Thursday, September 4, 2008

How to Make What Kind of Comics??

Above is an array of panels from comics by the three members of HalfPixel who work in black and white: Scott Kurtz, Kris Straub and Dave Kellett. Some are new, some are from well established strips, and some are retired strips.

From the top: Kris Straub's Checkerboard Nightmare, Kurtz' Samwise, Straub's F Chords, Kurtz' PvP, Straub's Chainsaw Suit, Dave Kellett's Sheldon, and Straub's Starslip Crisis.

The lesson here is that three-quarters of the team that brought us How to Make Webcomics works simple, frequent, and black & white.

If you've read the book, you'll recall that the lesson is: do a great webcomic, build an audience, then follow the business model of making a living off merchandise, art sales, reprint collections and ad revenue. Recently, income from distribution to hand-held devices has added another potential opportunity.

The book sticks pretty closely to the business experiences of the authors, and doesn't offer the multiple case studies of competing books. I've been an entrepreneur for many years, and I thought it would be interesting to take a few years off, focus on our comics, and test the model. My wife and I draw the comics anyway. Why not see what is to be learned by placing them online?

This afternoon I found myself playing with Stumble Upon, a page came up for F Chords comic, and I had an insight. I opened more HalfPixel comics, and realized this work is indisputably from the newspaper syndicate school of cartooning. Not some of it-- all of it. The liberties offered by digital distribution are exploited as business options, not artistic ones.

This raises a provocative question: Is there something they forgot to tell us?

The answer: Not at all. Every chapter pertaining to character and background and strip design draws heavily from their own work, so of course, what they recommend looks like their own work. Somehow, in all the times I have pulled out the book, I failed to note that How to Make Web Comics is about making comics that have little resemblance to 95% of webcomics. "How to Make Comic Strips for the Web" might have been a more accurate title.

The unspoken truth is, We draw like this because this gives the most bang for the buck.

If I went to art school, I would know this. In fact, I'm sure these comments will come as no news to my wife.

Careful readers are able to distinguish that this piece is not about the appeal or polish, or lack of either, that some people find in the HalfPixel titles. It's not about any attempt to deceive readers of How to Make Webcomics, either. It's more of a karmic misunderstanding that somehow didn't appear in any of the reviews I saw, or get discussed on any podcasts.

The implications of this misunderstanding for anyone relying on the book for guidance are substantial, assuming I am not the only one slow to catch on. It means that everything about the book's business model is subject to rethinking by anyone doing anything different from what American newspaper readers have been consuming for the last four decades. It's true that these gentlemen's work can run edgier than what newspapers allow, but that's the main difference, and that explains why family-friendly Sheldon is also carried by United Media, the syndicate that brought you Calvin & Hobbes.

Since we do a short form comic and a long form comic, both in color, my wife and I will get two shots at refining the business model for webcomics, if we find an audience and we don't blunder.* Perhaps only modest changes from the HalfPixel plan will suffice. Perhaps there will turn out to be a dramatically different formula -- or worse, no formula at all.

There are plenty of established webcomic artists making money, to a degree. Some have print editions coming out: soon we'll see the Achewood book and Perry Bible Fellowship, Volume 2. Some do a lot of business in merchandise. Some have no intention of quitting their other jobs. Unfortunately, none of them are opening themselves up to competition by writing how-to books for the 95% of us who could benefit. A few, like the Foglios of Girl Genius, have been more open, cordially fielding questions at conventions, but that doesn't mean that the bulk of comicdom has access to the institutional knowledge on the medium's most pressing questions.

The path will remain murky, with occasional insights and discoveries. All to be reported here.

*Often only the passage of time confirms a blunder. Was setting one comic in Russia a blunder? Was allowing foreign accents in the other a blunder? One has a tiny cast, the other rivals The Simpsons. Blunders? How about using animals and supernatural beings instead of people, a few celebrities excepted? Or building gags around philosophical themes? What would you think if a prominent intellectual was baffled by your strip, but freely told you he thinks Dilbert is terrific? I like to write light and deep at the same time, so that our work will reward re-readings, like my favorite bound collections. A blunder for the web? Someone, please, start a blog and address these questions.