Jenny's Really Long Webcomic Guide
I have been getting quite a few emails and questions about starting up your own webcomic, so I decided to compile all the articles I'd written before into this one comprehensive guide.
This massive wall of text has several sections:
- How to start
- Getting the story started
- Readership & research
- The Internets!
These are my own guidelines, based on my own experiences, and these are my solutions to the problems and issues I have encountered along the way. This is not necessarily the one true way. There are probably many different solutions to any problem. And a bajillion books on this very subject too. But regardless of what I have to say, do what works for you!
So take your bathroom breaks now, because you'll be here for a bit! Sit tight and enjoy my blathering!
Part One: "How do you start a webcomic?" A Short Question... with a big, long, friggin' answer.
Okay, a lot of people ask me: "How do you start a webcomic?" And I am like... "Okay....you got a few hours?" It's a question with an answer that's...big... as you can see from the text underneath waiting for your eyes to caress it.
Well first off you should decide how into it do you want to get, is it just a fun thing? Or do you want it to be something more?
If you are doing your comic for fun, you don't really have to read this. But if you want to take on a little bit more of a serious endeavor, than continue!
But with that said: I DO NOT recommend getting into webcomics with the belief that you will make gobs money right away. You won't, and some comics never make any money, ever. It took me about three YEARS before I started making a minimal profit.
It's a lot of hard work, time, AND money. If you have a habit of not being able to stick to something or finish a project, THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.
If you want your comic to be something more than just a fun project, I have two basic guidelines that would be good to note before you put it out on the web.
1.Have a plan.
Even if you don't want to make your webcomic into a business, it's always good to have a plan and a set of goals for yourself and the comic. Always write things down. Even if you think you know everything like the back of your hand, having things in writing can help you keep track of all the fine details that you might miss—or it could help conjure up new ideas that you haven't thought of. This is basically a miniature business plan.
When you're just starting out, staying organized is really important. Like.... holy shit important. Get at least two binders or notebooks for your project. Use one notebook for the business aspects: business/technical ideas, strategies, what everyone's jobs are if you are working with other people etc. Then use the other notebook strictly for the webcomic: story, plot, characters, thumbnails etc. If you want to break it down even more, and have one binder for art, one binder for story, one for your comic hosting bills and so forth, that will work too. Remember, the more you can keep track of the little details, the better you can plan for the future.
2. Control Your Outside Involvement
Who will be involved in your webcomic? How many? Are you going to do this all by yourself? Or will there be inkers, colorists, or someone to do the web-work? Having a team may seem like a fantastic idea, but it's always a good idea to control your outside involvement at this early stage. You do not want the drama inherent in teams to impede your ability to make your comic.
This is very, very important to do. I cannot stress this enough.
If there are multiple people involved, you should create a written plan of what everyone's job will be. If there is money involved, you should have written contracts for everyone to lay out how the money will be handled. If you are worried about the plot being given away, get them to sign a non-disclosure
agreement (often referred to as an NDA). I am not a lawyer, but if you are starting a project that is going to be worth money, and you are going to be working with other people, you should have a lawyer help you create a set of legally binding documents for everyone involved.
Be sure to have an exit strategy that you can use if and when something doesn't work out. Because let's face it, drama is never far from webcomics. People will disagree, friendships will wane, people will move, they won't have the time anymore, or they may even just lose interest and outgrow the comic all together. It doesn't matter if you are Best Friends Forever- it CAN happen. That may sound fatalistic, but if you have a plan for these circumstances and an exit strategy for everyone involved, it will definitely reduce the stress associated with your project.
Part Two: Getting the Story Started.
1.Researching your Genre of choice.
See what's already out there. I would say that the idea you initially have will have been done many times before; there are thousands of gamer-college-buddy-dorm comics, autobiography comics, fantasy comics with dark elves and dragons with human forms, furry comics, things with ~wings!~, steampunk comics, HORSES, sci-fi space opera comics, post apocalyptic zombie comics, RAWR WOLVES, vampire comics, and superhero comics.
What will make yours so special? What will make yours stand out from the rest? No one wants to be mediocre, so see what's already out there. If you see what has been done before, you can use this to your advantage to create something unique. I am not saying to avoid all of those listed; I'm saying that you should come up with some way to enhance your particular theme.
It's important to research other webcomics that fall into your genre, basically to research your competition. I do not mean that you should copy them. Now, someone who is doing the same webcomic subject as you may be your competition for readers- but that doesn't make them your enemy. They may be your ally, instead. That's a personal thing, and this isn't really about that.
Basically this research consists of looking at what others are doing with your chosen subject, to see what works, and see what doesn't work. You want to be able to tell which comics seem to do better and then try to figure out why. If a lot of comics seem to have a certain plot hole, you want to make sure to avoid that. If you see a lot of readers that question why something works, you need to have a good reason, if you include it in your own story. Learning from the mistakes or problems that other people have can be a lot less painful than learning from your own.
AGAIN,this is not about copying the other comics out there. You should be finding a unique way to tell your OWN story.
2. Writing the Story.
Will it be scripted? Some comics are just random and don't follow a storyline (which is fine) and you don't necessarily need a script (and some people just work better not having things scripted!) But if you DO have a long story, it's good to create a readable and consistent format for yourself and your editors (if any). I personally find it easier to have things scripted because it allows me to have a clear view of where I am going, and how I am going to get there. This makes me less likely to paint myself in a corner, or have the characters wander aimlessly.
I found that not having a script caused me to have plot holes in my story that I could have avoided. If you compare the earliest parts of the comic to the more recent ones, you may see what I'm talking about there. Having the plot written out is also nice because at the beginning of the story I can put in some juicy foreshadowing that will play a role later on.This also creates something to look forward to! If you can't wait to get to 'that part' of the story it can help fuel your drive to keep going. Plus, scripting can also give you something else to do, if you're tired of working on the art, but you still want to get something productive done. When I get bored of drawing, I work on the script or thumbnails.
***Jenny's Suggestion! Keep a mini notebook with you at all times! In the beginning stages of creating a comic I had pages and pages of rough notes in my binder, I wrote EVERYTHING down that popped into my head involving the story, I put things down in that notebook even if, at the time, they sounded SO stupid, because you NEVER KNOW if those plot notes can help you. I always carried a little mini notepad with me; I never knew when something would jump up from my brain and say HELLO, don't think that if it's in your head it's safe, it's not, its not until its down on paper, cause you are human, (unless there is something you're not telling me) and you'll forget things, and sometimes you'll remember it later on, but sometimes it'll be gone forever.
Everyone has their own way of outlining their script. So long as you have a consistent outline that you understand, that's the most important thing. At the beginning, I broke down my notes into point form waypoints in a timeline. The waypoints would then be critical events that I wanted to accomplish. For example:
Chapter 3 Sample waypoints:
Here are some sample point-form waypoints I wanted to show the audience from this part of chapter 3.
- Reminiscing of Milo from Jenny to make the audience more familiar with his character.
- Jasper reveals his face. And is revealing how antagonistic he is.
- Jenny is told that Jasper will be on his team.
- Learn more about Molly & Jaspers motives for helping the TZH team
- Sad Jenny is Sad with Milo's stuff
Then, after I had my waypoints, I would flesh things out and tie it all together!
Here is a sample of the scripting from TZH:
[The girl fastens Milo's dog tags around her neck. She holds them for a moment and frowns sadly. Behind her you see that she has an infected badge on her desk as well as other infected paraphernalia. Here you can see various clippings from old newspapers about the virus tacked to the wall assembled almost in a time line-like fashion. Her hat, shovel, and her bag are also there. You see a shot of her entire room as she adjusts the dog tags on her person.]
[Someone is walking up the stairs towards her chambers]
[Jenny suddenly sits up straight and looks at the door, it has been bolted many times and there is a chair in front of it. She gets up slowly and grabs her shovel beside her desk. She begins to approach the door slowly. There is a pause. Then, a knock]
Jenny: [startled] Who's there?
Male Voice: Zombies, lots of them.
[Jenny rolls her eyes. She opens up the door, the angle is right in front of her, as if you were the person standing in the doorway]
Jenny: Have a lot of guts coming here Jasper.
[A man with sleek black hair pushed to the side enters, he has a gun. He notices her holding the shovel, and mock laughs] Cute. [He lets himself in]
Jenny: What do you want?
Jasper: What? I can't just drop by and say hello? [Jasper waltzes about her room like he owns the place]
Jenny: [Jenny glares] People like you don't 'just drop by,' to say hello... unless they want something.
Jasper: Well then, [Jasper sits on Jenny's bed, and then lies down, arms crossed behind hid head.] perhaps I want to thank you for not having the courage to tell your friends about my transfer to your team. Seeing their faces when I told them myself was priceless.
I created my own script format that mirrors almost that of a movie script, but instead of depicting a scene of a movie, it depicts the panels in the comic. Again, this is my way of doing things; there are probably many different formats to accomplish the same goal. The important thing is to create a clear depiction of the dialogue, scene and mood.
There are tons of tools and recourses about this topic at your library, the internet, or heck, even that English class that you hate so much that can help you with creative writing. I am not the most seasoned writer myself, so I am always researching and reading as well :)
Part Three: Readership & Research
This can be tricky. What social group of people are you making the comic for? Gamers? College students? Older people? A young audience? Or a more established readership? Knowing this important factor can help you develop a readership quickly and keep them longer because you know how to market for that demographic. It can even help you determine things like the comic mood and website design (But that's another topic later on).
When I first started this comic, I had no idea about what kind of audience I would attract. After I went through my Graphic Design courses, I realized that it was important to analyze the audience and look at the work objectively. This allowed me to better tailor the strip, the site, and my writing style to reach that audience.
The people who read TZH usually express and interest in RPG's, books, and videogames that pertain to the post apocalyptic genre, and a lot of them are into various 'survivalist' hobbies. Many of them are or have been in the military themselves, or play simulated war games like air soft, paintball, or military re-creations. Those that aren't into modern combat often favor things like medieval reenactments or similar interests.
People who enjoy these sorts of activities are usually into world building- they need to know everything about a subject, and want to know that a storytelling world has all the details mapped out.
Because of all these audience factors TZH has evolved into an expansive, detailed, and elaborate world with a lot of dimension to it. Knowing these factors helped me develop the story to better suit my readers, and myself, and helped build the encyclopedia and the basic skeleton for the TZH world.
2.The Importance of research.
I always hear the term "write what you know" I think that's insanely stupid, because lets face it, most of the things the average joe knows are what EVERYONE else knows, and that's kinda… boring. If I wrote what I knew it would just basically consist of different ways you can align type to images and how negative space is totally awesome. I would much rather make a comic about zombies instead.
So, I have made up a little saying for others and myself:
"Write what you know, research what you don't."
Researching your topic of choice can save you from a lot of embarrassment. Equally as important, it can also help you develop your story and characters.
What you research is up to you, but it's always important to go farther than 'watching a ton of zombie movies' or 'playing a assortment of videogames' or even 'reading a bunch of fantasy books.'
Those things are all well and good, but basically all you are doing there is reading someone ELSE'S work, and they may or may not have done their research either. Basically don't get inspiration and research confused with each other. Doing so can taint your own works leaving them as flat and flavorless as water soup. Basing your research on bad movies, writing, or games will just give you a bad final project.
Now, there are two scales of research. First, you're going to want to do large scale, broad research about the background of your world. For example, if you are writing a fantasy, then you should do some history research. If you are doing a sci-fi story, read some stuff by Stephen Hawking or read stuff on space! I recommend doing a LOT of research for sci-fi audiences, because they tend to be the pickiest.
Look into the background of how the genre you chose started. Examining how it began can give you ideas for the topic of your own works. Whether it might be sci-fi, fantasy, or even just videogames, everything has some sort of history. Also, it doesn't hurt to research outside your subject and bring in additional ideas from other researching adventures, combining them and creating something new. After all, what's the worst that can happen by doing research? You learned something!
For my own research, I didn't watch a lot of zombie films. Most zombie flicks are unrealistic and FILLED with bad acting and fake fear. Instead I looked into natural human history, reading up about natural disasters, plagues, war, and other human survival stories. I looked for real life accounts, real actions told by real people, about real life horror stories. One of the most prominent subjects in my research was the Holocaust from World War 2. It's even visible in the comic itself.
That research also gave me more insight into the human being itself. No human is 'evil for the sake of being evil,' and there is always a reason for doing what they do. Humans will build themselves up to the point of causing great evil because they think what they are doing is right. Once you've gotten a good background for your story, then you'll really want to dig more deeply into the details. This sort of research is especially important with my type of audience, who concentrate on the fine details, such as what kind of fuel the helicopters use.
After really getting into TZH I found myself scrambling to learn and research about survival, politics, agriculture, guns, and various weapons that are portrayed in the comic. I found that I had to learn a little about how to handle weapons and their basic functions. A great example of this is that I found out that a Desert Eagle is merely a 'flash piece', and not really practical for zombie hunting. For starters, the ammo that the thing takes is scarce, it's a HUGE overkill if you are hunting something like unarmed zombies, and its not very accurate as far as aiming goes. There is NO possible way you can fire that thing accurately with one hand. The kickback on that thing alone would cause the weapon to either fly out of your hand or hit you in the face, or you'll just land on your ass.
But I had a character that was carrying one around! So now that I knew more about the weapon, that told me more about the character himself. I had to do some rewriting, but for now I'll let you guys make your own conclusions about why he had one out there, that day ;)
There are different guns for different 'uses' as well, and they are not all the same by any stretch of the imagination. Some guns are better suited for the jungle, desert, the cold, rain, and some are higher maintenance than others. So it goes back to the research again. My characters needed something that was somewhat low maintenance, with plentiful ammo that can be distributed between the other firearms used. Their selection of weapons needed to be simple and straight to the point, because after all, their enemy won't be armored or shooting back. Doing all my research means that in TZH their armor and weapons reflect the enemy they are fighting against.
Basically, you need to be well-informed about what your characters are doing! Your characters don't need to always do the right thing (they shouldn't, either, or where's the fun in the story?) but it is important for you as an author to know when your characters are being dumb.
Part Four: The Interwebs
1.Choosing your website Host and domain name:
Jenny's Domain name guideline:
Choosing a domain can be tricky. I had three rules when making a domain name for my comic: Easy to spell, easy to pronounce, AND easy to remember. This will help when it comes to plugging yourself to potential readers, or if your comic comes up in random conversation. If your domain is hard to pronounce, hard to spell, or too long, you can do yourself a real disservice in the end. Keep it simple! This also goes for the title of your comic- if I can't figure out how to pronounce it or even SPELL it, how can I recommend it to other people?
Once you've got your domain name picked out, you're going to need a host for your site. There are several technical aspects behind your host, and I don't generally manage that here at TZH, so I've had Greg write a brief piece on that:
Greg's choosing a host guideline:
When choosing a hosting solution, you want to do two things:
First, register your domain name independently of your hosting solution. This way, when you eventually change hosts, you don't have to fight with the old host to get your name back.
Second, bear in mind that you WILL change hosts. Don't think that you have to choose one host now that will host you forever and ever.
The host that you pick when you're starting out should be small, cheap, and pretty decently reliable. Prices vary based on features; don't buy features that you don't need, but at the same time, know what you're going to use when you build your website. For example, a site built using only a static page layout won't need a MySQL server, but if you want to use one of the many WordPress templates, you will need MySQL. It doesn't matter how great a host is if they lack a feature that you absolutely have to have- they're still unsuitable. So find a balance, and get the cheapest host that will fit your needs.
Don't sign a contract saying you have to use their services for X years, unless that gets you a price SO cheap that you can bail after a few months and still save money.
Once you get larger, you'll start noticing that fans complain about slow load times, or you may start exceeding your bandwidth allowance. As you grow, you'll want to look at hosts that have better capabilities. You want reliability, and if possible, a host you can develop a good relationship with is nice- though not necessarily required. If you get better service for a better price from a large faceless corporation, go with the large faceless corporation.
TZH is currently hosted through Bookworm Computing; a smaller host, but one we're extremely happy with, because we can always talk to a human when we call in. On the flip side, when we had that data center explosion a couple of years ago, it did take a couple of days to get everything back up completely (though we had the comic itself up pretty quickly), because Bookworm really wasn't so large that they had extra resources in multiple data centers. It's really a question about what you value most- the service, or the capabilities. You are the only one who can make that call for your comic, so it's up to you to decide what is most important.
In the end, remember that your goal is maximum uptime for minimum cost. Get there however you can, and you win (at hosting).
2.Design for the web.
Create an identity, a style, something that people will recognize and associate your product/comic with, any time they see your work or promotional material. Create something so that your audience doesn't even need to see the title to know who you are. BE CONSISTENT, not only for your update schedule, but for your promotional campaign as well. Remain consistent with your font choices and your colours when you start. Your image may take a little time to develop; I know my design has changed throughout the years. Still, I recommend doing a least a few months of concept art for the website design and the overall look of the comic.
Simple is sexy. Simplicity goes a long way. Bogging down your site or promotional material with flash and 'bling' can make things look cluttered and tacky- ESPECIALLY when it comes to web design. Keep the important things and discard the rest, so that your reader can find what they are looking for easily and with as little effort as possible. We learned in graphic design that you have approximately 4 seconds (or less) to capture your reader and hold their interest. If a newcomer is confused about where to read the comic, you have lost them. If you try to 'wow' them too much with your designs by going 'out of the box' you really risk losing potential readers. They'll spend the bulk of their time TRYING to find the comic to read it, instead of reading it.
I dislike comics that cause me to click around to start reading it- I find that annoying. I feel that the comic really should be on the front page. As soon as a reader types in your url, the comic should be the first thing they see. People don't generally care about the news, or your blog, they want to read the comic. If you're Penny Arcade, you can ignore that- but even Penny Arcade has an easily bookmarked url that will lead you straight to the comic, without going past their blog.
3. Stuff in the background. 8|
This may be common knowledge but…
DO NOT PUT MUSIC PLAYING IN THE BACKGROUND ON YOUR WEBSITE. Your readers may be at work, and they're not interested in losing their job for you. Or even worse, they might have some sort of headset on- if someone clicks on your site, and the first thing they get is a terrifying BLAST of sound in their ears, they will immediately close the site, and never return.
Stick to three fonts! You can have four at the absolute most.You'll use one for the title, one for the comic word bubbles, and one for the website text. Don't use multiple fonts for different people's speech bubbles. That just looks incredibly tacky, and it will be very confusing if not done right.
Once you have your fonts, it's important to make sure your site is easy to read. White type on a black background BURNS the eyes. Don't do it, and if you do have that sort of format, use it ONLY in small doses. When you close your eyes and you still see the type on the back of your eyelids, that's bad. This rule holds with any other colours with a high contrast, or colours matches against their opposite on the spectrum. This effect is called colour vibration, and it's not pleasant to look at, let alone to read.
Part Five: Art
1.Artistic ability vs Story telling ability
This is purely subjective and really up to the preference of the reader. A lot of people don't really care about art as long as the story is good. For me, story is generally key- if you have a good story it really doesn't matter to me how pretty or how bad the art is. However, there really needs to be SOME sort of effort put into the artwork, and you want to see an improvement both artistically, and throughout overall look of the comic. If the art is bad to start and isn't going to improve, you may just be better off writing some sort of online serial novel.
2.Improving your craft
I never went to art school, and I never took an art class in my life. But, I am planning to. I feel like I have learned all I can on my own and I am now looking for more ways I can improve my craft.
Artists should always strive for improvement. There is no such thing as 'talent' or having a 'gift.' There is no such thing as a magical artistic fairy that blesses special boys and girls with this ability. You get this skill from hard work and dedication to your craft. Practice every day; that is the key. And this comes with everything whether it is writing, music, art, exercise, sports or whatever.
Part Six: Setting Sail
So you've finally got everything set up, and you're ready to launch! Now we just want to make sure that the launch is as hassle-free as possible. I always say to people, if you are serious about the comic you are doing, you should have at least 10 pages up for the launch, and have a two to three MONTH buffer on top of that. Most new comics don't really last the three-month period- the first few months are going to be the most stressful because you are getting into a new routine. If you already have your buffer set up, your updates can keep going even if you have another job and other responsibilities to attend to on top of your new comic.
Once you've been updating for a while, and you have more updates in the queue, you might want to think about advertising. This leads to one of my biggest pet peeves: People who advertise or announce their comic when they only have 1 or 2 comics up. :|
If you take away anything from this writeup, I hope that it is to be prepared when you start your comic. I hope that when you start a comic, you're not going to advertise it when you just have only one or two pages up. It doesn't matter if you claim to have a big buffer- if you are serious, you will have at LEAST 10 pages up before you announce your comic's 'grand opening.'
With only one or two pages, I guarantee you that you are not giving people enough reason to stay. You don't have anything there to read to hook them in, and keep them. They also don't know if you are a reliable updater, or if you are going to continue with the project even when it gets boring. Having at least ten pages and a steady update schedule will let your readers know that you're here to stay, and that they'll be rewarded for continuing to invest their time in reading your comic.
2. Your first few pages.
This is also a kind of writing pro-tip: Never ever start your comic with a wordy intro. If I go to a page and there is a big wall-o-text briefing about the world, the religion, the characters, or what-have-you, I really don't stick around. The info dump, where everything gets explained at the beginning, is the one of the biggest clichés in writing. And don't try to start with the conference scene or "As you know…," either- those are just as overused. Any exposition you deliver should be sparing and only when needed- don't try to cram it all in at the beginning. After all, if any of that info really matters to the story, it will become apparent in its own time.
Update consistently, and on time. In 4 years, I have not missed a single update. I went through college, graduated, had a job, I have been to funerals, I have been very sick, there was a major health incident in my family, I have been on trips, weddings, I have been married myself and went on a honeymoon, and I'm currently running around trying to get my immigration papers in order… and I haven't missed a scheduled update. Buffer, buffer buffer. You cannot predict the future, stuff will happen.
You'll have plenty of fans who are okay with you not updating because of a life thing, but the rest of them will not care, or will not know, which brings me to another topic.
4. Don't leave your readers in the dark.
I have read comics where the writer has literally disappeared off the face of the planet, and didn't have the courtesy of giving their readers the heads up. I have seen this happen where money was involved as well.
Do. Not. Ever. Do. This.
You cannot do that sort of thing if you ever hope to have a presence ever again on the internet. People JUST don't forget these things. It will follow you for a very long time, and you really don't want that sort of reputation. Remember, nothing is ever truly lost on the internet- if people get curious about your project, they'll google you or check the wayback machine and find out if you dropped your last project without an explanation.
Part Seven: There is no part seven!
There is no part seven- You've seen all I have to say so far about making comics. Now it's time to go and make yours :) I hope you have enjoyed reading this, and that it's somewhat useful!