5 Reasons Why Your Comics Fail

Good day folks. I’m not going to beat around the bush in this article – I’m just going to come right out and say it.

A lot of comics you see on the Internet = FAIL.

It’s not always  due to the people in charge, but more likely because they are lacking a key ingredient in the big mix. That key ingredient is the binding agent that is required for readers to come back and keep reading, for a community to emerge and thrive and for authors to stay motivated and committed. If you’re working on a comic and you’re not seeing some measure of results, chances are you’re suffering from one of these common problems. Here’s 5 reasons why your comics fail.

1. Your comic is focused on trying to exploit a niche and not about passion.

There’s been a few comics out there that have jumped on the bandwagon on a specific topic (COUGH Video Games?) only to be ridiculed, called derivative and have lackluster results. If you’re creating a comic because you think you’re going to be the next Penny Arcade, good luck. If you’re creating a comic hoping for it to be the online version of Spider-Man, once again I say to you – good luck. It’s been done before, and done well for many years before you came around and we don’t need another similar yet less valuable comic clogging up our precious browsing time.

FIND A TOPIC that you’re knowledgeable in and source your ‘competition.’ (I use competition loosely – we’re artists and we’re all supposed to be friendly creatures.)

If you have found that there is an abundance of comics that are similar to your ideas, go back to the drawing board and come up with a completely DIFFERENT idea. Place that derivative idea in your mental toilet – what you’re starting to do is rid your mind of the mental diarrhea that plagues ALL artists. You want to flush out all of the stuff you’ve seen before and come up with something that is truly unique, and something you know a lot about. If there’s something you know a lot about, chances are you’re passionate about it. The passion will inject itself into your work and people will take notice.

Worry about the financial rewards later when you have books and merchandise and a fan base that rabidly eats up your stuff.

2. You focus too much time on keywords to draw search results to your comic’s site

If you have a comic online, I’d be willing to bet that you’re using WordPress as your platform, and have a blog attached to your pages. Within that blog, some authors feel the need to cram as many tags and keywords as possible to hopefully boost that particular page’s ranking in search results. The amount of time taken to do this (even with the help of plugins) is definitely NOT worth the result.

Why? The answer is simple – people who are searching for a particular topic aren’t necessarily interested in reading a comic about it. Think about it – you make a funny about an electric banjo, stuff the page with electric banjo ALT tags, descriptions, links to electric banjo sites, backlinks from electric banjo sites and write a blog post about the history of the electric banjo in the hopes of catching people who are interested in electric banjos. When a person willingly searches for “Electric Banjo” they’re looking for information from an authority on electric banjos – not a comic about electric banjos. Get it?

You make a comic. That is your passion. NOT electric banjos.

This “wide net” approach might be okay in some types of blogging, but unless you’re truly passionate about that particular topic there’s no point in trying to stuff your pages with specific keywords to act as a catch-all. It’s a poor strategy.

3. You spend too much time on the look of the site instead of the look of the comic.

I’ve seen an alarming trend emerge in the last few years – comics that are absolutely terrible wrapped up in a slick presentation. Sure, the site looks fabulous, but the comic is flawed in its writing, art execution or selection of genre. It used to be the other way around – authors were too busy working on their comic and had to rely on Phil Hofer’s ComicPress default skin to create a look for their site. You know which one I’m talking about – the silver accents with the red gel buttons and the black text? Everyone who decided to make a comic used this template or modified it in some form just to get it up and running.

Now – in order to look less amateurish and more polished, authors are farming out the design to specialists then scrambling to fill this new site with content. It ends up being lackluster and disappointing to the reader. My suggestion to you is to have some PATIENCE.

if you polish a turd it's still a turd... duh

Try this set of steps if you’ve got a comic idea swirling around in the toilet of your mind.

  1. Create a proper outline with a theme/setting
  2. Create your characters
  3. Draw and develop a style (or have someone do it)
  4. Determine how long it takes to produce the one strip/page
  5. Multiply that by the number of times you THINK you can update.
  6. Reduce that number by 1/3rd and set a release schedule.
  7. NOW find someone to create a site (or D-I-Y it)
  8. Make a month’s worth of comics before posting to the website.
  9. Show it to your closest friends
  10. Release to the public.

NOW you have a complete package you can be successful with. Running out the door with a bunch of strips in hand and a poorly executed website or vice versa is detrimental to the growth of your comic if you’re starting out. Don’t fall into the trap of making everything look pretty on the outside, when the guts are rotten and rusted.

 

4. Giving up too early.

Some of you may have read this post and trashed all your work. Some of you may have been discouraged to start.

You quitters suck.

Instead of taking stock in what’s wrong with your comic and FIXING the problem, you curl up in the fetal position with your thumb in your mouth. It’s called constructive criticism for a reason. You take an objective viewer to find potential flaws in your work in the hopes of improving and rectifying the problems. THAT IS HOW YOU GET BETTER AT YOUR CRAFT.

If you quit before you even try fixing the problems, you’ll eventually come across a new set of problems (or regress into old habits which caused the FIRST set of problems) and you won’t be able to avoid them. By attempting to fix what’s broken, you learn how to avoid the problem popping up in the future. Problem-solving is an important aspect of achieving success. If you just run away every time something gets hard, then you’ll never become a master of anything – just mediocre at some things and terrible at everything else.

PUSH yourself to get better. You’ll find that you’ll get to a breaking point where you need to assess the value of your effort vs. the value of your work and it’s only at THIS critical juncture where you can make the decision to continue or cut and run. Never beforehand – that’s just poor form – and quitting early makes you look like you never commit and finish a project.

and finally…

5. Refusing to invest in your comic

Investing in your comic means a number of things.

  • Investment of time
  • Investment of money
  • Investment of interest

These points seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people cannot meet all three criteria! Tell me if you fit into one of these scenarios…

You have a lot of time on your hands and are highly motivated, but you can’t afford to make the jump and buy merch for re-sale.
Money and motivation are no issue to you, but can’t find the time to sit down and produce the comic.
You have time and money, but you lack the patience to finish a project.

With each scenario, there are ample solutions. It is up to you to take the final step and complete your commitment to the comic and all of its parts.

Don’t have the money to fulfill your goals? Look to your readership and start a pre-order drive. Look for grants, Kickstarter initiatives, and potential investors. Selling out isn’t a BAD thing – being too full of pride to seek out money is no excuse. If you can’t ask people, then get others to help out and do it for you.

Don’t have enough time – cut out a time vampire (TV is the worst!). By allocating that extra hour you gained from wasting it on TV, you’ve gained an hour to work on your comic. That’s YOUR time put to good use. Maybe you’re a bit of a sloth and sleep in for no reason. Set your alarm clock to go off an hour earlier and dedicate that early morning hour to working on your comic. Stop checking your e-mails/facebook/twitter for a day and work on your comic. Unplug your internet and create! Less distraction = more production. It is the TRUTH!

Finally, learn how to focus by employing a bit of work ethics from point #1 and point #2. Make that work into a goal and run headlong towards it. You have the money, you have the time – now focus on what you need to do to complete and execute. Hire a writer/artist. Hire someone to do PR. Talk to indie publishers to distribute your work – the point is, it is on YOU to get off your ass and make it happen. Setting and completing goals is addictive. Once you succeed at it the first time, it is something you want to try and do again and again.

Takeaway

I hope you learned something from this, folks. Don’t let me discourage you and destroy any aspirations of becoming a cartoonist or comic author. I will however, serve it to you straight up – if you’re suffering from one of these 5 issues, it’s time for a serious gut check. Correct your course and it will be smooth sailing – remain in denial, and suffer the consequences.

Your choice.

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31 Comments

  1. Thanks for doing this. It’s tough love for a reason, and every now and again I welcome a swift kick in the ass. While it hurts initially, eventually you realize it’s for the best and those who want it will hopefully use to better their craft.

    • Criticism isn’t meant to be a deterrent – its meant to be a method of helping people improve by exposing potential flaws. It has little to do with malice, yet people seem to treat any sort of negativity to their work as a personal attack.

      I’m glad you could take something from the article and put it to good use.

      • I completely agree that criticism should not be taken as a personal attack. I’m well adjusted to taking constructive criticism, and even welcome it. I want to be the best I can be, and most of the time it takes a separate set of eyes to help you see your work in a completely different light.

        But I can understand how some people can be completely against the idea of opening their baby up to an “attack”, when all they are used to hearing is “good job” from their friends and family. And some don’t take too kindly to it at all.

        I think the point is to offer it when asked, and to offer more than just the trollish “it sucks”. Otherwise no one benefits from the exchange.

  2. Great advice. It’s easy to get ahead of yourself and think more about the fame and fortune and Movie franchise while losing focus on your work. I do what I love and hope it succeeds.

    • If you keep pushing, that hope turns into something concrete. You make it based on the effort you put in. I’m glad you’re still passionate about it – that’s the key.

  3. As someone who sort of fell victim to number one on this list; I couldn’t agree more. One amendment that should be added is this. Even if your passion for a topic is genuine a large portion of your audience will ASSUME you are trying to ride the coat tails of a successful comic. With G&C I set out to do a buddy comic about the things that I love, those being comics, videogames, pop culture etc. What I ended up with was a comic I loved doing, but was constantly viewed as an attempt to be a Penny Arcade or PvP clone.

    This was ungodly discouraging and forced me to go back to the drawing board and come up with an all new comic. This list is a great tool, not only for people who’ve hit that “wall” where the high of making comics has warn off some, but for those just starting out. We all hit this point and if you want to be a successful cartoonist, these are the hurdles you have to jump.

    Once again, great article WA, I hope it helps some folks out there.

    • Thanks Ryan. I precisely mentioned your situation – if your comic is in a similar vein to a larger, more successful comic, you REALLY have to take into account that you may be labeled as a copycat.

      I make the suggestion of rethinking your strategy only to avoid the situation that may lead you to giving up and quitting. And we don’t want that.

      It is possible to thrive and produce a comic in the same niche – look at how many ‘other’ comics there are with a gamer theme (VG Cats, CTRL-ALT-DEL, etc etc) and they’ve had a measurable amount of success of their own. You could do it, but it may take more work to gain a positive notoriety than a negative one.

    • Part of it is simply experience, too… the comic I made prior to Z&F was of the college-grads-playing-video-games persuasion as well, but without it, I never would have gotten to where I am. (Not that I’m atop a mountain or anything, but still). When you are a webcomics newbie, read a couple online, and instantly want to draw your own…. you are bound to do something that’s been done before. Really, EVERYTHING has been done before.. you just have to find your expertise or angle on life & apply that to the concept, make it your own. The trick is finding the balance between UNIQUE and EASILY-ACCESSIBLE.
      My POINT is that you shouldn’t feel bad about G&C, or any other project that mimics another, intentionally or not…. that’s how we allow ourselves to develop. You gotta cut your teeth on something.

      • Nah I don’t feel bad about G&C. In fact I will always be proud of it. I made a lot of mistakes with that comic, things like not saving large enough images for print (there couldn’t be a G&C book because the first 35 strips are save at 940 px. wide!) Drawing yourself as the main character and then expecting be to disassociate the two, not developing unique character personalities early on and of course the buddy comic video game thing.

        (You know, a podcast on making a sort of checklist of knowledge for people that are just getting started might be a good show, things like file size, back ups, letter size etc. The kinds of things that a person just starting out may not thing of… just a thought)

        All that being said though, as you put it Dawn, it’s what I “cut my teeth on.” I know I am a far better cartoonist now on Sometime After then I was on G&C.

        Lastly to comment on what Drezz said, yeah it is still possible to cut out your own corner in those type of comics, but you better be damn original with what you try to cut out. I’m not saying you won’t gain a small following on subject matter alone, hell I did. But to reach beyond that is one hell of a chore, one I thought was better left for someone else.

      • Good point on the BALANCE between unique and easily-accessible. The first webcomic I did was about psychological self-discovery as represented through distopian Heaven and Hell environments, culminating with facing off against one’s internal complexes personified.

        Unique? Yes. Accessible? Not so much. Well known in the 8 years it ran? Definitely not!!

        There is something to be said for ideas that are familiar ENOUGH to be comfortable, but different enough to be interesting! 🙂

  4. Hrmmm…I pass all 5 with the exception of a part of number 5. I invest time into my comic, I invest interest, but I truly don’t have $ to invest ($ that does trickle in is earmarked for kids education, utilities, food, the things to keep me above ground). I have been curious to how Kickstarter would work for me in this situation and I would be willing to field some suggestions on how exactly I can. Can you use Kickstarter to fund money to keep the electricity on, pay for expenses, buy the artist a pizza? I am truly a noob when it comes to these Indigogo/Kickstarter fund raisers.

    I have no qualms about selling out to make a buck as I invest quite a bit of time and effort to write scripts, pencil, scan, ink, color and letter to have a 2 week buffer and publish Monday-Friday for a small audience. One thing I learned is to not make excuses, not complain about the competition (you will ALWAYS have competition in everything you do, so get used to it boys and girls), and as much as I am frustrated, I am far from willing to give up and quit. I need an agent, a marketing manager, a pimp!…lol

    • Kickstarter is generally used by artists to help fund an artistic endeavor. Let’s say your fan base is crying for printed versions of your books but you don’t have the capital to invest in them, you’d set up a Kickstarter campaign with a monetary goal in mind to get the cost of creating the books covered.

      The funding that comes in generally acts as a ‘pre-order’ of your material. Kickstarter allows you to set different tiers for donations with potential rewards for your patrons. Some successful comics that have raised money for their projects are reMIND by Jason Brubaker, Order of the Stick by Rich Burlew, Travis Hanson from The Bean, etc.

      Check out the site and see how other artists do it – be wary that there is a lot of extra work you’d have to do in order to get funding. You really have to entice people to give you money, and that means peppering your offering with a ton of goodies and extras for free.

      If you don’t mind all the added work, Kickstarter is a good way of funding your project. If you’re looking for a sustainable source of steady income, its NOT the right method.

  5. Well said, Drezz!
    Another great article, Alliance! 🙂
    However, while I agree that pushing for a slick site isn’t the point, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one. But indeed, it should be beside the point.

    • Thanks, Doc.

      I agree that a nice site is definitely necessary as part of the package. But the comic should rise above the prettiness of the site – it’s the main reason why your readers should stick around – not because your site is cool.

  6. I have to say, this article has put thoughts into my head. It’s very well thought out and executed editorial for any comic creator trying to build something for themselves. This is a great discussion tool to have with yourself on each and every reason why ones comic might be stalled or not progressing. Several points made, speak very loudly, it makes you go “hmmm”!

    I remember reading somewhere to not give in, or get ahead of yourself until you’ve got a minimum of 300 comics under your belt [it escapes me where I saw this at the moment]. That number seemed arbitrary to me at the time, but in looking through various comics with that large of an archive, I could see an evolutionary tale unfolding. The learning curve, both in the artistic and professional aspects of building the comic are apparent. So many times a comic creator jumps into the scene, expects instant results and gets seal clubbed with the reality of their fate for expecting a quick rise to glory.

    Great article!!!!

    • Jynksie…

      I did 50 comics in 2007 that maybe a few people saw and I did these just to see if I personally was committed to draw a comic and to invest in learning the craft.

      In 2008, I drew 150 comics, about 3 a week, to learn how to draw better and learn to write comics with some story arcs to it.

      In 2009, I finally started to get it and did another 150 telling one big story.

      In 2010 and 2011 I wasted my time with conventions and trying out a full-page format.

      It’s taken me four years and nearly 450 comics to realize what I do and how to do it properly. So now, I’m totally motivated, have a respectable readership that’s been overly patient with me and more importantly, I know who my audience is and what they want from me so I can start making some money at this.

      There are no instant results. If so, I would have given up after 2007. The common thread to this is you have to stick with it. Sure, taking breaks is fine, but come back with something learned or something new. That will pull you through any dips.

      And yes, excellent article Drezz! 🙂

  7. This is an excellent article, and very sound advice. If I could add one thing to the article (as a tack on to number 4 or 5), it’d be this: don’t mistakenly label a lack of patience as a lack of talent. Whenever I used to have trouble drawing a certain pose/specific scene, or I had trouble honing a punchline, I would blame a “lack of talent” in myself. I guess somewhere in the back of my head, I thought that the more mainstream cartoonists/artists/everyone I admired were able to crank out their comics in one draft (start to finish) without any editing, layouts, or really any forethought… and in 30 minutes or less.

    Nowadays, I still have trouble drawing various things or making a punchline funnier (and I don’t see that changing anytime soon), but I realize that a little bit of patience can really help with just about all the steps involved in comic-making.

  8. Okay… I have to ask, is Mr. Spider a real thing? I guess Google is my friend in this situation… anyway, I’ve had a bit of a spark of inspiration for my own webcomic today, but I think interest is one thing I need to work on. That’s not to say that I don’t ENJOY making RuneSpark, or that I don’t think it’s worth it, but I think I’m being a bit too distanced from it when I work on it.

    • Haha! No – I mocked that image up using the letters from Spider Man.

      Another tip, which I didn’t mention in this article, is that it is fine to be objective with your work, but not to the point where you’re not feeling a connection to it. If there’s no passion in it, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. It has to excite you creatively – and not be something that simply puts food on your table. Otherwise, its no different than a day job you can’t stand.

      • Thanks for replying, Drezz! That’s another good tip, but actually, what I was saying is, at least to me, a bit more difficult to describe… I can have a connection to RuneSpark when I allow myself to, but a lot of the time when I’m drawing my comics I’ll have Netflix or Let’s Plays going on for background noise, which I think kinda pulls me away from it. And when I put it online, I have a tendency not to go back and read ’em. I’m not entirely sure if I’m just not investing enough time in them all together, but I’m also afraid of spending so much time with them I’ll burn myself out on them…

  9. I know you can’t really tell, but I’m holding my right fist against the computer screen so that I may give both you and this article proper respect knuckles. I’m relatively new to the game here, but I’d bet dollars against donuts that you’re exactly freaking correct on all counts. I love donuts. Please let that fact help communicate my sincerity here.

    Good on ya, and thanks for the pep talk.

  10. I had to laugh about the keywords. So many times I’m looking for something and something else so unrelated comes up due to erroneous keywords. And the comic sites that are so busy with so many bells and whistles makes it impossible to find the actual comic!

    • If you land on a page and its not clear as to what you’re supposed to be looking at the minute you arrive, then that is NOT a good sign and a terrible first impression.

      You make a comic, so make it easily accessible for people to read. Have a gallery for the covers of your book, or feature your strip nice and prominent on the page above the fold. Bells and whistles are as annoying as ads sometimes.

      And KEYWORDS!? don’t get me started on that. Although, Google has done a good job cleaning up sites that keyword stuff so your searches don’t get too polluted with junk pages. Its not a perfect science, but its getting there.

  11. #3 is right on. so many sites have all the bells and whistles, they are so busy you can’t even find the comic itself. More work goes into the website than the actual comic.

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