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The Business(?) of Webcomics

If you succeed, you are a failure.

Take Scott Kurtz, for instance. He's been writing and drawing PVP for five years. His themes and characters have changed little over the years, but his star has risen (sin #1). He's used templates to increase production (sin #2). He has remained outspoken about the financial challenges facing online cartoonists today (and even being aware of those problems, as opposed to being a contented nonprofit scribbler, is sin #3). He has not only permitted advertising on his site (sin #4), but used his own art style and characters to create ads for others (a cardinal sin).

"His comics were good in the beginning but I feel like he totally sold out," writes "teekay" on one message board. Webcartoonist Heath Ahnert, on his links page, praises Kurtz and claims he sold out in the same breath.

But what is selling out? The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as either "to put all of one's goods or possessions up for sale" (including, one supposes, one's integrity) or "to betray one's cause or colleagues."

Kurtz's "cause", though, has simply been to produce an entertaining comic, and no business decision he's made has contradicted that goal. Fair enough, the strip may not be to everyone's taste. Still, it's hardly the webcomics equivalent of turning tricks in the red-light district.

Perhaps the "sell-out" chanters feel that there are too few satires in PVP now, and speculate that Kurtz is afraid of satirizing today what he might be advertising tomorrow. If so, they might have missed Kurtz's gentle barb at the "role-players" in Warcraft III, or his more vicious attack on furry fans, both in the latter half of 2002. Even the Kurtz-drawn advertisements have a satirical edge, as when the game "Kill Dr. Lucky" turns Marcy from a sweet ingénue ("Why do we have to kill this nice old man?") to a scary dice-murderess ("Die, you cantankerous old goat! Die!") in twenty minutes flat.

"I've just been focusing on character development more lately," Kurtz explains affably. "I wanted to broaden the character of Gwen and get Brent and Jade back together. Maybe it's cyclical. In six months you'll write and ask why there are fewer character development strips."

Peter Zale, creator of Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet, never considered it a holy mission to remain a webcomic, so no one labeled him a "sell-out" when Helen did, at last, turn to print and lose its online availability. In fact, he may have pre-empted the accusation.

"When I was just doing the strip online, I used to joke that I'd gladly sell out if someone made the offer," he says. "Now I'd do it to the point that the quality of the strip wouldn't suffer."

Zale's usually an able communicator, but he's misdefined his terms here. If the quality of the strip is absolutely more important than money to him, if he's not willing to draw one bad strip to make a hundred extra dollars, then he has not "sold out." If Helen starts running ads for Microsoft products, he has sold out. If Helen becomes the 21st-century Peanuts, with TV specials, video games, Broadway plays, and greeting cards, but Zale does everything he can to insure its continued quality and principles, he has not, by any means, "sold out."

It seems difficult for some webcomics netizens to accept this. Most webcomics fans are relatively poor, or too young to be in full control of their finances. Most webcomics creators are in a similar state. How comforting to think that poverty is a sign of principle, that we are so much nobler than the cheap, crass hucksters of film and television! And what a betrayal it is when one of "us" starts behaving like one of "them!"

Sluggy Freelance, by its very name, sells itself as an "unprofessional" underdog that has nothing in common with big corporations. Sluggy describes a ruthless, man-eating alien as "the ultimate C.E.O." and compares corporate employment to suicide:

TORG: This isn't a noose. It's a necktie. I'm going on an interview for a nine-to-five job.
RIFF: Quit splitting hairs!

Sluggy, however, is not a one-person show – with every assistant Abrams brings on board… Shirt-Guy Tom, Joe Sunday, Trillian, Thyla, and recently Ian McDonald… the strip becomes just a bit less the product of a freelancer and just a bit more of a team effort.

Its artistic choices can also be informed by commerce. Abrams was courageous enough to joke that he introduced Bun-Bun, the psychotic bunny, due to his "marketing capabilities" rather than as an artistic choice. The joke contains at least an ounce of truth: "Bun-Bun dolls" quickly became and remain a key part of Abrams' income.

More recently, Abrams reminded readers that freelancing can be as morally challenging as nine-to-fiving, when Riff – one of the most morally centered of the Sluggy characters – discovered his best client was "the evilest corporation on Earth."

Webcomics are not free to produce. Jonathan Rosenberg of Goats maintains several servers, and shells out money for one-time production expenses for books, T-shirt lines, and buttons, as well as convention travel expenses.

"The real cost," he says, "is in the time and work that we put into it. Countless hours have been spent building and tweaking and running around in a crazed panic, trying to get everything working properly. Just maintaining the site and keeping it fresh is a huge investment of time."

Simple economics require that such an investment be repaid. And there is only so much value to the gratification of a job well done. The balance sheet, in the end, requires dollars and cents.

Unfortunately, stigma attaches itself to any artist who balances that sheet too well. In art, in music, in filmmaking, the richer an artist becomes, the more "corrupt" they are. In a fringe industry like comics, and especially webcomics, this prejudice becomes even stronger, until it affects people like Kurtz and Abrams, who are making a living, but hardly a killing.

It is perhaps the single greatest problem facing webcomics today. We measure success in terms of our "integrity," which often translates to "lack of income" or "ignorance of business practices." We fool ourselves however we can, in order to spend more time in our right brain, our comics-making brain, where our pleasure centers are.

An especially popular lie is that the business of webcomics is as simple as producing one strip after another.

Business is not simple. It's not easy. It\'s not fun. It involves a hard, cold, left-brained look at what makes money.

Sluggy Freelance, PVP, and User Friendly are excellent strips. But they are not the work of the greatest cartoonists ever to post a panel. Those cartoonists had astonishing stories, excellent artwork, and faithful production, but what they did not have was the business sense to survive on their own.

As a result, they're gone. You don't know who they are. I don't know who they are. If they are lucky, their work occupies unexplored corners of the Web with nothing to distinguish it from a hundred thousand other, inferior strips. If they are not, time and bandwidth costs have already forced them offline.

Meanwhile, Sluggy, PVP, UF, Angst Technology, Modern Tales, Scott McCloud, Megatokyo, Penny Arcade, and a few select others lead the "business" of webcomics, such as it is – and not through quality alone. They have planned their businesses well enough to outlast their competition. If you would join them, you must do the same.

Nothing worth having comes without sacrifice: the only way to be a full-time webcartoonist is to be a part-time businessperson.

So sell out, webcartoonists. For God's sake – for art's sake – sell out.