Webcomics and the living author

[Trigger Warning: The following contains discussions of rape “humour”]
This week I’m going to talk a little bit about one of the things that make webcomics a fascinating medium; unlike traditional media, webcomics have a living author. I don’t mean that every book ever written is only produced on the death of the writer, of course. I’m referring to a theory of literary criticism set forward by a French literary critic called Roland Barthes in 1967. Barthes argued that when we read a work, we should not consider the author’s background or philosophy; that their intent in creating the work, whatever that intent was, is not the defining factor or indeed a factor we should consider at all when we analyse the work.
This idea’s referred to as ‘Death of the Author’ because regardless of whether or not the author is alive, the analysis of their work says you shouldn’t communicate them; in essence you analyse the work assuming the author died unknown. In a lot of ways, it just makes sense. The first time we read a book, we’re probably not at all familiar with the author’s life and philosophies. We let the book speak for itself. Afterwards, we might find out that the author had a completely different intent to what we read; maybe the author intended a book to speak about the dangers of a totalitarian state, and instead it’s being held up as an example of why such a state would benefit us all. Death of the Author philosophy states that this intent is practically meaningless; it’s just one interpretation of the book among thousands, and it relies on words and ideas that didn’t make it clearly onto the page.
A modern example of this would be with the Harry Potter series of books. After the series had finished, JK Rowling stated in an interview that she had always conceived of Dumbledore as gay. Good for her, but it certainly didn’t make it into her text. It’s perfectly possible to read Dumbledore as straight, gay or other in the books; his personal life is explained, but we never read about his romantic entanglements. In a lot of ways, the best reading from the text alone would be to read Dumbledore as intensely asexual; his life is his work. So who’s right here? Does JK’s pronouncement after the fact change how you should perceive Dumbledore? Does she have any lasting authority over the works she’s authored? Death of the author says no, she doesn’t.
Webcomics, however, are different. I’d argue that they are so different, in fact, that they can be considered to have a living author. Underneath most webcomics, or immediately accessible from the same page as the strip, there’s a blog; a little author’s byline for every strip. The author can be communicated with, instantaneously, between strips. They’re very much alive. Imagine if Harry Potter was a webcomic; JK would be aware from communication with her readers that Dumbledore was not being perceived as gay. Maybe there would be arguments on the forums. She’d have to decide whether she wanted to make the character gay or whether she wanted to leave them ambiguous; altering the strips and scripts to make it clear one way or another. If it was unclear, and later JK said ‘Dumbledore was always gay’, we’d see it as a bit of a cop-out; she’d had every chance to include a positive gay character, deliberately left it ambiguous, and then claimed it after the fact.
There are a couple of examples of this in action, one pleasing and one thoroughly disappointing. The first is from Homestuck (a personal favourite). Two characters share a kiss in the tired old trope of fighting a bit and then smooching each other. The author, however, left a note in the blog and on the forums; he knows that representation of ‘romance’ is problematic, even damaging. He wasn’t suggesting that these two characters were working in a healthy or even an understandable way. All would be made clear; please bear with me.
This is a great example of how an author can be truly alive. Sometimes, in books in particular but even in a single issue of a comic, we worry that the author doesn’t get how horrible an act one of the characters has performed is. We read on, hoping for a deeper examination of that character’s evil, or for some justice, but too often we don’t get it. Even when we do, it’s an uncomfortable read. A living author can dispel these doubts straight away.
The second example is from Penny Arcade, which I won’t link to from here any more. Recently they made a strip involving an extremely crude rape joke, and there were a lot of complaints. Here, as living authors, they had an opportunity to apologise as soon as possible. They could make it clear they understood how badly rape jokes can hurt victims/survivors of rape, that they understood that making these jokes sets up a culture where rape is funny, not devastating, that they were sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, they followed it up with a strip where they mocked people who’d complained by deliberately misunderstanding their complaints. A week or so later, the artist had a joke ‘Trigger warning’ above their blog post, warning that discussion of dice rolling was ahead, and making fun of the useful, functional and altogether compassionate point of using trigger warnings in the first place. This was followed up by the author announcing a t-shirt that capitalised on the publicity of the rape joke that was made in the first place.
So the creators of Penny Arcade, through the unique nature of the living author in webcomics, have made it abundantly clear that they think rape is funny, that those who complain about rape jokes are humourless, misunderstanding prigs, that it’s acceptable to mock people who might really need trigger warnings, that they will profit from rape culture. I certainly won’t be reading their work any more.
In this way, the living author can be a blessing- it lets us get off the boat fast enough to keep afloat, instead of reading a disturbing work all the way to the conclusion and realising that the author never found it disturbing at all.
Alexander ‘Nines’ Patterson