Starting a Webcomic

I’ve heard from a lot of people over the years about their plans to start up webcomics. And I’ve given a lot of advice about how to make webcomics. But it’s all in different places, like IM logs, my head, unlogged chatrooms, IRC, and my miniforums, and it’s just not practical to expect people to go dig up all that information for themselves. So this is a post to hopefully help those people that want to start a webcomic.

This post will be separated into the following categories:

-Why Make a Webcomic
-Website Hosting
-Webcomic Engine
-Planning the Comic
-Making the Comic
-Promoting the Comic

Why Make a Webcomic
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Everyone has their own reasons, and most of those reasons are valid. Valid reasons include:

1) I want to improve my artwork.
3) I want to learn to be funny.
2) I want to make something to entertain me and my friends.
5) I want to make new friends.
4) Everyone else is doing it.
6) I want lots of people to congratulate me on my birthday.
7) I love to draw!

But there are a number of invalid reasons. Here are some invalid reasons to make a webcomic:

1) Fame. The internet is no place to get famous. The last person to get famous on the internet is Miss Teen South Carolina. And you don’t want that. Getting famous on the internet is a bad thing.

2) Fortune. A webcomic is no place to try to earn money, especially if you don’t have an awesome work ethic. The few “successful” webcomics I’ve seen did not get big until many years after they started, and only did so after lots of hard work.

Website Hosting
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If you need help on hosting, then I’m going to take the easy way out. I don’t want to try explaining things like setting up your own local webserver, buying a domain name, or paying for a shared server. So let’s play it easy and go with “free and simple webcomic hosting.”

Here are four sites that host webcomics for free:
Drunk Duck
Comic Genesis
Webcomics Nation
Smack Jeeves

There are many more, but some of them are harder to get into or are specialty hosting sites. Xepher is an example of a slightly more “exclusive” webcomic hosting site. Exclusive is awesome, because you tend to get more freedom and control. But it also means you’d better be ready for a commitment, because they take themselves more seriously.

These dedicated webcomic sites are awesome because when you sign up, you’re magically in a webcomic community. People can find you effortlessly. Also, no technical knowledge is required, and if you do have technical knowledge you can customize your site’s appearance and function.

The downside is that it’s free because there are ads on your site. Also, free hosting sites have a reputation of downtime and lagginess.

Webcomic Engine
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Each of the sites in the last section have their own way of updating and maintaining the webcomics they host. It would be a good idea to sign up to each of them and see how they work, and then pick your favorite.

The rest of this section is for people that are hosting their comic themselves, be it locally or on a shared server, or whereever. Some specialty hosting sites may require you to have your own engine.

The webcomic engine is what powers your comic. If you have no engine, then you’ll be manually editing files and links whenever you upload a new comic. If you have an engine, then updating your comic can be as easy as uploading the latest comic image and having the whole site magically rearrange itself. The “back” button goes back one comic, the “latest” button goes to the latest comic, and etc.

Engines come in a few flavors, from PHP to ASP to JavaScript and from simple to really complex. The first thing you need to look at is what your hosting provider supports. PHP is the norm for paid hosting, and “nothing” is the norm for a free website.

I’ve created two comic engines, one extremely simple and one rather complex. Both require PHP.

The complex one was never finished. It included adding news to the comics, editing old news, comments that stick to specific comics, mass updating of previous comics/news entires, a queuing system for uploading comics and having them update later, and all sorts of fun things. But as I said, I never quite finished it, so I won’t be distributing that until I get around to finishing it, which is probably never.

The simple one I created was for Maglot‘s comic, Cry of the Wolf. You can download this simple comic engine here: http://www.skaarj.com/extras/comic.zip. It includes some instructions on how to use it.

If your hosting provider doesn’t allow the use of PHP, there’s still a solution besides hand-editing everything whenever you update. You can find/make yourself a Javascript comic engine.

Back in ages past, before the giant webcomic hosting places went up, you could find webcomic engines easily on the internet. These days it’s rather much harder, and you usually end up making them yourself.

Planning the Comic
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There’s a right way and a wrong way to make a comic.

The right way involves:
-Creating your characters, and creating character sheets for them to use as reference so the characters always look the same. This includes costume sheets for all their different outfits.
-Creating the environments the comic takes place in, and creating reference sheets so the environments don’t go changing all the time.
-Creating the props that appear in the comic, including reference sheets.
-Creating the story. All of it. This is the real time consumer, and has a ton of substeps going from idea to general storyline all the way down to rough drafts, then the final comic.

As far as I know, the number of books that teach you how to draw comics can be counted on one hand.
Graphic Storytelling by Will Eisner (father of the graphic novel)
Comics and Sequential Art by Will Eisner
Making Comics by Scott McCloud
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
How to Make Webcomics by several famous webcomic authors (edit: Added here on Oct 9th, 2011)

No doubt there’s more, as an Amazon search can point out, but Making Comics and Comics and Sequential Art are the ones Rob Kmiec recommended.

It’s important to decide the following, as well:
Daily gag or serious story?
Standard panel style or freeroam?
Colored or black and white?
3D, traditional, or CG?
Daily or whenever?

Making the Comic
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So you’ve planned everything out. You know what kind of comic you’re making, how you’re making it, how often you’re updating, who all the characters are, where the story is going to take place, and what the story is from start to finish (or at least have pages of ideas for jokes for your daily gag strip).

The Beginning
The first thing you need to do is make the first half-dozen pages before you even put anything online. This accomplishes a couple things.

1) It lets you know if you’re actually going to be able to handle it. If you planned for a daily strip and it takes you three months to make half a dozen pages, then you’ll want to rethink your update schedule, and/or your method of creating the comic.

2) It creates confidence. Most webcomics seem to die after zero to two pages. If you have more than that already up, then you’ve proven to your viewers that you broke the barrier most people fail at.

The Buffer
Having a buffer on your comic is a very smart thing. To have a buffer means to have more comics ready than you’ve committed to giving.

For example, say you have a Monday, Wednesday, Friday comic. You’ve spent two weeks and created six pages before you put anything online. In order to create a buffer, you would create even more comics, perhaps spending two more weeks to create half a dozen more. Then you start the comic by putting the first half-dozen online, and keep the last half-dozen to yourself. In case you get sick, or can’t update, you’ve got extra comics to fall back on, and your readers won’t see a hiccup in the schedule.

Just make sure after you start digging into your buffer that put in extra effort to build the buffer back up, or you’ll just use it up and that’s that.

Keep at It
Updating a webcomic can be hard. But if you stick to your schedule, you’ll eventually get to your end goal and be finished. If you need support, talk to your friends, family, or (if you have some) your readers.

Communicate
The most effective method of communicating to the readers of your comic is in comic form. Most people don’t read news posts. I personally think that if someone doesn’t care enough to read the news post, then they don’t care enough to know. But how you communicate is up to you, just know what’s most effective.

It’s polite to inform your readers (or reader) when an update is going to be missed or late. You don’t need to tell them about your personal life if you don’t want to, just tell them it’s going to be missing or late.

Promoting the Comic
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I’ll admit that while fame shouldn’t be a reason to start a webcomic, it can be a reason to continue a webcomic. Who wants to spend time making a webcomic if no one’s going to enjoy it?

You should start promoting your webcomic once you’ve got a solid base of comics. That base is up to your discretion, but the marketing tactic is like this: The good art draws them in, and the good story (or funnies) keeps them. If people can’t see the awesome story, you may want to wait until you’ve got enough comics to do that.

Notice I said you should have a solid base of comics before promoting. I don’t want to see any one who’s read this promoting their comic before they’ve even put anything online. I’ve seen those promotions before, and visit their empty sites, and get horribly disappointed. Most of the time, those sites stay blank forever because they were expecting instant fame, and got no responses because they had no content. Don’t promote your comic until you have something to promote!

There are two ways of promoting. The free way, and the pay way.

Free
-Post on forums that you have a comic, and give a sample or two in the thread itself so people can see what it’s like then and there.
-Sign up for one (or all) of the many webcomic listings, like The Belfry or The Webcomic List.
-Sign up for one (or all) of the many webcomic contests, like Top Webcomics or Webbed Comics, or buzzComix. Just don’t expect to get anywhere near the top, especially not at first. People do check the low-rankers on those, so it gets your name out there.
-If you’ve got a lot of readers already, get them to promote your comic. Word of mouth is the most effective method of advertising, because it’s sincere.

Pay
-Advertise on other webcomics that are similar to yours. Advertising a sci-fi comedy on a historical horror may not be the best idea.
-Check out Project Wonderful. It’s an effective auction-style advertising solution. From what I can tell, it’s focused heavily on webcomics.