Webcomics 2.0

I’d love to see a good instructional manual with all the tips and tricks for not only making a webcomic (which anyone can do with minimal help) but creating a successful one. This book, subtitled “An Insider’s Guide to Writing, Drawing, and Promoting Your Own Webcomics”, gave me hope, but it doesn’t live up to the promise, in part because of its divided focus.

Webcomics 2.0 cover
Webcomics 2.0
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The title comes from blending the subject, webcomics, with current hype term Web 2.0 (used for interactive websites like YouTube). I don’t think it’s the best idea, in part because I’m not sure most webcomics can be accurately described that way, but more because it gives the impression that this book is either a sequel or a revised edition.

Since it’s being blurbed as by “insiders”, let’s look at the author credits for Steve Horton and Sam Romero. I knew of the former because he wrote the manga-styled Image miniseries Strongarm, but he’s also credited as “co-creator of the long-running webcomic Grounded Angel” and for running “a comics publishing company, Smashout Comics, which publishes digital comics through the Wowio e-book service.” Unfortunately, neither of those are ongoing at this time. Grounded Angel is described as “romance action manga” and seems to have concluded, while the Smashout titles I checked are no longer part of Wowio after the recent changes (an understandable choice).

As for Romero, he “is the creator of the popular webcomic Edge the Devilhunter, featured at Graphic Smash.” I plugged “Edge the Devilhunter” into Google, and the actual, updating site shows up as the fourth link. The first is an earlier mirror site that stopped updating in October 2007; the next two are reference sites. So I can understand why he needs to list the host site in the description. When you do visit the strip (NSFW), the first thing I saw (as of this writing) was a topless female with breasts as big as her head. The comic is apparently a manga-styled adventure; after that image, I didn’t stick around to find out the details. The Comixpedia description says

The webcomic itself is noteworthy not only for its extreme violence and sexual content, but its controversial left-wing political content and liberal use of racial epithets.

Back to the book. The presentation is very professional and easy to read, with large subject headings making it easy to find a particular section. There are 13 chapters plus a glossary for a total of 225 pages of content. However, the authors don’t start covering webcomic creation until the eighth chapter, 90 pages into the book. After a short introduction, there are chapters each on humor, adventure, and manga and additional chapters on other examples and “gathering the [creative] team”. I find the genre division odd — manga is more often considered an art style or influence instead of a genre, so I’m not sure why they split it that way, unless it’s a reflection of how both authors are known for work in that style.

More of a problem is the amount of space dedicated to introducing various samples. I would assume that anyone buying a book on making webcomics would already know at least some of the well-known examples mentioned in the humor chapter, including Penny Arcade, PvP, Sluggy Freelance, and The Devil’s Panties. (Also, I have no idea why Perry Bible Fellowshipis left out of the humor chapter in favor of being labeled “other/off the wall”.) The adventure chapter, on the other hand, refuses to name any examples at all, only referring to “some” strips. Throughout these chapters, things I thought should be explained (technical terms like “spot color”, for instance) weren’t, and things I didn’t need explained (like the definition of an autobiographical webcomic) were.

The humor chapter consists of interviews with webcomic creators, but they’re not of much instructional use. What lessons they do provide would work better later in the book, in the creation or money-making chapters, where the experience can match up with the advice. One goes into last year’s “does Wikipedia hate webcomics?” controversy without providing necessary background context. Other strips are referenced without providing URLs. To finish off the chapter, there’s some sample art, shown in various stages (pencils/inks/color). I don’t know what it’s doing here, since it seems to have wandered in from later in the book. Much better would have been to have shown a sample strip from the interviewees, I think.

The adventure chapter walks through character design for one strip debuting in this book. (So is it even a webcomic?) It’s a waste of space that tells me nothing about adventure webcomics overall. The impression I’m left with is that the creators watched a lot of 80s TV and have no original motivations for their characters; plus, Romero’s characters all look too young for their roles. The manga chapter similarly consists of nothing but characters from Romero’s Edge the Devilhunter; a strip selection is later reprinted, but it’s fuzzy, as though out of focus.

At times, especially at chapter introductions and conclusions, the tone is patronizing, as though the reader is an uneducated idiot who needs lots of “You can do it!” encouragement. Elsewhere, there is very good advice included, but it’s not emphasized. One tip, for example, is that you may want to try something different from the very popular subject of video game humor — but it’s given as a throw-away at the end of the introduction to that chapter. After wasting a paragraph saying that an adventure strip can have any format, they again toss away the important advice that frequent updates build an audience.

The second section of the book consists of a chapter each on writing, art, “Getting Published”, promotion, making money, and “The Future of Comics”. These are each very brief but good (although the writing chapter could be put into a book on screenwriting with few changes). The art chapter plugs Manga Studio over Photoshop, which I thought was the industry standard; perhaps that’s explained by Horton having written another book on using that particular piece of software. The publication chapter covers some of the best-known hosts and collectives. This is where the interviews are a plus, showing different ways of achieving success. The promotion chapter explains press releases and Project Wonderful ads (which I finally understand), among other techniques, and the chapter on making money was a real eye-opener, both in the scope covered and in how things have already changed since this book’s publication.

Overall, for a book about comics, there could have been a lot more illustrations (and I found the screenshots in the promotion section a bit amateurish; they’re near-impossible to read, and they should have cleaned up the bookmarks and status toolbars in the images). I wish the book had started with chapter eight and included a lot more tips and tricks learned through experience and fewer low-content generic statements. The publication, promotion, and money-making chapters are the most useful, unique reads. They could be the foundation for a much better guidebook. (A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)


7 Responses to “Webcomics 2.0”

  1. Paul Sizer Says:

    Interesting review.
    Just for dropping in my two cents of tech knowledge, MangaStudio is a really powerful program, dedicated to producing black and white comic work. I picked it up earlier this year and I love it. It doesn’t replace Photoshop, but it is so specialized that I use it now for all my digital inking and pencilling. Truthfully, I would consider using MangaStudio for my next book, less the coloring. I did 5 pick-up pages in “BPM” in MangaStudio, and it was great!

    The hardest part of writing ANY “How To…” book is knowing to back up and look at being as truly objective to the subject matter as possible. Even someone like Scott McCloud acknowledges that in his books, and it’s tough, but really necessary. Being too close to the subject matter means giving your experiences and genre preferences priority. Did the book cover the genres of the more esoteric, left of center kinds of webcomics, or was it more driven by the “everyone who does webcomics is influenced by manga” assumption?

    Hands down, THE best book I’ve seen in the last few years that excels at how to make a “How To” book is Matt Madden and Jessica Abel’s “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures”. It is genius, and a near perfect example of objectively showing the craft of the comics medium. As far as showing everything from concept to completion, it is nearly without peer. Anyone wishing to write any kind of artistically driven how-to book would do well to check out “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures”.

  2. Seth Wolfshorndl Says:

    I second that recommendation of “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures”. It builds on the groundwork laid by Eisner and McCloud in their books to become the first fully realized comic textbook, complete with projects and a website for sharing with other readers. I have only begun to dig into it, but so far it is incredible.

    Easily the best webcomic book out there (that I have seen) is How To Make Webcomics by Kris Straub, Scott Kurtz, Brad Geiger, and Dave Kellet. Here are four true webcomic pros doing a great job of balancing a book both about the making of comics and the marketing of them. Tons of practical advice (from experience) on every page. It truly is essential reading for anyone interested in creating a webcomic.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Both of those fine books are on my reading stack, with coverage to come. Eventually. :)

    Paul, thanks for the information on Manga Studio. I appreciate knowing more about it. To answer your question, the book didn’t mention the more experimental webcomics, although it did use the term “infinite canvas” several times (without fully explaining it).

  4. Steve Horton Says:

    Just want to point out that I more or less agree with her review.

    For another take, here’s the Library Journal:

    http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6567170.html

  5. Johanna Says:

    That’s very cool of you, Steve. Thank you.

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