More thoughts on web comics
Posted on August 15th, 2008
This is a sequel to the post on entertainment in general I posted yesterday. This time around I'm addressing web comic authors directly instead of focusing on entertainment as a whole.

There are millions of comics on the internet these days. Most aren't heard of very much, nor are they on any favorites list you see in forums or blogs. The simple fact is that most web comics suck. In the post yesterday I covered a number of reasons. These include failing to provide a healthy escape from reality, using a very stale plot idea, trying to turn a silly comic into a serious comic and drowning the strip with vulgar content that is only funny to very immature people.

There are other mistakes that authors can make that destroy their own strip to various degrees. Here's a short list of these things along with an explanation of how to do them safely.

  • Avoid using someone else's culture and language. A piece of good advice I hear a lot is to write what you know. If you've never lived in an area, you cannot claim to know their culture and way of life. If you still want to set your comic's world in another area, then research that area carefully for a while first. Note also that watching countless hours of Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew, Dragon Pink or any Anime does not count as researching Japan's culture. Think about it: how would a person in Japan describe life in the United States if everything they know about us was learned from OUR movies?

    Another mistake is use of what's been dubbed "Fangirl Japanese". It's the constant use of Japanese words when a perfectly acceptable English word exists. Don't use another language's words just to use that language's words. This tends to turn people away from your stuff as not everyone knows that "kawii" means "cute" or that "wari" means "bad" and you can bet that very few people are going to fish through a language-to-language dictionary just so they can read your comic.

    Using "nyah" instead of "meow" is up to you however as both are just onomatopoeia for the sound cats make rather than a word that carries meaning.

  • Cameos, brief appearances of characters from outside the story's universe, need to be handled carefully. They are supposed to be very brief and not in the foreground. Remember that your story is ultimately about your characters. Even when a character from somewhere else is present, the story revolves around YOUR characters.

    An example of a cameo is from the newpaper comic FoxTrot. In one of the Sunday strips, the cast was at the library. In the background of the panels, random people come and go. They aren't important to the story, they are just background characters -- except in one case: in one of the panels, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbs is clearly visible. He plays no role, and the cast of FoxTrot completely ignore him. In fact, so will the reader: all of the activity is centered on the Fox family in the foreground of the comic. Most cameos go this way; they are Easter Eggs for sharp eyed readers rather than an active piece of the plot.

    An example of cameos that play an active role comes from the Scooby Doo cartoons. In some of the older cartoons, Batman and Robin show up and assist the gang in solving the current mystery. While the caped crusaders do play an active role in much of the episode, the focus is still largely on the Scooby Doo gang. At the end of each such episode, Batman and Robin say goodbye to the Scooby Doo gang and then take their leave from the cartoon. Thus status quo is restored: it's once again just those meddling kids and their dog.

  • Right up there with cameos is the wonderful thing called product placement. Ideally this should be handled just like Easter Egg style cameos. Stay away from comics where a product is both thrust in the foreground and explicitly named. Frankly, product placements should do their best to not look like a commercial.

    A lot of the times I've run across comics thrusting a product in your face as if it was a paid commercial advertisement it's for something like Pocky. Pocky is a biscuit covered in chocolate or other flavored coverings like strawberry. It's also just about exclusive to Japan. Thus these comics are pulling the product placement equivalent of Fangirl Japanese. If your comic is set in America, use something most Americans will actually know about. Alternatively, don't focus on the Pocky; simply show a character casually eating it while doing something related to the story that the character would actually do. Checking their emails for example.

  • Here's a fun one: Deus Ex Machina. The phrase means "god out of a machine". It's a plot device that's also highlighted as an example of bad writing. Basically it's an improbable device, power, or entity that suddenly appears at the climax and somehow resolves everything instantly. The phrase came about because in some Greek plays an actor playing a god would be lowered onto the stage via a crane (the machine being referred to) and magically resolve the plot.

    To an audience, deus ex machina is generally not as fulfilling as an actual resolution of the plot within the story itself. In some cases, it gives the impression that the author got bored and/or stopped caring about their story and simply ended it abruptly.

    A possible way to make a deus ex machina actually work is to make the device probable in your story and show or reference its existence at intervals. Marvel Comics has a weapon called the Ultimate Nullifier. This is the ultimate weapon: firing it destroys *everything*. Its existence is not hidden; instead there tends to be several comics between it being searched for and being used. When used, everything was destroyed -- and then fell back together as a happy ending where the bad guy never existed.

  • There are two parts to creating a comic. They are writing and drawing. Writing it the more important of the two. Many comics are very well drawn, but bad writing will tear them down very quickly. A poorly drawn comic can be saved by good writing however. An example of the latter is XKCD. It's a comic drawn almost entirely with stick figures. However, the writing saves it. The strip's focus is very clearly on its rather clever geek humor and not its appearance.

    There's an opinion I run across about online comics fairly often: comics written by the artist tend to be poor quality. From the look of things, this is because the person behind the comic was more concerned with the art than the writing.

  • This last point should be rather obvious, but one finds it frequently ignored online. Whatever you do, do not insult your readers.

    Do not insult a culture you don't know. You're insulting a strawman. When people realize you're attacking an idea rather than the culture you claim to be attacking, you'll just get branded as a bigot and people will move on.

    Do not insult religion. Lots of people believe in something. If you want lots of people reading your comic, then don't call them names for believing in a higher being.

    Stay away from politics. Aside from the "entertainment is an ESCAPE" point from yesterday, you will only alienate potential readers by attacking a politician or a political point of view. Mind you, there's a lot of people on both sides that don't like reading attacks on the other side of the fence. Also, a *lot* of people were sick of making fun of George W. Bush by 2004.

    A very good reason for avoiding these topics is that in the vast majority of cases they are just spite or hatred and lack backing. This creates entertainment that reinforces and mirrors the world's problems instead of providing an escape from these troubles.

I do believe that's all of the points I wanted to make on the subject. If you do plan on making a comic, think about what you're doing before you do it. Your future fans will thank you, and you'll keep the fun of doing the comic for a long while.



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