Making a Successful Web Comic
learn from my mistakes
So you want to make a web comic? Well, keep in mind that making a successful web comic relies on pulling from a number of different resources, the least of which is perseverence. After all, the most successful web comics, especially, don't spring up overnight--they require years of love and dedication. Here's a list of helpful tips in getting started:
One of the worst trends I've noticed in continuity-based web comics is starting the very first comic with the increasingly stale joke, "Having a plot would help." While it utilizes the reverse-egotism effect, this tactic signifies to your readers that you have no idea what you're doing in making a comic in the first place. No one wants to read a rough draft that's trying to pass as a final.
Make an outline of your plot [if you have one] to give you a better idea of how your comic should flow. If your comic is based entirely on one-shot, stand-alone jokes, write out a list of topics you wish to cover.
A buffer [a backlog of finished comics] allows you to post one comic a day for as many days as you have comics--or one per specified period, for as many periods--during which time you can take a day or two off without affecting your update schedule. Posting comics immediately upon finishing them will make it evident to your readers when you are slacking off, as you may have noticed with mine.
Once in a while, "filler" comics [stand-alone jokes to fill the gaps during a lull in the plotline] are okay, but most readers don't like being kept in suspense if major plot points haven't been resolved. Drifting too far from course is a sure way to irritate your audience.
Criticism is your best friend, when it comes to gaining success. More people seem to view criticism as having a negative connotation, but the true meaning of the word is more neutral. If you want people to like your comic, you want feedback about whether your comic is good, so you can fix it if it's not. If you think a joke is funny, but someone else doesn't get it, you can get a better understanding of how to make it funny from that person. Their objective viewpoint is a must-have especially when you know something is wrong with your comic but can't figure out how to fix it.
Note: In-jokes are an absolute no-no [except as "easter eggs"], as the way to make a successful comic is to make it appeal to as wide an audience as possible--not alienate them with comments they don't understand. A winning combination is a general, wide-reaching punchline with a subtle in-joke placed elsewhere as a treat for those in the know.
If you don't enjoy making the comic, why do it?
Okay, you've started your comic, but it doesn't seem to be taking off. What's wrong? Here are some common mistakes:
Certainly while you're developing your buffer, it's a good idea not to post your comic until you're confident you can keep it going without stopping. Unless your pace is regular, it will also seem strange if you post, say, five comics in one day, then nothing for weeks.
Once you've started regular updates, you need to advertise! Spread the word by submitting your site to search engines, interest groups, and link exchanges with similarly-themed comics.
The biggest killer of web comics is the creator losing interest or deciding other things are more important than the comic. This is unfortunate, but it also has to do with failure to plan ahead, or simply that life gets in the way and other things take priority. This is why the buffer is so important to maintaining the life of a comic without putting it on hold [and losing popularity with your readers]. Yes, there are times when something life-altering comes up, such as a death in the family or getting married or what have you, but simply getting bored with the work is ridiculous by comparison and will not make you popular with your fans.
Remember what I said about in-jokes? The most successful comics appeal to ALL audiences at least most of the time. Niche comics, such as ones aimed at... oh... vampires, will automatically appeal to fans of vampires, but those fans comprise a small proportion of everyone in the world.
Some of the best examples are Charles Schulz's Peanuts and Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. Aside from the fact that Snoopy acts like a person and Hobbes is a stuffed tiger that comes to life in Calvin's imagination, there's no excessive set-up required to understand the joke.
Yes, you know there are twenty-four hours in a day, but do you know where they go?
The most popular cartoonists, online or offline, spend as much time on their comics as normal people spend at a day job. If you're in school, how much of your time can you devote to your comic without drawing too much time from schoolwork or socializing? If you have a job, a comic can be like a second job, only without pay [until you can establish enough of a fan base to successfully merchandise]. Don't fool yourself into thinking that if you're ever in a fix that you can simply sell sketches, because as more cartoonists enter the market, web comic merchandise loses its value quickly unless the comic is already very popular. The cartoonists who can work solely on their comic without further obligations are exceptionally rare, as they tend to run into debt quickly without an external source of income or being independently wealthy from the outset.
While it's possible to make a comic that is "like XYZ Comic, but with animals!" that is highly successful, you're bound to be more successful if you can find a unique angle that makes your comic stand out from others. There are three things distinctive to the most successful comics: good artwork, good writing, and good layout. A comic can have two of the three and still work, but having only one is riding a path to mediocrity.
Good artwork speaks for itself. Is your linework consistent? Do you have your own style, or have you simply copied someone else's? Are your characters correctly proportioned? Do you utilize strong backgrounds or ignore them entirely? A comic can survive successfully with bad artwork, but it will be more receptive to a larger audience if your style is at least somewhat appealing.
Good writing also speaks for itself. A comic that makes no sense will have a much more limited audience than one that is well-written and thought provoking, even if it's a gag comic.
Good layout utilizes varied camera angles and composition. Is your comic like watching a movie, but in still frames, or is each panel effectively a photocopy of the previous one? Moving the characters around and using interesting backgrounds will draw the reader in more easily than copying and pasting one panel and simply changing the dialogue.
If you've read this guide and still want to make a web comic, go for it! However, always keep in mind the cost of making a popular web comic, particularly in terms of time. Many budding artists start web comics with high hopes, only to see them dashed across the pavement, but if you approach your comic with reasonable expectations, you'll find your journey that much easier. Of course, popularity isn't the only measure of a successful web comic, but if your goal is ultimately to sell your comic to others, these tips will help you along the way.