Monday, February 23, 2009

Answer for a Reader: How Views on Webcomics Evolved

Recently, a new reader asked how it came about that I have critical opinions about the conduct of certain colleagues. Would I clear it up?

Certainly. The best answer is a summary of the past year, coupled with links to notable articles. See what I learned, and how it changed my thinking.

1. First Step: Hastily Publishing Stuff on the Web

I never planned to research webcomics, though they always interested me. But when Pug (wife's nickname) and I finished some print projects and got a chance to consider a web project of our own, I got to work.

Information was scattered and inconsistent. I started a web site to serve as a public diary of my findings. Psychedelic Treehouse was humble then and it's humble now, but a lot of people use it, and it improves with time. It's now about 300 pages.

My blog started as a place to write after finishing a book and feeling at loose ends. It didn't become interesting until I focused on webcomics. It's called Floating Lightbulb -- named for the cartoonist's universal symbol for an idea.

Despite missing information, Pug and I did what many of us do, and we put a comic on the web, Scratchin Post , a screwball comedy about small town American. Then we added Lil Nyet , a good verses evil comedy. We've recently added Guillotine and Piledriver , which lives on the Lil Nyet site as a spin-off of that strip.

Pug and I have drawn comics since we were children. We weren't married long before we agreed that whatever future projects we pursued, we wanted to work together. Naturally, we chose comics, and spent years developing ideas, getting our styles in synch and trying to make each other laugh.

We hunted all the webcomic data we could get. We calculated how long we could live on savings, how long we might have to wait for income -- stuff where only vague answers are possible, but also nuts and bolts stuff, like platforms and hosts.

2. Next: Gathering Facts

Many of us had high hopes for the HalfPixel book, "How to Make Webcomics." But like many team-written books heavy on filler art, it is uneven; alternating sound advice with financial data that could prove ruinous.

Some of the assertions in the HalfPixel book made no sense to me. I found conflicting data on the web, and I arranged interviews with HalfPixel's Dave Kellett and Brad Guigar. I've written a lot of business plans, but I was there to learn, and I didn't push too hard about what I felt were flaws in the book. I did hope to get them explained.

The interviews went poorly. I'm a mellow interviewer, so I was surprised to be attacked for applying a business plan to webcomics (I was actually applying a business plan to t-shirts, but anyway...). Both men were defensive, although Kellett took a few stabs at trying to schmooze me. They became angry, and Kellett kept threatening to end the interview. Very few of my questions were answered. When I look at the transcripts today, the authors seem touchy and hostile whenever the conversation got near financial questions.

I made a more dynamic model to help people see how absurd the HalfPixel data is. I published How to Make Webcomics Business Model Doesn't Hold Water , one of the most popular articles I've written, though it gives some people math confusion and they say silly things. The article also provoked personal attacks by Scott Kurtz that don't bear repeating. It may be enough to say that his public persona is very polished and false, and his real self is, ironically, bitter, since that's a word he likes to throw at other people. Only in a phantasmagorical universe, like comics, or carnival midways, do such people find homes.

It is interesting HalfPixel does as well as they do given the lack of familiarity with business basics, the outbursts, and the mixed quality of production. Having a more youthful, less finicky audience helps. Nonetheless, the empire rests on dodgy stats, claims about income that are difficult to reconcile against other claims they've made, and they are not going out of their way to publicize that half of them work full time jobs. The question of household income has yet to be addressed. 

I am not convinced that any make a living from their comics that isn't supplemented by things they'd rather you didn't know. It's possible, but I'm skeptical. If this is your dream, you're probably dreaming.


  • Under sustained scrutiny, HalfPixel is inaccurate, unreliable, intellectually dishonest (meaning they defend things they know are false) and their behavior is widely perceived as juvenile.
  • HalfPixel's book is a hodgepodge of good, bad, and really bad. Given a chance to publicly correct key errors, they passed -- a revealing choice.
  • Their efforts to portray themselves as webcomics experts is not without some merit, but there are more reliable and knowledgeable webcartoonists whose business reports are not in question. 
  • Prominent journalists and writers cite HalfPixel as a powerful disincentive to cover webcomics, or become involved with them.

3. Next: Get Some Measurements

I knocked together a simple statistical instrument for measuring webcomic success. I wanted to see if some of the lists of "self-supporting" webcomics floating around (including on Wikipedia) were accurate. I found a lot of people on them who should be off, and a few who should be on but aren't. In some cases, the false reports were old data. In others, faulty methodology. Plenty were just lies -- by people who would turn up again later.

In the HalfPixel book, Scott Kurtz re-presents the old advice, "Fake It Till You Make It." It originally meant, "Act confident until you are confident," but it widely understood on Spaceship Kurtz to mean "act like a big shot until you are a big shot." It is not surprising that those who dabble in webcomics to be "cool" and "famous" would take their cue from Kurtz's philosophy.

If the HalfPixel book is a failure for want of the most important types of data webcomickers need, we must be grateful for the assistance of others who will speak with you about private data. People like Howard Tayler, of Schlock Mercenary, and his wife, Sandra, were heroes to me for sharing financial data others concealed. Other people shared under promise of privacy, so I can't name them, but they're awesome too.

I am now able to identify many comics where I am confident of their success, though success is a subjective term. The list is over forty. This alone was useful to know, but better was to come.


Conclusion: Vocal claims from blowhards are noise. Data from people with a professional attitude tends to have value. Active maneuvering for celebrity status is a warning of phony data.

I began to index every attribute about every title: genre, publishing frequency, color or black and white, readability of lettering -- everything I could distinguish. Eventually, I isolated a group of qualities that are common in successful webcomics. I published it as What Makes a Webcomic Successful? Several times, I've tried to improve it, but it's not easy. It may be one of the best pieces I've written, though hardly the sexiest. One finding, worthy of future testing: the short form black and whites recommended by HalfPixel were outperformed by other formats, by a modest degree.

Conclusion: The qualities that make webcomics successful are becoming clear, but most people still don't know them and would guess wrong if challenged. This is a bit of data webcomickers should study, and improve if they can.

4. Next: Headcount, please?

Once I had a pool of proven successes (and some probable ones as well), it suddenly mattered how many webcomics there are. Otherwise, we couldn't establish a success rate among all comics and precisely answer questions like, "Is webcomic success a long shot?"

This is where I made a mistake. I'd been attempting a webcomic census for some time out of curiosity, and reached a point where I had 2,500 active titles and it was getting difficult to find more. So, I was telling anyone who cared that there were probably less than 3,000 active webcomics.

My error was underestimating big hosting sites like SmackJeeves. Except for Drunk Duck, which I estimated with help from Amanda from Salt the Holly , the other sites shared their data, and added substantially to the census. A better number: about 9400 webcomics active within the last 90 days.

Conclusions: With 9-10,000 active titles, there are a lot of us. Most of us are in big communities like SmackJeeves. About 25% are unaffiliated. At least a few thousand more are in non--English-speaking countries, like Norway (where almost everyone actually does speak English).

Speaking really roughly, this suggests that at best 3-4% of webcomickers make a living from it, and many of them are married to wage earners or have other income. And what is a living? One may claim a living with $15,000 income, while another may have a combined household income of $40,000, half contributed by the comic, and not claim it. Meanwhile some claim gross and others claim net... some are wealthy... There are many factors which must be considered before declaring a self-supporting webcomic.

Well managed comics with a professional attitude can make real money, and some others make respectable supplemental income. The notion of a list of people making a living from webcomics is unrealistic without meticulous review, but it doesn't seem overly risky to take some people at their word. Among the best: spouse teams and entrepreneurs with skills in the various areas required by webcomics. (Spouse teams might include other types of teams but I haven't collected data on them.) ...There are also comics that got lucky. Their authors are young, they are making money (but less than they could), and they think success will be easy to repeat. Don't copy them.


Next: Who Left the Kids in Charge?

The greatest problem in webcomics is unprofessional conduct by people who style themselves leaders, or at least, worthy of public adulation.

Here are some articles about conduct that will give you some history:

There are more, of course, but if you're catching up now, it's best to start with these. I assume I'll have a complete index in the future.


Conclusion: Most objectionable behavior traces back to closely linked people: HalfPixel Collective, and much of the Dumbrella Collective (including Fleen, Meredith Gran, and her associates). 

Most of the remaining conduct stories in webcomics are minor, and reflect blemishes on decent records more than core rot.

That means, with the exception of a few dozen idiots, over 9000 webcomics are behaving well enough there is no negative news to report. The weight falls disproportionately on the HalfPixel/Dumbrella clique.


Compressing a year of research and reporting, including factoring unpublished material and notes, made this a big job. Every time I review the draft, I spot points that always bring certain questions, items deserving footnotes, and case studies about how a decent majority can toss bad eggs without resorting to insults or internet warfare. But including it in one post is too much.

To the reader who asked, I hope this helps answer your question.

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