Why Do Online Comics by Iain Hamp

This summer, Derek Kirk Kim is teaching Comic Book Illustration to high school students. I read about this on his forum, and then mentioned that if he ever teaches something in Phoenix (my area) or over the Internet, I’d be willing to pay for the experience. Now, I said this in jest to some degree, because I sincerely doubt circumstances would ever bring him to a school in Phoenix to teach, but that second part, about the Internet course, got me thinking.

What if there was a relatively easy way for Derek to offer something like that – an Internet-based course where he offered structured insight into a particular area of creating comics, putting them online, or some other topic relating to comics?

Think about how much you would be willing to pay for a course on designing a website for your online comic, with a curriculum put together and assignments graded and critiqued by someone like Jon Rosenberg or Scott Kurtz? Or the ins and outs of marketing comics on the Internet, via a curriculum developed by Joey Manley or Tycho and Gabe?

This may seem like a far-fetched idea. Maybe the creators that would be needed to make such a virtual comic school a success wouldn’t be interested. Maybe people wouldn’t be willing to pay for such a thing no matter how you structured it. But for the purposes of this column, let us assume that neither of those things is the case: that if done properly, the right people on both sides of the equation would be willing and eager to participate.

Take a look at iStockPhoto.com. They have created a web-based interface where photographers that wish to sell their products can do so, and where people who want to buy images can find and purchase them. Sure, iStockPhoto had to initially develop the interface and maintain it, but the content for the site is being developed primarily by others, who then agree to give iStockPhoto a percentage of the revenue in exchange for the use of their interface.

The creators get paid, the middleman gets its cut, and the consumer gets a massive database of images to choose from. This is basically my idea for the web-based comic school – an interface where people who want to offer their services can be easily connected with those who wish to partake in those services. So long as good quality control is in place at the middleman’s end (whoever runs the school website itself), people will begin (I believe) to perceive more and more worth in the product.

What would the worth of taking these courses be? Obviously, the goal would be to further one’s skills in a particular area of creating, marketing, or distributing comics. For some, that would be worth the investment alone. But there are other benefits possible, some more tangible than others. A symbol or banner to put on your website, for example, stating you completed the course, and a list of the people on the school’s website who have passed the course, so that the image can be verified as earned (I’m looking at the Better Business Bureau icon as my inspiration for this idea). Maybe a certificate if you pass a certain group or number of courses. Beyond that, you’re networking as you take the course, getting to know industry leaders as well as those of your peers who are also trying to make it in comics through one way or another. Also, there could perhaps even be built-in discounts on future courses if one course or other is completed.

Instructors can use their own existing, already-created work that as reference materials in the assignments, so that beyond the initial creation of the curriculum, most of the work involved would be the administration and grading of assignments. This could certainly become cumbersome and detract from their ability to create their own comic work, which is why I would think class size limitations would have to be imposed (though it could certainly be left up to the instructor’s discretion).

There are two primary interfaces that need to be considered. The primary one is the school website itself. The things I envision it needing include curriculum guidelines for potential instructors to use as a guide for developing the class they want to teach, along with perhaps some sort of actual step-by-step interface to help build the class. The website for the school should be able to easily distinguish teacher from student when they log in, and give the person the appropriate control panel based on that information. Students should be able to register and pay for classed easily on the site. The student control panel should allow for posting completed assignments, posting in-progress assignments (for assistance), sending questions to the instructor, and an instructor-moderated discussion area of some sort that is not editable by the student (to maintain accountability).

Instructors should have a place to post the class syllabus and other reading materials, a list of assignments, and there should be an interface for administering tests and quizzes. The instructor should have a grade book area with the ability to update on the fly and have the students be able to look at their individual results. This assumes, of course, that grades are even kept – I am not sure, based on the sort of instruction we are talking about here, that grades are even appropriate. Perhaps just passing (and receiving all that entails) or not passing would be sufficient. Oh, and students should be able to not only receive feedback on each assignment, but they should also be able to submit feedback on what they thought of the assignment, so that the quality of the courses can continue to increase.

The other interface, of sorts, that needs to be addressed is the physical world interface. Some things may not be feasible to accomplish strictly in a web-based environment. Mailing in assignments may be necessary, for example. Somehow the ability to purchase any necessary additional materials, like art supplies or course books, would need to be in place in a way that everyone wishing to take the class would have access to the same items (or instructor-approved substitutes, perhaps).

There are some additional considerations that I have thought of and not yet worked out. Again, all of this is really to open up a discussion about this concept in the hopes that it is not only viable, but something someone out there with the right resources can run with and make happen. I think the main concern I have is how to pay instructors to ensure they are happy, but also complete their coursework in a professional and timely manner. If the student flakes out after paying, then that’s the student’s responsibility and just like at any other learning institution, that’s their choice to make and after a certain period of time their tuition would not be refundable (or perhaps partially refundable depending on how far along the course is). But the teacher has to also offer a quality product or the whole project suffers, so there has to be some control, some accountability. When to pay the instructors, therefore, must be addressed.

So the next question, to put it one way, is “So how much is all this gonna cost me?” Well, I have no idea what a good scale would be for this. I suppose that will be up to whoever implements it, or maybe it will be the instructor’s discretion, with the school either asking a flat rate or a percentage. Just throwing some sample numbers out there off the top of my head though, let me run a scenario by you. Suppose a particular class is $75 per person and lasts six weeks. Once these classes are built the first time, nothing but tweaking should have to be done to them, so an instructor could run the same class several times a year, providing demand was there. Let’s limit the class size to ten people, so that it is manageable for the instructor and also creates increased value (by making it a limited commodity, and thus making the completion of the course a bigger deal). If the school’s cut was 20%, then the instructor would make $60 per person and the school would make $15. A class of ten raises those numbers to $600 and $150. Teaching that class four times a year ups the numbers to $2400 and $600. Multiply that by however many classes are being offered, and maybe the school doesn’t need to even take 20%, or maybe it could take a portion of the money to offer scholarship competitions to up and coming students, or grants to people that have completed courses so that they can get their website up and running or their first book published.

This may be me being totally optimistic. Maybe this would never work, or I’m missing major prohibitive costs that would make this idea dead in the water. Heck, something like this could easily exist out there on the World Wide Web and I just don’t know about it yet. Or maybe, just maybe, this is a way for talented comic creators to make some money on the side, teaching what they love to do and using the earnings to fund their own continued work. It might in fact be in the realm of possibility that such a school could help aspiring comic creators realize their potential, giving them the structure, environment, and instruction they need to push them towards creating the next Nowhere Girl, the next Blankets.

Who knows, perhaps this same interface could even be used in similar fields to make money for struggling professionals and bring those aspiring to get into those fields closer to the skill level they want to have. So no, I’m not saying it’s a sure thing that any of this would ever work.

I’m just saying it has… potential.

Iain Hamp is a contributing columnist for Comixpedia.

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