We at Fleen have been writing about How To Make Webcomics since it was announced at SDCC last summer; after multiple readings (and waiting for a time when we knew we needed postings in the bank), we’re ready to tell you how well the book meets its own goals (from the back cover): everything you need to know to make, post and profit from your own online comics.
Answer: pretty damn well.
With four authors on the book, it would be easy for the individual POVs to be lost, but the HalfPixel Crewe have done well — both by dividing the chapters between them, and by feeling free to drop in commentary in chapters written by another. While this leads to a slightly disjointed presentation (they don’t all use the same formatting, and with each chapter primarily overseen by one person, there are more typos than one would like), it does serve to keep the tone of the book as one of a conversation.
The authors are also to be commended for the division of topics along natural boundaries — Dave Kellett’s business past shows when he talks about audience interaction and monetizing comics; Brad Guigar’s many years of convention showing inform his practical tips for conventions (and give the reader a game they can play — find Guigar at a convention, and see if he’s following his own rules … if he’s not, he owes you a donut¹); and Kris Straub’s technical background nicely supplements his chapters on website design and the ugly details inherent in making comics your job (legal niceties, protecting your IP, etc.).
For me, though, the biggest surprise came in Kurtz’s chapters on characters and writing; I’ve been around enough [web]cartoonists for a long enough period of time to know that drawing is a learned, practiced skill, but never thought about the writing of a comic strip in those terms. All of the funny people I’ve known in my life have always seemed to be that way naturally, and the idea that you can learn to write funny — although obvious in retrospect — was somewhat revelatory to me. Along with the chapters listed above, Kurtz’s presentation on character and writing constitute a Strunk & White for the aspiring webcomicker.
But that does leave a few weaknesses to be resolved if there’s ever a second edition, most notably in chapters 3 and 4. And although the chapters are on very different topics (Formatting, and Image Preparation, respectively), the weaknesses all fall neatly into one category: examples, or the lack thereof.
At the start of the Formatting chapter, Straub looks at different layouts used in [web]comics (single panel, horizontal strip, full page), but oddly chose to illustrate each one with a graphic that featured the same aspect ratio. The “single panel” example was essentially a horizontal strip with the interior panel borders missing, and the “full page” was a horizontal strip with more than the usual number of panels. Similarly, a really helpful discussion of word balloon (and balloon tail) placement lacked a visual, and the chapter (which was essentially about artistic/visual decisions) abruptly transitioned to a discussion of schedule in the last two pages. Granted, there may be nothing as important as a committed schedule, and there may not be a better place to discuss it than the Formatting chapter, but … jarring.
Similarly, Guigar’s chapter on Image Preparation (essentially, Photoshop tips ‘n’ tricks) had the requisite mess o’ screencaptures, but the choice of what got displayed was somewhat baffling. A seemingly-terrific discussion about adjusting levels (and I don’t mean to sound snarky here … I don’t know Photoshop at all, so much of this went over my head) featured many shots of the dialog boxes that controlled the levels, and none of sample art showing the outcome of the commands. I’m willing to say that this chapter wasn’t for me, but I have to think that a newbie creator with a computer that runs Photoshop s l o w l y might want to see some visuals indicating what the described techniques would do before committing to sitting down and trying it out.
But I’ll be fair about this — I learned in Guigar’s chapter on “Books” that only certain page counts are practical for a strong binding, and there may not have been room to add space-consuming pictures to satisfy my desire for examples. And honestly, if the worst that I can say about the book is that I wanted it to show me more precisely what it was describing, that’s not a bad problem to have. It hooked me thoroughly and left me wanting more from the lads. In fact, I was so happy with the book overall, I won’t even mention page 149 where Guigar implies that page 10 in your book will be followed by page 10 again, then page 12. Nope, not me.
So let’s summarize — I wanted a bit more detail (or a different focus of detail, if you will) in a pair of early chapters, and the rest left me hungry for more from the HalfPixelites. My only concern with the book now is finding the opportunity to get all the creators to scribble in it, as I’m not going to Emerald City or San Diego this year, but that needn’t stop you. If you see any of the Gang of Four, be sure to say howdy, buy a book, and thank them for sharing so much insight and information — whatever profit they see from the sales of HTMW will certainly not make up for the increased competition they see from new creators who read it and take its lessons to heart.
And I have a feeling that’s exactly the way they want it.
¹ Not really.