Webcomic Retcons

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(Note from Robin: This guest post is provided by Christina Major. Christina started her fantasy adventure webcomic in 2010 and loves reading, sharing, and connecting with the webcomic community. Her first comic is a Kickstarter Staff Pick, which you can check out at sombulus.com/kickstarter to help her reach her goal!)

If you make a webcomic for a few years, you (hopefully!) improve so much that it can be impossible to look at your archives the same way again. Lineart, understanding of flow and panel layout, speech bubble placements… sometimes your archives tells a more interesting story about how far you’ve come as an artist than the actual plot of the comic. It can be beautiful… but also stagnating to the future of your comic.
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That’s the situation I found myself in with my fantasy adventure story, Sombulus. With over 350 pages under my belt and three completed story arcs, I was itching to run a Kickstarter to bring the first chapter to print. And even though my loyal readers appreciated my rough beginnings, their recommendations to others would often sound like this.

“You can hop in at any chapter and it still makes sense.”
“I tell people to skip the first 170 pages and start in the second story arc.”
“I was often confused as to what was going on and why.”

Reader feedback is important to me, so I took a close look at my archives when I heard these comments. Did I really want to take away time from my update schedule to fix things? What would I fix, and to what extent? Would long-time readers get mad or offended if I changed stuff that they liked? And what if I looked back in another 3 years and wanted to retcon everything again?

When you ask the question around the internet, “Should I redraw my archives?”, the answer is almost universally “No”, for these reasons:

  • Moving forward is more important than moving backward. Don’t take time away from your update schedule to fix things.
  • Your readers got into your comic for a reason, so there must be something there that somebody liked. Tweaking the dials might change that experience.
  • You’ll burn yourself out and possibly not finish updating your archives, which will look even worse than a natural progression of style.
  • Comic readers have an understanding that when they’re following a long series, the art is going to change, and some folks actually appreciate seeing the artist is a human just like them and learning as they go.
  • They’re good reasons and should absolutely be considered. But in the end, you’re the one who has to live with your comic, and you’re the one raising thousands of (other people’s) dollars for a print run. So it’s a very personal question. And the answer I came up with is that I couldn’t justify printing with a confusing and lackluster beginning, and I couldn’t move forward with my plans to expand my comic to conventions without books.

    I needed a retcon. But I also needed rules.

    Change any part of the story that made it confusing who the reader should care about.

    If the reader doesn’t care, the reader won’t keep reading, period. In my case, this meant adding more exposition about the main characters and their motives, and removing/reducing the roles of side characters.

    Remove story segments that didn’t advance the main plot.

    Because I had a few more years of writing practice and a little space away from the story arc to look at the whole thing with fresh eyes, I was able to tighten the jokes and nix the fluff.

    Unless it affected how people understood the story, don’t touch the art.

    This one was hard, because I knew I was capable of making some drastic changes for the better. But again, this is a personal question, and when I was honest with myself, I knew that redoing it all was beyond my abilities, would push back my timeframe to get things to print by a year or more, and probably going to burn me out midway through.

    In all of these cases, you’ll notice that the focus is not on improving my technical rendering or cool new plot ideas so much as making the existing story easy to connect with, and this was not something I could do alone. Trusted beta readers gave me essential feedback along the way, and were able to help me pinpoint what they could understand and what was still too obscure. After a good six months of editing, my first comic was ready to go and was a whopping 31 pages shorter than the original.

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    This month, I relaunched Sombulus Act 1, as well as the Kickstarter campaign for the very first print run (it’s got a few days left, if you want to check it out!). And the feedback from new and current readers who are seeing it for the first time is painting a very different picture:

    “Just started your comic last night, around midnight, to see if it was any good – I looked up at the clock.. 1:30AM. Good stuff!”
    “I really love the changes you’ve made! The story is much simpler and easier to follow, I get a better feel for the characters, and it’s both smoother and has a faster pace. You’ve got a really stellar first chapter on your hands!”
    “Wow! Much tighter!”

    Have you ever read a webcomic that did a retcon? What did you think of it? For webcomic authors out there who change things after the fact, what was your experience? Let us know in the comments!

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    Posted in Conversations, Featured News, Guest Posts, Helpful Hints, Writing and tagged , , , , .

    9 Comments

    1. I’m currently retconning my webcomic, La Macchina Bellica. I started in 2008 and am about 8 chapters (300 pages) into the story. The art difference between chapter 1 and chapter 8 is night and day, but … that’s what happens I guess when you draw comics consistently for 6+ years! XDDD Halfway through chapter 7, my vision for the story started to change as the characters developed on paper, as well as coming to terms with the more problematic aspects of my story/things I wasn’t happy with, and the outline I had written in 2008 no longer met my vision for the story and characters. Since this is going to be a long ongoing project (currently projecting 25 chapters), I didn’t want to be drawing a story I wasn’t happy with for the next 10 years! I felt it was more important for me to stop where I was and rewrite the script to meet the new vision. As a result, a lot of the older pages didn’t mesh with the new vision for the story, some things didn’t make sense…

      I didn’t want to get trapped in the endless cycle of redrawing old art, but I found I could make a substantial difference in the story by changing the dialogue from the first 8 chapters, and creating a small prologue. So.. I left the art alone for the most part (aside from correct my more heinous abuses of dutch angles) and am currently going through the pages and editing the dialogue for the print version of volume 2 (volume 1 was already printed and also needs to be fixed for the next reprint.. guhhhh). The old stuff is still what’s online, and once all the revisions are done, I intend to relaunch of the webpage with the updated dialogue before Chapter 9 begins.

      I think it’s important to make something you’re happy with, especially if it’s personal project, something you’re investing your energy into because YOU want to make it and which may not necessarily make back the costs of investment. While it’s taking me a very long time to get myself sorted out to restart my comic, I’m so much happier now about where it’s going.

      • Yeah, finding that balance between what you realistically have the energy to revise and what’s going to burn you out is so difficult. And I think a lot of people don’t acknowledge that both your writing skills AND your art improve over time, so it’s not always just a matter of “the art looks fine, why are you bothering?!”

        I wish you the best of luck when you relaunch your comic!

    2. I am constantly tempted to go back and re-do old strips, and have even started to do it a couple of times. But I always stop myself, for exactly the reasons you cite — it’s too much time and energy that would be better spent on new stuff. The idea of leaving the art alone and just re-working the text is an interesting compromise. I have re-lettered old strips, since that’s a relatively quick and easy way to spruce up the presentation, but it never occurred to me to actually change the wording. Hmmm…

      • Redoing your writing is an option! And if it’s a constant temptation, it might be worth it just to clear it from your mind. But again, your readers might think it’s fine, so you have to trust them a bit, too.

    3. As a reader of webcomics, I love being able to watch the progression of an artist’s style and talent as I plow through the archives of a new-to-me strip. Especially if I’m coming in relatively late and there’s a lot of improvement.

      As a creator, I sometimes don’t even like what I was doing six months ago.

      • So here’s a question for you: Do you think your perception as a reader of webcomics is influenced by the fact that you make them? Or do you think even people who aren’t artists appreciate that we all came from shaky beginnings?

        • I always loved that aspect of reading webcomics too. 🙂

          It didn’t really change when I started making Com’c five months ago, except now I can look at *my own* art and writing evolution as well. It’s interesting, even if I hate the way some of the stuff I made back then looks (especially the early speech bubbles, but luckily I made those a lot better around str’p #20).

    4. My little digital guys have gone through some changes over the years, and it’s *really* tempting to go back and redo some of them. Thus far, I’ve resisted it, save for the strips that make it into the published anthologies — then it’s clean up and relighting and making the text easier to read. Aside from that, tho, I’ve taken a hands off approach to them once they’re on the website. As you say: move forward, not backward.

    5. I think it really depends on the reason WHY you want to do it. I spent a whole year retconning my complete archive (some 350 strips) in order to bring the quality and consistency of the book up to par so I could Kickstart it. It was well worth the time, and the campaign was a big success.

      I didn’t redraw everything, but I fixed glaring problems, and I redrew things that couldn’t be fixed. I also recolored almost every comic (except the newest stuff) because my techniques and ideas had changed over time. For it to be a complete graphic novel, it had to be the same.

      Plus, this was my first big story, and I wanted it to be something great. In the end it was very well received, and though it was tons of work to do, I am so happy I did it.

      I am currently re-posting the comics back to the website and it will all eventually be online at http://www.maroonedcomic.com/

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