An Interview with Barber and Withrow: Authors of Webcomics The Book

Webcomics: Tools and Techniques for Digital Cartooning is the new book by Steven Withrow and John Barber, the first "how to" book on the many techniques, styles, and possibilities among the webcomic genre, showcasing a variety of creators. We talked with the two authors on the challenging task of showing off such a diverse medium.

How did you two collaborate on this? What was the biggest challenge of working with a partner?

JB: I' disappear for months, make Steven do all the work, and then apologize. I suppose that makes me the biggest challenge.

SW: John and I outlined the book together and then divided up the material roughly in half. It was a lot of back-and-forth work at first, but we settled into a more or less independent routine after a while, each handling our own sections. Only near the end of the process – eight or nine months in – did we again collaborate directly. Although we revised our initial plan a few times, we both had similar ideas of what the book might become from start to finish.


Who do you really see as your audience? The seasoned webcomics creator looking for tips to improve, the potential webcomic creator looking for ways to do it, or the more general reader/fan who might be interested in the idea of webcomics and curious about their favorite comics' creative process?

JB: Not to sound like I’m trying to shill the book, but I think there’s something for everyone. It’s a great intro for somebody who draws a comic and wants to put it up on the Web, but maybe doesn’t know how. For me, way back when, that was a huge obstacle – I didn’t even know what questions to ask! Webcomics does a great job of explaining basic (and more advanced) Internet/computer concepts, as they relate to comics.

A seasoned webcomics creator might get some new ideas and inspirations, and everybody – rookie, old pro, fan, whatever – gets a great opportunity to peek into the minds and hearts of favorite creators.

SW: This is a book that’s easy to browse and is fun to look at, and I hope it’ll also catch the eye of the casual fan of print comics, animation, graphic design, video games, manga/anime, and so on. There are plenty of technique-heavy pieces but also some shorter, general-interest art sections.

You have a huge slew of featured artists, which is great – but do you worry you might end up confusing the reader, giving him such a variety of techniques and methods that it will be hard to choose from? How did you guard against this?

JB: Well, we’re not really trying to make anybody choose. It’s more of a case of giving the reader a look behind the curtain; to answer “how did they do that?” We really don’t encourage anybody to start aping the styles of any of our artists – but some of the techniques and skills could be easily applied to a reader’s work.

We set up the book to start with the most technically basic type of comic (but by no means the easiest to do!) – a daily-type strip. Then we show other techniques – adding color, for instance. As the book goes on, the tutorials get more Web-based (like using Flash) to show that this stuff can be done.

SW: Featuring so many artists in one place helps, I think, to give an instant impression of the great range of possibilities for webcomics. I’m often put off by books by a single instructor who takes you through his or her “secrets” for successful cartooning (unless it’s by Will Eisner or Richard Williams). We wanted to inspire as much as to instruct, and we make it clear throughout the book that the choice of approach is always the creator’s.

As the first book devoted solely to webcomic creation, you may end up defining the process for the next generation of webcartoonists. Is it a little intimidating and sobering to be the first?

JB: Well, webcartoonists really define the process themselves. That’s a big part of the beauty of it. We’re really trying to show where maybe something could be done an easier way. Once you see all these tutorials, you’ll see there is no “right” way – there’s just a bunch of DIFFERENT ways.

SW: We do attempt a working definition of webcomics, though it’s not really revolutionary to anyone already familiar with the form. It would be wonderful if the book ends up having some lasting effect on even a handful of cartoonists, but we didn’t intend Webcomics as a manifesto such as Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics. As John said, we’ve let the webcartoonists speak for themselves and did our best to give a sense of the scope of what’s out there – which is continually shifting, of course.

Does the desire of some webcartoonists to see their work eventually in print cause them to limit what they put on the Web and how they put it out? To not take advantage of the strengths of the medium? How – or should they be – encouraged to experiment a little more?

JB: Sure, a lot of webcartoonists want to see their work in print. There’s nothing wrong with that. It makes a lot of sense to me to build an audience online and start collecting it for print. In fact, if you’re doing a print comic – and self-publishing it – it makes MORE sense to me to serialize it on the Web and sell collections in print. We talk a little about printing in Webcomics.

Other times artists might want to do something Web-specific that can’t be duplicated in print. That’s great too. It’s not a choice an artist has to make for his or her entire career – you can decide this stuff on a case-by-case basis. That’s another beauty of webcomics.

We’ve got plenty of stuff to inspire people down both paths.

Many webcartoonists are searching for ways to make this financially viable – ranging from Bitpass to merchandising to reader donations to advertising. Have any predictions on which will eventually win?

JB: There’s no reason anything will ever “win”. There are lots of ways to make money on the Web, and surely there always will be. There’s no one way to make money doing comics in print, either – sure, selling books, but some books have ads, some go to bookstores, some go to newsstands, some are created specifically for clients, some come with CDs…

SW: Commercial sponsorship deals with transnational conglomerates! I can see it now…Shaenon K. Garrity’s Narbonic, brought to you by the people who brought you Fabuluoxx – your diet alternative – and endorsed by Paris Hilton and The Rock!

Tough question. Webcartoonists have shown incredible entrepreneurial spirit, but I think other, more popular art forms – music and movies and games, for example – are doing the most significant trailblazing in these areas. Webcartoonists should benefit from advances made by those industries, especially in altering public perception of paying for online content. For the vast majority of us, it will always be about doing something we love rather than raking in cash.

What do you think might be the biggest failing among the current crop of webcartoonists?

JB: They don’t all have really great cars. Brendan Cahill has a great car, but a lot of other people don’t. I don’t have any car, for instance.

SW: I do own a car, though not a really great one. And if only we had a better dental plan. But seriously, for all the talk about editorial freedom on the Web, we could all stand to ask someone to proofread our dialogue and captions. Sloppy spelling and grammar irk me, I guess.

Most people, even those who surf the Web a lot, haven't even heard of webcomics, even the most well-known ones like Penny Arcade or Megatokyo. What do you see as the best way to make the medium better known?

JB: That’s probably a thing that’s just true about the Internet, and again, that’s part of the beauty. My fiancée, Alison, she just discovered the lightsaber kid video. She uses the Web a lot, but had never run across it until a couple months ago. And, I mean, I hope the best webcomics are of greater cultural value than that, but I think the Web maybe just kind of works that way.

SW: Word-of-mouth, as with just about anything else. Tell your friends about webcomics you like, chat about them on your blogs and forums, buy a t-shirt from your favorite creator and wear it everywhere. The most wonderful thing about promoting a webcomic is all you need to do is to share the URL; you don’t need to give directions to the nearest comics shop or, in most cases, ask anybody to spend money to try something out.

What trends in webcomics currently do you see as the most hopeful or fruitful?

JB: To me, it’s that this is the new generation of comics creators, period. Manga, superheroes, literary comics, alternative comics – the future of every genre of comics lies online. I mean in terms of where the new creators will come from.

And it’s also a great mode of communication. I have to imagine that the manga boom, coupled with the advent of easier and easier access to the Web, signifies a really dramatic new form of communication for, say, adolescent girls – a form that never existed before. I say this never having been an adolescent girl, but I’m making a guess here.

SW: Webcomics meant for all age groups, and some aimed at very young kids. Webcomics from all parts of the globe, in translation or in the creator’s native language. And the recent rise in the number of nonfiction webcomics – not just narrative autobiographies but also biographies, persuasive and critical and historical essays, journalistic reports, instructional and process pieces. Comics can be extremely successful at all of these things, and online comics are no exception.

Will there be a Webcomics 2? Son of Webcomics? Webcomics, the Next Generation?

SW: Not for a while, I don’t think. But this sort of book certainly lends itself to updated future editions as technology and the players change. I’d love to create a downloadable digital version of this book – or perhaps a future edition – eventually. That way we could showcase the works in their natural environments and go fully interactive with the project. But nothing like that is in the works at this point.

In the meantime, I can't wait to hear some feedback from our readers!