Monday, January 26, 2009

Can You Measure Subjective Comic Qualities Fairly?

Brian Leung is creator of Kidjutsu: a Place for Kids to Read Comics for Free . We've been talking about the various screens that separate different levels of achievement in comics.

This is something I've been studying for a while, if you recall What Makes a Webcomic Successful? from October. That article was the culmination of intensive sifting and analysis of indisputably successful comics (comics with high readership and/or income).

Brian* offers a condensed version of my list:

1. Experience and time working on the project, and
2. Determination to improve.

This is a useful summary, though if you refresh yourself with my list, you'll see that some elements get condensed out of view. Brian's list is surely a better bet to get the general message out, and for data hounds like me, my list offers more detail, but is still under a page. Comics have many dynamics, and if it's detail you want, read both. If you're skimming, read Brian's, at least for now.

I've spoken before about the relationship between entrepreneurial ventures and webcomics. Having been involved with both most of my life, I can testify. A condensed list of what makes a successful entrepreneur is strikingly similar to Brian's list:

1. Experience and time working on the project,
2. Being undaunted by failure, and
3. Determination to succeed.

This suggests that browsing the literature on being an entrepreneur could be useful for webcomickers.

Xaviar Xerexes, publisher of ComicsTalk , comes off as likable to me, but also aloof and at times, maybe a bit in his own world. I admire the depth of his webcomics reporting archive, but sometimes the lack of responsiveness to criticism irks me. Any criticism, not just mine.

An ongoing project, assembling a list of the "Top 100 Webcomics of All Time," has a sort of cotton candy, Maxim-magazine junk journalism appeal. It also has a responsibility, discussed in this article , to either report itself as a frivolous, scientifically invalid exercise, or to establish criteria for inclusion and ranking.

Failure to do so has consequences. Take it from someone who has Googled more variants on webcomics than you might imagine: Journalists new to webcomics will turn up the Xerexes list while looking for an entry point and be routed to the same self-serving people over and over, for years to come. Easy access data with a pedigree is reporter bait like nothing else.

That's one concern, and you can read the juicier ones via the link.

The reason I'm suddenly talking about Xaviar is because he offers a case study about how one can do frivolous data assembly, or serious data assembly by using ranking and inclusion criteria. I may be missing something and welcome correction, but my reading of his posts is that he made a draft list himself, then posted it. Reader comments were noted and worked in, resulting in new inclusions and ranking changes. This has been unfolding for months.

So: the criteria seems to be the opinions of ComixTalk readers who comment, as filtered through Xaviar's long experience with webcomics (mostly writing about them, but he also creates comics). Thus, we have two blogs: one compiling useful criteria, and just across town, another evaluating with fairly subjective criteria.

My criteria are not really right for what Xaviar is attempting, but I am contrasting our work to show what is missing from Xavier's project, in my opinion. Webcomics are too dynamic to rank unless you home in on a particular quality, find a way to measure it, and get to work.

What qualities might be used?

If you move away from moderately quantifiable** measures into more opinionated ones, it becomes difficult to do more than what Xavier seems to be doing: combining his extensive knowledge of webcomics to bump some up, knock some down, and delete others. Xavier gets to decide, because it was his idea to do this project. Fair enough. Perhaps in time, the lists will be headlined, "The Xerexes Top 100 Webcomics of All Time, with Help from Readers." That would say, "This is a subjective list," like all the similar ones floating around. That would reduce the problems, though it would have to include revising the draft list posts or they will linger and confuse people. Any journalist can print their opinions if they say, "This is my opinion."

The latest incarnation of the list is that it has become two top 100 lists, one for drama and another for humor. A desire to avoid an "apples to oranges" effect is cited. The problem is, comics do not come in two flavors. Some will be a hard call. A high quality comic built on a marriage of flavors would seem to trump a lower-ranked comic dependent on only one, but then, it doesn't really qualify, does it?

This is the beginning of the problem I faced when compiling my success criteria list last summer. There were many possible criteria, and I had to isolate a pool of seemingly obvious contenders, then apply one criterion after another to each, discarding the majority of criteria. It took months to isolate criteria that seem to reflect characteristics of successful comics. Over time, new data about a few comics have suggested modifications to the candidate pool is in order next time.

Webcomics are extremely dynamic. You can judge them on art, style, writing, lettering, site design, frequency, income, popularity (subjective), popularity (objective), experience, improvement over time, creator time invested per episode, genre, readers vs. visitors, sophistication, easter eggs and similar added functionality, skill with the technique (e.g. watercolors), presence or lack of time-tested measures of durability (something I'm playing at now), and many more.

If you want to put a comic on a list, and declare the list objective, then you must be able to measure it and explain why, for example, number nine is ahead of number ten. Otherwise it's just one man's opinion, as influenced by whoever dropped by and weighed in.

This is an unforgivably long way of saying that a credible "best" list is impossible, a pretend "best list is harmful, and an opinionated list, honed over time, is frivolous but a bit entertaining and gimmicky.

So. Watcha building in that lab, Dr. Frankenstein?


*Brian's thinking is worthy of respect. To find titles for his site, he culls through hundreds of comics, carefully, noting evidence of qualities that point to affirmative answers on his criteria. You should probably still glance at my earlier article to get the full effect of what follows.

**An acquaintance once stopped by the offices of my company. "Ya makin' money?" he asked bluntly. "We're busy," I said. "Anyone can be busy," he said, "but are ya makin' money?" I can't remember if we were making money at that time, but after pondering his comments, I cut our least profitable business line.
Many measurements that seem fairly solid, like traffic, are squishy. A comic with many ads, for example, may receive a lot of visits, but a high percentage may stay less than ten seconds. So you can be busy without having readers.

Please note: Kidjutsu carries our comic Scratchin Post . Also note our opt-out policy regarding participation in stuff like this, regardless of whether we like it or hate it. It's a small price to pay for preserving neutrality for our two comics.

Know who's a nice guy? Chris Flick, who does Capes'N'Babes .  I recently got a chance to talk with him in more depth, and I have found no good opportunity to say say how refreshing his enthusiasm and consideration of others is to me. Rather than wait, I'm telling you now.