Webcomics Forever! That’s the new rallying cry of the cartoon making community, FTPing bold new narratives and experiments on the infinite canvas that is the World Wide Web. In the past few years, the webcomic has emerged as the Medium of the Future with which to tell sequential tales, visions and stories for the world to read without ever having to venture away from the comforting hum of its personal computer. All sorts of genres and styles are being digitally painted or scanned up to the web – from action/adventure tales like Athena Voltaire to gaming humor in PVP and Penny Arcade and even rebellious anti-The Man comics that border romantic for this generation of individualists like Questionable Content and Diesel Sweeties. Webcomics have even broken into the mainstream, landing politically charged web graphic novel, Shooting War, into the media eye and a print deal with Warner Books. Webcomics are forever, and creators are uniting to celebrate by forming studios to get them into the public eye. In the last two years, comic book collectives like the Flight team, ACT-I-VATE and Warren Ellis’ upcoming Rocket Pirates have come together to create sequential material for the web – some of which has been republished in book form, some that serve as works that will never see the light of the printed page. And they are not alone. Say hello to The Chemistry Set.
THE CHEMISTRY SET is a collective of creators bonded together to bring free independent comics to the masses. Every week, readers are treated to new comics by talented up-and-coming creators including two Xeric Award winning cartoonists. The collective was formed to explore the chemistry between writers, artists, and teams who combine individual creative elements to build dynamic compounds through the art and science of collaboration. One of those writers? Guilty as charged. I write TODT HILL for the collective, an all ages adventure comic with artist Kevin Colden.
Recently, I organized a roundtable discussion between the Chemistry Set writers to discuss webcomics, collaboration and the advent of the virtual studio. Joining us are Vito (STUCK) Delsante, Jim (VULTURE GULCH, COME THE DAWN) Dougan, Elizabeth (SCHEHERAZADE) Genco and Chris (ONE WAY TICKET) Arrant. Careful – it’s a big interview:
KLEID: I need names! dates! background! Tell me who your are, what you’ve done and the last good webcomic you’ve read that isn’t your own.
DELSANTE: Let’s see…Vito Delsante, born in the summer of ’73 on Staten Island. Moved around a lot…from NY to a small town in PA (Ford City) to Pittsburgh to LA, to Seattle and back again a few times. I’ve written for DC (Batman Adventures, Cartoon Network Block Party, Scooby Doo), Marvel (X-Men Unlimited), Speakeasy ( Fallout in Beowulf), the Reflux Comics antho, and the Ronin Studios Hope: New Orleans antho. Last good webcomic I’ve read that isn’t my own? I’m guessing this excludes all the stuff on ChemSet? I’d say anything Dean Trippe is working on (Butterfly, The Wake). Really great stuff. And Athena Voltaire…but that’s a no-brainer if you know me. I love pulp style action comics.
ARRANT: My name is Chris Arrant, and my bills are paid by working as a freelance graphic designer and journalist. But I write comics too (and novels, and short stories, and… you get the idea.) My first official comic book was FOUR STORIES, a self-published anthology I released at San Diego Comicon 2006. Right now my primary focus is on the weekly webcomic 1 WAY TICKET. I’ve got a couple other irons in the fire, but they’re too early to put on public display.
GENCO: I’ve got a small imprint of my own, Streetfables,through which I’ve put out a number of chapbooks and mini-comics in the past year, including WEIRD SISTER with Adam Boorman, Jeff Zornow, Dash Shaw, and my husband Leland Purvis. Kevin Colden and Miss Lasko-Gross made amazing artwork for another one of the books, RED. I work with the Endicott Studio, an organization devoted to myth and folklore in the arts. I write for Llewellyn Publications on Tarot, which I’ve studied for about a dozen years.
As for webcomics, Boorman has turned me on to some great stuff, like Platinum Grit. That fellow I married draws a pretty cool comic for Act-I-Vate, too.
DOUGAN: My name is Jim Dougan – born and raised in New York State’s Hudson Valley, I’ve been living in Washington, DC more or less since starting college here in 1991 and am proud to call it my adopted hometown. If I’m known at all in the world of comics, it’s for CRAZY PAPERS, the comedy graphic novella released earlier this year that I did with Danielle Corsetto.
Last good webcomic? Aside from the obvious choices of the others on THE CHEMISTRY SET, of course, and ACT-I-VATE, I’d recommend Girls With Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto, and DROCKLEBERRY by Andrew Dimmitt.
KLEID: Why webcomics? I mean, when you get right down to it, everyone from the Chem Set comes from a print background, right? So why the sudden urge to create comics for the web rather than assemble them for print?
DELSANTE: I think its because it (the internet) is becoming a more viable outlet to do comics on/through. I think it’s weird that television stations program their channels based on the amount of people that have cable…for instance, UPN programmed their channel to have more “urban” comedies because, and I’m not making this up, they believed that most minorities didn’t have cable (maybe Chris Rock said this, I can’t remember). The internet, however, is accessed by EVERYONE, so you can tell stories that are broad and that reach different people for different reasons. Race, age and gender aren’t a factor because the person on the other end of the monitor is invisible. I have to guess that increasing the potential audience from 100 (the lowest possible amount of orders total in the States from retailers on a new book by a virtual unknown) to 100,000,000 (a random number, but possibly the lowest possible amount of people on the web at any time) has to be a plus
ARRANT: It’s a main line between creators and readers like nothing else. Although print comics is more profitable (for now), I don’t need profit. I want to get my comics in front of as many eyeballs as I can, and putting them on the web removes several hurdles in print comics: namely, price, distribution and overhead. I’ve been doing most of my journalism work online for years, so taking the steps to do comics online wasn’t a big leap.
GENCO: At its heart, SCHEHERAZADE is an anthology book; things like FLIGHT, 24SEVEN and Jason Rodriguez’s forthcoming POSTCARDS aside, anthology books are a notoriously hard sell. I chose the web simply because I love to write short stories in comics form and I wanted to share more of them with the world without having to convince someone of why they’re a good idea.
DOUGAN: The answer is simple: economics. Going to print is a significant up-front expense, and recouping it (let alone making a profit) can be difficult, especially after distributors and retailers get their cut. On the web you can reach a huge audience for little or no upfront cost, and for a new creator like me, building an audience is really the goal. In addition, THE CHEMISTRY SET is an avenue for me to release some shorter stories that I think deserve to be read but wouldn’t justify going to print on their own.
KLEID: How important is the collaborative process? The Chemistry Set preaches that the ‘chemistry’ involved is that between writer and artist. Does this mean that a writer-artist who does everything him or herself is missing out on an important part of the puzzle?
DELSANTE: Not necessarily, but I don’t think that the challenge would exist. I’ve worked with a few really good writer-artists, and they can create magic on their own, no doubt. But the challenge of “one-upping” that’s inherent in a collaboration isn’t there. Maybe a writer-artist will look upon what is out there being produced and be challenged to be the equal or better of that. Or maybe a certain creator brings it out in him/her. But in the collaboration, you have that once a script is handed over or once you see a piece of art. You know that the limitations are off (and this is speaking in an editorially free environment). For instance, I wasn’t sure how to script Page 12 of STUCK, so I gave Tom [Williams] a few suggestions. I can’t remember for sure, but I’m fairly certain that what he produced was 1) not one of the things I suggested and 2) better than I could have thought up. It’s nice to know that I’m working with someone that doesn’t need me to think for him. Hence, the challenge.
ARRANT: I can’t speak for everyone, but me and 1 WAY TICKET artist Dan Warner go back and forth a lot. Our scripts and artwork go through a number of revisions as we pass them back and forth, getting better with every take. This is Dan’s first time working with a writer, I’m proud to say, and Dan’s more than just the “artist”, just as I contribute ideas towards the artwork from my graphic design background.
GENCO: I think that collaboration falls not into the category of “better” or “worse”; just “different”. SCHEHERAZADE wouldn’t be what it is without Boorman; working with him is a pleasure and I trust him implicitly. I’ve noticed, on message boards and whatnot, that many fledgling writers are hesitant to give up control. I think that’s misguided. Working with an artist, rather than acting the control freak, is an infinitely better way to go. Find someone suited to your story whose skills you trust and who you can communicate with, than trust them to do what they do. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take an active role in the process (far from it), but an artist — a good artist — knows things that you, as a beginning writer, can never know because you probably don’t sit around thinking about the mechanics of visual storytelling all day. They can help you, and you can learn a lot from them. Turn it into a discussion. A — dare I say it? — collaboration.
Like any relationship, it’s about respect on both sides. The relationship part of making a comic is one of the most enjoyable parts of the process for me. And then there’s getting back all those gorgeous pages…
DOUGAN: The collaborative process is very important, though I’d say it’s easier when there’s more lead time involved. Posting from week to week, sometimes it’s hard to have a full discussion about the story, dialogue, layout, etc. Working farther in advance gives you the luxury of time, with more potential for experimentation and trial and error.
As far as the comparison to the single-creator cartoonist: it’s just different. Is a one-man show better than a play with an ensemble cast? Each has its strengths and weaknesses. For someone like me who can’t draw, though, collaboration in comics is the only option!
KLEID: What’s the logical next step here? Everywhere you turn folks are talking about Comics iPods and Digital Downloadable Comics. Will the webcomic evolve to the point where creators post graphic novels online to be bought, printed and assembled via PayPal? What will this mean for the Direct Market and creators’ relationship with the retailing community?
DELSANTE: Well, Konami has just done a straight to PSP graphic novel, so yeah, anything is possible, and the folks involved are just barely tapping into it. Guys like Penny Arcade are really starting to tap into the full potential of where a webcomic can “go.” If you have internet access on your cellphone, or PSP, or whatever, it makes portability a key factor. But, and I think this is just me, but I think the only people that are exploring these options are comic fans. The idea of getting comics on a cellphone needs to get out to, as Peter Venkman would put it, “the straights.” If the video game market is so huge, why can’t we get a piece of that? Which is why I don’t think the Direct Market will suffer…at least not for a long time. You nailed it in the question, Neil, when you asked how it will affect the creator’s relationship with the retailers. Retailers, for the most part, deal with publishers and that means that as long as someone is literally making a comic book or a graphic novel, nothing will change. Soon, but not yet.
ARRANT: Definitely. Acceptance by the public is growing year by year. I think we’re still waiting for the “killer app”, the application/device to read comics in a comfortable way. Sure people can read comics online (I do), but it is by far an optimum way to read comics in a manner as comfortable and durable as a printed comic. That’s the hurdle right now.As for the role the Direct Market can play into it, that’s still to be determined. Although the stores operate under one banner ‘Direct Market’, you have to remember these are all individually owned stores with little organization store to store except through ComicsPro or by way of default of all being sold to by one distributor (Diamond). Even if that remains the case, I can see smarter retailers being able to change with the times and be able to offer the equivalent of USB thumb drives full of comics to customers, or email subscriptions.
GENCO: To be honest, I have no idea “where it will all lead”, and that doesn’t interest me all that much. I’m just… doing my work and putting it out there.
DOUGAN: As Daniel Craig’s character said in LAYER CAKE: “That’s a very expansive question.” I think the answer will vary depending on the creator you’re talking to. As I said earlier, my goal with webcomics is to build an audience for my work and hopefully go to print at some time in the future. I’m not looking to “paint on the infinite canvas” or take advantage of the unique properties of the web, at least not yet. I think it’s entirely reasonable that, for some creators at least, comics could be released for free reading on the web, with a print-on-demand version available in hardcopy.
As far as the implications for retailers: with few exceptions, most retailers are making their bread and butter (if not their whole meal) from the Big Two. Creators doing independent comics going straight to the customer won’t be taking any money out of their pockets, and frankly they’re not putting any money in ours either. For the small but strong minority of comics retailers who support independent work, I’m guessing that they sell a diverse enough portfolio of comics that a few smaller folks peeling off here and there won’t have much of an effect, but to the extent it might, I think we’d all be willing to figure it out in a mutually beneficial way. There are plenty of distribution channels available, and small press creators have too much at stake to be expected to be beholden to just one.
KLEID: How important is story format? Warren Ellis creates the FELL Dose. Harvey Pekar and crew pump out the one-man short story anthology. Bryan O’Malley couches his epic in serialized graphic novels. Even on the Chemistry Set we see everything from serialized series to short stories to one large narrative. What comes first – the story or the format.
DELSANTE: For me, I have to know the story before I even try to discuss format. When you go in and the first thing you know is, “Ok, we’re doing this online, which means we can do just about anything…even create a new format,” that is a tempting slice of pie, but I can’t even think about that until I know what the story is. The story can sometimes dictate the format…in STUCK, I know that the first four pages of every chapter will have a flashback sequence, so Tom and I have agreed to post those first, as a chunk, because you need to know the character(s). Chapter One was a little different because we needed to get to the plot as soon as we could. And even now, as I’m finishing up Chapter Two and looking at how Chapter Three plays out, I’m still not 100% sold on the format. I think Tom dictates a lot of that too, just by plotting out the page, so to me, I kind of like having a malleable format. At least in the beginning.
ARRANT: For me, the story comes first. It dictates how it should be delivered to the readers (i.e. the format). 1 WAY TICKET wouldn’t have been good as a 3-panel newspaper strip style.
GENCO: Formats are great fun — when the stories work. The problem is, sometimes, they don’t… and yet writers persist. In my world, narrative rules. By all means, play with formats. But if you don’t give me a story, and I was promised one, I will be very, very upset with you.
DOUGAN: Again, that’s a very expansive question, and there’s no one right answer. Content and form have a symbiotic relationship. I’d like to say “stories first”, though I have to say, since I’ve started writing stories specifically for TCS, I’ve tried to be mindful of the serialized aspect – so there, you have form dictating content to some extent. While aiming for a cliffhanger on every page would be too dogmatic, I try to give a little something to make you want to come back, without making it seem too forced. Then again, I’m working on some longer-form stories, where I think a serialized format would be inappropriate. For example, I wouldn’t force cliffhangers into a slice-of life dramatic story, so maybe a page-per-week serial webcomic is not the best form for that content. Like I said, it can go either way. The key is to be mindful of the situation in a way that’s true to both the form AND the content.
KLEID: Back in the day, Eisner created the assembly line studio – one guy lays the pencils out at the front of the room and passes it behind to the inker who passes it to the letterer and so forth. These days comics are created almost the same way, piece meal between writer, penciller, inker, colorist and letterer – but rather than pass the work along a physical assembly line it’s passed along a virtual line. The advent of the virtual studio: thoughts?
DELSANTE: Strength In Numbers is a virtual studio and it’s how we’re doing The Mercury Chronicles (if it ever comes out). I see it as a good and bad thing. It’s nice to know that you can get a page to someone in real time, immediately, and get results. But I enjoy person to person contact. Having that feedback come online can be cold sometimes.
ARRANT: Things are a changing. We’re seeing more and more pencillers reclaiming their role as inkers of their own work, as well as pioneers like Alex Maleev who are doing it completely digital. Also, compare the assembly line of the “superhero mainstream” with everything else. A lot of cartoonists are reclaiming the whole production cycle. That’s not to say that everyone will, but it’s become a more fluid thing than in years past.
GENCO: Four words: god bless the internet. Getting pages back over beer and cookies at Rocketship is a glorious thing, but things like Gmail’s chat client means that I get to work with folks like Boorman, who is in Australia.
DOUGAN: These advancements in technology you describe are the reason we can do something like THE CHEMISTRY SET; in the past the logistics and costs would have been prohibitive, making it inaccessible to independent creators like us.
KLEID: Enough of this non-ego strokery – what are you working on and when will it be out?
DELSANTE: I made a list last week of all the things I have up in the air and things that are waiting for approval. I can’t really talk about any of it, but I can say that I pitched a beloved Hanna-Barbara cartoon to DC, and it got turned down. So, that list of 15 is now 14. I’m working on an OGN with my co-worker (and roommate), Valerie Reupert, about the black out of ’77. Chris [Arrant] and I have been talking about a new anthology, but it’s very very young, so nothing to report, but I know my story for it. Mercury is going to happen next year, I swear. And I got two offers yesterday that are really exciting. Mondays…go figure.
ARRANT: In addition to the weekly webcomic 1 WAY TICKET, I’m also writing a four issue pirate miniseries with a publisher and artist to be announced in 2007. I’m also working with artist Matt Bayne on a story for an anthology that should be out next summer. Beyond that, it’s all pitches and proposals.
GENCO: My biggest project right now is making the transition from worker bee to freelancer, which takes more time and energy than you might think, so making SCHEHERAZADE the best it can be is my top creative priority. I’m working on a number of non-SCHZDE shorts and full-length pitches with other artists.
DOUGAN: Right now my focus is coming up with a full slate of short stories for the next few months of THE CHEMISTRY SET. Currently we’re running COME THE DAWN, a fantasy romance with Hyeondo Park. Coming up after that are NO REST STOP FOR THE WICKED and THE GENTLEMAN, two EC-comics style suspense stories with Michel Fiffe and Umberto Torricelli , respectively. For early 2007, I’m hoping Christine Norrie will find time in her ultra-busy schedule to finish the VULTURE GULCH story we’ve been working on. Aside from that, I’m working on some longer-form stories that I hope will see the light of day in 2007, but nothing concrete as of yet. For now, stay tuned to THE CHEMISTRY SET!