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Webcomic Communities (Part Two) -- Interactivity: Fuel for your fave Creator?

In the first part of her feature on Webcomics Communities, writer Kelly Cooper revealed to us the fascinating buildup of history that set the online world up for the next step in reader-creator interaction and reaction.

In this second installment, we get to hear from Kelly as to what's going on out there as a result. So sit tight, and start scrolling!

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A few quick definitions:

An artificial community is one that was created. Contrast this with a natural community (the more traditional definition) which is based on kinship or physical proximity, where shared fates are inevitable rather than chosen.

A blog, short for "web log," is half diary, half monologue, a term coined in the late-1990's. Some are annotated lists of links to interesting places. Some are devoted to elaboration on one's own life (more of a journal). Most are a mix of the two plus other sorts of things like political rants, status reports, etc.

A bulletin board (in our current lexicon) is a web page where people can post messages and others can follow-up to those messages or post their own. Most boards have multiple topics and user registration, with varying levels of privilege depending upon the board, its administrator, and the users.

Webcomic community has different meanings for different people. For the purposes of this article, I am referring to bulletin boards and blogs with comments turned on (so that people can comment on a particular day's entry). But many other things (like selling original art, having a shop with t-shirts and gear, answering email, maintaining a Frequently Asked Questions [FAQ] guide, rewarding loyal and communicative fans with specials, making convention appearances and/or personal appearances, giving autographs, etc.) could be considered part of building a community.

I exchanged words with a handful of webcomics creators who maintain some level of community and who openly discussed community issues in updates, blogs, or journals. I asked these folks to talk with me about their communities.

A question whose answer I particularly wanted to hear was:

Why maintain community at all?

One of the first webcomic creators to respond was Jonathan Rosenberg. Rosenberg is the creator of Goats, a funny and surreal strip about a couple of guys, a sexy goat, a devil-worshipping chicken, some aliens, and a bar, among many other things.

Rosenberg and his business partner Phillip Karlsson recently launched a for-pay version of www.goats.com. They use a Slash-based forum for reader participation. Rosenberg's thoughts on the topic are well-organized and detailed, emphasizing both the playful and the business aspects of the experience:

We maintain the community for a number of reasons. First and foremost, because it's fun to chat and discuss with like-minded individuals. I know that I can log on to the site and always have something funny or intriguing to read and respond to.

It's also a very efficient way to get important site information out to the readers, and to get their feedback on new features or changes or storylines or what-have-you.

And finally, creating a community is a great way to fully immerse people in the Goats experience. It makes them feel like participants rather than passive viewers, and encourages them to contribute. People who are invested in a community will spend more time there, will evangelize for you, will purchase merchandise and generally help us from a business perspective.

In Rosenberg's opinion, then, supporting the community creates a positive feedback loop, encouraging the health and steady growth of the webcomic. Faith Erin Hicks, the creator of Demonology 101, echoes that theme:

Sometimes I'm really busy, but it's nice to hear (or see, since this is the Internet and everything is typed) people talking about my comic, and I'm usually keen to join in. It's fun to hear the wild theories people come up with, or the discussions that result after I update.

...An expanding fan base is really important to me. I like the idea that my readership is constantly growing, and I get discouraged if it appears that it's not. A forum can be a good indicator of a readership that is actually *there* and does have something to say.

...they're usually pretty encouraging, and give my ego a nice rub when I'm feeling down. Couldn't ask for anything more.

As Hicks describes it, Demonology 101 is "an online comic about high school and other forces of evil." Set in the present day, it stars Raven -- a sweet teenager, new in town, with a strange secret and a mysterious past. Hicks maintains both a journal (with comments enabled) and a large, active forum.

Community is more personal for Carson Fire, creator of the intelligent and plotline-intense adventure webcomic Elf Life, but again, it's about the feedback, in particular the energy and the encouragement:

The forumers are always helpful, interesting, and entertaining. I love reading speculation about what's going on with the story, and it's really hard for me to keep from blurting out who's right and who's wrong.

Most fans who send me email are very encouraging, too, and are very understanding when I run into trouble. I think they understand that internet comics is still a new trail that's being blazed. Few of us are actually succeeding at this, and many are being forced to give up. There are more ambitious cartoonists than there are paychecks.

Fire's webcomic initially reads like a funny adventure tale, full of elves and goblins, dragons and fairies. But it has greater depth than you'd expect. Its extensive multi-threaded plot covers centuries in story-time and years in real time. Fire attributes a good part of his longevity to his community:

...The fact that I can hear them, that I know they are there, and they discuss what's going on has been the critical motivator in keeping the comic strip going these past years.

The Bean is a more traditional adventure comic, but it doesn't fit neatly into that category. Creator Travis Hanson's art is always escaping, slipping between panels, flowing over the edges. Hanson has established a world so detailed that it regularly inspires his fans to write stories for it. That's something he encourages, up to a point:

I think by letting your fans into your world- it opens more doors and helps build a stronger following- but you need to set boundaries -- and if you create a roleplaying forum, a set of guidelines need to be established to help ensure stability.

…Right now the forum has several areas where I can interact with my readers and get ideas -- we have a few story threads going where a fan can write in part of the story -- a question and answer area -- spoilers --and a few are even helping in the development of a game.

Overall, the creators appreciate the feedback they receive through maintaining a community. Hicks may have put it best when she says it "makes doing an online comic less lonely." All of the creators enjoy the commentary, criticism, plot speculation, spelling and grammar correction (well, some more than others on that point), continuity management, etc.

And Fire expresses another key asset of community support – creator motivation:

...since I haven't been able to generate much revenue from the comic strip, I can point to fan support and talk as practically the ONLY thing that has helped pull me through these tough times.

We love to talk about comics and it looks like the webcomic creators love to listen. A webcomic community provides constructive feedback, friendly support, and cheap (or free) advertising via word-of-mouth and link support. As the webcomic medium evolves, it seems likely that the role of webcomic communities will grow in importance as well.

But how much of an effect will they have? Will their communities propel webcomics into having a self-sustaining fan base? Are there downsides to maintaining a community? Not so much, it seems. But while the answers to some of the questions will have to wait for the test of time, we'll cover problems and solutions, both technical and personal, in Part Three of this article.