Comic Advice with David Herbert

(Hey, kids, what time is it? It’s David Herbert time! The resident comic opinion piece writer returns with some advice gleaned from his own experiences at writing writing webcomics.)

I was originally going to make a comic about this but I’m trying to keep LWI away from politics these days, plus I don’t think it’d be that funny.

When it comes to trying to make a career as a writer or artist, it’s always a good idea to get some advice from other creators out there who have gotten to the point where they make a living off their work and are respected by other creators. And thanks to the web, you can easily get nuggets of wisdom from these people.

Unfortunately, sometimes they’re full of shit.

So I have compiled a list of pieces of advice I have heard pros give to newcomers who want to know how they can become successful too. I have followed these words myself and I can tell you from experience, none of them work.

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 7.11.36 AM

1. Don’t worry about not getting your comic out on time.

One word: Megatokyo. Years ago it used to get a hundred thousand hits a day easily and sold a lot of merch. These days, 30k if its lucky and Gallagher has admitted sales have gone down. Then you have Least I Could Do. Not always a quality product, but it is very popular and makes money.

The truth is, if people have to wait around, they’ll eventually get bored and leave unless your comic is something really special to them. And if you can’t get your comic out on time, why should they support you?

2. I don’t rely on buffers.

Now the first comment is usually about not wanting to put out an inferior product and that you should focus more on making a better comic page than a lot of them. Quality vs. quantity. I fully agree with that ideal. However, if this is what you practice, then you should make sure you have plenty of time to create that quality product so that it can be out on time and be good.

Many creators will then counter that they keep losing track of the pages and end up forgetting the order they’re supposed to go in or the date they’re supposed to go up. I’ve never had that problem, but if it is one for you, why can’t you just name the comic’s file the date it’s supposed to go up?

3. Don’t listen to critics. 

And how exactly did this help Tom Preston’s reputation? It’d be more accurate to say “See what the fans are saying, but remember to take it with a grain of salt.” Many readers are not pro creators, nor do they have aspirations to be, they’re just people who like your work. But they do know what they like and probably know what other people like. It’s more about knowing the difference between good advice and bad. You don’t have to try and please everyone but blocking them out is not the way to go.

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 7.13.09 AM

4. Never cheapen yourself as an artist by drawing a Batman or Wolverine picture to sell.

Peter David once wrote a column about this. At a con, while he was sales manager for Marvel, an artist drew this absolutely gorgeous Alpha Flight piece on a bristol board. All day people came by and commented that the piece was good, but no one wanted to buy it, and when they asked for sketches from the artist, they usually asked for one of the X-Men. Eventually, the artist did a quick sketch of wolverine on the back of the Alpha Flight picture.

It was gone in five minutes.

I’ve seen this too. Back in 2011 I shared a table with an artist who had posters of his own characters, plus Flash, Green Lantern and Thor. He sold more Flash pieces than others. And when they wanted sketches, they asked for Marvel and DC characters. A couple of people were disappointed he didn’t have a Spider-Man or Batman piece available.

The problem is this advice ignores the way you can use established characters as a foot in the door to get people to check out your stuff. Would Spawn have been the most successful Image comic if Todd McFarlane had never drawn Spider-Man? Would Gail Simone’s Leaving Megalopolis have been fully funded if she hadn’t written Birds of Prey or Wonder Woman? They were successful because fans of the characters they worked on became fans of the way they wrote those characters and so became fans of the creators.

And the worst of all?

5. Anyone can do it or Just put in lots of hard work and you’ll be successful.

The latter first. If you truly believe that, then how come Tim Buckley makes way more money than David Willis? How come Chris Hazelton needs to run a kickstarter in order to do his comics full time after nearly ten years? As for the former, if that were true than we would have tens of thousands more people making a living off of their work.

I tend to be optimistic but ‘just work hard’ is some of the most naive bullshit I have ever heard and it just pisses me off when pros out there imply others aren’t working as hard as they are.

Screen shot 2013-04-04 at 7.17.05 AM

As for anyone can do it, no. Not everyone has the ability to connect with an audience like some other creators. Rich Burlew isn’t your average writer. Jim Lee isn’t your average artist. They made better products than many of us could ever hope to and that is why people are willing to give them their money. Most creators are not interchangeable.

So that’s my list of things a pro can say to make me think they are too successful to try giving out advice to the amateurs. See, those pros can get away with these things because they already have their established fan base. Guys like me? We aren’t able to yet and won’t get anywhere if we tried.

(David Herbert is the creator of Living With Insanity and Tnemrot.)


Posted on April 5, 2013, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Chris Hazelton was doing a book sale, misfile makes enough money to pay his mortgage and than some. The kickstarter was to sell book 1 of a new comic we’re gonna throw up as a webcomic later not to actually fund the comic. Almost all that kickstarter money is going to merchandise production, the profits were going to put his kid in pre-k so he could work more.

    Also I’d say buckleys site gets around 200-250k daily users. He’s doing pretty well for himself.

  2. “If you truly believe that, then how come Tim Buckley makes way more money than David Willis?”

    Really? That’s disappointing to hear. Where did you get this information?

    • Cad is ranked in an entire different weight class via alexa. It’s in the same class as questionable content or smbc.

      • While I can certainly believe that CAD gets significantly more web traffic than Willis’s comics, I’m not sure if that’s enough to definitively state that one author has a higher income than the other. For instance, it’s worth noting that one of Willis’s comics is subscription-only, which complicates the issue a bit.

        There’s also the question of reader donations/fundraising. You mention SMBC as being in the same “weight class” as CAD – Zach Weiner recently managed to raise over $300,000 for an SMBC book printing. I’m not aware of Buckley having any sort of fundraising success of that magnitude.

        • buckleys never done a kickstarter. A gaming comics advertising pays 3x what a normal comics would. Duming of age/shortpacked might have 40-50k combined daily uniques. CAD gets 5x that traffic on a better paying demographic. It definitely makes more passively.

          • Well, you certainly seem to know what you’re talking about, so I’ll defer to your knowledge on this subject. 🙂

            That said, I do wonder what would happen if Buckley ever did attempt a Kickstarter. My own personal suspicion is that he lacks the sort of passionate fanbase required to hit the six-figure values comics like SMBC have been able to pull down. (From what I’ve seen, the people most passionate about CAD are those who really, really hate the comic.)

  3. I dunno, “work hard” is a pretty obvious one, although success isn’t quaranteed in some time set in stone. Its kinda hard to think about it now, but back in the day Conan the Barbarians, nor Lord of the Rings books were all that popular when they first came out. Many Disney films such as Alice in Wonderland were considered to be a mediocre success and a disappointment for the Disney studio. People actually bashed Fantasia back in the day. But look at how revered all of those works are now. So even when you would make the best superhero comic since Watchmen, it’s not quaranteed that the audience will pick it up immediatly.

    So its bit weird, that working hard doesn’t quarantee instant success, but not working hard quarantees you’ll never make it. I guess more accurate advice would be: “Never EVER give up.”.

    • Now, I have no experience working the comics field, but I do sorta have a business degree. And the most important thing I learned there was the importance of knowing your audience. We once did an experiment with a business simulator where the class was broken up into groups. All of us were supposed to “release” a product, with 5 different markets in mind. (Young professionals, early tech adopters, etc.)

      In the end, the most successful groups were the ones who managed to either: a) capture an audience that had never been served before, or b) improve upon the original formula so the previous version was obsolete. And it’s not that different from webcomics, really. Penny Arcade, xkcd, and even Least I Could Do managed to pull in audiences that had never been served before. (Gamers, math nerds, and bro-skis, respectively.) While I can’t think of anything that had replaced something obsolete, I think MegaTokyo suffers because while the style hasn’t changed, many other comics have already passed it by. (Plus it’s straddling perilously close to the sort of quadrant where the audience is diluted because there are many other, better options out there that exist as alternatives… namely, manga, which is far more available than when MegaTokyo stated.)

      Anyway, my two cents from the cold-hearted businessman point of view.

      • I guess thats one of the greater challenges in making basically anything from music to movies and comics. Making something clearly different so people are interested, but not so different that its weirdness would alienate the audience.

      • Definitely agree with your points about knowing your audience. Some other notable webcomics that managed to carve out their own niches include Hark! A Vagrant (history nerds), Order of the Stick (D&D players), and Homestuck (internet obsessives).

        As for Megatokyo… yeah,there’s a comic that completely failed to adapt to a growing, more competitive webcomics market. I used to read it myself way back when, but the glacial update schedule eventually turned me off from the comic.

      • “Do it first or Do it better”. Now there’s a concept that applies VERY WELL to webcomics. There’s no point in becoming the 10th imitator of Penny Arcade if you can’t outdo them in some way. And if you can’t, try something NEW!

        All very good points, El Santo.

  4. Thanks for another good article, David. Number 5 hits really close to home for me. It turns out a person needs to work hard on their comic AND work on their marketing. And then there’s a certain luck factor involved.

  5. To add onto #5, I once had a teacher that said “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.” Tom Preston for example is an art school graduate and has spent years at doing various comics and commissions, but still is mediocre at best. All the hard work has done has cemented him in his ways.

  6. Though problem with Tom Preston is his inability to listen to critique and unwillingness to try out something new and enhance his abilities. He’s one of those sad cases where his own ill attitude is the biggest thing in his way to success. Though he mentions the “I was in art school where a teacher said my art was shit”-thing, he actually shows little passion towards the art itself and resorts to rather making fun of- or blocking people who actually want to help him. It seems that he thinks that since he’s already been heavily critisized once, he already knows everything what’s wrong about his comics and doesn’t need any more advice.

    “I’m a cartoonist” is his excuse of not wanting to get better, whereas things like anatomy practices, croquis-practice, reading about storytelling and comic pacing techniques and learning the basics of perspective would make his comics significantly better. Technical-wise at least, his attitude also comes in the way of his jokes and stories in his strips.

    • Totally agree. But when I see people say things like “Work hard and keep practicing, you’ll get better!” they leave out that the hard work should be focused towards some tangible goals (by looking at tutorials, seeking criticism, practicing at weak areas, etc, like you said). Preston drew the same style for a long time, and instead of making him a better artist, it just resulted in being faster and more efficient at drawing in his style, flaws and all.

      • Yeah, thats true, and can be a surprisingly common problem in artists. This is probably going to make me look like a snob, or an a-hole, but many real professional concept artists kinda draw the same thing all over again, which usually means posing characters in standing motion. Sure their painting techniques look incredible, but if the image has no flow and the composition is just kinda bland, the image lacks in excitement.

        IMO I think that one is a good artist when he/she can draw any of his/her characters from any angle, action and in any environment. Lot of modern artists put too much emphasis on the level of detail and painting-work at the expense of those things I listed, which is kinda sad. You can see this a lot with Marvel- and DC-comic artists, sites like the Escher-girl blog also show that many of those artists haven’t even really fully studied anatomy before worrying about making their characters look cool.

        Whereas if you combine both the attention to detail, painting skills, and the skills of making images feel vivid and living results in great comics like say the webcomic Unsounded or Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, or mangas like Nausicaä and Akira. Or most of the mainstream french comics (which are great technically but their stories are usually rather generic.)

        • Reepicheep-chan

          I tend to agree. I suppose concept artists and illustrators do not always need to do weird angles and poses, but comic artists really have no business not understanding how to move the human body around.

  7. I think it would be more accurate to say, only listen to critics if they say something constructive. You’re always going to have people who proclaim that your comic sucks. Only a select few of them will be reasonable enough to tell you why.

    • I agree, but you also have to realise that they may not understand what you’re going for since everyone has a different interpretation. I once worked with an editor who gave great advice but never got that I was going for realism. He got pissed when a woman was shot in the chest and lived because she would obviously be showing cleavage, not wearing full armour.

  8. Re: #4: I straight up disagree. If you use copyrighted material to get your foot in the door, you absolutely risk becoming one of those people who goes to more than a handful of conventions a year just to sell prints of characters that aren’t yours. If you make yourself known as a person who does piles of Wolverine fanart, that’s all that people are going to want from you. A slower (but better) strategy is to just draw your comic until you have enough high quality pages for a book, and then sell that. You may not make big money right away, but you will absolutely be known for your own characters in the long run.

    At the same time, though, I feel like a lot of artists need to do some self-searching and be honest about themselves–are they skilled enough that, if they weren’t selling fanart of popular characters, they would still be making money if they were more well known? If the answer is no, then maybe they should just hold off on going to sell things at an artist alley until they’ve had enough practice that the answer is yes.

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