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WHY DO ONLINE COMICS?

Issue #0: And That's the Way It Was

In December of 1999 I started doing my first online strip, Modern Evil. My inspirations for starting it came mostly from listening to Scott McCloud speak about the subject of online comics at the 1999 San Diego Comic Con International, and then going home to see what others in the field were doing.

I had already researched the costs of getting a print book made and sent out to the masses, which are just ridiculous for a one-man shop to bear. Putting a comic on the internet, however, was quite cheap, relatively. My first website, http://www.modernevil.com (which I went into with a partner and ultimately handed control over to him), cost about $300 to set up and keep running for two years.

Advertising adds some to the cost, of course, but it's the same for print comics. Most website hosting services will charge you more if you become very popular (thousands or tens of thousands of visitors, depending on the service and how big your comics are in file size), but it is still nothing compared to the costs of getting that many people into comic book stores to buy your print comic.

I'll go into some of the many other virtues of online comics in a minute, but first I'll mention some things print comics can do that internet comics (currently) cannot. For me, the most important difference is that humans enjoy the tactile sensation of holding the book and feeling the paper as they read. People still buy millions of newspapers a day despite virtually all of the same information can be found for free on the net. Part of it is that high speed internet isn't as widespread as it needs to be to be as fast as reading a paper copy and flipping through it. Part of it is just a learning curve; despite "computers are a part of life now" being drummed into their heads, millions of people don't own computers, don't have access to the internet, and/or cannot or will not learn how to use the web as the amazing tool it is. Ultimately, though, I think psychologically people are just used to and, thus, comfortable with the comics in their hands rather than their monitor. Unless you have a laptop, it's hard to take an internet comic to bed with you to read before going to sleep. Print comics are also in limited quantities, making them collectable, which is difficult to accomplish in online comics with downloadable computer images in this age of recordable cd's, e-mail, Napster-like services, and all the other tools e-pirates have cheaply at their disposal.

We're getting closer to discussing how internet comics will take over the industry (in case you haven't surmised this, I'm on the Scott McCloud side of the fence). First though, I want to point out how online comics can overcome most if not all of the things I said print comics had going for them (remember my "currently" comment in parentheses earlier - here's why). Several versions of electronic ink and electronic paper are coming to market very soon. What this will mean in a few years is you'll be able to have a booklet of paper, that looks and feels like normal, run of the mill paper, that you can download information onto and erase information from. Have a subscription to your local newspaper? It'll download daily onto your e-paper, clearing the old data to replace it with the new. New issue of Batman hitting the stands? Here it is instantly on your e-paper (for a fee, of course). Willing to have a permanent space on your e-papers for Time Warner's advertisements? They'll give you your content at a reduced rate. My details are hypothetical, but the technology is very real and I'm certain companies are chomping at the bytes to get it into the hands of the consumers. High speed internet is growing in availability and popularity, and people are coming around to the computer age at a decent pace; these things just take time. As far as making internet comics more hacker-proof, I think Scott McCloud has stated some of the answers in the comicon.com forums and at panels at conventions. This touches on something I don't want to talk about just yet, but if you charge people a small enough fee for your work that it's just too much time, effort, and money to pirate it instead of just paying up, people will not pirate as much. Additionally, I have noticed in the current market, people are passionate about the comics they like and want to support their favorite creators. This can be evidenced by the fact that many of the most popular online comics today are bringing in hundreds or even thousands of dollars monthly through donations alone.

As far as print comics versus internet comics as a tool to express one's creativity, in my mind there is absolutely no comparison. There's a small part of me that still looks at print work as more "pure," but the options for work on the web are far less limited. There is the limit of the technology all art forms suffer from, but there's a terrific amount more flexibility creating electronically. I also impose another limit that is based on the argument of when a comic becomes a cartoon. The general consensus that appears to be forming (and I agree with) is that comics are a series of static, unique moments in time, sequentially laid out in a manner aimed at telling a story. There are a few exceptions, like when a looping animation in a single panel expands on a particular moment rather than making a series of moments happen with multiple things going on. It can be a fine line, and some of it is just left to what feels right for the creator and the readers.

In online comics, you have an infinite canvas to work with. Practically speaking, you're limited by how much bandwidth your images take up while loading, and you want to make the path your story takes one a reader can easily follow, but in theory at least you truly have an unlimited workspace.

Another huge benefit online comics have is the ability to get your work out to your readers instantly instead of months of production and distribution between you and your readers. You can react to your fans more instantly, like having a poll to determine which way a story should go and the next day taking it there.

Before I continue throwing praise at online comics, I should put the disclaimer out that of course, like any other medium, the specific tools and tricks and limits of the art form must be learned by the creator. Depending on what your comic is like, how you do your offline work, and whether you want to create your website yourself, you may have to learn a lot about a great number of software packages. I personally started using Photoshop about three months before I did my first comic online, but as you go through my Modern Evil archives you can see I did a ton of experimenting to see what works online and what doesn't as well. I personally recommend Adobe's products for the most part (Photoshop for raster graphics and color, Illustrator for vector graphics, Streamline for scanning your pencils and/or inks in, and Imageready for animation and for assistance in your website creation), but I prefer Macromedia Dreamweaver for coding and updating my website. I also recommend nothing except a Wacom tablet if you want to use a graphics tablet for your artwork. These are just my suggestions, again, and I am sure they are not the same for someone who uses a Mac or has different needs or ideas than mine. I have noticed that a lot of creators online are turning to a program called Painter, which I have not been able to try out.

But I digress. Online, your product also doesn't have to just be your comic. Many of the current online creators, myself included, have lots of other things for the reader to look at, sort of like all the special features on a DVD. News, reviews, other artwork they've done, games, chat forums, contests, animation, links to other strips and sites they like, biography sections... there are a lot of things to be done here that can really add to a reader's experience at your website. A BIG thing you can offer is the entire archive of your previous strips, easily navigated so that people can't miss out on a key point of the story. In print, you'd have to go hunt down which issue it was, then find the issue, and then pay back issue prices for it. In newspaper strips, you have to hope they are collected or it will be nigh impossible to look back far.

So there are all these positives to creating online... what's the catch? Unfortunately, it's a catch that is stopping the art form from really taking off. You pretty much can't make any money at it right now. Well, you can, but it is difficult, and a thousand times more difficult to make a living at it. Ad banners just didn't work, period, and all of the money to be made from them pretty much has been, at least for the foreseeable future. You can sell merchandise and original artwork and such, but that's the stuff based on your comics making money, not your online comics themselves. Unless you have a huge and loyal fan base, making it by donations alone is not going to happen, and even if you are making it, it is not stable or guaranteed income by any means. To accept credit card payments online requires a certain amount of money per transaction to be paid to the service before you see any of it, so subscription prices online often have to be more than the creator would like. As McCloud argues, finding a feasible way to charge small amounts of money to read a strip is going to be critical to really getting online comics off the ground. If your strip had 30,000 visitors a month and each one gave a dime that month, that's $3000 a month profit! It's a beautiful thing to think about, but so far has proven impractical to implement. One thought is to offer twenty strips for two dollars instead of one for ten cents, but then it seems like more money and the risk of pirates putting your stuff all over the net increases.

I am an optimist. I believe that there will be a solution, sooner than later, on how to get online comics profitable. People who are doing these comics and their fans are very devoted, passionate people for the most part, and will wait it out. The online comics community is a very strong, friendly, inviting one and it grows by leaps and bounds every year. In fact, of all the advertising avenues, the one that consistently draws in by far the most traffic is a link to your site from another popular one in a prominent place. One link in Penny Arcade's news and your site is a hit, providing you have the content in place and flowing on a regular basis to keep people coming back for more. Pretty soon you can link to your own favorite upstart and make a success of them. It's really a wonderful group of creators to be amongst most of the time.

Once we have the micropayments system working, the only thing left is a sort of "killer ap," if you will, that makes the masses aware that online comics exist and might be something they are interested in. I think this is very feasible, and I'll give you one scenario off the top of my head. Remember the Blair Witch Project and how it was driven by word of mouth on the internet, or the community that came around and played the A.I. game months prior to the movie release? Imagine if a online comic strip related to one of those movies was available, that tied into and/or gave background and depth to the characters and events of the movie. Now say the creator had a little news blurb or something, even a links page, where they mentioned a few strips that people interested in the movie one might also enjoy. For sci-fi, mention Astounding Space Thrills. A.I. viewers might enjoy Diesel Sweeties. That sort of thing. If everyone passed that success and interest on their sites to their favorite strips, a ripple effect would be created, and every time a big event like that happened, another ripple happened and the readership grew and grew. A very realistic scenario, and one of just many possibilities out there.

I honestly think that online comics will become an integral part of the comics industry from a financial standpoint, and I think it will happen in the next ten years. As the world gets more and more interactive and entertainment forms continue to merge and blend into one another, as movie execs look for new ideas and spot a site like Circle Weave, the art form will really begin to flourish. Sometime between now and then, all we have to do is find a way to turn our "unique visitors" statistics into food on the table and clothes on the creators' backs. Until then, I plan on thoroughly enjoying and involving myself in the process.