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SDCC Recap: Webcomics 101 Class Notes

This is the report of the first “Webcomics School” panel session at SDCC; look for the other two in the forthcoming days. After everything is vaguely back to normal around here, we’ll consult with the session moderator and panelists, expand these recaps, and keep ‘em conspicuously posted as a resource for webcomics creators. Please note that these writeups are lengthy, and continue behind the cut for a good long ways.

As an aid to readability, these recaps are presented not as a transcript of a Q&A (in fact, the sessions were quite wide-ranging and sometimes anarchic), but as a heavily edited narrative, with “takeaway” lessons that summarize the mood of the panel in response to each topic of discussion. Fleen welcomes corrections or clarifications from the participants.

Webcomics 101: Getting Started
At the podium, Bill Barnes (Unshelved)
On the panel, Dave Kellett (Sheldon), Jon Rosenberg (Goats), Brian Fies (Mom’s Cancer), and Phil Foglio (Girl Genius). Let’s see, that’s funny, funny, funny, serious, funny. Everybody milling around the podium is polite until Rosenberg asks Fries, “Is it okay if I make fun of your mom?” “We do,” comes the reply. Laughter, broken tension, and smiles all ’round as the audience is coming in. There’s space for 150 people in room 3, and just about every chair is taken.

Word of Mouth
Barnes introduces the session as “year two of webcomic school at SDCC”, and starts off with a question for the panel: “What brought you to publish on the web?” The answers varied from “accident” (Kellett was prepping a syndicate submission and wanted to share his efforts with family and friends) to “malice” (since they got on each other’s nerves, Rosenberg’s roommate wanted to keep him busy for a couple hours in the evenings), to “necessity” (Fies wanted to get the story out and get feedback as it was happening), to “getting smart” (Foglio had advised many people that the economies of print are not in their favor, and the web is).

The common thread was that all of them saw things balloon and grow in a grassroots fashion (in Foglio’s case, increasing readers of Girl Genius eightfold and tripling sales of the reprint volumes).
Takeaway — When readers like what you do, they will tell people.

But What’s The Point?
Barnes followed up Foglio’s numbers on reprint volumes by asking if webcomics had the sale of books as an ultimate goal (this question will actually come up repeatedly over the three sessions). Foglio said that the purpose of Girl Genius is to drive the sale of collections, but that webcomics are capable of varied forms of expression that will never (and can never) see the static medium of print. Kellett added that the most obvious point of webcomics is that you can do things that you can’t in print, most especially to provide extensive archives where the reader can “dive in and wallow”.

Rosenberg pointed out the different sorts of narrative structures that can see daylight in webcomics, from animation to something as simple as varying the size and scope of the artwork. Fies brought it back around to the intial question in that, no, the pupose of a webcomic doesn’t have to be print. But if print is your goal, you have plan for it and prep for it from the beginning.
Takeaway — Print doesn’t have to be your goal, but decide early if it is.

If You Build It, Will They Buy?
Barnes’s next question was, “Since most webcomics are free, is it almost a given that you can sell print versions?” Kellett started out the reality-slap with a grim number: 10% of your readers are actually willing to buy something. That value, the others agree, will vary with many factors (especially the emotional involvement that your readers have for the creator) but call it 10% plus or minus. Fies also pointed out that when you sell is as important as what you sell, “Get everybody you know a Christmas copy of that cancer book!” he exhorted the crowd. Rosenberg was able to point to a definite sales cycle of his merchandise, concluding, “I love Christmas more than any other Jew on the planet!”

Levity aside, Foglio had some interesting points about self-publishing: nobody will care about your book and making you money as much as you will; a publisher will remainder a modest-selling book to free up catalog space and promotional budgets for the Next Big Thing, but you can keep it in print forever (self-publishing and print-on-demand are also recurring themes in these sessions; see Howard Tayler‘s hard data in the Webcomics 103 Class Notes). Rosenberg agreed, noting that it’s better to control all aspects of merchandise if possible. Fies countered that working with the right editor or publisher can add to the quality of the work.
Takeaway — More readers = more readers willing to give you money; doing more of the work yourself = fewer people to share money with later.

Microdebate
Barnes then asked Rosenberg if he would speak a moment on micropayments; “They don’t work” was the short answer. For the long answer, see his recap of his experiment with BitPass here, here, and here.
Takeaway — Micropayments result in micro payments to you.

The Most Important Thing
The panelists were asked what the two or three most important things to know would be, when just starting a webcomic. Kellett jumped to the fore with the argument that you can’t sit down and attempt to craft a webcomic for a demographic; it has to be work that you believe in (in Webcomics 102, Scott Kurtz would say something similar, in that he was asked to make a comic for the gamer demographic, but that it didn’t really become important to him until he began to believe in the work itself).

Rosenberg concurred, telling the audience to concentrate of making something good and unique; given that the question was specifically about webcomics, he also made a plea for sites that are accessible and easy to navigate. Returning to the idea that print may be an end goal, Fies returned to his “prep early” advice: yeah, 72 dpi looks good on the web, but it will never reproduce properly on the page. Create at a high resolution, save it, and avoid the pain of reworking it later. Noting that the web has a wide reach, Fies noted the ability of webcomics to work with niche audiences.

Moving past “initial steps” to “let’s go pro”, Rosenberg touched on the idea of merchandise: simple, iconic designs sell, especially when people don’t have to be familiar with the comic to get the joke. Foglio ticked off key points: make stuff you want to read; save everything; and if you have partners, get everything in writing. Two final thoughts from the panel: “Don’t forget to draw the damn thing.” (Fies), and, “Don’t suck.” (Foglio)
Takeaway — Concentrate on making your work solid and accessible; the rest will come later.

Methods And Mechanics
The creators were asked how they make their strip, which resulted in a wide variety of responses that boiled down to, “Everybody does it differently.” Some key pieces of specific advice: Foglio is fond of Comicraft fonts, using a half dozen different ones in Girl Genius. Fies worked on Mom’s Cancer in sequences, in that he didn’t want to just have an illlustrated diary — he wanted each sequence to be a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Rosenberg claims that he has a big button that he pushes, which activates a laser that draws the comic directly onto the Internet, while Kellett says his most important tool is a scrap of paper to scribble ideas on.
Takeaway — If you can’t afford lasers, keep paper near by for sudden bouts of inspiration.

Fair Use
The question from the audience was, “Is it a good idea to allow reposting of your work?” Foglio noted that he’s already giving the comic away for free. Barnes recommended having a clear IP statements, and Rosenberg drew a distinction between good reposting (linking to the comic) and bad (building a parallel archive and charging for access). Kellett pointed out that having more eyeballs on more strips only creates demand for the items in the store, and reiterated that having an open archive is a critical advantage to webcomics. He added with irony that his strip is presently hosted by Comics.com, which limits free archive availability to 30 days. This makes it hard “for people to find your work” (Rosenberg) and “for people to give you money.” (Foglio)
Takeaway — More eyeballs is a good thing.

Presented In Glorious Technicolor
Question from the audience — given that most webcomics are in color, but printing in black & white is cheaper, does the reader feel cheated by a b&w volume? Before the answers, please note the work of the participants:

  • Barnes and Kellett: black and white, except Sunday
  • Fies: black and white, except for emphasis
  • Rosenberg: black and white for the first 6½ years
  • Foglio: color

Kellett also took contention with the idea that color is inherently better than b&w, noting that different cultures have different histories of choosing one over the other, making it a thematic choice for the work. Rosenberg added that color need not be discounted on economic grounds, revisting the idea of the economies of self-publishing and the cost savings of printing overseas. Fies was more concerned about the abuse of Photoshop lens flares, noting that just because the program has it, doesn’t mean you have to use it.
Takeaway — Color or b&w is an aesthetic choice, so choose what best suits the work.

Lightning Round
Q: How do you get your work out there and noticed?
Rosenberg: Go back in time to 1997 when there’s nobody else doing it.
Fies: Work from quality, and the audience will come.
Foglio: Build your audience up slowly; if you’re printing and can show them numbers, you can solicit books through Diamond.

Q: What fonts should I use?
Barnes: Find what fits your work’s mood.
Rosenberg: You can get fonts cut from your handwriting, or use Blambot.
Fies: There is personality in hand-lettering.

Q: PC or Mac?
Rosenberg: O/S2! Woo!

Q: Should you have your own website, or try to be part of something like Keenspot?
Rosenberg: Your own.
Kellett: Doing it yourself forces you to learn.
Barnes: At the very least, have your own domain so you can split off later if you want.

Q: What’s your opinion on communities?
Fies: A community, invested in the work, the characters, and the creator, is critical for the audience to grow.

Q: Without merchandise, is there any profit?
Rosenberg: No.

Q: Can you make money by offering higher-resolution copies that readers can download and print?
Kellett: The readers don’t want it, and it doesn’t work as a business model.
Rosenberg: Can’t see anybody buying PDFs.
Fies: This comes back to the micropayment angle, can’t see any way for it to work.

Q: What file format will load quickly and not look ugly on the screen?
Rosenberg: Depends on the image, no single answer.
Useful resolutions: 72 dpi for display, 300 dpi for color print, 600 dpi (maybe 1200) for b&w print.

Final Takeaway — Find what works for you, and do good work.

Good article, great content. I pretty much agree with it all.

I’ve always wanted to read a write-up on these panels. Good work! Can’t wait to see the other two.

Stoked. Thanks for the notes Gary.

Q: Without merchandise, is there any profit?
Rosenberg: No.

Which brings up the obvious question: when are finally going to see some Fleen swag? I want a Gary action figure, the kind where you pull the cord and it says “We at Fleen, we at Fleen”.

With lack of cash for some California sun, this was the next best thing to being there. Thanks for a great synopsis!

[...] First, you can find great write-ups on some of the panels I sat on at fleen.com. Gary Tyrell practically transcribed Webcomics 103: Making Money. Here’s Part One and Part Two. Other Blank Label Comic cartoonists can be heard from in the transcriptions of Webcomics 102, and Webcomics 101. Oh, and the Blank Label Comics panel got mentioned in his Friday Recap. [...]

[...] Gary A number of people have been thinking about success in webcomics lately. First up, Jennie Breeden of The Devil’s Panties — if you saw her on stage at SDCC, you could tell that she’s thought a lot about how to make it in [web]comics, and I don’t think I enjoyed meeting anybody as much as her. She’s put a lot of her ideas down in a new FAQ, and if she lets me, I’m going to excerpt her excellent advice when I get around to making the Webcomics School recaps into something more permanent. [...]

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