Episode 98: Author Functions in Webcomics

The path that each person undertakes on their path from narrative production to publication is a very unique one due to the many circumstances that surround each individual author. Webcomic cartoonists take on additional responsibilities that other authors outside of this medium and form rarely go through. In many cases, these are one person operations where the author not only has to write and draw each installment but also take on every other aspect to make sure the reader can access his/her work. While self-publishing writers undergo similar hardships for their authorial endeavors, the relative abundance of publishing houses makes an exception; wherein, the rarity  of such resources for webcomic cartoonists makes this extra work an all too common experience. These additional authorial performances include, but are not limited to, creating and maintaining the website where their work is published, moderating forums, developing merchandise which they must then store and ensure delivery of for each purchase, foster a sense of community with the current readership, advertise to gain new readers, stay active in social media to keep readers informed, travel to different conventions for further reader interaction and merchandise sales, among others just to keep the narrative and business  sides of their ventures viable.

These authorial performances are common practice amongst self-published authors of print and even some graphic narratives but there are clear differences between them and those in digital storytelling. The model for these kinds of publications are already familiar to readers and authors; the system for publishing is already there. The history of webcomics and web publications contains several examples of authors adapting their work to fit the molds of previous forms of media while at the same time trying to reinvent the wheel for these new digital avenues. Troy Campbell’s History of Webcomics how many webcomic cartoonists were lost when attempting to transpose their narrative production into the digital format and how to deliver these stories to the potential reader. Technological acuity for starting and keeping up the website was just as important as good storytelling and artistic ability for the early webcomic pioneers of this digital frontier.

Webcomics have existed the early days of the Internet when it was then known as the Arpanet system. This form of storytelling took off during the turn of the millennium as the technology had reached a level of accessibility for authors and readers alike. Still, the task of creating a serialization format for this medium was still experimental. Many webcomic cartoonists stuck to traditional and recognizable forms by making three or four horizontal panels, the established presentation of comic strips in newspapers. The other model of graphic narratives was that of comic books and graphic novels, but having that much content per installment did not lend itself well to the digital medium. Instead, many webcomic cartoonists adapted the style of a singular comic book page, normally containing twelve panels while still being as adaptable as need be, for delivering their content in a way that was familiar to readers and one that was simple enough for the author to compile for potential future print compilations. However, other webcomic cartoonists preferred to create new modes of storytelling. While print graphic narratives had information crammed into the confines of each page, webcomic authors could provide new dimensions through multimedia options and creative/strategic spacing between panels. The latter practice was coined by Comics Studies guru Scott McCloud as the “Infinite Canvas, which frees authors from the physical limitations of the page thanks to the ability of websites to spread out almost indefinitely into any direction while still within one’s sight through a few clicks on the mouse. Webcomics carry with them the authorial potential to explore once impractical structures of storytelling, though this is a choice that many authors use sparingly within their work.

Another choice that webcomic cartoonists need to make that is out of the hands of many authors is the publication schedule of their work. Other forms of serialization have this decision premade as part of the “industry” standards of the medium, at least when it comes to publishing in the United States of America. Newspapers come out everyday, movies are in cinemas just before the weekend, comic books have new installments every Wednesday, DVDs and other films to own are available on Tuesdays, etc. Traditional print publishing does not have a set release date for all books, though some popular authors are more likely to decide on the first Tuesday of the month, potentially to maximize initial monthly sale numbers. Webcomic cartoonists elect not only the date of publication, but also its frequency. Since most webcomics fall under the category of microserialized, wherein each installment contains less than one percent of the total finished text, these authors need to calculate how often they can provide updates. These calculations take into effect various factors; such as but not limited to, on average narrative production, current workload, narrative pacing, and the amount of content per installment. Professional webcomic cartoonists like Barg Guigar, author of “Evil Inc” and How to Make Webcomics, advocate for consistency and a strict update schedule to keep readers and authors focused delivering installments on a regular pace. On the other hand, there are those that insist that new installments should be done when they are ready and not rushed or forced for the sake of being on time. A “random system” encourages visits to occur more regularly, thus increasing views and potential advertising revenue. Besides, a strict schedule means that the majority of your readership will go to the site with each new installment as it comes out, which can potentially crash the website itself . Furthermore, webcomic cartoonists can change their publication schedule whenever they see fit, thus being able to shift between forms as they see fit, though they do so at the risk of confusing/alienating their current readership. Ultimately, the publication schedule should be one where the author can do his/her job at a desired pace. Tarol Hunt of webcomics went through a few years of determining when updates should be made. Twice a week was too much of a struggle to keep up with but once a week would slow the pacing of his narrative too much. He recently decided to forego a specific date of the week to provide an update every five days to a mostly positive reception by his readership. He even put up a countdown clock so that readers specifically know when the next installment will be available. As of the time of this writing, this new and somewhat unconventional publication schedule has not had any delays or missed updates, a not uncommon occurrence in his previous publishing formats.

Because authorship within the digital platform can be done at a potentially large scale without the need of editors or publishing houses, there are less barriers in this medium preventing one from publication. This allows for a freedom when it comes to the actual content of one’s work, especially towards what can be considered “mature” or “adult” material. There is no FCC policing the Internet and most content is protected under the First Amendment for writers and artists of the US and many other countries have similar stances. And yet, these freedoms do not equate to all material found on the Web to be hyper violent and/or sexual in nature. Each author produces his/her work as he/she sees fit and they do not necessarily need to fit their stories into age appropriate categories like rating system in place for movies and television programs. The authorial function of censorship gives way to one of overall consistency in tone. The author is free to choose how to best convey the story through each of the installments but the first one that contains something outside the expected tone can cause a backlash for the readers. For example, imagine that one installment of a webcomic that can be considered to be within the “PG 13” rating suddenly contains a scene with graphic nudity. The author technically has done nothing wrong but the reaction by the readership beyond the initial surprise can vary wildly. In general, content that is generally perceived as “adult” or something that could be found in an R rated film is accompanied by a warning of such, mostly by indicating that the material in question is “Not Safe for Work” (NSFW). Authors are in no way obligated to provide the NSFW label for their work but it is considered a common courtesy and almost a standard practice within digital publishing.

It is also worth noting that since there are generally no editors or publishing houses for webcomics, there is no real way to ensure that the serialization process continues. If webcomic cartoonists are indeed running a one person operation, then the only incentive to keep going is a personal motivation and the desire to keep the readership happy. Still, no one is going to fire a particular author for falling back on the publication schedule or if the writing and/or art become lower in quality. One might a few angry emails and lose some readers, which translate into a loss of revenue but the digital author can still continue to do shoddy work or even stop altogether, which ultimately makes the narrative suffer. There is no physical contract that forces the webcomic cartoonist to write the story. It is not like in the case of corporate authorship where other writers and artists can be employed to replace unproductive ones. If the author chooses to go on hiatus or quit, then the story becomes frozen until the serialization continues at some point in the future. In fact, many webcomic cartoonists start with an interesting concept but later realize that the amount of work necessary to run their work is just more than what they expected and/or can handle. Thus, one of the authorial functions for webcomic cartoonists is that of discipline in order to continue to provide installments at a regular pace with a consistent overall quality to your readership, however big or small.

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