Reinventing Webcomics and Comic Syndicates

And now it’s time to pull together pretty much everything I’ve said about the state of webcomics over the course of the past three or four months. (All of what, two or three posts?)

In a recent interview with Fleen, Brad Guigar let slip a hint as to some of the advice he and Scott Kurtz would have given comic strip syndicates if any of them had taken their consulting offer:

This whole conversation is about an innovation that I’m introducing that’s — to the best of my knowledge — unseen in webcomics at large. It’s a very simple thing, but it’s also a completely new way to envision a webcomic.

Take a look at how Scott has re-purposed his Web site. If you look closely, you’ll see some very important changes in how he’s positioning himself to his readers. He’s not just a webcartoonist. He’s pushing towards something greater than that. And that’s exactly the kind of thinking that we were offering the syndicates.

He’s referring to the recent Penny Arcade-ization of PVP, hiding the comic behind the front page and pushing the news post to the front. At first glance, that seems to be all that’s changed; all the navigation elements relevant to having a webcomic are still there, including a presumably-updated “new readers” page. There’s considerable advertising and store shilling, but it’s hard to tell how Scott Kurtz is “pushing towards something greater than” being a mere “webcartoonist”.

But the plan clicks together into place when you scroll down to the very bottom of the page. There, you see a list of “projects” beyond PVP that Kurtz has his fingers in. Similarly, the top of the front page flashes three “featured projects”, none of which are the comic itself. It’s clear that what Kurtz (and I suppose, by extention, Guigar) have in mind isn’t quite the sort of webcomic-as-community I hinted at a while back, something that is very much seen in the single most popular webcomic on the Internet that Kurtz knows very intimately. Rather, Kurtz seems to be more in the business of building himself as a brand. If anything, it’s less Penny Arcade and more

I couldn’t begin to tease out what exactly these mad geniuses have in mind that would change webcomics forever. But I certainly have to wonder how exactly this would apply to newspaper comic strips and their syndicates. Would Kurtz and Guigar want syndicates as a whole to ape the new PVP, or individual comics? If the former, I’d imagine it would involve creating the idea less of a soulless corporate syndicate and more of a club of comic creators sitting around and shooting the breeze, perhaps working on other projects with one another.

The latter approach, which is probably more likely, would involve giving individual comics more of an identity than all but the most popular comics currently have on the syndicates’ web sites (and suggests a very different approach than the one I laid out), which even if any syndicate had taken the Kurtz-Guigar offer, they might be loath to do. It would involve encouraging comic creators to start blogging, to build a connection between themselves, the fans, and the comic that helps to tie them all together, to humanize the creators and make the comic just one aspect of the relationship between themselves and their readers – the most important aspect, maybe, but only one nonetheless.

To help understand what’s going on here, let’s consider one of the most successful newspaper comics still running, Dilbert. Scott Adams was always one of the more web-savvy of creators (printing his e-mail address in his comic before anyone else) and his comic’s site in many ways reflects his ability to nimbly shift into the modern digital age. There’s a lot going on here: the comic is in the center of the page, but there are also elements at the top linking to “mashups”, “animation”, Adams’ personal blog, and the store. Below the comic are three links to three different parts of the site: the blog, the “featured strip” in the archive, and a plug for the most recent book collection. Below that, then, are a couple other links.

It’s a very well-designed site that clearly reflects a lot of wisdom taken from webcomics and even some of what Kurtz is doing. But how might we make it better? One thing that jumps to mind is to push the blog to the front page. If the comic is then pushed to another page like Penny Arcade and PVP, everything on the site is tied closer together with the creator and the fandom, with Adams becoming the main personality and the comic forming one part of it, with perhaps the first panel of the current comic appearing in a little space alongside the blog. “The Dilbert Filter” should probably be moved to a more prominent location, perhaps a sidebar alongside the blog; note that all three elements are roughly analogous to elements on PVP‘s site. The comic, blog, and store are the three most important elements and the ones most emphasized on every page.

Dilbert is an example of a comic that could adopt the community approach, namely built around the workplace and all the idiots who inhabit it. Reader submissions have always been a big source of material for Adams. A message board would be an excellent addition here, for people to trade stories and the like. The comic could remain the main attraction, but the rest of the site could be set up to facilitate interaction among the fans and with the author. Dilbert could take some cues from User Friendly in this.

Thinking over this, I’m beginning to realize that as much as the news posts may be the real attraction of Penny Arcade, as much of a reason to put it on the front page as anything is to make Gabe and Tycho seem less like webcomickers and more like guys who make webcomics. It makes the creators look less like webcomic-producing machines and more like real people. Gabe and Tycho have taken this to an extreme, where the comic is really just an illustration to go along with the news post, but the same principle applies to a lesser extent to what PVP is doing (and for that matter, Ctrl+Alt+Del and The Order of the Stick as well), and to an even lesser extent to all webcomic news posts. Pushing the comic off the main page helps the site feel like more than a holding place for the comic. Good web design says visitors should be able to get to the content they want with as few clicks as possible, but if the syndicates want to try to make their creators feel less like soulless corporate hacks, good web design may go out the window, in favor of giving the comic a genuine “home page”. (And not one like what Garfield has; that one makes it seem more like a soulless corporate enterprise, while also proving the point that putting the comic on the front page doesn’t have to be the default.)

So yeah, as much of a lapdog for Bengo as I can seem sometimes, I have to praise Kurtz and Guigar here. They may very well have hit upon a rather fruitful approach to reinventing webcomics, and while it may seem like an odd blueprint to use comic-strip syndicates as the guinea pigs for, that may say more about the syndicates and their clients than about the blueprint, Kurtz, or Guigar. Still, I can’t help but wonder if what I said back in February might be more useful to the syndicates, given their culture and overall business model and the entirety of the landscape facing them.

UPDATE: Guigar himself clarifies his remarks in the comments. Also, I am left in complete awe at seeing him comment on my site.

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