Web Exclusive Essay
(Sp)reading Digital Comics
Comic books—especially single issues, or “floppies”—have always been spreadable. As kids in the 1980s, my friends and I would head into our local comic shop, each emerge with an armful of floppies, then spend the afternoon first reading through our own haul and then each other’s. Usually, at least one of my friends’ floppies would be from some larger multipart story arc, and, if it was any good, I’d either go digging through my friend’s collection or thumbing through the store’s back issues to find out what was going on. Sharing, recommendation, drillability, and vast narrative complexity were all part of our everyday lives long before we could even drive.
Webcomics have emerged as an alternative form of publishing that makes such practices even easier. Many webcomics use RSS feeds to deliver new installments via email or RSS reader applications, and many webcomics offer forums where fans can chat and bicker and share their favorite comics with one another, much as my friends and I did in person so many years ago. Now, I can recommend comics to friends around the world either by emailing them a link to a webcomic’s site (and thus the latest comic) or a “permalink” to the archived page or, more commonly now, by texting, IMing, or Facebook messaging them such a link. Many webcomics, such as Emily Horne and Joey Comeau’s A Softer World, include built-in widgets for fans to recommend them on online services such as Digg, Facebook, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Technorati, and Twitter. Scott Kurtz’s PVP includes widgets to share each strip on twenty different services.
Unlike traditional print comics, for which most writers and artists labor under “work for hire” contracts for large publishers such as Marvel and DC, webcomics are typically owned and operated by their creators and rely on revenues generated by advertising, fan subscriptions/memberships, or sales of ancillary merchandise. As a result, for creators, getting individuals to purchase a single instance of their work (such as a traditional print floppy) is less important than establishing an ongoing relationship, aggregating a large recurring audience over time. The simplicity of the URL system supports this—when recommending a comic to a friend, I could copy and paste an image of the comic itself into an email, stripping out the context, ads, and links to the related merchandise, but why bother when sharing a link is so easy?
Knowing that some people do prefer to copy and paste just the comic, however, cartoonists such as Diesel Sweeties’ Richard Stevens and xkcd’s Randall Munroe post their strips under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, encouraging audiences to copy, to distribute, and even to remix the work, if the original authors are properly attributed and the results aren’t used for commercial purposes. Many other webcomics creators also take steps to ensure such attribution in hopes that recipients will pull up the website themselves in search of additional content.
Once visitors arrive at the website, they are normally greeted by the latest comic (or the archived page for the particular recommended comic that brought them there), a number of ads, links to community-building features such as forums or the cartoonist’s blog, and links to opportunities to purchase printed collections (frequently using print-on-demand services), T-shirts (also frequently print-on-demand), or even toys (which will likely become on-demand as 3-D printers become more popular).
Some of this swag is occasionally found in the content itself: the characters in Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content wear a variety of ironic hipster T-shirts which can then be found for sale under the “Merchandise” link above each strip, and Diesel Sweeties sells T-shirts based on one-liners from the strip or character wardrobes—most notably a “pixel skull” T-shirt that shot up in popularity after it appeared in the film version of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. (Even indies can rely on product placement when done well.) Such merchandise is itself, of course, an agent of spreadability; a particularly well-done T-shirt lets wearers affiliate themselves with a favorite comic and thus proselytize to anyone who takes notice.
Spreadability in webcomics is also assisted by cross-promotions and partnerships. TopatoCo is a company run by Jeffrey Rowland (creator of Wigu and Overcompensating) that handles the merchandising for a number of other webcomics (including Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics, Jonathan Rosenberg’s Goats, Sam Brown’s explodingdog, Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl, Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak, and Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant) that share a vaguely similar sensibility, although they’re created by different artists. Meanwhile, other webcomics have taken a page from DC and Marvel and use crossover characters and events to increase their readerships, such as the Red Robot character that appears regularly in both Diesel Sweeties and explodingdog.
Explodingdog is an interesting example of how some webcomics incorporate community involvement. Since 2000, Brown has published one-panel comics based on short titles submitted by readers. Unlike most webcomics, each new explodingdog comic doesn’t appear on the homepage—instead, Brown posts just the chosen titles, and readers click through to the new comics to see Brown’s frequently offbeat interpretation of the phrase. For example, a comic posted on January 9, 2008, titled “and it was all going so well,” features two of Brown’s stick-figure characters in rowboats high above a flooded Earth. The desire to see what Brown will do with any given phrase is a large motivator for fans to keep making submissions; in return, Brown gets a near-endless supply of material, and the best of the resulting comics are turned into merchandise for sale on his website.
Another example of community involvement appears when webcomics creators need to take a break. When J. D. Frazer needed a hiatus from his long-running webcomic User Friendly in mid-2010, he posted six dialogue-free strips and invited his fans to take their best shot. The best of these “UF by UFies” strips appeared as daily updates on the site from August 2 through September 18. Other webcomics creators mash up community involvement with cross-promotion by inviting their peers to occasionally contribute guest strips, with the resulting “creator crossovers” encouraging fans of both creators to discover something new. Some noteworthy examples of this practice include Ryan Sohmer and LarDeSouza’s weeklong run on Scott Kurtz’s PVP, which guest-starred the main character from their Least I Could Do comic, and a guest strip on Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins’s Penny Arcade by Bill Amend, the creator of the widely syndicated traditional comic strip Fox Trot.
A surprising number of such “traditional” comics talents are experimenting with the webcomics format, ostensibly because of how easy it is to spread online content to huge audiences. In September 2010, Jim Davis, the cartoonist most famous for Garfield, brought his 1986–1989 second strip U.S. Acres back as a webcomic at Garfield.com. Warren Ellis, the comic book author widely known for Transmetropolitan, Planetary, and Nextwave, partnered with artist Paul Duffield to create the serial sci-fi webcomic FreakAngels, which publishes a few pages every Friday and is then collected into print volumes through the independent comics publisher Avatar. James Kochalka’s American Elf began as The Sketchbook Diaries, an autobiographical comic published by Top Shelf Productions, but its daily journal form lent itself perfectly to the web and now appears daily at americanelf.com.
Notably, American Elf is one of the few webcomics that places some content behind a paywall. Visitors are invited to freely browse archives of the strip dating back to 1998, as well as “Monster Attack,” a collection of comics co-created by Kochalka and his son Eli, but subscribers also gain access to “More Awesome Comics” (including “BONUS ELFs,” or additional American Elf strips not found in the archives, and additional comics Fancy Froglin and SuperF*ckers) and mp3s of music by Kochalka and his band. The additional content model is also utilized by Onstad’s Achewood, which offers a $2.99-per-month subscriber package that provides access to “over 500 subscriber-only features, and growing daily!” Both Kochalka and Onstad have developed their comics into transmedia properties, with American Elf comics frequently making reference to the development of Kochalka’s other comics or his music, and Onstad creating Twitter accounts, weblogs, zines, and even cookbooks starring his characters.
While webcomics creators apparently have spreadability sussed, as of this writing, none of the leading comics applications on the iPad includes any of these tactics for spreadability. Not only is there no option to share a comic between multiple users in the Marvel, DC, or IDW apps, there is no option to recommend a comic on a blog, Facebook, or even Twitter, nor is there any way to share a link to buy that issue, which must be on these publishers’ short list of desired additions. As the ability to share e-books becomes more commonplace in e-readers such as Barnes and Noble’s Nook and Amazon’s Kindle, similar functionality will likely also begin to appear in these digital comics apps. Techniques for spreading digital comics are already being pioneered and successfully implemented by scores of webcomics creators—it’s only a matter of time before they appear in our e-comics readers as well.
It’s remarkable how much has changed since I wrote this piece in January of 2011. American Elf and FreakAngels have both wrapped up, Scott Kurtz’s PVP site has stripped out the option to post to 20 different services and now only supports sharing the strip on Facebook and Twitter (and the Facebook widget appears to be largely broken, posting a link to the strip but auto-populating the description and image with stuff from the PVP store, not the strip itself)… That’s the web for you.
The most important change, though, is that digital comics reading apps are improving their spreadability functions. In comiXology’s iOS app, a small pop-up menu in the corner provides buttons to tweet, e-mail or share the content on Facebook. Selecting any of those options pops up a prepopulated editable message with the issue’s title, its number, the cover art for the issue (in e-mail or Facebook, anyway) and – most importantly for comiXology – a link to where to buy the issue on comiXology’s store. It’s not ideal, but it’s a start.
Lots to say here:
First, Laurie Taylor, Trena Houp, and Sean Fenty wrote a pretty great overview of webcomics back in a 2005 issue of ImageTexT.
Second, I headed a week of In Media Res devoted to “digital comics,” which I defined somewhat differently than webcomics. Digital comics, I argued, “exploit […’ digital technology to create an experience that is uniquely enjoyed in a digital environment.” On the one hand, I can see how the “spreadability” of webcomics lead to a different reading experience (and one of the commenters on my page commented about the lack of a ‘community’ for digital comics), on the other, it seems like webcomics are doing something differently than an iPad app like Meanwhile or Touch Sensitive.
So, is there some way to differentiate the networked environment of webcomics from the apps and interactive sites that employ more sophisticated interfaces for other types of digital comics?