Category Archives: Webcomics’ Identity Crisis

Rethinking Penny Arcade

For as long as I have been following webcomics, I have been perplexed by the wild popularity of Penny Arcade. In my original review I reached the conclusion that it was the blog posts on the front of the site, of which the comic was a mere illustration, that were the real source of the comic’s popularity, and very little I’ve seen since has dissuaded me from that.

Last Friday, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins announced that Penny Arcade would be scaling back considerably; gone would be the Penny Arcade Report or third-party videos on PATV. The implication of the blog post seemed to be that if it weren’t for how huge Child’s Play or PAX had become, they’d be abandoning those things too.

This is a surprising about-face on a number of levels. For one thing, I don’t think the PAR really had a chance to reach the same levels of indispensability as Child’s Play or PAX, only going on for a year and a half. For another, just last year PA held a Kickstarter to remove ads from its web site that, regardless of its original intentions, ended up growing their brand even further, through the creation of the Strip Search web-reality show (though in retrospect that Kickstarter could be seen as a warning shot that something like this could be coming down the pike). It’s tempting to read this as a response to numerous controversies that PA had gotten into recently, especially a job posting that seemed to encourage applicants to lower their salary expectations – a pure cost-cutting effort, in other words.

Still, when I read this, I wanted to be a fly on the wall when Gabe and Tycho told their sugar daddy Robert Khoo about their decision. Khoo once told Gary “Fleen” Tyrell that PA was “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.” Gabe and Tycho now seem to have gone the opposite direction: they have effectively made clear that they don’t want to be a general “content-creating company focused on the video game industry”.

To be sure, it’s not like Khoo forced everything they’ve done over the past 15 years on them; Gabe introduced the PAR as “what we want to see from games journalism”, and both Child’s Play and PAX occurred as a result of Gabe and Tycho thinking about various issues. At no point did they do anything solely because Khoo told them it was the next step they needed to take on their march to global domination. Rather, it seems that Gabe and Tycho have come to the same realization I’ve tried to follow: that just because you feel someone should do something doesn’t mean you’re the ones to do it.

You might think the lesson here is a variation on an old theme: not to do something just because “that’s what you do” or “that’s what you need to do to grow your business” or your “brand”, but because you actually want to do it. And maybe it is. But if I was right about PA – if, as I put it when the PAR launched, “the larger empire that PA has grown into is not a symptom of its success; rather, it literally is its success” – I can’t help but wonder if Gabe and Tycho may have just made the decision to take down all that made them popular in the first place. By keeping Child’s Play and PAX they may only be turning back the clock to five to eight years ago, still a stage when they were the envy of the webcomics community, but they may still prove to be a cautionary tale, a sign that sometimes, those people telling you to “grow your brand” may have a point, because without them you may not have a brand.

Breaking Bad and the future of scripted linear television

Of the many cable series that have attracted tremendous critical acclaim and popularity in recent years, there is one in particular that seems to be reaching its zenith in popular culture in its final year, one that has certainly received its share of critical acclaim but isn’t even the biggest critical darling (or, arguably, most popular show) on its own network. That show is Breaking Bad.

Grantland’s Bill Simmons describes how Breaking Bad airing its last few episodes head-to-head with Sunday Night Football over the next few weeks is forcing him to make the sort of decision that seemed to have been left behind in the pre-DVR era:

Back then, most people couldn’t record two shows at the same time, and you didn’t have to worry about an unexpected moment being spoiled on Twitter…So you simply recorded The Wire and watched the game live. And that became the habit on Sunday nights, at least for me — record the good Sunday-night show (Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Dexter, whatever), avoid it until the football game finished, then throw that episode down like television dessert…[But] this final season of Breaking Bad changed the rules…It’s the greatest final season of any television show. At least so far. Two different times this season (including last week), the show ended in such an electric way that I didn’t even know what to do with myself. After last Sunday’s episode, I somehow ended up in my backyard — I don’t even know how I got there. And there are three episodes left!…For the first time, I find myself choosing an already-filmed, can-watch-it-whenever-I-want television show over live football.

At a time when DVRs and online streaming threaten to make the traditional linear broadcast schedule obsolete for scripted shows, is Breaking Bad a glimpse into the future, a preview for how a scripted show on a linear television network can be so compelling as to pull a sports fan away from the almighty NFL? Outlining how Breaking Bad got to this point, Slate’s Willa Paskin describes an aggressively modern, yet potentially soon to be normal, rise to prominence, and identifies in Breaking Bad the qualities that can allow a scripted show to survive on linear television:

The ratings success of Breaking Bad shows that excellent programming can grow an audience, a big audience, if treated with proper patience…Breaking Bad is also, perhaps, proof of what a really propulsive plot can get you. Mad Men was media-friendly and stylistically aspirational from the very start, but it does not have the same What happens next?! vibe as Breaking Bad, and its slower-growing audience reflects that. Don Draper looks great and deep, but there is still nothing like a cliffhanger to make sure an audience checks in at the appointed time.

Once you’ve had a shot of a show like Breaking Bad, in other words, it’s like crack (or, perhaps more appropriately, meth): it keeps you coming back every week to find out how the story unfolds next. Social media reinforces this process and forces someone like Simmons to tune in at the appointed time, not a second later, lest spoilers litter the feed. HBO understands this well, which is why so many of its most popular and talked-about shows, like Game of Thrones and True Blood, are heavily serialized.

But while such shows can ensure that no one who starts watching will dare to stop, it can also make it difficult for any potential new viewers to join in, lost in the thicket of continuity built up over the seasons. This helps explain why broadcast networks have typically been reticent to air serialized shows in primetime. Instrumental in the slow growth in Breaking Bad‘s audience and AMC’s willingness to wait for that audience to build, Paskin notes, was the ability to catch up on past episodes on Netflix; even if the show premiered with middling numbers, any new viewer could watch all the previous episodes and be as up to speed as someone there from the beginning. (Webcomic aficianados may recognize this as the archive binge.)

If and when the day ever comes that a scripted show can just as easily be released over the Internet as over a traditional linear television channel – and that day may be fast approaching, given Netflix’s own investment in original series – there will need to be a good reason for it to be tied down to a slot on a linear television channel, a reason that can compel millions of people to tune in at one particular time, as opposed to watching at their leisure. Ironically, the best bet for compelling such behavior is another aggressively modern technology, social media, and the desire to engage with the discussion about the show on social media or simply avoid the spoilers that discussion inevitably contains.

In other words, the most important property that the TV show of the future can have is the modern equivalent of “water cooler value”, and that value is amplified when people are so engaged with the content they have to see “what happens next” as it happens. As I explained four years ago, the latter is best served with serialized installments doled out slowly on a regular basis to build anticipation for what comes next, which Paskin suggests belies Netflix’s own strategy of releasing entire seasons of its own original series at once. If it becomes harder for a scripted series to justify its place on a linear television schedule, then such serialized shows are investments requiring much more patience than broadcast networks have shown in recent years, and the ability to easily catch up on past episodes is instrumental to allow the audience for such a show to grow fairly quickly over the seasons. Regardless of whatever else you may think about the CBS-Time Warner Cable dispute that ended earlier this month, this is why Les Moonves’ desire to secure CBS’ right to sign digital distribution deals with platforms beyond cable operators was so relevant.

I personally think most of what currently passes for a scripted show on linear television will move to the Internet within a decade. What’s left, though, will need to provide a good reason for people to come back at the exact same time every week – and in doing so, they may want to take a few pages from webcomics’ playbook.

How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part V: The Reinvention of E-Mail (And How Another Blast from the Past Could Be Your Google Reader Replacement)

If you follow my tweeter, you know that I finally got on board the smartphone bandwagon a few months ago, shortly after completing (or so I thought) this series. I’d lost my cell phone back in February and for all her reticence, Mom wanted me to have a cell phone while she took a vacation in Phoenix over my spring break, so she gave me her old iPhone. As you might expect, it has proceeded to become a massive time-suck, not helped by my laptop being unusable during the break and falling apart now (I honestly fully expected to have a Windows 8 tablet by now, but Mom actually seems to be holding out for the more expensive tablet with cellular access).

Confession time: the e-mail address I’ve given on Da Blog in the past, the mwmailsea at yahoo dot com one? I’ve actually checked it very seldomly for years. For the most part, it’s filled up with a bunch of newsletters I signed up for many years ago, some not even intentionally, most of them before I got IE7 and its accompanying RSS reader, that I never really intended to even read, so the signal to noise ratio has been low and I’ve generally used another e-mail address to actually communicate with my family, therapists, and school personnel. Even that address I’ve never checked as obsessively as some people check their e-mail.

Now, however, I’ve hooked up both e-mail accounts to the iPhone’s e-mail app, meaning I now find myself checking both accounts regularly throughout the day. In the process, a funny thing has happened. Those newsletters that I signed up for lo those many years ago, that I’ve never given a second thought to in years? I’ve actually bothered to look at some of them, and some have managed to link me to rather interesting articles, some of which I’ve even gone on to link elsewhere.

For years, e-mail has sort of been the quiet, unsung backing of Internet communication. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more have continued to seize the headlines, e-mail has remained the same, quietly plugging away and serving as the backbone of everything else. Almost every time you’ve set up an account on a new site, or submitted a blog comment, you’ve had to provide a valid e-mail address, but e-mail itself has remained under the radar, with most people using it either for one-on-one communication or as a dummy to throw at those sites asking for one. But with e-mail now taking a newly central role on smartphones and tablets, it’s possible it could be the key to understanding the future of the Internet.

Earlier in this series, I mentioned that there may soon be a new syndication mechanism geared towards blogs, one that doesn’t simply collect text the way RSS does but allows blog creators to optimally place ads and other content. Could the e-mail newsletter be that mechanism? E-mail allows for the addition of images to such an extent that you can make it look like your actual website in a way RSS doesn’t allow, and most blogs already have the ability to subscribe via e-mail tucked away somewhere. Even the structure is more in your control; many big sites offer a daily roundup of relevant stories in one complete package. It does have a number of drawbacks; besides the susceptibility to spam and viruses, which leads many e-mail providers to put up filters that break images, signing up for too many newsletters could overwhelm you without filters to move them into folders, which doesn’t always work. (This is the case with RSS as well, but folders are easier and more reliable there.)

Webcomics tend not to support e-mail delivery. There seems to be a philosophy around the webcomics community these days that says that the design of your site is as much a part of your comic as the comic itself. There’s something to be said for that, but only insofar as the design of your site serves to define your site. As Part IV should have made clear, site design becomes less important in a mobile world, unless you’re talking about the design of your app, which is pretty much the same thing. Besides the ability to customize e-mail to look more like your site, two elements are really the only ones important enough to be included in an e-mail, assuming you don’t just ape what you’re putting in RSS feeds already (for comics that put their comic images in their RSS feeds): an ad and perhaps a link to the store. This could be another place where “comics page” services could come in handy, if not with delivering comic images alongside ads the revenue from which gets passed on to creators, then at least with links to comics that have updated since the last e-mail.

Perhaps the revival of e-mail could be the key to bringing everything together into the decentralized social network I put forward at the end of Part III. It won’t be able to do everything, since e-mail is still geared more towards one-to-one communication, and other things will need to take the role currently filled by the social networks of today – although Tumblr and Twitter might cover most of what’s needed, especially since most e-mail clients allow you to sort your contacts into groups that you can then contact all of with the push of a button, serving a similar function to Google+’s circles. Regardless of anything else, it seems clear to me that e-mail is a critical cog in understanding the Internet of the future.

How Windows 8 Changes Everything, Part IV: The Triumph of Scott McCloud (Or: “Webcomics” Are Dead. Long Live Digital Comics.)

But for all of hypertext’s advantages, the basic ideas behind hypertext and comics are diametrically opposed! Hypertext relies on the principle that nothing exists in space. Everything is either here, not here, or connected to here, while in the temporal map of comics, every element of the work has a spatial relationship to every other element at all times.
-Scott McCloud, Reinventing Comics

In an app-based future, one where social media becomes most people’s gateway to the Internet if not defining it, it’s easy to fear, as John Allison did a few weeks ago, that those who have taken advantage of the openness of the Web may find themselves increasingly abandoned and unable to gain traction. But as I said in Part II and in my response to Allison, the tools of the new Internet paradigm are open to anyone, with nothing stopping it from being as open, if not more so, than the old Web-based paradigm.

Four years ago, I wrote my Webcomics’ Identity Crisis series, the core of which (in Parts III and IV) explored the obstacles to the future of comics Scott McCloud outlined in Reinventing Comics. I felt that the one revolution McCloud advocated – the infinite canvas – was wholly dependent on the other – micropayments – in order to truly catch on, because any other revenue model (where the form the online version took was relevant, that is) depended on the breaking up of the story into parts, defeating much of the point of the infinite canvas and often even rendering it counterproductive. Micropayments, for their part, were doomed to fail, at least as far as webcomics were concerned, because of the psychological barrier against paying anything for anything – perhaps they might have become the norm if they were ready when the Internet started catching on, but so long as enough of the Internet’s content was available for free, it would be extremely difficult to produce something with enough value that, even with all the stuff out there for free, a substantial number of people would be willing to pay even a cent or two for it, especially if it was possible, even easy, for someone to repost it elsewhere for free, especially if they had to buy it sight-unseen from someone whose content they didn’t already know they wanted, and especially if they had to pay for something that had previously been free.

Ironically, one of the more famous proponents of the “psychological barrier” theory for the failure of micropayments was… Chris Anderson, in his book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Though he never directly mentioned it, perhaps hoping people wouldn’t notice the contradiction and accuse him of holding whatever position attracted the most attention, “The Web is Dead” could be seen as an implicit admission of how wrong he was then. The thesis of “The Web is Dead” was that people would pay for the same content they could get for free, simply because it came in a form worked better and was easier for them. If we are increasingly moving to a future where consumers are increasingly willing to pay to receive content on their smartphones once available on the Internet for free, it may well be only a matter of time before micropayments take hold in this far more fertile soil.

Already most of the apps in the Windows store are available for less than half of the magic $10 price most online retailers need to hit to justify the cost of a single credit card transaction. I’ve long felt that the fees people pay to their Internet service provider for Internet access were low-hanging fruit for micropayments, similar to how charges for pay-per-view content appear on your cable bill, if it weren’t for the numerous ways to access the Internet that other people pay for. The advent of cloud computing and the single login, including devices like those that run Windows 8 that are tightly associated with a single online account, makes it far easier to charge your credit card on the fly without introducing extra steps and at virtually any price. While producers of “fungible” content that can easily be spread elsewhere will probably continue to need to offer their wares for free (or just enough to render piracy inconvenient), we may one day see the day where producers of other types of content, to take just one example, allow anyone to access their content for a small charge, or for free if you buy their app once (and possibly pay a regular subscription fee thereafter).

It’s highly unlikely that a single comic, even a full-size comic book or graphic novel, would justify its own app, but the point is the technology exists to offer it at any price, regardless of the mechanism. We’ve already seen the development of an “iTunes” for comics, in the form of Comixology and its associated formats, and Marvel and DC have already embraced the online, digital distribution of their wares for new mobile devices, with Marvel even going so far as to produce what I call “digital stage comics” for their Avengers v. X-Men event. As Allison’s attitude shows, however, the webcomic community has been surprisingly slow to adapt to this new world order. Many webcomics have developed apps for the distribution of their content, but like webcomics in general, most of them are comic strips easily suited to distribution on a periodical basis (though Least I Could Do offers access to its archives through its app for just 99 cents).

If the web starts to be pushed to the background, you could see webcomics, as we know them today, pushed to the background as well. Even comic-strip-type webcomics may soon find their main means of distribution through “comic page” apps that aggregate them together. (One wonders if this was one of the ideas Scott Kurtz planned to hawk to syndicates with last year’s consulting offer.) But the real impact will be felt in “long-form” comic-book-like webcomics, who could jump at the chance to exploit the exposure advantages of the Internet without any of the drawbacks. It was, after all, the comic book model McCloud had in mind with his advocacy of micropayments and the infinite canvas. While the problem of spending money on unproven content hasn’t gone away entirely, some workarounds have sprung up; recently my dad published a prose novel that he promoted in part by making a short snippet available free for people considering the book on Amazon, a tactic that has apparently helped many novels achieve success through online sales, including some you may have heard of.

Beyond micropayments making the infinite canvas far easier to monetize, the advent of touchscreen-enabled devices eliminates the main interface-based constraint on the infinite canvas as well. Maintaining an “unbroken reading line” would seem to imply the horizontal infinite canvas, where the row of panels scrolls off to infinity to the right, but most applications of the infinite canvas have been of the vertical variety, due to the nature of mouse wheels, the most hassle-free way to scroll on the computer. But the touchscreen does away with the need to scroll entirely; all it takes is a swipe to move to a different part of the canvas, or moving the finger across the screen. It’s even possible to zoom in with the double-tap. This isn’t limited to comics; I really don’t like how the Kindle and other e-readers feel the need to stick to the norms of print by chopping up books into discrete pages. I don’t know this either way, but I hope Comixology’s formats and others allow people to make their “page” whatever size they wish if they so choose; we could see an explosion in long-form stories told in forms unthinkable not too long ago. I can’t help but wonder if, when McCloud semi-unintentionally anticipated the iPad in Reinventing, he was giving a look at the sort of device that he had in mind when talking about the infinite canvas, without explicitly stating so.

Many of the applications of the infinite canvas McCloud proposed will probably always be too gimmicky to catch on, but there’s nothing stopping those applications with real storytelling potential from changing the way you look at comics. It’s possible the digital comic of the future will look a lot like Homestuck – essentially, a variant on the digital stage comic, only told in many thousands of tiny chunks, highlighting another failing of hypertext: the way advertising on the Web rewards breaking stories up into as many tiny units as possible so as to score more pageviews to drive up the price of advertising. With alternate business models, it would no longer be necessary to exploit perverse incentives like this, because the reader could be charged directly in a way that makes sense.

This is only a hint of how the move to an app-based future can be a boon to independent producers of content prepared for it, despite the decline of the open, free-wheeling web they have taken advantage of to this point. We could be on the verge of an explosion in content of all shapes and sizes, a golden age of artists flocking to the most rewarding environment the arts has ever seen, creating content that takes forms never before possible, and potentially achieving the long-deferred vindication of Scott McCloud’s original vision. The rise of devices like the iPad and Surface doesn’t mark the end or a decline of the great revolution impelled by the rise of the Internet over the course of the last decade. Rather, it’s just the beginning.

Some Quick Thoughts on the Future of Webcomics

Last week John Allison of Scary Go Round and more recently Bad Machinery fame wrote a blog post expressing his fear that, as more and more webcartoonists took to social networking sites like Tumblr, it would be harder for them to make money off their work because even if their work went viral, it would get lost in the shuffle of people’s Tumblr feeds and no one would make the connection to them as the creator of that work. As a result, he fears the decline of the sort of “community” that has so characterized webcomics up to this point.

Personally, I think his fears are overblown; for one thing, I find it hard to compare Tumblr cartoonists with other webcartoonists, in part because most blogging platforms that aren’t modified WordPress make poor places to put up webcomics anyway, mostly due to archive management. As such, I suspect most Tumblr cartoonists aren’t very interested in fame and fortune anyway, and are more of the David Morgan-Mar frame of mind, of just wanting to share their creations with the world. In any case, the question is, would, say, Kate Beaton still have attracted a large following if she’d started out on Tumblr instead of LiveJournal? (After all, the former is essentially an evolved version of the latter.) Since most webcomics got their start through word of mouth, I find it hard to believe that the boom in social networking is anything but good for them (though whether it’s good for the quality of content that becomes popular is another matter, if it means the most popular comics essentially become nothing but meme factories).

But Allison’s broader fear is the notion that, for many, “social media ARE the Internet”, making it harder for web sites like his to catch anyone’s notice. I think this too is overblown, but mostly because of a far larger force reshaping the Internet that’s both largely responsible for that notion and that could end up sweeping both visions of the Internet under its feet, one that does pose a tremendous challenge, but ultimately a tremendous opportunity, for webcomics. I’ll have more on that next week.

Webcomic reviews! That’s a completely original idea!

Back in 2009, during my previous webcomic-reviewing life, I discovered Komix! after that site made multiple appearances in the ads for Da Blog. Though my initial main concern was the ability to add RSS feeds for comics that didn’t have RSS feeds at the time, I got the sense that the real core of the site was its interface for browsing comics’ archives and tracking your progress, which I ended up making use of for my Scary Go Round review. On the other hand, it was essentially run by a single person who gave it a weird gimmick of adding exactly one new comic to the service a day. Eventually, several comics (including Order of the Stick) lost the ability to use Komix to browse their archives (which, since Komix’ browser loaded the full content of each page without stripping out or adding ads, I didn’t quite understand), and the site as a whole inevitably fell by the wayside as its proprietor became busy with real life.

When David Morgan-Mar and his friends started mezzacotta, one of the “half-baked” ideas they trotted out on it was Archive Binge, Morgan-Mar’s attempt at creating a Ryan North-esque webcomic tool. The idea was to make it easier to catch up on webcomics with massive archives by allowing people to create their own custom RSS feeds to read them in chunks of up to ten comics a day. Somewhat paradoxically, the entire point of it was not to “binge” on a webcomic’s archives in a short amount of time, but rather to consume the comic in more sane portions spread out over a period of time. Perhaps something like “Archive Diet” or “Archive Tour” would have been more appropriate. Regardless, I got the sense that the project eventually stalled with a somewhat disappointing number of strips supported.

Fast-forward to about a month ago, when I learn from Fleen that Morgan-Mar has handed over control of Archive Binge to some outfit called Comic Rocket that I’m hearing of for the first time. Comic Rocket turns out to be something akin to a better-supported, more-professional version of Komix. It, too, seems to have as its main feature the ability to bookmark your place in any comic and move it as you go along, which (in theory) makes it a great home for Archive Binge, but it also seems to have considerably more support from the webcomic community, more people working on it than just one, and way more comics in its system than Komix has ever had. (It also recently finished a crowdfunding operation to create a mobile app that ended up surprisingly disappointing, only making its $5000 goal fairly late and barely cracking its $7000 stretch goal for Android support; I wonder if it would have gotten more support if it were on Kickstarter rather than the more obscure, Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s success notwithstanding, Indiegogo?)

One of the things that has long held me back as a webcomic reviewer is my desire to hold some sort of archive binge for all but the most continuity-free strips. Even complete gag comics with zero returning characters or continuity still get archive-binged to a limited extent, because it’s not just having a proper appreciation of the events leading up to the present, it’s also about having a large enough sample of work fresh enough in memory to form an opinion of a comic as a whole. And archive binges are time-consuming things; even Gunnerkrigg Court, which struck me by the speediness of its archive binge, damn near monopolized a weekend, and that’s time I don’t actually have. So I can sympathize with Morgan-Mar’s desire to make it easier to catch up on a long-running strip. Hell, I’ve done it; on at least two different strips (Doonesbury and Sluggy Freelance) I’ve stared a thousands-of-comics-long archive in the face and told myself that just by reading two comics each day I’m already doubling the comic’s update rate and so will have to catch up eventually, no matter how long that takes.

So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve identified four or five comics I’ve been meaning to review and started Archive Binge feeds for all of them (as well as a few other comics I want to catch up on). Once those feeds are all caught up, I’ll move them to my tryout space for reading as it comes out for however long it takes to get an impression of it in that state, at which point it’ll be time to write the review. I hope this will allow me to write reviews significantly faster than the snail’s pace I seem to have always worked on them at without getting too much in the way of other obligations. That said, I’m a little worried about how this will change the reading experience; I’ll be getting a comic in little dribbles at a time, dribbles that will have to compete with several other dribbles for my attention, and the process of archive binging will be stretched out over a substantially longer period of time. I may be moving substantially faster than the comic’s own update pace, but catching up this way may impede my ability to get that sense of a comic as a whole.

The way Archive Binge itself is set up doesn’t help; although it’s tied in with Comic Rocket’s own interface and now supports every single one of its comics (including more than a few newspaper comics), beyond that it probably hasn’t been modified much from its mezzacotta incarnation, not even affecting the bookmark under any circumstances (while there were times I wished I could decline to advance Komix’s bookmark, not having the option to start moving it when I’m on the same page as it is a major pain with Comic Rocket). To me, the most glaring issue is that there seems to be no way to increase the rate of update beyond 10 comics a day, which seems low. It’s nowhere near sufficient for Homestuck, but even beyond that it seems to cause older webcomics’ archives to take a disturbingly long time to get through (expect me to review a lot more low-continuity gag-a-day comics and meme factories) and doesn’t provide that good sense of a webcomic as a whole I’m looking for, which could exacerbate the reading-experience issues I worry about. 20-25 would seem to be a more realistic cap; I originally intended to set the update rate for each strip at whatever would take no more than 15 minutes to get through, but quickly decided to set them all at 10.

Personally, I have to scratch my head at Archive Binge’s very structure, which dumps whatever number of links you set into your RSS reader. Regardless of the comic, they’re all links, so you have to click on them to bring them up, but you’re not going to be clicking on each link to bring up each comic; you’re going to click on the first link and then you’re going to want to use whatever interface that page presents to move to the others. Naturally, most RSS readers sort entries in reverse chronological order by default, which means the link you’re presented is the opposite of the one you want, and while Google Reader (for example) allows you to sort each feed oldest first, a) setting it for a folder’s full view doesn’t set it for the child feeds, despite the reverse appearing to be true, and b) it only allows you to set whether or not to show read items on a global basis, despite this seemingly being a prerequisite for the oldest-first view to be of any use at all (aside from, well, archive-binging) and thus defeating the point of making the latter something that can be set feed-by-feed (a lingering general issue I have with Reader).

(To be fair, the issues with Archive Binge’s implementation are multiplied by a) two false starts on getting started with this experiment causing unread entries to pile up in Reader and, more importantly, b) other things about Reader that interfere with Archive Binge’s apparent intended workings, namely, the fact that all entries are marked as read automatically as you scroll down, with entries taking a ton of space in a small window. If I were working in Internet Explorer’s RSS reader, all entries would be marked as read as soon as I left the page, and the sort order would, ideally, be completely irrelevant.)

If I were designing it, I would tie it in much more closely with the other functionality of the site, and indeed make it something that was less of an RSS feed and more something that applied to your Comic Rocket account directly, essentially providing a direct reminder (or something) to stop once you reached the end of your allotted pages for the day, and tracking pages still to be read for the day as a subset of the entire unread portion of the archive.

But then, I’m not sure Comic Rocket understands what the point of bookmarks are when it comes to webcomics, because they seem to be trying to give their site a “social” dimension, allowing you to “share” what comics you’re reading (and not allowing you to choose which ones to share except indirectly by content rating), despite the fact that the bookmark function (which is how “reading” is defined) is primarily useful for catching up on webcomics, not reading them as they come out, or in other words, when you’re trying out a new webcomic as opposed to already knowing you like it. As it stands, Comic Rocket is of limited usefulness for tracking comics you’re already reading, especially if you have an RSS reader (which, you know, you kinda need to use the whole Archive Binge thing); if anything, without Archive Binge being more integrated into the main Comic Rocket interface, trying to use it to read comics as they come out just gets annoying because it gets in the way of the comics you’re trying to catch up on.

As such, I’m not sure I know what Comic Rocket is actually trying to do, and I’m not sure they know either. I think they have potential as a “comics page” to keep up with your favorite webcomics as well as those comics you’re trying to catch up on (without losing the aspect of linking to the original site as opposed to simply stealing images from it), but right now they seem to be trying to serve several masters at once and serving none of them well. It is in “beta”, as meaningless as that can seem on the Internet, but there are definitely enough signs of unfinished business, especially where Archive Binge is concerned (besides the above, clicking to set up a new Archive Binge feed doesn’t take you directly to actually set it up; you have to click again to “edit” your new feed to do so, which seems to violate User Interface Design 101) but also in other areas (the site and Archive Binge in particular is damn near useless when it comes to Girls with Slingshots, where its crawler picks up old, outdated news posts along with actual comics, which probably afflicts other comics as well), that maybe it can improve over time.

Regardless, I’m going to give Comic Rocket and Archive Binge a go, and I’m going to press on with this experiment for the time being, so look forward to more webcomic reviews sometime in April; I’ve added a tentative schedule to the Webcomic Review Index that I reserve the right to change at any time (and incidentally, with ArtPatient not updating in ages, I’m running low on ideas for future webcomic blog reviews; any other good webcomic blogs you know of, preferably not podcasts or behind a paywall?). But I do hope the proprietors of Comic Rocket try to figure out why some webcomics had Komix access shut down and avoid those same mistakes; fortunately, their robust system of bookmarklets, partly designed as a way to avoid using the interface, seems like a potentially viable backup plan if they can continue to collect archive links (not to mention being the only competent way to read comics like Girls with Slingshots).

So, what’s this newfangled “webcomics” thing, anyway?

DISCLAIMER: The linking of a webcomic in this post should not be taken to mean these are the only good webcomics out there, or even that I necessarily endorse them. They are primarily intended as demonstrations where they appear.

“Wet tonic”? What’s that?

A webcomic is, basically, a comic that appears on the web. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

Okay, so what kind of comic are we talking about? There’s a lot of different kinds out there. Are we talking newspaper comic strips, comic books like with the X-Men in them, stand-up comedians, or something else?

All of the above and then some. (Well, maybe not the stand-up comedian part, although that kind of “webcomic” could exist too.) Many of your favorite newspaper comic strips are available online, and have been for well over a decade, complete with archives of at least a month, at sites like GoComics.com. And both Marvel and DC comics have made a substantial portion of their libraries available online as well. The beauty of the web is, because it’s not tied to the size of a printed page, a comic can be any size you want – but we’ll get to that later.

So, those newspaper comic strips and comic books that I can read online, those are webcomics?

I guess technically they are. This is where we get into the thorny area of our definition of webcomics. For the most part, calling something a “webcomic” typically means it appeared on the web first, before appearing in some other form. For example, there was a series of steampunk graphic novels called Girl Genius whose creators decided to start publishing its pages on the Web for eventual collection into print form. Once they did that, it became a webcomic.

On the other hand, that still means you could conceivably call most newspaper comic strips webcomics, not to mention a handful of comic books that show up online on the same day they’re published. So I guess it’s not good enough to be simultaneous; they have to appear on the web before they ever appear in print. If they ever appear in print.

Okay, but I still don’t have a good have a good idea of what a webcomic is. What does a webcomic look like?

Well, again, there’s really no constraints as to what a webcomic might look like, so webcomics come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, though most try to look like newspaper comic strips to some extent, and most of the rest look like comic book pages. PVP is about the goings-on in the offices of a gaming magazine, and essentially looks like it would fit right in in your local newspaper. Penny Arcade, a commentary on video games so wildly popular it’s become a franchise spawning its own gaming conventions, uses substantially taller panels. Ctrl+Alt+Del, a comic about a group of gamers and the subject of a very vocal section of the Internet that hates its guts, arranges its panels in a 2×2 grid. Questionable Content, which can probably be best described as a snarkier Friends, uses four panels stacked one on top of the other. And plenty of other webcomics don’t use a consistent style at all, especially the more memetic or editorial-cartoony ones like the even more wildly popular xkcd. Most webcomics in the comic-book tradition, like the aforementioned Girl Genius, post a single page each time they update, though the lack of constraints the format provides means that some, like The Order of the Stick, can be more flexible with the format when circumstances warrant. And then there are comics with even weirder formats.

Scott McCloud, a comic writer and artist who revolutionized the way people saw the medium in the early 90s when he created Understanding Comics, wrote a sequel, Reinventing Comics, in 2000 where, among other things, he suggested that the freedom the Internet and computers in general provide from the constraints of the page could allow comics artists to sprawl out indefinitely, allowing comics to take whatever shape might seem natural, even in three dimensions, an idea he somewhat inadvertently gave the name of the “infinite canvas”. So far such ideas have mostly been limited to gimmicky works where the idea is part of the point, with limited application in other works, partly because it’s harder to make money when your work isn’t serialized, and there’s a lot less reason to use the infinite canvas when it is serialized, leaving the infinite canvas to those who have free time and are more concerned about “purity” than anything else. Nonetheless, there are certainly a goodly number of interesting applications out there if you know where to look, and perhaps smartphones and tablets may make it more viable. For more traditional comic-book-style webcomics, McCloud suggested a half-page format that could fit within a monitor window to minimize scrolling.

I notice that a lot of these webcomics have to do with video games and other nerdy pursuits. Are there any webcomics a normal person might be interested in?

Yeah, that’s the thing about the Internet and technology in general: the first people to flock to something new will generally be geeks, nerds, geeknerds, and nerdgeeks. Unless it’s porn. But then, is there really a difference?

But yeah, nerds definitely seem to be over-represented in webcomics, even the ones that aren’t so obviously nerdy (Randall Munroe has a degree in physics and xkcd used to be infamous for its esoteric math jokes). Heck, many of the less nerdy gag-a-day strips have ended, though Kevin and Kell, a comic about a society of anthropomorphic animals made by a newspaper-comic veteran, is still going strong. Beyond that, a lot of the rest tend not to be for the faint of heart, whether it’s a comic about a sex freak (Least I Could Do) or a comic that just goes for as much shock value per comic as it can (Cyanide and Happiness).

I’d like to read a good story. What are some good comic-book-style webcomics out there?

There are three “long-form” webcomics in particular that tend to get praise heaped upon them for their stories, two of which we’ve already mentioned. Girl Genius, in addition to becoming a milestone for migrating from print comics to the web, tends to rack up a ton of awards; its steampunk – er, “gaslamp fantasy” – setting is utterly overrun by mad scientists. The Order of the Stick started out as a simple stick-figure comic riffing on what the Dungeons and Dragons rules must look like within the game world- and achieved enough popularity that way to start looking like the Penny Arcade of D&D – but eventually expanded that out into a truly epic fantasy story that I would be willing to put among the greats of the genre. Gunnerkrigg Court may look superficially like Harry Potter with a female protagonist, but it has its own themes and direction that give it a more mythological feel. All three are available in print, though I doubt you’ll find them at your local bookstore.

There are plenty of other good stories to be found among the world of webcomics as well; one of the deans of webcomics is Sluggy Freelance, which started out as a wacky anything-goes style comic, and never really stopped being such, but managed to turn its anything-goes nature into a huge sprawling plotline that now spans close to a decade and a half of material. Schlock Mercenary has been churning out its own brand of space opera every single day for over a decade now. And special mention should go to Homestuck, about a group of kids who begin playing a knockoff of The Sims – with a twist that leads them down a road beyond imagination, which has become a phenomenon that must be seen to be believed, and whose unique format defies description even as a webcomic.

Wait, all of those are incredibly nerdy too! Are there any story comics that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy?

Yeah, same problem as with the gag-a-day comics. Here’s the thing: a lot of the older, more successful webcomic creators tend to all know each other, as well as a number of more prominent webcomic bloggers, and they often tend to circlejerk around to work with each other and promote each other’s work, and since they tend to all be nerds, when they’re not promoting each other’s work they’re typically promoting stuff that’s equally nerdy. As a result, there’s a certain ecosystem of webcomics out there that tend to be more prominent than the others (which doesn’t necessarily correlate with popularity) and which tend to determine which comics occupy the next tier of prominence, and it’s very difficult for a non-nerdy webcomic to break into that logjam, especially when you consider that webcomics, as a whole, are still in many ways sort of a niche.

The closest things there are to a non-nerdy story-based webcomic – or really, the most prominent non-nerdy comics at all – are really more akin to soap-operatic newspaper strips that follow the ongoing trials and tribulations of a group of friends and the relationships between them, like Something Positive, Girls with Slingshots, and the aforementioned Questionable Content. But even those comics tend to have wacky elements that can border on the fantastic, to the point that QC has actually been described as sci-fi (though the other two aren’t really any weirder than, say, Dilbert). Then there’s Red String and Megatokyo, two manga-styled romance comics. But for the most part, it’s slim pickings if you’re not a nerd and want to add a true webcomic to your daily routine, though there are more than a few out there if you know where to look.

Aren’t all webcomics piles of utter bullcrap, often bordering on porn, created by egotistical d-bags with no one to stop them from publishing their monstrosities for the world to see?

It’s true that there are more than a few egotistical webcomics creators out there that rub people the wrong way, most prominently Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley of PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del respectively, but most webcomics creators seem to be genuinely interested in their fans, the world at large, and the development of the medium. The formation of a “webcomics community” may have formed a circlejerk that keeps the attention focused on certain kinds of work, but it’s also a mutually supportive place that seeks to elevate the standing and success of all involved, and it’s possible to become popular without it anyway, the same way anything else on the Internet becomes popular.

And while there are relatively few barriers to entry in webcomics, just as on the Internet as a whole, creating a webcomic is a bit more technically complex than creating something more textually oriented – the Internet is really more optimized for text than images, so the popularity of webcomics vis-a-vis more text-based fiction (webnovels?) is somewhat surprising if not mystifying. At the very least, you need someone with artistic skills, a useful art-making program like Adobe Illustrator (possibly along with expensive add-ons like a drawing tablet) or a good scanner, and the ability to upload images to a web site and stitch them together with hyperlinks in a coherent way. Between that and the general difficulty of making it in the crowded marketplace of the Internet, in my experience a webcomic generally needs to be pretty good in order to achieve the level of popularity necessary for success, so the cream does rise to the top. There are certainly plenty of crappy and porny webcomics, but also a number of truly worthy works, some of which I’ve named above, and which aren’t even that hard to find.

But if they were really that good, wouldn’t they have been published by a real comic publisher or syndicate?

Well, for one thing, a publisher or syndicate is a middleman who takes a cut of whatever money you make and often tries to exert control over your work, which has good and bad aspects. Perhaps that’s a tradeoff you’re willing to make when you compare it to the uncertainty that you’ll make one red cent off your comic online. But neither publishers nor syndicates are really all that good at it anymore; newspapers are dying, and while you can make some guaranteed money getting your strip syndicated, if your comic is really worthy you can get a larger, more devoted, and younger fanbase online. As for comic books, that market hasn’t been that big to begin with since at least the mid-90s, especially outside the big two superhero publishers, so if nothing else publishing your story online to start with can be a massive advertisement for potential readers, growing your potential fanbase exponentially, as the creators of Girl Genius can attest. So the creators of the best work might actually be better off on the web, regardless of their desire to make money. In other words? Webcomics are the future. Resistance is futile.

Okay, I’m interested. Where do I go if I want to learn more or discover more webcomics?

You can check out some of the webcomics I’ve reviewed, including some listed here, though keep in mind that I tend to be focused on my own enjoyment of a comic more than anything else and my tastes may not be the same as yours. At the least, be sure to read the full review and take my comments (especially some of my older reviews) with a grain of salt. There are some other webcomics critics out there, but you can probably count them on one hand; the dean of webcomics criticism is Eric Burns-White of Websnark, but these days he tends to post very rarely if at all, and even in his heyday he didn’t really “review” comics so much as comment on the ones he personally regularly read. Still, you can trawl through some of his older posts for some interesting insights. Really, the only other active, worthy webcomics critics I’m really aware of (aside from some occasional ventures on broader comics-focused sites) are Tangents and The Webcomic Overlook, both of which do engage in actual reviews of webcomics, though Tangents, like Websnark and myself, tends more often than not to go off on comics he’s already reading.

There are a number of other sites that aim to help you find webcomics you might enjoy, such as The Webcomic ListInk Outbreak or Just the First Frame. TopWebComics is the last bastion of what used to be a fairly big thing in webcomics, the ongoing popularity contest; while the big comics don’t need the publicity and so don’t partake in it, it’s still a good way to find some up-and-coming webcomics with a devoted enough fanbase.

I’m considering creating a webcomic. What should I do?

First, if you’re considering creating a webcomic for the fame or fortune, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. It is still incredibly difficult to make money on the Internet, with advertising rarely being a sufficient money stream by itself, and only a fraction of a fraction of webcomics are actually successful; by most counts, you’ll need a readership in the thousands before you can expect to see more than a trickle of money. The number of webcomics to make any sort of impact anywhere remotely resembling broader culture can probably be counted on one hand (namely, xkcd and Penny Arcade). Most webcomics attempt to make money through selling T-shirts, which generally means finding something memetic that people will lap up, with the comic itself struggling to become more than a thinly-disguised T-shirt advertisement. Selling print collections of the online comics is another popular monetary stream, though the availability of the comic free online kind of undercuts it. Still, it seems to be the main money stream for long-form, story-based comics, though it undercuts the whole idea of the infinite canvas. Since McCloud, the messianic promise of “micropayments” has hovered over webcomics and the Internet as a whole, and probably always will.

Second, the easiest way to set up a webcomic site is through something set up for the purpose. Webcomic hosts like Comic Genesis, the Duck and Webcomics Nation can give you everything you need to get going quickly, though they may not be the best choice for aspiring professionals, especially since they tend to attract works of mixed quality. Generally, the best comics on those sites leave when they really start going. Another approach is to use pre-boxed tools to build your own site; there are several plugins you can install on a WordPress site (like this one) to optimize it for webcomic publishing, ComicPress (and its sister Comic Easel) probably being the most well-known, though stripShow and Webcomic are options as well. Not having experience with any of these, I can’t tell you which is best. If you have programming knowledge or know a programmer, you could code your own site by hand, but that could very easily run into problems; I took a crash course in PHP and coded a fairly simple webcomic script when I dipped my own toe into webcomics for about a year and a half, but it doesn’t seem to work with modern versions of PHP and I can’t seem to get it to work.

Third, keep in mind that the setting of the web allows you to do a lot of things that aren’t really feasible in print, and not just making your comic any size you want. You can flesh out your comic beyond the comic itself with all sorts of metatextual information, such as cast descriptions and other aids to new readers, or hide exposition about the world or characters of your comic on separate pages so they don’t get in the way of the comic itself, or leave little notes alongside each installment of your comic that might include reminders of past events, comments on the action, or just whatever’s on your mind. It can help to see your webcomic as an entire web site of which the comic is only a part.

Finally, try to suck up as much knowledge as you can about how to do this; I can’t tell you everything you need to know, not least of the reasons why being I don’t have much experience at it myself. How to Make Webcomics, by four successful webcomic creators, is often considered the Bible for making a successful and profitable webcomic, though it definitely reflects the authors’ agendas and points of view, so take it with a grain of salt. There’s plenty of other advice out there on the web, including by webcomic creators themselves, reflecting that community I was talking about earlier. You might also want to check out McCloud’s books Understanding Comics and Making Comics, especially the online chapter of the latter all about webcomics.

Anything else?

Nothing leaps to mind. You might want to leave a comment on this page if you have any other questions, though. With the way webcomics continue to evolve, I’m sure most of this post will be obsolete within five years.

The Legacy of Homestuck and the Future of “Webcomics”

In the Year of the Kickstarter, where The Order of the Stick and Penny Arcade have seen runaway success on the crowdfunding site (and you have no idea how pleased I was to find out PA didn’t end up passing OOTS and in fact barely even cracked half a million, or only double its goal), it shouldn’t be too surprising to find Homestuck jumping on the bandwagon as well, and it should surprise exactly no one to find out that it stands to blow them both out of the water. Consider that it’s a video game Kickstarter, and it’s a mortal lock. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it challenging the most-funded projects in Kickstarter history, even considering how crowded that category has gotten this year; OOTS is still in ninth place, though there’s an active drive that stands to knock it down to tenth. I really don’t think becoming the fifth project to crack $3 million is out of the question.

Really, the idea behind the project makes a ton of sense. Not only is Homestuck, like the rest of MSPA, structured like an old text-based adventure game, but Hussie’s original plan was to do it entirely in Flash, only switching back to images with only the occasional Flash when the all-Flash approach proved to be too much work. One thing I was struck by, going through this original “beta”, is that Homestuck was originally going to be much more like a video game. Icons appear signalling things that can be clicked, to the effect that upon reaching the command “Remove CAKE from MAGIC CHEST”, you are actually invited to click on the cake and move it to the bed. I was so intrigued by this that I actually started going through and trying to figure out how Homestuck might have played out if it was a video game of this sort, even with some breathing room for player choice, and got through Act 2 before burning out.

On the other hand, that is not what this project is. Rather, it’s an effort to create a sequel to Homestuck in video game form, set within the same universe but probably not using any of the same characters. As such, my interest is considerably weaker than it might have otherwise been (I finally got around to reading Problem Sleuth, and while it started out pretty funny, it just started dragging on and on and on), though I certainly see why Hussie says he couldn’t possibly go that route.

However, what I’m really here to talk about is something I was struck by in Gary “Fleen” Tyrell’s initial writeup of the Kickstarter. You can read it here, but I’ve copy-and-pasted the relevant bit because it’s so important, and pay special attention to the second paragraph:

Let me tell you a little bit about Andrew Hussie and Homestuck: I have been struggling to read it, because it’s damn voluminous, dense, stuffed silly with music and interaction and games and self- and forward- and back-references and completely, utterly not for me.

It is the opening shot of the native culture of the second generation of internet users — the ones that have always lived there, not those of us that immigrated from the Old (nondigital) Country within our living memory. And here’s a hint for everybody that still remembers the Old (nondigital) Country: there’s more of them and fewer of us every day, so maybe if your livelihood depends on putting content in front of eyeballs in some fashion, you ought to be paying all the attention you can muster to Mr Hussie and the fans whose brains he lives in.

There’s been a lot of question over what medium to call Homestuck; while it’s usually called a webcomic, it ultimately blends elements of webcomics and video games with something completely original. I mentioned in my original review that Scott McCloud would not only refuse to call it a webcomic but would question whether it even took the medium in a good direction to go in. As with “About Digital Comics” (and the very occasional imitators thereof that have appeared since, which I call “digital stage comics” for reasons that post should make clear, and which MSPA might be seen as a variant of), though, I believe it most definitely is a productive direction to go in, maybe even more so.

In Understanding Comics, McCloud mentioned the tendency for new media to be seen through the lens of the old, often borrowing tropes from their parent media before developing some tropes of their own. I had serious issues with the story of Homestuck when I initially archive-binged it (my reaction might be similar to Tyrell’s, right down to the use of the Penny Arcade Defense), but perhaps its real legacy is in its utter redefinition of what we think of as webcomics. It is quite possible that the entirety of what we have been calling “webcomics” for the last decade and a half is little more than the “seeing new media through the lens of the old” stage of a medium we might call “visual online entertainment” for lack of a better term, and in this perhaps Homestuck is its Citizen Kane. And if that’s the case, surely it represents the ultimate realization of McCloud’s infinite-canvas vision, even if McCloud himself might disdain it.

When I questioned how many members of a “greatest webcomics” list would still be on it within ten years if webcomics fully explored their potential as a medium, I had no idea where that potential might lead – which is why I called that series “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis“. And when I suggested that a potential “greatest webcomics” list “would include at least some comics we can’t even imagine today”, Homestuck was precisely what I was referring to, even if I didn’t know it.

More on the Penny Arcade Kickstarter

It’s late, and the next part of the #OccupyTea series is substantially far away from completion and is probably going to undergo substantial revision before it goes up, so I want to say a little more about the Penny Arcade Kickstarter. I’ll probably have a more complete takedown later, but right now I want to tackle the way the PA guys are positioning this, that “rather than work for advertisers, we want to work for you”. Evidently, Gabe and Tycho would rather not be employing an ad sales staff and meeting the content needs of advertisers, and would rather devote the time and money currently going towards advertising towards creating new and better content instead.

This strikes me as a really, really, really, really weak argument, and it further weakens the notion that this represents any sort of breakthrough for other webcomics artists. Perhaps the PA guys have run the numbers and decided that having a dedicated ad sales team and personal relationships with advertisers would, even after considering the cost of said team, pay substantially more than Google or Project Wonderful ads to justify the expense in time, money, and integrity (assuming PA actually does lose any artistic or editorial integrity) over simply slapping on ads and passively monitoring whatever shows up on them. Even if so, would PA, one of if not the most popular webcomics on the Internet, actually still lose the ability to do all the things they want to do as a result of the Kickstarter by switching to Google or Project Wonderful, or some other such ad service? And considering that the vast majority of webcomics already use such services and so avoid the problems Gabe and Tycho want to avoid, would they actually gain anything from PA‘s success?

I don’t mean to denigrate a group of creators that understand how the Internet works a lot better than most big media corporations, with or without the Kickstarter. If PA can convince those big media corporations to embrace the Internet as well, more power to them. My worry is that what they are doing is wholly unnecessary and undermines other people trying to also make some money on the Internet or from Kickstarter. To the people Robert Khoo says come up to him and ask how they can support PA when they block ads and don’t buy merchandise, I say, “Penny Arcade runs one of the biggest entertainment and gaming expos on the planet. They don’t need your support. Instead, give your money to someone else who’s operating off the same basic model but doesn’t have PA‘s wild success.”

(And turn off your damn Adblock. Adblock should default to off with a blacklist for sites with bad ads, not default to on with a whitelist for sites with good ads.)

Bleep you, Penny Arcade.

You want us to give you a quarter of a million dollars – no, half a million dollars – no, a full million dollars just to take advertising off your site?

Why are so many webcomics people stuck in the 90s or early 2000s? What is it about people like Rich Burlew, David Morgan-Mar, and now Gabe and Tycho that make them think advertising is OMG the Ultimate Evil? Yeah, we don’t like ads on TV, and there are a lot of annoying ads on the Internet, but there are plenty of sites where ads are just part of the experience; you don’t have to accept the annoying ads if you don’t want to. And guess what: Gabe and Tycho don’t. Admittedly I don’t read PA regularly, but when I do I don’t even notice the ads.

How did this even get approved? Doesn’t Kickstarter have a thing about using their service to fund ongoing operating expenses?

The most successful webcomics creators out there are going to milk their fans of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars just to replace one revenue stream that seems to be working pretty well for all parties concerned. If OOTS could raise one-and-a-quarter million dollars, PA could raise far more than that; it could challenge the ranks of the highest-funded projects in Kickstarter history. That’s hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars that aren’t going to projects that could actually use the money – and I doubt much of that advertising money is going to anyone else, certainly not any other independent creators. (And don’t you dare compare this to OOTS; that was a project to reprint actual books and produce actual content, a project to actually do something that could provide actual value for fans, not to stop doing something no one wanted them to stop doing to begin with.)

Nor do I buy the argument by Eric Burns(-White) that this money wouldn’t find its way to other projects. Maybe not other webcomics projects, but PA is a videogame comic. Its audience is precisely that which is most likely to fund videogame Kickstarters – hell, Gabe and Tycho have actually promoted videogame Kickstarters in the past. Nor is this going to set a precedent for future funding of webcomics, because again, this shouldn’t have been approved to begin with.

Of course PA’s legion of fans are probably going to give them all the money they want and more; hell, they might have achieved their $250,000 goal by the time you read this. But if you’re thinking of giving them money? Don’t. Instead, go out there and look for any other Kickstarter out there that could actually use your money. Any at all, any that looks like they might actually do something worthwhile with your money. I’d prefer some good came out of this whole thing if anything, as opposed to simply stroking Gabe and Tycho’s egos.

I may have more to say about this later, when Gabe and Tycho have had a chance to respond to some of the early response to this. But I’ll be honest: when I first heard about this I wondered if it was a joke. It reminds me of nothing so much as Black Hat Guy’s Kickstarter.