Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Webcomic Success: Qualities that Seem to Matter

Yesterday's post about the shortcomings of the dominant webcomic business model brought a lot of useful discussion, but it left some things unanswered. One of the unanswered issues was something I left out due to space considerations.

I am not the first to suggest that the "How to Make Webcomics" book favors black and white gag-a-day type strips that appear 5-7 times/week. I wrote this post about it, and at the time I had not attempted to assess whether the advice was right. Brad Guigar was kind enough to discuss it with me, but his position was pretty much the same as the book.

As a byproduct of analyzing the strips that claim to be succeeding, I noted what types of strips they are. We already know the "success list" is faulty, including strips that qualify and some that don't, but I can't selectively pluck out the impostors without embarrassing them. Instead we'll pull out a fairly random batch and call them "a list of comics that includes a lot of successful ones."

We find:

Long form color 4
Short form color 8
Short form B&W 4 (the HalfPixel model)
Long Form B&W 3
Short form mixed (e.g., one color highlight) 1
Single panel B&W 1
Single Panel Color 1
B&W weekdays/weekend color 1
Mixed media color 3

Genre (Titles qualifying in multiple categories are counted more than once)

Science Fiction 2
Fantasy 4
Humor 13
Gaming/ Pop culture 4
Manga 1
Horror 1
Romance 1
Politics 1
Adventure 1
Sprite 1
Autobiographical 1
Real life/exaggerated real life 4

This is a very small sample, and a larger census is needed. As you can see, short form black and white does not dominate. Nor does one genre dominate, although most strips feel it is necessary to include humor.

What this preliminary information tells me is that what matters is to be distinctive. There have to be break-out qualities about a comic, and that doesn't mean noodling around on the homepage with the scroll brush from Photoshop.

Allow me to speculate what makes some of these titles break-outs. PvP combines the vast gaming audience with the dynamic personality of Scott Kurtz. Dinosaur Comics uses the same art every day, making you wonder, How long can he keep this up? And everyone likes artist/entrepreneur Ryan North, who I understand is taller than all of us put together. Girl Genius started in print, the art is fantastic especially given the frequent update schedule, a two-person team adds dynamics and quality control and it feels like a real comic book on the web. Add the "gas lamp" atmosphere, and Agatha is a stand-out. My take on Questionable Content won't please everyone, but I note the audience is disproportionately female and the characters all look how we looked when we were 17, and how many of us would like to look now. It's got romance and adventure: this is not your mother's Harlequin. John Allison's Scary Go Round should have a lot more readers than it does -- that's the scary part. The art is perhaps the most distinctive aspect, but the atmosphere counts. Order of the Stick stands out as the most elaborate "stickman" comic. Dresden Codak seems to inspire strong reactions -- never a bad thing. There is a tantalizing flavor to Aaron Diaz's best art, and a built-in challenge for some readers to be able to follow the happenings. It's not the most distinctive, but it makes a case. I'm not very qualified to judge Megatokyo, but a gaming/manga hybrid seems to make it distinctive. Fetus-X is so distinctive I'm not sure it belongs with webcomics, but Eric Milliken has been a fixture for so long that I am not going to his dungeon to re-classify him. Cat and Girl doesn't seem like a stand-out but the title is going to draw people in, and the execution is going to keep them. I don't know if sheer competence counts as grounds for success, but it's reliable, which is important, and it avoids blunders -- also important. There's always a comic that seems too implausible and too frequently rejected but which makes it big anyway -- right now, that's Achewood.

I'm sorry for not doing all of them, but I'll stop there. I think the point about being distinctive is pretty well supported, and I think the idea that form doesn't matter but humor often does is also holding up.

Like GE, which only competes in markets where it can be the number one or two player (in market share), a successful webcomic needs to identify its peers and then be the best, or one of the best, in its category. That happens by accident sometimes, and those are my favorites, as calculated efforts tend to lack soul. Sometimes I think it goes too far -- the naval-gazing and scribble-art of Toothpaste for Dinner doesn't move me, but I respect how it found its niche and performs reliably.

The good news after yesterday's grim scrutiny is that funny and fun have magic powers, bold personal visions and reliability are important, and you can work whatever form fits you best, not just the artistically limiting and often backward-looking B&W short. Whether this will hold up under a broader canvas is still to be determined, but it's a start.

As half the team doing Scratchin Post and Li'l Nyet, I couldn't be happier. Both are distinctive, both are in the form we prefer, and both are funny. That doesn't guarantee us an audience, but it's better than finding out everything we are doing is exactly wrong, as my emails from the HalfPixel guys would have me believe.