STRIPPING IT DOWN
How to Create an Online Comic Strip (or how I did anyway)
November 20th, 2000
by Chris Daily
Online comic strips are becoming more popular and numerous everyday. Anyone can theoretically have their own web comic, but they should first know all the steps needed to create one. This study investigates the process of creating an online comic strip by interviewing six web cartoonists about their publishing techniques and their opinions on the "pros and cons" of the format. The results have been applied in assisting the creation of a new online comic strip.
In order to create a successful strip, I first wanted to understand what can go wrong and what must go right. To achieve this, I needed to get the answers from established web comic artists. After contacting several web cartoonists, I sent out e-mail interviews to the artists who agreed to participate: Howard Taylor, Barry Smith, Christina Znidarsic, C.G. Muggridge, Gisele Legace, and Scott Thigpen. The unique aspects of their comics cover several approaches that an aspiring web comic artist could take. The following summary of their interviews collect their opinions on successful techniques, creative traps to avoid, and tricks to promote a webcomic.
When writing the questions for the interview, I wanted to ask things that would be broad enough to apply to everyone, but still allow personal technique and opinions to intercede. I had to send this interview over email, so I would not have the option of asking specific questions for each artist. In a way this helped; by asking everyone the same questions, I received answers that presented me with several options. The questions asked the artists about the cartoon's topic and content, site design, site promotion, and the status of web comics in the entertainment industry.
Web comics often get pigeonholed into categories because of their content, characters, and setting. I was not sure if this mattered and wanted to ask if it was a hindrance or an advantage. I asked the question,
"Comics are often categorized into groups (computer gaming, college life, jobs, etc.). How is this an advantage or disadvantage for your strip?"
Gisele Lagace, who creates Cool Cat Studio (fig.1), responded, "Well, since mine revolves more around relationships, I would have to say that it probably helps the strips attract a more varied audience. However, on the negative side there is the reality that gaming strips seem to attract a lot more readers."
Christina Znidarsic, who creates Rusty Shrapnel (fig.2), comments, "Categories are good up to a point, because they tell people what your site is about [ ] they can also limit that audience, because some people won't read job-related or gamer comics."
The general consensus was that categorization can both aid and hinder attracting and audience, so an artist has to be cautious of what labels they are given in order to get new viewers.
I also wanted to find out how much a strip's material affected the audience's response. My first question on this matter was,
"How much does a web comic's content (adult content, mature language, inside jokes) affect what kind of audience is received?"
C.G. Muggridge, creator of Spaz Labs (fig. 4), responded, "It almost seems to me that in today's web comic arena, if you make your strip focus on the taboo, the sick and or the perverted, you can gain quite the following whether the strip is actually any good or not. [ ] I can only hope that people will grow tired of just the shock value and start demanding more quality." It seems like using the profane is a cheap way of getting an audience. Other artists use it sparingly, if at all. Taylor also said, "If you offend people regularly, they won't be part of your audience [ ] the largest audience segment is the 'PG' audience."
Barry Smith, creator of Angst Technology (fig.5), explained how it is ultimately up to the audience to decide. "I think a majority of computer users are fairly well educated, intelligent, and know what they like. [ ] if they don't like something, they can write an e-mail of protest or just not return to that site.
Another content question asked the artists,
"What strips garnered the most response from viewers?"
Legace said that creating a character that was a lesbian "made people talk" Scott Thigpen, who creates Demise Comics (fig. 6),
said he once did a very personal comic that generated a lot of response. Others said that crossovers with another strip are popular. I also asked the artists if they regretted putting up any strip; aside from ones with spelling mistakes, but they had no regrets about their work.
The next thing I wanted to inquire about was about the design choices made for the artist's website. The first thing I wanted to explore was how the web allowed cartoons to be more unique in their design. I asked the artists
"What do you believe the advantages of a webcomic are to the newspaper format?"
Legace explained her opinion clearly: "You have a complete archive that you can refer to, you can do it in color, and you don't need to have the type set to a large point size since the strip won't be drastically reduced in order to fit the small space that newspapers allow comic strips these days. This is a very big advantage since it allows you more space to draw."
Taylor's favorite advantage is targeting the audience: "Newspaper comics are syndicated nationwide, and tend to cater to the lowest common denominator. Web Comics can find and cater to a much smaller audience, benefiting that audience greatly." For Thigpen, the biggest advantage is size. "The freedom to make (the strip) as big or as small as you want [ ] not being constrained to a dimensional size set by the newspaper."
I knew it was important to have a good site design, but I wasn't sure how much of a priority it was. I asked:
"How important are page layout and graphic design to the success of your site?"
Znidarsic states her opinion clearly: "If your comic is the focus of your site, make it easy to get to." Most of the artists agreed with this, and all of them have placed their comic near the top of their home page. "People will put up with a bad layout, but why make it harder on them that you have to?" said Smith.
As far as full site design, it seems to still be important, but not a major concern. Smith said, "I currently have to settle for a functional site with (hopefully) good content. I was spending so much time deciding on color pallets and layout that I was not doing any cartooning. I eventually rolled up my sleeves, made a bare bones, functional site and just started posting. The beauty of the web is that I can always go back and revamp the site later."
Znidarsic suggested to "choose a color scheme that doesn't say more than your comic." Taylor also recommended a "signature design that supports the look and feel of the strip itself."
There are some pages on a web comic site that are needed, and the rest are optional. I knew that the main page and the archives are the basic requirements, but I was curious as to what else was good to have. I asked:
"Besides archives, what features do you feel are essential to have on a web comic site (ie. links, creator bio, etc.)? Unneeded features?"
The answers were varied on this one, but some things came up as mandatory. All artists mentioned the links page as a popular option, since it generates web traffic and promotes other sites, which in turn, might link back to you. Smith believed the most important thing to have is an email link. "The most powerful aspect of online cartooning to me is the connection with your audience," Smith explained. "They will applaud you, rake you over the coals, sent you fan art, and just generally keep in touch."
Others agree that a character bio page is standard for readers to get to know your cast. Znidarsic suggested having a message board to create a "comic community," which "keeps people talking about your comic." Other suggested features that are optional include an artist bio, fan art, merchandise, unrelated art, and interactive games. As far as unneeded features, Taylor suggests to stay away from a heavy site design and the use of frames.
By creating a dynamic site design with interesting and original content, I knew I would be on the right track. The next step would be getting others to notice. This is no small feat, as the other artists will attest to. I found out there is a bit of strategy involved in promoting a webcomic. I asked:
"What the best techniques to get more readers for a web comic?"
Barry Smith best summed up the overall opinion, "Probably the most important thing you need to get return visitors to your web comic is quality. People will return to your comic if they find it funny or well drawn. Funny is more important. If you happen to have both going for you, then you will get repeat readers that much faster."
Sticking to the same theory, Znidarsic explained her plan of attack: "I decided to hold off on publicity for a month or so and just concentrate on putting up a good, funny, quality product. [ ] when I finally decided to submit my site for review, the readers would have some content to look at that hopefully wouldn't suck."
When the cartoon has plenty in the archives to look at, there are basic tricks to keep viewers coming. C.G. Muggridge advised,
"Keep to your publishing schedule, participate in link exchanges and be on good terms with fellow web cartoonists wherever possible. The artists themselves can be very big fans and if they post your link on their sites, or better yet, mention you in their 'news' on their site, you can find your traffic growing." While getting plugs is great, the artists suggested that nagging is an automatic turn off. It's one thing if you ask for a more established artist to evaluate your site, but when you start sending death threat emails to be plugged, you probably will not get plugged by anyone.
Howard Taylor also suggested using, "button and banner exchanges, message board plugs, and word-of-mouth plugs at conventions, bookstores, etc.."
Where a site is hosted can also affect publicity. Creators can easily get free site hosting and a free domain name. There are also several online syndicates and comic hosting spaces that exist. Keenspot, Outpost, and MPOG select their members, creating a "members only" setting, while Keenspace is open to anyone, but requires members to post ads and promotion of other Keenspace sites on their own. With these different options, I wanted to find out what was my best choice.
I asked the artists,
"What are some advantages or disadvantages of being hosted by an online comic space?"
Keenspot hosts Schlock Mercenary, so Howard Taylor had some positive aspects about community hosting. "The biggest is the 'built-in audience' effect," Taylor explained. "Other advantages include the pooling of resources for negotiating ad revenue, creating marketing campaigns, and creating merchandise."
Znidarsic discussed her likes and dislikes with online syndicates. "From what I understand, most comic communities have automated archive updating, which is really nice. [ ] The disadvantages to these types of sites [ ] are the multitudes of banners and promotions for other sites that you must put on your own site."
Because of the large number of sites contained on these syndicates, Muggridge seemed to not be in favor of the syndicates: "In my mind it almost negates whatever advantage a strip artist might gain from such an association."
THE FUTURE OF WEBCOMICS
Barry Smith commented in one reply, "More and more quality cartoonists are viewing the web [ ] as the sole market for the kind of cartoons they really want to do."
I wanted to get a sense of how my comic could survive with the upcoming industry changes, and what I could do to make my comic stand out in the changing market. I asked the cartoonists what they thought the future of web cartoons would be, and most answers were optimistic. Taylor explained how web comics are staking a claim in online entertainment: "I think that the future of quality entertainment is on the web, because that medium allows the artist to target his or her audience most effectively. [ ] Some may "graduate" to print medium, and some web cartoonists aspire to this, but as a whole, the web comic movement is moving in the same direction as the entire entertainment industry--we're just getting there first."
Thigpen predicted a boom in web comic popularity and the fate of current comics: "There will be a few that pave the way and then they will disappear. I'm anxious to see how many comics are around in 3 years. Not because people get tired of doing them, but I think that circumstances, life changes and other things will stop people from doing their comic strip."
All of the artists seemed to imply that the web comic movement is a growing trend, and there will be more attention to online cartoons appearing in years to come. However, Muggridge explains that this popularity boost might be difficult to achieve because of the free nature of web comics and the lack of filtering. "There aren't any really serious consequences of doing a shitty job," he explains. "As long as it's like this, I'm afraid we're going to be viewed as a strictly amateur second string of comics"
This brought up the issue of originality, and setting oneself apart from the growing masses. I asked the artists how important they thought originality was in this medium with countless copycats. Smith explained his theory of original humor: " I'm not sure anything is truly original in the humor and comics scene. [ ] Quality would be the deciding factor for me. Between two comic strips about rabbits with T.V. antennas for ears who battle space pirates for control of the planet Éclair, I would read the one that is first: most funny, and second: drawn well."
Thigpen on the other hand, thinks originality is everything."It's kind of like a boom in the cartoon industry [ ] it's flooded now, saturated with all sorts of lame cartoons. In four or five years, we will probably only remember just a few of them. I'd say originality and creativity are the two greatest keys of successfulness."
Znidarsic agreed that originality is important for web comic humor. "The internet will become a proving ground for humor and originality," she said. "The quality of web comics is going to get better and better as more people realize just what exactly it takes [...]"
This is the home page of an early version of Striptease. It's probably going to change.
DRAWING A CONCLUSION
The interviews were a definite aid in determining creative techniques. Most of the artists seemed to agree that some categorizing was fine up to a point, but retaining control is important. They also suggested that links and banners from other sites could greatly increase readership. Most suggested that an email contact, a links page, and character bios were essential in site design, while message boards, personal info, and other art were all optional. There was split opinions on hosting, but all agreed on originality as a lasting factor in success. All of the artists believed that web comics would expand and become more popular in some respect.
Online comics can be placed in different categories and have various styles, but the underlying factors of a strip's success are the same. Originality and quality are the most important factors in the strip itself, while a reliable publishing schedule and constant self-promotion increase the chance of return readers. By applying the ideas and techniques of the interviewed artists, Striptease was successfully created and placed on the Internet. Striptease attained a clear domain name, and set up a simple site design. The content was consistent and appropriate for most ages. By joining comic strip listing sites, sending out fan art, holding contests, referring to other sites, and placing links on message boards and emails, Striptease managed to get increased page views. There are still many things I want to add to the site. I'd like to create more interactive features, create artist bio and "behind the scenes" pages, and set up a more comfortable site design with the comic on the first page. I plan on using the interviews as a constant reference, but I'd like to get to the point where I too can give advice to up-and-coming web cartoonists. I intend to create Striptease well into the future, or at least as long as there are people that want to read it.
Fig. 1. Home page, screen shot, Cool Cat Studio. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.coolcatstudio.com>.
Fig. 2. Home page, screen shot, Rusty Shrapnel. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.rustyshrapnel.com>.
Fig. 3. Home page, screen shot, Schlock Mercenary. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.schlockmercenary.com>.
Fig. 4. Home page, screen shot, Spaz Labs. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.stonebrokestudios.com>.
Fig. 5. Home page, screen shot, Angst Technology. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.inktank.com>.
Fig. 6. Home page, screen shot, Demise Comics. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.demisecomics.com>.
Fig. 7. Max, Chip, and Emily, drawings by Chris Daily, Striptease. 20 Sept. 2000. <http://www.stripteasecomic.com.>
Fig. 8. Template for Striptease, screen shot. 25 Sept. 2000
Fig. 9. Home page, screen shot, Striptease. 1 Nov. 2000 <http://www.stripteasecomic.com>.
Daily, Chris. Striptease. 29 Sept. 2000 <http://www.stripteasecomic.com>.
Extreme Digital Tracking. 18 Sept. 2000 <http://www.extreme-dm.com/tracking>.
Krahulik, Mike, and Holkins, Jerry. "Behind the Scenes." Penny-Arcade. 17 Sept. 2000.
Lagace, Gisele "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 21 Oct. 2000.
---, Cool Cat Studio. 15 Sept. 2000 <http://www.coolcatstudio.com>.
McCloud, Scott. Reinventing Comics. New York: Paradox Press, 2000.
Muggridge, C.G. "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 21 Oct. 2000.
---, Spaz Labs. 15 Sept. 2000 <http://www.stonebrokestudios.com>.
Smith, Barry. "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 19 Oct. 2000.
---, Angst Technologies. 15 Sept. 2000. <http://www.inktank.com>.
---, "Creating the Strip." Angst Technologies. 15 Sept. 2000.
Taylor, Howard. "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 18 Oct. 2000.
---, Schlock Mercenary. 15 Sept. 2000 <http://www.schlockmercenary.com>.
Thigpen, Scott. "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 21 Oct. 2000.
---, Demise Comics. 15 Sept. 2000 <http://www.demisecomics.com>.
Znidarsic, Christina. "Re: interview form." E-mail sent to Chris Daily. 19 Oct. 2000.
---, Rusty Shrapnel. 15 Sept. 2000. <http://www.rustyshrapnel.com>.
This paper was used as a basis for a lecture for an art criticism class at Savannah College of Art and Design in November of 2000. It may not be used without the permission of the author. All opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the artists interviewed. The same interview questionairre was given to all artists, over email, on the same date. The screen shots from their sites are from the time of the interview.