No Reason Not To Do Both: Cartoonist Kel McDonald On Web Vs. Print [Interview]
Kel McDonald has been making comics for ten years, including a ten year run on her webcomic Sorcery 101. She was an early adopter of crowdfunding as a way of getting her comics out in print, and book one of McDonald's Misfits of Avalon series came out earlier this year through Dark Horse Comics. As increasing numbers of young, particularly female comics creators turn to webcomics as a way of getting their work out there, and as increasing numbers of comics publishers look to webcomics for up-and-coming talent, creators like McDonald are poised to have a unique understanding of the current comics world we live in
As part of her wrap-up of Sorcery 101, she's currently running a Kickstarter campaign for an omnibus of the series. ComicsAlliance sat down with McDonald to talk comics, crowdfunding, and web versus print.
ComicsAlliance: You’ve been doing webcomics for ten years. How has the landscape of webcomics changed since you started?
Kel McDonald: When I started Sorcery 101 the biggest thing was Comicpress (the Wordpress plugin) didn't exist, or if it did it wasn't so big that everyone knew about it. Sites like Drunkdunk and Smackjeeves and WebComicsNation were important tools because they had a built in navigation coding. The downside is those sites where harder to change. So overall webcomic websites have definitely gotten prettier. So now it's super easy to make a nice looking site with either Wordpress or with a Tumblr. And because it is so easy I feel like there are more absolutely beautiful comics out there. Because these artists who know almost nothing about website building can just upload the work they are doing.
However, that means anyone jumping into webcomics has some stiff competition for people's attention. So advertising your webcomic has become more of a thing. Project Wonderful -- which is a service started by Ryan North where comics can big for adspace on other comics -- popped up in my third or fourth year of doing Sorcery 101, and I think a lot of comics that were just starting used it to get readers much faster than before.
Before that, getting noticed was a lot of sending other artists fan art, doing guest art for them while they were on vacation, or getting into some kind of hub. I think that really helped story comics get more of a foothold. Because it's hard for a page in the middle of a story to go viral, but if you are getting Project Wonderful ads you can make sure the ad goes to your first page.
CA: You mentioned how important advertising is for webcomics now, plus the website building aspect. It’s obvious the best webcomics folks approach it like the self-publishing business it is, and understand the importance of running the business beyond just making comics. How did you learn how to run your business?
KMD: It was a bit of trial and error. I also had help. Basically there is a handful of people like Spike Trotman, Kate Ashwin, Kory Bing, and Amanda Lefranias who I've met along over the years. I've shared tables with them at cons or shared tips. Finding out what works and doesn't work sorta as a group.
I've found that most webcomic people are pretty friendly and will exchange info like, "Where'd you get your book printed?", "Is this a good convention for sales?" So I learned the business side of things by making friends, giving new stuff a try, and keeping in mind that something that works for one comic won't always work for another. That and I also read through Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping but that mostly helped with more effective con displays.
CA: What advice would you give to newbie webcomics creators on the business side of things?
KMD: For the business side of things, I'm afraid most of my advice would be outdated or very specific to a comic that is urban fantasy that is a mix of drama and comedy. But either way here is a quick list.
- Firstly start the comic, don't wait to be good enough.
- Even if you don't plan to make a book, save at 300 dpi so you don't end up like me and get stuck redrawing hundreds of pages.
- Don't worry about merch until people start asking you for merch.
- Don't pay attention to stats unless you are getting close to a limit from your site host.
- And if you are paying attention to them, beware that your website stats don't translate to fans. There are a lot of folks out there who will basically read any webcomic because they are bored in their cubicle. But since they are fans of webcomics rather than fans of you, they probably won't buy a book. They might back a Patreon or turn off their adblocker if you ask them nicely. But they probably won't buy merch because if all 200 webcomics they read has a $20 book they will probably only grab a book from their top ten.
- When you advertise your comics on Project Wonderful or elsewhere, know that you will probably get more of the general webcomic fan.
- Be nice to other comic artists. If you see them doing something cool/interesting ask them how they did that, politely.
CA: What initially interested in you in webcomics?
KMD: I actually wasn't interested in them until I started doing one. In high school I basically made a 24-page comic issue and printed twenty copies. It was full color and one of my art teachers printed at his friends print shop. I got them for free, because he super wanted to encourage me pursuing comics. However, he did tell me that each copy would have cost $11 each. I knew that wasn't a way to go if I wanted making comics to be fiscally sound. So learning how to put them online was just easier/cheaper.
CA: You’ve been doing Sorcery 101 for almost ten years, and by the time it wraps next year, for exactly ten years. Did you ever think, when you started that, you would be working in the same universe for ten years?
KMD: Well, I always liked the idea of series like Discworld where the stories are set in the same world but you don't have to read all the titles. So I kinda went into Sorcery 101 thinking it would be a long haul.
CA: Are you looking forward to finishing Sorcery 101, or is it more of a sad goodbye?
KMD: It's mostly positive feelings about finishing Sorcery 101. I have grown as a writer/artist and as a person. I'm ready to try new things that don't fit in Sorcery 101. And I'm honestly sick of working in landscape format! But I'm excited and proud because I feel like I've really accomplished something huge. I honestly can't wait to hold that giant book in my hand, feel its weight, and think, "I made this."
CA: Would you ever commit to another ten-year story?
KMD: Maybe I will in the future. I've been thinking a lot about long stories and the pacing in them. I've especially been noticing pacing problems that are pretty common to webcomics, and been comparing them to the pacing of long running print stories.
But I want to work on structure and pacing of my writing before jumping into another long thing. So for now I'm designing a series that will be 80-page one-shots titled The City Between that can be read in any order, but stand completely on their own. [The] first one is Fame and Misfortune which I put out two years ago. I just finished writing the second one. Their stand aloneness makes them easier to experiment with and try new things.
CA: You started drawing comics when you were fairly young, and you say you had to redraw many of the pages to make them okay to print. With the rise of webcomics, I think we’re seeing a lot more young cartoonists’ art grow up in public through their work. How do you feel about your early work?
KMD: Well, most people hopefully aren't the same person at 27 that they were at 17. There is definitely stuff in my earlier pages I won't write today. It's stuff like, the main cast is all white, and the characters are pretty immature right here when they are supposed to be adults. Just in general I think about my stories more and my choices are more deliberate.
CA: Did you go to art school or get any other sort of formal training?
KMD: I went to Savannah College of Art and Design and I took a creative writing course at Oxford University while in high school.
CA: Do you feel your education at SCAD prepared you for the work you do?
KMD: I think it did. The program is very comprehensive and I learned a lot. I will say though that SCAD isn't for everyone and it's a place where you get what you put in. I worked really hard and pushed myself and tried to get everything I possibly could from SCAD.
Also SCAD is kinda a trade school approach. So the stuff you get out of it is learning how to keep a deadline and handle a big workload. They have a few self promo and business classes. Their system is designed to help you be reliable when you are trying to get work. So someone who is more interested in the more experimental/artsy side of comics will most likely be frustrated with SCAD.
CA: Switching gears a little - you were a fairly early adopter of crowdfunding, with your first campaign happening in 2009. What drew you to crowdfunding?
KMD: Spike Trotman and I have been pretty good friends for, gosh, I think six or seven years now. She had just kickstarted her first Poorcraft book and she sent me an invite -- Kickstarter was invite only when it first started -- because I was telling her I wasn't sure about printing my first book. Basically, before making the decision to redraw all those pages of Sorcery 101, I wanted to make sure people actually wanted the book. Kickstarter being all or nothing funding really appealed to me because if the funding was unsuccessful then I would know to not bother with redraws.
CA:: You currently have both a Patreon campaign and a Kickstarter campaign for the Sorcery 101 omnibus. How much time do you spend per day dealing with crowdfunding stuff versus drawing?
KMD: Well, Kickstarter is just a few weeks out of the year, but it requires a lot of attention while it's running. I need to do a lot of legwork for a Kickstarter. Patreon is more passive. I don't push that very hard. And the extras I'm posting are just the pencils for the newest Sorcery 101. So I have to just remember to keep a file that is just pencils and post it the same time as the finished version. So lots of time goes to Kickstarter; like, two minutes a day goes to Patreon.
CA: Given the differences between them, do you prefer Kickstarter or Patreon more as far as return on time/energy investment? Or do they fulfill such different needs that they’re not comparable?
KMD: Right now I prefer Kickstarter, but I haven't really had time to fully push Patreon yet. I also think they are for very different things. Kickstarter is all about one big product, like a printing bill. Whereas Patreon is kinda about maintaining a thing long term, like production of a series that will go indefinitely.
CA: You’ve also done print comics, like Misfits of Avalon, which is released through Dark Horse. There are obvious differences in the final product between print and web comics, but do you approach making the comics any differently?
KMD: I approach them roughly the same way. I make an outline for the story, write a script, get feedback, rewrite, then draw it. The biggest different between working on Misfits of Avalon and something on my website was, I had to do the cover first on Misfits of Avalon. Usually I draw the cover last if I'm self publishing.
Sorcery 101 was a little bit different because the whole thing is me basically figuring out the process that worked best for me. I had an outline from the beginning. But I used to just write and draw it page-by-page. But then one chapter got much too long because my characters were talking too much about stuff that was ultimately unimportant to the plot. So I started scripting each chapter out beforehand so I could keep the page count for each scene under control. Then I started writing a year ahead, and having it read through before I drew it. Now I usually write an entire script out before I start drawing so I can look at the story as a whole.
CA: Since you talk about how you plan to crowdfund your future webcomics work, have you considered working with a publisher or releasing the stories through Comixology versus as a webcomic? Is there a particular appeal for you in going the self-published webcomics route for certain projects versus the other options out there?
KMD: Firstly, to clarify, the Kickstarters I have planned are all for print collections that will end up online eventually.
For me it's less print versus web and more self publishing versus publisher. I actually kinda hate the print versus web argument. There is no reason to not do both in tandem. Frequent page-at-a-time updates keep you in a reader's thoughts. So rather than having to remind everyone you exists once a year when the book comes out, you are always there and someone can easily share your work with a link.
Maybe it's because the way I got into webcomics is because it simply showed me a way to get my self-published work out there in an affordable manner, but I actually kinda dislike the word webcomic. It creates an unnecessary divide. They are all just comics. Maybe when webcomics first started, and people mostly posted gag strips, there was a difference, but now the word is pretty much meaningless.
Anything I self-publish I'm gonna put on Comixology through their Submit program. So if you go to my Comixology page, you'll see all my self-published work is on there. But I've found that Comixology -- like Diamond Distributors -- is built for monthly releases. So mostly of my one shots haven't done super well, but Sorcery 101 is currently going up there a chapter a month, and its sales keep growing. I have a theory that it's because the monthly updates are keeping Sorcery 101 in the new releases list there.
Now as for self publishing versus publishing, the stuff I wanted to self-publish is stuff where I am planning to try something different with the art or the writing. So they are all short and I don't want a deadline on them, because I don't know how long this new thing will take. I do have a few pitches I'm working on, and what I'm planning to send to publishers are things that are longer but also full color. So they are kinda bigger investments and I want more than me backing them up.
CA: In the future do you see yourself doing more webcomics or more print comics? Or do you want to continue to do both?
KMD: Basically I'm trying to do both. There are two more Misfits of Avalon books set to come out. And I have some pitches I'm tightening up. Also, like I mentioned above, I'm doing 80-page one-shots in the same universe. Those I want to Kickstarter and print first, then put them online.
So far Fame And Misfortune is the only one I've finished, 'cause I've been wrapping up Sorcery 101. But the second one is The Better to Find You With, and is completely written. I'm currently having it looked over. And there is a handful that are outlined, but need tightening before I start scripting.
Really, the only thing I'll flat out avoid is self-publishing another color series. Because I don't really like coloring, and it is much more expensive to print than black and white. So I've got two good reasons to not do that.