To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

Well, it’s early 2012.  It is a time of resolutions, apparently.  Let me make one.  But first, a story:

John Troutman, the creator of the webcomic Lit Brick, which I follow and admire, has made a resolution himself. Basically, he has declared that since his comic has existed for over a year and has gained what he has declared via Twitter to be “1000ish readers,” which he doesn’t regard as anywhere near enough to count as success, Lit Brick will be “entering a hiatus” that Mr. Troutman’s tweets are pretty much implying will last forever.  This makes me rather sad, as Lit Brick–which I discovered a few months ago, and which, due to a combination of laziness and a complete lack of spare time, I have not added to my links page–is devoted to reproducing the contents of the Norton Anthology of English Literature four panels at a time.  Mr. Troutman regularly describes his readership as “niche,” but I prefer to think of it as consisting of people capable of finding this funny.  Okay, maybe it is niche.  If you remember the end of Beowulf even a little bit, you will likely understand why that strip gives me the giggles.

I completely understand the need not to continue with a project in which one has lost faith; several of Mr. Troutman’s comments have hinted at a general discontent with the episodic nature of Lit Brick and the frustration of not having a proper continuing storyline to work with.  However, the “my readership isn’t growing” argument is one with which I must respectfully beg to differ.  I suppose this makes me a masochist or maybe just delusional, but I’ve got to say it:  West of Bathurst has been running for five and a half years, and it has a few hundred readers at most.  Does this mean I am going to abandon it?  Hell, no.  I shall continue with my aggressively niche comic until the story is finished, whenever the heck that might be, or until my computer bursts into flame, which may very well happen first.

Which of us has the right of it?  I honestly don’t know.  Do low numbers mean a project is no good?  Do they mean that the person gaining them should give up and try something more likely to be popular?  It’s true that “success” in the webcomic world equals “ability to gain enough readers that one can make a living via merchandising and advertising,” and it’s also true that only a very few webcomic creators possess such an ability.  There are some fantastic comics with huge readerships.  There are also some terrible comics with huge readerships.  Conversely, there are some fantastic comics and some terrible comics with small readerships.  Meh comics can be found in both categories, as well as in between.  Does popularity equal success, and does success equal worth?  Am I an idiot to spend all this time creating a comic that, in the larger scheme of things, hardly anybody reads?

I don’t care if I am.  As far as I’m concerned, West of Bathurst doesn’t have to be Penny Arcade.  (You know, now that I think of it, I’ve never even portrayed characters playing video games.  I think Baldwin is probably a gamer, though.)  It has only a few hundred readers?  Well, they enjoy it, and so do I.  It’s kind of fun to be a little fish in a big pond.  If you do something outrageous, there will be a mere few hundred people who want to kill you.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of Mr. Troutman, though I am disappointed that there will be no more She-Jesus (don’t ask).  He’s got to do what he’s got to do.  His declaration just got me thinking, and it has prompted me to declare:

I hereby resolve that West of Bathurst will stubbornly continue, even if its website keeps going down and its readers forget about it for months at a time.  Have a happy New Year.

22 thoughts on “To Boldly Go Where Everyone Has Gone Before

  1. Believe me, I fully understand how a comic could continue indefinitely with a low readership, from a purely artistic view. If it’s just a hobby, and you don’t care if it stays a hobby forever, then that’s awesome. More power to ya. My own situation is a bit different, though: I want comics to be my job, and though that dream is wildly unrealistic, I still need to give it my best shot. After almost two years, it became clear Lit Brick would not be the shot I’m looking for – if it hasn’t picked up more than a handful of new readers in the past year, clearly I need to try something new with broader appeal. And since the creation of comics is so time-consuming, I simply don’t have the option to continue the stagnant Lit Brick while pursuing other work.

    It’s the difference between the hobbyist webcartoonist and the professional (or wannabe professional) webcartoonist. Both are perfectly valid positions to take, they just have entirely different goals.

  2. Seem to me like you should do things that you can gain something from it, whether that be materialistic or otherwise.

  3. Ah, SunshineRain…welcome back. I have missed your persistent little jabs. I do gain something from WoB, dearie: the satisfaction attendant on DRIVING YOU ALL CRAZY. It’s great fun.

    John: I dislike the word “hobby,” which carries a dismissive connotation, an implication that the activity in question is half-hearted and probably not very well done. Oh, it’s probably a realistic word in its purest form–I’m not sure what other word would be appropriate here–but it is sending up some negative echoes that I rather wish weren’t there. I would have been ecstatic if WoB had brought the Internet to its knees, but I did know going in that I had chosen a subject of interest only to certain people, and I wasn’t hugely surprised at the result. It’s pretty clear by this point that WoB will continue in happy obscurity until the end of its days. That doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m getting practice (in keeping a five-year-long urban fairy tale straight, in drawing frickin’ hands, in character development, in hopelessly outdated Web design…you know the drill), I’m having vast amounts of fun with characters who puzzle and delight me, I’m waiting patiently for someone to notice the hints I’ve been planting in the comic for ages, and I’m keeping myself relatively sane after long days of marking. WoB is not the only creative route I am pursuing, and perhaps I shall eventually be successful with one of my feelers, opening doors that will one day allow me to produce comics professionally. Aggression has never been my strong suit, which is my own problem, of course.

    I do think that with webcomics, there is more than one road to that coveted huge readership. One of them is (*puts on long white beard and solemn voice*) the Road of Persistence. I don’t mean for WoB, which is terminally obscure: I mean for Lit Brick. A thousand readers in a year and a half doesn’t put it in the company of Penny Arcade or Hark! A Vagrant! (I salute you, Kate Beaton, my fellow Canadian), but many webcomics have taken longer than two years to claw together some major numbers. There are the INSTANT SENSATIONS, and there are the patient accumulators. I do think LB has the potential to be a patient accumulator. I understand that you have lost faith in it, and that’s okay too, but please stick with your next project for a bit, or your readers are going to drift away.

    I hope you didn’t take offence at my post. I enjoy your comic and am sad to see it go. Your first Sherlock Holmes comic is one of the ones I show my students every term (alongside Beaton’s Sherlock Holmes comic, actually), and the next time I teach Beowulf, I’ll probably close off with that Wiglaf strip. I believe that mapping the Norton Anthology in comic form is a worthy endeavour, and I hope at least some of my readers will check out your comic, if only to wave it a melancholy goodbye.

  4. Oh, I take zero offense. I totally see where you’re coming from. And I meant no offense myself with the word “hobby.” I honestly just meant it in it’s dictionary defined context: an activity one does purely for entertainment. I’m certain there’s nothing half-hearted about the effort you put into your work.

    I will also acknowledge that “instant sensations” hardly ever occur, but I’ve been drawing webcomics for twelve years now and, to a degree, I know how the system works. Lit Brick is almost two years old, and it hasn’t picked up more than a handful of new readers in over a year. If you were to graph the numbers, it’s practically a straight, horizontal line. The line would spike astronomically after a link from, say, EGS, but then it’d bottom out again. The comic retains next to zero readers from any advertising. Without growth, or any indication of future significant growth, I have to realize that Lit Brick’s niche will never support me. I need to create a project with wider appeal, so I can grown a large enough fanbase to sell advertising, get donations, market books and shirts, etc. Essentially, I have to view webcomics as a business, which is an often unpopular opinion, but that’s the way it’s gotta be.

    (BTW, I hope replying to this blog doesn’t make me look like a crazy guy that scours the internet for mentions of his own name. It just appeared in my inbox thanks to a WordPress pingback.)

  5. …Whereas I get an e-mail every time someone posts here and thus tend to spring enthusiastically into action, insofar as replying to a reply to a blog post can be regarded as “springing enthusiastically into action.”

    I understand the need to view webcomics as a business. I just get a little sad when what that means, in practical terms, is a repetition of what has happened with American commercial television: a movement away from the fringes and towards the comfortable, predictable centre. The fact that there are fewer people lurking around the fringes doesn’t mean that they don’t get frustrated when artists go, “You’re very nice, and thank you for reading/watching my niche comic/blog/novel/television show/etc., but there are so very many more people who will be interested if I tell a story of three amusing male roommates and their quirky female friend that I’m going to have to leave you now, I’m afraid.” Sure, far more people watch The Big Bang Theory than Community, but that doesn’t make the former the superior show (it does, alas, make it the show that is continuing for another dreary season while Community is “going on hiatus” in preparation for its almost inevitable slaughter). One reason the Internet makes me happy is that little bits of weirdness do have the chance to thrive there. Look, just for instance, at Ms. Beaton. Hark! A Vagrant is a niche comic if ever there were a niche comic. The last time Kate Beaton turned up at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, it was nigh on impossible to catch a glimpse of her through the dense and seething crowd. She is, however, a bit of an exception to the rule. A lot of people chasing “success” end up going the “gamers” route or the “naked women with big breasts” route or the “I shall just copy a more successful project” route. (I’m not saying this is what you’re planning to do. I just mean in general.)

    At any rate, the situation is what it is. I shall leave you with one of my favourite niche-but-oddly-successful Internet properties: Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.

  6. I’ll also avoid further debate, as again, you aren’t wrong. Literally every word you wrote is pretty much true, and I actually agree with it. Though, to clarify, me moving onto a project with broader appeal isn’t the same thing as going somewhere “safe.” The new project is still pretty nutty, it’s just not marketed towards a very specific niche.

  7. Well, as long as there are nuts involved, I tentatively approve.

    Goodness. That sounds more than slightly dirty, doesn’t it?

  8. I think you’ve both got valid reasons for doing what you do (respectively changing what you do).

    As for making a living off art: I’m sure Rembrandt got tired of all those commissioned portraits at some point, but we don’t blame him for taking the money, and the resulting works are still amazing (and, in fact, allowed him to improve his skill while getting paid!) So now I’m curious: are there webcomics that use a subscription model? Say, for a dollar a month. It wouldn’t add up quickly if only 100 of your 1000 readers kept up, though, and it’d be harder to put an end to it in the future, but still.

    Anyway, as an avid WoB reader I am very happy with Kari’s resolution!

  9. (Changing to my Twitter sign-in so I get a little picture next to my name…)

    Fan: I have no problem with the commercial aspects of art. It’s probably more accurate to say that I am a failed commercial artist who is okay with that than to say that I went into this determined to shun all commercial gain. I just think it’s possible to go too far, sacrificing creativity for the sake of popular appeal, and I’m not sure it’s necessary. If only works that appealed solely to the majority were ever successful, there would be not only no Hark! A Vagrant but, frankly, no xkcd either. This isn’t a high art / low art argument. I get suspicious whenever people start flinging those terms around. The question here is one that, again, is readily apparent where commercial television is concerned: do I tell the story I want to tell or the story everybody else appears to want me to tell? The former is more risky; it could succeed, but what if it doesn’t? The latter is much less risky, as even a mediocre work that adheres to the status quo has a greater chance of success. By “risky,” I don’t mean something like a 13-minute TV show consisting entirely of people dressed in bird costumes flapping around a large white room while shrieking at each other in Italian. I mean a show like Community that does something a little different and ends up rabidly loved by a relatively small number of people. Why do those people have less of a right to their favourite show than the hordes who watch The Big Bang Theory? The answer is that in commercial ventures, the majority does rule. I just think that on the Internet, there’s room for works with small but devoted followings. Some of them are even commercially viable. It’s really all about what you’re willing to sacrifice.

    Regarding the subscription model: it has been tried, but as far as I know, it is rarely successful. Fairly or not, people tend to think of the Internet as “free.” Webcartoonists who ask for subscriptions–even tiny ones–are sometimes regarded as freeloaders, ironically enough. Some people have donation buttons instead, but even those are looked down upon in certain circles. The prevailing opinion seems to be that you can’t ask something for nothing. The webcomic itself is “nothing”; it’s the extras that have the potential to bring in the dough. Scott McCloud did, a long time ago, suggest the possibility of “micropayments” (very small payments per comic, a few cents at most), but that didn’t catch on either.

  10. It’s possible it’s been so long that people have forgotten it, but Modern Tales (and related sites like Graphic Smash and Girlamatic) were all subscription-based models. You subscribed to the site and got access to their 20-odd comics. Subscription revenue was subsequently split among the artists based on their own personal page views. I don’t believe it was ever a significant source of income for most people, though. There were actually plenty of subscribers, but after all the money was split between the artists and the business folk, there wasn’t much left. I was on Graphic Smash when it first launched for almost year, but eventually left because the income generated by the subscription model wasn’t making up for the relatively small fan base that model entails.

    There is one webcomic site still going strong with subscriptions, however: Josh Lesnick’s Slipshine. Of course, that’s porn, but the site generates more than enough income for Josh to pay his artists and still have enough left over to make a living.

  11. I don’t mean something like a 13-minute TV show consisting entirely of people dressed in bird costumes flapping around a large white room while shrieking at each other in Italian.

    I’d watch that if Stephen Moffat wrote it. Just sayin’.

  12. Speaking of Moffat, Sherlock is back with another “revealing” (or maybe it should be dominating, hehe) portrayal of Irene Adler.

    You know I didn’t realise that TBBT was so popular, I always find it to be entertaining but didn’t know it was: “The Big Bang Theory has pulled ahead and has now become the most watched show in Canada.” (apparently also in Australia as well).

  13. I enjoyed the new episode of Sherlock very much, but someday, I would like to see Irene Adler portrayed as an unattractive but interesting mastermind who uses more than her powers of seduction to pull one over on Holmes. Moffat’s version of her appears to be attracting Sherlock mostly with her brain, so do we really need her to be a dominatrix? That said, the character does work well.

    Yes, TBBT is drearily popular. I do watch it, but what bugs me is how typical a sitcom it is and how oblivious many actual geeks and nerds seem to that fact. “But it’s really all about us!” they cry. Sure, if you buy into the “Hollywood nerd” stereotype and enjoy seeing nerds treated like monkeys in a cage. Try comparing Sheldon to Abed from Community. Why do people venerate Sheldon again? Oh, right: because they like to see him brought low.

  14. But it’s Jim Parsons, he is in the Muppets and everything (I did think it was quite funny when he appeared in the “Man or Muppet” music video). Actually I still remember back when he was the armour wearing knight in Garden State.

  15. Yay for your resolution. My grad school buddies and I read WoB with great amusement…. although I must admit we generally wait for a good few months and then catch up in one go. I think we’d go mad if we had to read about Casey 3 times a week with no conclusion in sight. I hope your conclusion to his storyline is good because at the moment the only thing that has taken this long to finish a storyline was “Lost” and look how well that went down with the viewers.

  16. Katie: Heh…that is probably very wise of you. And yes, I understand that I am slowly painting myself into a corner as far as Casey is concerned: the longer I draw it out, the more spectacular the resolution is going to have to be. The problem is that the end of the mystery surrounding Casey is probably basically going to equal the end of the strip. I’m not ready to end it yet. I expect Lost ran into similar problems, though on a different scale. It’s the curse of the serial format: you have to find some way of avoiding resolution that will NOT drive your readers/viewers away. It’s hard.

    It may be worth noting that there are, currently, some unsolved aspects of the strip that COULD be solved if people put together the clues in the right order. Something similar happened with the Ursula/Casey storyline: I started dropping “Bearskin” references quite early on, but it took years for readers to notice. There’s another element of the strip that would seem less incomprehensible if people noticed the story lurking behind it. All the clues are there, albeit a little tucked away. I know it’s maddening of me to tell you this, but I’m good at maddening. It’s the comic’s main attribute.

  17. Come now, you weren’t expecting us to use our brain while reading a web comic, did you? Sure, sure, it probably must of taken you hours and hours of painstakingly slow planning to add those little extra details but it only take us less than a minute in our day (every other day too) to read it and then it’s probably most likely forgotten… not that it’s not worth it of course, that one minute surely is a bliss to most people. I mean when the comic is good that is, which doesn’t seem to happen that often these days but you know it’s something. And what price can you put on making people possibly, although only occasionally, happy for a mere moment? I mean even on minimum wage you could probably have made quite a sum already if not for the comic, maybe even buy a new car (quick calculation make it out to be $18,771.43 Canadian, assuming you spend only 2 hours for each of the comic 3 day for 6 years, not counting the colour comic). But it’s so totally worth it for the immortal art, I mean somebody is bound to be reading/thinking about it when the world end right?

    Regarding Lost, surely people must had known what they were getting themselves into if not after the black smoke tree pulling monster than at least after the first season. It’s like an abusive relationship, keep hoping for changes that is not going to happen (yes I am a Lost fan).

  18. Well, it’s nice to know that you think the comic isn’t good very often these days. You always know how to make me want to crawl under my bed and cry for a bit. It’s a talent you have. It’s also worth noting that I didn’t say you HAD to put the clues together. All I mean is that I expect someone will someday. After all, people did get the “Bearskin” reference eventually. And by the way, I AM revealing stuff this year. It’s just taking a bit of time. Marie does have a few clues already; she’ll receive some more presently, and it’s quite possible that she’ll end up with enough to start putting things together.

    I actually watched Lost on DVD about a year after it stopped airing. It was less frustrating when viewed all at once, though I understand why people may have ended up a teeny bit peeved.

  19. Thank you for your resolute resolution! I, for one, check very regularly. Take as long as you want to resolve the storyline. This is fun. =) You write one of only two webcomics that I check each day they come out. Those are happy days. And say what you will about my taste, but I am quite familiar with and enjoy many webcomics, just not as frequently. The comics are so good (both ways). I especially enjoy Barbara’s occasional rants about grading and I like the Casey mystery. Thank you Kari. Keep up the great fork. Hmm, fun work?

  20. Thanks, Jenn. Now I have the urge to draw a giant fork and have everybody standing around wondering how it got there.

    But it is nice to hear that someone actually ENJOYS the Casey mystery instead of wanting to come after me with a hatchet.

  21. After your recommendation, sorry I meant repeated nagging, I have finally begin watching Community (I needed something to replace 30 Rock while it’s on hiatus as well). On initial review of the first 3 episodes I have found that although the premise seem outrageous at first they do seem to end on a somewhat realistic note and so far I have been enjoying them plus it’s great to see Chevy Chase again (seeing Fletch on TV the other night also swayed me a bit).

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