As Web comics continue to grow in popularity, the online comics industry is evolving into a nearly completely self-made realm, where creators enjoy complete artistic freedom, and self-determined licensing and merchandising. Following the success of strips such as Penny Arcade—now a popular franchise with its own line of merchandising and even its own convention—many Web comics creators continue to cast aside the “middleman,” taking charge of their strips from drawing and hosting to marketing and merchandising. Dave Stanworth has been running a successful Web comic since 2002, and unlike many other artists, his efforts are not focused on just one strip. Stanworth’s Web site, www.snafu-comics.com, hosts upwards of 10 different comic strips, both ongoing and completed.
Stanworth’s original series, Snafu Comics, is themed around video games and video game—related humor. The content evolved to include topical parodies and jokes, with subjects ranging from movies and politics to Internet subculture and other social commentary. As the strip has changed, so has Stanworth’s art style—he's constantly changing to fit his audience and the humor of his strip. “I change my style every week,” said Stanworth.
Other strips of note have joined the site, including Everafter; TIN: The Incompetent Ninja; Sticky Floors; Sugar Bits; Grim Tales; and several others. Strips based on the popular cartoons Invader Zim and Power Puff Girls are also featured on the site, but are currently on hiatus.
“Things kind of went crazy the last two years. That’s when I realized this can be a business,” said Stanworth, who creates both his comic and his merchandise entirely himself, printing both the artwork and T-shirts he sells.
Much of Stanworth’s success lies in his ability to draw readers to his Web site without any printed materials, and making himself available to fans at comic and anime conventions, where he sells a variety of merchandise from Snafu’s many hosted strips, including art prints, badges and T-shirts. Some of his wares have more to do with inside jokes and gags from Snafu’s various strips, and fans are eager to buy, showing their ongoing interest in Snafu.
Stanworth notes that a large part of his success is due to his ability to cut out the middle man. He creates, distributes and promotes both his comic strip and merchandise without the interference of editors, executives or companies that would be entitled to a portion of his product. “Personally, what’s helped the most is my real-life personality. Snafu grows through networking. I make friends, we share links and help each other,” he said.
Much like Stanworth, Shawn Handyside’s career in comics started on a small scale, with comics he scanned and posted online during his college years. “It didn’t occur to me that it was a way to make comics,” said Handyside.
His work evolved into the popular Web comic Staccato, a self-proclaimed illogical strip about the misadventures of a group of college friends, parodying video games, movies and other cultural references. In addition to his strip, Handyside has drawn guest strips for several others including VG Cats. He also has his own line of merchandise including prints, buttons, stickers and T-shirts. Handyside is preparing a trade collection of Staccato strips for publication.
Unlike most Web comics, Staccato ran briefly in a newspaper Handyside worked at. While the additional publicity for the strip was more than welcome, it affected Handyside’s creative freedom, and he found himself censoring story lines he would have ordinarily run, mindful of the fact that it was now running in a newspaper.
“The second it got picked up I realized I was writing it differently, and that bothered me,” Handyside said, noting that he felt relieved when Staccato’s stint with the paper ended.
Online, Handyside enjoys artistic freedom without concern for editorial interference or self-imposed censorship. “Anything can work online because anyone can access it. You have a comic about aardvarks that can appeal only to aardvark owners and that works. The world is changing. Syndicates and big companies are losing hold,” said Handyside.
Tim Buckley’s CTRL+ALT+DEL has been running for five years and has seen traffic surge in that time. In addition to his online comic strip, Buckley sells merchandise like graphic novel collections of CTRL+ALT+DEL, shirts, plush toys and hats. CTRL+ALT+DEL has been adapted into an animated television show, produced by Blind Ferret. Buckley also hosts a yearly LAN event, Digital Overload. He has also done a spinoff series called Analog and D-pad with fellow artist Zack Finfrock.
It didn't take long after the strip started for Buckley to catch on to the potential in self-merchandising: only nine months into CTRL+ALT+DEL,Buckley put out his first batch of T-shirts and made nearly $7,000 in profits.
“That first batch was an eye opener. I quit my job a few months later,” said Buckley, who now dedicates his efforts solely to CTRL+ALT+DEL.
Buckley is also entirely responsible for his growth opportunities and strong fan base. Initially he traveled to four to five anime and comic conventions a year only to meet fans.
“I tend to stay out of the trend. I’m just doing something I love,” said Buckley, who enjoys the freedom the Internet offers him to “stretch [his] arms,” explore taboos and jokes that he could not properly address through printed media.
Fans have created their own projects based on his strip, including Flsh-based games and image signatures for message boards bearing the likeness of their favorite characters. Buckley said he would enjoy working on a concept for a video game, longer animated trips or action figures.