The business of Web comics depends on making money by giving something away for free. Not everyone can pull that off, but Charlie Trotman earns a living from her Web comic, Templar, Arizona, despite the fact that the entire comic is available online at no cost. Not only that, Trotman just self-published the second print volume of Templar, and she is in a position any publisher would envy: The book was completely paid for before she sent it to the printer.

Trotman, who goes by the pen name Spike, pays her bills through a combination of ads on the site, donations to her tip jar, and sales of her print editions. Although she acknowledges that long-form stories like Templar are a tough sell in Web comics format, she won a Glyph award in 2007 and two Webcartoonists Choice Awards in 2006. Not bad for a comic that, Trotman admits, was never submitted to a traditional publisher because “it’s just so frickin’ weird.”

Templar is a slice-of-life story set in an alternative world that’s only slightly different from our own, populated by ordinary people and a host of subcultures whose members dress in togas or hoop skirts, eschew even the smallest white lie, or reclaim old buildings by force. “I have heard people say it’s like a college town,” Trotman says. “I’ve heard people say it’s like the internet, but a city.”

Into all this walks Ben, who has run away from his previous life in Yakima, Washington. Ben is “a man of contradictions,” Trotman says. “He has average to above average intelligence but hasn’t graduated high school. He can’t make up his mind whether he wants to participate in life or lock his door and hide under his bed for the next few years. He’s a writer, but he doesn't have confidence in his writing ability.”

“You get the sense he has this passive aggressive streak,” Trotman says. “I don’t want to say he’s boiling under the surface—smoldering might be a better word.”

Ben must contend with his pushy but kindhearted landlady Reagan; her friend, a kilt-wearing Zen Buddhist bodyguard named Scipio; his gentle but none-too-bright neighbor Gene; and Gene’s exuberant daughter Zoradysis.

The original inspiration for Templar was Toon Town in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Trotman says. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever—you step over a dotted line on the ground and you enter this world that has different physics, different laws, a different code of ethics,” she says. She started creating her own world and ended up with Templar.

The income stream for Templar has three elements. The first part is ad sales on the site, through three different networks. “Depending on which one I’m talking about and how good a day it is, I can make 76 bucks from one of those ad networks or I can make 40 cents,” Trotman says. “It runs the gamut.” She also does banner exchanges with other Web comics artists, and her banners always link to the first page of Templar, so she can entice new readers. “After the tenth update, people come in on the front page and they have no idea what’s going on and they never come back,” she says. Because her ad networks pay per display, boosting her traffic helps boost her income.

The second element is direct donations. “I found the best thing to do with the tip jar is to offer bonus pages—if you give $100, I will update four times this week,” she says.

The print edition accounts for the lion’s share of her income, however. Trotman starts by taking pre-orders, so the book is already in the black by the time it goes to print. “I put up a goal jar on my page, saying here is how much I need and here are my preorder options,” she says. “People preorder, and after a few weeks I have the money to print the book.” Trotman sends out the pre-ordered volumes herself, and the books are also distributed to retailers via Diamond. The first volume is nearly sold out, she says, and the second just came out this month.

For Trotman, it all comes down to freedom, work, and money. “I have done the numbers for Amazon, and I would make two or three dollars a book,” she says. “That’s not really worth the trouble.”

As for marketing Templar to a traditional publisher, Trotman admits she hasn’t even tried. “It’s such a strange comic,” she says. “It would not exist if hadn’t existed in Web comics form, because nobody would take a chance on it. I could try a publisher, but I’m at stage where I don’t really need one. If I had one, it would be to simplify my life. It would have to be a publisher that would do all the advertising for me. All the small press publishers expect the creator to do their share of the footwork, and I already do that.”

“I’m comfortable in my tiny little patch of the pond right now. Maybe I could do better, but it wouldn’t be worth the hassle.”