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Richard Rosenbaum investigates how online comics sustain themselves

It’s not that it’s impossible to become successful doing indie comics. In 1977, Kitchener, Ontario’s Dave Sim started self-publishing a comic called Cerebus, starring an anthropomorphic aardvark that was primarily a parody of Conan the Barbarian. It ended up being the longest-running independent comic ever, going for 300 issues and 25 years, and dealing with topics as diverse as politics, religion, art and gender issues. In 1984, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird borrowed money from relatives to print 3,000 copies of a comic they wrote and drew called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; by the mid-nineties, the Turtles were ubiquitous, and their creators were billionaires.

But these are the exceptions. The vast majority of independent comics over the years have been unprofessional affairs that never achieved what would be considered mainstream success. They’ve been written, drawn and published cheaply–either printed by vanity presses or personally photocopied by the creators–and distributed mostly by hand to a few shops around the neighbourhood, or even just given out to their friends.

The advent of the web has changed all that; now anyone can make a comic and reach a worldwide audience practically for free and with relatively little effort. You don’t need a printing press or an international distribution system; you don’t even need to know how to draw or write, technically. The last few years have witnessed an explosion in the number of webcomics available. Plenty of them are as good or better than anything that’s ever been commercially available in print.

Toronto’s Ryan North (or as he is sometimes known, “Ryan from the Internet”) has become a major influence in the webcomics world, not only for his strip Dinosaur Comics (which consists of the same clip-art images every day, with only the text changing, where an exuberant T-Rex and his friends discuss everything from literary theory to poo-bugs), but also for the creation of utilities to help other webcomics reach a wider audience, such as the webcomics search engine “Oh No Robot” and the revolutionary online advertising system “Project Wonderful”; and yet, he insists that if it wasn’t for the web, his comics probably never would have existed in any form:

“I’m not even sure I would have started,” North says. “I didn’t really come from zine culture at all, so the idea of making a comic, and then printing and folding and stapling and distributing myself wasn’t really in my mindset. I knew it was possible, but it wasn’t really for me. Putting something online is easier, cheaper and you reach a much wider audience.”

Even defining “success” can be difficult in the webcomics world–is it a matter of how many readers you reach, or does being a successful web cartoonist mean that you can quit your day job and do comics full time? For Jordan Piantedosi, who does the webcomic Perfect Stars under the pseudonym Romantic, success means that she’s free to do the comic the way she wants without worrying about having to treat it as a job. “It’s easy to feel super-successful when you have an online comic on account of all the nice emails that you’ll get from strangers!” says Piantedosi. –Either way I imagine that making heaps of money would be difficult. I’ve had my comics published in some collaborative books–Comic Exposure and Gamut–and it’s been fun to show them off since I did both covers, but if anyone at all has read them I can’t be certain. I like to give the comics away for free. A wise man once said to me, ‘take what you need and leave the rest.’ There are all sorts of ways to be rich, and when you choose to make art, you usually choose a life of non-monetary luxuries–unless you are Lisa Frank or something!”

That said, there are more than a few webcomics creators who have been able to translate their hit count into a viable way of paying their bills. Frustrated with the constant complaints about typos and infrequent updates, Randy Milholland of Something Positive challenged his readers to donate enough money for him to quit his job for a year and do the comic full-time. To his surprise, it worked, and he ended up with tens of thousands of dollars in donations from fans in a matter of weeks. Diesel Sweeties has actually crossed the threshold into print comics, and The Perry Bible Fellowship originated as a strip in a university paper before moving to the web; both strips now appear in multiple physical newspapers in addition to online.

Then again, it’s possible that much of the credibility that webcomics have with their audience is precisely due to their relative obscurity. In the true indie spirit, once something gets popular, many former fans will accuse the creators of the mortal sin of “selling out.” Does the decentralized, anarchic nature of the web make webcomics sell-out-proof, or could a webcomic become so popular that it becomes a brand in itself, the way that, say, Superman or Garfield have in print comics?

“I think Penny Arcade can get there,” says Piantedosi, referring to the video game webcomic written by Jerry Holkins and illustrated by Mike Krahulik (also known by their in-comic personas of Tycho Brahe and Johnathan Gabriel, respectively). Penny Arcade has become such a phenomenon that its creators now hold an annual gamer fest called PAX which has become the biggest festival of its kind in North America, and a charitable organization called Child’s Play which raises money to buy video games, toys and movies for sick children. In 2006, Child’s Play raised over one million dollars, 100% of which went to kids via wishlists set up by participating hospitals.

Most webcomics creators end up making their money through ads and/or merchandise, while giving away the comics for free. “I don’t think you can make a living selling your comic online,” says North. “There are so many free comics–worse, so many really fantastic free comics–that it’s hard for someone to sit down and enter in credit card information to read your story when there’s one just as good as it a click away.

“If you look at it really cynically–really cynically–you can say ‘Oh Ryan, you adorable dunderhead. You’re not a cartoonist. What you create are graphic ads for your T-shirts, a new ad every day. That’s not cartooning.’ And yeah, the comics support the shirts and the shirts support the comic, so there’s a symbiosis there. But even if there weren’t merchandise, I think I’d still be doing the comic online. Creating art in any form is hard, even comics. If you’re just in it for the money it’ll show, and you’ll hate your job. I am satisfied to give the comic away for free and sell merchandise. I don’t really see a conflict there, even though it is a bit odd to explain to someone encountering the idea for the first time that you’re a full-time cartoonist, and yeah, you give the comics away for free.”

There was some controversy in this direction over a certain Dinosaur Comics strip where T-Rex muses on how the best T-shirt ever would be one that said “FEELINGS ARE BORING. KISSING IS AWESOME.” Awhile later, such a shirt appeared for sale on the website.

“I remember I was very acutely aware of what it looked like,” North recalls. “Having characters in your comic talking about what a great shirt that would make, and then saying ‘OH, look at this! You can buy the shirt… from me!’ So when I put the comic up I thought ‘Ah well, I guess I’ll never make this shirt,’ and then right away–and for a week afterward, until I put the design up–I got emails basically saying, ‘PLEASE let me give you money for this shirt.'”

While to some this may equate to selling out North doesn’t think so. — I think putting a shirt in the comic with the goal of selling that shirt maybe is selling out, but this was me with an idea and I really thought it was better described in the comic than realized. I didn’t expect people would want to wear a shirt that said, basically, ‘I’M EASY,’ but they do. I have one too. I keep wanting to wear it on a first date but never have the nerve.”

(Full disclosure: I also own this shirt, but it hasn’t–as of this writing–got me any action.)

So in some way, success (however that may be defined) seems to be less important to most webcomic creators than simply being able to do their art their own way with the potential to reach an audience that appreciates it, which the web has made a real possibility in ways that have never existed before. It’s likely that it’s that very genuineness and dedication that makes the comics themselves so compelling for so many readers.

“It’s very nice to get messages and things from folks who read the comics online, but even without the Internet I’d still make comics in secret, because comics are my favourite!” bubbles Romantic. “I’d like to have a lot of readers in the same way that every little kid wants to be famous. But as a rule of thumb I don’t listen to what the readers have to say about my comics unless they are incredibly flattering.”

Finally, even old-school indie creators have begun to see the web as a way of circumventing the frustrations of producing comics in the traditional way. Digitized versions of old issues of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been appearing, in full or in part, on the official Mirage Comics website over the past couple of years, and co-creator Peter Laird recently announced that future issues of the TMNT Volume 4 series will be available exclusively through the website as a free download. The evolution of independent comics continues.

Read the comics! (Dinosaur Comics) (The Perry Bible Fellowship)

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