The Brave New World of We­b­comics ...

MAK­ING SENSE OF PLAT­FORMS, PUB­LISH­ERS, AND A NEW­FOUND POP­U­LAR­ITY

Broken Pencil - - Table Contents - by Anisa Rawhani

THIS FALL, OS­CAR-WIN­NING

rap­per Com­mon is branch­ing out. Menswear? After­shave? Watches? No, the pop­u­lar Chicago cul­ture maven is mov­ing into we­b­comics.

Once the stuff of charm­ing Live­jour­nal pages, the we­b­comics game has grown into big busi­ness, so much so that Com­mon and busi­ness part­ners now hope to use the in­dus­try’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity to tell the story of “globe-trot­ting an­tiq­ui­ties dealer” Caster Com­mon. Nat­u­rally, there will be a sound­track by the man him­self, and the plan is to har­ness the comic’s an­tic­i­pated pop­u­lar­ity and move from the small screens of phones ev­ery­where to a full on live-ac­tion movie.

Com­mon’s comic is go­ing to launch on LINE Webtoon, a Korean-based dig­i­tal comic pub­lisher and plat­form. With 10 mil­lion daily vis­i­tors, Webtoon is the lat­est and fastest grow­ing en­try into the ex­pand­ing world of on­line comics.

It’s all a far cry from the we­b­comics world we knew a decade ago. For read­ers, these changes mean there’s now a seem­ingly in­fi­nite, scrol­lable buf­fet at their fin­ger­tips. For cre­ators, it can mean greater au­ton­omy, more ways to mon­e­tize and far more plat­forms to choose from.

But once some­thing can be mon­e­tized, it’s like blood in the wa­ter — a whole lot of hun­gry peo­ple start show­ing up, in­clud­ing mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar cor­po­ra­tions (in 2014, Ama­zon bought mid-sized player Comixol­ogy) and big names look­ing to cash in.

* * *

A decade ago, we­b­comic cre­ators of­ten had to choose be­tween ei­ther be­ing wholly in­de­pen­dent or tied to a pub­lisher. Each came with its own set of strug­gles: in­de­pen­dence can mean hav­ing to hus­tle like hell, and work­ing for a pub­lisher opens you to pos­si­ble ex­ploita­tion.

How­ever, a grow­ing on­line econ­omy cre­ated a grey area, says Is­abelle Me­lançon, lead ed­i­tor at we­b­comics pub­lisher Hive­works. Sud­denly, in­die cre­ators could make money off of ads, and tools be­gan crop­ping up to help them “mon­e­tize an idea with­out com­pro­mise,” she says. (Hello, Kick­starter, Pa­treon, Ko-fi, et al).

Me­lançon says one crit­i­cal change is that artists are now in a bet­ter po­si­tion to un­der­stand their rights and take con­trol of their dis­tri­bu­tion. It has never been so easy to go in­de­pen­dent, she says, though it’s not nec­es­sar­ily the right choice for ev­ery­one.

“It’s an ecosys­tem, and most of the cre­ators have to bunch ... dif­fer­ent things to­gether to have their monthly salary,” says Me­lançon, who’s run her we­b­comic Name­sake for seven years now, also hosted on Hive­works.

“If you have one rev­enue source, you buckle pretty fast, be­cause diver- sifi­ca­tion is the or­der of the day.”

Hive­works tries to help cre­ators with their di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion by of­fer­ing a range of ser­vices — ser­vices that used to be the ex­clu­sive do­main of pub­lish­ers — while al­low­ing cre­ators to re­tain their in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty (IP) and cre­ative free­dom. This in­cludes help with man­ag­ing ads, web host­ing, mer- chan­dis­ing, and pub­lish­ing.

* * *

LINE Webtoon — ar­guably the big­gest plat­form in we­b­comics right now — only en­tered the English-speak­ing mar­ket four years ago.

Launched in 2005 by the South Korean NAVER cor­po­ra­tion, it’s an app-based open plat­form where cre­ators can self-pub­lish. (NAVER is ba­si­cally Korea’s Google. It’s a big deal.)

Af­ter NAVER re­fined its model in Korea, it ex­ported it glob­ally in 2014. Tapas, for­merly known as Ta­pas­tic, is an­other pop­u­lar plat­form based on this same Korean model.

For­mat is key to Webtoon’s pop­u­lar­ity. There’s a rea­son it’s called “Webtoon,” not “We­b­comic.” Webtoons are sim­i­lar to we­b­comics, but there are some im­por­tant dif­fer­ences. While a we­b­comic’s chap­ter usu­ally takes place over mul­ti­ple pages, webtoons are usu­ally one long, ver­ti­cal strip. If you’re look­ing at one on your smart­phone, it makes for an easy, scrol­lable read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. Some even have an­i­ma­tion or sound­tracks that play as you scroll. They can be quite beau­ti­ful. And while you can cer­tainly find tra­di­tional we­b­comics on Webtoons, Tapas and other com­peti­tors, the big head­lin­ers tend to be webtoons, es­pe­cially ones il­lus­trated in the manga-style.

Webtoon and Tapas’ strong mo­bile pres­ence and abil­ity to tap into a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers are part of what’s made them so suc­cess­ful, says Dan Lieb­ner, the founder of Smack Jeeves, one of the old­est free we­b­comic host­ing ser­vices around.

Like a decade ago, the ma­jor­ity of cur­rent we­b­comic fans are young women aged 14 to 24. But young read­ers to­day have grown up in a world of smart­phones, Lieb­ner says, and are more likely to read a we­b­comic on their phone than their com­puter.

Since he started Smack Jeeves back in 2005, Lieb­ner says the in­dus­try’s be­come much more com­pet­i­tive, es­pe­cially since Tapas and Webtoon showed up.

“It was more of an in­die com­mu­nity,” Lieb­ner says of the early days. “There weren’t re­ally any big cor­po­ra­tions with lots of money and space.”

Now, “these com­pa­nies have mil­lions of dol­lars in their bud­get and I’m ba­si­cally barely get­ting by try­ing to com­pete with them.”

Smack Jeeves is es­sen­tially a one-man show, with more than 2,000 ac­tive comics. But page views have in­evitably gone down with more com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket. Smack Jeeves’ web traf­fic peaked in 2012, and is now is down by a third. Lieb­ner’s fo­cus is on the com- ics, but to fun­nel money back into the web­site, he’s built a self-serve ad­ver­tis­ing plat­form that al­lows peo­ple to bid for ad spots on the site. It was launched in April.

It’s un­de­ni­able that the mar­ket is more com­pet­i­tive, but to Ge­orge Ro­hac, that’s a good thing, be­cause it means fewer bar­ri­ers to en­try.

Ro­hac’s been in­volved in we­b­comics for well over a decade, and was named an of­fi­cial Kick­starter Ex­pert by Kick­starter. He helps man­age we­b­comic cre­ators’ projects and ca­reers through his com­pany, Or­ga­nized Havoc.

He says set­ting up, cus­tomiz­ing and host­ing your own web­site was once a huge bar­rier for those with­out cod­ing skills. Now, with Squares­pace, Webtoon, Tum­blr and Hive­works, it’s eas­ier for cre­ators to fo­cus on their work rather than strug­gling with web­site trou­bleshoot­ing.

(Fun fact: Ro­hac has worked with Alexis Oha­nian. He is mar­ried to Ser­ena Wil­liams. There­fore, by virtue of this in­ter­view, I am now three de­grees of sepa­ra­tion away from the great­est ath­lete on the planet — that’s how it works, right?)

“It’s an ecosys­tem, and most of the cre­ators have to bunch ... dif­fer­ent things to­gether to have their monthly salary.”

Fewer bar­ri­ers to en­try of course means the mar­ket has grown — and quickly.

“That, in my opin­ion, is good,” he says, be­cause it’s meant a greater di­ver­sity in both con­tent and among cre­ators.

In the early 2000s, we­b­comics largely ro­tated around het­ero­sex­ual, cis­gen­der white men play­ing video games. Now, at least in the US and Canada, there’s a larger va­ri­ety of sto­ries and sub­gen­res. That be­ing said, manga re­mains king of most top 10 lists.

A CRE­ATOR’S RIGHTS

Webtoon and Tapas are pop­u­lar and easy to use, but the thing about open plat­forms is that a cre­ator’s rights over their own work aren’t al­ways safe.

“Here’s the one red-flag con­cern of any site that is not yours,” Ro­hac warns. “They can change … all these terms, any time they want.”

In April 2017, Tapas added a “Right of First Re­fusal” clause to its terms of ser­vice. Ba­si­cally, if some­one ap­proached a cre­ator who uses Tapas about ac­quir­ing their in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty, Tapas would be able to block them and ask the cre- ator to give it the same of­fer first.

This was poorly re­ceived, and Tapas re­moved the clause within a month, claim­ing they wanted to pro­tect cre­ators who were tak­ing bad deals with preda­tory pub­lish­ers. Some com­mu­nity mem­bers still saw it as Tapas’ way of pre­emp­tively lock­ing down any po­ten­tial stars that rose on its plat­form.

“For­tu­nately the en­tire (web)comics com­mu­nity raised hell,” Erli and Kromi wrote in an email.

Erli and Kromi, the cre­ators of — an LGBTQ+ themed post-apoc­a­lyp­tic we­b­comic — say the move “left a bad taste” in their mouths. Since they launched their we­b­comic in 2014, the Fin­land-based pair have used plat­forms Smack Jeeves, Inkblaz­ers and Tapas. They were in the process of mov­ing over to Hive­works when the terms changed at Tapas, and as a re­sult sped up their launch with the pub­lisher.

In the case of Tapas, back­lash seem­ingly forced the com­pany’s hand. Does that mean we live in an age where pub­lic ire can keep open plat­forms ac­count­able? Ro­hac isn’t con­vinced. “There are still so many bad ac­tors,” he says, who con- sis­tently un­der­pay cre­ators, or don’t pay them at all.

“You can do ter­ri­ble, rep­re­hen­si­ble things to peo­ple and their IP and still keep on do­ing things in comics.”

That be­ing said, Ro­hac still sees open plat­forms as a vi­able op­tion for cre­ators — peo­ple just “need to keep on their toes.”

Me­lançon of Hive­works’ sees open plat­forms more neu­trally, as a part of a greater ecosys­tem.

“The most im­por­tant thing to re­mem­ber about them, no mat­ter how you feel about them ... whether pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive, is that they’re nec­es­sary,” she says, be­cause open plat­forms are needed for cre­ators to in­cu­bate their tal­ent, learn and form bonds.

THE PLAT­FORMS

For as­pir­ing cre­ators, which plat­form is best for you de­pends on the scope of your work.

For cre­ators who want to do a short-form comic on a ca­sual ba­sis, plat­forms like Webtoon or Smack Jeeves are good op­tions, be­cause they take lit­tle ini­tial ef­fort. If your comic is a gag-a-day that’s share­able, Ro­hac also rec­om­mends Tum­blr (just make sure you put your links on the im­age so peo­ple can trace it back to you, he ad­vises).

How­ever, if you want to cre­ate a long­form comic with the goal of it be­com­ing your main gig, con­sider mak­ing a greater ini­tial in­vest­ment, Ro­hac says. That most of­ten means hav­ing your own web­site, which gives you more op­tions for mak­ing money and keeps your IP within your grasp.

For cre­ators who can’t code, there aren’t re­ally any good web­site tem­plates for we­b­comics right now, he says. Hive­works, though, is ad­dress­ing that gap in the mar­ket by work­ing on a ver­sion of their plat­form that can be pur­chased by those who want to be com­pletely in­de­pen­dent. Ro­hac, who’s used the back­end, known as Comic Con­trol, says it’s his No. 1 rec­om­men­da­tion once it comes out.

Un­til then, open plat­forms, though not per­fect for we­b­comics, are a de­cent choice, he says — that is, un­til they go “poof.”

To some read­ers, the idea of Tum­blr go­ing “poof” may seem ridicu­lous, but take a mo­ment to think about it. How many of the web­sites that you use reg­u­larly now, ex­isted 10 years ago? And how many of the sites you used back then, are still pop­u­lar or even alive now? (RIP Friend­ster, Mys­pace, MSN chat.)

Drunk­duck, for in­stance, used to be the lead­ing we­b­comics plat­form, with 95,000 mem­bers post­ing comics in 2010. Un­for­tu­nately, its pop­u­lar­ity has taken a hit since then.

We’re in an age when tens of thou­sands of we­b­comics pub­lish daily on plat­forms that didn’t even exist five years ago. It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict which of these plat­forms will re­main and which crum­ble in the com­ing decade. Harder still is to know is what the spirit of the in­dus­try will be like in the fu­ture. Will sus­tain­abil­ity and eq­uity be prized, or will clicks and celebrity-brand spinoffs be at the fore­front? If you ask me, it’s up to read­ers to do their part. Sup­port the cre­ators you love so that they can make choices based on what’s best for them and their work — not sim­ply to sur­vive.

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