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23 May 2008 @ 03:53 pm
Anatomy of a Dead Webcomic  
First up, if you've missed it, Shamus posted a three parter of How Chainmail Bikini Was Going To Play Out. And now you know, the rest of the story.

I thought it would be interesting to examine the hows and whys of CB's downfall, for my own future reference and as a handy primer for future webcomic creators. A mostly unorganized list:

Drawing a Webcomic Is Not Quick.
I spent about 8 to 15 hours on every comic strip, for something people would read in 30 seconds. This is kind of mind boggling, until you settle in that several thousand people are spending 30 seconds reading, and every once in a while one of your jokes or pictures really resonates with people. I realize my friends list is somewhat biased, but it still pleases me every time I see a "Headdesk!" icon. But still, when CB was going every week, I'd spend about 15 to 25 hours a week making the comic. That's a lot.

How to get around this?
Try to settle on a size and format you can handle quickly and well. If you have a simpler art style than I do, go ahead and crank out 30 panels of MSPaint art, or stick figures, or video game sprites, or whatever. If you know things are going to be slow, from the get go make a smaller comic. I have a new project in mind, and I'm thinking it will be mostly black and white with the occasional splash of color, and considerably smaller in format than CB.

Your Cast and Characters

One of the things that really added to the amount of time it took to do CB was that we had 5 main characters, most of whom had two versions that regularly showed up. As much as I loved doing closeups, or shots of weird monsters or the hero shots, I always hated the full table shots and the full party group shots. 5 characters sitting at a table is just a lot to draw and get everyone just right if you're not going to go the Knights of the Dinner Table Cut & Paste route.

There's a reason most comics have a pretty small number of main characters. Most Penny Arcade strips have two characters in them. If you're going to do a webcomic, I'd suggest having two or three main characters, with your supporting cast showing up whenever the story or jokes call for it.

The other problem with having a fairly large cast is that it's all but impossible to spread the focus around evenly. Chainmail Bikini largely turned in to the Chuck and Casey show, which is kind of disappointing as I was always more of a Marcus and Ivy and Josh fan.

Character Designs
When you draw a character for the fist time, be sure to think about how often you'll have to redraw them. One of the things that really added a lot of time to making CB was the character designs I did for the fantasy view, with all of the little spiky bits and armor and straps and whatnot. I could ink and color Lucretia in no time flat, as she's just a big black shape with some points and almost no color. Josh or Ramgar or Jade took forever to get every bit just right, especially the coloring. So remember to keep it simple. No, simpler than that.

Conventional Wisdom is Right
When we started CB, I read a number of places talking about how two person webcomic teams that are halfway across the country never work out. And it turns out they were right. Now, I think Shamus is a great guy and there's absolutely no ill will there. But the simple fact is it wasn't the same as if I'd have started a comic with my buddy and we could meet at the coffee shop or sit in the living room up late working on things or if I did everything myself.

If you're thinking of starting up a webcomic, do it yourself or find a local friend to help out. Don't get someone you only know online to do the drawing/writing/whatever you're not going to do. Trust me on this one. It won't work in the long run.

We were always trying a tricky dance of balancing Shamus's fondness for tons of dialogue and jokes that take a dozen panels to build, and my desire not to spend 40 hours a week drawing that much. We never did find the right balance.

I think perhaps things would have worked better with an artist who didn't have any experience writing a comic as well. Someone who would have been more content to sit back and take direction and just draw the script would have perhaps been smoother than someone who wanted to add jokes tweak things. Now, I'm a big fan of the stuff I added, like the Displacer Moose or the zombies yelling "Brains!" or what have you, so I'd of course be biased in to thinking that the comic probably would not have been as funny without my input, but it certainly would have been less work to just draw stuff.

Make Sure You're 100% Invested In The Comic

Now, if you're doing this on your own then it should be pretty simple, just make sure that you're creating something you want to see. If you're teaming up with someone else, remember that making this comic is going to suck up a huge chunk of your time, and take every effort early on to create something that you're going to enjoy.

I'm actually not a fan of gamer comics. Before doing CB, I'd never followed OOTS or KODT or Nodwick or whatever. I hadn't actually read the entirety of DM of the Rings until Shamus and I started doing the comic together. And while I really enjoyed CB and plowing through the OOTS and DMOTR archives, gamer satire really isn't something I'm strongly excited about or a big fan of.

I can't see myself signing up to draw a Star Trek comic, or something that makes fun of Super Heroes or whatever. So whether your comic starts with an idea you have or someone saying
"Hey can you draw a comic about time traveling monkeys?" take a moment to think to yourself "Do I really like monkeys and/or time travel enough to do this for the next few years?"

While I'm a big fan of the characters in CB, I was never terribly invested in the story. I think that's partly because in something like Doors and Windows, I had a pretty rough idea of where things were going, but was mostly figuring things out as I went along. With CB, Shamus had the ending figured out before I ever came on board. And while it amused me a lot at first, 6 months later it was less exciting.

Hmm... that's about it. I could ramble on a bit more about things, but that's I think a pretty good look in to why CB didn't work out, and what can be learned from it.
sounds: underworld "born slippy"
Danielaguttermuffin on May 24th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)
Shawninscrutable on May 24th, 2008 12:38 am (UTC)
But what about time travel?
Syhdsyhd on May 24th, 2008 04:47 am (UTC)
Actually, thanks the detailed and rambling post mortem. This is information that few artists volunteer, and I've gone back and forth on the idea of doing my own web comic. My fellow gamers keep bugging me to do a comic based on our DND/Mage/Exalted adventures, which is well and good for them, because they're the word smiths, but I'm the guy who has to draw it all consistently and fit all the text in. And no one is EVER satisfied with how their character looks, because it doesn't match the character sketch they have in their heads. That's a bitch for another time.
(Deleted comment)
(Anonymous) on May 26th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC)
Make sure you ask about Francis' car. :)

Chris Ingersollvyolynce on May 24th, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
As much as the level of detail and intricate character designs dragged the comic to its premature death, they also made Shamus's brief end notes infinitely more hilarious than he expected them to be. With the exception of Marcus's new character (after the gnome), I was able to picture all of the described scenes as they would have appeared. It may have only been in my head, but as far as I'm concerned your art made it to the end with his writing.
Alexrxgra on May 25th, 2008 01:26 pm (UTC)
While I know nothing of drawing, I am somewhat knowledgeable of the art of long distance collaboration. For the last four years I've been doing an alternating chapter thing with a friend in Texas. It's not been internet published yet, and I'm not sure it ever will be, and I think that makes a huge difference.

It's been going much slower of late, though, which is sad. We were both into it from the start, but I think these things by design get more complicated as they go on. It's probably best that CB died when it did, before it crushed your soul. See how I brought that around to being about you by the end? I feel bad always talking about myself.
(Anonymous) on May 26th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)
For all the broken souls and dreams, I'm still glad you collaborated with Shamus while it lasted on CB. It gave me a chance to enjoy a new webcomic briefly and more importantly appreciate your artistic talent and get to know a tiny part of you through that.

I still rate you as my second-favorite webcomic artist behind Tom Siddell over at Gunnerkrigg Court. If you consider that I'm a regular reader of over seventy currently active webcomics (not counting the various ones that have already come and gone or the ones that I read an entire archive for before deciding that it wasn't my thing) that puts you in pretty high regard in my book.

I'm sorry things didn't work out for CB because I enjoyed it but thanks for being part of it while it lasted.

Oh, and please take Adam up on his offer of an interview for his podcast. I'd love to hear it.

ext_76117 on May 27th, 2008 12:29 pm (UTC)
I've got nothing more to add to the discussion other than to pile my thanks on. Loved CB while it lasted.

And for sure... it would not have been as funny without the displacer moose.
(Anonymous) on May 27th, 2008 04:44 pm (UTC)
Perhaps another word of advice to the writers... don't tell the artist where it's going.. that way the project can hold some suprise and suspense .. and seem less like a chore.
Tryss: bleach - orihime - tryss on May 27th, 2008 06:25 pm (UTC)
I got here through Shamus's blog.

Thank you for the time you spent. I enjoyed it while it lasted, and I hope you find new and interesting inspirations for new works to come.

(Anonymous) on November 6th, 2008 08:50 pm (UTC)
I was just wondering if you or Shamus are planning to post the completed strips somewhere else. Ever since FtB updated the site, all the Chainmail Bikini links are down.