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It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics Need to Man-Up

I was never a fan of newspaper comics. Calvin and Hobbes may have been the first comic I ever read, but once it ended, that was it for me, everything else seemed formulaic and contrived to me with no room for any real artistry. That may or may not be true, but it’s how I feel.

Now, comic BOOKS, that’s another story. Just as Calvin and Hobbes was ending I began devouring X-Men, and Spider-Man and Batman, and it’s where my love of comic comes from, what originally inspired me to make a career out of comics.

Those are the kind of comics I love and the kind of comics I want make, but they’re not dominating the web.

You don’t need to be Todd Allen to take a look around and see that the comics that are the true success stories of digital comics have more in common with the sensibilities of Bill Watterson than Will Eisner, and I think there’s a reason for this.

The web reads and functions very similar to a newspaper. People tend to check it daily, but in controlled bursts, rarely reading anything of great length. A quick chuckle is ideal for the websurfer, because, well it's right in the name. That user is surfing, not standing still for any one thing. This is not a hard and fast rule, obviously online gaming and communication can consume hours upon hours for some, but there is an interactive element there holding their attention. Straight-up reading tends to not hold people's online attention nearly that long.

This is tough duty for a serial comic meant to be read as a singular story, be it finite or continuing, because reading that story piecemeal is not how it is intended to be read, and archival reading can be a chore. (Back to that “I don’t want to spend hours sitting at my desk” point from yesterday.)

The other problem this poses is that it is very easy for those of creating longform comics to look at the current successes in digital comics and try and borrow their tricks, and it’s become pretty evident to me that will not work. This makes a lot of sense in a lot of ways, as just because a long form comic is online it’s still as different from a short form comic as a newspaper strip is from a graphic novel.

Say what you like about the subscription model, and accuse me of sucking up to the Colonel if you like, but that was as close as long form comics have come to making a decent dime. As Joey has recently mentioned, yes, there was a ceiling, but it was an attempt to work with the notion that long form comics numbers aren’t at the level of short form’s for the reasons above and more and make it work. Don’t worry, I’m not saying I’m going to go and lock Graphic Smash back behind paypal’s iron curtain, not at all, that concept did plataeu, but my point here is Joey tried something that went against conventional wisdom, and no, no one got rich, but I’m not seeing that drive to try anything else new right now, and that’s where I’m going here.

The fact of the matter is that pageviews + ads + t-shirts are not working for longform comics right now, at least not in a direct sense like it’s working for others and I think it’s time for longform digital comics to start to stop trying to copycat what works for our short form peers and start looking for the unique properties of our chosen method, what it’s strengths are, what it’s weaknesses are, and how we can use the former and minimize the effects of the latter.

Now I know I’ve spent a lot of real estate saying nothing we don’t already know here, but that’s not what this post is about. Like unto my favorite JLU character, I’m not the answer, I’m just the Question, and I don’t have the answer. I can’t because it will take years of effort to prove any idea is right. Personally, I have a lot notions regarding backing up a webcomic with PDFs or CBZs or Mobile Content or other downloadable add-ons that more closely simulate a comic book the way the web simulates a newspapaer.

In the meantime, the web is a great place to build your audience and hone your craft regardless of your genre or style, and those are elements that are hard to put a price on and can lead to great things down the road which I’ve seen happen time and again and with increasing frequency as the days pass, but I really do look forward to the day where we see a longform comic rise to the ranks of the webcomic greats we know today.

Think ya got it in ya’ grasshopper?

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Graz73's picture

About Long Archives: I like long form sites that break their big archives up into books or chapters. That tells me that if I like what I'm reading, I don't need to read 2000 pages on my lunch break or else risk getting lost or distracted part way through, or loosing my place or anything. Digestible chunks are a good thing...

As far as frequency of updates: It seems obvious that frequent updates are a good way to build readership in a webcomic. BUT its also very unrealistic to think that a longform comic is going to be able to crank out as many quality pages as a 3 panel gag strip.

Most of my Cy-Boar pages are formatted vertically like a comic book pages. That's great when I later put this stuff in print, but I've been thinking about whether it would be better to cut some of these pages in half making two updates, but each half the content.

On one hand, in a long form comic, you want to read a chunk of story to make your visit to the site worthwhile... but on the other, you want there to be a new update when you come back.

I know that the comics that let me down most often with frequency of updates are the long form ones.

So, on the other hand, I can understand longform comics that want to update with a whole chunk of new pages at once, but in that case, its easy to forget to return to those sites if the updates are so infrequent... And, even if I DO remember to return to read the "latest issue" how is that a good business model? I get to see their banner ad every month or something?

[url=http://www.cy-boar.com/index.php][img]http://www.cy-boar.com/banners/banner_468_60.gif[/img][/url]

It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

As has been said already, the reading experience is key. Even as the writer of a couple of longform comics myself, I find very few others that "work" (for me) on the web.

If I tune in to the latest instalment and there's nothing there but two guys beating seven shades out of each other, it's lost my interest. If the previous or next page is the same, then it's probably lost me forever. And yet, in a print format, a two page fight sequence is nothing out of the ordinary. Hell, a five page fight sequence is not exactly unheard of. The problem is, you can't get an overview of the whole in the same way as you can by flicking through print pages.

Archives are also a two edged sword. A comic with huge archives is probably more likely to continue through to completion but, when I see vast archives, my gut reaction is to think: damn, I've missed so much already and it's going to hurt my eyes if I try to read through that lot online.

I think the best bet for longform comics is to see the web as a form of advertising, a way to build a fanbase prior to print. As much as we may all hate to admit it, longform comics work better in print.

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Broken Voice Comics
Because comics are not just for kids

Dealing with large archives

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

[quote=DAJB]Archives are also a two edged sword. A comic with huge archives is probably more likely to continue through to completion but, when I see vast archives, my gut reaction is to think: damn, I've missed so much already and it's going to hurt my eyes if I try to read through that lot online.[/quote]

A large archive for a comic is a double-edged sword indeed. If it's a good comic though it's mostly a good thing I would wager as a new reader gets a concentrated dose of the comic before settling into whatever update schedule for new material exists.

If it's a bad comic, well, a large archive just confirms that the comic isn't going to get any better and it's not worth the reader's time.

An interesting mid-point though is the comic that gets better (art and/or story-wise) throughout its publication on the web. That's not an uncommon pattern (Probably the most obvious example - Questionable Content - always well written but art-wise made pretty big strides.). A huge archive of such mixed quality presents a dilemma for the creator and I wish many creators gave a little more thought to how to present their comic to the new reader.

 

____

Xaviar Xerexes

Oh yeah... this place is called ComixTalk now.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: Dealing with large archives

Greg Carter's picture

[quote=xerexes]A huge archive of such mixed quality presents a dilemma for the creator and I wish many creators gave a little more thought to how to present their comic to the new reader. [/quote]
Well, I've been probably the worst thing possible: starting as a new comic each time I start a new storyline because each one has been taking about a year to make, and since I haven't been drawing that long the art changes drastically by the time it's over. On one had I'd love to throw it all in one big archive for convenience, but I don't want to scare away the people who might throw up at the sight of the art on the very first pages. It makes me want to start over completely, but I still want to be able to show I've been working on this for three years and it's kinda hard to do both.

It's mainly a limitation of the update software that I've used that's kept me from organizing things better. I'm trying to figure out how to take advantage of the tags in ComicPress/WordPress to both lump it together and separate it out so people can choose how much they want.

As far as print being the better format for enjoying most long form comics and the web being just a taste of it... that's pretty much how it works for me. I have print versions of all my favorite webcomics, which are mostly longform. And there will be print versions of my comics once I get something good enough to stick to the paper. I format it for print and shrink-to-fit for the web.

Greg Carter Abandon UpDown Studio

Greg Carter - Abandon: First Vampire - Online Graphic Novel

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

marvelouspatric's picture

well, i've done both long form comics and a strip on the web, so i think i'll chime in.... my biggest problem doing a long form comic (Aces High at GraphicSmash) was the amount of time and effort it took to do it. Because very few people can say that all they do is a comic on the web for a living, it's very difficult to have the time and financial resources to do a long form comic and actually reach your conclusion. i know from my experience the hardest part was keeping a steady artist on it and keeping pages coming out on a regular basis. because long-form comics are unlike strips in that the "pay-off" probably doesn't come in each installment, you have to keep readers coming back. if, like me, you had trouble gettings pages out on a regular basis, chances were you would lose a lot of the steady readers. interestingly enough, now that Aces has been cancelled, people are reading through the complete archives in droves. I think a big reason for that increase in readership for what is essentially a dead comic is the fact that the people know they aren't going to get to a certain point and have to wait and wonder.the strip, on the other hand, is so easy! it's like three panels, black and white, every day. my own personal theory on how the strip should work is 1 panel to re-establish what's happening, 2nd panel to move the story / set up the joke, and the 3rd panel to move the story/ be the punchline. yeah, it's formulaic, but it works. because there's an immediate pay-off, people walk away satisfied. at the same time, i can have longish stories going. stripping is where it's at, at least right now. i think tim hit it on the head the other day with the iPhone. until you can take digital comics into the toilette on a light-weight device that won't burn your lap, long form digital comics aren't going to be popular. the device i want? a 5x7 touch screen with a simple interface, wi-fi, and speakers that plays movies, music, and reads cbr, pdf, etc. oh, and i want it to cost no more than $300 (american) on the high end. That's the device we need. And, while we're at it, we need a stand-alone application for reading and purchasing like iTunes for comics that syncs to said device. patric http://www.marvelouspatric.com

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Coffman's picture

I guess you could consider Hero By Night a longform comic that paces out. We also mix up the styles a bit in format to fit the space-- it keeps things fun enough for the readers so they have to come back and see what's going to happen next. I think the real trick is to create your own community around the project and let the readers do the rest, as far as building something that's as popular as other big comic strips online.

 

DJ Coffman- cartoonist

yirmumah.net - herobynight.com

DJ Coffman- cartoonist

yirmumah.net - herobynight.com

Re:

Shishio's picture

Ah, but the thing about Dr. McNinja is that even though it's a longform comic, it still has something funny on every page, so it satisfies that need for immediacy amongst internet users, if you know what I mean. (I can't explain it any better, sorry.)

Similarly, Questionable Content, which is a longform comic in format, and does tell an ongoing story, has a gag in every page.

So basically, if you have a longform comic, either update frequently and put something funny in each page, or try uploading pages in batches, and update more frequently with supplemental material.


One-liners - New strips on Fridays.

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Tim  Demeter's picture

Ah! Good call, I would consider the Good Dr to be longform and quite successful (in the context of this type of comic at the very least.)

Thank you for ruining my post Sean!

(I kid.)

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel

GraphicSmash
Reckless Life

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel
GraphicSmash
Bustout Odds

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Tim  Demeter's picture

Hey, I was like 12 at the time! That said, yeah, I catch the irony, hence the "this is fow I feel" disclaimer. I just like comic books more than comic strips, taken at an average.

I think there's something to that large update idea myself. In fact, I let a few creators on Graphic Smash, notably William G's Bang Barstal, play with the idea a bit, and we were all rather pleased with the results. Though at GS he had the padding of a built-in audience for the site at large, so when he came updated, the general GS audience was still there, how that would work solo, I'm not sure, but someone should try it!

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel

GraphicSmash
Reckless Life

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel
GraphicSmash
Bustout Odds

Re: It’s Business

Sean C's picture

How 'bout Dr. McNinja? Isn't that longform?

I know I'm going to be taking a stab at a longform comic soon, and something that I'm doing is to create space at the end of each page where the main character communicates directly with the audience, and work in an extra joke that way. The first previews were well recieved, and I hope that it helps keep people interested.

Don't hesitate to procrastinate.

Don't hesitate to procrastinate. My brand new comic: http://cain.bombsheltercomics.com

Re:

Shishio's picture

"I was never a fan of newspaper comics. Calvin and Hobbes may have been the first comic I ever read, but once it ended, that was it for me, everything else seemed formulaic and contrived to me with no room for any real artistry. That may or may not be true, but it’s how I feel.

Now, comic BOOKS, that’s another story. Just as Calvin and Hobbes was ending I began devouring X-Men, and Spider-Man and Batman, and it’s where my love of comic comes from, what originally inspired me to make a career out of comics."

Am I the only one who finds this incredibly strange?

(Not ragging on you Tim, but it had to be said.)

Back on track, I know this goes against conventional wisdom, but I think the best plan for longform comics (Assuming popularity is the goal.) is to release "issues". A few pages a week, or 11 pages (Half the length of a traditional comic book.) every two weeks, 22 pages a month, whatever. You could, to keep your site from fading into obscurity, update more frequently, with pin-ups, teasers, ask-a-character pictures, whatever.


One-liners - New strips on Fridays.

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Tim  Demeter's picture

Hooray, comments! (I knew this one would do the trick.)

Xaviar, I think you're onto a lot good points here, with reader confidence being a key one, because that is a very valid gripe. It's why I try and make all of my arcs self contained with a beginning, middle, and end.

I considered bringing up Girl Genius, but I figured it would show up here was consciously trying to stir comments with that. To me, being the Foglios is not something one can just make happen, so it's something of an aberration, though raising the bar to that level of quality is not, so it's something to consider.

Another thing I left out is Hero By Night Diaries. The question there is that comic as popular as it is because of the book, or would it succeed to that level without the run support. Tough to say, though it does raise the idea of instead of creating a webcomic to sell merchandise off of, creating merchandise and then a webcomic to support it. It's a chicken and egg thing, but perhaps for this type of work, the order does matter.

I read somewhere someone saying that long-form webcomics "just aren't fun to read."

Tough but fair. Some people just feel that way and it's the really the notion that needs to be combated here.

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel

GraphicSmash
Reckless Life

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel
GraphicSmash
Bustout Odds

Why abberation? If so, what's left?

To me, being the Foglios is not something one can just make happen, so it's something of an aberration

I'm not easy about that. If pageviews + ads + t-shirts aren't working, and subscriptions didn't go far enough, and micropayments are belly-up, and we go dismiss one of the few reall successes as a marvellous freak that can't tell us anything... what else do we do? How many other options are there? I can't honestly see what's abberant about the Foglios other than them making it financially. And I don't think we're in any position to ignore a bit of data as big as Girl Genius.

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time.

Scott Reed's picture

My readership and interest in my longform webcomics surged when I was publishing on a daily, and later a weekly schedule. I think that consistency is key for longform webcomics...that and quality, of course. Now, the only way I'll ever approach doing a daily comic is if I have the entire work completed first...which by the way, I'm working towards right now.

Scott Reed
www.websbestcomics.com

Scott Reedhttp://www.websbestcomics.comhttp://www.theovermancomic.comhttp://www.myspace.com/scottreed01 

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3

mooncity's picture

I read somewhere someone saying that long-form webcomics "just aren't fun to read." Not that they aren't cool and all, but that they can suck when they don't update, or take a billion years to update between pages ("Dadelus Blue," this means YOU!). Reading the archives is okay, but then you "hit the wall," so to speak, where you have to wait for the story to continue piecemeal. It can be hard to maintain the enthusiasm you've built up for the story as you go through the archive. Perhaps a better way for long form/graphic novelists posting their opus on the internets would be to have a big chunk of it completed before they even begin thinking about launching it online. If they want to update every week or so, fine, but then they could do multiple pages instead of just one, maybe even update a chapter at a time. Or, for a few bucks, they could sell you the PDF version of what chapters competed so far so you wouldn't hafta wait for the piecemeal updates.

Mooncity

Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!

Mooncity

Autumn Lake

Reversing the polarity of the neutron flow since 1976!

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

I'd start by looking at Girl Genius, which seems to be doing pretty well businesswise. It's maybe a special case in that it started as a print series and already had a readership when it started on the web. But it's proved that a longform webcomic can succeed financially, and that going online can work out well.

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I think the track record of the Foglios really helps that there. I loved reading the backlog of Girl Genius - you get a lot of enjoyment out of it but now that I'm up-to-date with I have to deal with waiting.

It's the combination of the Foglios professionalism and the track record for creating it (and that I enjoyed the work to date) that leads me to believe they have the story worked out and will finish the comic at some point. (Finishing minor threads within a larger narrative framework is also a way to provide narrative payoff to the reader before a total conclusion.)

____

Xaviar Xerexes

Oh yeah... this place is called ComixTalk now.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

I'm pretty sure they've at least got a rough map of where they expect to go. They've also got some pretty good side material online: the short-story comics, Othar's Twitter-blog and the "radio plays".

Re: It’s Business, It’s Business Time. Part 3: Longform Comics

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

It is a good question. There are different ways to look at the "problem". My thoughts below go to the notion of metrics of commercial success - popular readership,, etc. so they're leaning in a very convention direction (Part of me also wants people to continue to stretch the web whereever they can go with it)

One question is simply what kind of long-form story are you telling and are you delivering it online in a way to the audience that works for them.

I think length of the story is important - just like 2 1/2 hour movies (with some movies justifying their post 3hr length though) have come to dominate Hollywood (which is at least partly consumer driven even if there are other interest driving that length) longer story comics on the web need to figure out that sweet spot. Comic books have a defined length, graphic novels in paper have a wider length range but are roughly similar. Viewer/Readers need to be trained to have an expectation with regards to long-form webcomics and creators have to pitch a story to that length (it's probably equally true to say given enough viewer/readers of long-form webcomics, observant and motivated by numbers creators will get trained to deliver that length).

I don't know exactly what that length is but it (or at least a range) exists.

Another issue for long-form comics is consumer expectation of a complete narrative - as a reader of a story I expect a pay-off of narrative at the end (it goes without saying I expect an ending to be created!) This is different than open-ended serialized comics where story is usually incidental to jokes, the situation, characters, etc. Does PvP have plots - sure but I'm not nearly as invested in them as I am in the kinds of comics I think Tim is talking about. Some comics straddle these divides like Sluggy Freelance. (Why am I much less interested in Sluggy today than the earlier years? Unresolved key plots at every level - no closure!)

This is a problem on the web for two reasons - both of which can be overcome. One is that you can't tell the length of a webcomic story by looking at it like you can a graphic novel. I pick up a novel - I know it has an ending (I can cheat and look at it if I want). The form of the comic advertizes its length (it also advertises that the creator has finished it but let's leave that for point two). Webcomics can't do that the same way but like movies I think webcomics can train creator and viewer expectations such that there's a broad common understanding of what you're getting into when you "pick up" a long form webcomic.

Second - I think there is some damper on enthusiasm for longer-form webcomics b/c of the spottier track record so far for completing these works. There's this whole continum of "trust" issues between webcomic readers and creators that's amplified for long form comics because I am reading not only for the satisfaction of any serilized delivery but for the narrative pay-off of completion. I not only need some sense of how long an investment of time I am putting into reading your comic but I need some confidence that you'll finish it (if as for most webcomics you put it up before its done).

Someone more mathematically inclined than I could probably come up with a formula to describe this notion but I would say something like Time to Read (measured let's say in actual months from posting the start to posting the finish) divided by Degree of Confidence (1-100% perception of certainty that creator will finish the comic) Equals "Reader Comfort". I actually just noodled around with this and here's the formula:

Time to Read (months) / Degree of Confidence (percentage) = Reader Comfort (the way this is set up it should be that the lower the number the better the reader comfort score.)

This makes some sense to me too b/c it applies in various ways. When am I more likely to read a story where the pleasure is largely b/c of narrative pay-off? As it's serialized or when it's completed? Completed. Why? Because my confidence in having an ending is way up (100%) and my time to read is much shorter (physical time to read as opposed to waiting for updates). This can be a useful way to gauge readers actually reading large archives - longer archives is a tougher sell but creator confidence is way up so it balances out to some extent.

Of course I completely leaving out subjective notions of quality so think of all of this as a floor - it's about the form not so much what you put in that form. Still form is important and I think something longer webcomics have yet to nail down the right "convention" for.

____

Xaviar Xerexes

Oh yeah... this place is called ComixTalk now.

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.