Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander
September held a number of news items which are worth mentioning. First and foremost, the Webcomic Telethon collected an impressive amount of money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Penny Arcade Expo returned for its second year, this time bigger and with more media coverage. Keenspot is working towards fulfilling its plans announced at Comic-Con. Keen announced that they have signed with Fox Television to develop Owen Dunne's webcomic You Damn Kid! for television. And both Keenspot and Modern Tales are looking for advertising sales representatives.
But the origin of this month's column cannot be traced back to those entries. Instead, it is the creation of the webcomic wiki at Comixpedia.org, or more specifically the Websnark post that sparked its creation and gave rise to this month's stream of consciousness. What is interesting in this entry is not the proposal and its results (both intriguing by themselves), but something much more minuscule. Something that could be found in Burns' discussion about Wikipedia's way of measuring a webcomics significance and his own suggestion of how to do it.
The original system of determining Webcomics significance was based entirely on popularity. Specifically, the Alexa ratings of a given webcomic were used â€“ anything below a certain cutoff got in, everything above it got cut. The flaws in this should be self-evident, but just in case, let me summarize: art significance has little to do with the numbers and everything to do with influence. [...] I proposed, a while back, a dual requirement to replace it â€“ a strip, in my estimation, should be included only after it has A) consistently updated for at least one year, and B) only after its archive contains 100 strips. To my mind, it's hard to be "significant" to the field of webcomics without having both some time under your belt and a depth of archive.
What fascinates me about this is that, even in a discussion about the influence of a webcomic, update schedule manages to work its way in. The idea of a regular update schedule has become intrinsically linked to webcomics. It is certainly more common than not that when the inevitable "how to make your webcomic a success" question appears on forums, the first answer is "update often and regularly." It is even more frequently the answer than "write a good story" or "improve your art," possibly because it is perceived to be easier for the creator to influence the update schedule than the quality of their own comics. Perhaps this is in fact true; a mediocre comic can build a greater audience by renewing its content more often than a better comic that updates more slowly. Is it preferable to provide new content over good content?
From the business standpoint, this appears to be the case. Graphic novels may enjoy rising popularity in the brick-and-mortar market, but the format is poorly optimized for online publishing without serialization in frequent installments. The limitations of serializing your work online are rarely discussed, but, for some, it is not how they want their work read. An excellent example of this was Amy Kim Ganter's announcement that she would cease production on her critically acclaimed webcomic Reman Mythology:
[...]one page a week or a month just isn't enough when it comes to this kind of story. You also deserve to read it all at once or at least in huge chunks, the way it was originally meant to be read.
In many ways, the controversy surrounding micropayments back in June can also be traced back to this. For people who want a different publishing system than serialization, micropayments seemed to be the answer to the problem how to make money from their work. So far, however, the need to drive people to visit your site regularly is law when it comes to generating revenue from your work. But as serialization can now be said to be nearly intrinsic to webcomics, what limitations are likely to come as a result? Could adhering to this one way of publishing even cause stagnation in the industry? Similar questions followed from June's micropayment debacle. Why are so many webcomic creators so strongly against the idea, even without having tried it? The Goats crew did try micropayments for a week before declaring it a failure, but it took a dare to make them do so. By this, I don't mean that creators should try things they don't think will work, but do people try new things at all?
This brings us back to the news mentioned in the first paragraph of this column. Pretty much all of the business news are from the webcomic "corporations." Yes, Penny Arcade is also categorized as a corporation, it has (AFAIK) more full time employees than both Modern Tales and Keenspot. About a year ago, there were a slew of webcomic creators that announced that they were making their webcomic into their day job. This year, that seems less common. In fact, when was the last time someone quit their job to pursue webcomics? Since there is no list of professional webcomic creators, it is difficult to say when that group swells or shrinks. There could be lots of reasons for why the group hasn't increased. It could simply be that the economy is generally better, leading to fewer creators being pushed into taking the plunge. But what if the reason is that those that could do it (and wanted to) have already done so? Maybe a webcomic today simply can't build the critical mass necessary to support a person full time.
This is a lot of maybes, but webcomic companies seem to expand their business into new frontiers. Are individual creators also managing this, or are they relying solely on merchandising and advertising as profit strategies? If it is true that fewer webcomics become big enough to support their creators, is there something that can be done about it?
Erik Melander has read comics his whole life. Vir Bonus is his own attempt at creating one.