Back around the time I was pressed up against the stage at my first Led Zeppelin concert, so close to the band that I could reach out and touch the hem of Robert Plant's gold lamé bells, the music business was all about the albums. Concerts sold albums. Now, in the days of digital music, albums sell tours. And as it is with rock gods, so it is with creators of web comics. Writers and artists, who, in an earlier day, would've been paid a fee for pages printed in a physical book, now give away their work online and make their money by selling related merchandise... printed collections included.
At the last New York Comic Con, I made a point of stopping at the tables of up-and-coming young artists who were creating original comics. The work I saw was astonishing, but nearly all of these talented newcomers juggle "money" jobs, while making comics in their very spare time and posting their work on the web. It's more important to them to keep the rights to their work, and control over their content, than it is to get a regular paycheck from a publisher.
The intrepid creators of web comics give away their work online, free for all to enjoy. They make their money, such as it is, on advertising and on the merch; tote bags, t-shirts, posters and mugs, emblazoned with their characters. Those who are able to attract enough readers eventually collect their pages into books, paying for printing with pre-orders, or pledges made through Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites. With their books, they hit the comic cons, glad-handing fans, speaking on panels and hawking their wares.
Kel McDonald, one of the young creators I met at NYCC, is the writer/artist of web comic Sorcery 101, the story of a chain-smoking high school teacher, Danny, who is in training to be a sorcerer, taught by a misanthropic vampire ex-mage named Pat. This is almost a slice-of-life comic, but only if your friends are werewolves, necromancers, cat demons and angels. Kel's print books were funded with Kickstarter and are available through her website.
My west coast partner in AudioComics, Lance Axt, met dynamic husband and wife creators Josh Finney and Kat Rocha at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. Their riveting web comic Utopiates, the dark, near-future tale of a drug through which users inject the mental imprints of strangers, started life as a black and white print comic. The duo's redone it in color and posted it on the web, with the full-color book available this summer. You can preorder Utopiates from Amazon.
Jeph Jacques's slyly humorous slice-of-life comic Questionable Content is hugely popular among aficionados of web comics. Jacques has been drawing Questionable Content since summer 2003, and is one of the few web comic creators able to make a living selling his books and merchandise, which you can find through his website. As of this writing, there have been 2,209 pages of Questionable Content posted and the art has changed a lot over the years. Should you feel daunted by the sheer volume of the work, you don't have to start with the first page. Hit the "random" button for a taste.
Jonathan Rosenberg's Scenes From a Multiverse is a hilarious, sci-fi road trip down your nearest wormhole. Described by its creator as "a comic about life in an ordinary multiverse," each page is set on or in a different world/galaxy/sector of the multiverse, though the inhabitants tend to have problems very much like those of contemporary earthlings. Rosenberg takes lots of potshots at religion and politics, so if your views line up with his, you'll laugh harder. The print book is available from Topatoco.
Pirates! Cowboys! Steampunk airships! What's not to love about Lady Sabre & the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether? The story centers on a feisty, fast-talking, flame-haired female pirate, with a sword in one hand and a pistol up the other sleeve. This swashbuckling adventure comic by Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett has only been around since July 2011, so jump in on the first page and take the whole ride.
Interestingly, the creators of Lady Sabre are not young comics biz upstarts. Burchette and Rucka are seasoned professionals from the world of mainstream comics, drawing and writing well-known superhero titles like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. Nevertheless, they have asked their readers to weigh in on whether they should release their upcoming trade paperback through a traditional comics publisher, or use crowd-sourcing to fund the book. They give a wonderful rundown of the pros and cons of each choice on their site. So far, the fan vote has tilted heavily toward crowd-sourcing.
What does this mean for traditional publishers? That remains to be seen. Mainstream comic titles with TV, film and toy tie-ins are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. But we seem to have reached a point where many talented creators of original works feel they are better served by going it alone. And most consumers of the so-called Millennial Generation, like my two twenty-four-year-old sons, never walk into a comic shop. They get their comics fix on the web, just as they find original music on sites like the Hype Machine, rather than waiting for big record labels to tell them what they like.
Just as there's warmth in the sound a vinyl record, there is just something special about a beautiful, printed book. Creators of web comics know this. And when you buy from the site of your favorite creator, you can be sure that the artist is getting your cash!