Friday, May 29, 2009

Webcomic Brand Saturation

I try to be patient with the naive, because some days I am in their ranks, and other times I am wrong. But I admit I can feel a pressure in my head when people get carried away saying giving away comics as free content is dumb.

Poorly done, it may be dumb, but I'm going to hammer on the ways of doing it right.

Soon we'll be adding a store to our Lil Nyet comic, and I spent much of yesterday to see what y'all are doing. I saw custom built stores, fulfillment operations, Cafe Press and other POD, store systems like ZenCart, Etsy shops and a few being run out of living rooms. I also saw some shirts I'd like to have and possibly one book and one plushie.

None of the stores impressed in either of two regards: tie-in with the comic, and overall design.

Friends, colleagues... your comic is your brand. It's not enough to put it on your merchandise. If you saturate your store with the same design elements that bring you readers, and if you make the trek to the store a natural procession from reading, you will do much better.

A couple of earlier posts are worth referencing if this topic interests you. See:

Not enough people make appealing home pages, in my opinion, so it's no surprise that both the store and the route to it are lacking in the same elements that makes people read your comic.

Consider your brand. It often shows up not just in the comic, its attitude and its title, but also in places like these:
  • your most recognizable image or character
  • your trademark sayings
  • a slogan
  • a mascot
  • a logo
It can also be several of these combined.

So often, I see navigation menus that read like this:


or something similar.

On our comic Lil Nyet, we spun off a second comic, Guillotine and Piledriver, which updates several times a week. It shares the site with LN, as a reader bonus. What I never expected is that it would become some people's favorite. It uses static art, like Dinosaur Comics, and it's savagely political. But it gets its own reader mail, and I am happy it is noticed.

I want to encourage you to make your store the second most noticeable thing on your site, the way G&P is out second most noticeable, at least until we finish our store. Methods you can use:
  • multiple ways to get there
  • an image provoking curiosity and interest as to what lies within
  • making the entrance more prominent
  • luring people with in-store content
  • getting rid of in-store clutter
  • and, it's kind of beneath cartoonists, but using sexy *ahem* ATTRACTIVE models for shirts is not a bad idea (how lucky am I that two of my sisters are models, and you might even recognize them from TV? w00t! )
There is so much extra junk on most comics' home pages that it should be possible to rent a Dumpster, chuck out tons of pixels, and make room for store teasers.

Bottom line: We webcartoonists are far under-performing our income potential, and this is a good way to start fixing that fact.

P.S. Do read Koolstüff (above) if you missed it. My decision to use a phony German word for the concept may have scared some readers off, but I think any serious webcartoonist can benefit from the piece.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Business Plan Versus Marketing Plan

Let's straighten out some technical jargon.

One doesn't truly do a business plan for a webcomic. One does a business plan, and the comic is part of it.

If your interest is helping your comic gain a larger audience, then you are doing marketing. Marketing is all about selling a brand, and your comic is your brand.

Your comic might include a distinctive masthead, logo, slogan or tag line, mascot, avatar, signature, and/or featured characters. Such items are tools for sticking your brand under people's noses in various places. The avatar would be for use in forums, for example, while the signature would be for email and blog comments. They are all marketing tools.

Another marketing tool is your analytics. By studying where you get traffic, you can choose where to advertise or what social networks to frequent.

Another tool is promotion. This is all the things you do to stick your brand (your comic) in front of people, and includes everything from advertising to giveaways to spamming the hell out of millions of furious people.

Marketing is part of a business plan, but if you are serious about making money from your comic and sober about your prospects, the time for a business plan is somewhere in between dabbling in monetizing your brand and actually investing in the idea of an on-going enterprise.

Because the dynamics of webcomics are so weird, it can really pay to talk to people who know what they are doing and hear their advice. The problem is, the noisiest, most visible people claiming to make a living are usually the least successful. The truly successful don't have time to help, unless you are extraordinarily lucky. Making one good friend is challenge enough, which is why people are drawn to gurus. 

Anyone with half a brain has, by now, figured out that some models are a pipe dream, and by "pipe dream, I mean the kind of pipe with soap bubbles coming out of it. Luckily, serious scholarship about webcomic business plans is now unfolding and will be delivered here in due time.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Guru Syndrome

Do you like to think? Does it make you restless when you don't understand the reason for things you observe?

Or do you look for a guru? Someone who will tell you what to do, generally for the price of their own aggrandizement?

The levels of independence and critical analysis in how you approach webcomics say a lot about your prospects for success.

You can usually tell you're following a guru if fantasies of success are displacing hard thinking about what you must do next. Another warning sign is when drawing becomes a chore to be put off, rather than a pleasure that pushes aside other priorities.

Gurus like to be in charge, and surround themselves with toadies. They get testy when you ask them blunt questions, and are likely to arrange a stab in the back for you if you keep at it.

Gurus do perform a public service. They reveal the people who are dumb enough to follow them. They are one of many screens you can use to sort out who has a webcomic future and who doesn't.

Many who follow gurus are achingly, longingly craving acclaim, and the guru's gentle chuckles and pats on the head help bandage the void. This is why people make fools of themselves defending gurus: it's like smack. They can't quit them and face the aching alone.

I occasionally talk with cartoonists who are under the spell of a guru. Their demeanor is "tensely polite." They worry I am going to put them on the spot.

A guru can have extremely disorganized thinking as long as they convey their main message coherently. Often, it can be as simple as, "Hey, we're gonna get stuff done! Everyone rally around!" For lazy intellects and people without drive, it is a much more appealing concept than apprenticing themselves to the trade and striving to improve. And it delays the ultimate reckoning: they are not that good or not that driven.

Judging from the work some of the disciples crank out, they don't feel they have to leverage any effort at all. They just go on dreaming.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WebMasterTools Overhaul

If you use WebMaster Tools, you've noticed Google has introduced a new lay-out and changed some calculations.

Good parts about the new lay-out:

  • It's less click-intense, with more info on the same page
  • The report of backlinks matches alternate measures much more closely
  • Some concepts are now more intuitive
Bad parts of the new layout:
  • Backlinks still make no sense: an opportunity was missed
  • It lacks design grace
  • There is no explanation as to why the backlinks counts fluctuated so much
The backlinks issue interests me. If you are up on these things, you know you can find the backlinks for any site by Googling links:sitename. But the search results often produced a different total count than the old WebMaster Tools? Why?
And since Google knew it and said it, why not explain the reason? The answer is probably something to do with available computer data resources and integration, but I'd like to hear it. Nothing hurts Google's image with me more than handing down new systems as if they were chiseled on stone tablets, without any sort of explanation.

One thing I noticed with the new version is that my own backlinks dropped -- a lot. I don't mind drops if the new data is better, but is it? There are still 27 links from one blog, 33 from another. I don't take them seriously, but instead, monitor trends.

It's like taking a class where the only goal is constant improvement, and you work your way up from a B+ to an A-. Then they recalibrate, and you're at C-. It doesn't matter much, but you feel you have a right to know why.

If you read this column because you take your comic seriously and you're out for the odd tip or quirky remark, I'm sure you have WebMaster Tools. If you don't, and your comic is getting fairly sizable (50+ pages, I'd say), it's time. It's especially valuable for scrutinizing your tags, your backlinks and submitting site maps.

If you've ever seen those circulars for Sears tool sets, WebMaster Tools is still very much in the starter range. I'd like to think that the recent overhaul presages more tools.

Monday, May 25, 2009

WordPress for Webcomics

I'm always at a disadvantage when writing about WordPress since I don't use it myself, but I know an awesome set of help-and-idea articles when I see one. I think anyone using WordPress will benefit from reading this four-part series in Smashing Magazine.

People who should read this especially include anyone on WordPress/ComicPress who has a site that looks like a clone of other WordPress sites. I'm aware that people's motives for making webcomics vary, and that not everyone seeks to be a professional, but if you do, then a basic canned template site will only suffice as an interim solution.

The series covers:
  • Tips for improving WP as a CMS (Content Management System)
  • 25 Example Sites
  • 40 "CMS-enabling" WP plug-ins
Keep in mind, we have a webcomic creator/how-to blogger who does know WordPress: Kez . (Scroll down to see topics by category and date.) Of course, many WP users will trade tips with you, and there are plenty of them out there.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Webcomic Metrics: Bounce Isn't so Bad

Bounce is is a lot less negative than many think.

Three types of visitor trigger a bounce:

  • Someone who lands on your site, is not impressed, and leaves
  • Someone who lands on the latest episode, reads it, and leaves -- because they have already read the previous ones (there is no time duration applied to a bounce)*
  • Someone who lands, travels around to other pages, returns to the page they entered on, and leaves**
I think only the first type can be construed as negative, but are they really that bad? Some are people checking for a new update, some are taking note of your site for future reference and perhaps some are simply grabbing a link they know you have posted. The ones who are truly not impressed are not going to become readers anyway, though now they know you exist, which isn't too bad.

If you decide to use a splash page, which precedes the comic (Dr. McNinja is an example) and your bounce rate shoots way up, that's a sign of trouble. Bounce is a metric to be watched, but not worried about, especially if analytics show healthy inner page penetration.

Keep in mind that an advertising campaign is likely to affect your bounce rate, but there's a trap that could cause you to think that more of your ads are sending bouncers than they are.

Remember, visitors keep their cookie from wherever they first arrived. Therefore, if you ran an ad on Dr. McNinja, people who became loyal readers of your strip will show up as Dr. McNinja source traffic in your Google Analytics. This continues until their cookie expires or is deleted.

This is handy for tracking extended performance of an ad, but if you resume advertising on Dr. McNinja two weeks later, and study your traffic, you are studying visitors from the previous ad who still have their cookie, as well as new people. This sometimes gives a shock: visitors are still coming after the ad has stopped.

When the cookie dies or is deleted, the visitor will convert over to direct traffic. This type of cookie typically has a 30-60 day lifespan, so 31-61 days after the end of a major ad or promotion campaign, you may see a decline in referred traffic and a rise in direct, especially if your ad campaign is dormant.

*We all love our steady readers, but if we're serious about paying our bills and eating, we need to think about getting them into the store. This generally means injecting some store promotion into the reading area.

I've found a neat way to do this on the rebuild of our Lil Nyet site, though it won't be visible until we finish. (You saw it with your own eyes, I actually discouraged people from visiting our comic! heh) The technique is reserving space in the reading area for dynamic images. You fill your hopper with selected images, and a random one will random appear when someone visits the page. If some of those images are promotions for your store and others are bonus content, you can invite people to look at your stuff without being a nuisance. We've taken it a bit further, and I'll write about it when we finish up.

**Their other activity still shows up. This explains why, once in a great while, you detect a situation like this: 1 visitor, 17 pageviews, 1 bounce.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

WordPress Resource for Webcomics

Here's a nice link for everyone who uses a WordPress/ComicPress platform:
Cats Who Code .

The number of comics using WordPress astonishes me, and some are making great strides in designing their sites so they don't look like clones of other WP sites. There's plenty of material in this link to chew on. Enjoy.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Webcomic "Free Content" Earning Power

Monday's post discussed how "free content" has value in the case of webcomics. After reading a letter from a reader,* I think a clearer way to state it is that free content has value that would not be captured if it was not free.

I wrote about how it promotes and brands our merchandise. It also converts an item that cannot be evaluated until it is consumed (a comic) and converts it into commodities like t-shirts.

We can measure the value of the comic with a simple formula:

Value = Revenue - Costs

Comic creators might prefer a slightly different formula, which tells them how much they make per hour:

Value = Revenue - Costs / Time

Let's do an example where revenue is money received over the past month from sales and/or donations, Time is the number of hours spent making and managing the webcomic and site, and costs are things like art supplies and hosting and internet fees:

R = 30 shirts sold with a total net profit (before any taxes) of $150.00
C = hosting, internet access (portion related to comic) and art supplies: $25
T= 4 hours/day, five times per week, @22 days/month = 88 hours

V = $150 - $25 / 88 hours

Running the number through the second formula, we find that Value to the creator is making $1.42 per hour. That's just under $3000 a year.

If the person values their time at twenty dollars/hour, they are running in the red. If they consider the comic a hobby and any money as bonus, they are doing better than most hobbyists. 

Some readers are considering the numbers from this example and wondering what sort of traffic a comic needs to achieve to exceed this performance. We'll look at that in a moment, but let's also note that the artist can increase their hourly rate by becoming more efficient, so there are gains to be made in both directions. Many of the HalfPixel comics are calculated to require minimum time input, for example. Sometimes that's necessary if a comic is to appear with optimum frequency, which is often considered to be five or more times per week.

Using a stat called sell-through rate, we can back into the size of the comic in the example above. Sell-through is defined differently for different industries, but for comics, sales per unique visitor per year is pretty standard. Though at least one source talks about a ten percent sell-through rate, more accurate measures are 0.5% or 1%. We'll use 1% because it's easy.

Assuming each month is identical, we're making 360 sales per year. If 360 is 1% of our total annual unique visitors, then we have 36,000 unique visitors.

Rather than pick out a comic that fits that profile and risk making someone feel embarrassed, I'll use one of the comics Pug and I create, Lil Nyet. Despite being less than a year Lil Nyet achieves that unique visitor volume in about five weeks. 

Sometimes you can't cut the amount of time it takes to produce a webcomic episode. With Lil Nyet, we tend to put additional effort into polishing the strip and site if an episode gets done quickly, proving once again that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

My example uses five days a week, however. Many comics update 1-3 days per week. If we rework the example using three days a week and holding everything else constant, the hourly income changes from
$1.42 to $2.37. If we gain efficiency by getting fast on Adobe Illustrator and shave our time by 25%, the rate rises to $3.15

(For the record, more frequency is a good thing and cutting it may cut sales, so the second figure is a bit speculative.)

You can see that if a young comic like this one is able to make this much money, then a few doublings of readership translates into significant potential. 

Anyone who has read this far deserves an example that is more attractive financially. It's better to start with traffic, but since this is only a model, we can do whatever we want. Let's change our variables. We'll bump shirt sales from one a day to three and hold everything else constant. 

Three shirts/day = 1095/year
Gross profit** at $6 each = $6560
Less costs = -300
Net Profit = $6260
1040 hours for the year
Hourly rate is now $6.02, for four hours/day, 5 days a week

Now, let's reduce the hours from 4/day to 3, and add one more sale per day:

Four shirts/day = 1460
Gross profit at $6 each: $8760
Less costs = -300
Net Profit = $8460
Hours for the year: 780
Hourly rate is now $10.85

You can see that cutting costs and time and raising sales start to move our comic into interesting territory, at a sales rate way lower than a beachside tourist trap would have to make just to stay open.

Now how big is our hypothetical comic? Depending on whether you use the conservative 0.5% or 1%, your audience is 73,000 or 146,000 uniques per year. What big name comic do I have to cite as an example of someone attaining that higher figure?

Lil Nyet. Or, many of the titles created by the column's readers.

Our youngish comic (250+ episodes updating weekdays), celebrates its first birthday in two weeks. Along with many other webcomics, it's entering the zone where a sound business plan, good execution and a willingness to market can create a living wage.

Of course, I'd feel better telling you this if our online store was open and providing real data, but that's a few months away, and we'll have to rely on some very close studies of other comics for our data.

Don't use this data for a business plan, like assuming the profit on every t-shirt is $6, because if doesn't take into account failed designs, defects and every aspect of overhead. It's meant to give you an up close view of the "webcomic back-end" -- departure from comic to store to happy customer to no-longer-starving cartoonist. Numbers also vary in odd ways by genre and other factors, so any business projections should be custom made. Write me if you're trying to do it right, but are having trouble. I've written scores of business plans, and I am can guide you into hot water with more efficiency than you can do alone. :)

*The reader's letter is below the Monday post.

**Obviously, I am not counting the cost of the shirt to the creator. I am keeping it out of the equation. This is another reason why these projections aren't business-plan worthy.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Asset Bar Looks Like a Dud

I like to analyze business plans. I like to emphasize the positive. Unfortunately, the two are not always compatible.

The product Asset Bar (as everyone calls it), or Fanflow (as the company calls it) has a simple premise: put out basic content for free, and charge several bucks/month for "premium" content. The premium material is isolated on a separate part of your site, and includes a forum plus a platform for loading comics, pictures, etc. Asset Bar takes a 20% cut.

I watched several sites try it. One quit, one (Achewood) is having at least moderate success (at the expense of cutting back public updates), and I can only speculate about the rest but I would be stunned if they are doing well.

Asset Bar is going opposite to what I described yesterday for extracting value from content . They're charging people to view the commercial. They accepted the premise that free content has no value, and attempted to slice off the tender part and charge for it. After observing for months, I see no rush to enlist.

When you accept a salary, you have a boss, and for me, that's the fundamental weakness of Asset Bar. Webcomics are about me not having a boss in exchange for the reader not having to buy anything. If I'm good, I don't need to be chained to my desk. I'll be able to create a brand that transfers to things people want.

Such items range from t-shirts by design powerhouse Toothpaste For Dinner* to paid lecturers like Bill Barnes, co-creator of Unshelved . They have identified a salable commodity that brands well with their comics, and they make a living from it.

I can't tell you how many times during my entrepreneurial adventures people with deep pockets came and offered big money for the right to restructure something their way. I tried a few and all were always embarrassing disasters. I learned to jettison these people by their lapels. Keep control of your content and have faith that a well executed, quality webcomic can do quite well.**

*Notably, Toothpaste For Dinner and its affiliated comics tried Asset Bar, but resigned after a short time. When Asset Bar declined to reimburse subscribers, the TFD people paid them out of pocket. I visited several Asset Bar sites, including TFD, and the good ones required a lot of work. The others were poorly conceived.

**"Now there's a topic!" some of you are thinking. We're getting closer, and I think we'll be able to make everything quite clear by year's end, with examples. No one wants a rush job on something so important. Well, maybe we do, but we must be patient.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Webcomics as Free Content: A Dissent

Know people who have seen a movie, like Star Wars, 25 or 50 times? I have to admit I'm one of them, because there's a shelf in my house containing comics I've read dozens of times, and still enjoy.

The big difference between those volumes and webcomics is that I own them. Webcomics are merely available at no charge.

That's a big difference. When one of my favorite webcomics, RedMask, dropped off the web without warning, there was nothing I could do about it.

This raises the question, are we really giving our content away for free, as some critics of webcomics assert? I'd say, no, we are giving away the right to view them. Actual ownership costs money. One either downloads them (and who does that?), or buys them as a book. They might vanish from the web tomorrow.

If the price of ownership is degraded by the comic appearing first online, I blame the comic. It simply lacks sufficient depth, execution and quality to produce a reader base that will buy a book. If the book is a cheap printing job with staples, anyone who does buy it will view it as disposable.

Unless over-printed, a good comic anthology should rise in value over time, especially if it's in hardback. Many Fantagraphics titles culminate in a lavish anthology edition, for example. If I buy and like the individual comics, I'll often buy the anthology.

If that doesn't put a kink in the "free content" idea, consider this. For a fully developed comic site with a store, the comic is the TVshow and the store is the commercials. People coming to see the comic will brush against the store, and some will buy. Any message that brings people into a store, or onto a website, is an advertisement, even if it happens to be great art.

If you think of the comic as a brand, then a well-designed t-shirt is brand extension that allows a different kind of participation at a pragmatic price.

I feel it is important that we escape the "free content" mind set.

One reason is that it is belittling. We work too hard to be regarded as something trivial. Many people cannot get their heads around the "free comic/sell merchandise" concept, but if the comic isn't truly as free as they think, it might change their perspective.

Another reason is that many webcomics creators don't plan for a possible book. That's often wise, because many of them wouldn't sell. But the ones that factor in the possibility of a book can have their color settings optimized for printing, consistent page sizes and aspect ratios that make sense for print. They can even optimize their page count, to reduce wasted paper, and other things that you don't know about unless you've had a retired printer corner you at a wedding reception. Planning for print allows you to branch out if conditions warrant.

Once you start making significant money, all that time and effort put into making those commercials -- excuse me, webcomics, sounds like a tax write-off to me. If you make reasonable deductions based on advice from an accountant, then whatever you save is additional payment for creating the comic.

Anyone want to argue that a legitimate business tool you get paid to create and which serves to leverage your other assets, and which becomes a salable commodity over time, does not have value if it is posted on the internet?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

How "My Cardboard Life" Uses Etsy to Sell Merchandise

Here is another selling strategy for webcomic merchandise. describes itself as "the place to buy and sell all things handmade." They also carry listings for vintage goods and craft supplies.

I recently found a webcomic using an Etsy store. My Cardboard Life by Philippa Rice uses fabric and other assorted materials to build each panel, then turns them into digital images.

With its low overhead, it seems to me that an Etsy store could be an extra point of exposure for some webcomics. Those offering toys come to mind, but original art and t-shirts also qualify.

It an opportunity to attract interest from browsers who might never encounter your main site. Actual sales might be low but it might still generate visitors, where they can inspect your main store. Right now, with low webcomic use of Etsy, comics might stand out, and attract interest for being unusual. Philippa tells me, "There aren't that many people selling comic books/zines on Etsy so anything you list gets noticed quite easily."

She also says not to be surprised if sales are very up and down. But "it's definitely a useful tool for selling," she says.

Here's Philippa's shop . Notice the types of merchandise she's selling. Compare it to the comic: it seems anyone buying one of her books would find the comic appealing.

Two types of webcomic may find Etsy useful: those offering a stand-out version of an item that is already offered by others on Etsy, and those offering comic-oriented, unique items that will be fresh and appealing to Etsy visitors. Comics with a "cute" theme also have potential.

To give you an idea of cost, listing an item is twenty cents.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Kate Beaton

This is delicate. Please hear me out.

I've never met Canadian webcomic artist Kate Beaton . I've read a bunch of her comics, and ran a few ads on her site. I noticed an anthology of her work has been selling well.

I have no reason to believe she is unable to take care of herself.

She has a refreshing niche, drawing cartoons of how historical episodes might have been, based on her history degree and reading, and flavored with humor.

She appears to work on paper, and I know all about correction fluid, but she has a nice way of seeming to get proportions, especially in faces, looking as if she pegged them on the first try.

I agree with her philosophy of pacing. Each panel seems to give way to the next necessary panel, not a less-interesting intermediate. Her caricatures, like Napoleon, are fun.

Sometimes, when an uncommon physical object is called for by the plot, the rendering is less polished. This affects us all, and I mention it because it allows you to see the contrast between her best work and less inspired moments. If you like to study drawing, you can learn from it. I'm sure she does.

On certain internet locations, colleagues seem to be trampling over each other to praise Ms. Beaton. They are, as is so often the case, the most dubious and calculating sources. The prose is over the top; actually asinine. The maneuvering is transparent, the papering over of jealousy ineffective.

On those few occasions when the universe has accidentally sent me an overdose of praise, I have felt consternation. What is the value of praise if it is hollow, or if it is hype?

My age lets me annoy twenty-somethings with unsolicited advice. My messages to Ms. Beaton are these: If you sense danger, you are probably right; and lots of people quietly admire you even though we don't always say it.

To those who are laying it on thick: type a period. When a young person is building their career, and their credentials, they don't need others to release proclamations. They want to succeed on their own merits. Most of all, they don't want the swollen heads some of you lug around.

This is why I don't like awards, especially to those under 30. We've seen them turn some agreeable webcomickers into monsters.

Even if the commentators I mentioned have convinced themselves they are being honorable, it's time they crank their tongues into arrest, and let this woman develop her career with tempered, de-politicized support. I highly doubt she needs anything more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Webcomic Linking on Blog Comments

Blogs often mark comment sections with "NoFollow" tags in their code. Words gets around that this means links placed in comments have no value.
NoFollow tags tell search engines not to count links in the comments when calculating the hosting page's PageRank.
They do not prevent the search engine from following the link, and indeed, they do follow it.
This helps you in several ways:
  • It gets your name out, and people who read your comment can more easily visit your site;
  • It adds your link to some of the lesser-known metrics, like Google Blog Search Links and Web URL Mentions;
  • It may count as a backlink, boosting your PageRank. Other factors might reduce or alter this, but you will discover, if you use WebMaster Tools, which blogs show up in backlinks. Some extremely popular blogs do.
  • It allows people who are inspired by your comment to visit your site immediately.
And, of course, it takes but a second.
Note that a link within a block of text has more value than one lurking under your signature. Thus certain ways of mentioning your link have more value, depending on the type of encoded instructions on the site:
"Hi, good post. I do the comic and I think your comments on coloring techniques will help me understand how black differs on programs like..."
is better than
It's an open question whether to ad the http prefix. It makes it less readable, but I understand some devices do not pick it up as a link without it, like certain phones and Twitter apps.
Please don't make comments just to post your link. If you have nothing to say, don't comment. If your site is not appropriate to the topic, it's probably better to leave it off.

If you think about it, it's almost rude not to leave your affiliation.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Consequences of Poor Role Models

Repeat something enough, and some people believe it. Tell them they believed a lie, and it will draw their wrath.

Let me tell you a bit about how I work. I am interested in the business of webcomics. To learn, I study a lot of comics: about 150 closely, and another 350 less closely or in rotation. When I feel I have learned all I want to know about a comic, I move it into a parking lot, and glance at it once in a while to see if anything has changed.

I also follow a lot of comic-related sites, including a few that won't admit me, but which have dissenters. who forward transcripts. After reading enough of them, I see no need to be secretive about it any more, because most of the contents is willfully ignorant. A lot confirms what I already suspect, which can be handy, but it's not quotable if I don't announce that it has become semi-public. Some of it's kind of sick, too, showing people with their guards down and language raw.

It follows that if I learn a lot about webcomics, and write about it, I will step on toes, because I will debunk lies and restore perspective. Previous attempts by others to debunk various webcomics were mere rants.

The problem is that many of the people who are easiest to puncture* represent "the dream" to younger comic creators. Thinking that brushing up against these success stories will be instructive and help their careers, they buy in. Sadly, even as they are flattered and pampered and getting their odd Twitter post answered, wheels are turning to keep them in place: indebted, loyal, but not a competitive threat.

Some creators are active in plotting. To some, it comes naturally, along with unpleasant personalities. To others, it's part of turf control: they were there first and no one gets pie until they have had their fill, if indeed the pie ever arrives.

By my estimation, the majority of these titles are in decline, many are flat, and some are doing pretty well. None have broken out, xkcd style, though they lie awake thinking about it.

I have about a half dozen items on a list that I regard as the biggest mistakes a serious webcomic creator can make in their early years, and it will have to span multiple posts, but one of them is trying to be part of someone else's peer group. Your best allies are people who haven't been contaminated, who are similar in comic age, who do work with obvious merit and who are friendly when you get to know them.

This group, different for every comic, is superior to a collective in that it's customized just for you and requires no government or other chores.

As I watch comics rise and fall, the ones that interest me most are the ones who trade lessons with their peers, avoid people who crave attention and are skeptical of the conventional wisdom as imparted in books, podcasts and blogs. A lot of that information is sloppy, deceptive or wrong.

A sign that someone might be trustworthy and conscientious is if they fix their mistakes, publicly. We all make them, there's no shame in it. But the authors of "How to Make Webcomics" would rather live birth a hog than own up to the serious errors in their book. Fleen seems under Supreme Command orders not to do it, perhaps under the notion that they extract vengeance by damaging their own credibility. That's true in a way, except the vengeance belongs to people who have criticized their behavior and find previous conclusions reinforced.

These people view themselves as having no stake in your success, and are wary of you as a threat. Large in ego, they burn when someone rockets past them, and with each passing year of playing "fake it till you make it" something inside them curdles. Many are from well-off families and can tap the money tree when they run short. Some had a chance at a decent art school but passed, perhaps wary of being just another decent artist in a room full of them.

I never intervene when I see someone marching toward doom, because I figure if their judgment is that poor, they're not going to make it anyway.

Trends suggest the bad actors are shrinking, and it's their own doing. Few of them have evolved noticeably since I first started watching, over a year ago. Another cartoonist suggests compassion is in order for some, like a few who want so badly to succeed and yet lack the talent. I lack talent for lots of things, and I don't need compassion, though I understand the impulse. In most cases, I see personal conduct, laziness in execution, arrogance toward expert guidance and ignorance of business basics as driving their failure, not lack of ability to create something that might succeed. Too much time on Twitter is another cause. The needy egos use it to self-medicate.

There is now enough opportunity to succeed in webcomics, though it is largely untapped, and talented print artists who might find refuge in our midst seem genetically hard-wired not to perceive it. Webcartoonists are incredibly free and in control, as symbolized by Randall Munro's recent decision to self-publish an xkcd book. Others have done it before -- often because they had no choice -- and I have too. I wouldn't do it any other way.

We do not have freedom from ignorance, and the human tendency to drift toward gurus lacking meaty resumes. Whether future success is a rarity or much more common will ride on the willingness of talented creators to pour the pee out of their sneakers and stand up to the hype of the atavistic relics who had their chance to lead, but wrapped themselves in a cocoon of paranoia, and failed. Hell, those blokes are so defeated you can simply insert yourself in their place, act responsibly, and forget 'em. Any constituency they claim as support is not a constituency you want anyway. Just keep a few of them around, as idiot-magnets, to test newcomers.

*Again and again I note that the most over-hyped role models not only engage in the worst conduct, but have the widest gaps between their incomes and their claimed incomes. They also appear notably less intelligent than their peers.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This WordPress Plug-In Might Interest Comic Creators

When we decided to upgrade our sites, we looked at many options and tried a lot of software before finally settling on custom builds. One regret I have about this decision is it hurts my ability to talk in depth about Word Press/Comic Press. (Of course, you can always read Kez's webcomic site and strategy blog and pick up a lot of smart stuff not covered here, or covered differently.)

So, for WordPress users, here's a plug-in that seems a notch above the rest, for writing PHP inside posts without some of the problems accompanying other plug-ins.

An example of how this could liven up your site: With Flash, you can make images more exciting by animating them, but that's a lot of work. With this plug-in, you can still make them more interesting by making them dynamic in other ways; for example, filling a space with a random image from a bank of images you've compiled, to keep things fresh. Since PHP drives a lot of this kind of action, anything that makes it play nice with WP is helpful. Even if you don't plan to learn PHP, you can hire someone to write and install the script, so all you need are images, or whatever you want to make more dynamic.

Keep in mind that this is not stuff in which I am very experienced. If readers spot anything misleading, please post a comment with a correction. And, as with any software mentioned by some guy you don't know, do a little background research to check my own before installing anything.

If you do something interesting with this plug-in, I'd love to see it.

Note: After posting, a dissenting comment arrived below, which you should read, as it warns of security issues that I cannot evaluate at this time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Webcomic Viewing Platform Debate

The web arguments that disappoint me are the ones where many people argue a simple point, oblivious to the fact that there is a larger issue that takes precedence.

There's such a thread on Scott McCloud's blog today. He's trying to make a point about the optimum shape of the Kindle for viewing comics, but is partly neutralized by someone who points out that a variation already exists that addresses the problem (it turns sideways). 

All 50+ commenters seem to forget that a webcomic has a choice:

  • It can be a flat comic on a web page
  • It can be a dynamic, even multi-dimensional creation that includes tools unique to the web that make it dynamic and interactive
Webcomics taking the second approach are the most vulnerable to destruction by corporate-engineering policy making. In other words, those who use the internet, and not merely basic creative tools, are more likely to be cut off at the knees.*

I would like to read comics on a Kindle, and am confident competition and engineering advances will make it possible. But I will not strip mine artistic creations off the web and read them on a Kindle for convenience, trashing the rest of the creator's work to suit my whim.

I am aware that people who couldn't care less are going to try to read comics on phones and other devices for which they are not created, and I figure it's their loss. There are people creating phone comics who need a market. I don't create phone comics. I have nothing against telephones, it's just not what I do.

Gadget people are similar to feed people, who want to strip mine comics, and send me letters demanding comic-inclusive feeds. I have no problem with update feeds, or thumbnails, but the trip to the site is built into the experience, and I would rather have no reader at all than a reader who doesn't comprehend the work because they are determined to view only the part they think they want. If you declare yourself as low-quality traffic, don't be surprised if that's how you're viewed.

Anyone rushing to view my sites might be confused, since they are not currently very complex. So, I'll mention again that the upcoming versions of my sites will be different. Those versions, will, I hope, work on a future Kindle, but I am indifferent to their appearance on phones, because of sizing. Scott has done some interesting, dynamic comics that may or may not work on various gadgets; I'm not sure. That's why I am surprised by the focus on a moving target, the rapidly evolving Kindle-style reader, when the real issue is whether the rush to accessorize with gadgets is causing a sell-out of a gloriously independent medium to the whims of corporate stores and standards. To fight the screen size battle at this stage especially is to pick a battle that will probably be won regardless, but possibly at the loss of the war: will these gadgets detract from the viewing experience anyway?

What I'd like to hear about is not screen shapes, but technology for blocking gadgets from sites in order to force people to view them as they were meant to be viewed, or not view them at all. That would do the most to drive the creation of reading devices sensitive to the needs of alternate internet formats. Or perhaps I could offer a gadget-specific comic in place of ones not designed for gadgets.

Screen size is a detail that will be resolved. You wouldn't tolerate devices that only sent part of your email, or blocked out other information. Why tolerate devices that promise the internet but deliver an inferior version? 

*Someone recently asked if I was advocating technology like Flash, which alienates a lot of people. Answer: Not until they get their act together. Things are coming along nicely with javascript, but anything that repels people is not in my playbook. I often abort loading a site if I see Flash myself. In fairness, it's poor programming a lot of the time, and poor understanding of how to make different things play nicely. The how-to is out there, but it has not been widely learned.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Creating Comic Characters That Last

You are single, and can't find the right mate. You wish, and a fairy appears. The fairy offers to lead you to him or her, under one condition.

"You can either know all about their life for the last three months, including the lives of all their friends. Or, you can know the only important details from their whole life," says the fairy.

"And beware," says the fairy. "The important details are not always what you think."

How you answer affects what kind of webcomic you are likely to make, and whether it will be remembered as an important detail in people's lives, or something that just seemed like one.

Choosing the recent details will give you shallower characters and leave you with a sense of pop culture events as being disproportionately important. You may know what reactions the characters will have, but you will have to invent why.

The second option will tell you what drives a person. Seeing important past experiences will reveal how episodes changed them, and since change is hard, they will be essential for explaining how they came to be who they are. Trends will come and go, and your person may participate in many, but in the end they are sensations of kiddy pool depth, like nostalgia and sentimentality.

The hidden part of a great short story is the character's history, distilled to a portfolio that collides with events and leads to change. Great novels that unfold over a short time period, like The Catcher in the Rye, offer fragments and episodes that drive the protagonist, and the challenge to the reader is to decipher the rest. It took me years to conclude that Holden Caulfield is having a mental breakdown, clutching to ideas and events that ground him as he loses hope and reason. (Other interpretations abound.)

I'd describe this as more of a tendency than a rule, but I think comics that take the long view, where the creator understands the protagonist's life in much greater detail than is discussed, have a better chance at achieving lasting recognition and readership.

Any mention of a current phenomenon, like Twitter or iPhones or NASCAR, instantly places the comic at a point in time for those who know the reference. For those who don't, it's a bump in the narrative. As time passes, the percentage of potential readers able to identify with the comic shrinks. Bumps increase.

Chester Gould, creator of Dick Tracy, was fascinated by technology and police procedure, and worked what he learned into the comic. His first three decades include some of the finest newspaper strips made. But by the 70's, when Dick Tracy was going to the moon and chasing crooks in an anti-gravity "trash can," an aging Gould was erasing the Tracy history readers had come to love. When his son marries a moon alien, it's all too much, and the strip never recovers. Pop culture invaded for the worse. In those innocent days, when all advances seemed like progress, an old cartoonist embraced too much.

"Minimalist writers" like Raymond Carver tried a highbrow version of pop culture, and though I find things to admire in his work, the gimmick of mixing strong but narrow characters with weird situations didn't hold up as a major literary style. One critic mocked it as a character walks into a supermarket and finds himself staring at the giant Tide detergent display and realizing he feels despair.

The best characters are usually based on real people, or composites. The bulk of people living in developments and working in cubicles are not promising as characters, and many younger people have possibly never encountered a living character and realized it. Wealth has led to an increase in artistic production, but lack of intimacy with unsheltered lives and authentic people has caused a decline in the amount of authentic art. Alienation has inspired many people to express their feelings through artistic media, but without the essences that breathe life into art, alienation, like nihilism and hedonism, is only a cry for help.

If you hope to look back on your comics as real art many years from now, your characters must have a historical life that bulldozes fads and trends in favor of defining moments, depth and complexity. It is not until you locate the astonishing transcendency, artistic realization greater than you hoped, that you can start winding up the story and bringing it to conclusion.

I'd rather let our own work reveal itself day by day, and I'll avoid talking about more examples from yesteryear you can't click over to see. I think, in the end, it does not reach its full potential, but minus is a good comic to study for its relationships to philosophical and and artistic standards. Anyone wanting to continue with the ideas just raised could do worse than to visit that comic and give it another reading. The fact that it is a major achievement despite some flaws in execution gives you a chance to sniff out both, and see what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Black and White Wisdom in Black and White

A few days ago, in the Webcomic Hooks post, we were talking about black and white vs. color, especially in the comments.

I'd like to share this comment from Ping, author of Webcomic Finds and creator of comics like The Longest Sojourn :

"Black and White is harder to do than colour by far, IMHO. 
"It took me a while, but I'm finally learning that the difference between doing colour and doing black and white (or any monochrome work) is that when the art is meant for colour, you draw LINES. If the art is meant for BnW you draw (ink) SHAPES.... 
"The bottomline is: doing good black and white requires the artist understand very well the concept of positive and negative space, and how to use it. Sadly most people don't bother studying this facet of art theory anymore. 
"It's not just a fancy art term for snotty fine artists; it's an immensely practical skill and there's a very good reason why it is a required study in most formal art curriculum."

Wish I wrote that.

Here's a link where you can bone up on negative and positive space. I'm surprised I couldn't find more, so if you find a good one, please send it here. One discussing the concept in relation to comics would be especially helpful.

Armchair Paint Classes - Quick, but deep, single page lesson

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ten Reasons Comic Hosts are Fading

1. WordPress/ComicPress: Sorry, Sir, but your services are no longer needed. I've built my own site on ComicPress.*

2. Precarious financials: Drunk Duck is a public company, and reports of their fiscal health are pretty dreadful. Not to mention blaming it on the incompetence of departed employees. No data about other hosts. I hope they're doing better.

3. SEO: You can't thoroughly optimize your site for search engines if you are just a subdomain of another site. Your presence helps the host look bigger, but you shrink.

4. New era stats: They're not widespread, but the new tools for adding details to whatever analytics you use don't always deal well with subdomains.

5. Status: Your own URL beats anything you can get from a host.

6. Erosion: With most hosts losing traffic, the communities get smaller and so do the audiences. Then more people leave...

7. Mirror sites: When comics that started on your host leave their original site up as a mirror site to attract additional notice, it adds a ghost ship to your community. When people Googling that site see that the best search result is the one that does not have your host site in the URL, it forms an impression.

8. "New" ComicSpace: Could still happen, but the climate for hosts has shifted dramatically since it was conceived. I'm underwhelmed by everything else this team has done, and puzzle over how they could have hired well. Answer: I think they did not, especially when it comes to design.

9. Even high school students with messy comics are managing to launch their own site. There's more people around than ever who can help you get set up if you are having trouble.

10. Potential competitors who could have posed a challenge to WordPress have gone through various forms of self-destruction, from Movable Type to SynthaSite (now called Yola**, of all things). With so many people now using the same tool, it's easy to look at the myriad of choices from one year ago and see how obvious the choice is now by comparison.


*For the record, I finally learned enough about programming to take a pass on WordPress, but I like that it's allowed many people to break through the knowledge embargo and post webcomics. Besides the fact that it's making comics look alike,  you can't get cutting-edge creative with it unless you add custom programming, and if you're going to do that, you might as well build a site or have one built to your specs. Also, because a custom site coming from WP will require a rebuild, it's going to stop a lot of people who have built elaborate WP sites from making the jump. It's a great choice for many people, but as much as it's making participation more democratic, it's also a steamroller of blandness.

**Promising but evolving and occasionally troubled product; weird company. Good for small quickie sites or learning in a visual way how a lot of web architecture works. Not suitable for a webcomic, though I've managed to make mine work with great exertion. Am moving all my sites to my own architecture in the coming months. Lately their site update server has been offline a lot, and we missed two update deadlines in one week.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Webcomic Hooks

"Life is what you focus on."
Winifred Gallagher
A hook is something that encourages focus. A focused reader is a quality reader, so we find ourselves inclined to use hooks to attract people.

A hook is simply anything that makes a visitor more likely to become a reader.

Some hooks work instantly and others are gradual. Consumers of all sorts, including comic readers, have learned to be skeptical of fast hooks that don't deliver the goods. Obvious attempts look desperate. Some hooks will draw in a lot of people but not necessarily a high value audience.

Below are my ideas of fast and slow hooks. They are hardly final, in fact, more like works in progress. I welcome reader ideas.

I think the exercise is important because comics vary in the type of relationship they want with their reader. Fast hooks are "how we met" stories. Slow hooks are "how we fell in love." Understanding where your comic fits in will probably help you find your audience.

Fast Hooks

Most of these need little or no explanation:

Single panel
Short form
Always a punch line
Cartooniness - pulling from the implied realism of classic cartooning instead of actual realism, which is more complex and less "fun"
Deftness - the creator makes everything look easy, not labored
High readability - no tiny, wacky fonts or difficult handwriting
Trending minimalist/nothing overwrought
Hedonistic icons: cleavage, drugs, games
Catchy title
Evocative logo
Slogan - Immediate declaration of intent in few words
Pop culture references or themes
Writing for a mass audience
Well-presented site that indicates staying power
Impressive landing pages
Possibly color - Opinions vary on this. I enjoy black and white, but many people who work in black and white don't know how to use it. (I don't claim to myself, but I know good black and white when I see it.) People who can't do good black and white might be wise to learn color, as ironic as that sounds.

Slow Hooks

For the reader who is willing to explore, these are the hooks that may persuade them to stay:

Compelling story
Absorbing characters
Convincing and original setting
Subtle aspects that emerge on re-reading or contemplation
Philosophical depth
Detailed art
Easter eggs - small surprises awaiting readers who happen to mouse over certain spots
Plot twists
Sublime writing*
Writing for a sophisticated audience
Interesting site that enhances the reader's involvement with the comic
Threads are details of plot that enrich the narrative, and probably serve to turn the regular reader into a dedicated one
Match to ritual - Reading one's favorite comics over tea before others are awake is a ritual. Comics that dovetail with the rituals of readers will retain them more easily. Since this is difficult to achieve, we must rely on courtesies such as the update alert feed to help the reader fit the comic into their life.

*Here is an example. In eleven words, a character inflicts devastation on Lipa at her most vulnerable moment. From "In the Ravine," by Anton Chekhov:

Russia, circa 1900.
After her husband is imprisoned, Lipa lives with his family, where her only joy is caring for their infant son. Distracted by the child, she ignores her deteriorating status within the family. She is unprepared for the wrath of her sister-in-law, who, in a rage, splashes the child with boiling water.
Lipa takes the child to a distant hospital, where he dies in agony.
She begins the long trek home, carrying the boy's body in a blanket and sloshing through mud. She catches a ride part way from cynical types who undermine her notions of heaven and the soul.
Then she reaches the house. The patriarch is on the porch, staring, silently regarding the lump in the blanket.
"Eh, Lipa," he says at last. "You did not take good care of my grandson."