Unbound: Death stalks the internet

Interviews with comics creators usually include a lot of questions about the origins of the comic—what was the inspiration, how did you find a working partner, how did you find a publisher, that sort of thing.

One topic that hardly ever comes up is how the comic ends. It’s not the sort of thing one thinks of with regard to print comics, because the vast majority are either one-shot graphic novels or endless series that have been running since FDR was president.

Webcomics are a different matter. “Over 15,000 webcomics now exist online,” Wikipedia tells us, but probably 14,000 of those stopped updating after six episodes. This is the dark side of The Promise of Webcomics: It is true that anyone can start a webcomic, and that without the usual barriers to publication, such as editors and budgets, the web has become a seething cauldron of creativity. However, things like slush piles and contracts and editors are there for a reason: Not just to keep the crap out, but also to make sure the creator finishes the damn comic. The internet imposes no such restrictions. Consequently, many webcomics start with a burst of enthusiasm and fizzle when the creator runs out of ideas or has to study for finals.

Some webcomics die a peaceful, natural death: The comic has run its course and the creator ends it gracefully and moves on to something else. That’s what John Allison did with Scary Go Round earlier this year, and it’s worth reading this post to see why he decided to put an end to Scary Go Round and start a new comic, rather than trying to keep the title and take the comic in a new direction. Among other things, he suggests that webcomics can be too long:

Firstly, the huge archive and long history put off new readers, and I can't afford to put all the out of print books back into print. You'll always lose readers as the novelty wears off for them, but if you can't replace them, your audience will slowly diminish to a hard core. And it's hard to have people email you saying they'd buy the new books if they could still buy all the books, but they can't, so they won't.

The long goodbye is more common, though: Updates get less frequent, and the creator starts posting apologies, excuses, sketches, and guest strips, and then suddenly it's two years later and there haven't been any new comics. Readers find it particularly frustrating when they get invested in a story and it just stops. That's kind of an occupational hazard of being a webcomics fan—you get interested in a story and the creato leaves you hanging.

One way that creators stave off the Grim Reaper is by switching from regular updates to a more organic system of posting an entire chapter when it is done. That’s the path Meredith Gran has chosen for Octopus Pie. Busy preparing the print edition, going to cons, and doing all the things that creators do, she decided to post bigger chunks of the comic at longer intervals, rather than single pages three times a week, as she did when the comic first started.

One advantage to this is that even if the creator can’t keep the comic going indefinitely, it ends in a natural way with the close of a story arc. It seems much worse, somehow, when the comic goes into suspended animation in the middle of a dramatic sequence. The current page of Kitty Hawk features the discovery of a mysterious but obviously important object—but we won't be finding out what it is for a while yet. The last page went up on September 2, and the creators aren't promising more until January.

One problem is that the better your webcomic is, the more likely you are to get other jobs that take you away from it. “Paying work comes first” is the freelancer’s mantra, and while many webcomics creators do make money from their comics, most do not. Thus the success of a webcomic often leads to other commitments that take the creator away from the original comic.

And sometimes a webcomic simply isn't lucrative enough. After waxing enthusiastic about Pete Stathis’s Evenfall last week, I contacted Pete to find out when and if the site was going to update again. The answer: It will be a while. “I’m getting ready to have my first kid,” he said. “My wife is having a baby in February, so I decided I should do something to make more revenue, and making comics is not that thing.” Instead, Stathis is focusing on his business; like Phoebe, the heroine of Evenfall, he owns rental properties and does all the work on them himself.

Evenfall isn’t dead; Stathis has completed the script for the last four issues, and eventually he plans to finish the series, although he may not put all the chapters online. Evenfall was originally a print series, and Stathis put it on the web to keep interest alive and attract new readers. That part of his strategy has worked, he said, and it has led to other work as well. “I get a lot of other one-shot jobs based on the fact that people know I am a comic book artist,” he said. “I got to do the cover of the Philadelphia City Paper last summer. These are things that would not have happened if I had not done Evenfall. But in terms of making comics a successful lucrative endeavor in and of itself, that certainly has not happened for me, and as I understand, it doesn't happen for many people at all. But it’s good fun.”

Of course, many people believe death is not an ending but a beginning, and that’s often true of webcomics; sometimes a creator takes a strip off the web or stops updating because they have signed a book contract. Raina Telgemeier’s Smile (A Dental Drama) stopped updating quite a while ago, but she made it official earlier this year when she announced a book deal with Scholastic/Graphix.

Indeed, while a webcomic is a great way to attract an audience and develop an idea, it is not necessarily the best way to present a long-form work. Reading a huge archive online is tiresome, and as Allison remarked above, it puts off new readers. That is a basic, if seldom noted difference between webcomics and print comics—when a print comic is complete, that's often the beginning of its life cycle. When a webcomic is complete, it's the end. So maybe metamorphosis is a better analogy than death—while many webcomics do wither on the vine, others make the transition to print, often in an enhanced form. Other times, as with Scary Go Round, the finished comic begets a new one. The vast majority of defunct webcomics, of course, will simply clutter up the internet with their corpses, but those that go out gracefully will more likely keep their following and, at the end of it all, be transformed into something better.

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