Several months back, the webcomics community took notice of Wowio, a site that gives access to free eBooks.
Most of that notice, unfortunately, was negative – some misreadings of the company’s policies led many to believe that they shared user’s personal data with outside corporations, a practice that, unsurprisingly, most folks would not be ok with. Given the nature of the information required to start an account – credit card data, a scan of personal ID such as a driver’s license, or a non-anonymous e-mail address – a lot of folks dismissed it as something of a scam, and turned their backs on it.
Three and a half months later, I think that is a damn shame.
Once it was made clear how the company’s policy actually worked, I got right on board. Over the next week, I downloaded the few eBooks I was actually interested in reading (less than a dozen), and then I stopped using it to acquire reading material. Instead, I started using it to support webcomics with money that was, essentially, free.
For each person who downloads an issue of a comic on Wowio, the creator gets 50 cents. That’s the reason they have such a relatively strict sign-up process – so they can make sure each new account is unique, since there really aren’t that many ways to do so over the internet.
You can only download three books a day. And I suppose a dollar and a half doesn’t seem like the hugest contribution to put in your favorite creator’s pocket. But on the other hand… it costs you two minutes to do so, and you can do it every single day. Sure, you are limited by how many different webcomic downloads are available on the site – but I just took a quick look through, and saw around 166 just from titles I recognized. $83 dollars is looking a bit more solid – even spread out between a dozen creators. Especially considering every single reader can be making the same contribution.
And in the months it takes to make those downloads, who knows how many more titles or issues will be added to the site?
I’m not holding this out there as something people have to do, not by any means. But it strikes me that Wowio got a pretty bad rap when it first hit the scene, and deserves to be recognized for the opportunity it is: a chance for people to easily give some money back to creators without spending any out of their own pockets.
I mean, let’s face it – if every webcomic made a dollar off of every single reader they had, there would be hundreds more webcomics making enough to support their creators, as opposed to the several dozen there are now. Unfortunately, getting that dollar is not only a challenge, but an impossibility, for any number of reasons. Even for those who are really devoted to the comics and want to give back, it can be hard – I read hundreds of webcomics, and if I tried to support every single one, it gets costly.
So most people tend to support one or two of their favorites. And the comics that succeed are often ok with this – they count on getting money (via merchandise, donations or otherwise) from only 10% of their readership, or maybe even less. There is nothing wrong with not being able to give that dollar out.
But for those who really want to do so anyway, but just don’t have the money, or the ability to choose which webcomic out there deserves it the most… well, therein lies the beauty of Wowio.
It takes maybe ten, twenty minutes to set up an account. All signs indicate the process of doing so is, actually, safe and secure. Once you’ve done so, another two minutes a day to download eBooks and give back a dollar fifty to some deserving creators. While you’re at it, you can enjoy the product itself! Or you can just toss it out, if all you were looking for is the chance to give back.
I’ve been keeping at it. I’ve been doing it with comics I’ve stopped reading – for all my criticism of the works of Chris Crosby a few months back, I’ve probably downloaded twenty-plus of his strip’s issue since then.
I’m going to go back to the premise one last time – this is a way for readers to contribute money to the webcomics they read for free. Ok, I get that it seems to good to be true, but it seems to work. You download eBooks, Wowio gets paid by advertisers who like being able to put their ads in each book, and some of that cash goes to the creators that deserve it.
How is that not a win-win situation for every single person involved?
The Whole is Greater
Everytime I realize that the comic that has me the most on the edge of my seat is Starslip Crisis, I feel a moment of confusion. I shouldn’t, of course, given that I’ve been in this situation before… yet it is oh-so-easy to slip into thinking of the comic as just another silly strip with a daily punchline and lovable cast of characters.
The premise revolves around a pretentious curator sailing a traveling art gallery through space, accompanied by an ex-pirate and an alien with paralyzing saliva and a certain lack of understanding of human nature. Along the way they meet crazy artists, tyrannical despots, homicidal robots, benevolent monarchs – it’s your standard set of zany adventures, and Straub has a very good sense of where to land the punchline and unleash the laughs.
Yet somehow he is also able to take those characters and weave a compelling and intense story out of it. To pit these joke characters against epic adverseries and yet have them manage to triumph. He makes it work, and even more amazingly so, he manages to make the transition from one to the other seem entirely natural and, in fact, almost inevitable. The comic never takes itself too seriously, and yet it still manages to forge a connection with the reader and leave them genuinely affected by the plot.
Currently a war is being waged by Lord Katarakis, an insane space tyrant out to conquer… well, pretty much everything. He has control of a specific piece of art that, when viewed in a certain context, renders those viewing it essentially mind-controlled.
The fleet opposing him – of which Memnon, protagonist and curator, has found his ship recruited into – is tricked into viewing a massive projection of the art, thus removing all resistance to Katarakis’s plans.
Except that Memnon realizes that viewing a projection of the art is seperate from viewing it directly, and this changes the context and snaps him out of the control. Because of his pretension, because of his devotion to art, because of his very nature that has been the punchline of the strip since day one… because of all that, he is the only man able to stand against Katarakis. Storylines that have been building up in the strip for years have come to this one moment in which he will have a chance to prove himself, a situation that he and he alone could make possible.
From the beginning it was obvious that Kris Straub had a command of humor, and could ensure the strip was fun day in and day out. And it was not long before I became impressed with the depth he could imbue in the shallowest of characters. And I even slowly came to realize that he could produce some dramatically powerful storylines.
But I think this is the moment were I am really able to see the grand tapestry – to see that the story being told, for all its disparate elements, could not be told without every last one of them. Before, I have enjoyed all the individual pieces of the puzzle – now I am able to see them brought together, and it is hard not to be impressed.
I’m not sure precisely how this storyline will end. Memnon may pull off something incredibly badass, or he might end up fumbling his chance and require Mr. Jinx to save the day. Maybe we’ll even see Zillion and Colonel Samuel Q. Breckenridge… or maybe not.
But regardless of what will happen, all I know is that was has happened has been awesome enough to leave me decidedly eager for more.
Yesterday, Home on the Strange came to an end. Today, Bang Barstal also says goodbye… at least for now.
Eric Burns, of Websnark fame, does an unsurprisingly good job of discussing the end of HotS. It is certainly a shame to see it come to an end, and there is a sense that many more storylines could have been explored – but the comic wrapped things up as well as could be expected, which is more than many fallen webcomics can say. Fading away into memory and the land of the Great Hiatus is no proper way to go, and HotS concluded things in the same way it did everything else – with a mix of professionalism and good humor.
I am sad to see it go, and I do hope we are able to hear the end of Branch’s story – but there are many other webcomics in the same vein, and I don’t suspect I’ll feel its absence for long.
Bang Barstal, on the other hand, will be more thoroughly missed. I won’t claim this is due to some nebulous sense of superiority, though – they are both great comics in their own way. But Bang Barstal was relatively unique in the webcomic world, embarking upon storylines that stood alone, with a “hero” whose sense of style and purpose was both original and compelling. Even the art is visually distinct, something especially felt in the last few chapters of the strip. And the ending, as sad as I was to face it, managed to finish things on an absolutely perfect note.
It is also the creation of one the William G, internet critic and webcomic rabblerouser.
I should make something clear – a few years back, I don’t believe there was a single figure involved in webcomicdom that I had a lower opinion of than William G. This was following the height of his prominence, a time when, it seemed, he was at the height of his troublemaking and attacks on the fools who dared to enjoy popular webcomics.
But you know what? Hating folks for having unpopular opinions is boring. And I came to realize most of my problems with the fellow stemmed less from what he was saying, and more from how he said it. Oh, I still disagreed on any number of topics – but I didn’t regard his presence on the internets as a personal insult. Sometimes, sure, he was still a dick – but there were also times he had genuinely insightful things to say. My view of fandom (and its dangers) isn’t nearly as extreme as his – but I’ve also come to realize a lot of things about it that I wouldn’t have without his rants.
The thing of it is, though, that even when I very thoroughly disliked William G as a person, I was still a fan of his work. That was when he was doing It’s About Girls, which was a powerful and realistic personal drama strip at a time when the web was remarkably lacking in such comics. (It’s still around today, though I am not sure for how much longer, with script still provided by Mr. G, and art done by the talented Sahsha Andrade.)
Now, I’ve done this with other comics as well – I continue to read Ctrl+Alt+Del despite the many signs that Tim Buckley is not all that nice a guy. But I’ve always felt somewhat dirty doing so, at supporting someone who really didn’t deserve it.
I never felt that with It’s About Girls, or with Bang Barstal – because they were just that good. They were strong, solid, independant strips that stood out from the crowd. They were legitimately well done works of art, and they deserved every reader they got. I couldn’t feel ashamed of reading them; I think I would have only felt ashamed had I walked away simply because I didn’t like what the man had to say. And I always felt the biggest crime of all the drama surrounding William G was that it did drive away many others who would have otherwise enjoyed his comics.
Bang Barstal has come to a very satisfactory end… and also left some possible room open for a sequel, some time down the road. Will has sworn off webcomics several times before, and returned every time – and this time even he seems to expect that one day he’ll return to the drawing board.
And I have to say, regardless of all the drama and flames and silliness that has followed in his wake… if his next work is anywhere on par with what he did with Bang Barstal, I’m looking forward to it.
Rejecting the Status Quo
In the last year and a half there seems to have been a slew of webcomics focused less on wacky hijinks and more on tightknit relationship-based drama. Punch an’ Pie, Scene Language and Octopus Pie all come to mind – and interesting enough, they are also all webcomics launched by creators with previous works under their belts.
What I have found most interesting, however, is that they are also nothing like what I have become accustomed to. Most such webcomics usually rely heavily on the tension of unrequited love – you have several character clearly attracted to each other, clearly meant to end up together, but events conspire to prevent them from doing so for years at a time. Sure, it allows for an easy hook to keep stringing readers along, but it also seems like the easy way out – and after seeing the same plot time and time again, it quickly grows boring.
Which is why I am very impressed with all these recent webcomics that decide to go in entirely the opposite direction.
Octopus Pie took only a handful of strips to break up Eve with her boyfriend – but it did a good job of focusing her personality and setting the stage for the dynamics to come, and how she relates to her roommate and how she deals with her newest potential love interest. Relationships are a fundamental focus of the comic – and not just specifically those of an intimate nature, but all the connections between Eve and the world around her, with her family, her friends, her coworkers.
Scene Language, meanwhile, has involved even more turbulence – the first major arc involved one of the four main characters, Charlie, breaking up with her boyfriend, while two of the other main characters discover themselves in something resembling a relationship. The arc concludes with what seems to be the status quo the story has been building towards – the four protagonists rent a house together, and it seems likely they’ve found their respective places in the strip dynamics. The second storyarc dispels that notion, however, as relationships continue to shift, develop, and fall apart.
Punch an’ Pie, on the other hand, features a split I never saw coming. Oh, it wasn’t done in a haphazard fashion in the slightest – but it still came as a surprise. From the beginning we were told that the strip followed the life of Angela, whom many still fondly remembered from Queen of Wands. But despite Angela being the star, her girlfriend Heather seems an equally vital part of the strip from the start – and given the strip largely begins with their relationship moving to a new stage (as they move in together), it seems like something integral to the entire comic, and unassailably intact.
Until it’s… not.
These three strips are not the only ones to deal with this kind of plotlines, and they all approach it in different ways – some have gone through changes that cannot be undone, while others leave plenty of potential for reconciliation. Yet I find one thing undeniably clear – all of them, within their first year, are willing and almost eager to break the status quo. They are not content with leading readers along through the same stories and the same situations, with the hope for an eventual happy ending dangling at the end of the string, eternally just out of reach.
Instead, they shake things up. People change, relationships change, and – in the end – the world moves on. This isn’t just more realistic storyline, it is also infinitely more ambitious storytelling. I mean, look at how long these strips have been around, and look at how much has happened within them. Some comics can take years to cover the events of a single day, or week, or month, and even when all is said and done, nothing fundamental has actually changed. Which can still make for a fun story, sure – but how much less rewarding is that compared to seeing a character genuinely grow, or seeing life actually taking place before your eyes?
These comics may not be alone in the route they’ve taken, but I still feel as though we’ve seen a growing trend towards this brand of comic in the last few years. Maybe because the creators have dabbled (or more) in the field before, and have learned from those experiences. Maybe because, with the vast number of webcomics out there, it requires a stronger story to get the attention of an audience. Maybe because the authors and readers simply have more life experience to capture within their tales.
Whatever the reason, the trend seems to be there, and the arrival of stories of this caliber is a development I can certainly get behind.