This article is by John M. Haley.
Not long ago, I started a web comic called “Huntresses Attack Monsters …in 2D!” I did it because I was itching to do something with characters I created long ago, and I felt like doing something different.
I didn’t just jump into the project all willy-nilly. I read up on advice. The most often stated message from webcomic creators—many of whom won awards and/or had comics that ran for over a decade: do it for love, not money.
So I knew I wasn’t going to get overnight millions or even over-year hundreds doing this. But I did it anyway. Feedback was excellent in October, and encouraging words continued through the remainder of 2015 and the start of 2016. There wasn’t anything anyone said of the comic that made me want to stop.
Stopping. That was all me.
So while I was invited to write this article for the purpose of bringing traffic to the site, I told Tony I’d rather give a brutally honest account of my experience with my webcomic. It’s not a success story and I’m not ashamed of that. (I’m not ashamed of the comic either, so feel free to visit HAM2D.com.)
Let me break this down into a couple reasons why I started HAM2D, why I’m glad I did, and why I stopped—then go from there.
I. Why I Did It
I won’t go into every detail as to why I started the webcomic in the first place. The main reason is that I noticed how quickly my drawing skills were improving when I started drawing regularly. I wanted to continue to improve, and once I had a consistent look for two of my favorite original characters, I thought I should tell their story on a week-by-week basis.
Another important factor is that I was (and still am) unemployed. I didn’t (and still don’t) act depressed in front of family and friends, and I don’t bring that to online forums. But I’ll say it now: being unemployed stinks, especially when you’re neither incompetent nor unethical. Doing something creative is a positive thing that no one can take away from you.
II. Why I’m Glad I Did It
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, and I loved seeing my creations come to life.
The comic isn’t perfect, and it wasn’t really going as planned, but it was fun to take a piece of a story in my head and draw that scene. The self-imposed deadline forced me to do it regularly, so I was drawing often. As a result I became a better artist, a faster artist, and a more confident artist. I was showing my textless “bloody, holiday-themed adventure-ballet” at Christmas parties and enjoying the reactions!
I also got a bit of commission work. No, not even close to the amount of art jobs I’d need to make up for lack of employment, but enough to feel good about what I’m doing. And enough that I could recognize my talent as something marketable.
III. Why I Stopped
So… I read up on how webcomic creators actually make money. The comic attracts readers, and then you monetize. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, and I had regular work that could support a tiny apartment and leave time for art… in that case, yeah, I could spend 8-12 hours a week drawing something that’s viewed for free, and see what I can scrape up through ads, affiliate links, subscriptions, merchandise, commissions, etc.
But that alone isn’t even the thing that stopped me, really. At the start of 2016, I had this feeling like the comic had served its purpose—for me. I proved to myself I could draw and attract an audience. I found a fun way to deal with being stuck without a job. But half a year of being jobless means I need to put more time into getting out of that mess.
IV. Lessons Learned
I definitely won’t stop being creative. I’m just going to take a wiser approach—one that doesn’t involve me rushing deadlines for something I’m doing for fun and no money. Here are lessons I learned that will help.
1. Embrace Your Flaws!
One thing that was working for me when I created my comics was to never strive for perfection. You can’t ever finish a strip if you try to be perfect. Take a single piece of art or a single scene from a story, and the same logic applies.
That doesn’t mean you leave words spelled incorrectly or not revise a scene that doesn’t make any sense to a reader. But when your work conveys the message its supposed to, stop revising. Don’t go back and add that little mundane detail so your reader knows which eye your character winks with. Maybe your beta readers didn’t know your character was winking at all, but did they get it and were they entertained? If so, don’t ever edit again unless there’s an actual mistake.
2. Monetize Your Passion
One member of this site who I think of as a role model is Phil Overby. He decided one day, he was going to invent a genre and call it Splatter Elf. Was it marketable? He didn’t worry about that.
That’s the attitude I want to have with my work. Get it out there with the intention of having people pay to read it. Use my own definition of awesomeness as my barometer for marketability. Phil’s doing that with Splatter Elf, and Splatter Elf’s the main attraction. It’s the thing you buy. Other things he does for free are efforts to promote what he sells.
Doing a webcomic means the main attraction is free. It takes the most time and effort, and people can enjoy it without buying stuff. That’s fine if your goal is to get feedback, hone art skills, and entertain people for fun, and maybe sell an Addison Lane plushie every month or two. If you want to make money, the main attraction should be awesome and shouldn’t be free.
I don’t want to make a comic that depends on my readers clicking ads or a virtual tip jar. I don’t even have those things on my site. If I give you something for free, go ahead and enjoy it. If I have something for sale, I’ll try to make it worth buying then put effort into promoting it.
Giving away art and story for free and expecting people to tip me or buy some cheap junk to “support the artist” doesn’t work. I know it works for Penny Arcade. Writing novels works for Stephen King too.
3. Learn From the Successful, Not from the Best
I started looking into what works often for many, rather than what works spectacularly for few.
I looked at Kickstarter projects, like RPG card games. (The HAM2D characters were originally created for an RPG.) I read articles by people who run small businesses teaching digital art. (I had been a teacher for ten years.) I looked into the marketability of the illustrated novel, to see if I could put my art and story out there without making potential readers think it’s a kids’ book. (This seems to be the case, and I even got some self-pub advice from a woman who makes a living writing illustrated novels for an adult audience.)
In other words, I looked at ways to monetize my talent—instead of trying to monetize a free thing I create with my talent.
I may commit to one of those paths (card game / teaching art / illustrated novel), or even do as a few people suggested: combine some or all of those paths, and use some drawings for more than one purpose. Art for a card RPG could show up in an illustrated short story. Some of the art could be on my website, and the site itself could be a blog or an online portfolio. In this case, the site would give a taste of what I’m selling. Visitors could then (a) determine whether my product is entertaining enough to justify paying for and (b) still enjoy what’s available for free, so there’s a reason to come back to the site whether they buy anything or not.
Regardless of the path(s) taken, the bulk of my art and writing effort would go to the product or service that I am selling. Promotion is important, but not as important as what it is I’m actually promoting.
V. Captain Obvious Says, “You’re Welcome”
I realize that there’s no earth-shattering revelation up there. You might be thinking, “I knew that when I came in here.”
Well… so did I. And yet, here I am, another one of those webcomic guys who just stopped after three months.
It’s easy to get caught up in your own creation and create without purpose. This may be in the form of giving away your craft for free, endlessly editing in pursuit of perfection, or having a my-way-or-bust mentality.
Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes. Those of you who read the comic and loved it enough to tell me so—thank you! The comic was not a mistake, aside from my failure to stay on-script so I could finish the season in 13 strips.
Am I ashamed of my mistake? I’d say I’m humbled, but not humiliated. I’m glad I recognized my flawed path before I had a following of 1000 regulars. Part of embracing flaws doesn’t just refer to flaws in your work, but flaws in yourself. It doesn’t mean be an incompetent buffoon and be loud and proud about it. Just don’t beat yourself up over failure to achieve perfection. Make your mistakes, recognize them as such, and don’t repeat them.
…at least not on purpose.
1. “Perfection is the enemy of good.”
How is the perfectionist in your brain thwarting your attempts to finish a good WIP (or WNIP—the N being “not”)?
2. “What is the enemy of awesome?”
Is it endless editing? Arbitrary deadlines? A first page you wrote that bores you when you proofread, even though you still laugh out loud at the hilarious dialogue on page 5? Every writer has a different awesome, so the enemy of awesomeness differs from writer to writer. Which enemy is yours?
3. “Do it for love and money.”
Your latest creation is awesome. You love it flaws and all. Your beta readers get it, find it entertaining, and want more. You haven’t made a dime on it, and you’re proud.
Now, how are you going to cash in on your creation? Don’t know? Who are you going to ask? Not what website! A website is a what! A who is a person! Who are you going to ask so you know how to cash in on your work?
Write to that person. Now.
About the Author:
John M. Haley is a writer-artist whose works have mainly featured female protagonists since the birth of his third daughter. He is currently exploring the best medium for his HAM2D project.