WEBCOMICS AT WIZARD WORLD
It's gotten around the water cooler that I'm not a big fan of what Wizard World Chicago has become in recent years and I've considered it more a large regional show than a national convention for a couple years now, but that doesn't mean nothing was going on there.
Under the radar, mostly in artist alley, web-based cartoonists were gathering. We all know the Wizard World rep: mostly a showcase for DC and Marvel, super heroes central, places like TokyoPop, Oni and Fantagraphics don't even bother showing up. And yet there's still a web comics presence. I spent the bulk of my time at the show interviewing the digital creators about their sites, so, in no particular order:
Jennie Breeden / "The Devil's Panties"
Something of a grizzled veteran, having started the strip in 2001, Breeden puts the strip (whose fliers proclaim "Not Satanic Porn") at about 20K unique visitors per day. She's also one of the ever-increasing subset of full-time web-based cartoonists. While she claims to have fairly low costs of living, comics are now what she does for a living and that's a big leap.
Hosting with Keenspot, she uses that for her hosting and for advertising, spending most of her time focusing on the merchandising aspects of the business, which she does herself. The merchandising here is a little more varied than you see at a lot of sites. Playing cards and buttons are prominent in her store, for instance. Also varied is the monthly comic, published in the Direct Market through Silent Devil. The comic is 1/3 material from the web and 2/3 new material. This is then collected into trade paperbacks. Breeden tells me she's looking to move more into the TPBs and produce one every three months, particularly since the trades were selling much better at Comic-Con International in San Diego. She also tells me the monthly comics are for the direct market only and not her website, though she's having a clearance sale on them, online, right now. Marching on towards the TPBs, I suppose. She's looking on focusing more on Diamond as a distributor for the books, again, through Silent Devil. I find this interesting that a webcomic should be focusing on the direct market, which has traditionally been resistant to web-based features, to the point where the books don't appear to be available on Amazon, traditionally a more friendly venue.
And here's the kicker: Breeden estimates half of her rent is paid by sales at conventions and the other half by her web store. Obviously, any ad revenue from Keenspot isn't foremost in her mind and it's very interesting that she's able to move that much merchandise at conventions. Still, attending 20 cons in a year, she should have a pretty good idea what does and doesn't work.
Spike / "Templar, Arizona"
Spike, the winner of the 2007 Glyph Rising Star Award for Best Self-Publisher is two years into a five year experiment to answer the question "can I make minimum wage" doing webcomics? She says she's about 1/3 of the way there.
"Templar, AZ" gets a little under 20K page views and 3-5K unique visits per day. Hosting is done through Web Comics Nation and advertising is done through Project Wonderful, but 95% of her income is from merchandising. The first TPB has recently come out (not on Amazon, so look for it on the comic's site) and Spike is getting ready to do a t-shirt pre-order and see how that popular form of merchandising treats her strip. While she normally does 6-7 conventions per year, Wizard World Chicago was her first show actually selling.
Phil Chan and Friends / "Digital Pimp"
You may have seen the "Digital Pimp" booth in a few artist alleys. They've been around since 2003 and I've seen them at MOCCA and the New York Comic Con, as well. A part-time business for all concerned, Digital Pimp sports 8K unique users daily.
With a product mix consisting of 95% merchandising and 5% ad income, digital pimp does the bulk of its business, perhaps 75%, off t-shirts. In contrast to a lot of other web comics, they've been mostly putting out their print edition in the form of "normal" comic books (also called "floppies," if you're Warren Ellis), and the regular issues have been doing better than their TPB, which was new in February. Their distribution on the print comics side is online, in NYC metro-area comic shops and at shows. They hadn't really considered what percentage of their business they do at conventions, but you see them often enough, it can't be horrible.
Tom Brazelton / "Theater Hopper"
Brazelton's revenue mix is approximately 70% advertising to 30% merchandising (which tends to come in bursts), in stark contrast to a lot of webcomics that do most of their business in merchandising (which is to say, mail order, if you want to be old school about it). "Theater Hopper" sources its advertising through Burst, Tribal Fusion and some direct sales. Please note that he's using traditional web advertising agencies for this, something not all that many webcomics have been able to secure and it is a bit unusual.
For merchandising, it's a mix of two TPB's and t-shirts. Brazelton notes that more TPB sales occur at conventions than online and that merchandise sales at a 3-day convention can equal 1-2 months of advertising income.
Ian Corrao & Justin Dupont / "There Goes the Neighborhood"
With a domain name like Zombiehood.com, I'd probably opt for Zombiehood as a strip title, rather than the deceptively kinder and gentler "There Goes the Neighborhood," but that's just me. Still this is a fairly new strip, only going back to April and the Zombiehood URL was a very recent acquisition. Not much by way of stats or revenue here, but they're looking at merchandising and probably will start with t-shirts.
Tyler Page / "Nothing Better"
Xeric Award winner Tyler Page is part of the trend of indie cartoonists switching from print-first to web-first and print/TPB-second. Originally known for his "Stylish Vittles" book, Page has been serializing "Nothing Better" for around a year and a half, drawing 1500-2000 unique viewers per day. A part-time effort, Page has only recently made his new TPB available online (and at conventions of course). Being originally a print guy, he solicited the book through Diamond in July and, apparently, hasn't been getting any heat from retailers for having it available online early. This one is also in pre-order on Amazon.
All Sorts of People / Drunk Duck
Drunk Duck, one of the mass hosting sites, had a long booth in "Cast-Away" section of artist alley, over by the concession stand. Basically, they had 15 cartoonists show up for free booth space at show. The DD entourage was fronted, more or less, by DJ Coffman, winner of Drunk Duck parent company, Platinum Studios' Comic Book Challenge contest and cartoonist behind "Hero by Night."
With the contest drawing him a regular paycheck for his work, Coffman is full-time on the strip, with 30-40K page views each day and around 9K unique visitors each day. He'll be launching a bi-monthly print comic, with separate stories, in December, through Platinum. He's also gotten himself an agent, or rather Platinum has (they co-own the rights to the strip) and it's currently being shopped around for television.
I asked all of the Drunk Duck people what they were drunk on, since the duck apparently tipples a bit and Coffman told me "green tea," although strong rumor has it, he's been known to knock back a Sailor Jerry.
Tagging along right by him was his colorist and cohort, Jason Embry who owns up to a fondness for rum and coke.
Matt Jacobs does some strips like "Chrome," but has a day job working at Platinum. He uses DD as a testing ground to see what strips can find an audience and then will branch out into print on his own. He was getting 200 page views per day on his weekly strips and 1000 page views per day on his daily ones. Matt drinks Patron.
Amy, or Amelius, as she draws under, creates DD's #2 feature (or so it was ranked when I looked), "Charby the Vampire." Amy, while doing comics full-time, doesn't know what her traffic on the strip is like. Figure it must be 9K+ unique viewers a day, if Coffman's "Hero by Night" is #3. She drinks soda pop.
Michael McClain's been on Drunk Duck for two years with "Bad Girlz." While he won't admit to drinking (maybe the duck's drinking for him), he's getting 300 page views per day and espouses the virtues of the web as a place to "fine tune" a concept.
Raymond Leonard has done "Guytron" for a year and was pleased as punch to have printed up 35 copies of a 16-page preview comic (using Estrada Media to print) and sold out the entire lot. He professes a fondness for Cristall.
Ryan Leonard, yes that would be Raymond's brother, put his "Battle Blood" comic online during Wizard World and still sold 11 copies of the edition he printed up via Comixpress.com. Ryan only ventures into wine coolers.
Drunk Duck's cartoonists thought it was great to have free hosting and a free both, especially at Wizard World booth prices. It was also expressed to me on multiple occasions that free hosting was a great way to beta test concepts - to take the expense out of your R&D. It is not clear, however, how you make money off Drunk Dunk (Coffman's contract not withstanding). If you browse the site, you see some strips, including "Pinky TA" - ranked as the #1 story when I looked, posting their own Project Wonderful ads on the pages, trying to make a buck. You don't see any financial rules on the site. Mark it as a good experience for hobbyists, but needs to have some details spelled out before professional use. The people with a free booth, moving their first books, were certainly happy, but I'm not sure what you do with the strip once you've established your popularity, as the ancillaries seem more Platinum's call than yours. A FAQ on the site addressing such things would go a long way towards clearing that up. And the FAQ should be easier to find than at the bottom of the news page (perhaps a sitemap would be in order, too?) - the copyright statement as part of the privacy statement was the only copyright material I could find for 20 minutes and is a whole lot more ambiguous on creator ownership than what's in the news page FAQ.
Overall, the trend still seems to be towards merchandising and TPBs as revenue streams for web comics. More interestingly, it seems web cartoonists are making decent coin, perhaps disproportionately decent coin, at conventions. The question is why? Lack of normal retail distribution? Clicking better than "traditional" comics with the casual browser? Having a more developed product than many of the - let's be diplomatic - aspiring creators that frequently make up a large percentage of an artist alley? Pre-existing audience that overlaps with conventions? I don't have an answer, but the question is worth pondering.
Also in attendance - but that I didn't get a chance for an extended chat - was Steve Bryant of "Athena Voltaire" fame and Clickwheel(.net), which seems to have reinvented itself as a provider of digital comics for iPod and cellphones.
All in all, nine booths and over 20 guests in digital (and I could have missed someone)? Not a bad showing for a show with a decidedly different reputation and no centralized exhibiting for the medium.
ZUDA CONFUSION CONTINUES
The botched PR/marketing job around DC's Zuda brand of online comics continues, as a lawyer acquaintance of mine, one Jason Fliegel, attended their panel at Wizard World and gave it a scathing write-up at the Howling Curmudgeons blog. Summing it up (though worth a read), DC has reiterated that it will hold the trademarks and the creator will hold the copyrighat. I've read elsewhere that the trademarks will only be leased by DC, but I've been unable to get confirmation on anything Zuda-related from DC.
When questioned about whether the trademarks would be registered, blank stares arose from Richard Brunning and Kwanza Johnson, and underscores how badly they've been left out to dry by how this launch has been handled. The main questions on everyone's collective minds are business and ownership related. Questions of payment and legalities. DC's marketing department has put the applecart in front of the horse and is having their creative staff bombarded with legal and business questions. That's not fair to them, and everybody gets painted a weasel before we know what's really going on. If it really is a lease of the trademark, dependent on the reversion clause, that might be a pretty fair deal. If not, yes, some double talk accusations are definitely in order, and to what extent will partially depend on whether the trademark is registered, and if so, what its registered for. We aren't going to know this until the contract is publicly posted, so the marketing department only has themselves to blame for these commentaries.
Speaking of marketing, it seems the creative department's interpretation of the marketing department's stance, per Fliegel's report, is that they don't need to do any marketing for Zuda, since it will be viral.
I really hope that's not literal. Back in the initial Internet boom days, we used to call a site with that little planning a "Field of Dreams Site." As in "build it and they will come." That almost always flamed out horribly. Viral marketing is something designed and implemented. Actually, those little post cards they want you to draw on and send in are probably a feeder for a viral campaign, albeit a bit chronologically strung out for something slated for an October launch. But planning on just launching and sending a press release to the print comic-specific web sites, that's not viral marketing.
As for the origins of the name Zuda… well, I'm just going to quote Jason:
"Finally, someone asked the question that's been on everyone's mind: What the heck does the name 'Zuda' mean? The answer is 'absolutely nothing.' The brain trust behind Zuda decided they like words that start with 'Z.' Somebody threw out 'Buddha,' they changed the 'B' to a 'Z,' and presto -- they had a name. So now you know."
Now, I did have a very short chat with Kwanza Johnson, and two things came out of it:
- Confirmation that the "Zuda unit" as I've been calling their format is considered half a page. Based on that, I revise my estimate of what they'd be paying for that contract to around $250/Zuda unit. I asked Johnson about that number. He wouldn't confirm or deny, but offered he thought it would be a "pretty sweet deal."
- I asked why they were launching their campaign without the details on how it worked and Johnson said their marketing people decided they should handle it like the iPhone launch, where it was hyped before people knew what it was. I don't know about you, but I had a pretty fair idea what the iPhone was going to be before they launched, having seen both a Treo and an iPod; and iPhone wasn't getting hung up (pun intended) on intellectual property questions.
Wait and see is all we can do. $250/unit wouldn't be a horrible work-for-hire rate, and there appears to be some sort of participation waiting - assuming there's no bait and switch with the trademark.
Then again, maybe they had absolutely no clue what terms to offer and all our chatter is their guide. Still, don't blame Brunning and Johnson for the marketing. Not their department.
Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.