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Cartooning's Webcrawler: The Micro-Blogs of Twitter

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Sitting expectantly at the taping of a late-night talk show, Bryan Brinkman was a near-anonymous New Yorker -- literally just another face in the crowd. The 24-year-old cartoonist had a Web site and a day job, but he could count on two ink-stained hands how many people officially followed his work.

By the next morning, as he checked his Twitter account, he no longer had seven followers. He had more than 10,000. And within 24 hours of the show, even that doubled.

This sudden explosion was tallied by Twitter's metrics -- and rallied by Jimmy Fallon, who on his new NBC "Late Night" show last month conducted a stunt: He urged viewers to sign up as "followers" of Brinkman's Twitter account. As a result, Brinkman also saw his professional animation Web site draw thousands of page views in the days that followed, he says. The Bryan Brinkman Experiment had tapped the power of Twitter for professionals.

As Twitter, the social micro-blogging service that lets people share 140-character posts, passes its third anniversary -- and as many cartoonists are hit by the tough economic times in print publishing -- the Brinkman Experiment spotlights a cartooning-career question that grows ever louder:

To tweet or not to tweet?

For some cartoonists in need of new readers, that is the connection.

As newspaper comics sections shrink or vanish, as alt-weekly papers slash their cartoons, as political cartoonists see their ranks reduced almost weekly, social networking looms large as a way to reach fans during this dauntingly uncertain time for cartooning. "Dilbert's" creator Scott Adams led the way for mainstream cartoonists to use e-mail; many comic artists use Facebook -- but are cartoonists atwitter over Twitter?

Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury" comic strip recently satirized journalists such as NBC's David Gregory who famously tweet about the play-by-play minutiae of their day. Trudeau, like Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," has characterized Twitter as mere gimmick.

Twitter is "usefully applied in some hands, pointlessly so in others," says Trudeau, who won a Pulitzer for "Doonesbury." His use for it? He employs Twitter itself to satirize Twitter. And so on the site's account for Roland Hedley, his comic strip's fictional Fox News reporter tweets Trudeau's cutting witticisms.

For Daryl Cagle, who runs the cartooning Web site/syndicate Cagle.com, Twitter helps build his business and alert his readers to industry news. With more than 25,000 followers, Cagle is consistently among the "Top 300" most popular micro-bloggers in the Twitterverse, according to measurement site Twitterholic.com. (By comparison, sometime graphic novelist Neil Gaiman is in the rarefield air well north of 100,000 followers.)

"I don't do a lot of 'What are you doing?' trivial personal posts," says the Southern California-based Cagle. "I mostly link cartoons and things I see on the Web that interest me. My followers know who I am and what to expect from me.

"People who think Twitter is trivial aren't using it productively," says Cagle, whose site features the work of about 200 editorial cartoonists. Cagle says he also uses Twitter for creative purposes, sometimes bouncing ideas off his followers.

Darrin Bell, who draws the strip "Candorville," likewise finds that Twitter helps him at the drawing board. "For some reason, Twitter has become a muse," he says. " . . . I can't tell you how many tweets I've posted and then immediately deleted because I realized they'd make good cartoons."

Bell, whose strip this week spoofs Twitter, notes: "We cartoonists already spend most of our time creating brief tweetlike musings about our day; only instead of 'tweets,' we call them 'cartoons.' "

Scott Kurtz of the popular webcomic "PvP" has a Twitter "readership" of more than 11,000, placing him among the more popular cartoonists on Twitter -- including graphic novelists, comic-book artists and cartoonists who draw avatars for online accounts. "The benefit of social networking is in converting your existing casual readers into more invested readers," says the Dallas-based Kurtz. "Having 100,000 casual readers isn't as important as 10,000 invested readers. When you get to know a person intimately, you can't help but get invested in their life."

A political-cartooning colleague of Cagle's -- Mike Thompson of the Detroit Free Press -- recently drew a cartoon that mocked obsessively self-involved Twitterers. Posting the cartoon on his blog for the newspaper, Thompson wrote: "Twitter is a blessing . . . and a curse." So does that mean Thompson, a veteran of the "old media," has been seduced by the power of Twitter? "My attitude is: Evolve or die," says Thompson, acknowledging the popularity of the site.

Thompson notes that relatively few newspaper political cartoonists maximize Twitter. Mike Luckovich, for example -- the Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution -- doesn't tweet. "If one of my editors thought it would be a good idea, I would look into it," Luckovich says. "But I really don't know why it would be of benefit."

Some cartoonists cite its growth. MySpace and Facebook continue to be the social networks with the widest reach in the United States, according to Nielsen Online, with 59 million and 39 million users, respectively. Twitter, however, is catching up -- and fast: In the year since February 2008, the site's membership has grown more than 1,300 percent, to more than 7 million users.

Most big-name comic-strip creators, though, are not flocking to Twitter. Lisa Klem Wilson, senior vice president at United Media, says that of her syndicate's nearly 150 comic artists (print and online), only two use Twitter for professional purposes: Dan Thompson ("Rip Haywire") and John Zakour ("Working Daze"). "Relatively few are doing it -- and the ones who do are mostly younger," Wilson says of syndicated cartoonists. "I do think it works nicely to communicate and it's hot as a trend, but it could quickly be overused. It will probably burn out."

One of the big names at Wilson's syndicate, "Dilbert's" Scott Adams, is such an avid blogger that he says he has little use for micro-blogging. "I don't use Twitter," Adams says. "My life is enough of an open book."

Jen Sorenson, a Charlottesville cartoonist who draws the alt-political cartoon "Slowpoke Comics," has supplemented Facebook by adding Twitter. Says Sorenson: "The answer that I gave my Facebook fans who were shocked that I joined Twitter: I embody the paradox of scoffing at silly forms of technology while actually succumbing to them. I don't expect it to perform any miracles, but in these tough economic times, a cartoonist needs to try everything."

Trudeau, meanwhile, suggests tweeting is a fad. "After we get through the pet-rock stage, I think you'll see a lot of people abandoning it."

Several weeks into his social experiment, Bryan Brinkman is feeling the power of tweeting, fad or not. His follower total has been hovering at more than 30,000, putting him in the Top 300 in the Twitterverse.

"I've been able to use this opportunity to not only expose myself to a mass crowd, but promote other artists and things that I enjoy," Brinkman says. "Now I have a vast audience for my opinions, and that is really all I could hope for. . . . It's the kind of promotion an independent artist dreams of."

To follow Comic Riffs blogger Michael Cavna, go to Twitter.com/comicriffs.

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