Webcomics Roundup – On Broadcasting

A few weeks ago, Warren Ellis posted his thoughts on the current state of webcomics. In short, he drew a line between “webcomics”, which are freely available, and “digital comics”, which people must buy through a service like Comixology. He regrets, but understands, the fact that attention seems to have shifted away from webcomics in recent years, as people realize that selling them up front is still the best way to make money. The problem is that only webcomics have the ability to “broadcast” themselves. As soon as a webcomic is updated, it’s “surrounded by an expanding sphere of URLs and shortcodes, of RTs and Likes and +1s” that you can’t get from the other side of a pay-wall. The implication is that webcomics offer a free, no-pressure space for artists to develop masterpieces, but that the most skilled people are going to need to migrate over to the digital comics side in order to survive.

My thoughts about this are below the fold.

Nothing Ellis says is necessarily new – most obviously, it echoes the conversations that have dominated as newspapers and magazines experiment with different subscription models. The current system obviously isn’t working for them, but they risk their relevance by cutting themselves off from easy links from blogs and Twitter. Are webcomics really in a different situation from the print industry? (Maybe somewhat, since comics are more of an artistic endeavor than reporting news. On the other hand, parallels can also be made to the music industry. Some bands are starting to make it big with free releases or pay-what-you-want downloads.)

Though I didn’t use Ellis’ terminology, I’ve touched on these questions about “broadcast” and “digital comics” in past months. The Wormworld Saga is an attempt to put a free comic out there, with all the publicity and artistic freedom that the broadcast allows, but to make a living by putting extras in the digital comic versions. And just last month, I said Una the Blade was on the boundaries of the webcomics world because it was going to be sold in chapters to download. More accurately, Ellis would call Una a digital comic whose marketing is at least partly based on the author’s reputation from past webcomics. The author is keeping the “broadcast” going with a Tumblr that puffers discussion, art, and news, but it remains to be seen whether that will make up for cutting the comic itself off from the free internet. In different ways, both Wormworld and Una are taking a path from webcomics to digital comics to make a profit. This may become a common approach in the near future.

That’s part of the reason I’m keeping my eye on Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. This is the first webcomic by established comic author Greg Rucka an artist Rick Burchett. When launching it, they explained that they felt marginalized by an industry that now considered them old-school, and so they were looking for new ways to reach an audience and tell their stories. In effect, this move to webcomics and away from comics to be purchased is the opposite of the pattern that we’re seeing overall. I’m not sure how successful it will be – they’re selling some merchandise, and I’m sure there are eventual book plans, but very few people make a profit off of t-shirts. Still, it’s going to be interesting to watch.

The story itself is ok. Your milage may vary, as I’ve always had mixed opinions about Rucka’s writing. As a steampunk adventure, it’s certainly not forging any new ground in the webcomics world. Two chapters in, it seems very dependent on the reader identifying with the protagonist just for being the protagonist, and for being so darn good at everything they do. The opening chapter showed the eponymous Lady Sabre escaping after a daring pirate raid, and the currently-running second chapter just featured a lawman gunning down massive opposition without breaking a sweat. Perhaps these two unbeatable forces are going to collide with more interesting results soon.

However, the writing is never worse than competent, and that’s easier to accept now that I’m not paying for Rucka’s story. Burchett’s art is well above average for a free webcomic, even if his style does obviously call back to an older era of comics. The real draw for a lot of people may be seeing the blog (with thoughts about the process of creating comics) along with the original script that is posted along with each update. Especially for people still learning about comics creation, it can be very instructive to see how a comic was written. Lady Sabre’s script features detailed breakdowns at some points, turns decisions over to the artist at others, and is flat-out ignored occasionally when Burchett has a better idea about how to show a scene. Though the comic hasn’t completely won me over, these are two very experienced creators, and it’s interesting to watch them work as true collaborators as they experiment with a new industry.

There is another tactic that is becoming as common as “establish yourself with a webcomic, then move to digital”. This is to publish a book, but first to serialize the story as a webcomic for marketing purposes. Friends With Boys is the latest example of this. It’s apparently a profitable approach, since more and more notable companies are doing it (First Second, in this case), and I can see why: Only a small number of the people this is “broadcast” to online may buy the book, but the print industry’s sales are so small that even attracting a tiny percentage of the web audience is a big gain. I find it frustrating at times (Friends With Boys is obviously written as a long-form work, and splitting it up into page-by-page updates doesn’t always make for a smooth read), but if I’m trying to decide whether to buy a book, I’d much rather have too much information available than too little.

Writer and artist Faith Erin Hicks has enough experience in both the print and web side of comics that I’ve considered writing an article just about her. Friends With Boys is her first work to appear in both environments, though, and according to her comments on the site, she’s excited to be bridging that gap.

This is the story of Maggie, a home-schooled girl, learning to adjust in her first year of public school. It’s pure realistic young-adult drama, aside from a strange ghost that pops up from time to time. (This ghost seems to have nothing to do with the plot so far, though. Hicks tends to introduce supernatural elements even when the story would arguably be stronger without them.) Hicks is still a young artist, but is growing noticeably with each new work. Friends With Boys has well-realized characters, interesting layouts, and subtle expressions that can almost tell the story without words. My only complaint is with the dialog, which sometimes feels more clunky and “clever” than realistic. (“I thought, since you’re eating lunch by yourself, and Lucy and I usually do the alone thing too, the three of us could join up and form an awesome rebel social group.”)

Aside from a couple quirks (that ghost, as well as a recent trauma with Maggie’s mother that no one seems to dwell on much at all), Friends With Boys reads like a completed story that was written and polished as a whole before being serialized. Though it’s technically a webcomic, it feels much more in line with the “professional” digital and print side of the divide. This raises a question about what really makes webcomics unique. Is it the ability to “broadcast” to the world, or is it the feeling of a creator working without a net and developing the story as they go along? Though the broadcast is nice, both for the audience that likes free comics and the creator and publisher who get marketing, Warren Ellis’ article specifically focused on his hopes that webcomics could nurture sprawling, innovative works that aren’t immediately profitable to mainstream publishers. Friends With Boys, Gingerbread Girl, and other comics that were written and sold as completed books beforehand don’t have that potential. That’s not to say that they deserve blame, of course. These creators are trying to find a place for themselves in a constantly shifting industry, and the comics community deserves a wide variety of works. It strikes me, though, that if these sorts of webcomics become the norm, that won’t address the concerns Ellis brought up at all.

I don’t have an answer at this point. As I just said, the comics industry is changing constantly, and it’s hard to predict how things will evolve. (My post earlier this year about The Wormworld Saga already looks hopelessly dated. Of course mobile devices and app stores are the next big potential money-earners for comics! But the fact that this fact could go from new to obvious in a few months just shows how quickly everything changes. If anything, think of both that post and this one as time capsules about the state of the industry.) I am confident, though, that there’s a huge market of people who want comics, as well as a drive from many creators to realize their own vision. While the specifics may change, I trust that in some way, we’ll maintain a growing industry while still providing outlets for new artistic works.

  1. November 23rd, 2013

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