I read a lot of webcomics. I have some of my favourites listed on my links page, and two reviews on this site. All in all, I’m actively following about twenty, have read another twenty or so to completion, and have countless more bookmarked to check out later, dropped partway through for various reasons, or de facto completed because I’ve read up to the point the author abandoned ship (always the saddest ones).
Comic Rocket is a webcomic reading service that has me spending less time reading comics than ever before, and that’s a good thing, because keeping up with a continuity-heavy comic with a storyline as it’s updated with between one and three pages a week (occasionally five or seven if the author is particularly dedicated/crazy) is comparable to watching a movie in regular one minute bursts over five years.
The vast majority of webcomics have the same general “business model” – new pages/strips X times per week, all free to view, with money made on accompanying merchandise (mostly t-shirts with witty sayings from the comic) and print anthologies. And for a no/negligible continuity humour strip like xkcd or Dinosaur Comics or Nedroid, that’s a perfect model. You get a funny joke a few times a week (or whenever you look at the front page of the website, if you’re not the following type) that requires little context, and maybe you like the joke enough to buy a t-shirt with it on.
But it breaks downs for anything that’s not a humourous cartoon strip. For whatever reasons – and I’ll get to these later, there are quite a few of them – artists of webcomics that try to tell ongoing, even dramatic stories have adopted the same distribution model as these joke comics, except instead of one cartoon strip per interval, you’re getting one comic page per interval. And a single page of a comic, well, that represents far less of an atomic unit of self-contained entertainment than a cartoon strip does.
Artists do what they can to combat this. Sam Logan updates his comic Sam & Fuzzy three times a week in chunks significantly larger than a single page – single updates often cover two or three pages when collected in physical form, and Tom Siddell of Gunnerkrigg Court has often mentioned how he tries to make each page enjoyable on its own. But ultimately the real enjoyment of either of these comics, what makes them even worth reading, is the ongoing stories that they tell over multiple pages. And regardless of any minor mitigating factors, reading these comics at one page every few days is a suboptimal experience.
I’ve read most of the story-based webcomics I follow in the following stages:
- Discovery: Read the first few pages, decide if I’m going to stick it out and keep going.
- Catch up: Binge on the archives, reading hundreds of pages in fairly quick succession, or over a few weeks in largish chunks, until finally I reach the newest update.
- Follow: Put the comic in my RSS reader and check out new pages as they come out.
As you can imagine, my enjoyment of the comic is maximised in Stage 2 and minimised in Stage 3, because by then every single time I look at a page I’m going in cold and have to call to mind the general details of the story and the specific details of what’s happened immediately before.
And that’s where Comic Rocket came in.
- Catch up (redux): I bookmark my place in the comic on my Comic Rocket profile and take it off my RSS feed. Then I wait a few months (the longer the better), and enjoy catching up all over again.
These days I don’t even bother with the Follow stage, because it’s the part where I enjoy the comic least, and I imagine most people would say the same. Paradoxically, the comic follower is probably the type of reader most webcomic artists want to have the most of – someone who’s constantly returning, someone who receives very regular reminders of the comic’s existence and someone who’s regularly looking at site adverts and that picture of the cool t-shirt in the sidebar.
Not that economic reasons are the only impetus webcomic artists have for updating in this manner – far from it. A regular update schedule is the only way to assure the Internet you’re still alive, still working on the comic. Without a regular and frequent schedule, it’s much easy for even interested readers to just plain forget that your comic exists and stop following it. And beyond that, there’s a compelling, very human creative reason for frequent updates: feedback.
Many webcomic artists are amateurs and first-timers, without the confidence to be entirely sure of anything they do in their comic. Most are also part-timers, with full time jobs or study commitments and only so much spare time to dedicate to a webcomic. And the easiest way to feel like you’re wasting your time doing something, for a lot of people, is to feel like no-one’s paying any attention – if no-one’s reading this comic I’ve been giving up my weekends to, many an artist has thought, then why should I do it? What’s the point? And the less frequently you update, the fewer opportunities there are for people to notice your comic, and the larger the chance is that the people who have noticed it will forget.
So it’s possible that the current model really is the only viable way for artists to make and publish webcomics. Publishing whole chapters or issues at a time in the mode of traditional print comics may just be too exhausting or too hard to draw attention to.
I don’t have a solution to this, beyond my Comic Rocket workaround. Comic Rocket is a fantastic site and an excellent service,1 but it seems to me that it improves the experience of reading webcomics by actively subverting their whole distribution model. And so, while I can understand the reasons for the current paradigm, I can’t help but think there must be a better way.
One of the comics I read, The Wormworld Saga, has an update interval of approximately just under a year – but it updates one beautiful, enormous infinite canvas chapter at a time. In theory, it’s exactly what I want, but I’m not so sure it’s the optimal solution either – I started reading the comic when chapter one was first released near the end of 2010, and now, at chapter six, it barely feels like the story’s started, and my entire university career has basically passed by in the meantime. Still, I think it’s on the right track, and that the infrequent updates haven’t killed it popularity says something positive about the artist’s approach.
I’m optimistic about the future. With the mass uptake of Patreon in webcomics and other web-based creative circles as an alternative funding model to selling t-shirts, perhaps some artists will feel a little freer to experiment with both their art and their schedules, and we’ll see some better alternative modes of distribution.
- Two gripes: One, not all comics seem to work (which is understandable given the huge problem domain: that as many do work as is the case is pretty miraculous). Two, actually reading through archives with Comic Rocket can become significantly slower than reading the comic directly, because of the obvious middleman; again, this is understandable, so my solution is to read comics on their own sites and then bookmark my place with Comic Rocket once I’m done with a reading session. ↩