Kleefeld On Webcomics #81: Mandatory Engagement

By Sean Kleefeld

I’ve got around 200 comic titles in my feed reader right now. Not all of them are active, mind you! Some have concluded, some are on indefinite hiatus, some are just very sporadically updated. But there’s probably around 125-150 that I read regularly; not necessarily daily, just on whatever regular update schedule their creators follow. There’s a combination of newspaper strips being syndicated online, old comic books given new life via online serialization and, of course, true webcomics.

Of course, that’s part of my job, to keep up with webcomics. I couldn’t write this column every week if I weren’t at least trying to keep up with a bunch of different comics and how they work. And considering how very, very, very many webcomics are out there, I’m still only reading an infinitesimally small number of them. That’s why I keep trying to add comics to my reader all the time.

The downside to reading too many webcomics, however, is that I have less time for interaction with the creators. As I’ve mentioned in this column repeatedly in the past, one of the great benefits of webcomics is the direct line of communication readers have the creators. They are right there with links from their comic to their email, their Twitter feed, their Facebook page, whatever they’re using... it’s all right there.

There was a particular comic Paul Horn had done for Cool Jerk right around the time he got married. I’d remembered seeing it a couple years ago when he first posted it, and wanted to show my girlfriend. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t find it. But I shot a quick email off to Horn one evening, and the next day, he responded with a link directly to the specific strip I was thinking of.

I was able to do that, in part, because Horn was readily available and easily able to be contacted. But in part because I’ve known him for several years and nurtured a friendly relationship with him over that time. I wasn’t some random schlub who emailed him out of the blue; he knew that I had already made an unsuccessful effort to look for the comic on my own and he didn’t fire back an easy “check the archives” note.

But I have that relationship because it was one that we established many years ago, when the number of webcomics I read could be counted on one hand. There are quite a few more creators these days who I’ve only discovered more recently, but haven’t had much of a chance to interact with. Precisely because I’m spending more time reading comics than I am interacting with a few creators. Some of these creators seem like great people that I’d be good friends with, but I just don’t have the opportunity to really get to know them. Or vice-versa.

Despite, then, my insistence that webcomics provide ready access to creators and become more engaging for readers, I’m not actively engaged with most of the comics I read. There’s just too many of them. I just realized, though, that I am just as engaged with the comics themselves. Just in a different capacity.

One of the things that trying to keep up with so many comics means is that I have to be pretty organized. If I simply tried to remember the websites and update schedules of all the comics I read, I’d lose track almost instantly. So I’ve spent more than a little time making sure I keep my comics reader running smoothly. That means clearing out old feeds, re-naming new ones as I add them (it’s amazing how many feeds are named something OTHER than the name of the webcomic), correcting feeds when a creator changes hosting services or upgrades their existing account, following up on hiatuses...

That last one is probably the most difficult. Trying to figure out if that hiatus a creator took has turned into “pursuing other ventures” for the indefinite future. Many creators are nice enough to post a note saying they’ll be taking a break, but with over 100 other comics to follow, it’s easy to lose track of when the last time you saw an installment of a given comic. When WAS the last time I read The Meek? Or Valkyrie Squadron? Or August Moon? It turns out that both The Meek and Valkyrie Squadron are supposed to return to regular postings next week, and a print version of August Moon from Top Shelf is due out this month! But that was all information I had to look up while I was writing this, because it had been several months since I’d actively seen anything from any of them.

But that speaks to my point. While my engagement with those and other comics isn’t perhaps direct and personal with the creators as it might be if I only followed five or ten comics, I’m still engaging with the strips and working to keep a relationship with them just by way of keeping my reader organized. When I see there hasn’t been an update since January, I try to find out if there’s a reason for that. Do I need to get a new feed? Does the creators have a new launch date? Have they gone on to other projects? I could dismiss them out of hand, of course, but if I enjoyed the comic enough to follow it in the first place, I can spend at least a little time trying to track down what it’s current status is.

The fluid nature of technology and the web -- not to mention the sometimes, er... creative whims of webcomickers -- means that even in a situation where you’re not directly interacting with the creators, you’re still often engaged in the medium. And while that engagement isn’t an emotional investment in the same way a personal relationship might be, it’s still an investment on the part of the reader, and might go a ways to explaining the deeper connections people often have with webcomics over print ones.

Related Posts:

Kleefeld On Webcomics #80: What's In A Name?

Kleefeld On Webcomics #79: Talkin' 'Bout Manga

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