Webcomics 101

By way of preamble, I've been reading webcomics for well over a decade. I even had a go at making several, one of which had a decent readership (by novice webcomic standards). I didn't carry them on, mainly due to a lack of talent, but I have a good idea as to what goes in to making a decent webcomic.

One of the important things that an artist needs to know is the different aspects of their chosen medium. Specifically, the advantages and disadvantages of the medium. For example, in webcomics, you have the option to go full colour at effectively zero * additional publishing cost. If the comic was being physically printed, full colour printing costs a lot more than black and white printing due to the process involved.

* Note that with the exact same image, one version in black and white and one version in colour, the colour version will come out at a higher file size, so over the size of an archive and volume of readers this will affect the bandwidth used on your host and possibly incur additional hosting costs. Also, a full colour comic will require a greater investment of time to create. So it isn't zero, but the publishing costs are close enough to zero when compared with physical publishing to count.

Depending on how you look at it, a different advantage (or disadvantage) is that the artist has no control over which page a reader will see first. With a physical book, you can reliably assume that a person will look at the front and back covers, then begin at page one. Some weirdos (like me) will open up to a random page and read an extract to get an initial idea of the story but that's usually prior to purchasing. Someone who sits down to consume the content will start the story at, well, the start.

However, due to the nature of the internet, a new reader can be linked to (or find elsewhere) one of the pages from anywhere in the story. Some third party may have enjoyed a particular page (or even a single panel) and be hosting it elsewhere and a new reader will see that page and may only see that page.

So I find it incredibly frustrating to find a promising webcomic with good (or even just decent) artwork where the first page I land on … nothing happens. You get shown a few panels of some characters standing around or walking or doing something but it has no context. No dialogue. There is no story, no conflict presented. The reader has no idea as to who these characters are, what they are doing or why they should be interested in them.

Now, I know a bit about writing and pacing, so I know that there will be times when a story needs a spot where the reader can sit back a bit, process what has happened and then eagerly tune in for more. This works well in a complete work where the entirety is presented to the reader in one chunk, such as a novel. But in a webcomic, this may be enough to turn the reader away. The internet is fickle, with a short attention span. So when I come across one of these pages, I'll browse around and look at the other nearby pages (or just backwards if the offending page is the current one).

And nothing gets my goat up more than going through page after page where NOTHING HAPPENS!

Page after page of scenes where we are shown characters walking along, standing around, looking pretty, thinking or doing something else that has no direct bearing on the plot. The story isn't advanced, no new information is provided to the reader, no world building or background is developed. The scenes are the internet equivalent of a Styrafoam Peanut. They're just there to take up space.

Let me share something with you. This is a strip from Schlock Mercenary by Howard Taylor, and this happens to be the very first strip I ever saw:

If memory serves correctly, I didn't come across this strip in the comic itself, it was on a forum where they were discussing the relative merits of "attractive" heroes and this comic was shared as a rebuttal to the main argument, showing that the hero didn't have to be attractive (or even human!).

In this comic there is no dialogue, but there is a conflict – in this case an actual fight and an on-screen death. But it was the footnote, with the "you should be cheering for the pile of crap" comment that intrigued me enough to go looking for the webcomic.

When I reached the comic, I don't recall the exact story I landed on, but the first thing I did was go back to the start. I like reading webcomics from the start because then you get to see the story unfold and the artists' skill develop as they spend more time drawing the comic. But on the first page I saw a handy little link which said "New? Start reading here" which took me to a story further in.

This was a good idea on two levels. It allowed Howard to send new readers to a point where his artwork had developed a bit and also to a point where he was more book-type story driven as opposed to ongoing-story driven. After reading to the current page, I went back and read from the start which was a very rewarding experience for me.

The key takeaway from this is that when you look through the Schlock Mercenary archives, you find that almost any page you land on will give you something. Be it a joke, advancement of the plot, world building – something. I have not seen many "filler" pages (there are a few around, usually to promote a new piece of merchandise – it is called "mercenary" for a reason!).

This is because Howard follows a very professional mantra – every page has to count! He said as much in the Writing Excuses podcast, that he expects any page to be "the one" that a reader sees first, so it's important that every page justifies its existence.

The same holds true for novels. An author needs to take a good hard look at every chapter, every sentence, every word and be able to answer "why is this here?" If the chapter is just a fun scene that doesn't advance the story or inform the reader or develop the characters in some way, then that page has to go.

I want one day to get back into making webcomics, though it'll be interesting to see if my work schedule will allow me. Comics with months-long gaps generally don't do so well.

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