Transcending webcomics

I wanted to follow up on something from yesterday’s post, because I was rather intrigued to find out that the Erfworld creators, having funded the creation of a motion comic for their first book, had set their sights on a far grander prize: to “turn Erfworld.com into a fiction, art, and gaming community.”

Beyond the sizable jump in ambition this goal represented, it also seemed like an odd direction to go with Erfworld, of all webcomics. Despite its origins on the same Giant in the Playground site that’s best known for The Order of the Stick, I haven’t read, um, any of Erfworld, but the impression I get is that it’s a fairly heavily story-based webcomic. Sure, there’s humor sprinkled in there, but it hardly seemed like the sort of thing that could support a community of that general an interest; it’s certainly not, say, Penny Arcade.

As it happened, a few days later PA unveiled the next step in their plan for global domination, called the “Penny Arcade Report”, which Gabe described as “what we want to see from games journalism…The PAR is focused on longer form journalism with in-depth research and interviews”, as well as links to similar journalism on other sites. Back when it was first revealed that PAR head honcho Ben Kuchera was heading to Penny Arcade, Gary “Fleen” Tyrell recalled a conversation he once had with Robert Khoo where he claimed that PA wasn’t a webcomic at all, but “a content-creating company focused on the videogame industry, with the webcomic just one part of it. Granted, the comic is the dominant part, but he didn’t commit to that always being true.” Considering that Khoo is an absolute god within webcomic circles without ever writing a line or drawing a panel and literally every webcomic creator not named David Morgan-Mar aspires to PA‘s heights of success, this seems relevant.

I once wrote a review of Penny Arcade the webcomic in which I expressed my bewilderment at its popularity. To be perfectly honest, the webcomic is mediocre at best (and the artwork has, to be honest, gotten worse since I reviewed it) and not that much better than the morass of video game webcomics aping them and Ctrl+Alt+Del. I voiced my suspicion that the comic was not actually the reason for the site’s popularity, but more the blog posts and thoughts on the game industry that occupy PA‘s actual front page. Everything I’ve learned about PA since then, especially that Tyrell/Khoo encounter, has backed up that hypothesis, and that Khoo is a mad genius who took a relatively modest webcomic about video games and turned it into a globe-spanning empire. We’re not at the point where PA the webcomic is little more than an editorial cartoon accompanying a larger Internet magazine covering the video game industry, but only for lack of content to fill it out – and the PAR is a pretty big step in that direction.

For Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere looking for a ridiculously successful role model to follow who’s swimming in the cash their webcomic makes them, I think Penny Arcade is a bad example – unless you’re not so committed to this “webcomic” thing and more committed to this “making money off a Web site” thing. To reverse a common saying, the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success.

That brings me to Erfworld. What sort of “community” is Rob Balder trying to build? Well, it seems he wants to “completely redesign the Erfworld website to include blogs for fan art, gaming news, and sharing your game-related stories, art and video.” Balder wants the site to be “a framework for collaborating and sharing your art, writing, music, games, and other entertaining stuff, centered around the comic. Erfworld readers are smart, creative people with a lot of overlapping areas of interest….You can do at least as much to entertain each other as I can to entertain you.” There’s a lengthy document on Google Docs with more details, open to input from the fandom. Essentially, the name “Erfworld” would no longer refer to the world of the comic and would refer to the world of a miniature social network, complete with a tradable “currency”, allowing anyone to share their creative work and spotlighting the best of it.

Now, I’m not familiar with Erfworld‘s existing community and what it’s like now, but this definitely seems like Balder wants the site to transcend the comic and cater to his fans’ specific interests. Much like Penny Arcade is less a webcomic and more a video game community, Balder wants to turn Erfworld into less a webcomic and more a social network for amateur fiction and game aficianados. It’s an interesting way to re-think the concept of a webcomic: to take a webcomic that caters to a specific audience and turn it into an entire website catering to that specific audience. To think of a webcomic as one thing that goes on a website, possibly the most popular thing, possibly even the thing that everyone comes for, but for the site itself to cater to the community that forms around that comic and what they have in common. A sports webcomic becomes a community built around sports. A webcomic about toy collecting becomes a community for toy collectors. A webcomic for IT pros becomes a community of IT pros.

Now, anyone who would be depressed at what this says about the viability of webcomics themselves, as opposed to webcomics that hitch a ride to something else, need look no further than the OOTS Kickstarter to be disabused of that notion. If anything, OOTS is successful, and Rich Burlew’s lifeblood, despite his past efforts to make Giant in the Playground into something more; OOTS started as a way to attract visitors to the site to read the articles on gaming and game design, and the fact that it still manages to dominate the site is a testament both to how excellent it is and also to Rich’s failure to turn OOTS into the PA of D&D-style gaming – a track that looked very plausible back when it was still a bunch of gags about a party of adventurers trawling a dungeon, and already something that just about every D&D-player out there had heard of. Artistically, the comic and the world would have been far poorer for such a move, but in terms of success Rich Burlew could have attained far higher heights.

All webcomic artists, unless they put their comic behind a paywall or aren’t making any money at all, are in some business other than webcomics. If you’re following the ever-popular T-shirt selling route, your webcomic is really just a testing ground for new T-shirt ideas (and elaborate advertisement for the shirts themselves), which tends to lend itself more to being a meme factory than anything else. That’s a bad sign for anyone looking to stand by artistic integrity and a more story-based comic. Luckily, Burlew, the Foglios, and Tom Slidell have been able to make money off of story-based comics by selling print collections of the comics, with some occasional T-shirts and other tchotskes thrown in. Balder seems to be considering a very different route. He’s discovered what binds his readership together, and making sure his site caters to all of it, not just the webcomic that drew them there. In so doing, he has a chance to allow his site to cater to anyone to which that would appeal – and introduce them to the comic in the process.

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