Earlier this week, fans of Girl Genius saw the Foglios’ strip updated at the usual time, but not looking quite as polished as normal. It included a note that said, “We’ll get the color in sometime while it’s still Monday, but Cheyenne [Wright, the colorist] was with us at ConTemporal this weekend, and we just got home about an hour ago.”
That happens not infrequently among webcomics. The creators are not only writing and drawing each strip, but they act as their own marketing departments, business managers, secretaries, travel agents, accountants, etc. Not to mention that many, if not most, webcomic creators hold down “real” jobs in addition to their comic to ensure the rent gets paid and food can get on the table. Plus, hey, life happens sometimes!
So, from time to time, you see an update from a creator that’s perhaps not quite done. They were working close to their regular deadline and preferred to post an incomplete or rough version of their comic in lieu of missing the deadline entirely. Frequently such updates include an explanation of some sort about why their posting is missing inks or colors or whatever. And generally, like the Girl Genius example I’ve noted, they come back fairly soon with a completed page.
Creators are usually able to do that because they were already pretty close to being done when their deadline hit anyway. Maybe just an hour from complete, but that extra hour would run them in to the next day. I’ve checked my feed reader more than a few times first thing in the morning with comics caveated with something like, “It’s technically still Wednesday!”
An alternative, of course, would be to not post anything at all until the comic is complete. Although I haven’t seen strict studies done on this, the generally accepted thinking in web publishing is that consistency is absolutely critical. If someone has established a daily, weekly, or whatever schedule, their fans fall away quickly when that schedule isn’t adhered to. Once people get out of the rhythm of checking a site (or feed or however they come across the work) it’s exceptionally difficult to get them back into the habit. David Brothers wrote a personal account of exactly this with regard to printed comics just this week.
Another alternative is to create a buffer. To create a stockpile of comics large enough to allow some breathing room between a comics’ creation and it’s accompanying deadline. In newspaper strips, this was historically done because it took some time to get the artwork prepped, printed and distributed. Jim Davis works on Garfield about a year in advance (which explains its lack of topicalness) while Gary Trudeau works on Doonesbury only about two weeks in advance (precisely in order to remain topical). Since webcomics can go from completed artwork to being published in a matter of seconds, that lead time isn’t really necessary from a production standpoint. But it does allow the creator more flexibility with regard to their own life.
How big that buffer is, then, is entirely up to the whim (and time management skills) of the creator. The largest buffer in webcomics that I’m personally aware of is Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel; he’s usually working about a month in advance. I’ve seen several other creators who have noted having a buffer of between 1-2 weeks. Of course, many don’t have a buffer at all and will sarcastically ask what a buffer even is if you probe them about it.
On the flip side, W. Byron Wilkins of 1977 the Comic has mentioned that not having a buffer allows him to make changes to his ongoing story more easily...
This is one thing to be said about NOT having a buffer, you can fix things on the fly. Yes, having a buffer is a great thing, but would you go back to a comic a month old and do a fix that required redoing two or more pages? I think not. So, yay to laziness and not having a buffer!
The problem many creators run into is not starting with a buffer in the first place. If they don’t build one in before their comic even launches, it can be extremely difficult to create one while their strip is running. In effect, they have to spend some amount of time working twice as hard in order to get ahead on their strip. It’s not easy, by any means. But it does mean limited use of pencilled roughs and/or missing deadlines, which makes the creator look that much more professional as a creator, helping to draw that many more readers in. It’s not an easy task, by any means, but no one said webcomics were easy!