Practical Insights from Comic Artist Chris Watkins of Odori Park

Chris WatkinsChris Watkins has been involved in the online comic community since 2000- well before he started Odori Park, a comic about a bookstore-owning, multi-lingual-child-raising Japanese-American couple, in 2009.

Chris' experience with the comic world reveals some of the major themes prevalent within it. For example, being a party in a Japanese-American couple raising multilingual children, Chris leverages unique experiences in his life when creating new strips, and much of his sustained motivation as a comic artist comes from a desire to share that which he knows and loves.

This approach is common and successful amongst many comic writers, and can contribute to very sustainable inspiration.

Odori Park

Since starting Odori Park in 2009, Chris has seen the web comic world evolve from a niche into its own industry with far more success stories (though those success stories are still admittedly few and far between). The major factors in top artists' success that Chris has identified over time include persistence, dedication to building up a readership, and ability to monetize through sales of print series and other comic-related merchandise.

Chris sees the use of a series of buffer strips to protect one from breaks in a regular publishing schedule, self-publishing companies for creating print series, and a willingness to interact with other major web comic creators to build a following as extremely useful tactics.

Odori Park 2013-06-28-book-smarts

This long-time artist (and user experience design manager by trade) can teach us all a lesson or two about the practicality of a day job for the vast majority of artists who do not make a full time living from their work, the importance of building a strong relationship with one's readership, and the essential nature of genuine passion as an artist. You will find more insights on these subjects in our interview with Chris below. Heed is useful advice, and if you haven't heard of it already, check out Odori Park!

There are so many potential things a webcomic artist might be told to do to be more successful: make very detailed, carefully colored, refined comics, spend a lot of time on social media, post detailed blog posts accompanying new comics, etc. Are there any webcomic tactics that you don't think provide a significant marginal return and may not be worth the extra effort? For example, do you think that a really beautiful comic is more likely to succeed than an equally compelling/witty comic that is simply drawn or rudimentarily sketched?

My experience has shown me that the most important things a webcartoonist can be is talented and consistent. Talent's a subjective thing, though, and rather than suggesting painfully rendered works of photorealism may have an advantage over stick figures, I want to specify that talent, in this case, means talent in delivering value to the readers, whatever form that value may take. That's how XKCD and Dresden Codak can live in the same success space. But talent is like the book cover: it will draw a reader in, but if the rest of the book is blank pages-which is to say, if content is sparse and updates aren't reliably delivered on whatever schedule the artist has publicly committed to, then it will quickly be put down and forgotten.

Odori Park

Is it very common for webcomic artists to also be illustrators, writers, and bloggers? Does it help to produce a diverse body of work, or to focus just on producing comics?

More and more, it seems that the artist is the brand, and a small galaxy of content needs to circle that central star for it to gain critical mass. In my first life in webcomics, I had the impression that, in order to be taken seriously, I had to act in my online presence as if I were an entire company, writing "we" in news posts, and writing articles as though they were to be read by a morning radio DJ. This never felt natural to me, and in time, I came to see the folks that generated the largest followings seemed to be the ones making genuine connections with their readership.

The non-comics work- the online content presence- seems to work best when it's a natural extension of the artist's brand. That said, when a comic's work is lacking, no amount of blogging or DeviantART posting seems capable of producing a sustained following. I think the ancillary work has to orbit a strong central core, and if the artist is the brand, then the art- the comics- must be the strongest means of expression.

Odori Park

What are the primary means through which a webcomic artist might earn an income from his or her work?

Simply put, the majority (if not entirety) of self-sufficient online cartoonists I'm aware of use the comic as a loss leader for merchandise. Most commonly, the merchandise is comprised of book collections of the comic, followed by prints, t-shirts, and then by other tchotchkes.

Subscription models have been tried, but I never felt they would be able to generate enough interest for independent creators to make them self-sustaining, and so far, history seems to have born that out. In order to drive subscriptions, your readers need to know what they'll be getting, feel that they can't get a reasonable alternative for free elsewhere, and be large enough in number that the relatively small subscription revenue can rack up. This model doesn't seem to work for webcomics (not including big publishers pushing their print works through digital distribution means, like ComiXology).

Crowd funding presents an interesting alternative. Even though crowd funding services I'm familiar with seem designed to support individual projects, rather than sustained revenue streams, I've seen more than one Kickstarter serve to fund long-term content creation efforts. Nevertheless, for that gambit to work, awareness and support has to be very high before the campaign begins.

Do you know any webcomic artists who have been able to quit their day jobs and support themselves exclusively from their artistic work? What do you think has enabled them to do so?

Personally, no, but within the industry, absolutely. I think Wikipedia still has a listing of "self-sufficient webcomics" that's worth looking at. It's a very narrow-tipped pyramid, as it is for any entertainment business, but there are examples out there. In my opinion, their success has been a by-product of talent and consistency (those two words again) combined with a personality flexible enough to take shots at unexpected opportunities, and filtered through a funnel of serendipity. In other words, the pivot point was being in the right place at the right time.

If you take things like the black swan theory to heart, then it seems the best an aspiring cartoonist can do is build up the table stakes skills (reliable quality), then look for chances to expose him or herself to lucky breaks by networking, doing comic cons, interacting in online communities, and getting the work exposed to eyeballs.

What are some of the most effective ways for a new webcomic artist to build a readership? What has worked really well for you, personally?

Between my direct experience, and that of other more successful folks I've talked to, three things seem to be most effective:

  1. Participate in the online community. Engage with other cartoonists and readers, earnestly, in their home spaces, and in time, they'll start to visit you in yours.
  2. Targeted ad campaigns. I've not done this much myself, but I've heard from more than one webcomicker that putting the right message on the right site can garner a good wave of traffic, which- if you've targeted well- should leave a decent readership bump in its wake.
  3. Get mentioned by a more popular artist. I've had the biggest spikes in traffic following Tweets or blog mentions by better-read colleagues online. And this is where networking and community participation come back in. You have to make relationships and get yourself in position to be noticed before anyone will talk about your work publicly.

Of all the comics you've followed online, are there any common characteristics that distinguish very successful (that is, well-known, profitable, widely read) comics from their obscure counterparts?

To me, at least off the cuff, it looks like the creators who are most willing to try new things and make new connections are the ones who have ultimately become the most successful in terms of both revenue and readership. There is a line between those two success goals, though; there are many examples of creators whose work, while adored by peers, still fails to support them financially. So, the willingness to try new things has to expand into new revenue-generating ideas, if financial success is part of your goal set.

Now, with all that said, given the significant part that luck plays in this equation, I've come to terms with the reality that I have to enjoy creating the work itself, first and foremost. Focusing too much on an external measure of success when that measure is hard to come by can sap the motivation- and fun- from the act of creating comics, which is really the most important part of the whole thing in the first place.