Traditionally, getting your comic to the people who want to read it entails a long, hard slog from publisher to publisher, your portfolio under your arm. Fortunately, the Internet allows you to show it to anyone out there who might be interested, with little or no cost to either the artist or the reader. There are hundreds of excellent webcomics to be found, and thousands of pretty good ones1. Having lost their stigma as a diversion for children and the feeble-minded, comics are gaining acceptance and popularity, and being read by a worldwide audience. Why not swell the ranks of those who create them by one more - yourself? If you're interested in the practical details of regularly putting your comic out there for the world to see, read on.
Find Your Style
There is an infinite variety of webcomics out there, from daily strips you might find in a newspaper, like Little Dee, to steampunk epics like Girl Genius. Many comics can be slotted into the usual categories - Superhero, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Gamer, Furry, Historical Drama, Slice-Of-Life - but there's room for just about anything2! Likewise, while many remain loyal to the traditional drawing styles - whether it be American cartoon, Franco-Belgian ligne claire, or Japanese manga - your comic won't need to convince any publishers, so it's your chance to experiment!
Ideally, you won't wake up one morning, your mind set on making a webcomic, and then flounder around for something to make it about. It's better to start with an idea for a comic and take it from there. An original idea. While being inspired by someone else's work is just fine, blatantly plagiarising others is not. At worst, you'll be taken for an unoriginal copycat. At best, you'll gain a large readership and draw the attention of someone more famous, and their copyright lawyers...
For the above reasons, sprite comics, where the characters are screenshots of figures from computer games, are a bad idea. They're usually never as funny as the creator believes them to be, get cobbled together in a hurry, and lack dynamism due to the unchanging expressions and postures of the characters.
That doesn't mean that you have to produce excellent art to run a comic - the popularity of Dinosaur Comics and xkcd is more than enough proof of this! Of course, good art, or at least art that is consistent and possibly shows some improvement, will help your comic a great deal, but people are more willing to put up with bad art than with a bad plot.
Traditionally, comics are made by sketching them out on bristol board in blue pencil, drawing over the sketches with a regular pencil, and then inking over the pencil with a dip pen and india ink. A lot of comic artists still work that way, but it doesn't mean you have to. You can use plain old gel pens, brushes, coloured pencils, markers, whatever strikes your fancy. You can do all your art digitally using Illustrator or another vector editing program, or pixel by pixel. You don't have to draw your comics by hand at all - work with photographs or clip art, manipulate sculptures for a kind of claymation effect, or whatever else you can think of!
Expensive art materials won't turn bad art good, but bad materials can ruin otherwise passable art. Experiment with various combinations to find what best suits your style. Unless it's part of your overall artistic concept, don't commit the cardinal sin of drawing on ruled paper, or on the back of other things. Whatever is on the other side will show through, and is a pain to edit out later.
While you're thinking about art, give due consideration to layout. A good layout should guide the reader's eye and be pleasing both as a single page and as part of a greater whole. Whether you end each page on a joke or a cliffhanger is up to you, but do remember to take pacing into account - your readers won't generally see the next page until your next update, be it the next day or the next month. Unless you're actually writing in a language that reads right to left, like Japanese or Hebrew, construct your pages left to right! That even goes for manga-inspired comics. Arrows pointing to the next panel are a poor substitute for a good layout. And remember to leave gutters (the white spaces between panels) rather than just separating them with lines - the little space to rest your eye makes comics much easier to read. If your comic is meant to be published digitally only, why not go one step further, and turn your comic into a true webcomic, shaking off the bounds of the printed page? Scott McCloud is a pioneer in the field of the possibilities of the webcomic, but remarkably few artists are willing to follow.
Lastly, colouring can vastly improve a comic, but it might detract from what you're trying to say. Think about whether you'd like a restricted colour palette like Hereville, or go all-out colourful, like Scary Go Round. Colouring can be done with a traditional medium, like ink, watercolour, markers, or coloured pencils, but it's often simpler for the novice to colour digitally. Before you begin, make sure your monitor is calibrated correctly. Cross-hatching, a traditional way of shading and filling space without using up too much printing ink, is another possibility, but be aware that it usually doesn't come out well onscreen - the lines tend to blur.
Not all comics will have a plot, especially the one-panel or gag-a-day cartoon type. However, even there, you'll eventually get recurring characters and an ongoing story. With a plot-based comic - even if it is meant to be a funny one - you need to plan ahead, much as you would a novel you were writing. Be aware that a novel is published as a whole when it's finished, but in most cases your webcomic will be an ongoing effort, so you'll need to have the basic plot laid out in advance, since you can't go back and change things!
Originality is important here, too. While fanfiction has its place, truly derivative works are to be avoided. Be aware of the genre you're working in and don't use its usual formulae. Hero is orphaned as a boy, later learns of secret destiny when village is destroyed, becomes the best darn fighter ever despite the others being trained for the task since childhood, beats baddie, rescues maiden? Yawn! College kids sit around playing video games and trading quips, eventually acquiring a talking pet or a girlfriend with the proportions of a blow-up doll? Double yawn! Stick to this kind of plot, and you're skating on thin ice, unless you exaggerate them so much that people will think you're writing brilliant parody. Even worse are author self-insertion and breaking of the fourth wall3 - unless you're writing an autobiographical comic, avoid them like the plague!
If you're better at drawing than at writing, or vice-versa, consider teaming up with someone else. You don't even have to be bad at writing yourself to enjoy working from someone else's script! Many successful comics - be they old-fashioned comic books like the Asterix series or most superhero comics, or webcomics like Skin Horse or Dovecote Crest - came from such a collaboration. Be aware, however, that more people think they can write than think they can draw, so there are more authors looking for artists than artists looking for authors.
Original characters are as important as original plots. Avoid the usual clichés and stereotypes, and avoid creating one Mary-Sue4 character starring against a backdrop of one-dimensional underlings. There are incredibly few people on this planet (or any you may create) with a deep, dark, mysterious past. Would you really march across a thousand miles of rocky wasteland, rugged resolve hardening your features, lugging a heavy sword and no canteen, to get revenge for some slight sustained ten years ago? Or would you sit down after the first ten miles and the first three blisters and decide that revenge is a dish best not served until they come up with an instant, just add water version? While a hero wrestling with his one weakness is a plot device going as far back as ancient Greek tragedies, merely introducing flaws when convenient and forgetting about them the rest of the time is sheer laziness. Stories about people are more interesting than stories about flawless heroes.
Another question to ask yourself is: does your comic pass the Bechdel Test? Is it set where there can't realistically be any women around? If the answer to both of these questions is 'no', you're doing something wrong! Avoid the token girl, and avoid the 'stick figure with huge boobs' cliché. Give us some real women! Just for a hint, real women don't wear chain-mail bikinis, and they come in more than one personality...
In short - create people that are people, diverse and interesting, with whom we can identify and whose adventures we will follow with interest. How many legs these people have and whether they worry about mortgages is up to you.
The characters you've invented have to live somewhere. By default, this is likely to be here and now - wherever your here and now is! The internet is worldwide, so don't assume that your readers know your corner of the world just because it's where you spend every day! If you are designing an alien world - or making history come alive - don't explain it through too much heavy-handed exposition. Let the reader discover your world and its laws and rules quite naturally. One example of excellent world-building is the science fiction comic Dicebox. Another method is to have your characters behaving quite normally in their world, and explain it with footnotes - Shi Long Pang not only has comments on the life of a Shaolin monk in the comic itself, but offers further reading on site.
Laziness will show here, too. If you're setting your comic in a real, but foreign culture or bygone era5 , do your research! If you're making up a fantasy world, don't think you can get away with simply calling things by funny names and having swords in unlikely shapes. And certainly don't do as one comic author did and state in your FAQ that 'this world is like Earth, but magic works and there are vampires and werewolves and other supernatural creatures. Society is totally different and history is totally different, even the shape of the world is totally different - but the pop culture is exactly the same!'6 If you've carefully crafted a world you'd like to show us, a good trick is to insert a stranger into it, one who more closely resembles a 'normal' person from your bit of spacetime - not only will it give your readers someone to identify with, they can explore your new world together with her, interacting with the natives. Very skilled authors will play two alien cultures off one another, allowing the reader to learn about both.
Before you put your comic online, you should have a few episodes lying in wait on your hard drive, ready to be uploaded. That's not sketches in your sketchbook, it isn't things you're nearly done with, it isn't scanned pages 2000 pixels wide - it's finished comics that won't need changes made to them before they go up. There are a variety of reasons for this:
Practice, practice, practice! Especially if you've never done this kind of thing before, you'll see a vast improvement in your art over just a few pages. You'll learn how to draw your characters and how they move and interact - ideally by drawing extra scenes and postures in your sketchbook, not just the actual comics you're working on - and your characters will evolve. You'll figure out which looks and lines work for them, and be able to go back and change the first few pages accordingly, if need be. Your comic will gradually evolve over the years as you create it - all part of the process. But drawing a few episodes ahead will help you avoid sudden changes in style later.
Scheduling: Working ahead will also give you an idea of just how much time each episode will take, and how often you can do one. If it takes you two months to draw the first three, what makes you think you'll be able to do daily updates? A regular schedule is essential for keeping your readers loyal - the more often, the better, of course, but it's better to update regularly every other week than to have a sudden three-week gap in a weekly comic. Resist the urge to just post everything you've got when you do go live. Having a buffer will help you when you can't draw a comic for some reason - illness, exams, work, holidays, new love, plain old writer's block... Just remember to rebuild the buffer if you have to cut into it at any point!
Something to show: Having comics ready to go will also help you when it comes time to decide where to host your comic; some hosts will require a few comics for evaluation before giving you a domain. You will also want to know the size of a typical finished comic and the colours (if any) and fonts you'll use, so you can incorporate them into the site design.
Running a webcomic requires technical skills beyond drawing. Unless you find someone willing to do the work for you, you'll need to learn how. At the very least, you'll need a decent computer with a decent graphics program - Photoshop if you have it, Gimp if you don't - and basic knowledge of how to use it for resizing and adjusting contrast. If you don't plan on making your comic entirely digitally, you'll also need a scanner - photographing your drawings just won't work. If you don't have your own scanner, see whether you can use one at work, at the library, or at a friend's. Remember that the files you're working with will be large, and make sure you have the requisite hard drive space to store them. Do an occasional backup, so you won't lose your valuable originals!
File sizes: If there's even a remote possibility that you'll want to print at some point, you'll need to scan your artwork at 300dpi or more, especially if you plan to do digital colouring. These large files are easier to work with, too, but not suitable for posting online! Typically, you should assume that your comic will be displayed on a 1024x768 screen, but keep in mind that a small percentage of users will be using 800x600, and that some of the available space will be taken up by things other than your comic. Unless you're experimenting with an infinite canvas, try to avoid scrolling, especially scrolling in more than one direction! Generally, you'll be limiting your comic size to the size of your drawing paper, though that may vary. Keep in mind that the detail you can see is more than the detail you can draw - so it's better to draw bigger and shrink to fit than to show a comic bigger than you actually drew it! In practice, your finished comic should be 700px wide at most, less for a standing rectangle. A full-colour page shouldn't be more than 200KB-300KB big, even with good picture quality. Use your graphic editor's 'save for web' feature, and save as a GIF for files with large expanses of flat colour, JPEG for comics with gradients and shading.
Lettering: While comics were traditionally hand-lettered, do yourself and your readers a favour and do your lettering on the computer - even if you use hand-drawn speech bubbles. It will be much easier to go back and correct things if need be, and unless you have absolutely perfect handwriting, it will look neater. Good spelling is, obviously, a must, and don't crowd your words into the balloon or leave acres of white space, unless you're trying for a specific effect, like a flood of words or a strangled voice. Other comic conventions include jaggedy balloons for robot voices or voices coming from a telephone, dashed lines around the word balloon for a whisper, little circles as a tail for 'thought' balloons, and putting non-word sounds like 'sigh' in fireflies7. Remember that a picture is worth a thousand words, and you should be able to tell at least half your story through the art alone. It's not a novel, nobody wants to read pages and pages of text in a comic!
Fonts: Choose a font that matches the style of your comic - generally one that looks like it's hand-drawn. Times New Roman and Arial are not acceptable comics fonts. Neither is Comic Sans, for that matter! There are hundreds of free and professional fonts to choose from - just make sure it's easy to read. Whether you use all caps or mixed case is up to you. As a general rule of thumb, you'll need to make the text bigger for a digital comic than you would for a print version, or it will be illegible. And once you choose a font, use it consistently! Maybe a second for sound effects, but don't make it a battle of the fonts.
Once your comic is ready to go, you need to figure out where to upload it, and under which name. What you call your comic is important - it needs to be something memorable, and something unique. Come up with a name. Do a web search for it. Find it's already taken. Repeat. You don't want to be too similar to another comic, or a popular band, or a film... This will help anyone searching for your comic actually find it, and help you avoid infringing on any trademarks. You'll also need to decide whether to publish under your own name or an alias. If you use your real name, anyone doing a web search for you will find the comic, including future employers. You must decide for yourself whether this is a good thing, and how much you value your privacy - people will be able to find you, and find out more about you. If you're a minor, it's always safer to use an alias! While you're at it, set up a new e-mail address specifically to use for anything to do with your comic.
There are numerous ways to get your comic online and read - unlike traditional print comics, you don't need to go through the bother of finding a publisher. Each has its pros and cons.
Dedicated webcomics sites: While some webcomics hosts, like Modern Tales and Keenspot offer hosting by invitation only, many others are free for everyone. Generally, they will display ads along with your comics, and will offer the comics to readers for free. These sites are specially designed for webcomics, and make it easy to upload and show off your comic, even if you don't know much about programming websites. They also come with a built-in audience, and an index that allows said audience to find you.
There are numerous free webcomic hosts, some more dubious than others. Always read through the terms and conditions carefully, you don't want to be signing all rights to your hard work over to a stranger! These sites won't accept pornographic or obscene content, though violence doesn't seem to be much of a problem. A few of the bigger and better-established webcomics sites are:
- Webcomicsnation: This site makes it easy for anyone to upload comics, but selective disabling of the various automatically generated bits of code means that more advanced users can design their site as they like. You can get free hosting here, or pay about $10 (US) for a premium account, which will allow you to control your own ads (either eliminating them entirely or keeping the income yourself). There is a comment feature, and a forum for chat and technical assistance - you can even get a forum for your own comic, once you gain popularity. Other features include an automatic fan art section and other static pages. While any comic reviewed by another member of the site can be featured on the front page, and all comics appear in the index, only those with a premium account are promoted with banner ads.
- Comic Genesis: Formerly Keenspace, Comic Genesis is an enormous free webcomic host. It allows the most control for people familiar with HTML to design their own websites, but lacks a comments feature. Keenspace had a problem with up to two thirds of the registered accounts never boasting a single comic and countless more only having one or two updates before the author lost interest, so Comic Genesis now requires that you send in sample comics to register an account. The support forum is staffed by several moderators, and all fora tend to be more active than Webcomicsnation's.
- Drunk Duck: Unfortunately, this site doesn't have the track record, having crashed and lost all its users' content several times. It can also be slow to respond, and the site design is rather garish and ad-heavy. However, for those who like attention, and lots of it, there's no better site - the comment sections and fora are much frequented, and the rating system generally generates praise for every comic that's posted. The audience tends to be young, and appreciates gamer comics and manga.
- SmackJeeves: This site hosts over 10,000 comics, though not all of them are good. It allows comments and has a ratings system. In general, it tends to be very manga-heavy, with Japanese-style comics making up a good 75% of the most popular comics.
The h2g2 Post: Over the years, numerous cartoons and comics have been published in h2g2's very own community newspaper. Some, like Paper Cuts or Platypus Dancing are single-panel cartoons like you'd find in a newspaper. Others, like The Evil Army of H2G2, Inside h2g2, and h2g2: Tales of a Newbie wouldn't make much sense to outsiders, as they reference h2g2. Keeping In Shapes, Inanimate, Anarchy Gordon, and Amrar Ambassadors are more traditional webcomic formats. If you're interested in running your comic in The Post, contact the Post Team. Be aware, however, that there are restrictions in file size, the House Rules will need to be obeyed and, under the terms and conditions of the site, Not Panicking Ltd are entitled to use your work as they see fit. Also, you won't be free to choose your own update schedule.
Blogs: While blogging sites aren't really meant for webcomics, they do have their advantages. They're free, there's a comment function, and you generally have the same chance at getting an audience as any other blog. They're also good if you plan to include a lot of comments with your comics, or your comic is meant to be an illustrated journal anyway. ComicPress, a plugin for the popular open-source blogging software WordPress, provides a clean and useable interface for publishing comics via a blog, even for those who don't know CSS8. With most blogging sites, you'll probably have to host your images using another site, such as Photobucket, Flickr, or Fotki. Using photo-hosting sites to publish your comic directly generally isn't a good idea, because navigation is difficult - that also goes for portfolio sites like Deviant Art.
Your own website: Publishing your webcomics on your own site is obviously attractive - you have total control over the site's appearance and functionality. You can choose whether to have ads or paid content (the proceeds from all of which will go directly to you). If you want to try out an innovative format, something interactive, animated, multimedia - your own website is the way to go. Comics hosted on their own sites also tend to be taken more seriously and seen as more professional. However, it does mean that you'll also be responsible for everything yourself, from hosting to design to fixing technical issues. You'll need either experience in programming, or money to pay someone else to do it. And unlike the other ways of getting your comic out there, people won't know about the site - you'll need to find your own readers.
Last but not least, you could try finding a niche, bringing your comic to people who wouldn't usually read comics, but do have an interest in the subject you're writing about. Whatever your obscure hobby, there will generally be a website for it, and if you contact the webmaster, they might be willing to run your comic about it.
If you want readers, get the word about your comic out there! Don't simply rely on the advertising you get from your hosting service - most likely, those will just draw in the same old people who read comics on that site anyway. You can try the traditional banner ad - but those cost money and won't be much use until you've built up a good archive for keeping people around. Make some banners anyway, before you even put your comic online - you may need them to take advantage of the free advertising your hosting service offers, and you can also send them off to webcomics lists. If you're a woman, take advantage of Tomgeeks, a site that promotes the work of female comic creators.
Keep filesizes for banners as small as possible, make them exactly the dimensions the site asks for, and have both a static and a moving version available, if you can. Moving ads attract more attention, but some sites don't like them because they're distracting. Feature something interesting in your banner - something that stands out. Don't just do a closeup of your main character's eyes, as over 50% of comics banners seem to do that, especially the mangas. Have a small selection of banners handy on your site for people to take so they can link back to your comic if they like it!
Link exchanges are another possibility for getting some publicity - you promise to link to someone else's site in return for a link to theirs. Just be careful who you're linking to - there are comics you'd rather not be associated with! Also, there's nothing in it for the bigger artists, so don't expect them to advertise for you! A better idea, if you like someone's comic, is to draw fan art for them. Everybody likes fan art, and most comic artists will be happy to provide a link back to your comic when they display it. That way, your 'recommended comics' list, if you make one, will have comics you actually like, and you won't annoy other artists by demanding free publicity for nothing.
Additionally, sneak in a shameless plug whenever you get the chance. How about a hyperlink in your signature for personal e-mail or fora whose participants might be interested? Put a link in your blog, your space on social networking sites, and wherever else the opportunity presents itself - just don't become a spammer, or you'll annoy people rather than attracting them!
Besides attracting new readers, you'll want them to stay around, read your archives, and come back to read your comic regularly. You can accomplish this by having a memorable name for your comic, so they can search for it even if they forget to bookmark the site, by having a friendly and easy-to-navigate page layout, and by sticking to your update schedule. Consider starting an automated mailing list or an RSS feed9 to remind your readers to check your site, or even to bring the comic directly to them whenever there's an update. Unfortunately, though the number of people regularly reading your comic will probably grow, direct feeds mean fewer pageviews, and thus, less advertising income.
Fame And Fortune?
Now there's nothing left to do but to sit back and watch the hordes of adoring fans grovel at your feet, right? Unfortunately, most webcomics won't gain more than a handful of dedicated readers. There are thousands of them out there, tailored to suit every possible reader, and unless you're exceptionally talented and know how to market yourself, it's unlikely that yours will rise much above the rest. It's possible, but don't count on it! Make your comic because you enjoy writing it, not because you want praise, money, and popularity. And remember that in most cases, your comic isn't your blog - people want to see the pretty pictures, not read long, tearful excuses on why you couldn't get any done in time. Work with a buffer, forewarn people if there will be a hiatus, and don't constantly solicit compliments or donations - you'll just put people off.
Have fun with what you do, don't be afraid to experiment, and you just might get lucky. When you top about 2000 pageviews per day, you can start to think about printing and selling books and t-shirts... After all, a few webcomic artists have turned it into a living!
Further Reading And Useful Resources
- How Not To Run A Comic: A long-running comic collaboration by various artists detailing the most common mistakes and how to avoid them. Highly entertaining and very educational!
- Balloon Tales: A site run by professional letterers, with numerous tutorials, tips, and tricks on how to letter your comics.
- Blambot: An online resource for fonts specifically designed for comics. Many are free to use, as long as you're not using them commercially.
- Psychedelic Treehouse: This site offers tutorials and resources for almost every aspect of webcomics, from starting out to making webcomics your profession. Also includes a list of nearly every webcomic there is.
- Girl Wonder: A website aimed at encouraging female comic creators, and encouraging strong and believable female characters in any comic.
- Comixpedia: A wiki with information about webcomics and their creators. Read about them, or write an entry about your own comic!