Both J.R. and I try to spin around the interwebs when we get the chance and check out the seemingly limitless supply on web comics offered throughout. He usually checks out new ones for our monthly Around the Web feature (which I am not allowed to write ever since I no-showed a month of Crossover Madness) while I peruse for both entertainment as well as pointers on working on my own very long-in-development web comic.
To search out new web strips, I usually Google search a webcomic link list and randomly follow links from the middle of their ranking system (since the top spots are usually reserved for the likes of Penny Arcade and other such “mainstream” strips). Over my several years worth of searches I’ve found a surprising number of themes (ranging from dull to horrific), schemes and styles, but for every roaring success there are literally scores of half-bred and abandoned failures. And with that, I feel like I’ve been able to create a sort of guide for the fledgling web comic-er. It’s what I’ve kept in mind when creating my own.
1) Pick a format
There are basically two types of web comics out there. The first is the storyline comic – it’s what the typical comic book fan thinks a comic should be. A cast of characters starts somewhere and a story unfolds. There are plots, settings, themes, conflicts, resolutions, development, etc. These are the types of comics that we look at Around the Web.
The second type is what I call the “zinger” type. This is the type of comic where an edition will have a group of characters basically setting up a joke and hitting the punchline, usually about a specific theme. Penny Arcade is this sort of comic, where a strip sees its two characters bantering about a certain hot topic in video games. The two characters really aren’t too developed, nor do they need to be. They only exist as funny mouthpieces to tell jokes. There might be small story arcs, such as the characters going to a convention, but the strip still follows the same format, with each edition of the “arc” being a topical zinger in the usual format.
I differentiate the two forms because I see a bunch of comics try to bridge the gap between the two, usually at the cost of storyline pace in the former. If the storyline comic wastes an update stopping the action to tell a joke about something going on in the news, it leaves readers feeling like they’ve been used as listeners to a soapbox. This is easily fixed by having a separate area in which the characters might speak on other things out of the normal story. But if you’re selling readers on a specific type of story, it’s best to stay with it.
2) Know what you’re going to do before you start
This is what I’ve seen to be the biggest killer of start-up web comics. Let’s create a little strip – we’ll call it The Adventures of Sam and Tracy. Sam is a high school student whose best friend Tracy just happens to be a spell-casting witch. Sam learns this when Tracy misfires a spell and SAM BECOMES SAMANTHA. Now see as Sam adjusts to being a teenage girl while Tracy learns her magic at a hilarious too-fast pace while trying to become skilled enough to fix her best friend. Now we, the creative mind behind this ha-ha-larious strip has created it because we wanted to see 1) the spell itself, 2) the awkward adjustment phase, and 3) the collective girls discover their true love for each other and share a girl-on-girl smooch.
And before you ask, I’ve seen A LOT OF THIS in browsing web comic databases.
Okay, the first two are knocked out in the opening five or so strips. The third comes at the end of first storyline. By this point, we’ve got a small readership who have invested their time in our story. Where does it go from here?
Well, that’s all the creator had in mind when they started, and that’s where they lose interest in the concept and quickly vanish. There are a lot of web comics that have been lingering un-updated since that initial idea played out. There might be a hint at more story, or the promise for more to come, but no real idea where to take it from there.
In television, new shows aren’t simply pitched on a pilot alone, but also with ideas for future storylines. The investing network needs to be confident that should they pick up the show, the creators have enough creative ideas to carry it for at least its initial run. The same should be done for these comics. Don’t simply have a startup idea and think that the rest will come as you go. Yes, that likely will indeed happen, but at least have an idea of the direction you plan to go in and let the new ideas fill in the gaps – or even change the direction if it naturally happens.
3) Have a goal
Let’s go back to Sam and Tracy. At the end of this story, there really can only be two outcomes. Sam goes back to normal, or accepts his new reality. At least at first, one of those two goals should be at the end of the tunnel. True, a story might expand or develop to where it goes past that point. Web comics are like any other – they can go virtually forever if there’s someone to make them. But more realistically, there will eventually be some kind of end to it, and its best to drop readers the occasional hint that you are heading in that direction.
That’s not to say purposely limit yourself by speeding in one lone direction. Think of a bigger comic franchise like the Avengers. The Avengers are a team of heroes that are fighting the world’s evil. The end point for this story is the day in which all evil is defeated and the world is at peace. Will that ever happen? Of course not. But with every villain defeated, the story tells readers that that end is a little bit closer to being reached. I’ve read a number of web comics that set up their storyline and then never touch upon it again. Instead the characters do round about things over and over while the theme occasionally gets brought up, but never acted upon.
These are just three things – but following them will add a lot more depth to your comic than 4/5 of what I’ve seen in my travels.