Kurtz & Co. Hold Master Class in "How To Make Webcomics"

Thu, February 7th, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Michael Patrick Sullivan, Contributing Writer

"How To Make Webcomics" on sale this month

Brad Guigar is the creator of such strips as "Greystone Inn" and "Evil Inc."  Dave Kellett is the creator of "Sheldon," a strip about a ten-year-old software billionaire. Kristofer Straub is the mind behind "Checkerboard Nightmare" and "Starslip Crisis," and Scott Kurtz is well known for his long-running creation, "PvP."

In addition to their work on their various comics projects, these four creators are behind the webcomics site Halfpixel.com, and have now come together to create "How To Make Webcomics," the book that says what it is and does what it says. The four co-authors sat down with CBR news to talk about the book, published by Image Comics, and about the state of the digital medium.

"I've toyed with the idea of writing this myself for years but always put it off for fear that people would react poorly to it," said Scott Kurtz of the impetus of producing an instructional book on webcomics. "Maybe I felt it was too egotistical for me to attempt to write some definitive tome on making webcomics. Then we started the Webcomics Weekly podcast and response to it was so overwhelmingly good and positive that we knew that it was time for a book like this. People are hungry for shop talk about making webcomics."

"Heck, I've been trying to pitch this very book to publishers ever since my 'Everything Cartooning' book came out," said Brad Guigar. "The publishers I pitched didn't know from webcomics, so I was shut out. And my attempts to put one together on my own and self-publish it always seems to end up at a low priority. So, when Scott mentioned the book he and Kris were working on, I was literally jumping for a chance to be involved."

Said Kristofer Straub, "[Podcasting] was a great launching pad for our discussions, because we'd just keep going after the recording ended. And part of the impetus for me was that no other webcomics book that's come out (of the two that exist, anyway) were really written by webcartoonists. There's a lot of discussion of theory and relevance of webcomics as a new art form, but that's academics to me. Everyone wants to know 'how to,' not so much 'why.'"

"It's really the book we wish had existed when we were starting out," Dave Kellett said,  "an all-encompassing guide to webcartooning that tells you what to do, how to do it, and why certain things do and don't work, online. The hope is to create a one-stop read that springboards readers past the ten-year learning curve that we went through."

"We're really on the cusp of a huge explosion in webcomics," Guigar added. "It's an exciting time. We wanted to be involved in ushering in the new breed of creators and help them succeed."

Said Kurtz,  "I grew up devouring any book I could find on how to make and sell newspaper comic strips. Those books really helped me feel that my unexplainable desire to make these comics was valid and legitimate. Now the landscape of comic strips have changed but the books haven't. Kids today want to know how to emulate Rich Stevens and 'Penny Arcade,' not Mort Walker. They want to know about hosting and dots-per-inch, not pre-press and how to approach a syndicate submissions package. So now it's our turn to give back and foster the next generation of creators."

"How to Make Webcomics" may be a simple title, but it goes far beyond the basics of the medium. "It's actually one of the few books of its kind that starts somewhere after the basics," said Guigar. "We assume you know the basics of drawing and cartooning-and if you don't we point you to some very good resources. We pick up with some comic-art fine tuning and then move headlong into the business aspects such as setting up a Web site, selling merchandize, and attending conventions."

Added Kellett, "The tricky thing, of course, is that any single chapter of this book could itself be a huge volume: Website Design, Marketing, Audience Interaction, Entrepreneurial Planning, Convention Sales, Book Publishing - they're all in there. It's essentially an all-in-one primer that gives you a headstart on learning the skill sets a webcartoonist needs to succeed."

Kurtz continued, "The great thing about the book is that some chapters are there to help you develop and some chapters are really dense and there for future reference. I think kids will read the book the first time to get inspired and fired up, then mentally bookmark the chapters they need to come back to and reference when it's time to do some nuts and bolts things like Web design and preparing your strips for printing in books."

The publication of a book like "How To Make Webcomics" by stalwarts of the form indicates the growth the medium has seen over the last decade. Said Kellett, "I think it has grown past being an outlet for frustrated newspaper-syndicated wannabes (like me) - into a unique medium that's having a tremendous impact on how we read comics."

"It really seems like everyone in webcomics has grown up and gotten very serious about being successful," Kurtz said. "If you notice, almost all of the drama that was associated with the community is fading away like some awful disease that a vaccine was developed for. Everyone is getting married and having kids and buckling down. That can only mean good things for webcomics."

"That's true," added Straub. "Everyone ten years ago was ten years younger. We had time for drama and in-fighting and nonsense like that. We've all had to step up to the plate now, because we wanted to make this our career."

Also looking backward, as well as forward, the cover of "How To Make Webcomics" depicts a crumpled up newspaper comics sections, and the authors believe that the message behind that is very clear. "Newspaper comics are on a very easily charted trend - straight down," Guigar said. "Webcomics are on the rise. As we say in the book, the days are gone in which one could earn a living through a publisher or a syndicate that held the keys to the mass market. The Internet busted the bottleneck. The entire world is out there waiting to discover your work and they don't need a newspaper or a bookstore to do it. The only remaining barrier between you and success is yourself."

Kellett added, "The sad truth of it is, you show me one newspaper subscriber under 35, and I'll show you 100,000 that haven't even picked up a newspaper in a year. Sure, the medium is still viable and profitable for cartoonists who started 10+ years ago, but for young cartoonists hoping to start a career, it's an industry virtually in its death-throes. Even if you were successfully launched by a syndicate tomorrow, it's a pyrrhic victory: Who will your readers be when Baby Boomers start losing their eyesight, and stop taking a paper? Readership numbers will only continue to trend downward.

"In contrast, my readership grows 3-5% every month," Kellett continued. "And yes, I have 1/1000th the readership of even the smallest syndicated strip - but it's a dedicated readership, a loyal readership. How many newspaper readers passively read 'Andy Capp' just because it's there? In contrast, every person who follows my work makes an active, daily choice to do so. So, despite it's far-far-smaller-than-syndication audience size, my webcomic provides me a really comfortable income. Combine that with continued Web growth, and it's not hard to figure out where the average cartoonist's career will be heading in 5-10 years. This book is for those people."

Having armed the next wave of webcomics creators with the tools they need to become successful, the authors look ahead to the future of the medium itself. "Personally, I think you have to tip a hat to the way Robert Khoo has structured Penny Arcade's businesses," said Kellett, "as that forecasts where a lot of webcomics could be in 10+ years. I can foresee two-dozen webcomic titles which, in ten years, could be multiple-employee organizations working on merchandise creation, fulfillment, ad sales, publicity, and licensing across various mediums. In a lot of ways, it's similar to how the Australian painter Ken Done has structured his three businesses around his paintings: You create one piece of art, and then leverage it multiple ways across multiple mediums - with all the rights, royalties, and business branches remaining wholly owned and overseen by the artist. Sure, you can partner up with corporations when and where it suits you, but how exciting to run and own the whole shebang yourself?"

Said Kurtz, "I think the days of webcomics meaning something alternative to the norm are numbered. The big companies are all figuring it out and soon everything will be on the web. Then we'll just be another face in the crowd and mediocrity will have no chance of surviving. It's time to step up our game and make our claims before everyone else gets here."

 "I've always felt that even calling webcomics 'webcomics' didn't help them," Straub added,  "I've been at conventions and tried opening lines on visitors like 'Do you read any webcomics?' And the answer is almost always 'what's a webcomic?' And oftentimes, they actually do read them, but they didn't recognize the term! Webcomics are independent comics that are published primarily on the Internet. There's been some back and forth about their validity, and what place animation and sound have, but by and large it's just a ton of great comics whose day is dawning."

"I predict more flame wars," Guigar said. "With real flames. Oh. And progress."

"How To Make Webcomics" will be on sale later this month from Image Comics.

Now discuss this story in CBR's Image Comics forum.

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