Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan
Mirror Mirror On The Web
It happens a lot. We don't spend a lot of time talking about it, or analyzing what went wrong. We don't sit down and articulate areas for improvement. Generally, the readership for a webcomic gone wrong takes its time and attention elsewhere, and the creator is left to toil away in obscurity and isolation until the fateful day they have to pull an "Old Yeller" and put their comic down.
When I say "wrong" I don't mean unsuccessful. There are plenty of brilliant comics out there that have not received the sort of success they probably deserve, just as there are probably a few that either you or I could name that have received far more than they should. I don't pretend to understand the elusive animal called success, and I would suspect that most of the webcomics creators who are legitimately "successful" would have a hard time putting their finger on what has made their comic successful. No, what I'm talking about is making the comics best comics you can make. That, in and of itself, is a kind of success (and the only one I'll be touching on in this particular column).
I used to believe that the key to doing anything well was in a book somewhere. When I wanted to write and be a better writer I devoured book after book on how to, what to, when to and why to, but none of them made me a better writer. Some of them might have pointed me in the right direction, or offered some helpful tips, but all of them wrote around writing.
When I first started making comics I made the same mistake. I sought out books on scripting and visual storytelling – I read Eisner and McCloud, and read what people were saying on all the comics theory boards. I learned a lot about comics theory and the art of visual storytelling, but I was no closer to making my own good comics.
In part, I misunderstood that initial impulse. Reading is good. Reading is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your webcomic (or your writing for that matter), but reading 'how-to' books or theoretical works can be empty and useless if you give them too much importance. If you want to write Novels you should read novels, and if you want to write/draw webcomics you should read lots of webcomics. and the fantastic thing about webcomics (unlike novels) is that there are literally thousands of them available for free on the internet. There are literally thousands of other creators from whom you can learn. And, if you're not opposed to reading the occasional novel (graphic or otherwise) there's plenty to be learned there as well.
Reading alone, of course, will not make you a better webcomics writer or artist, and while practice certainly helps on the path to 'perfect', there's something else that's necessary if you want to improve your webcomic, and be more successful: REFLECTION.
I've been working in the education field for a little more than seven years now, and the word reflection is one that I hear almost daily. It is integral to virtually every aspect of learning from Language to Arithmetic, and wouldn't you know it, it can even make your comic better.
Different people approach the reflection process differently, but I'm going to share an approach with all of you that seems to work with anyone from age five to one hundred and five. It's called the PMI process, and it works like this:
(1) Take a sheet of paper and draw three vertical columns on it.
(2) Write the letter 'P' at the top of the first column, 'M' at the top of the next, and 'I' at the top of the last.
(3) The 'P' at the top of the first column stands for plus or positive. Make a list of all the positive things you associate with your comic. Be honest, but be fair. It could be something as simple as the way you draw clothing, or the way your dialogue unfolds. You just want a list of everything that's working well here.
(4) The 'M' at the top of the second column refers to minus or missing. Make a list of all of the things that you can think of that either work against your comic or seem to be missing from it. These are the things that aren't working, and often the 'M' list is a lot longer than the 'P' list. Don't worry about that for the moment. Just remember to be as honest and fair with yourself as you can.
(5) Before going on to the last column take a moment to look over your 'M' column very carefully. Put a check mark next to all of the things on that list that you control, or can directly influence. There may be some things that are working against your comic, for instance, that you have absolutely no control over (i.e. hosting problems, hardware problems, etc). For the time being you'll have to focus on those things that you can influence directly.
(6) Now that you've settled on those things that you have some control over you can begin to fill in the last column. The 'I' in this case refers to improvement, and this is where you get to make some decisions about how to actually change your comic for the better. Personally, knowing how difficult it can bet to set priorities, I usually choose three things from my 'M' list that I would like to change, and I put them down here. I try to write full-sentences here because it helps to clarify my goals (ex: "To improve my facial expressions I am going to spend some time every day for the next week observing myself and the people around me, and making quick thumbnail sketches in my pocket sketchbook).
(7) Now that you have two or three things to focus on give yourself a reasonable time limit to work within, and start following your suggestions. Depending on what kind of goals you've set for yourself, a month may be just enough time to give yourself to make some progress.
(8) Wash, rinse, repeat. The hard part about the reflection process is that it never really ends. Once you've been through it once you need to revisit your goals. Those goals will change over time as you begin to notice different things that work or fail to work. Doing a PMI every month or two (or even every year) helps you to look at your comic more impartially, and to make good decisions. It also helps you to decide what things you should be reading. If I'm working on a short story I should be reading lots of short-stories, and if I am trying to write a gag-a-day strip then I should be reading lots of other gag-a-day strips.
Reflection won't keep a webcomic from going wrong, but it can help you to recognize when your comic is not working, and help you turn things around. Putting yourself through a PMI shouldn't be an opportunity to beat yourself up. Use it to congratulate yourself on what you're already doing well, and to prioritize those things that you need to improve. Ultimately, it's about being the best that you can be at what you've chosen to do, and that, in my humble opinion, is the best kind of success anyone of us can hope for.
Bill Duncan is the Art Editor for the site.