Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Webcomic Archives: What They Say About the Future

If you've been hanging around the past week, we've been talking on and off about trends that may be exerting downward circulation pressure on big, established webcomics.

I've mentioned that I lean toward the belief that a many large titles are slipping, citing fragments of evidence as well as more certain documentation in some cases. Reasons that we've floated include competition from numbers and higher quality, failure to improve, poor business skills and some other interesting reports and hypotheses, such as increased reliance on feeds and email delivery -- which analytics don't count well, if at all.

One thing we haven't discussed is archive swell. Unlike back episodes of Beetle Bailey, which enter the recycling bin or the guinea pig cage with regularity, webcomic back episodes rarely leave. Some comics end, and the creator does pull them from the web, but such exits don't do much to blunt the accrual of back episodes.

Consider: Our late 2008 census estimated about 9400 active webcomics. It would be quite reasonable to up this to 9500, though higher is probably more accurate.

If those comics update an average of just twice a week (for example), that's 988,000 new episodes per year.

It's easy to see that there may be millions of updates already on the web. Many rarely get dusted off, to be sure. If we limit ourselves to the top 500 most-read comics, that's 78,000 updates per year, with an older archive of well over a million likely. (That's increasing the update rate to three per week, since successful titles update more.)

A reader making time for webcomics, being human, will often bias toward new material, but the immense number of choices and stories (not to mention favorites to re-read) means that a significant number of readers are sometimes occupied with old material.

One difference is that unlike newspaper comics, we get credit whether they visit the first page or the latest.

While I think it's great that readers plunge into archives and keep them vital, it does seem that such trips take a lot of time, and inevitably rob newer comics of attention they might have received if we operated like newspapers. But that's still not enough to get me worked up.

Where I do find meaning, it's of a different sort. The comics that are notable because they seem to be slipping usually have huge archives. That means that if they are slipping, it's not only because the new episodes aren't attracting readers, but also because the archives are also not of interest. It would take a fairly dramatic decline in regular readers for a large comic to start hurting, unless the decline is throughout the comic.

A comic looking ahead with hope of success needs to look back at the archive they are creating. It could have a big effect on their lifespan.


  • Pop culture comics age poorly. The jokes get worn out, and the references become obsolete.
  • Cut and paste looks even worse the second time around.
  • When comics leave a reader's ritual -- reading them over morning coffee, or at lunch break, or on the bus -- they have less value. If they do not offer an intriguing universe with compelling characters, they lose a lot of value.
  • Comics that are very funny age much better than comics that make you chuckle softly.
  • Artists with a limited repertoire of facial expressions wear out faster than those with more range.
  • When episode 300 and episode 800 are interchangeable, the comic is past its prime.
  • Failure to develop as a writer and artist hurts. When I read the early episodes of Chloroville , by Victor Wong, they were so polished that I thought the strip would stay fairly constant, though I admit I found some episodes better written than others. The strip has improved so much in the past year that it's startling, in both art and writing. As a reader, that makes me excited. How good is this guy going to get?
  • It's harder to excuse bad habits, like lazy editing, when others are managing well.
  • There appears to be value to starting a second strip, or at least planning one, as the first one ages. Not all second acts are as successful as the predecessors, but webcomics seem to have a high success rate compared to rock bands and playwrights.
  • There appears to be value in guiding readers into your archives, marking story arcs and making indexes. Many are new and will appreciate the assist.
  • Hype and celebrity are transient but an awesome comic lasts and lasts.
  • Webcomic readers are more sophisticated than several years ago, and have many more resources to guide them. Forming groups to steer traffic among small networks is like getting a teardrop tattoo below your eye: it marks you as a manipulative freak whose work lacks confidence to stand on its own. (This is not a reference to the cooperative as most people practice the concept.)
  • The portion of webcomic readers who do fall for hype, celebrity, shilling and manipulation are not part of any audience I'd want to have. Luckily, most readers, and most creators, are not like that at all. They may not take it seriously enough to object, but they know what's going on, and offer only the same sham loyalty that roped them in.
  • Webcomics are really, really hard work. Most of your audience will respect you deeply if you deliver a comic that pleases and resonates. Quips, puns, false emotion and shallowness do not resonate.