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_Jewels of the web: Web comics_
If you haven't come across the idea of a web comic before - and I know many people haven't - then you're in for a treat.
Most people are familiar with your run-of-the-mill printed comic strip. You know them from the newspapers and the books the publish. You know them from the greetings cards and the merchandising. There are popular characters (Garfield, Dilbert, Calvin & Hobbes) and strips where each comic is a one-off (The Far Side, Fifth Wave). What most people aren't familiar with are the intricacies of the syndication business.
Syndication is how a comic strip artist makes his money, and how the the newspapers select their strips. In fact, the entire comic system revolves around syndication. The syndication companies, like United Feature Syndicate, are the middle-men of the comic industry.
Syndication is very useful for the industry - comic authors and newspapers both have a single point of contact. For the artist this means that once they're syndicated, they don't have to spend time writing to every newspaper in existence. Newspapers like it too, because they get standard sizes for all strips (important when you have a specific amount of space to fill), and a wide range of strips from a single source.
But syndication also has it's down sides, not least of which is the problem of getting syndicated in the first place.
Web comics side-step the whole issue of syndication by not even trying to get published. Well, I'm sure some of them have tried, but the point is that they get their audience through their own web sites rather than relying on a syndicate to publish them.
As you can imagine, there are dozens of web comics. Anyone with the smallest amount of artistic ability (or none at all, in some cases), a sense of humour (no matter how bad), and a little bit of free time can create their own web comic.
Of course, as any homepage owner knows, just creating a web site doesn't mean that anyone will visit, but there are portal sites and links, and the news of a good comic spreads quickly.
There are many reasons why an artist may choose not to go down the syndication route. Mostly they are strips that would not get syndication, but the reasons for this are many. Some simply don't have the artistic ability, so that no matter how good their ideas, they would not get published. There are some hugely funny web comics that fall into this category. Others may have a very specific message to say or audience to reach, and their market is too small for a syndicate to be interested no matter how well drawn they are. Others want to break the rules of the comic strip - syndicates have very rigid rules on the size and format of their strips, as well as the frequency. If an artist is unable to produce a new strip every day, they are unlikely to get published, and many web comics exist that are updated two or three times a week, or even less, that would have a good change of syndication if only the artist had the time to produce a new one every day. Sabrina Online is beautifully drawn, but three or four strips a month is too way few for successful syndication.
Another reason they may not be syndicated is that many are have long-running storylines. In most syndicated comics, one day's comic is usually quite independant of any preceding ones; the reader can understand the joke immediately. Newspapers like this because they can start printing the strip without having to start from the begining of a story, and their readers like it because they don't have to remember what happened in a strip six months ago. But many web comics make strong use of the storyline concept. It works well online, because the entire archive is available to the reader; they can read back from the begining of the story. The format offers massive potential for humour, you can have a running gag, and even setting when up a set-piece joke, you can put more into it than just the three or four panels available in a single strip. One-Over-Zero is a perfect example of a strip that needs to be read from the beginning of the story in order to make any sense whatever.
The other common reason to publish on the web is to make use of some or other feature of the web that is not available in the printed form. Often this means spot animations, or sound effects, but it can become quite interactive, and even go as far as highly complex fully animated web sites. For an example of this concept taken to the extreme, you need only spend some time at the HomeStar Runner web site.
But how do they make any money? Well, for the most part, they don't. Almost all are operated by the authors as a hobby. There may be banner advertisments on the web sites, but these typically pay for the web service, and don't bring the author any money.
The more popular ones may dabble with merchandising, however. Almost all of them employ the services of CafePress to do this. CafePress is an online merchandising service that allows anyone to set up an online store with a range of personalised products, without any outlay at all. They will print your logo or graphic onto a wide range of goods (mostly t-shirts and mugs, but the range includes things as diverse as lunch boxes, stickers, coasters and chefs aprons). They provide the online ordering, the production, shipping and all other relevant services, with the artist receiving a commission at the end. For more information on CafePress you should visit their website. For now it will suffice to say that they are a major component of the web comic
The other way to make money is to get published. Many of the comics that are not suitable for newspaper syndication are nonetheless perfect for printing in book form - particularly the ones with a running storyline. And bringing them full circle, small publishing houses have sprung up to do exactly this. The most significant of these is Plan 9, but others also exist, and many comic books are now available in print.
Another feature of web comics is the feeling of community and of closeness to the author. Most strips have a community forum, where fans discuss the strip (and anything else they feel like) - this can be as entertaining in it's own right as the strip itself. Typically these are fairly small groups, and if you stay long enough, you will get to know the other residents of the forum. The comic authors are also usually active in their forums, and thus you can talk directly to the author of your favorite comic strip. Try doing that with Dilbert or Garfield.
I hope I have whetted your appetite for web comics. Throughout this article, I have made references to many web comics, and other sites. I cannot mention them all, however, so if you're interested in the idea of web comics, I would recommend looking around for more. I'm including a list of links below to get you started.
The Belfry (cgi.belfry.com/comics)
Freefall (freefall.purrsia.com) (my personal favorite)
Sabrina Online (www.sabrina-online.com)
The Deep End (www.deep-end.com)
Kevin & Kell (www.kevinandkell.com)
Bartoon Central (www.geocities.com/bartooncentral)
Unlikely Stories (www.unlikelystories.com)
HomeStar Runner (www.homestarrunner.com) (100% Flash animations)
Plan 9 Publishers (www.plan9.org)
United Feature Syndicate (www.unitedfeatures.com)
Spudley Strikes Again