Among the exciting adventures at I-Con was a panel titled "Under the Radar: Comics You’re Missing." The panelists (Carl Fink, Bob Greenberger, Glenn Hauman, Andy Weir, Bernie Hou, and me) and attendees came up with the following list, which we promised we’d post for reference. You should check them out if you aren’t reading them already:
A few weeks ago, I discussed the usefulness of active, available archives for webcomics. Archives provide huge amounts of free content to draw in new readers; and they prevent continuity lockout by providing a way to easily go back and refresh your memory of previous events. With print comics, especially before the advent of everything getting collected in trade paperbacks, there really wasn’t a way to avoid that — which is a lot of why Silver Age stories needed to be as self-contained as they were.
Nowadays, people who are flush with cash can always go buy a TPB collection of stories they missed or forgot. Who the heck is this character in the latest issue of Ultimate Spider-Man? The editor’s note says he first appeared back in Ultimate X-Men #17. All it takes is one trip to Amazon.com, several days for delivery, and then reading time, and I’ll be caught up enough to understand what’s going on in the comic currently in my lap.
Of course, those of us with rent bills to pay have to make do with the lower-cost option: The internet. There are lots of choices to catch up on, say, DC Comics continuity: The DC Wikia, the Justice League Library, Heroes Wiki, and heck, even granddaddy Wikipedia itself.
But you know where you can’t go to figure out what happened in that recent issue of Batgirl you missed, or that Green Lantern plot point from 1988 that recently cropped up? DCComics.com.
Now, don’t get me wrong: If you want to see artwork previews, or check the list of everything that’s in print, or get a short graphic bio of most of the characters, DCComics.com is the place to go. But say you haven’t been following Trinity and want to catch up. If you go to the forum and ask for the best place to do so, they’ll point you to Wikipedia.
Of course, Marvel’s website already has their own version of the wiki and it’s pretty nifty, too.
So here’s my suggestion to DC: You need a wiki. You’ve got an army of fans just aching to show how much they know about the characters and storylines, as evidenced by the other wikis that crop up everywhere. You need accessible utilities that’ll help build a bigger audience, especially among younger people, who don’t have the continuity knowledge to get into most recent titles. You need to drive traffic to your website as effective advertising for your products, and keep people at your website, rather than shunting them off to an outside source. And you’ll want all of this to be under your nominal control.
Here’s how you do it: Acquire the Wikia content (I don’t know the legal channels, but I’m sure you could find them). Hire a few of your most OCD fans (and a couple of the ComicMix contributors come to mind) as moderators. Set a few ground rules (no spoilers for this month’s books, no speculation, no flaming), and let the fans go from there. Link in the original stories, history of the DC and other online content you currently have, and have the last line of the wiki entry for each ongoing book or characters be a link to a preview of the next issue. Heck, if you set up creator/author/artist pages right, you can have an “subtle” way of linking fans of one book to things that they would also want to buy.
Also, everything that currently in print? There should be a “Buy It Now!” icon. Not a tiny, blend-in-to-the-background “Subscribe to your favorite comics” down at the bottom of the page. That’ll also be really easy to transition to digital pamphlets when the time comes and the color ebook readers are ready.
Just because classic print comics and “webcomics” as I define them are different animals, doesn’t mean they can’t take lessons from each other about what works in terms of monetizing web content.
(On the odd chance someone official reads this and goes ahead with this idea, I’d also love to see a Showcase volume of my dad’s work from the 70s and 80s, particularly ‘Mazing Man. Also, a pony.)
SMBC is a daily single-panel comic, in the vein of an R-rated The Far Side. The humor is primarily based on taking the punchline in a completely different direction than expected. It’s not suitable for kids. (Or adults who want any claim to maturity, for that matter.) It’s also not suitable for people who are sensitive about sex, death, religion, fetishes, cheesecake, herpes, dolphins, politics, or your mom.
There’s a SMBC store, though it’s currently closed for renovations and expected to reopen in November.
Drama: Nope. Black comedy, maybe. Not the slightest hint of drama.
Humor: Imagine Gary Larson’s sense of humor melded with Kevin Smith’s potty mouth and you’ll pretty much have Zach Weiner. As noted, what lesser cartoonists would use as the entire joke, he uses as a set-up to something unexpected and much more disturbing.
Continuity: None. There’s a "random" strip button on the site, and it’s one of the few comics where that’s actually a worthwhile idea.
Art: Reasonable; it gets the job done. All the people look pretty much alike, and Weiner probably won’t be winning any awards, but he’s conscious enough of his own skill that you never find yourself missing a joke because you can’t figure out what that blue thing is.
Archive: Six years, about 1325 single-panel or two-panel strips. (Don’t let that scare you, though: There is absolutely no need for an archive trawl. You can read as many or as few strips as you want.)
Updates: Daily, consistently.
Risk/Reward: Reading too many of these in a row may make you realize you’re a horrible person. (There’s no ongoing storyline, so there’s no risk should the comic suddenly cut off.)
I’m a chronic re-reader/re-player/re-watcher. Combine having a lousy memory with a love of the familiar, and you’ll find someone who loves re-reading old comics, re-playing his old collection of Super NES games, and re-watching TV shows of years past. This carries just as much with webcomics: I’ll discover a comic, read all the archives, keep up with it regularly, and periodically go back and read the archives again. It’s like a chunk of my comic collection that I can use to procrastinate at work.
Webcomic archives mean that there’s never a continuity lockout: You’re always able to go back and learn what came before. If DC doesn’t reprint a Martian Manhunter story from 1992 and I wasn’t reading comics at the time, then I’m totally lost when it gets referenced in Infinite Crisis. If Fred Gallagher wants to reference a previous storyline in Megatokyo, he can just put a link to it in that day’s news post and rest easy.
As an aside, a few comics make the most recent strip freely accessible, but make the archives pay-to-view. This model is okay for low-continuity gag-a-day or newspaper-type strips, but effectively locks out much of the new audience if you’re very storyline-focused. But then, if there’s no storyline, you don’t have the same desire to go back and read older strips. Garfield liking lasagna and hating Mondays gets old fast(err) if you read 200 of them in a day.
And oftentimes, even when the comic is finished, the archives will stay. Often, the author has another project in the works, so it contributes to his online presence and, as the occasional new reader discovers it or an old reader like me re-reads it, it might even bring in a little ad revenue or a few new book sales. The old comic, typically completed intentionally, rather than having faded out, is archived like a classic novel, available in its entirety. (Expect a few of these to show up in my Webcomics You Should Be Reading columns.)
One of the most endearing features of Calvin and Hobbes was Calvin’s overactive imagination, which created amazing scenarios of space battles, time travel, and talking tigers. What if it wasn’t all in his imagination, though?
Ryan Armand gives us a brief look at childlike innocence and imagination brought to life in the world of Minus.
Minus is a little girl who apparently can do anything she can imagine — she flies, creates worlds, travels in time, talks to spirits and grants wishes. And though this leads to the occasional retribution against bullies or mean adults, unlike Calvin, she also shares her gifts with her friends. Minus will offer someone a flying unicorn as easily as another little girl might offer a lick of her ice-cream cone.
Armand’s site also includes a serial comic called Socks and a collection of older stand-alone comics. He doesn’t have a storefront, though archived newsposts note that he used to do prints of Minus comics; he might be willing to start up again if requested.
Drama: There’s always some drama when you’re tugging at heartstrings, but Minus’ world is not a world of adult problems and relationships; it’s a child’s world, where everyone eventually gets a happy ending, even if they’re occasionally bittersweet.
Humor: While many of the comics earn a chuckle, the focus is more on evoking a sense of childlike wonder. And it succeeds.
Continuity: Low to Moderate. Some strip string together in sequence, but knowledge of previous ones isn’t terribly necessary to enjoy later strips.
Art: Each minus strip is painted with watercolors on a 15×20" piece of Illustration board. The style implies an enterprising painter more than a traditional comic artist.
Archive: About 130 strips. Two years of weekly Sunday newspaper-sized comics, though many are several "strips" long.
Updates: "It’ll be updating every Thursday until I suddenly stop!" Armand stopped updating the strip in March 2008 and started updating Socks in monthly chunks.
Risk/Reward: Some comics are ongoing, telling complicated stories, the ongoing events in characters’ lives, or just a joke every day. Some comics say what they want to say and end. Minus ends on an up-note, keeping tone to the very end. It’s worth your time.
The three self-published volumes are currently available through online retailer Split Reason. The new books are expected to be seen in bookstores, libraries, comic shops and other mass merchandise outlets worldwide. Volume one, tentatively re-titled This Is a Great Idea, is expected to hit stores in the 2nd quarter of 2009, with volumes 2 and 3 to follow.
Blind Ferret currently co-produces Buckley’s CAD animated series. Randy Waxman, President of Blind Ferret, has commented on the great success of that joint venue and his high hopes for this one.
24 Hour Comics Day is an annual challenge for cartoonists to produce a 24-page comic book written, drawn, and completed in 24 consecutive hours. The event was founded in 2004 by Nat Gertler, prolific author and publisher of the About Comics company. Currently, the event is organized each year by the comic book specialty retailer trade organization ComicsPRO, and hosted by independent comic stores around the country.
The idea of the 24-hour comic comes from Scott McCloud, who originally came up with it as a creative exercise for himself and Steve Bissette. McCloud’s rules for the challenge were thus: The comic must be begun and completed within 24 consecutive hours. Only one person may be directly involved in its creation, and it must span 24 pages, or (if an infinite canvas format webcomic is being made) 100 panels. The creator may gather research materials and drawing tools beforehand, but cannot plan the comic’s plot ahead of time or put anything on paper (such as designs and character sketches) until he is ready for the 24 hours to begin. Any breaks (for food, sleep, or any other purpose) are counted as part of the 24 hours.
Numerous notable comic creators have attempted the challenge over the years. Dave Sim published his 24-hour comics in the back of his popular book Cerebus the Aardvark. Neil Gaiman and Kevin Eastman tried and failed, and became the namesakes for the two varieties of “noble failures”: Gaiman stopped his comic at the 24-hour mark; Eastman continued to the full 24 pages. McCloud maintains a site for the challenge and also keeps an official list of recognized 24-hour comics. ComicsPRO reports that over 1,000 people have completed the challenge. Compilation books are available of the completed challenges for the past few years, and McCloud has a book on the subject as well.
While most participants are amateurs, many pro cartoonists take part as well. In addition to the most common black-ink-on-white-paper drawings, participants have done full color painted comics, computer-drawn comics, photo comics, comics made of pictures of posed action figures, a series of painted stones with captions, and a Daredevil superhero comic made by cutting pictures of Ben Affleck’s head out of magazines and pasting them onto stick figure bodies. The biggest single event was in Austin Books in Austin, Texas in 2005, with 70 cartoonists. 2006 saw event sites in 17 countries, and the reports for 2008 are still coming in.
My favorite 24-hour comic? Scott Kurtz’s take on Batman.
The Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge is a competition between online comic artists to see who can maintain the longest Monday to Friday update schedule, following a strict set of rules. Each artist lays $20 USD on the line. The last man left standing takes the entire pot. The competition started on Monday, February 28, 2005, and is still going with ten contestants remaining.
Any successful webcomic creator will tell you that regular updates are important — in order to build an audience, you need to provide regular content to keep people coming back to the site. And very few comics have come into success with only one comic a week — you could pretty much count them on one hand — so you’d need at least two or three updates each week. If you can stretch it, five is optimal, because it gets the working world checking your site as part of their daily routine.
If your readers have the right sort of personalities, an irregular update schedule could work in your site traffic’s favor. Studies of gamblers has shown that irregular rewards — that is, receiving a reward only sometimes, and seemingly at random, for the same action — play all sorts of fun games with human brain chemistry. This is pointed to as the cause of the Las Vegas zombies who sit at slot machines for days. Is that any different from checking Order of the Stickevery day hoping that one of the three weekly updates will be there?
(Well, how different it is depends on how much of a reward you consider a new OotS comic to be. Money is a pretty universal reward. The comic needs to be good enough to trigger a “reward” response, because a sporadic, unfunny comic quickly gets dropped, rather than obsessively watched.)
Years ago, I was at a comic convention where Jimmy Palmiotti told a story about the most vocal fan he ever encountered: A fellow who apparently was constantly sending letters and posting to message boards about how he read the latest thing Palmiotti had done and it sucked, sucked, sucked. At first he was annoyed, but then Palmiotti realized, hey, this guy buys and pores over everything I ever write or draw. This guy is my biggest fan. So he sent him a Christmas card that year.
Tim Buckley, creator of Ctrl-Alt-Del, must have a really impressive Christmas card list. (Just look at the comments on this review for an example.)
Ctrl-Alt-Del follows the misadventures of Ethan, whose hobbies include gaming, slacking, completely misinterpreting normal human interactions, flashes of engineering brilliance, and forming gaming-related cults. The vibe is sitcom-esque—imagine Friends if everyone played video games, Chandler was a robot built out of an Xbox, Ross had a pet penguin, and Phoebe was the main character. (It really plays better than it sounds. Kinda like Friends, actually.)
Buckley also produces an online animated series which can be downloaded via subscription, or purchased on DVD. There are three compilation books available at the CAD Store along with shirts, magnets and posters. And Buckley has organized an annual massive LAN party called Digital Overload in Providence, RI.
Drama: Low moving towards moderate. Early strips are disconnected and included some cartoon-style violence. Recent strips have seen several more serious plot arcs and dramatic situations, broken up by non-continuity video game parody strips.
Humor: Appeals to the 18-25 male demographic. Heavy in the video game jokes and geeky sitcom-style plans that cause hilarity to ensue.
Continuity: Moderate to high. Plot arcs will run for several weeks, and be broken up by stand-alone bits. The earliest comics stand alone the best, and set the stage for the running gags and character arcs in the later ones.
Art: Buckley has been criticized for his characters looking similar, though that’s a criticism of his style; you’d never have a problem telling them apart. Panels tend to be a bit static
Archive: Six years of four-panel comics (1000+ strips) plus several months of daily black-and-white “sillies”.
Updates: The main comic updates Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Sillies update daily. Buckley is excellent about keeping his update schedule.
Risk/Reward: Buckley’s recent increase in continuity is a very acquired taste for the audience—if you like it, then it’s easy to get into the “I must keep reading so I know what happens next!” trap. If you don’t, then you can obviously pick up and drop the comic at your leisure. Though the lives of the characters can and will obviously go on for some time, Buckley is very good about wrapping up individual plotlines and creating points where the story stops for a while. It’s fairly safe to assume that if he decided to abandon the comic, there’d be a passable ending.
Roleplaying games are a rich forum for comic material, whether you’re riffing on the setting or the game system itself. Typically, this involves have “players” and the characters they play, and either cutting between them or having the players semi-narrate the action.
Rich Burlew presents the Order of the Stick, a group of PCs whose players remain unseen, but retain full knowledge of the game system that defines their world.
The aforementioned Order is an archetypal adventuring party, including Roy, the noble (and put-upon) leader; Durkon, the Scottish-accent sporting dwarven cleric; Haley, the leather-wearing kleptomaniac thief; Vaarsuvius, the haughty and verbose elven wizard; Belkar, the bloodthirsty halfling ranger/barbarian; and Elan, the clueless, excitable bard. Their overarching quest pits them against the lich-sorcerer Xykon, but along the way they fight dragons, giants, goblin ninjas, their evil opposites (the Linear Guild) and the legal system of Azure City.
Currently, there are three books collecting the online material, two with entirely-original flashback stories (the origins of the heroes and the villains, respectively), and a board game available at the Giant in the Playground Shop. (Plus t-shirts, buttons and the like, of course.) The Giant in the Playground forums also deserve a special mention as the most impressive collection of D&D geeks outside of the Wizards of the Coast forums—there is no D&D question they can’t answer and then debate for 30 pages.
Drama: Moderate. While there’s definitely some angst and some agonizing moments, Burlew also likes to skewer various tropes of adventure games and action movies. A pair of red-shirt characters manage to survive mortal wounds by revealing that they have names and possibly backstories.
Humor: A solid half of the jokes rely on basic knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, particularly 3.5 and 4th Edition. There are also plenty of random pop culture references and obvious anachronisms in the fantasy world (like in any good rpg campaign), but this comic probably isn’t for you if you don’t recognize the phrase “Attack of Opportunity”.
Continuity: High. Start from the beginning. The first dozen strips are loosely-connected D&D gags, but the plot picks up early on and gets into full-on continuity lockout by the later strips.
Art: Burlew draws the strip using vector-based illustration software, in an enhanced stick-figure style. The art has improved over the years, and though the changes are nice, they’re nowhere near the radical changes many hand-drawn comics see. Flashback comics are done in a crayon-like scribble style.
Archive: Five years of page-sized strips (including some double-pagers and infinite-canvas strips), about 600 strips.
Updates: Erratically. It averages three strips a week, but they might be spread out M-W-F, or you might get two on Sunday and one on Monday.
Risk/Reward: There’s a full-blown epic story and Burlew has noted that he knows how it ends; hopefully he won’t disappoint the fans by not getting there. The storyline has yet to hit a comfortable “stopping point” of any kind, which means getting into this strip may get you hooked for several years.