How to Make Webcomics

Webcomics are everywhere these days, and they come in all shapes and sizes to suit all kinds of tastes. Some of them make the process of creating a webcomic look easy, and some have such stunning artwork that many people (including people actually making webcomics already) look at it and think “I’d never be able to do that”.

Even more see their favourite comic and decide they want to give this comic lark a try for themselves. If you fall into that camp, welcome to the webcomics club. It’s a big club but don’t let that put you off. Instead, let’s discuss how to make a web comic so you can get started as soon as possible.

What will you write about?

Let’s deal with the biggest hurdle first: what you will write about. Truth be told, you can write about anything at all but if you want to be a success, there are a few factors to consider before you put pencil to paper. First and foremost, if you want to write a copy of your favourite comic I’ll suggest right now that you forget it. You’ll not become a success by copying someone else’s property; in fact it’s a sure way to get into trouble.

Instead, take what you like best from that comic and put your own spin on it. Let’s say you really like a comic about superheroes who spend most of their time battling super villains over the skies of New Doncaster, while chatting about how their wives are leaving them because they don’t spend enough time with the kids. If you want to do a comic about guys like these, why not turn this right around?

Where they have active superheroes with marital problems, you could have superheroes who sit around the dinner table and put a brave face on things for their kids, pretending to live in domestic bliss, while drowning their sorrows in the local heroes bar. Maybe they spend a lot of time complaining to one-another about how they’d love to be out there, fighting the good fight but their wives gave them an ultimatum: it’s heroics or family.

Yes, it’s a bit like The Incredibles but for illustrative purposes, just go with it. The point is that you can make a comic of your own that is based on one you love without ripping it off. If you make it your own, you avoid the risk of being labelled a wannabee, which is pretty much the kiss of death for a struggling new webcomic’s success.

What is your style?

We’ve talked about style before on The Webcomic Builder so I’m only going to summarise things here. Style falls into two camps: art and writing that enhance the comic, or art and writing that jars horribly. If you want to make a funny, gag-a-day comic, using the style of Ben Chamberlain or Frazer Irving is going to give your readers the wrong impression. Don’t get me wrong here, those guys have a great look to their art; it’s just not a look that screams out comedy.

Choose your format

The format you choose not only defines the style of the comic to some extent, it determines the limits of your art. Although it will be possible to break out of that format on occasion, for the most part you’re going to be drawing and scripting to set limits. This isn’t as restrictive as it might first sound and I have in fact found the fact that I know exactly where each comic has to end has improved my writing a great deal.

There are no hard and fast rules about which format will best suit any given type of comic. Okay, you’re unlikely to find many long form comics presented in the newsprint strip format (although they do happen: each strip becoming a line on a full page by the end of the week, for example) but that’s about the only exception to this rule.

Horror comic Lovecraft is missing presents in full-page format while Contemplating Reiko delivers one-panel comics. Similarly, there are any number of humour comics that use newspaper strip (3-4 panels) format (Sinfest, Blank It, etc.), and an equal number that run full pages (The Noob, Dresden Codak, etc.). Choose whichever format will suit your comic best, and which you will be able to cope with when you start updating.

The Update Schedule

Which brings me to my the next point: how often will you update? Comics that do not update regularly will not be a success. It’s not a hard and fast rule because there have been a couple of remarkably successful webcomics that don’t update half as often as they should (MegaTokyo, I’m looking at you) but these are exceptions to the rule. They’re also usually comics that hit update problems after they got famous.

You can decide on any update schedule you like, but you have to stick to it as much as you can if you’re going to be a success. If you know there’s going to be the occasional problem meeting your deadlines (if you don’t know this, make a note because it will happen) then build up a buffer so you can ride these problems out. Everyone has off days but even if you’re a fledgling comic artist, the Internet won’t cut you a lot of slack. You have to appear professional in your production of the comic, and that means updating regularly.

So decide on a schedule that suits you. The general consensus in webcomics these days is that those which update the most often reach success earlier, because they get a large archive sooner and that allows new readers to better judge whether the comic is something they want to invest time in.

The more updates you can make per week, the better under that line of reasoning but we can’t all do five strips a week, so don’t worry if you have to start out with only one update a week and work from there. I started at one per week with The Life of Nob T. Mouse and moved up to three updates a week (a schedule made popular by Penny Arcade and its army of clones) when I could. If I’d tried for more, I’d have soon found the comic collapsing in on itself because I couldn’t maintain that schedule.

You might be wondering what to do if you find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and the schedule you have just isn’t sustainable any more. Don’t worry about it. Remember how you can increase the number of updates? How about decreasing them? That’s fine too.

As long as you’re up front about it with your readers, there’s nothing to stop you announcing a reduced schedule (either temporarily or for the foreseeable future) and then running with that instead. The important thing is that you give your readers something new on the days you say you will. Everything else is a bonus.

Where to host?

Hosting a webcomic has never been easier, and that’s a fact. When the Internet was young and you had to code every page by hand because there were no programs to do it for you, running a webcomic meant buying a domain name, sourcing some funding for expensive hosting costs, writing the HTML for each page every time you updated (although the smart ones amongst us kept a basic template and just changed a few things here and there. I say that with a bitter voice because I’d been updating for months before I thought of this) and drawing the comic on top of all that. Now you have an easier time of things.

First and foremost, you’re going to want to make a decision: go with your own web host, or join a webcomic group like Smack Jeeves or Drunk Duck. If you’ve never run a website before and don’t want to try right now, webcomic hosting sites are your best option. You sign up, post your comic according to their instructions and they will handle the rest.

For those who have run sites before or fancy a challenge, get a web host that offers PHP and MySQL support (most do but some will charge extra) and build the site yourself. You get to customize it to just how you want and that can really enhance the experience for your readers (have a look at how The Noob‘s navigation mimics the mini map from World of Warcraft, for example – a brilliant touch for a comic about online gaming). This isn’t as hard as it sounds because there are many, many websites that will guide you through the process, and an equal number of web designers who will happily build a site for you if you want to spend a little cash.

The web software

Anyone wanting to run with a webcomic hosting site can skip this part because this will be taken care of for you.

When it comes to hosting your own site, the most important thing to consider is which content management system you will go for. Most of the big name comics have their own preferred system (usually custom and designed for them by a professional). For the rest of us, some form of modified blog is the order of the day. WordPress is a common option, especially when linked to something like Webcomic + Inkblot or ComicPress. Each has its advantages, each has its disadvantages.

If you don’t know which to choose, ask around for the opinions of people who use each system and see which sounds best for you. Don’t be afraid of changing your mind if you find the one you choose turns out to be bad for you. When you’re starting out, changing software is far easier than if you try to stick it out for 100 updates then switch.

In summary

If you’ve managed to read this far, you must be serious about starting your own webcomic. This is a guide to what you need to consider before you get started, so don’t see it as the be-all and end-all. The process of learning how to make web comics is never-ending; even the best are constantly improving. What matters is that you know what you’re getting into and you keep going at it until you reach a point where you’re happy with what you’re producing.

So, in summary, when looking at how to start a webcomic you need to think about 6 things:

  1. What your comic will be about
  2. What style you will use
  3. What format you will use
  4. How often you will update
  5. Where you will host the comic; and
  6. What web software you will use

The rest is a case of practice, reflection, hard work and, above all, enjoyment. Have fun!

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