So You Want To: Write A Webcomic
Writing a webcomic is a great way to test out new ideas and build up your reputation as an artist, illustrator, storyteller, and entrepreneur! Rather than accepting the yoke of editors and publication, you've opted for doing things on your own terms... which means the success (and failure) of your comic falls squarely on your shoulders.
Really, this should be called "How to MAKE a Webcomic..."... yes, it's possible to work with a friend where only one of you writes the comic and the other one draws the comic, but there are lots of reasons to avoid this. Just because Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik pull it off just fine with Penny Arcade doesn't mean that two-person webcomics always work.
- Uneven determination between you and your creative partner means that your comic will only last as long as the other half doesn't burn out first, and if you're going to be successful, you WILL need to plan for the long haul.
- This can often be seen as an uneven relationship, especially if one of you is better at their half of the craft than the other.
- In the event you become wildly successful, the profits will be split somehow. Better to decide now how that's going to happen, especially since that means expenses should be split the same way.
Required ReadingThere's a couple other pages for writing certain genres of comics that's worth reading. Even if your comic doesn't fall into one of these categories, it can't hurt.
Necessary TropesIn writing a webcomic, two things will become readily apparent:
- You're still writing a comic, so for the most part, all the Comic Book related Tropes still apply.
- If you have designs on making a book or other saleable media of your archives, you'll need to design your strips with this in mind — so despite all the buzz about making comics for the internet, you're still ultimately constrained by what fits in print.
- Not that this is a bad thing — No matter what Scott McCloud said about the future of comics, most readers are still all too unfamiliar with "novel innovations" like adding audio and video animation to a comic, at least not as a regular feature.
- Comics as a visual interface are pretty damned good all by themselves, anyway. There are still innovations to be made within sequential art itself — see how the "Kirby Style" of 1960's Marvel differs from modern comics — so there's still plenty of room to grow.
- Direct Demographic — Instant feedback (and the ability to act on it) ahoy!
- Webcomic Time — like Comic-Book Time, but often worse since webcomics don't always update on time to begin with, and may not be moving at the same pace as a Newspaper Strip.
Choices to Make
- Shameless Self-Promotion — you'll have to do some of this, at least to start, or else nobody will ever find your comic. If you don't care about it, then fine, but sooner or later, you probably will end up engaging in some of this.
... In Your Comic
- Abandoned Info Page — or your abandoned about page, your abandoned store page, your abandoned wiki... look, we get it, you're busy. But if you start something, please try to finish it.
- Cerebus Syndrome — Your comic just became Serious Business.
- Dead Link: If you ever change website, engine or otherwise alter your comic's URL scheme, by all means try to remain compatible with the old one. Provide tools to convert, possibly on a separate page. If you switch from IDs to dates or the reverse, do show both on the new website.
- For the same reason, don't use URL prettyfiers that include only the title. Never make a page's URL dependent solely on the title: An ID or date is an information that is also useful to the reader... or to the guy who has to change the links next upgrade.
- Schedule Slip — remember, Regular Updates = Regular Readership.
- You'll want to keep a Strip Buffer to prevent this; how big that buffer is depends on how topical your comic is meant to be, and how much effort it takes to make a comic, which could be anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Heck, if you can get ahead by a few months, more power to ya.
- And for managing that buffer, you'll want to use a Content Management System that allows you to schedule updates — ComicPress is the industry darling (and free!), but as long as you can schedule updates to go up on time (so you can go to a convention or elsewhere without having to worry about updates), anything will work.
- Sturgeon's Law — 90% of works in any medium are crud, and webcomics are no exception.
- Two Gamers on a Couch — It's been done so many times, you'll have better odds doing a Furry Porn Comic.
- B-Side Comics — Not a bad thing, but not what the fans came for either.
- Cut and Paste Comic — Once you get it right (and you're lazy), why mess with perfection?
- GIS Syndrome — Now with the added risk of copyright infringement!
- Guest Strip — Someone else draws your strip for you while you're away. Typically a one-off.
- Holiday Nonupdate — Just don't abuse it, okay?
- Photo Comic — Like drawing, but even lazier! Actually quite difficult to pull off in practice, because most photos aren't as easy to "read" as illustrations are.
- Pixel Art Comic — Like a Sprite Comic, but at least the art here is original.
- Remix Comic — Taking someone else's comic and changing something (usually the text) for humorous effect. Still copyright infringement, by the way.
- Series Hiatus — For when you just don't know when you'll work on the comic again. Usually how the average webcomic becomes an Orphaned Series.
- Sprite Comic — Remember, using sprites from actual games is copyright infringement!
- Stick Figure Comic — XKCD did it. You probably won't be so lucky.
- Stillborn Serial — What this article is trying to prevent. Either this page will help you learn what you need to know to keep a webcomic going for at least enough pages that you can make a small comic book out of it, or it'll discourage you before you go ahead and put up advertising and your own TVTropes Page only to have the thing disappear.
... In The Rest Of Your BusinessGuess what? A comic is often just as much about its creator as it is its content... which means if you're an asshole, it's going to REALLY hurt your comic's appeal. No matter how much fans love your Deadpan Snarker character, you can't actually BE a Deadpan Snarker without offending some of the same people who're supposed to give you money. Remember, you're in charge... which means there's nobody to blame for Executive Meddling if you screw it up.
- Author Appeal — Yes, you have to be passionate about your work above the rest of us... but not like THAT!
- Author Avatar — While these can be done right (and are outright necessary for Journal Comics), these often turn into Mary Sues.
- Author Filibuster — When your opinions overtake the comic to the point that everyone who disagrees with you wants to stop reading.
- Creator Breakdown — When you decide to take your bad mood out on the comic for no good reason.
- Hair-Trigger Temper — If you have one of these, you may be in the wrong business.
- Small Name, Big Ego — No matter how big your comic gets, you'll always be small potatoes compared to the mainstream. Rub people the wrong way while you're being a Shameless Self-Promoter, and you'll end up one of these.
- The Rant — Often used to shill The Merch and explain a Schedule Slip, it can also turn into a soap box. Use it wisely.
- Writer on Board — The cause of many an Author Filibuster.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Stunt DepartmentThe good news is, not all webcomics are action-oriented, so you don't always have to worry about illustrating fights. The bad news is, whatever your comic contains, it HAS to be illustrated. Magic Amulet? Plot Trinket? Five-Bad Band? If it's worth talking about, it's worth drawing... unless you happen to be working on the next Dinosaur Comics, you can't just get away with copy-pasting the same images over and over.
Marketing DepartmentShameless Self-Promotion was going to be a big part of any webcomic you've ever heard of, sure. The thing is, it'll take more than that to get noticed. You're going to want to try a lot of things — from conventions to online ads — but here's some ideas to consider once you're on your way:
- Derivative Works of all kinds, including:
- Any kind of Spinoff you can come up with.
- Themed Tarot Deck (or just a card deck, really — still lots of cards)
- Title: The Adaptation — This strategy involves making spinoffs and adaptations into various new types of media, whether it be a series of audio-enhanced Youtube clips, dress-up dolls, or even a new game for your fans to play. Takes a bit more effort than just the comic alone does, so you may be dependent on fans to do most of the heavy lifting, or at least making sure that you're playing to your comic's strengths in making and releasing new material.
- Creator Killer — When you put out something so horiffic, you'll never be taken seriously again.
- Franchise Killer — When it only takes down the reputation of your comic.
- Misaimed Marketing — In short, don't make a toy line if your comic is porno.
- Rather, call them "maquettes" and charge thrice the price.
The Greats (or at least worth studying)
- Lackadaisy: Pretty much everything one should strive to find in a webcomic, or printed media in general. Despite starring furry cats as its characters, the choice is more stylistic than anything, and indeed allows for a wonderful range of expression. The setting is painstakingly researched, with sharp writing that intertwines humor with drama, and the artwork is easily matched with that of the Golden and Renaissance Ages of Animation. One pitfall to look out for though: The art is so gorgeous that creating each strip takes a lot more effort than, say, a three-panel strip with flat colors. This has inevitably led to Schedule Slip and even Series Hiatus. If you're new to the world of webcomic creation, start simple and don't bite off more than you can chew!
- Inverloch: Besides good art, characters, and storyline, it has the distinction of being a completed webcomic. Few webcomics manage to achieve this!
- The Adventures of Dr. McNinja. It is a good example of Art Evolution, as it goes from being stark black and white to appropriately shaded to in full color, and is a excellent example of how to do a Crazy Awesome webcomic.
- Freefall and Kevin & Kell: These show what you can do with a regular newspaper-strip format without getting too fancy with the graphics. Freefall manages it with a small cast, Kevin and Kell with a large one; Freefall is a hard-science futuristic piece centered on a trio of non-human viewpoints, while Kevin and Kell shows what Earth would be like if modern civilization were run by humanoid animals who still had most of their instincts calling the shots. So studying both can give you a good idea of the medium's range.
- xkcd and The Order of the Stick: These are the top dogs as far as stick-figure comics. If you're thinking of doing a comic without being able to draw humanoid figures, study both of them (if the early stuff on xkcd turns you off, use the Random button a few dozen times to get an idea of what it's like). xkcd stays minimal, while The Order of the Stick gets pretty epic with its graphics; xkcd has a few recurring characters but not much of a plot, while The Order of the Stick meets the criteria of the classical Epic. Also, The Order of the Stick uses computer graphics, so its circles and lines are crisp and the characters look consistent; xkcd seems more hand-drawn (the earlier stuff was scanned from notebook pages, though the later stuff is obviously drawn on a computer).
The Epic Fails
- Sonichu. Sonichu is filled to the brim with Walls of Text that completely disregard Show, Don't Tell and horrendous art that never improves. And that's not even getting into its abysmal writing or how offensive it is. If you need a crash course in what not to do in a webcomic, then Sonichu is right up your alley.