If you’ve being following my brain explosions so far you’ve read that I believe digital comics could achieve the breadth and success of the Pulp Era with new digital delivery systems and the cheaper distribution they allow. That a diverse audience is already supporting genre fiction in droves, and allowing new creators to make a living from their work in Self Published fiction via Amazon.
But there’s been one part of the equation missing: diverse comic content, from a range of creators, of all ages, of all genders, from all over the world. The solution is called webcomics – you might have heard of them, heck you’re reading this blog on my webcomic site. But there’s a problem.
… but there’s a problem…
This thought experiment will discuss the pros and cons of webcomics, what they can add to the equation, and what’s stopping them from changing the collective fortune of the Comics medium for the better.
First, here’s why webcomics are awesome…
1) No permission necessary
There are no gatekeepers or taste police on the internets. Anyone with an internet connection and a few bucks can jump online and express themselves. This can lead to an unsavoury and extreme place filled with trolls and dickwolves, but it sure leads to a diverse neighbourhood. You can create a site about anything – like these people who point or this running tally of gay slander on twitter even though most of us just use it to stalk other people’s cats.
2) Low Barrier to entry
Putting webcomics online requires a rudimentary understanding of computers, the internet, websites and image editing software. Knowing how to draw is just a bonus. It’s cheap too, both to publish online comics, and to read them. WordPress/Comicpress, some hosting and registration and you’re away. Welcome to the vast wilderness of the web, now you just have to stick with it while no one notices.
3) Reader-Creator Communication
Making stuff is hard. Making stuff when you know for a fact that everyone is cat-stalking in preference to reading your genius comic is worse (thanks Google Analytics). That’s why the occasional message from the people who *are* reading your work really helps out a webcomic, and helps weirder, niche work get over the ‘nobody cares’ hump. This is more important than people realise, and I imagine a lot of today’s well regarded work would have been abandoned ten times over if not for the occasional encouraging word from readers.
What all this adds up to is that almost anybody can create anything, for everybody else. No niche too small, we have the diversity and content to take over the world!
Diversity people, diversity.
Sounds good right? What could be better? Well, let us suppose that webcomics like mine are doing it all wrong/hard/slow.
So here are the challenges that stop webcomics from taking over the world (puts on flak jacket).
1) It’s a format for snacking, not eating
When people think webcomics,they think gag strips – short, self-contained mini stories that exist as a single page and are released in a series, often weekly or daily. It’s basically Garfield on the internet, but with more creators, trying more interesting things (eg XKCD Loading Artist ). These are the comics that blow up on tumblr, facebook and sites like Reddit. People share it, people get it, and people share it again. A good gag gets fans, consistently good gags build an empire.
… longer form, plot-based genre work is harder to share, harder to define and less pleasant to read …
Work like Moth City, Space Mullet and Sin Titulo are not so easily digestible. Longer form, plot-based genre work is harder to share, harder to define and less pleasant to read on a computer.
The middle ground is a smart use of both forms, resulting in a successful format of a lot of webcomics – short, self-contained humor strips that link together to form long story arcs with characters you grow to know. Come for the gags, stay for the story with PVP, EXO Comics and Girls with Slingshots.
2) Every comic forms its own isolated culture
No one wants to be judged by some fictional ‘Simpsons Comic Book Guy’. Webcomics are great because they create communities of like-minded people interested in similar topics and genres. Whatever you’re into, there’s a webcomic for you. If they get big enough, fans can support a creator’s work and enable them to keep producing work. But there’s less cross over, and cross pollination than we need.
Oh and the ‘Cream Rises to the Top/Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You/Build it and They Will Come’ mythology is a nice idea, but success is rarer than we would like to admit. It’s rare, because it’s really, really hard to do, and it’s based on two dangerous ideas – Free (consistent free product)and Active (consistent updates) which I go into below.
3) Stephen King is not a Hamster
Free (read as much as you like, for free, forever) and Active (make an appointment and come back every week for fresh content) is not a good business model. And lest we get itchy about mixing business and ‘capital A’ art, let me re-phrase and say ‘it is not a sustainable business model for comic creators.’ The pressure to update every week, or even every day, and to offer more and more free content to readers is an arms race for readers that hurts creators.
The longer that webcomics exist as a format the harder creators are supposed to push themselves, the more they’re supposed to give and the less they’re supposed to ask for in return. To mix metaphors, it’s like an arms race to the bottom of the barrel.
… it’s like an arms race to the bottom of the barrel…
And what if you’ve been publishing a webcomic for 5 years, written and published hundreds of strips, have built up a business and an audience who likes your work and you stop? You try and jump off that hamster wheel? Bye bye page views, bye bye advertising, bye bye traffic. Webcomics (when they even create cash flow) create active income, like someone who works at a toll booth, you leave the toll booth and you leave the money. Oh, and expect to work in the toll booth for free for the first two years before you get paid.
EDIT: After discussions on twitter, a slot machine might be a better example of the default Webcomic Start Up strategy. Keep that bum on the chair, keep trying new strips (coin), publish (lever), hope (same). Worry about leaving the chair lest the next strip hit the jackpot.
Conversely, fiction writers also work for free for a long time, and that’s also taking a gamble on themselves. But afterwards, they hand that work to someone else to sell and go do something else. Writing fiction is all about passive income via royalties. Write good work, publish and market, gain an audience. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Go for a walk, get paid. Go to the mall, get paid. Don’t publish a book for a few years, get paid royalties for your older work.
The best writers in world, people with sales in the hundreds of thousands could stop work tomorrow and be ok. The best webcomic creators, those with readerships of hundreds of thousands – I’m guessing notsomuch… no updates, no income.
Do you need to be Stephen King? No. There are heaps of people making decent money off their self-published genre fiction, and they can’t even draw goods.
4) I am not Disney Co.
Webcomic business advice is all about branding. Brand your webcomic, brand yourself, brand your characters, consider a catch phrase. Think about the colours of your website and how they relate to your core audience. Sell some t-shirts, make a badge, sell some advertising, market yourself. Social media, social media, social media!
But dear lord, whatever you do, don’t try and charge anyone for your actual comic.
… we’re not companies, we’re writers and artists of comics…
One of the many obvious problems with this approach is that we’re not companies, we’re writers and artists of comics. Here’s what we do well: characters, dialogue and story. Trying to compete with the marketing, branding and sales department of major corporations is outside of our pay grade. How many disciplines does this branding solution require? How many Jenga blocks can we add to this wobbly tower to success? How many can we really do well? And how on earth do we, as individuals, find out where things might be going wrong if our ‘brand’ hasn’t taken off?
Maybe it’s my logo? My call to action? My SEO? My Project Wonderful ad campaign? My synergy?
F*ck synergy, let’s leave that to the ten person Sub-Committee of Communications and Merchandise at Disney. We are creators, we should be creating, and selling our work to readers. Let’s find ways to leverage the 99.999999% percent of the digital marketplace that isn’t our own website to sell our work and support our endeavors.
NEXT POST: I try and bring it all together again with –gasp– more presumptuous and uniformed ideas. Meanwhile, enjoy this funny/depressing strip by Gregor over at LoadingArtist.com