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Thinking! Hard! About the How and Why of Making Webcomics [Apr. 12th, 2007|09:21 pm]
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I should be drawing, but I started thinking about a general philosophy for making webcomics and blogging and squeezed it out mostly so I'd have it written down.

It's seven points and about a trillion words, so no offense if you don't read it. I put it in Lj for those of you who prefer to comment here.



I should be drawing right now, but I started reflecting on how DS is just about to hit its seventh birthday and started writing down a ton of things I've learned since the long-lost era of the year 2000. I think a lot of these points apply to blogs as well as comics. I hope you find them useful and feel free to comment on them!

WARNING! A WHOLE LOT OF WORDS WHICH ARE PRETTY MUCH JUST COMMON SENSE FOLLOW:

******

1.) Consistency counts.

The most important thing in writing a comic strip is realizing exactly why you're doing it. You shouldn't be doing this to show off how awesome your Photoshop skills are. You shouldn't invent a comic strip simply to make money off it. Readers will see through you like a naughty freeze-frame of Jessica Rabbit's "special hutch."

You're here for the audience. People should be able to count on your being there for them when you say you're going to be there. Life is annoying, uncertain and full of problems. Comic strips exist to give comfort, make people think and generally help them get through their day/week/geological epoch.

Stick to your schedule and do your best. Your audience will quietly appreciate you and help you out when you need it. If you work out some personal issues and make yourself feel better for creating something, all the better.

2.) Know your characters.

Every time someone draws their first comic with a script similar to what I've typed below, a kitten loses its wings. (we are assuming this is some kind of Chimera Kitten made by Science)

Panel 1: LOL! HELLO, I SURE AM A CHARACTER IN A COMIC STRIP.
Panel 2: LOL! SO AM I! IT SURE IS AWESOME BEING IN OUR VERY OWN COMIC STRIP!
Panel 3: ... (awkward looks towards camera) ...
Panel 4: I DON'T HAVE ANY IDEAS/WHERE'S MY SCRIPT/THIS ISN'T MY JOB/OH, THAT LAZY WRITER/WE'LL BE FUNNY TOMORROW, I PROMISE!

That joke was clever once. It was the 1960s. Everyone was high.

3.) Comics want to be free.

I know at least a dozen professional webcartoonists. None of them charge for access to their comics. This business isn't porn, it's more like public broadcasting. Freely available work with options for readers to show their support is what has been proven to work.

If people can't easily see your work now, how the heck are they ever going to get attached to it? Tear down the wall, you can't eat your pudding if you don't eat your meat, etc./ad nauseum.

4.) Don't be afraid to sell stuff.

Honestly, none of us is Bill Watterson. Merchandise doesn't "dilute the purity of your art" if it's well thought-out, reasonably priced and helps you to quit your day job in order to spend more timing making comics. Nobody can force you to make anything horrible, so there's no rational reason to be ashamed of selling stuff you like!

Conversely- don't sell crap, don't overproduce and don't be pissy if people "don't buy enough."

5.) Flexibility matters!

I learned the hard way recently that people want comics the way they want them. I built a new RSS feed to contain all my strips and news posts and formatted it to contain links to strips instead of embedded images. A hundred trillion "why can't I see the comic in the feed?" emails later, I started putting them inline. Everyone's happy and hundreds more people see the strips the moment they update every day.

The moral of the story? Make it easy for people to read your comics! Email lists, Wii portals, mobile sites, RSS feeds, Myspace updates, Livejournal feeds ... figure out where your readers hang out and become part of the landscape.

6.) Keep an eye towards TEH FUTAR.

Seven years ago, there very little spam email, no such thing as social networking sites and Paypal was esoteric. Nowadays, that stuff is commonplace. New highways are popping up everywhere. You want to build your little mini-mall near a couple of major roads and put up some signs!

Facebook, Digg, Twitter, Comicspace, Stumbleupon, and a billion other organic systems are swirling around us as we speak. Put yourself out there and let the current take you places!

People flow through these networks and you can be found without having to pay for advertising or do a "hard sell." You can still get this effect by posting on BBSes and messageboards, but that's no reason to avoid new methods which people are excited about.

Think about how much candy gets bought and how many headlines are seen because they're near the cash register at the grocery store. Be Bat-Boy, Brangelina or Bubblicious.

7.) There are always new readers out there.

I have a theory about why webcomics readers have not become a (semi) static group like comic book fans, indie kids or fine artists. There's no one place that controls all the webcomics. We don't have a (mostly) single-distributor system like comic books. There are no monolithic organizations "representing" the artists and writers like in TV or film. There is very little scholarly work on webcomics as a unified whole.

You have no idea how lucky we are.

Every comic has an audience, whether it's ten people or ten Google-zillion people. A huge chunk of these various audiences don't know that your comic even exists, but they are already comics readers. A subtle nudge is probably all it would take for them to try out your strip. Trading links or recommendations with other artists, maintaining an informative blog or simply buying an ad can lead to lots of new readers.

Which leads us right back to point one- the more people you find to entertain, the more important it is to be consistent and enjoy this cool thing that you get to do.

******

Obligatory buttons: digg this


LinkReply

Comments:
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-13 01:50 am (UTC)

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then share 'em and make your comic! HOORAY
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: lunarworks
2007-04-13 03:30 am (UTC)

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I've had the seeds of a comic (non-web, more like O'Malley's stuff) in my head since about October 1997.

Unfortunately, I'm lazy, have a short attention span, and lack awesome drawing skills. (The laziness plays into the inability to develop awesome drawing skills.)


One of these days I need to compile my thoughts in hard form...
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-13 03:42 am (UTC)

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Huh, you sound exactly like me.
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-13 03:37 am (UTC)

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When I got started on DS, I was working and whatnot fulltime- I just HAD to try and do something for myself, so I gave up stuff like goofing around and watching TV.
[User Picture]From: bsting
2007-04-13 08:03 pm (UTC)

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The best advice for any project, whether it be comics, art, music, building a site, redecorate your house, installing your very own webserver, etc. is simply:

make time

This sounds really stupid and obvious, but it's true. Look at what you do daily. Keep a log of what you do every hour for a week. Take a long hard look at it and think of what you absolutely *must* do, what you absolutely *want* to do and what you do in between those two. If you feel you're working too much to have time for it, see if you can work less (can you live on less money?). Or see if you can cut down on things like rstevens mentioned. Or if all else fails, accept that you have to trade in hanging out with friends every evening in favour of a few evenings per week.

Time will unfortunately not open itself up by itself, if you're someone like me who keeps in squeezing other fun stuff in every nook and cranny in my schedule.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-14 05:17 am (UTC)

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if it was easy, everyone would do it!
[User Picture]From: gemini6ice
2007-04-13 05:01 am (UTC)

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just nudge #3 to "art wants to be free" and #7 to "there is always more audience out there," and your 7 pillars apply to a lot more media: online (fan-)fiction, art not in comic form, viraldeos, podcasts, etc.

These very good observations do not apply only to webcomics, and almost every example you've given has an analogous example in each other medium.
[User Picture]From: tombrazelton
2007-04-13 01:48 am (UTC)

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The funny thing about these points - and I agree with all of them - is that I've had a crisis of faith over each one of them at some point in my 5 year "career."

What can I say? They're spot-on observations. There's certainly something to be said about advising creators just starting out. But there's also something to be said about learning for yourself.

Keep Richard's tips in your back pocket, kids. And when they happen to you say "Dammit, he was right!"
[User Picture]From: bodhidave
2007-04-13 01:56 am (UTC)

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Fantastic. Printed!

As someone seriously getting prepared to start a webcomic, this is just what I need. Yes, I know it's cliche to say that. Shoosh!
From: speedglow
2007-04-13 01:56 am (UTC)

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"Tear down the wall, you can't eat your pudding if you don't eat your meat, etc./ad nauseum."

So random lol.

Good points, and it's always good to get things off your chest =)
(Deleted comment)
From: speedglow
2007-04-13 03:25 am (UTC)

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Yeah I got the reference after a second, lol.
[User Picture]From: tiny_monster
2007-04-13 02:14 am (UTC)

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This is great! I very much agree. I get a bit tired of webcomic people complaining (why do I bother, I'll never make money, I work so hard and no-one appreciates me). I am so excited and grateful that people want to look at something I made!

One thing I love about making webcomics is that a lot of the people who read my comics would never walk into a comic shop. (I don't blame them.) Webcomics really are for a wide and varied audience, which is why we should be open-minded about what they want!
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-13 03:36 am (UTC)

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"One thing I love about making webcomics is that a lot of the people who read my comics would never walk into a comic shop."

Ab-ab-ab-AB-ABSOLUTELY true. I think that's a big advantage to webcomics.
[User Picture]From: intimations
2007-04-13 02:20 am (UTC)

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The great thing about this list is that it isn't only applicable to webcomics, but also easily adaptable to any kind of web-based business. It's basically a map to the sweet spot between doing something for love and doing it for success. :) Good stuff!
[User Picture]From: almagill
2007-04-13 02:39 am (UTC)

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Sage words. Printed and stuck to the wall above my monitor.

Along with the "write a thousand words today" promise from when I was going to write The Novel...

[User Picture]From: bsting
2007-04-13 08:05 pm (UTC)

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Actually I noticed half of the points work for beginning musicians as well. And yeah a lot of them are common sense, but it's good to write those kind of reminders down.
From: pvenables
2007-04-13 02:51 am (UTC)

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Well put. Thanks for saying things that need to be said.
From: milfordknisley
2008-10-09 05:04 pm (UTC)

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Wish I had the talent for saying things as well as you do, but God does know my heart. Thanks for sharing your heart.
[User Picture]From: heroprotagonist
2007-04-13 03:08 am (UTC)

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I hope that many many people link to this and read it! Very wise words!
[User Picture]From: nadreck
2007-04-13 05:00 am (UTC)

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This is an excellent commentary, and I agree with each of your points. Since I KNOW this is going to end up being passed around and blogged and such, I'll get in on this early: point number 4, spend more timing should be spend more time.

I'm definitely going to be linking to this.

It's kind of interesting how many comics I know essentially did #2 in your example, or a variant thereof, but managed to improve and do something. I won't dun a comic for getting its legs, but if you know it's a trope, avoid it!
[User Picture]From: nadreck
2007-04-13 05:02 am (UTC)

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Wow, the grammar in that last line sucked:

"It's kind of interesting how many comics I know of that essentially did the example in #2, or a variant thereof, but managed to continue on and improve, and actually do something with the comic."
[User Picture]From: gemini6ice
2007-04-13 05:03 am (UTC)

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Or cleverly spin it into something new. For example, having the first comic start with that horrid non-example but then have the REAL characters come in and mow them down or something.
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-13 01:43 pm (UTC)

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i hate that cliche so much, you'd need to include $100 in any clever attempt to subvert it!
From: reneilssance_42
2007-04-16 06:40 pm (UTC)

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What about when Kris Straub had Chex do it? Given that Chex was meant to be a satire of that kind of thing.
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-16 06:43 pm (UTC)

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got links? i'm vaguely familiar with what you mean, but specifics never hurt.
[User Picture]From: alexjeffries
2007-04-13 05:31 am (UTC)

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This gives me faith in restarting an old webcomic of mine.

I will implement these thoughts into making it the best darn piece of pie webcomic I can make.


<3 R. Stevens. <3 <3 <3.
[User Picture]From: morbid_o
2007-04-13 02:04 pm (UTC)

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8.) Your old readers may one day become cyborgs, and defend your comic against the legions of the apocalypse.




Yknow, just...putting that out there. Excellent post, and without much abstraction it applies to much more than comics/webcomics.
[User Picture]From: mmsophia
2007-04-13 03:29 pm (UTC)

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What he said. I follow most of those, although I'm not into merchandising, yet. (I'd love to have someone develop MM action figures, though, but that's far, far in the future, probably.) But t-shirts wouldn't be hard. Hmmm.---Al
From: perma_boy
2007-04-18 12:04 pm (UTC)

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Hooray! Al Schroeder III again! I keep bumping into you on the internet! (In case you were wondering, I'm also Permanus on the Superman Through the Ages website.)
[User Picture]From: mmsophia
2007-04-18 01:01 pm (UTC)

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I'm all over the place, so I'm not surprised---good to see you HERE too, though.--Al
[User Picture]From: p_x_l
2007-04-13 03:32 pm (UTC)

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thumbs up, dude.

i have some kind of related stuff i want to email you about and so i think i will do that today. yes!
[User Picture]From: bsting
2007-04-13 08:06 pm (UTC)

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P.S. Great choice in music.
[User Picture]From: diablochicken
2007-04-14 02:11 am (UTC)

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Ssh! Someone might listen to you and become successful. What are you thinking?
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-14 03:03 am (UTC)

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but imagine how much i can sue them for if they rip me off!
[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2007-04-16 11:52 pm (UTC)

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There are some good points in this essay, but I take issue with some of them--

4.) Don't be afraid to sell stuff.

Honestly, none of us is Bill Watterson. Merchandise doesn't "dilute the purity of your art" if it's well thought-out, reasonably priced and helps you to quit your day job in order to spend more timing making comics. Nobody can force you to make anything horrible, so there's no rational reason to be ashamed of selling stuff you like!


I don't think that webcomics creators are actually afraid of making money or that they don't want to see some sort of profit from their works, but at the same time, not every comic needs to produce merchandise.

Not every comic lends itself to merchandising. Not every comic produces a punchline every week that lends itself to being printed on hipsters' t-shirts. Not every webcartoonist wants to spend his free time finding the most cost-effective place to produce coffee mugs that are going to clutter up his apartment while he spends the next several years making trips to the post office twice a week to fill orders.

There's something to be said for just wanting to make a comic and not spend any time thinking about where all the money's going to come from, isn't there? I'm sure that there are hundreds of reasons apart from "diluting the purity of your art" that someone wouldn't want to get into selling merchandise.

3.) Comics want to be free.

I know at least a dozen professional webcartoonists. None of them charge for access to their comics. This business isn't porn, it's more like public broadcasting. Freely available work with options for readers to show their support is what has been proven to work.

If people can't easily see your work now, how the heck are they ever going to get attached to it? Tear down the wall, you can't eat your pudding if you don't eat your meat, etc./ad nauseum.


There seems to be no reason to include this warning whatsoever, unless you're taking potshots at the original business model of the Modern Tales family of websites or the model that some of the major newspaper strip syndicates are using for access to their older material.

No one who's just starting out is charging money for access to his comics, and I only know of a handful of solo artists who are going the "money for full access" route, so there's not any reason to rail against it.

And for the record, plenty of people got attached to the comics that were on Modern Tales, whether they paid money for the archives or not. It's a popular central location for comics, the newest content was always free for every comic posted on the site (and the majority of the content there is completely free now), and pretty much every artist there benefitted from the added exposure that they got from posting their work there and from the connections that they made with other artists on the site.

Putting your work out there for free and getting enough readers that you can sell advertising or sell enough t-shirts and mousepads is one way of making money that's been proven to work, sure. That doesn't mean it's the only way. James Kochalka, Michael Jantze and Shaenon Garrity all did well with the subscription model (and Kochalka and Jantze are still going that route and making decent money from it), so it's hardly impossible.
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-17 12:09 am (UTC)

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Is anyone making a living purely off subscription webcomics? I'm not asking to be argumentative, I'm just not aware of a single person doing so. If they exist, I wanna ask them questions!

***

As far as merch goes, most of the people who choose not to do it choose instead to have a day job or to do freelance. It's all a personal choice, but my personality lends itself towards merchandising with free reign over what I draw rather than spending a lot of my time in an office and/or pleasing clients. Everything's a trade off.

It would be pretty awesome if other people wrote their top seven points and used this as a jumping off point to discuss their own setups!

***

I really hope nobody took this as a pot-shot or a personal attack. Not if they intend to be artists who release work to the public.
[User Picture]From: shishiolio
2007-04-17 12:33 pm (UTC)

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I think James Kolchaka makes a living from his journal comic American Elf.

- Shishio
[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-17 01:20 pm (UTC)

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he does a lot of other stuff on the side, though.
[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2007-04-18 12:12 am (UTC)

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Most cartoonists have more than one job to pay the bills, though, even if it's closely related to the cartooning work. I don't know very many cartoonists who don't have at least a few side projects that help pay the rent in addition to their cartooning.

Hope I didn't sound too argumentative earlier, but I know enough people who've made decent money through the subscription model (versus the zero-to-negative money they earned without it) that I felt like at least chiming in on the subject.

[User Picture]From: shishiolio
2007-04-17 02:25 pm (UTC)

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I know, but I thought he made enough from American Elf to live strictly off that if he wanted. At least, I remember reading an article about him that said or implied that.

Of course, it's entirely possible that my memory has failed me.

Shishio
[User Picture]From: ericmonster
2007-04-17 04:37 pm (UTC)

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Regarding #2: That script is awesome! let me know if you're ever looking for an artist to collaborate with.

Regarding #3 and #4: I'm not sure why "Don't be afraid to sell stuff" wouldn't allow people to stop being afraid of selling comics. I'd much rather sell comics and artwork than t-shirts. No offense intended toward any fashion designers, just my personal preference.

Regarding #6: Comicspace is for losers!

Sincerely,
Eric

http://www.comicspace.com/ericm/
[User Picture]From: pcweenies
2007-04-17 05:48 pm (UTC)

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Spot on article, R! BTW, we've never met or traded any e-mails as such before - but I wanted to say 'Congrats on your syndication deal!' :)

[User Picture]From: rstevens
2007-04-17 06:03 pm (UTC)

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Perhaps we should, then! You've been in this game almost as long as I have.
[User Picture]From: pcweenies
2007-04-17 06:15 pm (UTC)

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Absolutely! I'd really like that.

I've pointed my readers to your article in the hopes it will serve to educate and inspire others. Your article has already inspired me: I'm using my LiveJournal once again to reach out to readers who prefer that format.
[User Picture]From: dryponder
2007-04-18 12:47 am (UTC)

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EXCELLENT post, dude. And #2 nearly made me fall over laughing.

I think I drew one of those in high school.
[User Picture]From: bunnyman_
2007-04-20 01:32 am (UTC)

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Thanx for the pointers, I will keep them in mind next update (: