Friday, April 18, 2008

The One Lesson Every Webcomic Creator Must Learn

First off, a confession: Webcomics make me sick.

Actually, let me rephrase that. I like having a webcomic, drawing a webcomic, starting a fandom for it, bringing my characters to life . . . so in actuality, my webcomic keeps me healthy. It's the way other people treat their webcomics that makes me sick, makes me want to stop reading, makes me furious for ever liking their comic to begin with... and believe it or not, it makes me even MORE upset than the average reader of such a comic, because it makes my job that much more difficult.

So, please, if you have a comic . . . for my sake and everyone else's, learn this:


This is not optional. If you want to stand ANY chance of going anywhere in webcomics -- and I don't care if anywhere is becoming DC/Marvel's lapdog, or printing your book, or even just making a little money on the side -- you need to learn this.

Ask any fan of webcomics, and they all have a story about how they were "burned" by less scrupulous artists: either their idols were a little too rude to a fan or three at a convention, online drama erupted that somehow managed to become part of the folklore of the site, they slowed down to the point nobody knew when the story was going to pick up again, or even (God Forbid!) they stopped working on the comic just before the story was about to end.

Yes, creating content about your stories, crafting beautiful panels and imagery, organizing your website for appropriate content . . . this is all important, perhaps even necessary. In spite of this, so many people seem to forget that starting a comic (especially one that contains a story) is supposed to be a general contract between an artist that they will do what they can to tell the story, and in turn readers will reward the artist for this with patronage and profits. Stop the story before it's done (or before you can at least bring it to a satisfying conclusion), you break the contract. Give people what they wanted all along, and you'll be a hero for it.

Difficult? Sure . . . but at the same time, for every person who makes a great-looking comic they can't continue, there's an artist struggling against this stereotype that webcomics are not "serious" ventures -- that they're made to be abandoned as soon as the artist lands a real job / turns sixteen / loses their virginity. I can't tell you how many times people have told me they're so shocked that a once-a-week comic could actually captivate and keep them panting for the next page just like a daily comic . . .

. . . and this is without including the fact my father told me over lunch at MomoCon how impressed he was with what I was doing, since most comics that fail tend to crap out around the hundred-strip point.

Yes, I know I'm only up to 80 pages right now, but it only underscores how ridiculously low the bar is set for webcomics.

(EDIT: As of July 8, 2008, I'm about to reach the hundred-strip point, and I'm starting to see WHY folks crap out. Yeesh.)

It's not my fault that people have these expectations about webcomics and are shocked to find a comic where, somehow, it manages to do simple things like help the reader find all the information they want, updates when it says it does, and god forbid, doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. And as much as I would be justified naming a few especially bad examples of this, even among popular, "successful" webcomics . . . if there's one thing I actually find relevant from reading about people like Judith Butler in class, it's that expectations like this come from only one thing: sedimentation.

(And yes, I'm as shocked as you are that I somehow managed to relate a feminist philosopher to a rant about webcomics. My apologies. I'll try harder in the future not to drag my schoolwork into the blog.)

One thing stacks on top of everything else and continues ad infinitum until it becomes accepted. Every Dead Piro Day, every Guest Comic, every Filler update, every "I swear I'll update in a few weeks!" post . . . it all adds up to this expectation that webcomics are unreliable, and damn it, sooner or later everyone decides this is just how webcomics work.

The only way to fix it is to start becoming reliable, and realizing that if you expect to survive off the generosity of others, you damn well better give them something for it. Maybe not necessarily what they want (though it helps), but at least what you say you'll give 'em. Of course, there's more than reliability involved, but it's far and away the most obvious show of respect. The next trick, of course, is how to make it clear to new readers that you have their best interests at heart too.

If you're willing to do what you can to help, I don't have all the answers up yet (though here are some steps in the right direction), but that's easily fixed with a little bit of time... and a subscription to the RSS feed, if you're not already on it.

You owe it to yourself. You owe it to your readers. You don't have to put them before your own health or anything crazy; but you do have to remember that they're here for you because you offer them something special.

Don't blow it.

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At April 19, 2008 at 12:08 AM , Blogger JK said...

There is a term used for putting content out on the Internet, the term is publishing. The promise of the Internet is that it creates a level playing field when it comes to communication. The publisher can be an individual or a large entity. And there is not any reason that the reader needs to care about the identity of the publisher. Of course this is a blessing and a curse because the validity and accuracy of the published content is fundamentally unknown.

When it comes to entertainment in the form of a web comic, validity and accuracy of content doesn't matter as it would in an informational piece. But what does matter is the commitment of the publisher to their work. Unfortunately as you clearly stated many would be creators don't understand the level of responsibility associated with the commitment in which they freely engage. There is no professional code or ethic involved in Internet publishing. It is a freedom of expression open to anyone, and as expected that means a large percentage of publishers are too casual with this privilege.

Ultimately though only those publishers who act professionally and honor their commitments are rewarded by gathering and maintaining an audience. And even then, there are no guarantees that they will continue to be successful unless they continue to provide quality entertainment. So although it is sad that so many people abuse the opportunity, it doesn't truely diminish the opportunity, it just makes for a lot of noise that has to be overcome by those who want to have their work discovered; and ultimately it makes the audience that much more appreciative of the gems they uncover.

At April 19, 2008 at 1:10 PM , Blogger foxofmanytales said...

Thank you.

At April 19, 2008 at 8:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh wow.

I definitely agree with your posting there. It’s so frustrating to get wrapped up in a world only to find it abandoned with it becomes an inconvenience , or the other myriad of reasons.

With being close to some online drama where a community decided to get closed down because the founder was “tired of dealing with it and it became too much of a hustle,” there is nothing more annoying than a creator to pull the plug on a fan base because they felt like it.

It’s something I’ve taken to heart with my own creation, granted it’s more in the CCG area than the webcomic arena. The same thing holds true in other genre’s too. I am glad that you put that info out there, and I appreciate it!

There is an old adage that I remember, “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” Sure you can make a coming or community or game or whatever it is but if you don’t have the professionalism to see it through to the end or over into hard times then you should not. As one of the other comments said and I whole heartedly agree, most individuals don’t understand the level of commitment involved in putting something up for a general audience to interact with.

Again that’s for making that point pretty clear!

Ps. As someone that has come to really enjoy the comic, thank you for making such a great world to delve into!

At April 22, 2008 at 6:57 PM , Blogger Rachel Keslensky said...

I do what I can.

Unfortunately there's no good shortcut for making sure a comic is worth its salt except time, and lots of it. I do what I can to counter the "usual" expectations but the instant I find a good answer on how to counter the experience factor...

At April 25, 2008 at 3:06 PM , Blogger Rob said...

While his sense of humor or the gaming culture references are a sometimes little too obscure for me,
I think Scott Johnson ExtraLife does a credible job overall.

At April 27, 2008 at 5:27 PM , Blogger Rachel Keslensky said...

Eh, Extra life's not my type of comic, but whatever suits you. :) He certainly seems to have a good archive going for him.

At April 27, 2008 at 11:42 PM , Blogger Rob said...

Rachel, sometimes ExtraLife's not my type of comic either, although I do enjoy it more often than not.

But my main point is that Scott seems to involve & listen to his readers, being ever-mindful that they're what keeps him in digital ink & paper...


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