If ever anyone needed an indicator of the popularity of webcomics in today’s market, they need have looked no further than the Tapas Media panel at Emerald City Comic Con this past week. Ten minutes before the panel started, the room was at standing-room-only capacity, with the panel having to close its doors to newcomers before panelists had even started talking.
The crowd was there to see four of Tapas’ top cartoonists, each of whom was ready to share their wisdom and experience with the room. All present and correct were The Kao (creator and writer of Magical Boy), Haley Newsome (creator of Unfamilar, although the audience was also familiar – no pun intended – with their LavenderTowne YouTube channel), Sam Curtis (artist and co-creator of ANIMALHEADS with writer Son M), and Lady Nefertiti (creator of Kaleidoscope), alongside moderator and VP of content at Tapas, Michael Son.
The panel opened with panelists talking about why they love working in webcomics. “Believe it or not, I don’t like to draw, I’m just really good at it,” Lady Nefertiti declared, adding that her true passion was writing – she used to write “cringy Wattpad stories all the time,” although she’s since deleted that entire account – so comics are, simply, the perfect medium for her. Newsome added that, “basically, comics to me are one of the best mediums because you as an individual can do the same thing as making a film but with one person having control over everything.”
The Kao agreed, saying that comics have always been his “tool to communicate with others,” but specifically praised the webcomics format, saying that it allowed him to “get past the gatekeepers” and share his work with an audience. Curtis, too, addressed the specific appeal of webcomics, saying, “I really like webcomics as a medium because you get instant feedback from the fans.” She’s also worked in traditional print publication, but said that, by the time a book is actually released in print, “I’m over it, I don’t care anymore” The immediacy of webcomics, she said, “really inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Asked about what inspires them, the Kao took center stage, talking about what lies behind the charming Magical Boy, in which a young trans man discovers that he comes from a line of Magical Girls… which is, he explained, “the opposite of what he wants.” “I wanted to create a story that had trans representation because five years ago, I didn’t see any of that,” he said. Growing up reading manga and watching anime, the Kao felt that watching transformation scenes was a good metaphor for what trans men have to go through in terms of self-actualization. Sun remembered that no-one at Tapas had ever seen anything like Magical Boy when it was first pitched, telling the Kao, “I’m super grateful you pitched it.”
For Newsome, her primary inspiration for Unfamilar was, here response to horror movies. As she put it, “I loved to watch horror movies but I feel so sorry for the ghosts, they have such tragic backstories.” In response to a question from Sun about the all-ages audience for a story about ghosts, she explained, “The primary way I try to write for everybody is trying to remember where I was at when I was younger, and trying to respect their intelligence. I try to put myself back in that headspace.”
Curtis said that, while ANIMALHEADS started as a prose story, the comic book version came about because she and Son M. – who met when Curtis was hired by Son to illustrate some fanfic – realized they shared a creative vision. “We took the things that we love, which is film. We have a very Reservoir Dogs, very Tarantino, feel to it,” Curtis said, adding that ANIMALHEADS is “everything we want to see in cinema, but in comic form.”
Talking about interactions with fans, Lady Nerfititi joked, “Through my writing, I’ve curated a specific type of audience who I guess are all English majors,” noting that comments are not only thoughtful and lengthy, but well-formatted and spell-checked. This is because, she believes, she herself is “very wordy” when she writes; it’s also worth noting that Kaleidoscope is, in part, an adaptation of Dante’s Inferno, which is definitely the kind of thing to draw in English majors.
“I once had a fan call exactly what’s going to happen in the next update, and when the next update happened, they freaked out. It was so cute,” Curtis recalled, prompting Nerfititi to ask, “You didn’t change what you were going to do? I would’ve changed it.”
Also, How Webcomics?
Asked to share advice for new creators – a demographic that made up roughly half of the room, judging by the response from the crowd – Lady Nefrititi said, “Just to start it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not good enough yet, if you don’t have the right equipment, it doesn’t matter.” When asked how to get the confidence to do that, she suggested talking to friends and family and asking them for help. “They’ll lie to you and that’ll give you confidence to put it out there,” she said.
Curtis felt similarly, reminding new creators to work on something they love – “You’re going to be your #1 fan at least in the beginning,” as she put it – but also had some practical advice: “My best piece of advice is to use references. I think they’re very helpful and teach you along the way,” she said. Newsome suggested, “Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, and just keep going,” while adding that creators should remember what it is about comics that are unique and focus on that.
“There are successful comic artists that just draw stick figures. Just get going, get started,” urged The Kao. “Don’t make the word failure an identity, it’s part of the process.”
When it came to the Q&A portion of the panel, craft questions were particularly common, underscoring how much of the audience were creators themselves. Questions were asked about the panelists’ choice of tools – “I make my comic on Procreate, which makes making the comic really difficult, but I’m really stubborn,” Lady Nefertiti said, while others mentioned ClipStudio, Photoshop, and Paint Tool SAI – as well as the length of time it takes each of them to complete an update. (On average, a week, with the exception of The Kao, who says that it takes three weeks from start to finish; he works with additional creators, however, giving him the opportunity to have schedules overlap.)
The matter of inspiration was also raised, with anime being something that all creators agreed on (Newsome specifically mentioned the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and in particular, Kiki’s Delivery Service, as something that inspires her, as was the work of Jhonen Vasquez, creator of Invader Zim), as was the issue of what keeps the panelists motivated. “Primarily it’s you guys. Especially when I’m feeling lazy,” admitted Newsome, going on to recall when webcomics would mysteriously just stop updating without notice when she was a fan. “I don’t want to be that guy,” she said.
Perhaps the most interesting question came from a fan asking how to build an audience for their comics, with Lady Nerfititi suggesting that the answer might come from within. “Try to create an image for yourself first, before you put the comic out there, and try to make the comic reflect that image,” she said. Curtis, also, put out the idea that it helps to already have an audience – “For me, specifically, I built a small following online with fan art” – but added, “Be really annoying online. Just push it.”
“I always try to think about it outside myself,” Newsome said, adding that it’s best to approach the idea by putting yourself in the mind of a prospective reader. “I try to think, what am I offering someone?” The Kao came at it from a more practical standpoint: “Go where the people are, go where the readers are.”
By the end of the panel, there was still a significant line of people wanting to ask questions, with Michael Son inviting them to visit the Tapas booth during the rest of the show. Judging by the crowded booth throughout the entire show, they listened. If there’s one lesson to be learned from ECCC ‘22, it’s that webcomics remain a significant draw for fans… they may even be bigger than ever before.
If reading this gets you wanting to visit Emerald City Comic Con for yourself, good news! ReedPop has already announced the dates for next year’s show. Go find out when and make travel plans already.