Webcomics Are From Uranus

Come Together

Which would you rather go see, a one-man band or an orchestra? Is a four-piece band just perfect? Was The Who so loud because they were overcompensating for only having three instruments? Is bigger really better? Or do too many cooks spoil the broth? (Should I throw in some more metaphors or get right to the, uh, meat of the matter?)

The point: Most online comics are done by just one person.

Stroll through Keenspace or Moderntales and the majority are one-man bands. Or one-girl operations. Or ONE CHICKEN, but I digress. Conversely, walking into a comic book shop, you’ll find three to nine names on the cover. There are some notable exceptions of people going solo, but let’s disregard them for the moment and make the logical jump that teams are mainstream superheroes and singles are indie comix and underground hipsters. I mean, did the New York Times basically say that you have to be an outcast weirdo with a troubled childhood and no people skills to write and draw your own graphic novel? Let’s up the ante with people on the Internet, who are bound to have even less people skills and are probably in their bathrobes busy researching what kind of typewriters existed when George Bush was skipping the Vietnam War.

Even though I’m on a very thin and shaky limb with these kind of generalizations, I’m still in the tree. Webcartoonists work alone. Some of them have impeccable people skills, but they find it preferable not to involve anyone else in their creative endeavors. For the most part, I suspect it’s because this is something of a hobby, rather than a project in which deadlines and other people’s expectations heavily factor. So why even go that route? Everyone knows that working with other people means compromise, and compromise is threatening to those of pure artistic vision and a very bad thing.

I counter that sometimes it is a very good thing, and probably especially so when applied to those of ‘pure artistic vision’. Those who work best alone are frequently their own best critics and editors. Those too full of themselves best need outside influence. Especially when a cartoonist who has worked alone for four years speaks in terms of "No other artists trying to ‘corrupt your vision’." I’ll neglect to mention he followed that up with by saying something about how working alone can give you "tunnel vision" and cause you to overlook certain flaws in the interest of painting him as a scoundrel.

Michael Roberts of Toonbots puts the difference a little less condescendingly: "I like(d) [working alone] because I could create completely spontaneously and off the cuff. No input, just pure creative blast. That’s the advantage. The disadvantage is that if it’s not spontaneous, it just doesn’t happen, because nobody else is there to supply the spark or gumption or just kick your ass to get you started. So maybe you end up hiatusing for, oh, two years. And counting. Say." (Incidentally, Toonbots just came back after a, what was it, 2 year hiatus).

When you do have the drive and don’t need any outside help generating it, working alone can be the most beneficial way for those of a certain temperament. "I think it would feel weird to have CRFH as a team work. Maybe because I’m a HUGE control-freak" says Maritza Campos of College Roomies From Hell!!!. Justin Pierce of Killroy and Tina beat me to my kitchen metaphor:

"But I’ve never been strictly on one end of a writer/artist partnership, and I kind of like it that way. It’s sort of like having a kitchen full of specialized chefs, and then one chef quits and the soup has to go on indefinite hiatus, disappointing all of the customers who came regularly for soup. Then maybe you get another soup chef, but people have already found another place to eat by then, you know?

That’s not the sort of kitchen where I’d want to work."

But what about those people who do want to corrupt their vision? Or writers who can’t draw? Artists who have trouble coming up with good stories? Do they want to work in the soup kitchen?

T Campbell is probably the most well-known writer in webcomics, and often regarded as one of the best. And I’ve seen his art and don’t really want to see any more of it. "I find my own lack of artistic ability can be just as frustrating as any artist’s lack of telepathy. I understand the appeal of looking at a story and saying ‘*I* did that! Nobody else but *me!*’, but I’d rather have Andrew Carnegie’s epitaph: ‘Here lies one who knew how to get around him [people] who were cleverer than himself.’" As someone who pretty much exclusively works with others, T says the interaction is normally a breeze. He has one notable exception that I thought, with some exaggerations, would be the makings for the first urban webcomics legend.

"My first collaboration was on a John Henry adaptation for a college magazine, with a now-successful webcartoonist – let’s call him "Garry Winogrand." Garry’s a great guy these days, and in his defence, I can’t have been easy to work with back then – the words "control freak" probably apply.

Still, he successfully dodged all my efforts to find out how his work was going until deadline, and then presented me with four pages which used a couple of LINES and the basic subject matter from my script. What’s more, Garry insisted that his name be removed from the finished work. The story ran as "JOHN
HENRY – Concept by T Campbell." So apparently I’m 145 years old."

If you’re going to take the plunge, flexibility is key, as Shaenon Garrity demonstrates in her working with several different people in her entirely too many comics to list. Even with the same writer, the approach differs with each artist and Garrity’s experience is very typical of the norm:

"I’ve worked on various webcomics as a writer, and artist, and a writer/artist. I’ve also played around with different approaches to collaboration. For Trunktown, Tom Hart and I brainstormed for a number of weeks about the comic, and then I sketched thumbnail strips for him to draw. For Li’l Mell, I sent rough but basically complete thumbnails to Vera Brosgol, and later Bill Mudron, who turned them into fantastic finished pages and occasionally let me know when a page Just Wasn’t Funny. For More Fun, I type out written scripts, which Bob Stevenson then draws.

Collaboration has its pluses and minuses. On one hand, you have to sacrifice a certain amount of control and accept that the finished product will not totally reflect your "vision," but will instead represent a hybrid of ideas. I couldn’t give up that control for some of my comics, like Narbonic. But with other projects, the collaborative effort can result in a richer work. With Trunktown, in particular, I feel like Tom Hart and I achieved a gestalt that was completely distinct from the work either of us could produce alone. I also love seeing different artists’ interpretations of characters and situations I create."

There is the matter of who has the easier job when duties are split between writing and art. Aric Campling of HOSERS puts it simply: "Lev is the writer, and I am the artist. I consider myself as having the hard job. He thinks my job is harder, too. Since we agree on that, it makes our collaboration easier."

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must come clean on my own deeply seated interests in collaboration. I’ve drawn my own comic for a good number of years, but after working with John Troutman on not one, but two comics, in different levels of collaboration, I have to say I’m all for it. Or at least, I was until I pinned down said Troutman and got him to come clean on our working relationship:

"I was cruisin’ through Atlanta one night and a fine young redhead stopped me on a street corner and said she’d draw me a good time. The benefit to these relationships, of course, is that I get to slack off. If all I’ve gotta do is write, I’m easy street. Plus, if all I’m focusing on is the script, it tends to improve the quality of it somewhat. Also, you might get an artist that isn’t just better than you, but can actually improve your writing with some kind of artistic flair that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, be it a facial expression or some body language. The disadvantage is having to wait for your collaborator and you might get impatient, whether you’re an artist waiting for a script or a writer waiting to see your dream visualized. And my relationship with my collaborator is COMPLETELY INNOCENT. Really. Frank. Don’t hurt me. (But seriously, Megs, call me. But don’t tell Frank – he thinks our relationship is completely innocent. Shhhh…) But I kid. Megs is just one of my bestest friends. (With BENEFITS. Okay, maybe not.)"

I told you I was going to paint him as a scoundrel.


  1. The only thing I agree with is that you sometimes need a second brain to step back from your work for you and keep you from making that dreadful mistake you think is a good idea.

    For me, I see the artist/ editor relationship as giving us better results than a team effort as far as the art of comics is concerned. Team efforts can be interesting, and sometimes it can work brilliantly (Watchmen) but more often or not, you’re stuck with a Marvel-esqe committee comic.

    I think that if you have the ability to write and draw, there’s really no need for a scond person.

  2. I couldn’t disagree more! All of my own work is collaborative, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If I were to devote myself to the single-creator method, the result would not only be poorly drawn comics, but poorly written ones as well–since I would be restricted to writing only those situations that I could draw. Working with a partner is empowering–I can write whatever I like, and know that the final result will be far closer to my actual vision than if I had tried to do the whole thing by myself.

    Besides which, I don’t see why this stigma against collaboration exists within comics when it’s completely accepted in so many other artforms. Should all films be one man shows? Should all stage plays? Should all music? Were the great composers inherently hobbled because they allowed their music to be played by orchestras, rather than trying to play every instrument themselves?

    The major result of this stigma is simply that a great many talented writers are producing badly drawn comics, while a great many talented artists are producing badly written comics. The fact is, with a rare few exceptions, most people are better at one than they are at the other, and the more time they devote to mastering their stronger talent, the less time they’ll have to improve on the weaker.

    If the majority of team efforts have resulted in Marvel-esque committee comics, it’s precisely because the current environment teaches creators that you’re only allowed to work in partnerships if your intent is to produce Marvel-esque committe comics. If we could only kill that stigma, if we could create an environment that was supportive of those talented artists and writers getting together and honing their individual strengths, then the number of truly impressive comics being produced would increase exponentially.

  3. You like me because I’m a scoundrel – there aren’t enough scoundrels in your life.

  4. I see myself as a very harsh critic of my own work, hopefully I’m not “too full of myself” that I “need (emphasis mine) outside influence.” However, I approached each of them because I knew what they, in particular, could add to my artistic vision.

    We’re spinning a simple “gee-gosh” pulp yarn, so yeah, I could have written it myself. But Paul Daly adds some nice historical layers and some fun pulp jokes that I never would have thought of. By the same token, I could color the strip as well as most webcomics are colored, but I’m nowhere near the ability level of Chad Fidler.

    Even though I’m final arbiter on the material (like a television showrunner), I rarely alter much in the scripts and have asked for one change from Chad over the last two years. I do feel like my “creative vision” is being served. Because of the talent level of my co-creators, and the creative spark generated by our synergy, I’m fortunate that my creative vision has changed, as each of these two co-creators have added their own “voice” to the mix.

    Like jazz, the total is greater than the sum of the parts. My collaborators raise the bar with their contributions and hopefully I do the same for them. Granted, it’s within the context of a specialization, but I feel that my grasp of figure drawing, incorporating figures into backgrounds, brushwork, all-around-draughtmanship and more have grown due to the constant challenge of outdoing what we’ve previously done.

    I realize that not all collaborations are like that and that I’m truly fortunate to be a part of it.


  5. Doing it all myself is an act of desperation. An act of desperation that gives me all kinds of DIY indie cred, but still.

    I’d love to collaborate with someone, but so far no luck finding them. All my writer friends are more interested in doing their own stuff (or they are even more slackerly than I am), and asking strangers is… um… it would be harder to establish the necessary level of simpatico…

    The benefits to collaboration are clear enough: better editing, probably tighter writing & art, and faster output (due to my competitive nature). Oh well.

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