Toons Online

By Danielle Dreilinger
Web artists specializing in alternative comics are finding readers and discovering new ways for the arts to profit online.

BOSTON, Mass.— Jeph Jacques, 26, sports some tattoos, wears hooded sweatshirts, blogs about his favorite bands on LiveJournal, and occasionally picks up a guitar. In other words, he’s your average hip indie guy. Except that thousands of web surfers slave over his every virtual pen stroke.

Jacques draws the web comic “Questionable Content,” which in three years’ time has developed a large and fervent fan base. Readers beg for the T-shirts his characters wear. That LiveJournal blog has over 3700 registered “friends.” When he mentions a band he likes, a band member often emails afterwards to thank him for the new listeners. The strip now supports him and his girlfriend/business manager.

“I never thought I would be able to quit my job and just do comics,” he says.

After decades, arty pen-and-paper comics have finally earned mainstream respect. “The New York Times” put Marjane Satrapi on the op-ed page and Chris Ware in the magazine. Book reviewers routinely cover graphic novels. A comics college has opened in Vermont.

However, Jacques’s experience points to where the real activity is burgeoning: not in old media but on the web. Web artists specializing in alternative comics are discovering new readers and finding ways for the arts to profit online.

A small hotbed of this genre — a warm bed, if you will — is Easthampton, Mass., which combines low cost of living, arty college environs, and comics history in form of the Words and Pictures Museum and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Jacques lives there, as do Richard Stevens, creator of “Diesel Sweeties,” and his friend and colleague Jeffrey Rowland, who draws “Wigu” and “Overcompensating.”

An interview earlier this year with these three plus Connecticut resident Adam Culbert (“Sam Brown”) of “Exploding Dog” highlighted the issues they face as independent comics artists in a growing medium.

These guys are diehard new-media fans. “The regular, conventional comic book market [is] down to nothing,” opines Stevens, 29. “If it weren’t for web comics there would be no market.” As for Jacques, he “can’t imagine even trying to do a print-only comic.” Selling his original strips would mean selling Photoshop files.

A key difference between the hard-copy and online art-comics world is that these online artists actually make money. Stevens estimates that, in 2005, the four of them earned $1 million from drawing comics. Although they disparage their popularity –“‘Arrested Development’ got cancelled for having six million viewers,” Stevens points out –they eventually acknowledged the unexpected and noticeable success of their creative endeavors.

“It is a huge deal,” Rowland says. “But it’s your life, so you get used to it.”

Their popularity is nearly entirely due to word of mouth. Viral marketing is the strategy of choice: Web comics rarely advertise outside other comics sites, and Rowland for one says he’s never paid for an ad. “People are coming because they want to,” he says. Stevens adds, “If you’re popular it’s because some people actually connect with [it]. Period.”

How do the economics work? These four don’t charge for the strips, which they feel would limit their audience. “Would you rather have 1500 people pay,” Rowland asks, “or 60, 70 thousand people who would look at it for free?” Jacques shrugs: “People like free stuff on the internet.”

This decision contrasts with many other media and arts sites, which generally sell advertising (“The New York Times”), require paid subscriptions (“The Wall Street Journal,” established comics artist James Kochalka), or request micropayments (comic theorist Scott McCloud).

Instead, these artists make money by selling posters, drawings, and — most prominently — T-shirts, which take advantage of the current quirky T-shirt fashion craze. Stevens and Rowland handle merchandise sales for a total of ten artists as part of the “Dumbrella” collective. Culbert, 29, participates in “Dumbrella” activities and shares a shirt printer but currently handles his own sales.

The business side started fortuitously, not by design. “We didn’t have a model to go on,” Rowland says. Culbert simply hoped to cover his web hosting costs. But it took off like gangbusters. “Dumbrella” tripled its storage space in 2005; Jacques briefly shared the office, but Stevens says that there simply wasn’t enough room for everyone. Preparing for the San Diego Comic Con event this week, “Dumbrella” shipped 1500 pounds of merchandise and figures to sell about half.

The shirts have reached beyond the art that inspired them. Jacques sold “Aerodynamically Curvaceous” and “Bear Monster” shirts to a dominatrix and her clients. Stevens sold 35 iPod-themed shirts to the wife of an Apple employee who heads iPod development.

The downside of DIY popularity is that, while it provides an income and ensures creative freedom, it also eats up the schedule. Stevens says ruefully that “it’s more work to do all the shipment than it is to do the work.” All wish that they could spend more time drawing and less selling.

What’s for the future — beyond the hip T-shirt craze? Rowland has “talked to a couple of animation studios about adapting my comic.” He switched “Wigu” to a print-only format for artistic reasons but continues to update his semi-fictional diary “Overcompensating” five times a week. Without that daily draw, he implies, fans would forget him.

Stevens wonders about business needs. “I know how to do prairie business, like Gold Rush,” he says, “but I don’t know how to do my taxes.”

No matter what happens to each artist, it seems inevitable that sooner or later the mainstream will catch on. “I’ve been terrified for three years that MTV will make a web comic,” Stevens says. “I’m not sure whether it will ruin us or make us.”

If you start reading now, you can say you got there first.

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