So You Wanna Be a Webcartoonist?

So You Want to Be A Webcartoonist: Preface

I tweeted to gauge the interest in a post on this topic and was surprised to find quite a few people responded positively. This was great, except that it meant I’d actually have to think about how to make an honest guide to webcartooning.

It occurred to me that there are a number of bloggers who deal with this and there are even several books on the topic. So, if I were to write on webcartooning, I’d like to provide something a bit different.

Rather than delving into the nitty gritty or stating the obvious, I’m going to focus on my personal experience as a cartoonist, and what’s been useful to me. That is, my blogging on this topic will take the form of a retrospective of the past ten years, laced with asides about my opinions on the business.

This is something like a short memoir, so if it seems self-indulgent at times, please forgive me. It’s impossible to look over your own life and not want to yell at your younger self, either to say “you idiot!” or “yes, follow that path!” Hopefully I never digress too far from relevance. And, perhaps my meandering route will give the reader a sense of how things are apt to work in reality.

So You Want to Be a Webcartoonist?

Chapter 1: Pre-History

Like many of the current crop of cartoonists, I initially did comics for fun. I read Penny Arcade when I was about 16 and thought it was hilarious. The idea of making a living through the Internet wouldn’t have occurred to me then. I thought of comics as purely a vehicle to make fun of my friends.

I consider that sort of beginning to be a good thing. It’s my sense that a lot of people now figure out their market strategy before they’re certain they have anything to market. It sounds like misty-eyed bullshit, but it’s the truth: Don’t do it unless you love it. I don’t say that because I believe in some pseudo-theological idea of art as a higher form of love. I say it because, if you really want to do this, there are days when you will lope forward only through force of will. It’s hard writing every day. It’s hard saying “sorry, I can’t go out tonight – I have to write.” If you’re going to be able to do it, love is about the only thing that’ll pull you through.

Of course, love isn’t everything. You also need to have some tunnel vision – you need to want this as a career. When I was in high school, I didn’t.

When I got to college (the year 2000), I pretty much stopped the comic. The audience was only a few hundred readers, and was making me no money at it. More importantly, I didn’t see it as a career. Back then, although the comic was called “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal,” it was a three panel cut and paste strip about college students. Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture that hasn’t escaped from the musty depths of the server in almost a decade:

AGH! MY EYES!

***shudder***

No need to point out how this is bad. It was bad in infinite ways. On the bad, there is bad growing. It is fractal badness.

Wow, that was like passing a gallstone. Let’s move on.

Around 2002, it occurred to me that cartooning might be a fun career. I still remember that summer fondly. I was taking summer school at UTSA so I could graduate a year early. I was already familiar with a lot of the subject matter (it was two courses on English lit and one on bioethics), so class was a breeze. In one class on Shakespeare I’d already read everything we were planning to cover, so I sat in class drawing and writing comics.

This was the summer I decided to stop doing cut and paste and to start hand-drawing and hand-lettering everything. I encourage everyone to do this. There are two very compelling reasons: First, if you cut and paste, your skills as an artist will develop much more slowly. The only reason I have the modicum of skill I have is that I have to draw something every damn day. Second, in the longrun, everything will go faster. At first, C&P is a time-saver. If you’re not too quick with a pen, it’s a lot easier to paste the same face with a different mouth. But, once you have the hang of it, whipping off a human face takes a lot less time than searching through a file folder for the right set of expressions.

I didn’t miss an update all summer, and I learned a hell of a lot about writing and drawing a comic strip. I also read the best advice I’ve ever gotten on being “creative.” I was reading a lot of Dilbert back then, and Scott Adams wrote a section answering the infamous “where do you get your ideas?” question.

His basic idea was this: You can’t really actively be “creative.” But, what you can do is come up with a lot of stuff and be a smart editor. That is, a writer doesn’t necessarily come up with good ideas whole cloth, though that happens occasionally. Rather, he comes up with lots of ideas, and knows which are gold, which are crap, and which can be turned into gold with some work. I’ve added a little to this notion as I’ve gone along, but it’s still my guiding principle.

Soon after I got to college, I started missing updates. In my defense, I was doing the maximum courseload in order to graduate by 2003. On the plus side, I got my comics into a student paper: the apparently no longer existent “Claremont Student.”

As my college career was coming to an end, and I suddenly realized I’d be joining The Real World, I started thinking about cartooning as a career again.

By that time, if I recall correctly, I had about one or two thousand readers. This is a decent amount in general, and was pretty dang good for 2003. But, it’s never been enough to live on. In fact, let’s talk about failure here for a second.

My first attempt at merch was an unmitigated disaster. I remember reading Jeph Jacques, who said .5-1% of your readers will buy merchandise. I checked out Brunetto T-shirts, who are to this day one of the major shirt silkscreeners for cartoonists. After some thought, I decided 35 shirts (amazing how I remember that…) would be a good investment. My parents spotted me the printing costs, and the order was placed. In a few weeks, I had a big damn box of bright blue shirts.

Within the first 10 minutes of putting them up for sale, I sold three shirts! Then… I never sold one ever again. As you might guess, that felt like a real let down. Although I kept up after that, it became clear that doing this as a career was not going to work out any time soon. I sent query packets to the major syndicates soon after, and all of them rejected me.

So, here I was, stuck in Claremont California with no money, no prospects, few friends, and a liberal arts degree.

In short: Balls!

Next Chapter: Zach goes HOLLYWOOD.

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15 Responses to So You Wanna Be a Webcartoonist?

  1. CogNoman says:

    Cliffhanger ending! Noooooo. Now I’m just gonna have to obsessively sit here refreshing the page until Chapter 2 comes out.

    “Just kidding”, heh.

    *refresh*

  2. Mike says:

    Well at least you didn’t have to buy shirts for a few years!

    Looking forward to Chapter 2 :P

  3. As an up-and-coming cartoonist, I really appreciate you delving into your career as a cartoonist to give us real life examples of the hard life and what you did to overcome obstacles.

    It’s people like you that help guide and inspire the next generation of comics artist like moi.

  4. Viktor says:

    You should continue the Chason saga!

    The one from 2005-2007 though, not the one you posted here

  5. Nathan says:

    The answer to this question might be coming up in future chapters, but I’ve been dying to know: is this Chason in the easly SMBC archives the same Chason of SMBC Theater?

  6. Jonny says:

    Personal question: did you attend HMC? If so, that’s awesome and only makes me like you more!

    - Proud Claremont Colleges Student

  7. Jonny says:

    Pomona here, so no worries :)

  8. Eli says:

    Do you still have the other 32? I smell a limited edition rush.

  9. Iris says:

    Hi, Zach! Longtime reader and fan. Thank you so much for going into this series! I was hoping you would, since I couldn’t voice my support via Twitter (my account’s private, tweets = locked), and I was going to ask you about webcomics at NYCC, but I guess I became a little too starstruck…

    I’m excited to see where these posts go, especially since I just started my own small webcomic. Reading your entries really made me ascertain a greater sense of your character, which only reaffirmed how awesome you are and how much I enjoy reading SMBC.

    I do have a question, though – will you touch upon publishing your work in print (or at least looking ahead to it)? I know SMBC doesn’t have books yet (YET) but you do have Captain Exce–Stupendous under your belt. Just curious.

    Thanks!

  10. John says:

    Hey, Zack! Love your comic. I’ve followed it for quite a while and have a question. When you were starting out, what did you do for advertising?

    • ZachWeiner says:

      Promotion in forums, inclusion in collectives, and trying to make connections with fellow up-and-comers. I also bought ads with birthday/holiday money.

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