SDCC wears more heavily on my aged, stooped body every year, so please forgive the lateness of this post; it’s also going to be a big one, to cover my travel tomorrow, and then I can see about actually reading webcomics again. I’ve fallen a bit behind in the last five days.
- First up, news from Zach Weiner, who was at his booth with fellow SMBC Theater principal James Ashby. It was a bit odd meeting Ashby, as he’s specialized in playing some monumentally unlikeable characters on SMBCT, and I found him to be affable, funny, and not at all somebody who would kill me at the first opportunity. Probably.
Weiner and Ashby presented me with a copy of SMBCT’s first DVD compilation, and it looks like an hour and a half of pure, distilled fun. I can’t say for certain, since the netbook that I’m travelling with has no optical drive, but it’s getting watched at the first opportunity. Weiner also shared the news that one of his previous projects (Captain Excelsior, with Chris Jones on art) is getting a book release via IDW — look for it in October, or heck, just pre-order it now.
- Speaking of pre-orders, I bumped into Ben Costa of Shi Long Pang, who was kind enough to gift me with a copy of his brand new (you can still pre-order, actually) first book. All I can say is hoo, the Xeric grant gives you a lot of options when it comes to printing your book. It’s got a gorgeous, solid visual appeal, the colors are vibrant or subtle as required, and the paper stock is thick and satisfying. It even smells good. This is going to require a leisurely read to provide a more worthwhile review, but for almost 200 pages, full color, in hardcover? $20 is a steal.
- Speaking of new print ventures, Ryan Sohmer had some interesting news about his first non-comedy comics work. BOOM! Studios will be publishing a Sohmer-penned, Jean Diaz-drawn 6-issue series (with the possibility of ongoing) called Messiah. Sohmer described it as the story of an ordinary guy called by God to be the new messiah — but not the first one. Turns out, God’s been calling messiahs for millenia, but gives them free will to redeem and save the world or not. Capitalizing on Diaz’s work with Mark Waid on Incorruptible, Waid may end up editing Messiah, which would just slightly be a good thing.
- Speaking of good things, Jeff Zugale came by to talk about some of his projects, and has said that there are discussions for a print/poster release of The Greatest Painting In The History of Art.
- The Webcomics Lightning Round panel produced a lot of information in a very brief timeframe; to keep this page from bogging down, the “transcript” (it’s not a word-for-word of what was said at the panel, but it’s as close as I can make it) is below the cut, and it’s a long ‘un. Groundrules: Brad Guigar, Robert Khoo and Scott Kurtz were given 20 seconds to answer each question, with no repeat answers — if one panelist agreed in essence with another, he just said so and moved on. Answer durations were enforced by
Airhornswormanofficial timekeeper Erika Greco (PA designer extraordinaire), who cut off the panelists with an insistent WOOOP if their actual answer went on too long.
The panel was held in a room with a posted capacity of 500, and was pretty much full up; however, it became apparent during the panel that a portion of the audience were camping out for a LOST panel that was being held next in the room. This earned multiple digressions onto the topic of LOST by Kurtz, each of which led to at least one forlorn LOSTie slinking out of the room, presumably upset by spoilers. That was awesome.
Guigar: It’s really a conflict between corporate comics and vs independent, so by definition nobody is doing both.
Kurtz: The conflict is between between embittered print comics artists and and webcomics artists with a chip on their shoulder, so basically it’s Ted Rall and me. Everybody else is fine.
Khoo: I don’t care about this at all.
Question: Given that producing comics updates regularly and in quantity is important, is it viable to do updates occasionally in big chunks?
Khoo: It’s important to do updates at short enough intervals to keep readers coming back to your site on a regular basis.
Kurtz: I agree, but every so often somebody violates that rule and does great at it.
Guigar: I thought about this a long time, and came to the conclusion that your updates have to be frequent, consistent, and significant to readers; if you can do it monthly and provi… WOOOP
Question: Does drama in the community have a positive or negative effect on your fanbase? Can you use it to drum up …
Kurtz: FUCK YOU DUDE, FUCK YOU. YOU WANNA GO? LET’S GO, RIGHT NOW. For me it works because I’m just being myself, unfortunately. I get passionate and start stupid fights about things that don’t matter. Come to my booth, meet my dad and you’ll find out why … WOOOP
Question: What are some of the pros and cons of hooking up with a group of webcomics that acts as publisher?
Guigar: In any situation like that, each person needs to decide what is best for them. You have to figure out how to get into those arrangements, and most importantly, know how and when to get out of it.
Kurtz: And what’s the light in the center of the island? They never tell you. NEXT.
Question: What’s your feeling on motion comics?
Kurtz: Has Neal Adams left the room? I don’t like ’em. Do comics or animation, but don’t try to work in between.
Khoo: For a creative person to envision something as a motion comic, great, as long as it doesn’t hurt the experience of the reader.
Question: Webcomics and motion comics are very different, do you see them developing along different lines?
Kurtz: I need time — twenty seconds is not fair! Okay, when you animate and have time as a component of the medium, it’s completely different than when reader has control over how time progresses in the story and their contribution …
Khoo: What about if that’s how it was designed?
Kurtz: … but not when you have a comic made into a motion comic.
Question: How long did it take to build up a fanbase to the point that here you are, on a panel at Comic-Con?
Guigar: That progress takes place over years; I started doing panels like six years ago, but I had nothing to say until a few years ago.
Khoo: It varies from property to property; xkcd exploded from nothing to huge over a period of about six months. With Penny Arcade, it was a couple of years.
Kurtz: They all died on the island, Jack died next to the dog, SPOILERS.
Question: I’ve been seeing free comics moving to paid smartphone apps. Do you see this becoming profitable market?
Khoo: Our idea would not be to make a mirror of what’s on the Penny Arcade website. Our idea would be something to provide an added value … WOOOP
Kurtz: See, twenty seconds is not long enough.
Khoo: I was done! “provide an added value”, done.
Question: What are the best ideas for monetizing webcomics?
Guigar: In order, I’m dealing with books, then ad revenue, then other merchandise.
Khoo: At Penny Arcade, we base the income on merch, ads, creative services, and “other”; it’s all about diversifying your sources of income.
Kurtz: Merch, turnkey ads, and riding PA’s coattails, letting their ad team sell for me.
Kurtz: Oooh, pret-ty lady. Helllooo … WOOOP
[Editor’s note: she did get to ask her question, but my notes are a little bit messed up so I won’t guarantee hers was the next one.]
Question: How do you feel about changing a comic after it’s published?
Guigar: Unless you’re fixing a typo, I’m against it; it’s published, move on.
Kurtz: I never change content after it’s posted; it’s already gone through so many permutations in getting to the post, it’s not worth working it further.
Khoo: The only time we’ve done that is with the Strawberry Shortcake strip. We received a legal request, it wasn’t worth arguing over, it came down.
[Editor’s note: and fortunately for American Greetings, nobody can ever see the Penny Arcade Strawberry Shortcake strip ever again.]
Question: What are your feelings on comics dependent on audience participation; for example, Scenes From A Multiverse has a voting component.
Khoo: I think it’s cool
Kurtz: Yeah, that’s cool, but couldn’t ever do that because I’m a control freak.
Guigar: I think all comics are dependent on audience participation and this is just a more obvious mechanism.
Question: What are value-add features for the Penny Arcade mobile app?
Khoo: You have to understand the key demographics of your audience — what are they interested in? That drives what can add value.
Kurtz: I rushed my app out, and I don’t know what to do with it now.
Guigar: I’m still working on mine.
Question: What’s the most significant legal problem you see for creators?
Khoo: Mostly IP violations, with other people stealing your stuff and making money off that.
Kurtz: A lot of people don’t understand that when you put something online, it’s not okay to be just replicate it. The most important thing is that you can’t stop that from happening, you have to deal with it when it happens.
Guigar: A lot of times that kind of copying comes not out of spite, but of love, and you have to take those people aside and say please don’t do that.
Question: How do you balance quality and quantity?
Kurtz: I give a lot of good stuff. Do both everyday.
Guigar: I used to opine that you have to update five times a week no matter what; but then Robert told me At Penny Arcade, we decided we could give them hamburger every day, or steak three times a week.
Khoo: Did I say that?
Khoo: That was very insulting, I’m sorry.
Guigar: That’s when I went to my goal of frequent, consistent, and significant, and everybody can meet those criteria differently.
Khoo: That’s important because you can burn out by pushing yourself too much.
Question: What do you think about comics whose end goal is the graphic novel, and they post their work in progress for input, sort of looking for 5000 critics before publishing?
Guigar: I have a hard time listening to one critic; 5000 sounds like a nightmare.
Khoo: What happens if nobody comments?
Kurtz: It’s an interesting way to get daily content.
Khoo: I think it’s just a marketing ploy.
Guigar: I wouldn’t want that many people with their fingers in my work.
Question: You made a distinction earlier between going it alone versus working with a publisher. Do people that go it alone hit a certain readership level and that’s when publishers come, and does that give you more leverage to keep ownership?
Kurtz: You can do both — I’ve been with Image for years, and I have ownership of my work.
Khoo: And isn’t that convenient for publishers? They no longer have to risk time and resources wondering if they’ll be able to find an audience for a property, if it comes with one that’s already been established.
Question: When you were first getting started, what was the biggest hurdle you encountered?
Guigar: Sticking with it, staying creative, wanting to keep working with so few people reading.
Kurtz: Maintaining the schedule despite there being no money or guarantee anybody would like it.
Khoo: Keeping myself active on the business end, pushing myself to keep cold calling videogame companies. I remember one day at the beginning, I’d quit my job to work with Mike and Jerry, and I’m just lying in bed looking up wondering if I’d made the biggest mistake of my life. Then I got up and started calling around again.
Question: Going back to people taking your content, were you aware of how you have to protect your work always, and is that likely to change?
Kurtz: I know the real important part is ability to trade under your chosen name, mark, and brand; that’s trademark. Copyright is different.
Khoo: It’s very complicated, and would take a lot more than twenty seconds to answer properly; we aggressively protect ourselves from people trying to make money off our marks, otherwise we see it as a form of community enabling.
[Editor’s note: There was a brief back and forth with several audience members who had been at one of the Comic Book Law School sessions on this topic; practical upshot: trademarks must be aggressively defended to avoid creating an easement, but copyrights don’t to the same degree.]
Question: Do you have opinions about having a soundtrack or music playing during the comic?
Khoo: It’s a great idea if you have the rights; otherwise just post a playlist.
Kurtz: There are artists have listings of music that goes with their comics — Chynna Clugston, Bryan Lee O’Malley.
Guigar: I’ve got a comic strip, so there’s not enough to have soundtrack for the few seconds it takes to read.
Question: Readers having input on your work is a given — they have things they want to see in your strip. How often do you find fan input ends up sparking ideas in you?
Kurtz: Beeswax, Nunya, Incorporated. It’s happened. I’ve also had people come up to me and describe their favorite strips, and it’s not something I wrote. They just remember it as if it had happened.
Guigar: It’s something you love to see, because it means that readers are invested, but you don’t want to override what you had planned anyway.
Question: What are your biggest influences?
Kurtz:: Robert, I want to hear your influences, EF Hutton, Merrill Lynch, the Monopoly guy? Okay, first influence: my parents, and George Lucas.
Guigar: Primarily Berke Breathed; afterwards John Byrne, and John Buscema.
Kurtz:: Peanuts, Peanuts, Peanuts.
Khoo: I read an extraordinarily large amount of Peanuts, Calvin & Hobbes, and Bloom County.
Question: Are there any kinds of artifacts that work in print comics, but not on the web?
Guigar: Longform on the web would do well to stop thinking in terms of pages, but rather think in terms of updates; how long to get to significant story point you need to make, that’s your update. If it’s one panel, it’s one panel. If it’s two pages, then you have to do two pages.
Question: One of the things I love about webcomics is the direct connection between creator and audience. How has that relationship evolved for you over time?
Kurtz: We love each other, then we hate each other, we had a little breakup. I saw another audience for a while, then I saw the original audience in a bar and we had angry makeup sex. I think I take things super personally, so I have had bad moments where I got angry and caused problems. I’ve gotten mad and taken down whole forums, and yeah, it’s just a bunch of posts, but people start to feel like its their place and if you just take it away from them that’s very aggressive. That’s worse that not revealing what Jacob is on LOST, which THEY NEVER DO.
Guigar: For me, in beginning it was hard to get my readers to be responsive, and it was a matter of finding out how they wanted to respond to me.
Khoo: Our policy is that readers are why we are there.
Question: Penny Arcade has a lot of influence on the videogame industry; is there ever any flak that comes back at you?
Khoo: Yeah, absolutely, but I think we sort of beat into them it’s better to be friends than to raise a stink over one game we didn’t like. But yeah, we burned a lot of bridges. You can consider Penny Arcade a political cartoon in the videogame industry.
Kurtz: I think the overall feel is that even when people disagree, they respect me for being able to speak my opinion. If you’re genuine, it’s important.
Question: How do you keep up creative energy when you hit one of those humps?
Guigar: Routine — I train myself to keep to a routine, and sometimes if I break the routine just a little it spurs the creative juices. It could be just getting up and taking a walk.
Question: Webcomics don’t have safeguards that print have, in terms of editors, keeping it safe, things like that; how often do you experience people saying “I’m offended”, and then you get emails from Scott Kurtz saying, But I don’t drink breast milk from the tap?
Kurtz: Okay, don’t time this. All I said was if my wife were pregnant and producing milk, I would have a taste out of curiosity, it’s not like I’m going from woman to woman up and down the street sampling the differences and my father is in the audience so thank you.
Actual answer: all humor is at somebody’s expense, so it’s always somebody’s turn in the box.
Question: Videogames are a focal part of your comics; do you ever get a demand to play certain games to get jokes from them?
Khoo: People try to get their stuff in the strip but that cannot happen; Mike and Jerry cannot ever be affected by the business end.
Question: Do you keep a buffer for times of creative block?
Kurtz: I have no strip for Monday and fly out 8:30am.
Guigar: I keep a 2 to 3 week buffer and SDCC takes a big chunk out of that.
Khoo: To keep the strip topical, no. The only time they work ahead is for conventions.
Question: You’ve developed things like PAX and Child’s Play; what directions do you want Penny Arcade to develop in?
Khoo: When it comes to balancing art and business, it’s simple: we have an audience, we need to create products for them, it’s all built around them. There are other things built for that demographic that will be released.
Kurtz: Art and business? I can’t keep it all in my head; I’m trying, but I’m working on a strip and I have to stop for a couple of hours to do some business thing and it just pulls me right out of the creative end. I just hired somebody to help with that stuff so I don’t have to.
Guigar: That’s really a time management issue, to keep it from going too far one way or the other.
Whew — that was a lot. Guigar, Khoo and Kurtz continued the discussion in a midnight open Q&A, with much of the conversation on the topic of Webcomics Dot Com, essentially confirming earlier speculation that it’s not so much a website as a professional organization built around the exchange of information and the benefits for members. Big ones are coming in the immediate future, and really big ones (say, health insurance) remain a goal in the longer term.
Okay, that’s it for now. See you on Wednesday.