Guest post by Sean Kleefeld
Most of the books that discuss webcomics fall very firmly into the “how to” category. Interestingly, though, they also spend a fairly minimal amount of time discussing the creative end of things like writing and drawing. The reason for that, of course, is that creating comics of any sort is not a new endeavor and there are already plenty of resources for learning how to draw and write for the medium. So why are there “how to” books specific to webcomics, and what do they cover? After all, couldn’t you just create a comic and post it on the web?
Well, yes, you can actually. And many people do exactly that. A lot of memes – virtually any that contain multiple images – are in fact webcomics, although most people don’t think of them as such. The act of just creating a webcomic is not terribly difficult, as the preponderance of meme generators might suggest.
What these “how to” books cover is, not surprisingly then, more for those who want to make webcomics a profession. They’re for people who want to earn their living making webcomics, which is a considerably harder challenge. As such, the details these books go into are much more about creating smooth user interfaces, promoting and marketing your webcomic, and devising business plans that do lead to webcomics being more than an amusing hobby.
One of the biggest complaints against webcomics, broadly speaking, is actually one of their greatest stengths: the lack of gatekeepers. While you would have to run through a gauntlet of editors and publishers to get published alongside Beetle Bailey and Garfield in the newspaper, or to get hired at Marvel to draw Spider-Man every month, no one can prevent you from posting your comic on the web. Anyone with the slightest interest can do it and, to detractors, this means that a lot of people who aren’t very good are putting garbage out there. But there have actually been more than a few professional creators who have tried switching from print to the web and were ultimately not successful, not because their material was bad but because they couldn’t make the finances work.
So what’s the key to making webcomics? The short answer is: time and patience.
With print comics, there’s almost always some measure of financial transaction right from the start; a reader pays money to receive some paper with a comic on it. More frequently in webcomics, the comics themselves are given away for free. Income models vary, but they tend substantially lag behind the publication of the webcomics. It’s only after readers become fans of the comic over time that they might buy t-shirts or printed collections, or support a crowd-funding campaign.
Jennie Breeden, creator of The Devil’s Panties webcomic, used to bluntly suggest that you need to dedicate a minimum of four years before you’ll get enough traction to consider earning a decent amount of money. And even then, “a decent amount” would be enough to pay cheap rent and survive primarily off ramen noodles. Certainly some creators have become more financially successful in less time, but those are extreme exceptions.
The thing to keep in mind is that the biggest webcomics success stories? They’re the biggest webcomics success stories! They aren’t the norm. It’s relatively easy to draw a comic and throw it online for everyone to see. But the thing to remember is that if you want to make a serious go of it, it’s a long-term game. Overnight success almost never happens overnight, and it takes fair amount of commitment to make webcomics more than just your hobby!
Sean Kleefeld is an independent scholar based in the USA. He is the author of Comic Book Fanthropology (2009) and is a regular columnist and blogger. Webcomics is part of the Bloomsbury Comics Studies series, edited by Derek Parker Royal.