The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal - The Weekly Webcomic Review: +EV
April 20th, 2007
10:30 am

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The Weekly Webcomic Review: +EV

For Penguicon, I’ll be on a panel entitled “Promoting Your Webcomic On A Budget.” Today’s a sneak preview of that, because I’m about to tell you the biggest and best way to promote your comic… Assuming you have one, of course.

Unfortunately, the easiest way to get your creation into the hands of new and eager readers involves something you had to choose before you wrote the first line. That’s right; if your webcomic’s hit the net, it may already be too late. You’re locked in stone, forevermore.

Choose the wrong subject, and you’ll be forever behind the eight-ball.*

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, once proposed an interesting theory: he said that 20% of any comic audience read comics for the clever writing. 20% read them for the pretty art.

The remaining 60% read them because they want to see their own life echoed in the comics.

They want to open a strip and go, “Ooo! That’s me! Or someone I know!” It sounds crazy, I know. But originally, Dilbert was a moderately popular nerdcore strip dealing with bad puns and occasional philosophy. Then he stumbled into greatness by making fun of the place where everyone was hanging out these days: the office. And oh, how the money did flow.

What else explains the popularity of Garfield? We’re all a little lazy, we all love to eat too much, we all hate Mondays. It’s not particularly funny - but yeah, there’s a bit of me in Garfield. (And probably more in Jon, but I’m not talking about that.) That is, for better or for worse, why people read the ‘field.

The rule’s not ironclad, of course. If you’re lucky, you can get people to buy into your characters so that they become a part of your extended family, the way that For Better or For Worse, Doonesbury, and Something Positive have effortlessly done.

But if you want the easy way to get people to read you? Emulate their life. And then be funny on top of that.

Let’s talk turkey for a moment and talk about my personal obsessions as a comic creator; I’m continually comparing my traffic against those of other, comparable strips. What makes that possible? Project Wonderful, which in an attempt to entice you to purchase ads allows you to view any strip’s traffic at a glance. If you assume that “traffic” is the only metric that we all have in common (for “quality” and “cleverness” are all debatable), then PW gives us a ruler. And I can – and do – compare HotS to just about everyone.

For a strip that’s a little over a year old, Home on the Strange is doing pretty well. But you know what’s doing far better, with roughly the same number of strips? A funny little comic called The Noob, which has almost four times our numbers.

(This isn’t about The Noob, by the way. But The Noob is relevant, and it’s a pretty good read, too, so bear with me.)

Home on the Strange has gotten a lot of early traffic simply because it’s about nerds. There are a lot of nerds online. If I manage to successfully replicate the home environment of some happy nerd somewhere, there’s a damn fine chance that said nerd will send the link to his friends to go, “Hey, man, this is us!”

But The Noob is about World of Warcraft and Everquest and other MMORPGs. And that’s a much larger audience than just the quasi-vanilla nerddom that HotS is about. If Roni and I knock one out of the park, we get a bunch of nerds linking in. Whenever The Noob knocks one out of the park, I’m sure they get a bunch of WoW fans linking in – and since that’s a much larger community, they’ve grown at an exponential rate that outstrips ours.

That’s a self-promoting webcomic, man. You don’t have to do anything; people do it for you because they identify with you.

Now, keep in mind that quality does enter into it. There are a shitload of WoW comics out there, and the fact that the MMORPG comics aren’t dominating the charts is because most of them suck. (Most of every kind of comic sucks, actually.) The Noob has floated to a successful position because it’s funny, and consistently so, and has characters that people like.

But that WoW tie-in? That’s the nitro fuel on the stock car. It supercharges them. I’m not saying that’s the only reason they’re clobbering us in that tenuous metric known as “traffic,” but I know damn well that it’s a reason.

(And no, it’s not a race… But it’s one of the few things we can keep track of. Every author I know has at least sniffed their Amazon rankings, too.)

So what does it take to develop a self-promoting webcomic? Choose an audience that’s widespread. Mock their lifestyle in a way that people can shake their heads and go, “Yeah, I know that life.” And wait for the inbound links.

But – and this is a big but – there’s a potential drawback. You can get too in-depth. Like real life, you can make it so insular that outsiders don’t get it. So you have to strike a fine balance: strike home with the die-hards who will belly-laugh, but make it accessible to newcomers who may not grok The Lifestyle.

That, my friends, is a balancing act that +EV pulls off with grace.

+EV is a comic devoted to online poker. That sounds boring, but the amazing thing is how consistently funny +EV manages to be within this little realm; yeah, there are gags about poker that I don’t get because I don’t play, but that’s just part and parcel of the narrow-casting.

The ones I do get, however, are hysterical. Hell, today’s strip slays me, wherein a hardcore poker nerd is informed that it’s possible to play poker in real life… And the punchline is fabulous.

The characters are simple and easy to get: there’s the lead character, who’s quit his job to play online poker full time, for $70,000 a year. He has a daughter, who is slightly corrupted by the lifestyle, and a supportive (if sarcastic) wife who is now pregnant again. (She gives him a shirt entitled “All-In Baby” to inform him of this, which is something you’ll only get if you’re sufficiently pokerized.)

The thing is, as David Sirlin has noted, the core societies of every type of game are much the same. There’s a strange sort of synergy that occurs when you devote your life to being the best at an intellectual game with arbitrary rules, and so the Poker scene isn’t that far removed from the lives of Magic or Scrabble nerds. In fact, poker is sort of universal, so +EV often winds up speaking for everyone. After all, what online denizen hasn’t blown up local events into wild proportions like this? Who hasn’t accidentally bitched in the wrong location like this? And I know I’ve wanted to do this after a horrific game of MODO.

….Er, that’s “Magic Online” to you non-spellslingin’ folks.

Then there are the strips for the real fans. I don’t get every reference in this, but I marvel at the brilliant way he set it up so that poker and zoology neatly collide. And I have no clue who the hell the poker stars they keep referencing are, but I’m happy to sit out a hand or two.

Doing the funny so that people can laugh if they’re not part of the world and laugh harder if they are is a tough sell. But +EV does it with style and grace. And I approve.

(And as always, if you have an underappreciated webcomic you think I shouldreview, leave a comment and I’ll take a look at it. Reviews will be only for strips with less or equal traffic to my own strip, Home on the Strange, in order to highlight smaller comics; as such, the reviews will always be at least mostlypositive. If you note any traffic I’ve sent your way and feel the urge to shower me with gratitude, feel free to plug HotS in your own comic. Danke.)

* - Yes, I’m aware that Websnark had a similar take. But sadly, the timing of my Saturday panel was too good to pass up. Consider this a fleshing out of some thoughts put forth there, if you like, from the perspective of a ruthless guy who sometimes goes, “Is there a way I can mock Harry Potter so I can pull in HP fans?”

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(18 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

Comments
 
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From:scarfman
Date:April 20th, 2007 02:44 pm (UTC)
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Maybe I should've stuck with Captain Kirk and the Doctor instead of focussing on King Arthur ... Well this isn't the first time I've thought that.

("And I can – and do – compare HotS to" looks like a sentence you meant to come back to and forgot.)

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From:theferrett
Date:April 20th, 2007 02:48 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for pointing it out to me.

Originally, what I thought about pitching to Roni was a superhero comic. Then I realized that I really like riffing on current events, and I thought, "Wow, I couldn't do that if I did a serious Marvel-style comic." So I switched. The flexibility has paid off.
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From:norda
Date:April 20th, 2007 02:57 pm (UTC)
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It's fascinating, in this plugged-in world, to see how interests have been compartmentalized. One of the commenters on Websnark said that everything on the Internet is a niche; I think he nailed it.

I've been subject to the identification dynamic in the webcomics I read. A recent example: Since I am not a console/PC gamer [I'm one of those old-fashioned chicks with dice], but my semi-daughter is, the storyline in Punch an' Pie where Angela feels alienated by self-righteous WoWers with their own damn secret language is right up my alley.

A strip about online poker will have appeal, yes. But all strips come down to the people in them.

Have a great time at Penguicon, and get someone to make a transcript of your panels. Vicarious minds want to know.
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From:oneminutemonkey
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:08 pm (UTC)
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The first few strips of HotS reminded me of the dynamic between me and my wife, and had me laughing hysterically. That's why I stayed. :> So you're right, it's all about the funny ... and the art ... and the echoing of oneself.

Oh, and today was much with the laughing my ass off also.
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From:montykins
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:11 pm (UTC)
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The remaining 60% read them because they want to see their own life echoed in the comics.

That's certainly one way of getting an audience, and it's worked for Dilbert. But Scott Adams frequently (in my opinion, from what I can tell from his blog) falls into the trap of "This happened to me, therefore it is the only possibility". Just because some comics rely on readers seeing themselves in the comic doesn't mean that's how the overall potential comic-reading audience necessarily breaks down like that.

There are comics that are pure funny with no audience identification factor, like "The Far Side", for example. Or "Krazy and Ignatz", which is brilliant even though it arguably takes the "funny" out of the equation. I mean, my favorite webcomics these days are Achewood, Penny Arcade, Girl Genius, and Order of the Stick, and you really have to stretch to match anything in my life to what happens in the strips.
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From:moropus
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:13 pm (UTC)
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I'm not a gamer. But I know some.

I used to be a PC gamer before anyone had even heard of the internet. Back when you would get things like "There are 3 doors. Choose one. Ha, you are now dead." All text, no pics.

So I always get HotS, and I love it. I'm sort of a book nerd actually.

I loved the bit in the very beginning when somebody decided to use a laptop naked and burned his legs. That's where you had me hooked. I was using one in my underwear and fell asleep and burned my legs once. Boring-ass term paper and a 6-pack and I dozed right off.
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From:allah_sulu
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:24 pm (UTC)
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Well THAT was random.
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From:andrewducker
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
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I don't think there are more WoW players than there are nerds - but I do think they're a more coherent community. Not every nerd will appreciate the same things, but you can safely share a WoW joke with other players and be sure they'll get the joke.
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From:almamatercomic
Date:April 20th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
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It's surprising how true this is. One of the more frequent comments I get is that my comic reminds people of their old schools, and, as I mentioned on the Websnark post, a lot of my readers seem to come from single-sex schools.

As a side note, I think it's best to try and create comics that emulate your life and hope that there is an audience with similar experiences. I'm guessing that most subcultures won't be impressed by a comic that tries to target them using obvious "outsider" jokes unless they are desperate for comics about themselves.
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From:scarfman
Date:April 20th, 2007 04:10 pm (UTC)
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most subcultures won't be impressed by a comic that tries to target them using obvious "outsider" jokes That's exactly what's wrong with the comic strip that appears on the official Star Trek website. I hadn't looked at it since there were only about three strips there, and when I hunted up the link just now I saw there were ninety three, and the most recent one doesn't impress me any more than the first ones. This Reddick guy is supposed to be a lifelong fan, but he writes like a pro cartoonist out to appeal to a mainstream audience instead of like a fan writing for other fans.

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From:roniliquidity
Date:April 20th, 2007 04:37 pm (UTC)
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Luckily Ferrett is fairly prolific nerd, while I have my narrow and deep nerdy fixations that only somewhat overlap. Between Ferrett, myself, and our quite nerdy spouses, we cast a wide net.
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From:rocketman574
Date:April 20th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC)
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Thanks for the link, I've been reading the archive and I really like +EV.
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From:bobbycrosby
Date:April 20th, 2007 10:34 pm (UTC)
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Hey, thanks for the nice review!
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From:theferrett
Date:April 21st, 2007 01:02 pm (UTC)
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No problem. You seem to be out to create an empire, and you also seem to have the talent to do it.

If'n ya feel like linking back to HotS at any point, feel free. Or not. I'm just a traffic whore.
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From:bobbycrosby
Date:April 23rd, 2007 12:04 am (UTC)
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Thanks, buddy. And I actually linked to it before you even asked, although it probably didn't send much traffic, since almost no one reads the blog for "+EV." Review "Marry Me," though, and I guarantee tons of traffic your way!
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From:theferrett
Date:April 23rd, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
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I definitely will, but not yet. I have a policy of not reviewing any comic with under forty strips, mainly because I think there's too little to review before that. It's a darned fine start, though.
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From:unityflow
Date:April 23rd, 2007 12:14 pm (UTC)
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I think you're right, or that Scott is, in that people like to see themselves in comics. It's pretty much true in all form of entertainment isn't it?

That could be me syndrome.

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From:fieryfae469
Date:April 24th, 2007 04:38 pm (UTC)

dear TheFerrett...

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I know you are quite awesome in so many things now. Have something very important to ask you and talk about... Deals with many things you will love. Little guy against big corproate giants. Web comics and dot coms and things like that... A friend of mine you may or may not know... does conventions on the east coast with his company Novablade.com and Novablade studios and their Web comic that is currently only at 1073rd since they had been out of commision for awhile... Many reasons i will talk about later...

Wondering how I might talk to you where it is less noted by just everyone that reads you til time to open and unleash our plans on the anime/web comic/conventions/artists/ all over the world.

Love your crazy wonderful comic btw. Home on the Strange.. 16th not bad at all.

My email is Fieryfae469@yahoo.com
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