WHY DO ONLINE COMICS
Issue #7 - Eight Resolutions
Every year I make twelve personal New Year's Resolutions. I don't do it as an absolute strict rulebook I have to follow the rest of the year, because if I did that I would fail. The rebel in me would reject the authority of those rules in about a week. It's really more about resetting in my head more firmly the things I am working towards; it's taking a day or two to seriously focus on my goals and how to reach them, and then get myself motivated to go at it for another year. Not all of them work, but usually a half to three quarters of them do work pretty well, and that just leads into my first few resolutions for the next new year.
I'd like to break away from my normal format a bit and submit a list of resolutions for online comics creators. I would ultimately like to have this be somewhere any online creator can come look at and gain strength and/or inspiration from, so if you see something here you disagree with, tell me, and if you see something missing let me know. This is just a rough first outline off the top of my head, based on what I have gone through and what I have seen others go through over the past few years.
1.) Have fun. That's why we started doing online comics right? Whether you're in it for the hope of making money, for learning new skills or honing old ones, or to tell people your story, the number one thing is to enjoy what you are doing. It not only enhances your work when you enjoy creating it, it will undoubtedly enhance your life. When you are doing the work because your fans expect it and every moment of the process is just torture, it is time to step back and reevaluate. Take a break if you have to, people who really enjoy your work will understand and will come back when you're ready to go again.
2.) Be consistent. Yes, it does seem to be the case that readership will go up if you update five times a week versus three or one, but it varies a LOT more (and in the wrong direction usually) if you don't stick to your schedule consistently. I have dropped the ball on this so many times, so I know it is difficult to do, but it is absolutely critical in my mind if your goal is to make your comic a business venture. If you aren't in it for the money so much as just enjoying the process and getting your work out there for people to see, it isn't as important, but I still say you shouldn't make promises you can't keep. My own ultimate solution to this was simply to get all of the work done ahead of time before releasing a schedule, and then providing a definite beginning and ending to each schedule. It is the only way I can be 99% sure to stick to it, because of all the other things life throws at a person.
3.) Get to know the people in your community. The webcomic creators I have come to know while working on my projects have been of greater aide to me than any piece of software, how-to book, or art supply. They provide insight, experienced knowledge, and most importantly the pat on the back I need every so often to keep me going in this often-thankless endeavor. The forums at comicon.com and the database of quality webcomics at talkaboutcomics.com are excellent places to find the door that will lead you to a mutually beneficial and enjoyable working relationship with your peers, and most of us are more than willing to aide our fellow struggling creators.
4.) Study website design. Or make friends with someone who has. Nothing kills an experience for me reading an online comic faster than poor navigation and hard-to-look-at site design. There are a plethora of books out there on the subject, but my two favorites are "Don't Make Me Think" by Steve Krug and "Designing Web Usability" by Jakob Nielsen. Think about your site. It's a place to put your comic, sure, but the Internet holds a lot more options for your readers as well. Create a fun experience for them, make your site easy to use and make sure your readers can quickly get to the content they want to read on your site. Most importantly, this is a website about art we're talking about... I feel like it should be artistic itself. What sold my wife on DVD's wasn't the better picture or sound quality, it was the bonus stuff (director commentary, cut scenes, original theatrical trailers, etc.). The website framing your online comic can have the same effect.
5.) Interact with your fans. When I read Mutts in the newspaper every day, I can't click on the title of the strip and open up my e-mail program on my computer to pop off a few words of praise or, er, constructive criticism to Patrick McDonnell. The closeness you can have with your fans is a major advantage of webcomics in my mind. The reader can feel like their words and efforts actually make a difference to you. I've had them e-mail me to tell me a link was dead on my site, and within seconds they can go back and find it fixed! It helped me maintain my site, and it made the reader feel like they were a part of helping out this project they are enjoying. People tell me all the time they enjoy the hands-on experience of reading through a print comic. I can think of no greater way for webcomics creators to sell them on the hands-on webcomic experience than this sort of instant response and ability for the user to directly interact with the comic creator and his or her creations.
6.) Practice. It doesn't matter how good you are, you can always improve, find new ways to do things, and learn from your failures and success. If you are an artist, take your sketchbook with you when you get your oil changed and you are otherwise sitting in the waiting room twiddling your thumbs and ogling the ten-year-old cheetoes bag in the snack machine. If you are a writer, bring a notepad with you when you go to lunch - like the old ripped up, smelly, plaid chair you have loved sitting in at home for ten years, mustard stains are a sign of aged beauty in a notebook, not cause for alarm. Use your time. The average person spends six months of their lives waiting for the light to change green. Harness that! Find what works for you to get your work done better and more often and act on it.
7.) Be a show-off (subtly). A by-product of sketching while you wait for your oil change is that the person next to you is likely to strike up a conversation about what you are drawing. Have a business card ready. Tell them what you are doing online, and without being overwhelming, let them know how cool online comics are and how different the experience of reading one is to, say, reading the funnies in the paper, or even watching a movie or other forms of entertainment. Show them the rest of your sketchbook. Let them ooo and aah all they want. I've made many a permanent reader from doing this kind of thing. Wearing a tee shirt of your comic is okay, but showing people yourself working on it live is much better from my experience.
8.) Establish your name. Make people remember you. Online comics are still in the very early stage of their existence as a form of entertainment. The main advantage of this is you can have a very big and real impact on the shape they take down the road if you get in now. You can know where they've been from pretty much the beginning on from personal experience and a little research, and you can get your comic's name established so that fifty years from now some NY Times Best Seller on the history of the medium will refer to your work as "classic" and you as an "industry pioneer." I honestly think that, judging by history and the nature of an entertainment medium, it will not get any easier to "break in" to online comics and there's a pretty good chance it will get much harder as webcomics become more and more successful and attract the eyes and wallets of more influential people in the entertainment world.