Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

This summer there have been a lot of movies coming out in the theater that I am looking forward to seeing.

In about six months.

Where I live, movie tickets are now $8.50, or $6.50 with a student discount or at a matinee showing. So depending on circumstances, my wife and I pay between $13-$17 to go see a movie. For that price, we will also get the pleasure of seeing 10-20 minutes of commercials before our actual film begins.

Alternatively, I can wait six months and for the same amount of money own the movie on DVD, to watch as many times as I want, in the comforts of home and commercial free. Even better, I get a multitude of options to enhance my viewing experience; behind the scenes footage, extra scenes, director’s commentary, subtitles, and more are at my fingertips via the push of a button. Sitting reclined in my twenty year old leather chair that’s already flaking and creaking in ways that will be sure to make this chair the one my wife desperately wants to get rid of in another five or ten years, I can get hours if not days worth of enjoyment out of just the first time I stick the DVD into my player.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about how to give people as many reasons as possible to get excited by online comics. You can tell a terrific story, depict it with mind-blowing artwork, utilize all the tricks you can think of that having a comic on the internet has to offer… ultimately, though, you have to get a person’s eyeballs looking at it or all that work isn’t going to amount to much more than some personal gratification. Well, okay, maybe you’ll get some other comics professionals to look at it and think it’s great, but do you really want your income dependant on the kind of money comics professionals have to throw your way? The ultimate trial, the hardest bridge to cross, is getting your online comic in front of the eyes of the masses. I know so many wonderful creations that exist on the web that, if people were just exposed to it, would be runaway hits on a Big Fat Greek scale!

Something I’ve seen before at conventions is people trying to sell comics on CD. Generally, these have been print comics transferred to CD so you can peruse them at your leisure on the computer monitor. While I like the idea of this, the execution I have seen has ranged from pathetic to just-not-quite-there, and I don’t know that people were ready for them three or four years ago when these things were being touted at Comic Con as the biggest thing since Beanie Babies. As you may be anticipating, however, I have some ideas as to how such a concept might just work in today’s market, and in particular to get online comics a bit more exposure.

Picture with me, if you will, the online comic equivalent of the DVD versus the theater. I’ve been slowly working on a comics project called Darwin’s Complex. I have the whole story in my head and most of it on paper in one for or another, but the artwork is progressing slowly. When I sat down to work out how each panel would work for the first chapter, I planned ahead for a number of things I eventually want to offer on my “DVD” version of the comic as bonus features. Among them:

1) Put the entire contents of the comic onto a CD, with an interface in front of the comic itself that is similar to a menu screen on a DVD.

2) Each page is 10”x15” originally, as it appears on the web and as it will appear as I publish it online. However, I am also an additional 10”x5” of artwork on either side of the original pages that will act as supplemental material to the original story. It isn’t necessary in order to read the story and get the picture the first time around, but it does flesh out a lot of what was going on in the background of what the reader was seeing the first time through. It’s my equivalent to having a “letterbox” edition of the comic.

3) Another menu option would be to read the director’s commentary version of the comic, where as you click through the panel I narrate the experience and even graphically point things out as we go along. This experience would likely be on a sort of “rail” in that a viewer wouldn’t be able to control the pace of when we went to each individual page (other than rewind and fast forward).

4) The director’s cut of the comic. I’m certain as I get further along in the comic, I’ll look back and go “oh, it would have been better if I did this this way instead” or “I wish I had included a scene with this happening” or whatnot. This would be what the director’s cut was about, adding in new pages or changing certain panels to reflect my “intended vision” as best as possible.

5) How fun would a blooper reel be? It would be a couple of pages or panels where I redraw the scene with someone flubbing a line or accidentally tripping over a cat or something. I know a lot of people twisted enough to consider buying something like this just on the idea of a blooper reel from a comic book.

6) Previews. A demo section where you look at a few pages of some of my favorite online comics, and links to where people can see more.

7) Behind the scenes. Sketches, panel layouts, old pages of script, pics of me tearing my hair out trying to get pages done… you get the idea.

8) A booklet insert for the CD case with an exclusive mini-story in it. Heck, I may sign and number each one.

I’m sure there are a lot of other things that could be thrown in to enhance the product. All together though, it offers people all the amenities that make people love DVD’s so much, and besides the work involved the ultimate cost is, what, ten cents a CD? A dollar or so after packaging, maybe? Two if I include the booklet idea? They wouldn’t have to be marked up tremendously to make a tidy profit, and fans of the comic (assuming by the time I was at this stage it would have fans) would surely want to get a copy of the “special edition” version of it.

The inherent value of having your comic available on a CD like this, versus the comic’s home on the web, is ultimately one of convenience. You can only read the online comic if you have internet access, and depending on what kind of internet access that is, bandwidth can easily be an issue that slows you down and detracts from your experience. Having your own copy on CD, on the other hand, means any computer with a CD-ROM drive can allow you access to peruse the comic at your own pace, without the obstacles of connection speed and stability.

I’ve been holding back on sharing a lot of these ideas, for fear of someone running with them and making something out of them before I get my comic done. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that this was a ridiculous and shortsighted notion. First of all, maybe I’m completely out of my gourd, these are horrible ideas, and it would never work in the first place. If they are good ideas, and someone makes something out of them, then great! They’ve made the path in the grass, now all I have to do is follow it (and watch out for snakes). Perhaps the most important reason to stop holding back, however, is that the premise that I will ever, ever get even the first chapter of Darwin’s Complex done is simply ludicrous.

So how does all this help the comic get in front of the eyes of the masses? Well, let’s start “small.” There are certain markets that tend to cross over with comics quite a bit. Take, for instance, the video game industry. I am fairly certain there are at least one or two people who are in the video game industry who also read online comics. Maybe there’s a panel in the comic where one of the characters can be seen clearly playing a particular videogame. Maybe that video game gets released with a copy of your comic on CD as a “bonus” (with some advertising for the game and the game company tacked onto the CD of course). Sure, to some extent, pitching online comics to gamers is a bit like preaching to the choir, but there is certainly, based on the numbers I see on a consistent basis, a good chunk of video game enthusiasts that haven’t jumped on board the online comics bandwagon. And, of course, even those who have may not have been aware of yours. Yet.

There are other “product placement” opportunities out there, too – almost as many as there are products, in fact. To get our comics in front of the eyes of the masses, they have to be tricked into giving them a chance. We online comics folk don’t have advertising budgets to speak of, so we’re probably going to have to make someone do our advertising for us. I don’t know about you, but if that means having one of my characters drinking a can of Coca-Cola instead of a nondescript can of soda, so be it.

Okay. This is my idea for getting online comics flowing along the mainstream a bit more. Think you can do better? Prove it! Post comments below this column and throw your own ideas out there. Blow mine to shreds. The whole point of this “Why Do Online Comics?” exercise of mine is to help our community become more and more of a force to be reckoned with, and I’m certain my voice can’t be the only one out here who wants to see online comics succeed financially and/or get the recognition and audience they deserve. If we offer online comics successfully to the mass audiences and they don’t take what we offer them, that’s one thing. But until every potential reader has been given the opportunity to know our work exists and then say yes or no, we have work to do. We’ve been insular too long, and all this inbreeding can lead to no good.

We’ve done a heck of a job in the online comics community of selling in… maybe it’s time to try selling out.

Iain Hamp is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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  1. Well, I certainly think that ads such as the one you mentioned as an example and the ones Scott Kurtz at PVP and the gents over at Penny Arcade make are good sources of income if you can get the work. Certainly they are better than the old ad banner “get paid per click” system they tried in the late 90’s/early 00’s. You can target audiences better, and it seems like the people going to these sites would be more likely to click an ad with their favorite characters in it.

    However (you knew there was a however, didn’t you?)… my purpose is primarily to get these online comics in front of the eyes of the masses, to reach untapped potential audience. And I don’t think the kind of ads you serve as an example, unless I mistake your meaning, will do that. Not only does an online comic have to already have some pretty good success to attract paying advertisers in most cases, but regardless of how many people are coming to an online comics site seeing those ads, the new audience has no way of knowing they are there.

    The way I do see this maybe working is if you had an ad running with your characters endorsing a product on some other website, like a major video game site or moviefone or something, and on the ad or near it you had “Characters appear courtesy of http://www.youronlinecomic.com” with a link people could click on. If the ad was clever enough, I can see this working pretty well.

    Thanks for the food for thought, Anonymous Fan Boy. And for the kind words. I don’t know if I’m in the minority here, but I never get tired of support for my work, and the importance of each instance of support is always just as high. It means a lot.

  2. Product placement within the comic when running rampant is a bad idea. We’ve all seen the close-ups of a product’s name in movies and it’s ridiculous. Having banners alone is very dangerous and can cause artists to begin endorsing a product/company in their news-posts. I think a better alternative to having products in comics, is to have comics in a product.

    Now obviously companies aren’t going to warm up to that idea at first. However there are intermediary steps. One such step is to have custom banners (such as: http://www.ctrlaltdel-online.com/images/ads/den_ad.jpg). As long as your character doesn’t suddenly become obsessed with the product in the actual strip, then there isn’t a problem.

    Another advertising idea is to have the DVD-comic version of adverts. At the moment, DVDs don’t have ads at the beginning (they just have annoying copyright notices :P). But videos (yes, those old things) have had adverts at the beginning of the movie for as long as I can remember. Creating a small animated intro that loads up whenever someone accesses the CD for a few products would be completely acceptable (IMO). As long as you don’t start getting ridiculous (such as in the theatre industry).

    Great article by the way 🙂

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