Thinking of Starting a Webcomic: What Do I Need To Know?
September 23, 2009 9:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of starting a webcomic. I have an idea, and I think I have some good drawing and writing skills. But I also have many questions and I'm hoping experienced web cartoonists might be able to offer some insight.

I'm envisaging a full colour comic updated three times a week or so, so I'd like to be able to draw my stuff, colour it with a fill and then upload the finished jpeg. I also want to try and fit it in around my day job which is why I want to make this as painless as possible so that apathy and tiredness doesn’t kick in.

With that in mind, I'd like answers to the following please.

1. What kind of equipment and software would I need to make this as easy on myself as possible? By that I mean, would I want a tablet PC with the appropriate software or would I want a MacBook Pro or something similar? And what's the best software to create a webcomic in?
2. Following on from my first question, what kind of start-up costs am I realistically looking at? Assume I have internet access and some HTTP and FTP skills (so no need to hire anyone to build a webpage etc). Also assume I live in Australia for tax and business purposes, and that I need webhosting etc.
3. Would it be worth doing any advertising initially? If so, how do I best advertise a webcomic? Is it worth paying any money to improve my Google rank?
4. Is merchandising something I should be interested in doing straight up (hats, mugs etc)? What sort of costs would I be looking at here?
5. I'm realistic enough to know that this won't make money straight away, or even potentially for years. However, I'd love a rough indication from experienced web cartoonists as to how long it took them to turn a profit, even a small one.

Answers to these five questions, and any other general advice you feel like imparting, would be much appreciated!
posted by Effigy2000 to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I can't help too much with the computer aspect. I did everything on paper, scanned it in, and did some touching up. Only the Sundays got colored. But for this I just used an old basic scanner and Photoshop Elements. Depending on how ambitious you are, you could probably get with simple equipment.

Most strips are done bigger than you might think, in order to work with details better. We're talking maybe a foot wide (Afterwards I would photocopy it to size to fit on my scanner).

I did some web cartooning a few years back, but I never went in with any grand expectations. There's a ton of web comics out there. I personally went on an amateur comic directory that was sponsored by a syndicate (they had first rights if they were interested in it), but there was a sizable fee. Others might have more suggestions on that front.

As far as the comic itself, don't rush into it. Plan out all the characters, possible story arcs, artistic style, and technique. If you haven't yet, try practicing with a dip pen for interesting linework. Fill up a sketchbook full of character notes and ideas to build upon. Focus on creating unique, rounded characters that aren't stereotypes and cliches.

As far as writing (I'm guessing this is a humor comic)... Carry a notepad everywhere (or use a smartphone, in this day and age), and write down ideas whenever they strike you. Observe the world around you, the people, interactions you have, things you see and hear. Anything and everything is fodder for a comic strip, and after a while your head may be on the verge of exploding as a result.

As far as merchandising and the like, don't worry about it. If you find yourself gaining a sizable following, then maybe you can start to. For now, only look at this as a fun hobby and artistic outlet, and nothing more.

Also, look for some books on the medium, like Scott McCloud's stuff. Lee Nordling's "Your Career in the Comics" gave me great and plentiful insight, although it's dated in some aspects (mostly with the internet). But it still seems to be in print. Get it.

And maybe most important: study your favorite cartoonists. Facial/body language, linework, pacing, framing, dialogue...

Good luck!
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:55 PM on September 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, I probably can't give as much insight as the more experienced people around here, but I'll throw in my two cents.

I never had anything epic, but I did run a string of gag strips. These were just comics I though up and drew up really roughly and quickly in Gimp with a mouse, and later a drawing tablet. I did the hosting on Deviant art and had a blog for my postings. I did three strips a week, and the longest of these strips ran for about six months. The bulk of my readership consisted of friends and friends of friends.

It sounds like you're pretty serious about this, but the one thing I was not prepared for when I first started was the amount of time you'll actually have to devote to this. I'm also a college student, so that probably didn't help, but during times when I was really busy, I would have a hard time keeping up. Sometimes I'd have some extra free time and I'd draw three or four, but a lot of times, I'd have a hard time drawing three comics a week. It was just hard for me to sit down and dedicate an hour or more to just this (though, I am a pretty terrible artist, so I had a hard time with things).

As far as hardware and software I used, I started out with GIMP and a mouse. After awhile, I decided to experiment with vector drawing, so I switched over to Inkscape. This made drawing with a mouse easier, but I eventually borrowed (indefinitely) my sister's drawing pad. Then I found out all the cool stuff I could do with a drawing tablet and GIMP so I switched over to that. I'm not currently doing anything right now, but I'm toying with the idea of drawing and scanning in pictures, just so I don't have to be at my computer to draw the comics.

I also bought a book Cartooning the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm. There are pages full of facial expressions and bodily expressions that can be used as a reference when drawing your characters, even if your style is really wild. Running a gag strip, I didn't really need to worry about building characters, but that to say I just used them as vehicles for jokes. Facial expression, color, body placement, size, etc can turn a funny joke into a ROFL joke.

Finally, make sure you enjoy it. Even though currently, I'm not running my strip, I still very much enjoy writing jokes and drawing comics. I'm just stockpiling jokes for when I have more time to devote to drawing good comics. Like TheSecretDecoderRing said, once you start looking at the world as fodder for your comics, ideas pop up all the time.

Comic drawing can be incredibly rewarding and I wish you the best of the best of luck.
posted by Geppp at 11:41 PM on September 23, 2009

A friend of mine is a cartoonist. He's got a blog called chewing pencils which is about converting a drawing hobby into a cartooning profession. Might be worth a read.
posted by titanium_geek at 1:19 AM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Have fun. Three days a week sounds like a lot of work... maybe prepare several weeks' worth in advance both to mature your style and make sure you can meet that pace. People seem to be awfully hard on webcomic creators who don't follow their schedule.

Seconding Scott McCloud, especially Understanding Comics and Making Comics. Jessica Abel and Matt Madden also have a good book on comics creation.

1. If you draw on the computer, get a Wacom tablet-- it allows you to draw normally with a stylus rather than the mouse. Mine came with Photoshop Elements which is great, but it depends on your art style. If it's all lines and flat colors something like Illustrator would be better.

2. I've had a website for years for about US$20 a month-- plenty of room for art. These days you could use something like Wordpress for free.

Can't help you with the money questions.
posted by zompist at 2:06 AM on September 24, 2009

Forget all those questions except #2. The main thing you need to focus on is your premise, your characters and your writing. Do a comic at your intended schedule for a month and only show it to friends. See if you can handle that schedule and keep having ideas for the premise. Get the inevitable directionless comics out of the way early.

Then, trash everything you did and start fresh as if it was your first strip. Adjust the schedule to what you proved was realistic.

Gadgets don't matter, marketing doesn't matter, merchandise doesn't matter... until you have a comic you can stick to and excel at.
posted by clango at 6:08 AM on September 24, 2009

I've been toiling in obscurity on my webcomic for three years now, so would say I am 'experienced' but by no means as popular as you hope to be. Haven't made a dime, in fact, but I don't really care. I am lousy at self-promotion and advertising, but I love what I do, and have gladly lost sleep because I'm trying to get something just right. Anyway, take my advice as you will;

1.) I use the GIMP, which is good but not without its peccadilloes. For a free program it is a very worthy Photoshop alternative, but be prepared to spend some time just futzing around and getting to know it. If you are going to make a big purchase, see if you can test-drive them before throwing down the cash.

As an aside, don't be afraid to try drawing things that you're not sure if you or the program can achieve - I learned a lot of little stylistic and program-related tricks that way. When I look at my old stuff, I see a lot of 'missed opportunities' for things I probably thought were too hard to draw back then but are actually quite doable.

2.) If you start off on a free blog, your startup costs are happily $0! I started out on Blogger and soon moved to Wordpress, which is limiting in some places (no javascript or ads of your own) but served me very well as a basic sort of starting point. In that time I got used to the Wordpress software, which I now run with no added limitations on the domain that I'm actually paying for. As for hosting; shop around some before buying, because you can actually get some good packages for very cheap.

Unfortunately I can't speak to questions 3-5, but I'm very interested to see what others have to say on the topic. As others will tell you, it's super-important that you enjoy what you do. I don't mind losing sleep because I love making comics, and along the way I've gotten some surprising new stories and readers from places I'd have never imagined.
posted by Monster_Zero at 6:36 AM on September 24, 2009

You'll want to get a month's worth a head of you and get into a rhythm of always drawing a new strip/page/whatever on a pretty regular schedule. Don't worry, you will run through your buffer. No you probably wont see your friends ever again. Dittoing McCloud, Abel and Madden's books.
posted by The Whelk at 6:44 AM on September 24, 2009

Oh! And unless you're super-niche, expect at least a year to go by before anyone notices you at all. Webcomics are like mayflies and just brute persistence can go far.
posted by The Whelk at 6:47 AM on September 24, 2009

I've got to echo clango here. If you're just starting out, don't worry about advertising; definitely don't worry about merchandising (unless you're only interested in this for the money, in which case there are much better ways of spending your time).

You are at the perfect stage to experiment. As others have said, just start on a free blog service and draw comics for a few weeks. You will easily see what works and what doesn't, and then you can focus on fixing whatever doesn't work.

And then, once you've been doing it for a while and you're comfortable with your workflow and you know can put out a consistently good product, then you can go promote it. Are you a member of any forums or communities where you can place a link in your signature? That's what worked for me, years ago; a few people would click it, and they would tell their friends, and then they would tell their friends, and so on. Paying for advertising is great and can work wonders, but in my opinion word-of-mouth is the best kind of advertising and it's absolutely free. It requires a lot of patience, of course, but it works.

Anyway, the best piece of advice I can give you is to enjoy what you're doing. There is an audience for anything, and if you are putting out a body of work that you genuinely like creating, there will be people out there who genuinely like to read it.
posted by Nedroid at 7:13 AM on September 24, 2009

Well, I'm a syndicated cartoonist and I've been doing at least a cartoon a day for 10 years now (while working around my day job) so I can give you a little insight.

I wouldn't worry too much about the equipment. I draw in pencil, ink, scan and shade/fill on a mac with Photoshop. The Wacom tablet is very helpful all along the way.

I would focus on imagining just what you're getting yourself into. I mean really imagine it. Get yourself straight with friends, family members, significant others that you're going to be working certain hours certain days. Oh, you can believe that at three comics a week you can put in the time when you have the time and all will be fine but it won't. Without a disciplined time schedule (with wiggle room built in) the deadline wave will overtake you. It will. Trust me. My editor told me that the other editors at the syndicate are jealous because I always make deadline. I asked him how many of the other cartoonists miss deadline. He said all of them.

I think clango was also right in saying the other marketing stuff doesn't matter if your work sucks. You might want to just start off as if you really were up on the web put just put the finished work in the drawer. Do that for, like three months. Your work will get better and you'll have a ready made emergency cushion for later when you're sick/overwhelmed/burned out or want to spend time with ones you love.

(I can also second Lee Nordling's book. It may be a little newspaper-centered but it's the best one I've seen on the business.)

It may sound like heavy lifting but that's because it is. That being said, it's not heavy if you like it. I find cartooning is the closest thing I've found to being able to tickle myself. Oh and when you get up and going, email me and I'll suggest some forums and places where cartoonists (and people liie Lee Nordling) hang out and dispense advice.

Welcome to toondom.
posted by lpsguy at 7:31 AM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Consider, in addition to the McCloud books on making good comics, the recent book "How to make Webcomics" co-written by some guys who've made a living at it, specific to webcomics.

Absolutely, test-drive your ability to make comics and churn them out on-schedule. Authors take more grief for falling behind than for any other sin.

I agree with previous posters, think of this as art that you're making, and sharing as art, and then once that is stable, you can convert to the "how to make money off this". But you need fans before you can ask your fans for money.

Accounts at places like are, I believe, a reasonable cheap shortcut, but I don't know much more about it.

For publicity, knowing other webcomics people is key. Make fan-art in exchange for a link. Post fan-art with link-backs. Look into buying ads on other comics sites via Project Wonderful. Look at what other webcomics that are about your degree of site traffic are doing. Go to conventions. Talk to other creators. Build a network.
posted by aimedwander at 11:25 AM on September 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I second the suggestion on the "How to make Webcomics" book. What's more, I am deeply surprised nobody suggested it earlier as this book will answer ALL the questions you made and more. I bought it with a bit of doubt and I wasn't dissappointed. The book is really good, it's really exciting and insightful. All of the authors have successful webcomics and they speak all from experience.

Get it, you won't regret it.
posted by jgwong at 10:12 PM on September 25, 2009

« Older Eat, Drink, Man, Austin   |   Delete these pix of your ex! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.