We’re discussing print this month, which is an interesting topic for webcomics. Once, it was the goal. Everyone who was doing the web had an eye to print — the early successes, like User Friendly, Sluggy Freelance, and Kevin and Kell all moved into print collections as a matter of course. Plan 9 Publishing became the earliest resource for webcomics to bridge into dead trees, and it remains a vibrant publisher of comics and cartoons from both the web and print sides of the aisle. Derek Kirk Kim is perhaps the most successful example of a person who has bridged from the web to a print collection, with the clear and obvious exception of Megatokyo, which has transformed itself from a webcomic with collections available in print to a manga produced by Dark Horse that happens to put up teaser pages in sequential order on a website.
Of course, at that time, the ultimate goal — the prize of prizes — for many comics remained newspaper syndication. Some made the jump to small syndicates and indie papers, of course. Helen, the Sweetheart of the Internet is perhaps the biggest success story of this particular print dream, having jumped to Tribune Media Services several years back.
But… Helen was one of the only strips to make that leap. Similarly, PvP is one of the few comics not only to make the leap to print comic books but to make the leap to a major publisher. At the same time, we have had some successful print comics — most notably the brilliant and highly lauded Girl Genius — making the inverse leap over from serialized publication to web publication with collections for sale. And in recent years, self-publication via print on demand (POD) has become dirt-simple and dirt-cheap for both books and comics. It’s getting to the point that it’s less of a financial risk for a webcartoonist to offer print versions of their comics to their audience than it is to offer non-CafePress t-shirts. It’s also getting to the point that webcomics are becoming an attractive marketing strategy for print publishers. The door is swinging both ways.
And that makes me wonder just what the role of print is in webcomics today.
Obviously, there is still the dream. Being able to walk into a bookstore and see your collection sitting next to Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes remains compelling and exciting. Being able to open the Boston Globe and see your comic strip sandwiched between Ziggy and Hagar the Horrible1 would be a monumental spiritual lift. Having someone sending you quarterly paychecks would be a monumental financial lift. And just having your work in a form that isn’t dependent on the Internet or a computer, but instead can easily be carried into a bathroom or left on a parent’s bookshelf is damnably cool.
But in ways, it seems to be becoming less and less important.
As the web medium continues to mature, and as audiences continue to grow — and the overall webcomics audience will in fact continue to grow — the web continues to become its own justification. Further, while the dream of self-support through one’s art remains potent for many or most people, my personal theory is that most people who produce webcomics are more interested in producing webcomics than quitting their day jobs to produce webcomics.
Let me say that again, because for an oddly obvious sentiment, it gets forgotten on a regular basis. But it’s significant.
Most people who produce webcomics are more interested in creating their comics than in making a living off them.
I’m serious. I think the vast majority of people who plug away at webcomics — while they might dream of quitting their day job and devoting their lives to comic creation — are mostly interested in far more tangible aspects of webcomickry. Perhaps it’s the drive to create art, or perhaps it’s the desire to build an audience. Or the desire to tell a story. Or just because all the cool kids have one. Regardless, for a lot of webcartoonists, the clear appeal is the creation of a comic strip that people will read.
Obviously, access to robust and inexpensive print on demand services feeds into that latter group very solidly. Yes, the artists won’t have paychecks coming in from editors. And they also won’t begin to have the distribution that a third-party publisher or syndicate can give them. But, they will have a print collection, which their fans can purchase. And they won’t have editorial constraints, either.
On the downside, as the print on demand (and other self-publishing print options) industry gets more robust and streamlined, the number of print comics and collections will mushroom. In a world where more and more books are published each year and fewer and fewer books become ubiquitous, culturally, the influx of tens of thousands of additional books and comics each year means print collections will become less and less significant. When there are thousands of webcomics collected into print format, the only people who will buy a given webcomic’s print collection will be… well, fans of the webcomic.
In other words, it’s going to be the same audience that the webcomic already has buying the collection, in all but the rarest of cases. Which means that if a given comic wants to make any money off their print collection… they’ll first need to increase their overall web readership and then market effectively to their readership. That seems to be what Girl Genius is trying to do, in one sense.
Looking at the successful web-to-print comics, it seems likely that — excepting PvP, Megatokyo, and Same Difference for today (and there will always be those exceptions which really take off) — it’s those selfsame collections being sold to the current fan base that are doing the best for their creators. Plan 9’s stock in trade is selling Sluggy Freelance, Kevin and Kell, and GPF collections (along with many others) to the readers of the web versions of those strips. They don’t place a lot of their books in random bookstores, to my knowledge.
So what am I saying? In the end, it’s that a successful webcomic’s print collection is going to depend entirely on their web-based fans to be successful. And I’m also saying that with a large number of webcartoonists out there who aren’t driven by the desire to be financially successful, coupled with the increasing availability of print on demand options, more and more comic strips are going to be offering print alternatives of their strip to those core fans, without necessarily looking for great monetary returns in the process.
Where the print side of webcomics goes from here is going to be interesting to watch.
1For the record, I haven’t any idea if either Ziggy or Hagar the Horrible are in the Boston Globe, so please don’t send me mail about it.
Eric Alfred Burns is a staff columnist for Comixpedia. He writes the monthly "Feeding Snarky," as well as occasionally doing other bits and sundries.
By day an information technologist and systems administrator, Eric becomes a writer and critic at night. He is the founder of Websnark.com, a blog devoted to whatever he or his cohort feels like writing at the time. Often, that’s webcomics. He has also written for Steve Jackson Games, Decipher Games, and was a co-author of the ENnie nominated Sidewinder: Wild West Adventures for Citizen Games. He is listed as a "Contributing Author" for the Gold ENnie award winning Sidewinder: Recoiled, but one shouldn’t read too much into that.
A particularly bad artist, Burns was ‘noted’ for his rather poor webcomic Unfettered by Talent, which justly died after 12 strips. He is now the writer for the much better — and acclaimed — Gossamer Commons, which is drawn by the vastly better Greg Holkan.