Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Quality and Distinctiveness in Webcomics

Last year I wrote an article about the qualities of successful comics .

First I identified about 40 successful comics, using care to screen impostors. Then I looked for common qualities and tabulated them.

I found that successful comics are likely to have these features:

  • Distinctiveness
  • Excellence in execution
  • They are funny
  • They update frequently
  • They add extra details
In updating this list, I have decided to drop one item: being in the top two of your genre. While true, it follows that a successful comic would be highly ranked along peers, and it doesn't add a lot of value to the list.

I review the list fairly often to see if new observations suggest a repeat survey would yield new information. I haven't found anything worth adding.

It's important to note that many successful comics lack one or more of these features.

Also, as I reported last year, there was only a slight edge for color over black and white -- not enough to matter. I think this is interesting, because (in my opinion) there are far fewer top notch black and white artists than color artists. I have a controversial hypothesis about this, which is that if we measured success by income instead of visits in our survey, we would find that color titles outperform.

I'm confident most readers will allow an explanation before accusing me of bias, especially since Pug and I do both types of strip (a possible new strip may beef up our black and white production, but it's too soon to say). The answer is based on observed readership of various strips. There are notable titles in black and white, such as Achewood, with traffic typical of a niche comic. Other black and whites have large traffic but the creators are regulars at conventions, which are hard work for the money, somewhat demeaning, and easy to sit out if your online business is performing. Or maybe some people just like squatting behind a cafeteria table and dickering with strangers dressed as Poison Ivy.

I think the difference is quality of traffic. This is a hot topic on the web now, and knowing how to measure traffic quality is becoming yet another skill an aspiring comicker must master. I suspect, but have not attempted to prove, that since black and white can be produced faster (they are often shorter and don't need to be colored, which requires practice before you can do it fast) they are viewed as more disposable, rather like newspaper comics vs. comic books. The audience may be large, but is less committed, and less likely to buy anything. (Obviously, this hypothesis doesn't extend to long form black and whites, like El Goonish Shive or Abandon.)

Let's relate this to the list above. I've explained the list, and I've started talking about quality, but quality is not on the list. Let me define it for our use here: I mean critical quality, the odds of being re-read, the odds of being remembered as a classic, the appeal of buying a print edition. The durability of the art and story speak deeply about quality.

Quality is not on the list because in my survey, it did not jump out as an obvious element of many of the successful titles. Sometimes, it was because the strip was somewhat frivolous. Other times, kind of dumb but not stupid. Most important, it was often difficult to tell if quality was present without reading the comic. Carefully. It's a characteristic that is often overlooked.

If the elements on the list above correlate highly with success, where does quality fit in?

Remember a few paragraphs back, I was talking about audience quality, and the rush to attract quality visitors over quantities of visitors? Were we in a good position to take all the measurements, we would probably find that there is a ratio between audience quality and comic quality, and that they rise together. A blunt way to say the same thing is, as a comic becomes more sophisticated, the ranks of less valuable readers thin out.

This is great if you enjoy literate reader mail, but potentially bad news if your strip is high in quality but low in distinctiveness. Distinctiveness is what makes a comic stand out from the crowd. It speaks quickly and has a compelling message that draws people in. Trendsetters (not trendy people, who are another creature) like distinctive things because they sum up easily and draw a wow from those not yet acquainted. Distinctiveness offers a powerful reassurance that this comic is not like 100 others you've seen. It's new, fresh, and original.

Sometimes distinctiveness is shown via gimmicks. Other times, it's more complex and elaborate and involves a merger of a distinctive art style, a refreshing theme and a clever site design.

Distinctiveness can be erased, quickly, by over-relying on something that grows tiresome or by talking incessantly about oneself on every available internet forum.

Just as skateboarders will not mob a comic about skateboarding but comic readers who love skateboarding will, there are lifestyle niches that can serve as distinctiveness beacons. Sex and drugs are two, especially drugs. But they require support from other parts of good comic infrastructure to succeed. Since I'm not gay I don't really "get" many gay comics, but if it weren't for the fact that there seem to be a lot of bad ones, I'd say that's a powerful distinctiveness sign.

What's a quality comic to do? We have some dedicated souls doing reviews, often well, and last year's trend of reviewing the same titles on every single blog seems to have abated. Sadly, reviews don't generate many readers.

One option is to commit to a long period of building an audience at a painfully slow rate. Some webcomics have taken five years or more to catch on.

Probably the best answer is to decide if you love doing comics, or if you love doing the comic you're doing. If you have a labor of love going on, do it for its own sake. If you have many ideas for comics and can add and subtract from your roster, seeking the right mix, do that.

As much as I'd like to close with that line, I have to say that a struggling comic that has not been thoroughly scrutinized for faults in execution may be suffering from too many negatives, rather than a lack of positives.

If quality is not distinctive, how should a comic creator respond?

It could be that quality is a core value, and other aspects orbit around it.