Category Archives: Webcomics’ Identity Crisis

Yes, this is just filler to continue The Streak, but you gotta admit, that last panel gets downright existential.

(From Something Positive. Click for full-sized origin stories.)

Click on the name of Something Positive above. You’ll be taken to the main S*P page.

You may notice that most of the first screen is taken up by ads, navigation, and plugging of merchandise and con appearances.

Below that, you get the actual comic.

Below that, you get the latest edition of Randy Milholland’s side project Super Stupor.

At an earlier point in the site’s history, you’d have gotten one or two more side projects.

Finally, below all of that, is the site’s blog.

Now that you’ve seen all of this, I ask you: do you think Milholland would benefit from a PVP-style reimagining of his site?

Perhaps even more than Scott Kurtz, Milholland seems to already be running Something Positive as more of a hub for his own brand than as a site for one particular webcomic. Certainly I imagine taking a cue from PVP here would have to be better than how the S*P home page is laid out today.

(Damn, for someone who’s occasionally seemed to be in the lap of Bengo I’ve been praising Kurtz and PVP quite a bit lately, haven’t I? And I’m not even done! I have more to hammer this point home with!)

Dang it, if I’d posted this yesterday I could have dropped not one but TWO Homestuck references.

(From Axe Cop. Click for full-sized cover-maintaining murder.)

Would you believe that we have our first webcomic to be adapted to a broader medium – and it’s not PVP or Least I Could Do, or Girl Genius or Gunnerkrigg Court, or Order of the Stick or Sluggy Freelance?

Would you believe that it is, instead, a comic about an axe-wielding cop joined by his absolutely insane collection of fellow crimefighters that turned into an internet sensation shortly after its debut in 2010?

Would you believe that this comic has been adapted into print comics by Dark Horse, including a print-only miniseries, has crossed over with Dr. McNinja, and has had an RPG set made for it?

Would you believe that this comic has been picked up by the Fox network for six 15-minute episodes for a new late-Saturday-night animation lineup debuting sometime next year?

Now, would you believe that the author of this comic is just seven years old?

I almost feel sorry for the kid, who I doubt can even grasp entirely the way the product of his imagination has been exploited and turned into a money-making machine. You’ll forgive me, I hope, for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity owes itself to the novelty value of a comic made by a kid as opposed to having anything to do with the comic itself. You’ll also forgive me for wondering how much of the comic’s popularity is akin to when your kid wants to tell you a story and you humor him and tell him how great his story is no matter how much it’s really utter crap. Sure enough, Axe Cop is full of the sort of ridiculous silliness that makes you say “this is so cool!” “this is so stupid” you’d expect from a comic written by an overimaginative five-year-old. Almost everyone’s name, especially the major protagonists, is a description, so Axe Cop’s name is literally Axe Cop; he charges into battle yelling “I’ll chop your head off!“; looking for a partner, he picks out a Flute Cop, who promptly turns into a humanoid dinosaur-creature by getting splashed with dinosaur blood; among their other allies is Sockarang, a character with socks for arms who can detach them from his body and throw them as weapons.

It almost sounds redundant at this point to note that I did not make any of that up.

El Santo makes an interesting point, though: even considering all the craziness populating Axe Cop, it’s possible we’re more willing to accept it coming from a six-year-old kid than from an adult, or at least understand it. We see elements like Mega Man-esque absorption of powers from blood and a dude with socks for arms and we think, of course that’s the sort of thing a six-year-old kid would come up with! We excuse the insanity of Axe Cop because we honestly don’t expect a six-year-old kid to do any better. It’s much harder to pull off those sorts of things as an adult without getting laughed out of the place.

As is evidenced by his allies, Axe Cop quickly becomes less of a police officer and more of a superhero, fighting a variety of villains as completely bonkers as the protagonists. Don’t go looking for petty crooks getting their heads chopped off. There are aliens and vampires and robots and mad scientists and any number of other wacky enemies. As such, it’s interesting to see it through the lens of that genre, both for what it says about the definition of a superhero, and in how it reflects the core appeal of the genre. Some parts of the comic display such a self-awareness that I can’t help but wonder if it was in some way goaded into being added by Ethan, but for the most part, at least in the early part of the comic, it is just a barrage of one bizarre development after another, ratcheting up the awesomeness quotient as high as it can go.

(Incidentially, the way the site is set up far better reflects the more-than-a-webcomic philosophy, and possibly the implications of PVP‘s new setup, than anything else I’ve encountered. Axe Cop has so successfully set itself up as at least giving the appearance of a larger franchise that you’d be forgiven for missing that it’s a webcomic at all. If nothing else, Aspiring Webcomickers Everywhere should take a good, long look at the Axe Cop site and take copious notes, even if they don’t end up using them.)

I think my opinion of Axe Cop is somewhat opposite from that of the general public. I couldn’t stand the original, memetic comics, constantly facepalming and eventually bailing after the first two or three chapters because I just couldn’t take it anymore. On the other hand, I have to begrudgingly admit that more recent comics are considerably more tolerable – albeit possibly at the expense of the elements that made it popular in the first place. The characters are still as crazy in concept as they’ve ever been, and the events that happen to them are as silly and nonsensical as ever, but the characters now seem to lead relatively more grounded lives, and the comic seems to have settled at its natural level of craziness and found a normalcy within the silliness, if that makes sense. It’s not really that much crazier at this point than Dr. McNinja, or the worse sufferers of PVP/Goats Syndrome (such as Scary Go Round), or even Homestuck, or even Sluggy Freelance or Irregular Webcomic! The problem, of course, is that while it may now have more reason to exist, its reason to exist in the first place was to present the wild and outrageous imaginings of a real-life Calvin, so as it gets more reason to exist, it paradoxically and simultaneously loses its reason to exist.

Perhaps El Santo is right, and perhaps Malachai is losing interest as he gets older and more self-aware, and perhaps Axe Cop doesn’t really have much life left in it. Perhaps it was always a short-lived meme destined to flame out. But if that’s the case, we can only hope the TV show doesn’t end up tainting webcomics as a source for adaptation to broader mediums.

How should we recognize and award the best webcomics?

It’s comics awards season again, which means the usual wailing and gnashing of teeth over how webcomics don’t get no respect from the stodgy old comic book/strip establishment. Even those awards that give at least one token category to webcomics get accused of simply paying lip service to the medium, or of judging the new medium by the standards of the old. And so it is that we get Lauren Davis complaining about how ridiculous it is that webcomics only get one measly category at the Eisner awards, echoing Xaviar Xerexes’ sentiment that this year’s Best Digital Comic field is so wildly divergent it’s hard to fairly judge them all. (My hunch is, if they’re really right about that, the Eisners actually will add at least one new digital category within the next two years, just because whoever’s picking the winner will want it.)

Then you have El Santo over at the Webcomic Overlook, who’s more in favor of webcomics having their own awards:

I’m kinda partial to the notion of webcomics having their own awards — a little like the Webcomic List Awards I helped judge some time back. Something to separate the new wave of cartooning from the stodginess of the Reubens and the more entrenched traditions of the Eisners, but those never seem to take off. They probably won’t unless there’s a physical ceremony (as opposed to purely online) where you get an excuse to be all dolled up and stuff.

My problem with the “online ceremonies” of the Webcomic List Awards and some of the WCCAs (the last couple WCCAs actually had physical ceremonies at MegaCon) wasn’t so much the being online in and of itself, so much as how goofy they were. For some reason both awards decided that, to match the medium they honored, they needed to hold ceremonies in webcomic form, complete with “presenters” and, in the case of at least one WCCA ceremony, actual webcomic characters “accepting” the awards. It made both awards feel less like actual awards and more like parodies of actual awards shows; if you won’t take yourselves seriously, why should we? I actually would have had less of a problem if all the awards were simply posted on a Web page. (My personal inclination is that webcomics should be focusing less of their attention on acceptance by the comics part of their name and find a place in awards for the best of the web, but most of those either have specific focuses (thus justifying the existence of webcomic-specific awards) or are otherwise complete messes and/or semi-hostile to independent creators.)

The bigger problem, to me, is how past webcomics awards have been conducted. The Webcomic List Awards that El Santo refers to seems to have had nominations determined by a poll of the users of the eponymous website, with the winner chosen by the judging panel. Throwing the doors open to anyone to participate in the nominating process seems to me to turn it into a popularity contest. If anything, this almost seems backward to me: let the judging panel narrow the vast universe of webcomics down to a small number for the people to sift through. In a way, the recent Webcomic March Madness tournament played out about as well as any awards might have. Every phase of the process was controlled by the people, but putting webcomics against one another one-on-one made it easier to compare webcomics on their own merits. In the end, it was still a popularity contest to some extent, but would Gunnerkrigg Court and Goblins both have been nominated in a typical people-controlled awards contest? Maybe. Would the Court have won? Possibly. Would Goblins have come close to winning? Pretty sure the answer is no.

The WCCAs were better, with near as I can tell, both nominations and awards handled by “webcartoonists” themselves, making it a peer award. The problem there was probably not so much the concept as the execution and how much anyone cared about it; Eric Burns(-White) didn’t even know about it until the executive committee caused a huge controversy by throwing out one of the nominations one year, and the running of the awards generally comes off in its Wikipedia page as a comedy of errors. Still, Bengo has left me with a deep distrust of webcomic artists’ ability to overcome various personal biases, and there’s no guarantee that webcomic artists won’t be too busy making their own webcomics to read any others beyond the ones they already read. More to the point, the WCCAs ended up being almost every bit as much the popularity contest; would any of the Eisner nominees have picked up a single WCCA nomination?

The nominating process is the part that needs to be treated with the most care. Nominations need to be handled by people who read as many webcomics as possible and can discern the good webcomics from the bad, and the best webcomics from that group. Thus, my preference would be that the nominations be made by webcomic reviewers and journalists. (And no, I don’t just say that because I happen to belong to that category.) The problem with that, though, is that there aren’t that many webcomic reviewers and pretty much none of them hold the title as a job. Most webcomic reviewers got their start by reading a few webcomics and then deciding to set up a blog to talk about them, so it’s questionable how qualified some of them might be. Still, if we brought in me, Eric Burns(-White), Robert A. Howard, El Santo, Xaviar Xerexes, Gary Tyrell, Heidi MacDonald, and Davis, that’d be a pretty nice eight-person nominating panel, in my opinion, though I accept any alternate names you might want to suggest (and in any case it might need some occasional shakeups in the long term).

Rather than simply submitting lists of nominees and the five most-picked comics get nominated, I imagine the panel would submit some lists – taking requests from people throughout the year to help inform those lists – and then would get together, online or otherwise, to debate the selections and try to get a vague consensus to put together a list of five nominees in each category. The actual winners could be chosen by a larger group – webcomic creators, everyone, or some sort of mix – once the nominees have been narrowed down for them. Any physical ceremonies would need to be held at a con that most of the nominees in question would be likely to attend, which likely means a very webcomic-friendly con.

Now, if you think all this is just an excersize in egotism, I can’t blame you, or definitively say you’re wrong. You could probably say that about all awards. But for a medium still insecure about broader acceptance as webcomics still is in, it’s still important to recognize some sort of definition of “best”, preferably one that will provide motivation to those looking to create works of the highest artistic merit. Besides, it’s fun to debate which comics would be most deserving of which honor, and I suspect those two things, more than straight-up egotism, are greater contributing factors to the proliferation of awards out there.

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 Morganwick.com.

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.

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.

The Future of Content, Part III: Newspaper Comic Strips in a World Without Newspapers

I think I’m going to have to drop Comixtalk from my RSS reader. As it turns out, in both my “just continuing my post every day streak” Penny Arcade and PVP posts, I touched on issues that started minor conflagrations in the webcomics world (or in PA‘s case, the video-game world), and Comixtalk was silent on both of them (and now it’s silent on the OOTS Kickstarter too!). Somewhere in my archives I have a mostly-finished Comixtalk review I never posted lamenting its descent from its status as an “online magazine” about “comics in the digital age”. I can’t say Fleen is the most interesting read (it’s way too full of cutesy in-jokes), but if I want to keep up on “webcomics news”, Fleen is probably going to be the most complete I’m going to get.

I want to return to the topic of Scott Kurtz’ offer to whore himself out to the syndicates to help them transition to a future without newspapers. When I ran across the original blog post on PVP, I noted that it was just another case of Scott Kurtz declaring himself the “Certified Webcomics Genius(tm).” But what of the larger point of the future of syndicates?

On one level, I want to say that if the syndicates go away as the Internet (however defined) becomes the main distribution model for what we now call comic strips, good riddance, because they’re not needed. I’ve never quite understood the appeal of “webcomics collectives”; there are gazillions of success stories of people who managed to achieve success (however defined) with their webcomics, and I’d wager that most did so pretty much on their own (and in fact, this may be Bengo’s influence talking, but I have more respect for people who did it that way than people who are successful because their successful friends or some big corporation pimped them). In this perspective, where Kurtz (and Brad Guigar) could help (if they can help) is in transitioning newspaper comic strip artists from the old syndicate model into a new web-based model, but quite frankly, newspaper comic strips have been rather stagnant with shockingly few real stars coming along since even well before webcomics came along.

I have my doubts that even Garfield and Dilbert (two comics I remain fans of but have to admit have been past their peak for some time) would continue their current success, as they have been coasting on the heights of their respective first decades-plus for so long that at this point, even the most successful comics like them probably largely owe their success to people simply happening upon them as they read the newspaper each day, and wouldn’t survive a move to an environment where people would have to actually choose to read them, as much as things like RSS readers, smartphones, and tablets make it easier to do so. Considering how successful those two creators are already and how Web-savvy Scott Adams in particular is, if you need Kurtz and Guigar’s advice, they probably can’t help you (with the possible exception being critical darlings Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy). Besides which, it’s not like there isn’t already a metric buttload of advice out there for how to succeed on the Internet (including from Kurtz and Guigar themselves); as Kurtz himself would likely admit, the trick is convincing them they need it.

On the flip side, webcomics hosting sites like Keenspot have clearly played a vital role in webcomics history, and given the syndicates’ resources that may be a direction in which they can survive and thrive. Already most newspaper comics have their archives freely available online, such that to someone who doesn’t read a newspaper (an inexorably growing group), there’s not much difference between a newspaper comic strip and a webcomic, between a webcomic host and a syndicate. In fact, syndicates were such early adopters of the web it’s somewhat surprising they haven’t figured this out already.

A smart syndicate would be looking at the business models of such webcomic hosting sites and preparing for a future where they make money primarily by splitting advertising and merchandise revenue with cartoonists. The most directly comparable outfit would probably be Keenspot, which reserves its hosting only for the best, most popular comics, with the hoi polloi posting their comics to the lesser sister site Comic Genesis. In this vein, it’s worth noting Keenspot’s attempt to effectively shut down some years ago. Because a cartoonist can set up their own site, their own ads, and their own merchandise without splitting revenue with anyone else, syndicates need to “offer new and better reasons not to go it alone”, as Scott McCloud puts it (referring to comic book companies) in Reinventing Comics.

There are two important advantages a syndicate can offer a potential webcomic creator. One, syndicates can take on the burden of promoting a comic, both by bringing it under a larger brand along with all the other comics under the banner, and by (if necessary) promoting it outside that banner. Two, syndicates can handle the production, sale, and distribution of merchandise from a comic, something that the existence of outfits like Topatoco suggest a clear demand (and need) for. This latter point would allow a motivation for a popular comic to remain with the syndicate rather than branching out on their own, thus providing a draw that can be used to attract people to other comics.

By offering these two advantages, a syndicate can allow a cartoonist to focus their time on making their comic, while potentially delivering their work to a broader audience and – even with revenue splits – allowing them to make more money than they possibly could on their own, and allowing the syndicate to survive and thrive in the age of the Internet. Whatever they do, however, it should be obvious by the many years of handwringing over the future of newspapers that syndicates, like many outfits, need to adapt or die. And if they’re not interested in taking on the services of Kurtz and Guigar, let alone little old me, might I suggest Robert Khoo?

I have something original and interesting to say about the OOTS Kickstarter for once!

You want to know what the most astounding thing is about the ongoing Order of the Stick Kickstarter? It’s not the sheer amount of money raised – over half a million and still going strong. It’s the fact that this is a reprint drive.

All six of the books being reprinted as part of this drive have seen print before; in fact, two of them weren’t even out of print before this drive spurred a run on copies. Most of the hardcore OOTS fans that would ever want copies of the books likely already got them when they originally came out, so they are likely to gain nothing as a result of this drive. The primary beneficiaries of this drive are probably people like me, who were late enough in coming to OOTS and/or in deciding to get books – perhaps people who hadn’t even heard of the comic, at least before all the attention this drive is getting – that some of those books were out of print by the time they decided to do so.

In my case, I almost wouldn’t have contributed because I’m lacking for money, I wasn’t interested at the start of the drive because I would rather get the second book before I ever get the third that was trying to be reprinted at the start, and (dirty little secret time) most of the books are more expensive if picked up through the drive than if they were just ordered through the Web site. The book I mentioned in my last post is an exception, as that pledge level is roughly equivalent to ordering the book through the Web site plus the $10 to get the PDF stories, and I eventually decided I could spare the expense to get that. If I’d had money a year ago (and I almost did) when about 75 copies of that book were found in the back of a warehouse and sold over 24 hours, I’d have picked up a copy then, then pledged to get the third book now (if I still had money). If I couldn’t get the second book then and had the money now, though, I’d just be pissed that Rich counted that 24-hour period as when the second book went out of print and waited to pledge anything until it was going towards reprinting the second book.

The point is, the majority of OOTS fans weren’t benefiting directly from this drive, and a portion of those who did probably wouldn’t be able to contribute meaningfully if their financial situation had something to do with their lack of the books. So how did Rich get them all on board to get those books back in print in such a way that it stunned even him?

I think an underrated aspect of the drive’s success is that, several weeks before it started, Rich hinted that getting the third book back in print would take “the full support of everyone who wants to have the book in their hands, and maybe even a little bit more than that.” Before anyone even knew what that was, it psyched everyone up to give their support to the drive if it was necessary. That got people who wouldn’t otherwise have cared in the mindset that they might want to contribute to the drive. Beyond that, however, much of the drive’s momentum at first probably didn’t stem from the prospect of getting the books reprinted, but by what else Rich was selling – namely, a brand new canonical story (for the low low price of $10!) starring one of the most memetic characters in the entire strip. Even if I had money but no second book, I might have begrudgingly pledged $10 to get that and hope that third-bookers getting their way would help me get my way. That suggestion is also raised in Rich’s recent interview with ComicAlliance, where Rich also indicates that people with a complete collection still wanted to contribute to the drive, but evidently, only once it started to pick up steam. (And Rich’s advice to comic creators looking to start a Kickstarter almost amounts to “start a webcomic”, which makes it a potentially ideal segue to my Future of Content series.)

Given the circumstances, I’m not sure I agree with whatever point El Santo is trying to make about what this means for webcomic creators trying to make money. He can’t be trying to say that you can simply start up a Kickstarter to get paid to work on your webcomic, because that seems to me to be akin to getting paid to goof off, or no different than setting up a PayPal donation box. If he means setting up a Kickstarter to pay for other merchandise, it’s unlikely he means any sort of merchandise that hasn’t been done by webcomic creators in the past – in fact, selling copies of his first book was what allowed Rich to call himself a full-time cartoonist. But if he means that a popular webcomic creator can fund some sort of project that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to make the numbers work out on before the fact? That’s a lesson I’d already taken to heart before I wrote my last post.

(And I still can’t get over all this happening while the actual comic is reaching a peak in the action, which has now gotten to the point of attracting the renewed attention of Tangents, giving newcomers an ideal jumping-on point to become addicted.)

The most pivotal week in the history of webcomics

I’m slowly working my way back to doing regular webcomic reviews – look for some down the pike, starting with a review of Comixtalk, once I finish my studies for the quarter – and not a moment too soon. We’re in a heady period for webcomics, a turning point in their development. This has been an eventful week.

First was “Dating-Guy-gate”, when Least I Could Do‘s Ryan Sohmer accused Canadian network Teletoon of ripping off his concept for another series. The facts of the matter are very complicated and the whole thing has a good chance of going to court, but the upshot of the whole affair was a Kickstarter effort to film a LICD pilot (I’m incredulous that Randy Milholland had to set it up for him because Kickstarter is limited to Americans for some reason), which proved wildly successful. This could be a momentous moment for webcomics, and Sohmer is in a uniquely qualified position to lead the charge. While I have a feeling that, once I finally get around to reviewing it, I will absolutely loathe LICD for its alleged sexism and allegedly Mary-Sue-ish main character, there are few webcomics I can think of that are better suited for translation to television, or any other medium.

Most other gag-a-day webcomics are either too decentralized to support even the sort of plot for a 30-minute show (Penny Arcade, xkcd), or would have trouble appealing to even a broad enough audience for a fairly focused cable network, especially a problem with video game comics (as with previous efforts of Sohmer’s Blind Ferret Entertainment, PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del). Least I Could Do is one of the few popular gag-a-day webcomics with broad enough subject matter to actually attract the interest of TV networks. In fact, I don’t know how much Sohmer would be considering American outfits, but I could easily see LICD fitting right in alongside the animated comedies on Fox’s Sunday night lineup – on an American broadcast network, alongside such titans as The Simpsons and Family Guy. If LICD could pull that off, it would become, by far, the most famous webcomic in the world overnight.

(Translating a story webcomic to the big screen poses similar challenges. Most story webcomics, especially former gag comics that underwent Cerebus syndrome, have an odd mix of humor and seriousness that would be difficult to market or portray on the big screen. Even a comic as story-focused as Order of the Stick would be difficult to translate, but even Girl Genius has an odd enough balance to give Hollywood execs pause. The equivalent to LICD in the story webcomic community, from the perspective of how easy it would be to translate, would probably be Gunnerkrigg Court – a story that has drawn more than a few comparisons to Harry Potter. But as we’ll see, there is another way to turn a webcomic into a movie…)

Next came DC’s announcement of digital day-and-date distribution for its revamped universe, which has led more than a few retailers to cry doom. As well they should; DC makes up about a third of the comic book market and is probably responsible for much more than that coming through their doors. That many are calling this move inevitable does not make it any less of a stake in the heart of the direct market, or any less one of the bigger ones. We’re likely to see many more would-be comic book creators make the move to graphic novels and webcomics.

Finally came what could be the biggest news of all: One of Penny Arcade‘s old spinoff concepts has been optioned by Paramount to be made into a feature film. Forget a show that could have languished in obscurity on a Canadian cable channel: this could see millions of Americans flock to movie theatres and make Gabe and Tycho millions of dollars, not to mention (as with the LICD animated series) pave the path for more webcomics to see the silver screen.

And that’s before we get to the detente between print cartoonists and webcartoonists at this year’s National Cartoonist Society Reuben awards.

These are baby steps: even if LICD gets made into a series it could be on some obscure or Canadian-only channel, this isn’t Penny Arcade itself but an idea they threw out there once, and both are far, far away from actually being made. But I get the sense that this is a turning point, a milestone week, in the history of webcomics. If even one of these projects get made it gives webcomics by far their broadest exposure they have ever had, and between that and DC’s colonization of the digital market could lead to a huge influx of new people into webcomics. We may look back on this past week as the one that webcomics started to bloom, started to move out of their extended adolescence and into the full-blown adulthood (or, if you’re more like Bengo, out of childhood and into adolescence) that would confer upon it the respect and corpus of literature due any other medium.

What DC Comics’ revamp really means

This may be a two-part post, though the second part probably won’t be under the “webcomics” heading. If you’re not familiar with comics history, get a crash course before continuing with Part II of “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis”.

This September, DC will effectively reboot its entire universe (well, not really – more on that in a bit), launching 52 #1 issues to, presumably, replace their existing line of titles with a more “modern” DC Universe. DC previously rebooted its continuity in 1985-6’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, and performed “soft reboots” (performing various retcons without wholesale junking what came before) on roughly 10-year intervals thereafter, in 1994’s Zero Hour and 2005-6’s Infinite Crisis. (The in-story justification for this reboot appears to be the ongoing Flashpoint event.) Perhaps more importantly for the general comics industry, they will also release their comics through digital platforms on the same day they come out in comic book stores.

Back in 2009 in my “Webcomics’ Identity Crisis” series, I predicted that eventually, the old monthly comic format would fade away, as webcomics and graphic novels replaced newspaper comic strips and monthly comic books. Noting that Diamond had recently induced a contraction of the market and that further contraction to exclude almost all companies other than Marvel and DC was looking very possible, I proclaimed that the direct market existed solely for the purposes of DC and Marvel, and suggested that most of the smaller comic creators would abandon the direct market in favor of graphic novels in bookstores and webcomics. That DC itself is reinventing the company and embracing the web as a parallel revenue stream is a sign even they may be bailing, or preparing to bail, on the direct market. Presumably, they figure that even more than themselves, the direct market really exists primarily to serve Marvel and Marvel alone, who has had a substantial lead over DC for virtually the entire time since the 1960s.

Or at least, it would… if they weren’t keeping the existing monthly comic paradigm.

The monthly 22-page comic is a relic of the days when comics were published on newsstands, when they were magazines that happened to have comics in them. As the idealists of the time who started futzing around with the concept of the “graphic novel” keenly realized, it became obsolete with the rise of the direct market in the 1970s; Marvel and DC continued publishing them mostly out of inertia, while smaller publishers that took advantage of the direct market published monthly comics because Marvel and DC did (and because they were cheaper and, for a time, less exotic than graphic novels). The only reason the comic book industry accepts that comics should be published in 22-page chunks every month is that that’s the way it’s always been done. If the direct market perishes, it won’t continue to be the way it’s done – even when bookstores stock monthly comics, it’s always segregated from their other magazines on spinner racks, reducing the point of pretending to be magazines.

By keeping one foot in the direct market, DC is shutting themselves out of the creative benefits of a move to digital distribution, at an opportune time to do so, coinciding with the reinvention of their universe. By committing to the monthly 22-page comic format, DC has shut themselves out of using the infinite canvas, or even adopting the webcomic model. Perhaps DC is understandably wary of their ability to make money out of the web alone, or whether their existing audience would follow them. But what’s even more baffling than that DC would go the digital route but not take advantage of its possibilities, is that they aren’t taking advantage of this reinvention to move towards the other comic distribution mechanism of the future, the graphic novel model.

Comic books have come a long way from the Silver Age when an entire story could be told in one issue, often leaving room for one or two more stories besides; “decompression” has become the norm, with most stories taking 4-8 issues to complete, and with the greater depth that most comics creators have started looking for, 22 pages has started looking increasingly cramped for an entire story with beginning, middle, and end. This has only furthered the obsolescence of the 22-page monthly comic, so DC could go far by removing the 22-page constraint from their writers and allow them to go as hog-wild as they wish on self-contained stories released less frequently (perhaps two or three times a year) in graphic novel form. (Xaviar Xerexes wonders at the end of this post whether DC is missing an opportunity by not making these comics for kids again, which at least would justify the length as well as the inherent silliness of the whole concept of superheroes. DC’s more “fantastic” heroes haven’t meshed well with the serious stories told with them.)

That DC isn’t doing any of this makes me wonder what the point of this revamp is – it’s worth noting that in 2009, DC Comics was restructured into DC Entertainment to strengthen the connection between comics and other media, making me wonder if the ultimate impetus for this move is to create new properties for media exploitation and reinvent existing properties to be more exploitable. It’s even more baffling that they would keep a foot in the direct market when no one is going to walk into a comic book store unless they’re already a fan of superhero comic books, and even distributing over digital channels isn’t going to be anywhere near as effective at drawing in new “readers” as said exploitation in other media, as Marvel is doing with its line of movies, which are slowly building towards an eventual Avengers movie. Yet by completely relaunching its existing universe, DC risks alienating their existing direct market audience and throwing out one of their biggest assets – as exemplified in the likely end of four or five titles that can claim their legacy and numbering back to the Golden Age.

While continuity can be a barrier to entry to a story, it can also be a tremendous asset, and DC has leveraged its continuity like no other, creating a sense of legacy around their characters. Several characters that were teenagers in the Silver Age have grown into their own identities as adult heroes, with Wally West, the former Kid Flash, even taking his mentor’s mantle as the Flash when his mentor died during Crisis on Infinite Earths. The most famous of these might be Dick Grayson, the former Robin, taking the identity of Nightwing (immortalized on screen during the later run of the 90s Batman animated series) and, since his own mentor’s death a couple years ago, himself taking the mantle of Batman.

However, DC’s approach to continuity and the passage of time has been rather half-assed (how long has present Robin Tim Drake been in high school again? With all these former teenage sidekicks taking adult identities as early as the 80s, shouldn’t the “original generation” of heroes be in their 40s by now?) – they have an interest in keeping the “iconic” versions of their characters, and although the monthly pace of comic books allows much less time to take place than the actual time between issues, the passage of time can’t be held off indefinitely, and for various reasons DC has frittered away a lot of that time.

The reasons for such conservativism are arguably outweighed by the story possibilities it holds back – of the only three characters for whom it really matters all that much (of their next three iconic franchises, two have had at least three different people hold each of their mantles), two, Superman and Wonder Woman, have been portrayed as effectively immortal (although admittedly Lois Lane is another matter), and Batman has, as mentioned, already been killed off and replaced (a move, note, that has been largely critically acclaimed by superhero comic fans, many of them clamoring for Bruce to never come back, despite the seeming inevitability of returns from the dead in comics). But if DC is understandably committed to the iconic versions of their characters, it seems a reasonable compromise is to start a brand-new universe aimed at new readers alongside the existing DC universe, which is then allowed to grow and change dynamically.

Marvel went in this direction with the 2000 launch of the so-called “Ultimate” universe – while wildly successful, there’s evidence a lot of its fans came from existing comics fandom, and the Ultimate universe quickly became as continuity-choked as the mainstream Marvel universe. Still, what’s to stop DC from launching their own “Digital” universe? In fact, DC’s four Golden Age-dated titles are split two apiece between Superman and Batman, and since the end of multiple stories in a single issue DC has tried valiantly to justify the existence of two separate titles. What’s to stop them from putting the “new” Superman in Superman and the existing Superman in Action Comics, or the “new” Batman in Detective Comics and the existing Batman in Batman, and splitting the rest of their line between their universes?

DC has attempted to clarify that this is “not a reboot“, implying that this new status quo will be overlaid on top of the existing DC universe, but they’ve also released material suggesting even the most iconic characters will be revised, made younger, and given new costumes, leading me to ask: why half-ass it? If you’re going to go this far to sweep aside the shackles of continuity, why not cut them off entirely? I personally will watch at least the start of this new initiative with interest, to see what new twists DC puts on their old characters as well as to watch this revolution unfold, and I intend to devote a future post to my own ideas for reinventing DC’s stable, but the way DC is going about all of this, I can’t help but think it’ll bite them in the ass.

No strip image because this isn’t really about OOTS. And a project that should have taken three days got wrapped up with another one and has taken over a month.

For better or worse, in the absence of any sort of paywall on the actual content and enough readers to justify a thriving ad market, most webcomics are reliant on merchandise to make money, usually T-shirts and reprint books. I may complain about the effect this has on which webcomics can be financially successful, but unless micropayments miraculously start working or webcomics can gain significant traction on a subscription model, that’s the way it is.

One of the challenges of needing to sell webcomic merchandise – and there are a lot of challenges for selling merchandise – is finding a place to sell them at. Many if not most webcomics sell merchandise through print-on-demand outfits like Cafepress, but sometimes that’s not the ideal approach, especially when production of many things gets cheaper per-order as more of them are ordered, and especially when many such places have an iffy reputation for the quality of the resulting merchandise. What’s more, print-on-demand shops are usually intended for reeeeally amateur operations – you could sell T-shirts and mugs with your kid’s random crayon drawing on it at CafePress. I’m not sure that sends the best message when Girl Genius is selling merchandise at the same site as “Billy’s T-Shirt”.

Last week Rich “Order of the Stick” Burlew announced he was opening up Ookoodook.com to sell his merchandise, instead of using, in his words, “a game manufacturer who was just doing me a favor by retailing my stuff” in APE Games, a partner in the new site. But Rich also intends the site to sell products not only from himself, but from “other independent and self-publishing creators”, and that “[w]e hope this new venture will allow us to spotlight other self-published products that you may not be aware of yet by working with their creators directly.” The site seems intended for publication of a wide variety of material, so long as it’s unlikely to sell through traditional retail channels, but it still seems fit for webcomics to take to it like a glove. If webcomics have their own ad service, why not their own store?

Ookoodook isn’t perfect – it appears you need to handle production yourself, implying your product needs to already exist, and the only other webcomic to sell merchandise on the site, Schlock Mercenary, hasn’t even advertised its existence – but I can’t help but wonder what it presages for webcomics.