For this year’s roundtable we talked about favorite and new webcomics from 2010, the impact of the iPad and other digital devices, the changes in the comics industry landscape, awards for webcomics and much more about the state of digital comics in 2010. I’m joined by Brigid Alverson, Larry Cruz, Lauren Davis, Brian Heater, Heidi MacDonald, Rick Marshall and Gary Tyrrell.
Let me introduce our panelists:
- Brigid Alverson writes about manga at MangaBlog and webcomics at Paperless Comics. She is the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog and writes a regular webcomics column for Robot 6. She also is a freelance journalist for Publishers Weekly Comics Week and SLJTeen newsletters. She lives in Melrose, Massachusetts, where she works as assistant to the mayor when not hanging out with her husband and two teenage daughters.
- Larry “El Santo” Cruz reviews comics at The Webcomic Overlook. Although he has a mask, he has never been a luchador.
- Lauren Davis writes for io9 and blogs about comics at Storming the Tower.
- Brian Heater is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Cross Hatch. He has covered music, technology, literature, and films for publications such as: Spin, Entertainment Weekly, The New York Press, The Onion, HEEB, The Oklahoma Gazette, The Santa Cruz Metro, Popmatters, PC Magazine, Laptop Magazine, Rockpile, Skyscraper, DIW, Amplifier, Aversion, and various other publications.
- Heidi MacDonald is an award-winning comics editor and journalist, and founded the comics culture site The Beat. She has worked for Disney, Warner Bros./DC Comics, and Fox Atomic/HarperCollins and is currently a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly.
- Rick Marshall is the Editor at MTV News comics blog Splash Page. Previously, he served as the Online News and Managing Editor of ComicMix, a website covering comic books and comics culture, and as the Online Editor/Content Manager for the pop-culture publishing company Wizard Entertainment.
- Gary Tyrrell is a man of opinions, which he will gladly share with you. He is also a fan of webcomics, of which he consumes six or seven dozen on a regular basis. These two tendencies collide Monday through Friday at Fleen, where he is the editor, head writer, and general dogsbody.
What were your five favorite digital comics from 2010 — we’ll define this as broadly as possible to include comics published on the web, comics published on the iPad or other tablets, or any other digitally available form.
Tyrrell: Hark! A Vagrant comes in tops of my list; tied for second are The Abominable Charles Christopher (so many different stories, from tragic to goofy), Octopus Pie (the characters feel more real than some people I know), and Skin Horse (more fun than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide); third is for the occasional team-ups between Anthony “Nedroid” Clark and Emmy Cicierega known as Laserpony Studios. Honorable Mentions are too many to count.
Alverson: Bug, by Adam Huber: (it makes me laugh every single morning), xkcd (ditto), Set to Sea (this webcomic was simply beautiful, and I loved every panel), Stop Paying Attention (Lucy Knisley’s full-page meditations on life), and The Oatmeal (her observations on social media are dead on).
Davis: It’s funny, I have several dozen comics saved in my RSS reader, but my favorites don’t change much from year to year. I still get excited every time Danielle Corsetto posts a new Girls with Slingshots, and I think I’ve only grown more fond of Something Positive as Randy Milholland’s characters have started to mature and take on new responsibilities. Octopus Pie quickly stole a spot on my top roster because it reminds me of a twenty-something version of the Nicktoons I loved as a kid, as did The Abominable Charles Christopher because it’s simply amazing. And, even though her updates have been sporadic, I turn green with envy every time Lucy Knisley updates Stop Paying Attention. Her grasp of visual language is breathtaking.
Cruz: Personally, I’ve been very lucky to have read several excellent webcomics this year. I got to read a fair amount of Bayou (before Zuda folded and made the comic a pay-per-issue thing), which I felt should have won the Eisner this year. I immensely enjoyed he completed adventures of Rice Boy and MS Paint Adventures: Problem Sleuth. I dug the contemplative atmosphere of Nine Planets Without Intelligent Life, and got caught up in the good clean fun of Sam & Fuzzy.
Marshall: Overcompensating – I’ve been reading OC for almost a decade now, and it’s still one of the only comic sites I visit every single day. Every year when I do these lists, it’s really just a measure of the comics I liked as much as Overcompensating this year. Scenes From A Multiverse – I love that Jon Rosenberg went from creating one of the most continuity-heavy webcomics to a consistent one-and-done comic, and managed to bring over so much of what I loved in Goats. Order of Tales – Gary Tyrrell introduced me to this comic, and I’ve been absolutely hooked since the first time I visited the site. Evan Dahm has created an amazing, massive world that’s easy to spend hours paging through. It’s brilliant, and to be honest, it’s exactly the sort of webcomic that works really well in collected print format, too. Alien Loves Predator – I love that Bernie Hou is working on this series regularly again. Like Overcompensating, it’s a comic I’ve been reading for years and years, and it still has everything that appealed to me when I first started reading it. FreakAngels – Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield are still going strong with this one. For me, it’s the perfect mash-up of print and online comic sensibilities, and it still manages to surprise me week to week.
MacDonald: I don’t really read webcomics regularly so much as I read comics ON THE WEB. Things I have been following, of course Kate Beaton, The Abominable Charles Christopher by Karl Kershl, Gabrielle Bell’s webcomics, Puke Force by Brian Chippendale, the debunking comics of Daryl Cunningham, various things by Hellen Jo, Laura Park, Becky Cloonan, Hans Rickheit, James Stokoe, Brandon Graham and so on. I really enjoyed Set to Sea by Drew Weing and now it’s in a cool book. Comics are everywhere on the web.
A lot of great mentions there. One I’ll add that wasn’t mentioned is Kevin Church’s and TJ Kirsch’s She Died in Terrebonne — which just wrapped up. An entertaining mystery professionally delivered. I’m also interested though in whether there were any comics that debuted this year on the web specifically that really stood out to you?
Cruz: As for comics that debuted this year, I’m going to have to give a shout-out to Newton’s Law. It’s a classically illustrated comic dealing with Sir Isaac Newton’s later years. There’s two possibilities presented: either Newton is some sort of powerful warlock transcending time and space or (truer to history) he’s just suffering the ill effects of mercury poisoning. Both solutions are fairly intriguing, and part of the fun is trying to guess where Garrett Anderson and Dan Dougherty are going with the story.
Alverson: Ectopiary. I’m waiting to see where the story goes, because it’s moving kind of slow, but the art is remarkable.
Davis: I’m extremely impressed by Chris Baldwin’s Spacetrawler. I’ve never been a huge fan of space operas in comics, but Baldwin has managed to create a very funny, action-packed comic that retains his typical sweetness. I’m also kind of obsessed with two comics that Brigid [Alverson] pointed out on Robot 6: Canaan Grall’s Max Overacts and Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl.
Marshall: I’m really interested in seeing what Sean T. Collins and Matt Wiegle do with Destructor. I like the look of it so far, and I’ve liked Sean’s previous comics. We used to work together at Wizard back in the day, so he’s been on my radar for a while now. Destructor seems like it has a lot of promise, so I’m keeping an eye on it.
Tyrrell: So Far Apart by Rene Engstrom & Rasmus Gran. Brutally honest, heartbreaking, inspiring.
MacDonald: This is what I hate. I know I’ll forget something. The one thing I want to emphasize is that since I got an iMac with a big, backlit screen, as opposed to previous years, I LOVE READING COMICS ON SCREEN. It really was a technical thing for me where I had to scroll down and around whereas now I see thing huge and vivid — it’s a completely different medium than paper, which I still love, and one that is ideal for comics.
Marshall: I knew I’d forget about one or two in this category. It’s always hard to remember exactly when a comic debuted, especially when it’s so compelling that it makes you feel like you’ve been reading it for as long as you can remember. Gary made a great call in naming So Far Apart by Rene Engstrom & Rasmus Gran in this category. It’s everything he said about it and much, much more. Both comic creators regularly manage to surprise me with their honesty and the ease with which they capture both the light and heavy moments of their lives.
The biggest story in digital comics this year has to be the announcement of the iPad this past January and all of the various digital comic apps for it, starting with Comixology. How many of you have read comics on the iPad? What about another tablet or e-reader device? What do you think about the experience?
Heater: I’ve read — or attempted to read — comics on a number of devices, thanks to my day job at PCMag. In fact, whenever I get my hands on an eBook reader or tablet device, it tends to be the first thing I check, both due to my own personal reading habits (not to say that I don’t also read prose, of course) and because comics tend to be a better indicator of the limitations of the device — creators of sequential art generally have more invested in the way a work appears on a page than prose writers. [For this reason] I’ve long eschewed PDF review copies of books. I could never really read the things on my laptop — trying to consume an entire book through endless scrolling and mouse clicking is a nightmare. After all, the work really wasn’t designed to be consumed in that format.
Compared to a PC, the first generation Kindle et al, are a bit of a step backward. When it comes to comics, those devices were really defined by their limitations — small screens, absence of color, poor resolution. Smartphones like the iPhone always seemed to present a ray of hope, but these were also constrained by their tiny screen size. I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of the iPad, until I held on in my hands when our magazine was given an early look at the device. Frankly, I was won over the moment I loaded the Marvel (Comixology) app. Stunning colors and a dynamic navigation system — there were still limitations (splash pages, for one thing), but as artists and writers really begin creating content with these different platforms in mind, we’re really going to see some great boundary pushing.
Alverson: I bought an iPad about three weeks ago and it has already become my preferred medium. Everything looks beautiful and bright on that backlit screen, and it’s great for manga because the screen is a touch bigger than the standard manga page. It has a very rich, luxurious feel, and the vertical orientation makes it seem more natural. I also prefer it to my computer for reading PDFs (which is the format more and more of my review copies are coming in these days). It’s a bit taller, and the vertical orientation feels more comfortable.
I have an iPod Touch and an Android phone as well. When I first got the Touch, I loaded it up with comics. The advantage to that is that it is always with me, so if I’m stuck waiting somewhere, I always have something to read with me. Since I got the Droid, though, I’m more likely to just surf the net with that. There aren’t many Android comics apps, so that’s not what I’m reading on my phone these days.
Cruz: I don’t have an iPad. My wife’s been pushing me to get one, but if I’m going to plunk down that much money for it, I think I’d rather sink it into a new laptop. I have, however, tried to read digital comics on my humble little iPod Touch. It’s not the most ideal situation. I have to squint a lot, and the zoom-in transitions from panel to panel make me turn the iPod more than I’d like. I suspect my experience would be better if I were reading the comic on the iPad’s bigger screen. However, when all’s said and done, digital comics are not quite the killer app that will make me rush out an plunk a bunch of money on an iPad. If I want to read print comics, I still prefer hanging around the comic shop, browsing the shelves, and flipping through a random comic. No early adopter am I, no sir. I read an article recently where the biggest benefit to digital iPad comics is instant gratification. Unfortunately, I’m not in that much of a hurry to read new comics.
Davis: I had my first experience playing with an iPad over Thanksgiving, and that was mainly limited to endless rounds of Plants vs. Zombies. But I’ve heard good things about the experience of reading printed comics on the iPad, and I can definitely see the appeal of reading all my comics untethered from my laptop. I’m curious to see what adjustments webcomics creators end up making as tablet computers become more popular. I could definitely see a company like Topatoco making the move from retailer to digital publisher, if that’s something they’re looking to pursue.
MacDonald: Unfortunately, I have not had access to an iPad throughout the year. As I mentioned above, technology has had a HUGE impact on how I read digital comics. The comics I have seen on the iPad have looked great however, and I am eager to buy a 2nd generation one and start getting rid of a lot of paper comics which I keep around for research purposes but don’t really have space for. I’ve had an iPhone for years and sometimes read comics on it, but I find the small screen experience is not as comfortable, even with the pan and scan.
I am hugely excited by the opportunities for comics on tablets and other handheld devices, but I think we’re only on the verge of the capabilities of the devices, and creators are just coming around to the potential for things that go beyond what we have now. I think the static comic image is as powerful a storytelling device as humans have ever devised — its continued survival and reinvention in almost every culture on earth shows that — but the digital interface, as it has for video and the written word, will have an effect for different and very effective storytelling.
Marshall: I don’t own an iPad, but if I do buy one (and I plan to), it will be because of the comics-reading capabilities. From what I’ve seen, it’s the best argument for digital comics over print comics that’s been made thus far. Personally, I’m not a fan of reading comics created for print on smaller mobile devices like my Droid, and I’m even less of a fan of reading them on a laptop or desktop computer. The iPad is actually the first device I’ve used that presents print-format comics in a way that I’m comfortable reading them.
There have been major changes in the North American comic industry this year from corporate changes at DC and Marvel, to continued business issues in the newspaper industry. More specific to digital comics one of the biggest stories was DC closing up its Zuda webcomics shop. ComiXology, Graphic.ly and many comic book publishers released iPad apps and put more of their comics online. I guess I should also mention Longbox — another digital comics application that debuted this year. Was this the year comics took digital publishing seriously? There are so many things in flux right now — from format to price to distribution to ownership. What’s the path forward for publishers and creators to navigate a world where comics jump from screen to page to screen and back again?
Tyrrell: Most important thing? Stop pissing off the customers. The stories of vaults and retroactive embargoes have made me wonder if the publishers get digital in the least — comiXology, I think they understand, but they’re just the technological enabler. I think the business decisions of the publishers are going to have to see about five years worth of improvement on the sophistication scale in the next six months if they really want this to be as seamless an experience as reading a dead-tree comic.
MacDonald: At the start of the year most publishers were still hemming and hawing around about digital. It was all Whuh, huh, well maybe…by the end of the year, virtually every significant player had announced their strategy. That said, nothing I have heard indicates that anyone is making significant publishing revenue from their digital initiatives. Every publisher I have talked to, and Milton Griepp’s figures, indicate that right now it is still around 1-2% of publishing revenue — hardly a significant amount.
What’s important for digital is, I think, for comics publishers to actually glimpse the future, something not a lot of them are able to do. I don’t mean that entirely as a slam — comics is traditionally a chronically underfunded industry, and it sometimes takes money to ride into the future. Unfortunately, in the Bronze/Chromium/Platinum ages of comics, few publishers have really thought about getting the next generation of readers. Digital comics are going to be the primary exposure for future generations of comics readers — that is until we run out of energy and go back to an agrarian pantheistic society living with torches. One thing publishers need to do is just stop hemming and hawing and go for it, making their catalogs available and so on. The marketplace is going to change – and people are going to HAVE TO CHANGE WITH IT. That’s something I face in my business every day. The idea of a secure business model is gone.
Alverson: Yes, this is the year comics took digital publishing seriously. How do I know? (1) They started releasing comics regularly, a good handful every week;(2) They started toying with day-and-date releases; (3) Some publishers (Dark Horse, Yen Press) started working on their own digital comics apps, rather than just signing on with comiXology or iVerse; and (4) Brick-and-mortar retailers started getting disgruntled. Publishers are finally figuring out how to make serious money from digital comics as well. ICv2 devoted their entire pre-NYCC conference this October to digital comics this year, and I was there when Marvel VP David Gabriel commented that the revenues they were getting from digital comics were going to allow them to lower prices on their print comics. At the same conference, Mark Siegel from First Second said that he had recouped the costs of the webcomic Zahra’s Paradise by selling the foreign-language rights by the time the comic reached its fourth chapter.
Publishers also took off after another form of digital comics: Pirate sites. There were two big takedown efforts, the coalition that took down HTMLcomics.com and the manga publishers who banded together to gang up on scanlation sites. I think this comes not only as a recognition that pirate sites cut into their sales (although by how much is debatable) but to eliminate the competition as they prepare to roll out their own digital comics initiatives.
Heater: I think that plenty of publishers have their respective heads up their arses, in terms of digital — I don’t think I have to name any names. Like record labels and magazine publishers before them, they’ve generally dragged their feet in terms of launching digital initiatives as anything beyond a mild amusement, a fact that really helped generate momentum for the rise of creator-owned online properties, many of whom have opted to entirely circumvent the old publishing model. I will say that some seem to have learned from their initial hesitation and have attempted to get out in front of this mobile thing for fear of falling behind again. Perhaps 2010 will be seen as the year that mobile consumption of comics was legitimized — or at the very least, kickstarted. After all, comics are meant to be taken with you — read on the go or while lying in bed, under the covers. PCs aren’t great at replicating that experience.
Cruz: Have publishers ever not taken digital publishing seriously? Every year, you hear how one of the brick-and-mortar types are putting big money into digital or how there’s a new webcomic partnership. Marvel and DC aren’t run by fools. They too can see newspapers folding left and right, magazines going online, comic sales going down, and the foundations of the publishing business changing irrevocably. They know how dire the situation is on their end. I think the real question isn’t so much “Are they taking digital publishing seriously?” and more “Have they finally hit the right business model?” To that, I think most will agree that the current format still needs a lot of work before it can be viable.
Davis: I don’t closely follow mainstream comics publishing, but it seems that, with so many people reading everything on digital devices, comics couldn’t afford to ignore digital publishing. I’m not sure, though, how much difference there is between selling your issues on the Comixology app and selling them in a store. I was saddened by the shuttering of Zuda because, even though their Webcomics Idol experiment didn’t work out, I think it was an excellent opportunity for DC to explore building an audience online – especially an audience that isn’t necessarily reading DC comics.
Marshall: I think print publishers are taking digital publishing more seriously, but they’re still having a difficult time wrapping their heads around how best to make money off the medium. Unfortunately, many of their methods involve trying to force traditional print publishing and media practices on the online medium, rather than finding ways to match their properties to (and learn from) existing, successful, online publishing practices. Publishers also need to change the way they look at creators and audiences in the print and online comic worlds. Creators who have success in one world and have become a brand in and of themselves in that world aren’t guaranteed success or a similar reputation in the other, and the audiences for each medium don’t respond/act the same way, either. As much as we talk about print and online comics sharing the same world creatively, they’re two very different animals in just about every other way – and I think the first step for publishers hoping to translate success in one to the other is recognizing that difference.
I used to ask about the divide between web and print comics. As both people making comics and people reading comics become increasingly flexible in their approach to comics what is the relationship between digital and print now?
Alverson: Outside the superhero/comic shop realm, I think digital is taking the place of single-issue comics. Superheroes and a handful of other comics sell to the hard-core Wednesday crowd, but that experience is less important — and may even be a deal-killer — for other potential readers. And since there are only about 3,000 comics shops in the U.S., huge swaths of the country have nowhere at all for people to buy pamphlet comics. Only a handful of publishers (Marvel, DC, Archie, and Boom! Studios) are able to distribute floppies outside comics stores.
Going straight to trade is not easy — single-issue comics help publishers and creators spread out their costs and build an audience before taking the plunge with a thick, expensive graphic novel. Digital is the logical solution to that. In fact, in the manga realm, Viz basically switched over to a single-issue model with its Shonen Sunday and SigIKKI websites, which put up new manga a chapter at a time, then pull most of them down once the print volume is out. And Tokyopop is releasing Hetalia one chapter at a time on comiXology.
Tyrrell: Independent, creator-owned comics will make different decisions than corporations that are managing legacy IP. It doesn’t matter if first (or primary) publication is bits or atoms, except that nobody’s managed to embed DRM on printed material.
Davis: Even putting aside the new digital apps, the wall is pretty permeable on both ends. Most of the webcomickers I read make a good chunk of change selling print books, and I do notice their books in brick and mortar stores from time to time. And there are comics like The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which actually started life in a Halifax alt-weekly before Faith Erin Hicks decided to syndicate it online as well. Just a few weeks ago, James Stokoe posted the first hundred pages of his comic Murderbullets online. And hey, we’ve got Bill Amend doing guest strips for xkcd.
Heater: Mainstream still seems largely defined by the print-to-digital flow (the money, after all, is still in print). Indie comics, depending on the particular artist, can go either way. I’m seeing a number of cartoonist offer work online for free and later anthologize it. Anecdotally, the offering of free material only seems to drum up interest in the purchase of a physical anthology. Dash Shaw is a good example of a cartoonist harnessing the seemingly limitless potential of the Web to push the boundaries of print.
MacDonald: I think you see almost every creator putting some of their work on the digital platform even if it’s just as a sampler. The Girl Genius model — digital serialization for eventual print — was so revolutionary a few years ago. Now it’s ubiquitous.
BTW, I do have to add the caveat that print is not dead and has a bright, vibrant future as well. They are different approaches to the same thing. Everyone talks about how interactive digital is, but I love being able to flip back in the pages of a book and look up something that I missed the first time. Plus, books don’t need batteries. Our brains process printed information differently than electronic information. I think this is going to become part of the dividing line for what’s native to print and what’s native to web.
Cruz: There’s still a barrier. I’m still an avid comic book reader, so I follow plenty of comic sites as well. Very few of the print comic sites also follow webcomics. They’re basically two separate genres. Want to follow superheroes, the guys in colorful tights who clobber each other on the big screen? Well, then print comics are for you. Want to chuckle at a strip that you can post on a messageboard and laugh at with your virtual comrades? Webcomics, then. The iPad’s not going to change this divide. If those comics catch on (and right now, that’s still a big “if”), then the print vs. webcomics divide will shift to digital comics (or iPad comics) vs. webcomics, with readers and creators aligning almost exclusively with one side. It’s a divide that’s been around as long as Marvel/DC vs. indy comics, and it’s something that I think will continue into the digital age.
Marshall: I think there’s still a pretty big divide between online comics readers and print comics readers – making it difficult for publishers (and publicists and creators) to find success on both sides of the print/online border. While that divide might become more fluid in the years to come, I don’t think this was the year that print and online audiences became interchangeable. I think there’s still some time before readers weigh print and online comics similarly. We’re still operating in an environment in which print comic readers generally see online comics as a completely different (and often lesser quality) product, and vice versa with webcomics readers and the way they see traditional print comics.
Who do you think were some of the most influential people this year in terms of their impact on digital comics? Who moved? Who shook?
Alverson: David Steinberger of comiXology, because for most people, comiXology is the default comics reader. It’s the easiest to use, it has the most comics (including Marvel and DC), and they also provide the infrastructure for a number of single-publisher apps, including Marvel, DC, and Boom, and single-series apps such as Scott Pilgrim and The Walking Dead.
Hikaru Sasahara, the president of Digital Manga Publishing. Despite its name, Digital is primarily a print publisher, but their online manga site eManga is getting bigger and pulling in works from other publishers. I think this is essential, to have a site that focuses on a particular type of comics (in this case, yaoi manga) rather than work from a single publisher, and it’s one reason why scanlation sites have done so well. Sasahara is also pioneering a new way to publish manga online, essentially a legal form of scanlation in which licensors would permit the use of the manga, and fans would translate and edit it, all for no money up front but a cut of the profits once it sold.
MacDonald: I also have to give big props to David Steinberger of ComiXology. As he’s fond of bringing up, we all laughed when we first met him and heard about his plans, but now he’s the go to guy for most of the industry. In a world where big talk is the common currency, David has been about results first, talking about them second. It’s really refreshing.
I was impressed with how a lot of the DC crew went through a very difficult year. Jim Lee, the new co-publisher, has always been a big computer nerd, and digital enthusiast, and putting someone as well spoken and well informed as he is in charge of the digital world for one of the major publishers radically upped their visibility and also what they are comfortable with in the digital realm. Despite all the ups and downs of Zuda, I think Ron Perazza also showed himself as a class act with a lot of faith in digital. With DC’s digital department moving to LA it will be interesting to see how the integrate with the studio.
Meredith Gran and her comics and Webcomics Weekend were also very important. I wish I could have gone to the latter — I have a lot to learn about and it sounds like a fanatastic incubator. It was fascinating to watch how Kate Beaton handled her popularity and the growing opportunities that it afforded her. She also touched off a very strong debate on issues that have been bubbling under with sexism, and I think that whole debate shocked a lot of people.
This is definitely some self aggrandizement, but I thought ICv2’s Digital Comics Conference, which The Beat co-sponsored, came off very well. Milton Griepp did a good job of getting people from different parts of the digital world to speak, and I felt that attendees really came out of it better informed and inspired than they went in. I hope so anyway!
Cruz: Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade somehow ended up as the #15 on the Time 100 most influential people list, proving that Internet voting is easily gamed.
Davis: I keep coming back to Kate Beaton and Lucy Knisley, who have both taken their work far beyond the core webcomics audience. Not only did Marvel publish them both, but Beaton also had a comic in The New Yorker, which seemed like a light bulb moment for a lot of people. Not that these cartoonists need the vindication of old media publications, but that these traditional publications may be looking for just the energy and innovation that exists among webcomics artists. And Knisley’s recent work has had such widespread appeal — from her fan squeeing moments over Harry Potter to her “It Gets Better” entry.
Marshall: I think the Goats and Octopus Pie books published by major mainstream book publishers made a big impact on the industry, even though they might not have sold up to publishers’ expectations. The books looked amazing, and offered a great indication of the life the comics can have outside of their websites. If creators and publishers can find the right balance in publishing strategy, expectations, and presentation, there’s a great relationship to be had there. I also feel like ZUDA shutting down made a big impact on the scene, and felt like sort of a no-confidence vote in DC’s online comics strategy, which actually spawned a few great comics (like High Moon, for example). I’m eager to see what they do next as far as original online comics, as there were definitely some successes there despite the many criticisms.
I’d also include New England Webcomics Weekend. I’m proud to say I’ve been able to attend the last two years, and Meredith Gran, Rich Stevens, the TopatoCo crew, and everyone else involved with the event deserve heaps of praise for what they’ve done with that convention. In two short years, it’s become the digital comics equivalent to the MoCCA Festival, with all of the unique tweaks, quirks, and appeal that sets webcomics apart from print. It’s easily one of my favorite shows of the year.
Cruz: Another person who shook the webcomic world was the creator of “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. (I know her name isn’t exactly the biggest secret, but since she’s in hiding, I hate to think I helped any of her enemies in any way.) The online protest, which involved a lot of webcomic creators and, yes, actual webcomics of Mohammed, started as a stand for free speech. What happened is a modern example of how politics have changed thanks to the Internet. The cause got co-opted by people who believed more in an anti-Islamist stand than free speech. The original proponents changed their view on the subject and went out of their way to say they respected Mohammed. And then the death threats, which were pretty serious considering someone really did die for drawing a comic about Mohammed before. While “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” probably never accomplished its goal, the entire event showed how effective online art can be, and unless you respect that power you really are putting your own life in jeopardy.
I think one thing that webcomics did as it dismantled the barriers to worldwide distribution is give creators lots more options in how they approach a career in comics. What are some of the more interesting things you saw in terms of creators successfully taking advantage of digital comics?
Marshall: I continue to love what Warren Ellis and Avatar Press are doing with FreakAngels — publishing the free online comics (with website ads) and then collecting the comics in print trade format. I think it’s a good starting place for traditional print publishers looking to get in on the online medium. I’ve also liked seeing more and more print creators turn to the web to show their work-in-progress art or scripts. It seems like it’s becoming the norm now, and I feel like that’s a good thing for comics and for comics fans.
Heater: I think the concept of print-on-demand and the ability to be a one-person PR machine (via social media) have really empowered Webcartoonists. Artists like Kate Beaton have spurned the advances of publishers, in order to put out their own work and potentially make far more money in the process by not having to surrender large portions of their paycheck to a seemingly endless string of intermediaries. That said, it’s a bit unfortunate that every cartoonist (even those one with publishing contracts) are now being asked to be one-person media machines, and let’s face it, not all artists are endowed with saleable social skills. In a perfect world, the work would sufficiently speak for itself.
Tyrrell: It’s not a taking advantage of digital comics story, per se, but Steve Leiber’s engagement with 4chan, and the decision to release Underground in electronic form was a pretty key moment for me. Before this becomes a fight between “pirates suck” and “if you can’t make money from free you’re doing it wrong” let’s remember that Leiber chose to take the path he did; sure, Underground showed up on 4chan, but it’s my understanding comics posted to that particular board tend to stay up for a few days, then the thread dies a natural death; there doesn’t seem to be an intent to keep scanned comics posted in perpetuity. So I see it as a short-term situation that prompted a long-term re-evaluation of distribution methods, but it was still his choice. There’s room for Leiber and Colleen Doran to both be right about parts of a fairly complex and nuanced situation, but what’s probably pointless is trying to make it go back to how it was 15, 20 years ago. The only thing that can happen now is adaptation to a world that hasn’t figured out all of its necessary societal norms yet.
Cruz: I thought Valve did a fantastic job when they released the Left 4 Dead: The Sacrifice webcomic. For something that was basically written to help hype up their DLC, the story content — chronicling some character backgrounds and bridging the gap between the two Left 4 Dead games — was surprisingly solid. Valve didn’t skimp, either, on the content (178 pages!) or the artwork (which was done by comic veteran Michael Oeming). The comic was a great example of how webcomics can reach to an audience outside of the comic (print and digital) reading audience.
Alverson: Alex DeCampi should probably get the prize for having a single work (Valentine) on the most platforms, but Mike Jasper and Niki Smith aren’t far behind; they won the Zuda competition earlier this year and their comic, In Maps and Legends, had just started running when the whole thing went away. They reconfigured and are now offering it on pretty much every digital platform known, from iPad to DriveThruComics.
A handful of people can make a living doing a webcomic, and another handful will find some success with the guerilla-marketing approach you mention, but almost by definition, their success can’t be replicated by anyone else. I think for most people, a successful webcomic will continue to be a way to hone their skills and get themselves on the map, more than an end in itself.
One really recent story I found fascinating isn’t really about comics at all except for the fact that it involved some people who otherwise make comics. Machine of Death, an anthology of short stories was edited in part by Ryan North and David Malki, two veterans of webcomics, who used their fanbase and online savvy to jolt Machine of Death to the top of the Amazon Bestseller list for a day. I think this kind of guerrilla, jujitsu style marketing is a great tool that more creators need to take a chance on to cut through the clutter. This one in particular was also a way to use online community to move a print product. I would also throw out Flattr and Kickstarter as new spins this year on getting money from fans to creators.
Marshall: Machine of Death was definitely a great example of this fan-supported strategy, and I’m seeing a lot of creators use Kickstarter for projects. To be honest, it feels like Kickstarter is just a formal method of doing what many webcomics have been doing for years: soliciting donations from readers for upcoming projects, merchandise, or print collections of a comic. And honestly, I think that this is one aspect of the webcomic world that traditional print publishers haven’t quite been able to grasp or find a way to translate yet — the way in which readers take it upon themselves to make a project successful. We’ve seen it every now and then with certain fan-favorite comic book series (I’m thinking of Manhunter, Runaways, etc), and maybe the difference is in the way readers see the direct results of their support for the project. It feels like traditional publishers are cautious about giving readers too much power over projects, while webcomics thrive on direct reader involvement in every facet of the project, from creative input (what do you ant to see?), to scheduling (how often do you want to see it?), to marketing (tell everyone about it!), and even merchandising (what should we put on a shirt?)… Machine of Death is a great example of this, as far as readers promoting a project.
MacDonald: Scott McCloud was right about the micropayments thing, but what he didn’t foresee is that it would never add up to more than 15¢. I was very impressed by the Ryan North experiment exploit. Also in the immortal words of Shaenon K. Garrity, “On the Internet, everyone is famous for fifteen people.” The thing that seems to be obscuring a lot of what is happening is the cloud of micro-beads. I run into this as a web business owner myself. It’s all about various revenue streams, a lot of which, to be honest, come down to patronage of one kind of another. Where is William Randolph Hearst when you need him? All of these incremental funding methods are working for now, but they further blur the line between creator and business person. You really need to spend as much time monetizing yourself as you do making art, and in some ways that’s troubling.
Davis: I think we’re increasingly seeing web cartoonists focusing not merely on being web cartoonists but on being great content creators on any front, and Machine of Death showed just how many tools they’ve accumulated from their webcomic careers. But I think the most interesting thing about Machine of Death is that we had a couple of webcomics creators who looked at their friends and fellow creators and said, “Hey, let’s create something cool together.” It sounds like Spike Trotman is going to do something similar with Smut Peddler, which I for one am way excited for. I hope we’ll be seeing more of that in the coming years: webcomic superfriends team-ups.
I have kind of mixed feelings about Kickstarter. I know people who’ve had great success with it and people who haven’t. I do like that it gives creators an incentive to talk about their projects and really sell them, but in my experience with Kickstarter I find myself wanting more of a sense of ownership in the projects I’m funding.
I’ve had both feet in online comics since about 1996 onwards. One of the most interesting things about to me has been that the “mainstream” of online comics has always reflected the online audience. Earlier on it was heavily technical and filled with video game references. More so now I see a really huge diversity of styles and genres… filled with video game references. Well I do see a lot of diversity online — what are some of the niches and topics you thought digital comics did a great job with this year? What’s the most niche comic you saw?
Tyrrell: Is “insanely creative” a niche? Regardless, for catching the viral wave and riding that sumbitch for all its worth, you have to give props to Axe Cop. As far as niche topic treatments go, there were a lot of complex stories that require slow development and reward in-depth reading — Sailor Twain and Zahra’s Paradise come to mind (mid-1800s sea tales and the story of Iran’s ongoing Green Revolution, respectively). I think the word I’m looking for to tie them together is “detailed”, much the same as Family Man (Enlightenment-era university politics and werewolves). But the most niche comic I saw this year was probably the episode of Box Brown’s Everything Dies — dealing with The Great Disappointment — a brief history of apocalypticism through a Chris Ware-ish lens.
MacDonald: I think it’s just because it’s the kind of work that I’m attracted to, but I am constantly finding young cartoonists working in this kind of “magical fairy tale world” vein. People with animal heads and forests and magic and snow. It’s very common in foreign indie comics, as well.
Davis: The most niche comic I saw — and the most successful niche comic — has to be Matt Inman’s The Oatmeal. Here, he took all the things that appeal to certain social networks — grammar lessons, listicals, the occasional bear — and made a high-traffic comic. I know some people were offended that they were being so clearly marketed to, but I say more power to him.
I feel like the twenty-something diary comic is the new videogame webcomic. I realize there have long been diary comics in print, but I’ve recently noticed more and more cropping up online. And as with videogame webcomics, some are amazing and a lot of them just blur together after awhile.
Alverson: I like Sarah Becan’s I Think You’re Saucesome, which is really more of a foodie webcomic than a diet diary, although she does have some interesting meditations on body image. I’m surprised there aren’t more foodie webcomics, now that I think about it. The most niche comic I have found is The Whiteboard, a paintball webcomic that has been around for a while, actually.
Cruz: You’d think there would be a natural crossover between Lovecraft fans and webcomic creators, but I haven’t run across many Lovecraft-themed webcomics in my experience. Are most webcomic creators just Lovecraft posers? Perhaps. So, the most niche webcomic I’ve encountered this year is perhaps The Watcher of Yaathagggu. It’s a webcomic about a girl who works at a lighthouse that stands watch over a sea crawling with tentacled beasties. Lovecraft Is Missing also gets its eldritch horrors game on, but that one is more approachable as a good ol’ fashioned adventure comic… no Lovecraft obsession necessary.
Marshall: Naturally, I end up reading myself (and getting forwarded links to) a lot of webcomics referencing recent and upcoming movies (and the movie and television industries), and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by creators’ takes on the stuff I’m dealing with 24-7 these days. Like you mentioned in the question, there was definitely some aversion to acknowledging the mainstream entertainment industry in the early days of webcomics (and if it *was* acknowledged, it was to ridicule it), so it’s been nice to see some creative commentary on the industries I’m covering in my day job. It’s hard to cite any specific series for this one, as it seems to be something that pops up sporadically (or around the release of movie trailers) in various comics — but I’m definitely seeing a lot more of it now than I ever did when I was covering comics full-time. And I love it.
Ack. There was a comic I discovered at this year’s New England Webcomics Weekend that was all about someone’s cat. I ended up buying a bunch of handmade cat toys from the creator at the show, and that reminded me to check out the comic when I got home. I loved it, but it was very much a comic by and for cat lovers… and now I can’t seem to locate the comic (or the card with the website). A comic for cat lovers certainly isn’t the most “niche” comic around, but I loved that it was so unapologetic about its audience. Anyone know what comic I’m talking about? Help me out here!
Tyrrell: Rick, I think you’re thinking of Hey, Pais.
Shifting topics — I struggle with what is the best way to honor great comic work published digitally. Initially, webcomics was off on its own with efforts like the WCCAs. More recently, most major comic awards have added a “webcomics” category. While the inclusion of digital comics at the big kids’ table is a good step forward, it feels odd to me to lump everything digital into one category. Take this year’s Eisner nominees for the category of Best Digital Comic — Abominable Charles Christopher, Bayou, The Guns of Shadow Valley, Power Out, and Sin Titulo. On the one hand – how do you compare some of these, but on the other hand, I think about how much work online is left unrepresented.
What’s the best way to recognize digital comics? If you were put in charge of things how would you run the “ultimate” comics award program?
Alverson: Webcomics are an awkward fit with current awards programs, probably for the same reason that manga doesn’t do very well — the judges aren’t that famliar with the medium. In 2009, I complained that only one of the “webcomics” that was nominated for the Eisner awards in that category was actually a webcomic in the way we normally think of it — a comic that exists primarily on the web, with continuity, reader engagement, a dedicated website. There is more to making a webcomic than simply scanning in your drawings and posting them online.
I would like to see webcomics included in the regular categories, especially for the Harveys and the Ignatzes, and then have a few webcomics categories that recognize different aspects of the medium — best gag comic, best long-form comic, etc. Really, webcomics should have their own awards, designed by creators and webcomics publishers, but awards are a lot of work and realistically that probably won’t happen. On the other hand, as the categories dissolve and more people shift their comics reading online, I think digital comics will naturally melt in with the other comics in the established awards.
Tyrrell: I’d like to see the abolition of “webcomics/digital comics/bandes dessinees web” as a category. If Karl Kerschl’s work is that good (and it is), let The Abominable Charles Christopher go up for Best Artist against the best print has to offer. That being said, this is dreaming on my part, because it’s infinitely easier for juries and nominating committees to keep up with the work of major publishers than it is for them to become familiar with the work of a hundreds of creators that aren’t aggregated in one place so easily.
Heater: I think we’re heading into an era where it won’t be necessary to ghettoize such content (though it’s likely still some years off — this industry isn’t known for moving all that swiftly in the digital space). I don’t think the issue is a lack of awards ceremonies — we’ve got an ample number of those. Rather, it’s the ability to place the value of content over format.
Davis: It does seem a little odd that digital comics get their own category based simply on platform, but it does seem to be the only way digital comics will be recognized by many awards. If we’re going to fence off digital comics, I’d like to see more digital categories — best digital short story, best webcomic that updates at least once a week, etc. The biggie for me, though, is just putting more webcomics in front of nominating parties. Certainly with the Eisners, we’ve seen that even the digital nominees tend to have strong ties to print comics. I’d like to think that the committee would happily recognize a wider array of webcomics if they just knew what was out there.
MacDonald: This kind of thing evolves naturally, I think. The Ignatzes recognizes work in both platforms in several categories and I think you’ll be seeing this more and more as the “comics establishment”, which makes up most Eisner judges, for instance, gets more comfortable with digital comics. Also, web comics are really the “third world” of comics. I notice that manga readers and superhero readers have nothing in common, almost nothing to talk about even, and so it is with webcomics fans and these two fandoms. I am probably even less into that community than I am manga, which is odd considering its online nature.
Marshall: I think the Eisners have a good variety of categories that should then be applied to webcomics specifically, since we all know that the only one of the Eisners that a webcomic will win is the “Best Digital Comic” category. Take the categories used in the Eisners and apply them to webcomics, then add one or two wink-and-nod categories that retain the fun, community vibe of webcomics (i.e., “Best Comic Starring A Robot”), and there’s the award lineup. San Diego 2011 – let’s do this! (Or maybe we should pick a convention that people can actually afford to attend…)
Cruz: I still like having a separate award [recognize] the depth and breadth of webcomics. The Eisners are great, but the winners get pretty predictable. That’s because the Eisner voters vote with the personality, and most of the time they have nothing to do with webcomics. The Eisner Digital Comic Award might as well be renamed “The Consolation Prize for Popular Mainstream Creators That Didn’t Win Any of the Other Awards” Award.
There’s a perception among some of my readers that awards are a waste of time, basically glorified vanity projects that don’t even drum up business for the winners. I can see where they’re coming from, especially given the popularity contest nature of the WCCA’s as the embarrassment over some of the winners. That view’s overly cynical though. I happen to love awards ceremonies given to every form of media. It spurs healthy debate on who should have won, or who should have been nominated, or what categories should be recognized. It gets people thinking about what qualities their passions should be judged against. And it’s always nice for anyone, anywhere to get recognition, no matter how trivial it may seem. It’s a vote of confidence from people who aren’t just your fans. The temporary confidence boost and the warm fuzzy feelings? That’s totally worth it, in my opinion.
So here’s my perfect awards scenario: a dedicated award for webcomics only. Judged as opposed to online votes. AND I would ditch the illustrated “awards ceremonies.” They’re cute, but they trivialize the award. If at all possible, I’d do the awards presentation live and at one of the conventions. Hey, NEWW is a thing now, right? Film the ceremony, put it online with links to the webcomics presented. Badaboom, badabing.
Give me a bold prediction about where webcomics will be at the end of next year (2011) and the next decade (2020)
Tyrrell: I think we’ll see the last of the big-name publisher deals with webcomics for books. They just can’t get their heads to a place where a creator with 25,000 readers can sell enough at a sufficient margin to make a living; they’ve spent too many years optimizing their process for mass sales. But that leaves plenty of room for boutique publishers (I’m looking at you, First Second) to get their feet wet. Especially if the Machine of Death distribution to major chains goes well, I could see the buyer for Barnes & Noble signing a bundle deal to carry the Topatoco catalog.
By 2020 “webcomics” will be a functionally meaningless term. I think monthly print comics by the big publishers will by then have gone the way of vinyl (still existing, but for collectors and purists of a particular bent), replaced by serialized digital offerings, with print largely being the domain of the trade collection. And just as the corporate types have finally settled into that pattern, the independent creators will be transitioning to the next model.
Heater: Bold is tough. As I said, I don’t think the industry moves swiftly enough for bold. I do expect to see a good deal more content being created to take advantage of the diversifying number of platforms, rather than a general repurposing of print. That’s an exciting prospect, no?
Alverson: I think manga will shift over to the web in a big way, as manga publishers (and the Japanese licensors) finally get off the dime. Viz led the way with its Shonen Sunday and SigIKKI sites, and now it is putting some Shonen Jump content online but available only to subscribers. Yen Press reconfigured Yen Plus as a subscriber-only web magazine, and Square Enix announced plans to launch a North American comics site. One huge difference between these and other publisher-run sites is that readers will be expected to pay for the comics, but since they are starting with already established franchises, it may work where other paywalls have failed.
By 2020, comics will have moved far enough into the mainstream that they will be a standard form of literature. Magazines, in whatever form they exist in by then, will include graphic storytelling as part of their standard mix, and people will read comics as easily as they read novels now. The iPad and its successors will help this transition along by making comics easier to find, but the real change began with webcomics, which allowed creators to make comics about the things they are interested in and attract readers who don’t necessarily think of themselves as comics readers. xkcd is the index case here, and I hope the medium will blossom in the decade to come.
MacDonald: With Meredith Gran’s announcement the other day that Random House dropped Octopus Pie, one of my great predictions of the past has come a cropper — print webcomics collections have NOT taken the place of Garfield and Doonesbury print collections. I’m not entirely sure why — maybe it is the fact that webcomics are native on another platform, and the audience doesn’t want a print collection. I think webcomics readers interact with them in a different way. Nonetheless, I see nothing but upwards and onwards for webcomics. The next step, I suppose, is for one to become such a moneymaker for its creators that they can rewrite some of the monetary models. Online advertising will become more lucrative for one thing — but we need a more reliable sustainable economic system that isn’t so reliant on the “samizdat” method we have now.
In 2020 we’ll be looking forward to the World Cup in Qatar. Barack Obama will be on the Tyra Banks show to talk about his new book. Shiloh Pitt-Jolie will be a movie star. Penny Arcade will be a multinational corporation and people will complain that its too powerful and controls too much of the business. Today’s webcomics entrepreneurs will have staffs and worry about payrolls and hiring. And somewhere there will be a new renegade upstart who is figuring out how to change everything… again.
Marshall: BOLD PREDICTION: They will be in our brains, and we’ll read them all “Minority Report”-style.
REALISTIC PREDICTION: We’ll see the print industry continue to take occasional baby steps forward (and frequent leaps back) into the digital comics realm, while more and more existing webcomics will be reprinted and collected in print form by larger publishers. Mainstream publishers and webcomic creators will gradually drift toward a happy medium as far as expectations vs. return on investment, and we’ll see even more creators make the move from comic hobbyists to full-time, professional, “I make my living doing this” comic creators. And there will be much rejoicing.
Davis: By the end of 2011, at least one high-profile webcomic creator will announce that he or she is starting a digital publishing house to publish on mobile devices, and I think we’ll see announcements for more group projects.
In 2020, we’ll be kvetching about the monstrous establishment that is Topatoco and how they don’t recognize hip young creators.
Cruz: In 2011, webcomic readers will eventually get tired or “wacky”/gimmicky pirate-ninja-cowboy-viking-robot mashups. There will be a movement toward solid storytelling and better artwork. Also, there will be a drastic decrease in Star Wars references/jokes, because … heck, that movies like over 30 years old! Get over it, grandpa!
In 2020, people will be reading webcomics … on the moon. Also, somewhere in San Francisco, there will be a Musée de Webcomic Arts, where there will be a exhibit entitled “Ctrl+Alt+Del: The Misunderstood Genius of Tim Buckley.”