Thinking! Hard! About the How and Why of Making Webcomics
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.