Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Webcomics Wrap-Up

I've spent the last week summarizing what puts me off about webcomics. I promised I would wrap up the series by talking about what anyone who agrees might consider doing about it.

  But first, some positives. I think some of these points are notable accomplishments, even though the webcomics scene can't really take credit for them:

  • Despite a lot of exaggeration of webcomic financial success, there are webcomics that are successful. In some cases, maximum financial return is hindered by amateurish management, but in conversations with the creators, it's clear that some of them like it that way, and some are simply unsure how to do better. I'll be the first to agree that money isn't everything, so if they are happy, that's great. What I most appreciate is their honesty in talking with me, and in demonstrating that it can be done honestly.
  • There are both professional webcomics that are good, and hobby webcomics that are good. I won't rattle off a long list (there isn't one), but Ugly Girl, on ComicGenesis, is an emotionally powerful and lovable example. The author is defiantly a hobbyist, calming declinging reader pleas for more episodes.
  • On the pro side, the Toothpaste for Dinner family of comics are extremely well-run and popular, and Natalie Dee is by the numbers the most successful woman in webcomics. Other strips, like Schlock Mercenary, have been forthcoming about how they make a living, even offering numbers. These are professional operations free of posturing, arrogance or a desire to exercise power plays in the webcomics scene. Sinfest says very little, maintains very high quality, and grows and grows in popularity.
  • There are many nice, friendly people involved with webcomics. A lot of people in webcomics will turn out to be great people regardless of whether they continue in comics.
  • There's been a maturing. Last year, if you criticized a sacred cow like HalfPixel, it took all week to answer the mail, with most of it immature, insulting and uninformed. Many people were relentless, writing again and again as you put their crudely structured arguments to rest, then running off to forums to denounce you if they couldn't bring you to their knees. That's pretty much gone.
  • It's getting easier for people to escape reliance on developers and programmers. It's still a hassle if you want to move quickly and your engineer wants to cherry-pick assignments, but foreign competition and new, empowering tools are making it possible to run your site yourself or buy affordable solutions that outperform moonlighting IT geeks.
  • There are some very decent blogs dedicated to webcomics, run by mature people without puppeteers at collectives pulling the strings. These things are very unrewarding to write, so anyone who does a decent job deserves respect. You can be Mr. Popularity overnight by hyping every comic in site, but it strips you of credibility, and cajones. I admire the ones that produce original content and practice restraint.
  Nonetheless, I would suggest that if you are serious about a career in online comics, the best thing you can do is leave the scene.

  The webcomics scene is degraded and stigmatized by its inability to rise above the free-for-all standards of many internet scenes. As such, it is more of a liability than an asset in any comic career I can envision.
  I'd consider a thorough job of disconnecting:
  • delinking
  • cutting out forums, top lists and other crossroads of the scene
  • reconsidering the word "webcomics" -- it is a poor search performer compared to "comics" and carries a lot of baggage that comics does not
  • re-identifying your career as a cartoonist, rather than a webcartoonist, or, if you prefer, a comics creator
  • staying away from selected media and conventions generally
  • avoiding the corruption of awards and ceremonies at all costs
  • skip advertising campaigns -- let quality readers find you, and let the comic, not you, be the message
Most of all:
  • Spend a lot of time planning and designing your comic before launch
  • Test it on off-line readers
  • Do not let anyone tell you what to do
  If you really believe in yourself, people will find you and tell you with their traffic how right or wrong you are. You don't need to chase down readers; they are not the people you want. You want to stop robbing people of the experience of discovering your work on their own terms and schedule, which is a bonding event that does not come from link circles and ads.
  Remember, only a tiny percentage of "webcomics" are of high quality, truly as profitable as they want you to think, and likely to be remembered if they stop publishing tomorrow. Surrounding yourself with the atmosphere in which these kinds of efforts are produced may be reassuring and may make you feel like you have colleagues, but in the end, you are alone. Your ability to create work under the constant pressure of isolation, self-review and running your operation will say more about your brilliance than any review, plexiglass statuette or pat on the head from the self-proclaimed king.
  I'll be following my own advice, re-ordering priorities and making changes. You can straddle, sitting to see who is right and who is wrong as long as you want, but if that's your goal, you're probably not serious about making comics. If you're curious, my wife and collaborator, Pug, was skeptical of the whole "webcomic" thing in the first place, and becoming involved in the scene was my misjudgment. She already takes the website-as-isolated universe approach that I have only come around to embracing. We're looking forward to more projects without the burden of webcomic stuff eating up time.
  I have never written this blog to be an opinion leader; it was a suggestion that I document my discoveries and share them with anyone who cared. I do wonder how many people who grew from burying their heads in the sand to sharing their opinions off the record would have found the ballast to say publicly what they really think. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings with this remark, but I'll risk it: webcomics people are, on the whole, a somewhat cowardly lot. This is probably why the pushiest, not the wisest nor the most talented, tend to call the shots.
  I did, as promised, develop a modern webcomic business plan, complete with calculators for quick projections and other easy-to-use features. At one point I was going to build a site around it. Now, at the risk of disappointing some people, I have changed my mind. I don't see value in throwing good work into the webcomics bonfire. It may emerge in a new arena but I doubt it. I've simply lost interest in doing favors for people who don't stand up for what they say they believe.
  My opinion is that "webcomics" and the "webcomics scene" rate about 3/10. They are dragged down at the core, at the top and at the edges. You are making your quest harder if you embed your work in the current environment because you are carrying the burden of so many negatives outside your control. The highest quality effort is instantly diluted the minute it becomes a "webcomic." Our blowhards left a thick vapor trail of manure in such inter-disciplinary forums as The Daily Cartoonist, damaging our reputation without regard for our professional aspirations.
  My feeling is that the future of online comics has potential beyond our immediate reckoning. I hope there are enough talented and serious people to staff it.

Comments have been disabled, as my break from "webcomics" begins as soon as this is published. Thanks anyway.