumers have taken the power away from them, and that’s scary.

    Mr. Waid just wants us to know that things have changed, and all of the “old” media have to change with them. The problem is simply that they haven’t been willing to yet, and things won’t get any better until they do. The old ways of doing things just don’t work anymore.

    Mr. Aragones says “the spread of free content devalues content.” Fine, that’s great. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s something you have to deal with, because the spread is not going to stop. You have to deal with putting the value back in, not stopping the spread. Only one of those is possible to do at this point.

  13. Yeah, I know, it’s a bad way to put it, but I meant “old” as in media that existed before the Internet, which I see as “new” media. I didn’t intend it to downplay the importance of it.

  14. Rob – I’m sure you are a delightful fellow, but your comments about Sergio are presumptious and condescending and, quite frankly, make you come across a bit of a muppet. All this snide crap about him finding “tubes and downloads very frightening” and needing the assistance of a grandchild to check his email … well, this is gratuitous schoolboy drivel and distracts from any point you might be trying to make. Sergio is very smart, very savvy and vastly experienced man who answers his own emails very comfortably… and could quite happily discuss our profession in half a dozen languages. All the marbles are firmly in place.

    Your contention that his comments about business practices in our profession are “outside of his area of expertise” is silly. Sergio is one of the most successful and iconic figures in the history of cartooning, with an impeccable cv and a plethora of awards garnered from every corner of the planet. He doesn’t need to be proficient in html5 or mysql databases to voice an opinion about practices that affect the entire profession.

    Ben then speaks of “All of the old folks who have been running their businesses the same way for the past fifty years are being dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age. They?ve become extremely paranoid and are treating all of their customers like criminals.” That’s just conjecture and pure, errant nonsense.

    20 years ago, cartoonists didn’t have computers and the industry certainly wasn’t wired that way. But guess who grasped the new technology with open hands as fast as they could? The people who suddenly realized that they could use a font instead of spending hours hand lettering, who could color their work onscreen instead of laboriously coloring up overlay guides for the printers, the guys who could wipe out huge Fed Ex bills – and add another two days to the deadline – by delivering electronically. The same dinosaurs that are suddenly supposed to have developed these Luddite fears. Give me a break. The internet has revolutionized our profession and the vast majority of pros have gleefully embraced the positives as quickly as possible.

    As we all agree, one of the most irritating aspects of cartooning forums is the eternal “web v print’ rubbish. As though there is a vast legion of professional dinosaurs holding an imaginary line against an army of youthful, groundbreaking visionaries. Bollocks. I don’t know of a single professional cartoonist who isn’t eager to latch onto anything that makes more money, makes his work easier and expands his business.

    The “web v print” thing is actually a red herring. If Scott Kurtz or Dave Kellett can make a great living by posting a feature on their site, attending comicons, cultivating a niche audience and making dough off the ancillaries – then we’re all for it. Brilliant! Well done! They are to be commended for their enterprise. But don’t get all bolshy when it’s pointed out that their business plan is of little use to the majority of professional cartoonists. Give Beetle Bailey away for free and hope to live off the Beetle zazzle sales? Probably not, eh? There are guys who make a great living from live caricatures – that doesn’t mean that we would advocate every professional cartoonist set up a drawing board in Knotts Berry Farm. Horses for courses.

    The area of concern is NOT that many creators run their strips online for free. I couldn’t give a monkeys. What I don’t want to see is newspapers, magazines, publishers, ad agencies … and any other client who should be paying … being offered content at little or no cost. And I suspect that is the point that Sergio was trying to drive home. If the client is making a profit from the end product … if they charge for their newspaper or magazine, if the agency is billing the client advertiser … why the hell would any artist work for buttons? It’s professional suicide and it may well drag down everyone else. And it absolutely devalues the artform that we all profess to love. So Kurtz is welcome to do what he does online with everyone’s blessing … but can’t expect a pat on the head from fellow professionals when he starts offering free strips to newspapers. (Although, if memory serves, many people who actually work in syndication predicted that he would struggle to get any traction, free or not, because of the feature’s content – it’s just not particularly suited to the narrow demands of newspapers.)

    As much as we can embrace the advent of the internet, we also need to recognize that it has caused major problems for our profession and allied industries. The bumbling hobbyist is now empowered and the web is awash with mediocrity. You know, I know it – there’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam in the online waters now. Computers have destroyed the typesetting business. We all know the impact the web has had on newspapers. The web has also meant the proliferation of stock houses, which have slaughtered the photography game and are killing the illustration business. In days gone by, an ad agency would commission comps, then commission the final art. Now instead of paying the artist two substantial fees, the agency can choose for trillions of images online and pick one up for peanuts. But the point to remember is that in the old days, the agency might pay the artist $5000 and bill the client for $10,000. But trust me, the price to the client has not gone down – all that has changed is that the agency profit is now $9,950.

    So most pros I know recognize that the game is changing on all fronts. Will newspapers have to adapt? Undoubtedly. Will people read their comic books in digital form rather than traditional print? Probably. Pick your own branch of the profession, from animation to gag cartooning, and tailor the mandatory adjustments to suit. Add salt to taste.

    For example, I think it’s brilliant that many gag cartoonists now license their cartoons for powerpoint presentations. If a dentist plans to use dentist cartoons for his paid presentation at the toothpullers convention, why the hell should he get the content for free? It makes no sense. What’s the business plan there – hope that the dentists go home and order a teeshirt? Of course not. Better to enforce the copyrights and educate the public that they must expect to pay for content in commercial usage.

    I’m not averse to loss leaders. I get the idea that you can read a four page preview of a comic book online for free … but you have to pony up to read the series. I’ll take your lite iphone app for free, and if I like it, I’ll cough up the 99 cents for your full app. But it’s important to remember that the mediums may be new … but the concept is as old as time.

    So, for my money, Sergio is absolutely right. Professionals should be applying ourselves to figuring out how to navigate these waters in a way that will support livelihoods, promote the artform and add value to our work. Not just acquiescing.

    I keep seeing references to the impact that filesharing has had on the music business, as if that somehow pertains to cartooning. Can’t see it. People have always clipped cartoons and stuck them on the fridge. Now they stick them in an eail. So what? Yes, music cd sales are plummeting and filesharing is the norm. But artists haven’t just thrown up their hands in despair and embraced altruism. They may now offer a track for free download, but they still charge for digital content wherever possible. They may now focus more on touring because the merchandising revenue is high, but the ticket prices aren’t free. And the market in synch licensing has exploded, thanks to expanded TV production and the games industry. 360 deals are now more and more the industry norm. Filesharing may well be a fact of life, but the music business hasn’t surrendered – it’s figureing out ways to monetize around an inevitable fact of life.

    Dress it up anyway you want – giving your work away for free, without serious caveats and restrictions, without a very clear endgame, is shortsighted and detrimental. In principal, it’s just a dumb career move.

    50 years ago the aspiring cartoonists who worked free for “the exposure” were deluding themselves and making a rod for their own backs. Just because we now live in age where we can fileshare Lady Gaga songs on our ipods, doesn’t make the practice any more visionary than it was then.

  15. “Many Journalists eyed the new army of unpaid or underpaid competitors – the contributors at Huffington Post, the citizen journalists, the bloggers, and all the other providers of what media companies called “user-generated content” – with disbelief. Their resentment now went beyond simple puzzlement over why the blockheads were writing for free. Their volunteer rivals, they felt, were more than just suckers; they were tantamount to scabs, undermining secure high-paying jobs by choosing to labor under unfair conditions. (“‘Citizen Journalist’ is just the pretty new construct for ‘unpaid freelancer,'” New Orleans-based journalist Kevin Allman complained in a 2007 letter.)

    The above is a tiny quote from the book “Say Everything” by Scott Rosenberg and I think it pretty well sums up the positions taken by Mr. Waid and Mr. Aragones. The book is a masterwork on the history, rise of and importance of blogging and its relationship to journalism and the new world of media and should be required reading for anyone creating for an audience – print, web or both.

    The chapter on bloggers vs journalists could easily have the title changed to webcomics vs syndicated cartoonists and the parallels are eerie.

  16. So what you are saying is (in addition to calling me a Muppet… which in my mind when I hear it in a British accent sounds charming rather than insulting… please let it be Fozzy Bear…) that Mr. Aragones… or “Sergio” as you seem to be a on a first name basis with the man, is savvy in both internet use and intellectual property law (both things I actually learned about in college). Prove it.

    This is a man who still does all of his art traditionally by hand and by his own admission on his website had to have someone explain video games to him for one of his “A Mad Look At…” articles.

    It looks like Mark Evanier his long time authoring partner does the heavy lifting on the internet stuff. I see no evidence whatsoever that he has an understanding of the complexities in todays on-line world.

    And at 73 I wouldn’t expect him to. I’m not suggesting the man has gone soft in the head. Simply relating the generally accepted belief that older folks do not usually adapt to new technology quickly.

    And although I have no proof of this I’m willing to bet it has been a very long time since he has had to negotiate a contract for work or licensing himself. As you said yourself… he is very successful. I can’t imagine him managing his career without the assistance of a lawyer or agent.

    Look I’ve got nothing against the guy. I just think he’s wrong. And ambushing Waid (a guy I know even less about than Aragones) at the event when he’s just come off the stage was not cool. No matter how much he disagreed with him.

    My disdain for the man’s ideas and the way he went about presenting them in this particular instance is not indicative of my assessment of his life’s work.

    I just think he’s talking from a place of fear and confusion and I’m entitled to my opinion. And telling me how great and awesome and savvy and successful he is doesn’t change my opinion of what he said. Want to change my opinion? Prove to me the guy understands search optimization or how on line advertising works. Have him talk about social networking and the benefits it can have for building a community around your intellectual property. Or better yet. Have him come up with a solution to people breaking copyright by scanning comics and offering them to others for free via file-sharing services without suing several thousand people and generally alienating the public at large. Or perhaps even a way to make money somehow from that process of file-sharing. That would be wonderful. If you can get him to do that I bet everyone would be grateful. Then I may be inclined to think differently about his ideas on copyright defense.

    Lastly I don’t know if you actually read the Waid speech (link above in one of Allen’s early posts) but much of what you said agrees with Waid a lot more than Aragones. You might want to look into that.

  17. Well, Rob, I was very careful to say that I am sure you are really a delightful fellow … but your insulting comments about Sergio do you no favors. Yes, I’m friends with Sergio and I know Mark Evanier, but I’d have still taken exception to your remarks if I didn’t know him from Adam. Just bad form, dear boy.

    And of course I read the Waid piece before commenting. But I’m still puzzled by your response:

    No, I’m not saying that Sergio is “savvy in both internet use and intellectual property law” so I don’t really see the need to “prove it.” You seem intent on beating Sergio with an irrelevant stick, Rob. As I pointed out in my original post, why on earth would he need to be an expert on “search optimization” before he can opine that giving away your work for free and surrendering your property rights is usually a dopey idea?

    As to agreeing with Waid … I didn’t address Waid’s points because I’m not sure he actually made too many of substance. It was all rather nebulous, with promises of innovative approaches to be “rolled out” soon. As and when he gets round to offering something practical, like most of my peers, if there is anything that makes sense, that I can use to grow my business, I’ll be all over it like a rash. Until then, the idea that we should embrace the surrender of our intellectual property rights, because filesharing is somehow the inevitable way of the future, doesn’t do it for me. He argues that isn’t it wonderful that Shakespeare is in the public domain after 300 years? Well, perhaps … although there is still a lot of money being made in print and film from Shakespeare’s efforts. It’s just been diverted into someone else’s pockets. Where we absolutely disagree is the notion that in the 21st century, my property rights might end when I press the send button.

    One thing I would say, in response to your assertion that you took umbrage because Sergio somehow ambushed Waid … well, I don’t really see where the problem lies. You speak at a function, attendees come up to you afterwards. That’s normal. Unless you are suggesting that Sergio should have waited until he got back home and then emailed Waid with his comments? Assuming, of course, that there was a convenient grandchild to help the old duffer navigate the keyboard.

    Anne’s post seems to look to reinforce this interminable us v them, print v web debate … but as I expressly stated in my post, I think that’s pretty much a red herring. I don’t think that the Huffington Post business model is of much use to most cartoonists. A wonderful model if you are Arianna, of course.

    Again, nobody disputes the developments in our profession. But just because it is shiny and new, doesn’t mean that it is valuable. The internet brought us google, itunes and youtube. Splendid. But there were a lot of dumb ideas that surfaced at the same time and a lot of money was squandered in the dotcom boom. 10 years ago, I’m sure that there were a lot of people convinced that Flooz was the currency of the future and mocking the dinosaurs who insisted on using their outdated credit cards and … guffaw … cash.

  18. @Steve,

    The quote about the Huffington Post is quite germane to this discussion and supports your position. I probably was not able to make this clear because I took such a small quote from the book, but the point the author was making was that blogs like the HP use content for which they do not pay, all the while accepting advertising money. And that, by doing so, make it doubly difficult for traditional journalists to make a decent living.

    This argument was not about technology – the comments that have tried to steer it in that direction by insulting Mr. Aragones and insinuating that he barely grasps the workings of the internet are the red herring. This argument is, instead, the age old one in which the union worker assails the scab who crosses the picket line. It is not about print vs web at all – it is purely about intellectual property rights.

    I am sorry if I gave any other impression through my choice of example.

  19. My comment that “All of the old folks who have been running their businesses the same way for the past fifty years are being dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age. They?ve become extremely paranoid and are treating all of their customers like criminals” was mostly describing the music and movie industry. I know the entire print industry isn’t like this, but I compare it because I can see parallels between them in some ways. As far as the music and movie industry goes, read any news story from the past ten years about their actions in relation to file sharing and the Internet in general and you’ll see plenty of examples of that.

    How does it apply to print? Basically because I’d rather no one do those types of things, especially in the cartooning/print industry. I’m seeing bits and pieces of it, and it’s something to be avoided. Mr. Waid mentions the RIAA and MPAA it in his speech and says we can learn from the mistakes they’ve been making.

    More importantly, there’s no reason to think Waid is advocating “acquiescing” in any way. He’s not advocating giving everything away for free. He’s just saying “This is the way things are now. These are the waters we have to wade through. Denying it and fighting against it will not work. We have to work with it and among it in order to make it.”

    “Working with it” doesn’t mean “giving in.” He doesn’t advocate it; I don’t advocate it; anyone who wants to make real money in the industry would be silly to advocate it. So where’s the argument? Why take sides on “print vs. web?” They’re just two different media that will work to make money for the creators with work published in or on them. I think the very problem is that debate. I think that was one of Waid’s points as well. Working together is the key. Internal division will only hurt the industry.

  20. In reference to Anne’s comments about HuffPost, I do hope that all the people who got upset when some Air Force guy photocopied a cartoon for an in-house presentation to his staff, and who insist that nobody should ever contribute an editorial cartoon to the local paper for less that $X are equally adamant that writers should not be “donating” their pensees to Ariana’s commercially successful website.

    There are many differences between writers and artists, but the need for food and shelter are pretty universal, after all. And we can all die of “exposure,” n’est-ce pas?

  21. Steve makes some interesting points – but I do what to chime in on his remark about Ad Agencies. I worked at a design firm for 11 years and interacted directly with clients such as IBM, Pepsi, Praxair, etc. They ain’t dummies. They know that stock houses exist and they know basic prices. They know that you can sort through millions of images in an hour instead of taking three weeks to set up a photoshoot. They want things faster and cheaper and they know the resources are out there and design firms (and ad agencies) have to comply.

    We would have loved to have hired photographers and illustrators (we’re artists, too, afterall) but the clients would have none of it.

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