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Beranek & DiGerolamo Open The Webcomic Factory

by  in Comic News Comment
Beranek & DiGerolamo Open The Webcomic Factory

Where there is the Internet, there are webcomics. Be they critical and commercial successes like “Penny Arcade,” “MegaTokyo” and “PvP,” or largely unknown comics like the one I draw on napkins during lunch and upload to a private server, there is no arguing the fact that they are everywhere. At this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, there was a whole section of the show floor just for the fan-favorite webcomic creators to have their own booths. The discerning fan has a bookmarked folder full of their daily reads and lists like Top WebComics allow fans to vote for their favorite strips. But what if there was a central, one-stop shopping site for a plethora of varying content? Enter The Webcomic Factory.

The brainchild of Christian Beranek and Tony DiGerolamo, The Webcomic Factory seeks to be an all-inclusive webcomic experience. The site serves as a webcomics hub for the high-end work of founders Beranek and DiGerolamo and their affiliates, featuring comics spanning all genres, from the sports-centric (and aptly named) “Sports Guys” to the Manga-inspired “Japanese Schoolgirls in Love” to the strip club comic strip “Gentleman’s Club” and more. The website has an impressive schedule of one new comic updated per day, and the creators expect that only to increase with time.

CBR News spoke with Beranek and DiGerolamo about their goals concerning The Webcomic Factory, learned the history on how the website came about, the differences that come from being on the web instead of in print and the future of comics as we move forward into a still new medium.

CBR News: Christian, Tony – how did The Webcomic Factory get started?

Tony DiGerolamo: Two years ago, I was at a comic book convention with Chris Moreno promoting one of my print comics, “The Travelers.” We saw the guys from “Penny Arcade,” and they were selling t-shirts all day at $20 a pop, making oodles and scads of money while I’m standing there struggling to sell a three dollar comic. At the end of the show, I went up to those guys and I said, “You guys had a pretty good show” and they were like, “This was probably the worst show we’ve ever done. We can’t do this show every again.” I was just floored! I said to Chris Moreno that we had to start doing a webcomic. We have to get out of print.

We wanted to do this comic called “SuperFrat.” I talked to Christian, who at the time was running Silent Devil, and he loved the idea. So we started doing it on the Silent Devil website. That was sort of the first prototype of our webcomic hub. We did “SuperFrat” and a few others with some of the Silent Devil creators. It was driving a lot of traffic to the site, but we didn’t understand how to monetize it yet, and we were still straddling the print world and the webcomic world, so we didn’t really take advantage of it. We continued on with “SuperFrat,” [deciding] somewhere down the line afterwards that we would go full force into a webcomic business. We eventually went into The Webcomic Factory.

Christian Beranek: I guess on my end, I was working at Disney and I had actually opted out of the last year of my contract just due to the fact that there are always opportunities online. This was even before the iPad was announced and ComiXology was taking off with the downloads. I like to build business models, and this one seemed to make sense.

What’s the mission statement and greater goal of The Webcomic Factory?

Beranek: The mission statement of The Webcomic Factory is to provide a new comic to you every single day of the week for free. Outside of that, our goals are obviously bringing these comics into other medium, whether that is film or television or even print. I daresay that print to us now is another medium that we strive to eventually work with. We do have some publishing partners – that we can’t talk about just yet – in the print world, but there is a deal in the works for print collections of the comics that are out there. The print is just icing on the cake; our core business is on the web.

DiGerolamo: I think what separates The Webcomic Factory from other webcomic hubs right now is that most are populated by well-meaning amateurs who don’t approach the webcomic model as a business or they’re not really at the level professionally that they can create a product that’s really, really good. We wanted to start The Webcomic Factory at a very high bar. We have professional comic book artists. Christian and I write everything on the core site, so everything on The Webcomic Factory is super high-end. It’s the first high-end webcomic hub.

While you guys have plenty of comics on your main site, you also have a number of affiliate sites, some of which have some pretty big names attached, including actor turned webcomic creator Emma Caulfield from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” How did the affiliate network get started?

Beranek: The affiliate network started before The Webcomic Factory with “SuperFrat,” which started during the Silent Devil days. It’s always been part of the affiliate network. Having worked as a producer in film and TV, I had met with a lot of people in my former office who had notoriety like Emma Caulfield. She has a genre fanbase, but she’s also someone who is very creative and has her own ideas. She wanted to get her own ideas out there, and with “Contropussy,” the affiliate comic she does, they had shown me a 30 second clip of a pseudo-animated thing that showed what the comic was about and they wanted to do it as an animated show. I said, “Look, it’s going to be hard to sell this as an animated show unless there is a built-in audience. Let’s start it off on the web for free and build an audience.” Now we’re at the point where there’s a publishing deal for the book, the comic is in process on the web and we’re talking to animation producers, so we’ll see how it goes. Since that model was working, my friend Jeff Skinner came to me and he said, “Hey, I know Diana Falzone, she’s a radio/TV personality, she has a huge fanbase. She has an idea for a comic.” I said alright – this is the model. Let’s use the same model we used for “Contropussy” and apply that to her comic, “Hot Mess.” There’s a lot of exciting stuff with that happening now.

DiGerolamo: The amazing thing is that, the last three to five years, it seems like everybody in Hollywood wants to get a comic. It started when we were still in print, people were coming to us constantly asking how they could do a comic. With the webcomics, it’s a lot easier. The startup is a lot lower and the exposure is a lot greater. Some of these guys doing print comics are looking to get one or two copies out just so they can pass it around to agents and whatnot. The webcomics, you can actually get it all over the world and really make an impression on fans. It’s great, the exposure has just been amazing. When I did print comics, I knew almost every fan I had personally because I had sold them the comic – but with webcomics, I’ve got people coming up to me all the time telling me they read my comic every day.

Why do you think the ideas that you have are so well suited for the webcomic format?

DiGerolamo: I would say right now that we’re trying different things. One of the limitations with print was that if we came up with an idea, we had to stick with that idea and that was it. Until more money came in, there wasn’t the capital there to do ten other comics. The great thing about The Webcomic Factory is that Christian and I sit around all the time and just go, “Oooo! That would be a good webcomic!” We just try a lot of different things. A lot of the things you see on The Webcomic Factory now is stuff that hasn’t really been done in webcomics yet. We do “Gentleman’s Club,” which is a comic about a strip club, and I have yet to stumble across any strip club comic in my goings-on. We do “Sports Guys” – there aren’t a lot of sports comics, surprisingly. There are a handful of them, there are maybe two other ongoings that we link to and the rest are defunct. We’re really trying to hit audiences and things that haven’t been done, but at the same time, we like to hit audiences that are huge. That’s why we’re doing “Japanese Schoolgirls in Love” because we wanted to do some manga comics to really appeal to that audience. The concept behind it is to bring people in and see a bunch of different stuff. Whether or not they’re suitable for the web, I don’t know. What’s suitable? Anything’s suitable for the web, really.

Beranek: I think what’s cool about it is that there’s an immediacy to it. Even with “Sports Guys,” we’re able to comment on something that happened that week with Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriguez or whoever in the sports community. We can react to that and have a timely comic go up, while in the print world, you’d have to wait for eight months for that to come out on the cycle that Diamond has, unless you really rush it out. If you rush it out, typically those print comics aren’t any good.

With a one-comic-a-day, seven days a week schedule, you’ve got content coming in every constantly. How do you stay on top of it all?

DiGerolamo: It’s the wonder of the internet, man! The real key is that we had to get out ahead with all the comics. We’re probably at least a month ahead with each one of our comics, just so we have enough content. With “Sports Guys” or “Tony Destructo,” if we have a timely strip and if it gets done earlier, sometimes we’ll change the order of which ones we post. The ones that are less timely we’ll push back and the ones that are more timely we’ll push up. The key is just to have enough content. We have seven strips, one’s on hiatus, and we have two more that are probably premiering in August, September at the latest. We’re going to be having a strip on Fridays called “Miserable Comedians,” which is going to be about the world of stand-up comedy. We’re going to be premiering our first horror comic called “The Horror on Colony Six,” which is going to be basically zombies in space. It’s very exciting, it’s got a very 70s retro look to it.

We use the internet and just email everybody. So far everyone’s been great, they’re very timely about answering their emails and they just send it in. The thing that makes it easier for them as artists is that they only have to produce something once a week. They can do whatever they want the rest of the week, they knock out a page or a strip and its done. We have enough material that we can rotate people around, so once we get the other two strips up, we’ll have eight strips, so someone could take a couple weeks off and bank some strips on their comic. We’re just going to keep adding new strips, and eventually we’ll have two a day or three or four until our heads explode trying to write this stuff.

This year, there was actually a webcomic section at Comic-Con International, a first for the medium. How do you think the format is growing and changing and what is The Webcomic Factory doing to further that growth?

Beranek: I actually saw the webcomic pavilion at San Diego and it was – I don’t want to say how much busier it was than everybody else, but they were rocking it the entire time. There’s this comic called “Cyanide and Happiness” that had [a constant line of] people at the table. “Penny Arcade” was there, Scott Kurtz – that was where the action was happening unless you wanted to go see some other movie or something. Sadly, the print comic stuff, I saw some publishers at the end of the weekend that had hardcovers on sale and they were doing buy one hardcover, get two hardcovers for free. That for me tells you that something’s wrong with the way things are in the print world. Everybody in print is trying to catch up with the iPad and that’s great, but what print comics have forgotten is that webcomics embrace their fans and community that is immediate and gives them a connection. That’s what Stan Lee’s letter columns in the back of comics did back in the day. There’s a chance you could see your letter in the comic and you felt that maybe your voice made a difference. For us, our fans make a difference. If they say something, we have the power to try it. The print comics, and there are a lot of companies I love out there, have become so stoic and so corporate that they can’t move laterally or horizontally or in any direction to basically be able to change with the times which are going at lightspeed. At San Diego, that is where the pulse of everything is.

DiGerolamo: I’d like to think that what The Webcomic Factory is going to do, and it’s not doing it by itself – there are a lot of guys doing what we’re doing, but the idea of having a Webcomic hub now is sort of like the idea of Image Comics. Let’s pool all our resources together so we have content every day. The guys who started “Penny Arcade” and “Questionable Content” – they all started on their own. Some of them had the ability to do stuff every day, but some didn’t. Some started slower than that. These guys just starting out, the idea of a hub gives them the ability to unite like a tiny Image Comics, build a hub that there’ll be something on it every day and that way everybody benefits from the traffic. I think that’s going to be the new trend in webcomics: if you can’t post everyday, or even if you can, having different and exciting new content everyday is going to help. It’s going to help drive everybody’s traffic up together and make more hits and thereby make more money.

Why do you think that the work you’re doing with The Webcomic Factory specifically is so important?

DiGerolamo: I think for me and Christian as writers, we’re often frustrated that we think of ideas faster than we can actually put them out. Christian did “Dracula vs. King Arthur,” and we had four different sequels in mind for it. We were just dying to do them, but with print it was just impossible. It was so expensive. “Dracula vs. King Arthur” did well, but it had to do gangbusters for us to do five sequels. With webcomics, our overhead’s low enough that we can explore all kinds of different ideas. For the first time, I feel like we’re creating stuff at a rate that’s equal to our brains, whereas print there was such a long lag. I would write something six months ago and I would want to do the next issue. Webcomics are so free, you just throw those ideas out there. On a webcomic hub like ours, we could even do a webcomic that’s six strips long and just end it because maybe it’s over! Just go on to the next thing.

Beranek: Look, we’re living the future and I want to be where the action is. I think what we’re doing is providing content to people that hooks them in. That’s the hard thing. In a world where Marvel and DC pretty much rule the universe in print, it’s super hard to break out with new ideas on your own. This allows us to build an audience and do it in an effective way. I’ve got nothing against Marvel and DC. They’re doing great stuff and they’ve got that world fully understood and locked down. For the world of new ideas, this is where it’s had. This is where you can launch and do crazy stuff. Something might hit the stratosphere and I want to go to the stratosphere, so this is where I’ve got to be.

What do you feel are some of the challenges you face in building a webcomic hub like this from the ground up?

Beranek: I think, actually, and this is still a challenge that we’re facing, how we present it on the web and the space. With comics, you have your 10.5″ by 6.25″ space where you can fit all the information on the page. With the web, you have different browser sizes that people have, the iPad and the iPhone – we’re constantly pushing to figure out ways to present the material. I wouldn’t say it was easy to find artists to work with, but I would say it was easier to find artists to work on the webcomic stuff because of what Tony was saying. Doing only one page a week is enticing, and getting to see your work immediately on the web without waiting a month.

DiGerolamo: I think the archiving is definitely a challenge, to get things sorted so people can come to the site and read each individual comic, because we have a diversity of genres there. It’s always a challenge to get someone to come to your website for presentation purposes or just content. It’s usually a battle of content. It’s about having something new every single day. You look at some of the websites out there, they put out some amazing stuff. When you see guys put up animated versions of the webcomic or Flash games – I’m just so jealous. I wish I could code that! But we only have so many resources and so many hours of the day. We’ve been working on a “SuperFrat” beer pong game for ages, trying to get that together. It’s all about knowing web stuff. Sadly, Christian and I are older guys. We didn’t grow up with computers. We grew up when computers were just sort of a new thing and nobody really knew what they were about.

Beranek: My computer had 60k memory. I remember I had to type my own programs. I gotta tell you, kids these days, you’ve got it easy.

DiGerolamo: If I was sixteen years old right now, my website would be amazing because I’d have 24/7 to work on it! My parents could foot the bill! Back in the day, all I had was floppy drives.

Beranek: I would say to my friends that are publishers in the print world that we want to work with you. If you see something you like on The Webcomic Factory or you like some of the ideas that are presented, give us a call. Our door is open to you. We want to work with people and help people understand this new world.

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