The webcomic is the best storytelling medium for hobbyists. Its visual nature hooks readers faster than written form stories. Its serial nature allows for bite-sized consumption without sacrificing long story arcs. And best of all, it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than making films or writing novels.
Given enough time and determination, anyone can make webcomics for free, and that includes you. Here’s how to get started right away.
What Makes A Compelling Comic?
What’s the most important ingredient in a webcomic? If you said art, you may want to guess again. While art is important—there’s no doubt about that—it must be said that storytelling trumps art almost every time.
A comic with less-than-spectacular art can keep its audience hooked with strong characters, drama, or comedy (XKCD and Cyanide & Happiness are two famous examples). On the other hand, a visually impressive comic with no substance will be shallow and boring (I can’t think of a single successful webcomic that fits the art-but-no-substance description).
For best results, it’s best to focus on both art and storytelling, but if you must neglect one for the other, always prioritize storytelling.
Learning How To Draw & Write
Let’s say you’re a complete newbie. You have dreams to become a world famous webcomic artist but none of the skills necessary to take you there. Where can you go to get started?
The most important lesson is that there are no shortcuts. If you want to become a good artist, you need to put in the time and learn how to draw. If you want to become a good storyteller, you need to learn the craft of writing fiction. It’ll take years before you get anywhere good and that’s just a fact that you’ll need to accept.
Still willing to forge on? Great! Here are some helpful resources.
Learning how to draw. These comic drawing YouTube channels will teach you all about drawing cartoons. However, without a solid basis in art theory, you may not benefit much from them, so absolute beginners should start with these beginner artist YouTube channels and these art tutorial websites.
Learning color theory. Even if you plan on drawing in black and white, color theory is extremely useful to know. It applies to lighting, shading, and producing graphics that are pleasing to the eye. You don’t want to skip it. Here’s how to learn color theory in less than an hour.
Learning to tell a story. These websites will tell you almost everything you need to know about telling a compelling story. After all, the story that drives a webcomic isn’t much different than the stories of books, television, and movies. To kick your skills up a notch, check out these podcasts for fiction writers and these creative writing prompts.
Learning photography. Wait, photography? Yes! Webcomics are presented in frames and frame composition is a crucial element for telling your story in the way that you want to tell it. Learn as much as you can about photographic composition because there’s a lot of carryover into webcomic art.
Recommended Software For Comic Artists
Software selection is a touchy subject. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference. Use the software that feels most comfortable in your hands and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you prefer using a pencil and pad, that’s fine too! As long as you have a high-quality scanner, you’ll be fine.
But if you don’t know what choices are out there, then here are some oft-recommended tools to get you started. Most are free, but some are not.
Digital Art Software
Paint.NET (Free). This simple Windows program is an unofficial upgrade to MSPaint. It has more features that provide for greater flexibility and artistic depth, but it’s not as powerful as Photoshop or GIMP. It’s a good middleground tool, plus it can be extended through plugins.
Photoshop CC ($20/mo). This program is the Swiss army knife of digital art; it can handle pretty much any kind of 2D art that you throw at it. There’s a bit of a learning curve (these Photoshop YouTube channels may help) but the userbase is huge so you can find help almost anywhere.
GIMP (Free). Often considered to be the “poor man’s Photoshop”, GIMP is an open-source program that fulfills a lot of 2D art needs. It’s slightly more complicated to learn, but our GIMP quickstart guide will get you up to speed. You can also use GIMP Paint Studio to ease the learning curve even more.
Illustrator CC ($20/mo) vs. Inkscape (Free). These two programs are vector image editors, meaning they create images using mathematic expressions rather than individual pixels. As such, vector graphics can be resized without any impact to the final image, making them great for digital comics. Check out our guide to Illustrator or guide to Inkscape to get started.
Manga Studio 5 ($48). Claiming to be the #1 comic software in the world, Manga Studio is an art program designed specifically for comic artists. Its workflow and feature set provide the perfect environment for any digital cartoonist. Highly recommended and worth a try.
Trelby (Free). You can format your webcomic stories however you want, but the “proper” way to do it is to adhere to scriptwriting conventions. Trelby is an open-source script editor that’s feature-complete and easily configurable to your needs. Check out our Trelby overview for a deeper look.
Celtx (Freemium). Celtx is a free web-based app that makes scriptwriting easy, but also comes with paid tiers that provide more advanced features like storyboarding and built-in revision history. Definitely one of the best free scriptwriting tools out there.
Final Draft 9 ($250). Final Draft is a professional-grade program that’s used for writing and organizing scripts. It’s really good but not recommended for hobbyists unless Celtx and Trelby just aren’t good enough.
Where To Host Your Web Comic
Fast forward a few weeks. You’ve soaked in as much knowledge as you can and you have dozens of practice comic strips crumpled in your wastebasket. You feel like you’re ready to begin an actual webcomic series, so you draw the first few strips… and they look good! Now what?
You have to get those strips hosted on the Internet for the world to see.
Webcomic hosting can be expensive but it doesn’t have to be. It’s similar to hosting a blog, but due to the graphical nature of the medium, you’ll need more bandwidth per visitor than a blog would require. This won’t be much of an issue until you have a large audience, though, so don’t worry about it until you have to.
You have two choices: either someone else hosts your comic or you set up your own hosting. Each has its pros and cons.
Hosting With Someone Else
If someone else hosts your comic, you don’t have to worry about the headaches of administration. All you do is draw your comics and upload them when they’re ready while the host worries about bandwidth, security, etc. And in most cases, you won’t have to pay a penny.
The downside is that you surrender some control to said host. What if the website goes down? There’s nothing much you can do except wait. What if you want a custom look to your website? Not always possible. Worst case scenario, what if the host decides that they no longer want to be a host? What a nightmare.
Despite the downsides, letting someone else host is a good idea if you’re a hobbyist or unsure if you’ll stick with webcomics over the long run. Here are some free hosts to consider.
Comic Fury. Because this host also doubles as a directory of sorts, you can get free publicity for your webcomic simply by hosting it here. Other benefits include customizable website layouts, author blog, RSS feeds, and reader comments.
The Duck. This site is more than just a free host; it’s one of the largest webcomic communities on the web. Not only do they provide writing and drawing tutorials for comics, but the front page spotlights various webcomics according to different criteria.
Comic Genesis. In exchange for one banner ad on your site, Comic Genesis grants free unlimited hosting for your webcomic. Benefits include custom website design, built-in content management, free forums, and a subdomain at comicgenesis.com.
Hosting On Your Own
If you have self-hosting experience, or if you’re willing to learn, then self-hosting is the way to go. You retain full control over every aspect of your comic, which gives you the most flexibility for future growth, marketing, and even monetization. First, you’ll need an actual hosting service. There are many from which you can choose, but we’ve narrowed a list of the best web hosting services for those looking to start a simple website.
Once you have a host, you’ll want to look into WordPress. It’s the easiest way to start your own site since it handles all of the backend details for you, plus you can extend the functionality of it with useful free plugins. Note that self-hosting your own WordPress site is different from using WordPress.com as a host. Need some help? Check out our guide to self-hosting with WordPress.
Once WordPress is set up, you may want to install the Panel theme. It’s a free theme that’s been designed specifically for webcomics, complete with comic strip archive, comic strip navigation, and a section for the author’s personal blog.
Publicity, Advertising & Marketing
After a while, you’ll probably have several strips up on the web… but no audience! What’s the point of producing a webcomic if nobody’s there to enjoy it? To solve this problem, you’ll have to keep pumping out those strips — you cannot neglect a regular upload schedule — but also start publicizing your material.
While this is easy in theory, it’s going to involve a persistent effort and it won’t bring you overnight success. Realistically, audience growth could take anywhere from 3-5 years and it’s going to be slow. Keep at it and don’t give up!
Learn about search engine optimization. This will help to draw in organic traffic to your site through search engines like Google and Bing. However, since webcomics are image-based, pay special attention to these image optimization tips. If you’re using WordPress, consider installing an optimizer plugin like All-In-One SEO.
Submit your site to webcomic lists. Also known as an index or directory, a webcomic list is exactly what it sounds like: a repository that readers can browse to find the webcomics that most interest them. The Webcomic List, Belfry Webcomics Index, and Webcomicz are all good places to start.
Make your webcomics easy to share. Social media can unexpectedly bring in a lot of new visitors to your site. You can’t control when or how it will happen, so don’t bother trying to force your strips to go viral, but always include one-click share buttons for sites like Facebook and Twitter. The Digg Digg plugin can do it for you.
Swap ads with other webcomic artists. Allow them to put a banner on your site in exchange for putting your own banner on their site. This can be tough when you’re just starting out, but it’s always worth pursuing.
Participate in webcomic communities. Don’t participate for the sole purpose of driving traffic your way. Rather, contribute as much of your knowledge, help, and expertise as you can without expecting anything in return. The goal is to build relationships and get your name out there, which in turn will naturally bring recognition to your works.
Making Money With Web Comics
Before we talk about monetization, know one thing: making money with webcomics is HARD. If your primary reason for creating a webcomic is to make a living out of it, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It’s a niche market (relatively speaking) and the competition is fierce.
That being said, if you’ve gotten this far and you’re producing strips on a regular schedule and you have a sizable audience, then it’s certainly possible to make some money off of it. Enough to work on it full time? Probably not. Enough to help pay off bills and earn some extra spending money? Sure!
We’ve covered webcomic monetization before, but here’s a quick rundown of possible options.
Web ads. The two most popular types are cost-per-impression, which typically pays a certain amount of cents per 1,000 ad views, and cost-per-click, which can pay upwards of a few dollars per ad click. Web ads don’t make much money unless you have thousands upon thousands of regular visitors.
Print sales. Once you’ve built a large backlog of strips, you can convert them into physical books and put them up for sale.
Merchandise sales. Merchandise includes T-shirts, mugs, posters, and more. If you have a beloved character or cast, you can feature them. The success of merchandise sales hinges on a sizable, passionate fanbase.
Donations. For some artists, donations can bring in a lot of money. For others, it doesn’t work at all. You’ll have to experiment and see how it works for you.
Now You’re A Webcomic Artist!
If you made it this far, congratulations! You now know enough to get started as a webcomic artist. The only thing left is to get out there and actually do it.
Have you ever tried running your own strip?
Image Credits: Pen in the man’s hand Via Shutterstock, Cyanide & Happiness Strip, XKCD Strip, Digital Tablet Via Shutterstock, Tablet Pen Via Shutterstock, Script Close-Up Via Shutterstock, WordPress Via Shutterstock, Search Field Via Shutterstock, Social Sharing Via Shutterstock, Comic Poof Via Shutterstock