Webcomic Communities (Part Three) -- Flies in the Forum Ointment? by Kelly J. Cooper
There's something about comics that make people want to talk. And sometimes, just talking causes more chaos and consternation than you can imagine. Between technical failures, heated discussions on controversial topics, and the occasional troll, creators who wish to maintain a community presence may be called on to do much more than just write and draw their comics.
Carson Fire of Elf Life has run through a gauntlet of technical problems, each stemming from a number of different causes - some have been personal hardware or system failures, some have been support snafus, other problems arose through choices as to which overall direction to take his community. Consequently, his advice focuses on moving cautiously:
My advice to myself two or three years ago would be 'don't be so ambitious until you can afford to be'. I split up my forum and RPG [Role-Playing Game] too early, and wound up making some players feel like they were being evicted from the regular forum. Almost immediately, the regular forum died, deserted even by those who suggested the split would be a good idea. Live and learn.
Last year, I was determined to get us into a full-featured forum that would allow categories. I jumped too quickly into another freebie forum, and now we're all paying the price. We've had to manually move a lot of threads over because the operators of the previous board left us marooned on an un-upgradable Beta board.
[...] I let people write but if they want it published they should follow some of the guidelines. [...] So the key is laying down the law so to speak and most people that have written about the bean - have asked permission first and what they can and can't talk about.
Christopher Baldwin's Bruno is a webcomic that mainly reflects the real world, and as such, it regularly takes on controversial issues. He has touched upon such topics as the death of a child, the many perspectives on sexual freedom, intense and often angry political debate, homosexuality and public perception of 'alternative' lifestyles, deep and meaningful philosophical discussions, the reality of stripping for a living, and the sarcasm of cats. His advice centers on points of view:
When I get into heavy of controversial topics, my readers are always telling me ideas, thoughts, info about them, either through email or the bulletin board. Occasionally it helps, but generally if I'm addressing a heavy topic, I've done a good bit of research and so it's not much new. But sometimes they'll express a disagreement or something, in a way that I hadn't thought of, and even if I disagree, I try to put an argument addressing that issue into the strip.
Back on January 22nd (shortly after being interviewed for this article), Baldwin announced that the Brunoboard bulletin board was closing (due to unforeseen circumstances) and that while he praised the board as a success, he wasn’t looking for a replacement. Baldwin didn’t go into detail, but he did say that “the board has had an effect on the creation of Bruno, influenced the writing and process of it in several ways, and some of the ways I have not really cared for” which seems to indicate that even a good board can strain a creator’s resources.
The influence of fans on a comic medium is not a new issue. Just as letters printed in the back of comic books gave fans an increased sense of a permeability of the medium – that they could participate in the direction of a book through their suggestions – the webcomic forum gives fans an even more immediate and direct connection to the webcomic creator. The question of how much influence the fans actually have (in any medium) depends upon the creator. But some fans see themselves as close friends or participants entitled to some credit and attention because they participate in the webcomic’s community.
On the Internet, the term "troll" has evolved from its original meaning (as a monster from Scandinavian mythology, later popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien) to a person who enjoys upsetting others online. A troll wants to provoke a response – any response – and will resort to a variety of abusive tactics to elicit feedback. (See this essay for a good perspective on trolls). Faith Erin Hicks, the creator of Demonology 101, offers some excellent advice on how to handle the trolls who will inevitably invade your webcomic forum:
Trolls can be pretty amusing, if they're the type to make a fuss then give up. No real problem there. I did have one looney who went to great lengths to stalk me, and followed me everywhere, posting really disturbing messages. I banned her repeatedly, and finally she went away. I guess that's really the only way you can deal with those kind of people.
Don't, for the love of God, flame back. Seriously, it does no good. Just ban and ignore them. They do go away eventually.
Some in the community, especially in the fan community, perceive charging money for webcomics as selling out. Others are disappointed because they can't afford to pay for comics and profess to miss the strip. Some are even bitter, because they feel invested in having made the comic popular, only to be shut out by subscription fees. The debate over how to provide comics and still make a living is going on in many forms, in many places.
Jonathan Rosenberg of Goats has some useful comments on creating for-pay features without alienating your core fan base:
We maintain a huge archive of free material, and the only thing that we made exclusive to the Premium section was brand-new material -- nothing that was previously free was walled off. I think that was the key -- we weren't taking anything away from readers, only giving them more for their money. The people that subscribed were thrilled to get more Goats features and seemed even happier to have a way to support the site.
Despite the troubles, despite the negative feedback, the creators we talked to were genuinely happy with their community.
Sequential Art can be dated back over a hundred, or even over hundreds of years, depending upon your definition. The first newspaper comic, The Yellow Kid, was introduced in print in 1895. Comic books themselves were born during the 1930s. According to by Matthew J. Pustz' Comic Book Culture, the first fanzine devoted entirely to comics was Comic Collectors' News, published by Malcolm Willits and Jim Bradley in October 1947. And the first official, open, organized comic book convention took place in New York in 1964. The first regularly updated Internet comic is believed to be Where The Buffalo Roam, which was scanned in and posted to the USENET news group alt.comics.buffalo-roam on a daily basis starting in 1991. Dr. Fun claims to be the first webcomic, having gone online in 1993. We haven't quite tracked down the first web-based bulletin board devoted to webcomics, but it was out there, somewhere.
That means the webcomics community has, at best, a twelve year history and that's only if you separate webcomics from Internet comics. The accelerated nature of the Internet aside, that's still enough time to log a serious chunk of history.
There has always been a certain level of tension between artist and audience, between creation and appreciation. In our world of the webcomic community, abusive visitors can drain the energy of a webcomic creator, and forum-related technical problems can wear out patience already rubbed thin from trying to earn a living and simultaneously publish a webcomic. But an appreciative fan base helps sustain a creator through tough times and encourages new heights of creativity.
We don't often see a webcomic without a link to a forum – the two are fast becoming inseparable, as if having a forum is the default responsibility for having a webcomic. This concordance between webcomic and forum is also closing the traditional gap between reader and creator, not surprising given the closeness between reader and creator in the long and colorful history of comics. Fans have propelled other genres to new and interesting levels of exposure and public acceptance. We look forward to watching and helping the webcomics community to strive toward doing the same here.
References used for this Article:
Comix: A History of Comic Books in America
by Les Daniels
Outlet (March 1971)
Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics
by Les Daniels, Stan Lee (Introduction)
Harry N Abrams (September 1991)
ASIN: 0810938219 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0810925664 (paperback, September 1993)
DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes
by Les Daniels, Jenette Kahn (Introduction)
Bulfinch Press (October 1995)
Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (Studies in Popular Culture)
by Matthew J. Pustz
University Press of Mississippi (December 1999)
Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom
by Bill Schelly
TwoMorrows Publishing (November 1, 2001)
Webcomic Forum Resources: