Webcomics: Making Webcomics that Stand out
It used to be, back in oh, say 1998, that it wasn’t hard to get noticed as a webcomic. Mostly because there just wasn’t the same kind of competition that there is today, so anything that was half ways decent could get a readership just by being persistent, it didn’t actually have to be good per se. Today, that’s changed. With so many hundreds of thousands of webcomics to choose from and only 24 hours in a day, readers are getting pickier and pickier about what they stick around for. If you want to get noticed these days, you have to stand out. The trick of course is ‘how?’.
Comics that stand out have GOOD WRITING
You know all those times in English class when you looked at the teacher with resigned disdain in your eyes? Remember how, as you doodled superheros and cartoons in the margins of your books, you wondered why things like ‘semi-colons’, ‘spelling’ and ‘sentence structure’ were important? Do you remember when they asked you to analyze the structure of of a story that you scoffed at words like “crisis”, “climax”, and “dénouement”? You wondered to yourself when you were actually going to use this stuff anyway? Well, the answer is, in your comic.
Comics are a story medium. Even if you are going to write a joke comic that’s four panels long, there’s still a beginning, middle, and end. You need to understand things like conflict, pacing, and plot, and tension and how to create them. If you are going to do a long form comic, this becomes critical because the story is the lifeblood and longevity of your comic. Awesome art can attract people to your comic, but without a solid storyline to keep people hooked day in and day out, its just fluffy, pretty art and the readers lose interest fast. Good webcomics, comics that stand out, have good stories and good writing. Dialogue is strong, pacing is even stronger, and the use of dialogue and plot are masterfully used to keep readers faithfully coming back every week.
Assuming here that I’m speaking to people who are thinking of making English comics, another common mistake that lowers a comics bar is to make simple spelling and grammar errors. Webcomics might give you the freedom to not be under an editors thumb, but you now become your own editor and proofreader, which puts all the responsibility of proofing your work on you. If you can’t spell, you look like an idiot, and constant spelling errors and grammar problems in a comic results in readers having difficulty getting the story out. Comics that are persistently plagued by spelling errors appear unprofessional and its harder for readers to get into the story, and is jarring them out of the story every time they come across one. Its not hard to run a spellchecker or have a proof reader look at your pages before you post them.
Comics are a unique medium to write for, particularly webcomics as they aren’t published generally in one big block, but a single page at a time. The flow of the story on the page has to grab the reader in a very short space of time, not just once, but with every single page. The expression ‘page turner’ very much applies to webcomics that are well written.
Another extremely common mistake is that comic creators don’t plan out their story in its entirety. They start writing, but they never actually take a story all the way through from beginning to end. They don’t plan out their character’s development, pacing, plot, figure out a total page count, edit it, have it beta read, edit it some more, etc. Its important when you are writing comics to have a plan with your story, or you may find yourself written into corners, and having to butcher your otherwise well written comic to suddenly account for massive plotholes or story shifts that mess with the pacing to get you out of a writing jam. A really good comic has a cohesive story from beginning to end. Make sure you’ve planned your story all the way through.
The bottom line: Building a comic is like building a house. If you want your comic to rock from the get go, you need to start with a solid foundation and strong supports on which to put the dressings. Writing and story is the foundation to any comic, from jokes that make you bust a gut to an epic story that spans ages. If you want to build a comic that stands out, your story has to be solid. Not just in concept, but in actual execution. You have to be able to write, and write well. Without solid writing, the readers won’t stick around.
Comics that stand out have GOOD ART
Its been a long debate if story or art is more important in a comic. The reality is that webcomics that really stand out have both. Not only are they examples of excellent story telling, but the art is of such a quality that it really supports the story. This is not to say that all art is shiny and of a certain style, or even has to be hand drawn, but comics are a visual medium and as such require good supporting artwork.
The second part of that is that the artwork has to be suitable to the sequential nature of comics. There are a lot of wonderful pinup artists or artists who do everything BUT sequential art, but the harsh reality is that comics are a unique art form and require art that not only illustrates the words, but breathes them to life.
Generally most of the most notable comics are drawn, either digitally or by hand, although some have managed to carve out niches in less traditional mediums such as 3D or sprites. But all of them that are truly notable display a skill at handling the medium they have chosen. If we keep with the house analogy, the story is the foundation and soundness of the structure, art is the curb appeal and dressings. Art that is strong to the story concept helps to attract readers to have a look, and support the story. When you are choosing how you want to illustrate a story, you need to consider what sort of art work would support the writing, and breathe life into it. Artistic decisions should be actively made regarding options such as if the comic is black and white or colour, if it is in a particular style (manga, independant, marvel, european, 3D…), colour schemes, digital, traditional, all these factors need to be considered, weighed and ultimately decided for or against in relation to if it helps the written work. There are of course other factors, such as speed at which the artwork can be completed, level of skill, materials available, but ultimately, what the writing needs, should be what it gets. The artist needs to at least be able to convey the heart of the writing through expression, movement, composition, and mood, no matter if its a hilarious joke or a somber dramatic scene. Cartooning, and indeed any sequential art is a medium that has to tell a story. Each panel has to communicate as much as possible unspoken, and the very best webcomics do this very well.
Comics that stand out UPDATE ON TIME
One thing that makes a webcomic look professional, and keeps people coming back, are webcomics that update on time. Updating on time shows a level of commitment to your comic, to your fans, and to the work. People are ultimately creatures of habit. In order to get them to keep coming back week after week, they have to always get their cookie when you say its coming. And it will become habit and they will keep checking back. That habit can span over years if don’t correctly, and hold your audience even if you have to take an unexpected break or hiatus. However, webcomics that update sporadically, once a year, or say they update a particular day and never do, are disappointing to their audience. The audience is fickle in that they want their free entertainment and they want it when its promised. Years of tv shows, and before that radio shows, and before that plays, being on at a particular time of day, a promised time of debut, people want to see it when its promised. They spend all week waiting, and they want their cookie. To deny them their promised morsel is going to damage your reputation over time, and believe you mean, it takes a LONG time to rebuild it when you do get your act together. The solution, especially if you take a long time to do comics, is never to promise more than you can deliver. Make sure you know your production schedule, and err on the side of caution. If you can only deliver a comic every other week, then only promise it every other week. If you can do more, buffer it, or offer it as a bonus. But don’t promise weekly updates or daily updates or any other schedule unless you can deliver.
Comics that stand out HAVE A GREAT WEBSITE
As webcomic creators, we can’t discount the power of good website vs bad website design for attracting or repelling readers. Most of the best webcomics also have really great site designs that make the comic easily accessible, and the most notable features of the comic site are easy to find and access. They also tend to pick colors and schemes that are appealing and easy on the eyes, and that compliment their comics. Good websites are also clean, and not overcluttered with advertising, buttons, and widgets. A lot of people do use the wordpress/comicpress combo for setting up their websites, which is fine of course, but a lot of people lack the ability or willingness to truly customize it so it doesn’t look like a generic site. Website design needs to be both engaging visually, but also able to guide the users eye to the right places, and showcase the content, namely the comic, in a good way.
The most common mistakes are either to leave the site too plain or make it too busy. A stark white and black site with perhaps a header, no additional graphics, text links, etc. While this can work with blogs, with webcomic sites, it tends to just look lazy and boring. Then there are those that swing the other way. They try to pack too much into too little space. All sorts of adds, visual links, blinking buttons, widgets, polls, vote buttons, etc all packed onto their front pages.
There needs to be a balance. If you aren’t any good at web design, do yourself a huge favor and find a webgeek or webdesigner friend who can help you out. Working with a webdesigner can open the possiblity for things you may never even thought of. Also, asking for critiques on your website from fellow creatives can be helpful in refining your site.
Just always remember, the comic is the most important thing. You should have a very good reason for it not being on the front page.
Comics that stand out DELIVER MORE
The comic is great, and that’s what people come for. Ultimately, that’s what people want, but a lot of the great comics offer a little extra, either in between updates or as a part of the update. This can be in the form of blogs, tutorials, resources, wallpapers, gallery images, character information, world information, or simply really strong interaction with fans. Comics that can deliver additional content generally stand out as being more complete, giving readers something to explore.
The more you can give to keep people busy and engaged in between updates, the more value it adds to your website as a whole. Websites that do this well build audience not only for their comic, but for additional content. There’s also always a chance that people are going to come for the extra content and then check out the comic.