The comic book industry, as people are familiar with it today, has been in place for over seventy-five years and has remained fairly unchanged for the past thirty. The newspaper strip business has been around longer -- over one hundred years -- and has been pretty stable and consistent for most of that time. All of this can be evidenced by some of the characters that have remained viable to this day: Dagwood Bumstead, Popeye, Superman, Batman, etc. still appear in much the same form and format as they did over a half century ago. Compare, for example, these two Phantom comic strips from 1939 and 2012...
Obviously, the newer one is paying a deliberate homage to the original, but that the format can still be essentially unchanged over all that time is my point. Terry Beaty is almost certainly using different tools than Ray Moore once did, but the basic delivery is the same.
There are, in general, four phases any given industry goes through: emerging, growth, mature and declining. The names given to these are pretty self-explanatory at a high level, but what might not be as obvious is that they’re generally tied to financial earnings. Emerging markets are ones where the industry as a whole isn’t making any money, compared to mature industries where the industry as a whole has a fairly constant revenue stream that only really goes up and down with the economy at large. Mainstream comic books could be said to be a mature industry and newspapers could be said to be a declining industry.
Webcomics, of course, still fall under the category of emerging markets. While webcomics, as a concept, have been around for over twenty years, the notion of them being an actual industry is much more recent. It would be hard to pin down a specific date when a significant number of webcomics were actually making money, but it would certainly be no earlier than 2002/2003. I don’t think they’d quite fall into a growth category yet because, while there are quite a number of webcomics out there and that list is growing, the number making money hasn’t quite gotten to a growth stage yet. Or if it has, nobody else is announcing that they’re making a living off their webcomic yet. So it’s still a pretty nascent industry.
Which means no one’s really settled on a really great business model. That’s not to say there aren’t some good ones out there! After all, the guys making PvP and Penny Arcade are doing quite well for themselves. But, those are largely tied very specifically to the unique individuals working on those webcomics. Readers are responding to Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik as individuals as much as anything else. I seem to recall Kurtz saying not that long ago that he is where he is now in large part because of who and where he was when he started his strip, and that his success is not really replicable because things have changed so much since then.
And all of that, if you’ve been following my logic through the column so far, starts to get to this week’s title: Beg, Borrow and Steal. In an industry that is still trying to define how it works as an industry (as opposed to “as a hobby”) there are still quite a number of questions about how things can and should work. The basic business model of giving away the comic for free and making money selling ads and loot is solid enough but, as I said, the webcomics that have been successful thus far are largely dependent on the talents and personality of one or two individuals. In theory, xkcd should be a fairly easy comic to replicate and no one has really done so effectively.
So what webcomickers are forced to do, then, is scrape together any hints, suggestions and ideas they can from any sources they can to see what specifically works for them. Should they update their strip every day, three times a week, once a week...? Should they just sell books and t-shirts, or should they try for a plush version of their main character? What kind of booth makes sense at a convention? Does going to a convention even make sense?
These types of decisions are fairly easy for a company like Marvel or King Features to make. They’ve already figured out what works for most companies like theirs, so they just need to do what they did before. But, in webcomics, those questions haven’t really been answered definitively, so everybody’s out trying different things. Maybe Ryan Estrada’s got a good idea to improve booth interactivity. Maybe Rickard Jonasson’s got the best update schedule. Maybe Frank Page does a great job with his Facebook updates. Maybe Ross Nover is on to something with his Super Art Fights.
Or maybe not.
But right now, in this emerging market, every webcomic creator needs to find what works for them. Some of that might be completely original, but there’s also no shame in taking the best concepts from everyone else whether you get them by begging, borrowing or stealing.