When I first became interested in comics, it was largely because of superheroes. The adventures of Batman and Spider-Man were colorful and exciting, and sparked my imagination. I wanted to see more of their adventures. Beyond what I would read in the comics from month to month. Beyond even the weekly animated shows that aired on Saturday mornings. My imagination would run wild with ideas that ranged from the completely nonsensical to the legally improbable.
But I was able to more concretely visualize these stories when I used some kind of physical stand-ins. Initially, I took some of my comics and carefully cut out some of the full-figure drawings. Covers especially, since they tended to have more full-figure illustrations (as opposed to close-ups) and they also tended to be better printed than the interiors.
Ah, but then came some bona fide action figures! The Mego figures in particular were a fantastic line, in large part because they secured licenses from several companies. Which meant that Batman and Spider-Man had the same scale and stylings as Tarzan, Conan, Captain Kirk, and Fonzie. But, better still, I was able to share my appreciation of my favorites characters with others. One or two of my favorite figures, plus one or two of the favorite figures from Bobby down the street and we could easily lose an afternoon.
And that’s a part of why fans purchase the items ancillary to the main interest. While I really liked my Batman comics, having a Batman figure mean that I could showcase my enjoyment of the character more readily and more viscerally with others. The same holds true to this day, and remains part of the reason why modern comic fans collectively spend so much money on maquettes, prop replicas and (yes, still) action figures.
But I noticed recently, in playing around with ideas to redesign my personal comic library, that I have almost no representations of what I read the most these days. Namely, webcomics. I still have much of my superhero memorabilia, a few items relating to manga, some token comic strip pieces, and a few independent comic items, but the entirety of webcomics’ representation that I could include is: three pieces of original art. Which I very much enjoy -- don’t get me wrong -- but they are decidedly flat, and are somewhat inherently relegated to the periphery. That is, they have to hang on the walls along the edges of the room.
As I’ve mentioned here repeatedly, webcomic creators make their money from selling goods relating to the free comics they publish online. And many, if not most, sites have stores where you can buy books, prints, t-shirts and the like. But very little in the way of three-dimensional avatars.
Not that aren’t any! Scott Kurtz had probably the most significantly known example with his plush doll of Skull from PvP. (Currently sold out.) A few others have followed in Kurtz’s footsteps and we’ve seen plush versions of a gerbil from Shaenon Garrity’s Narbonic, Reynardine from Tom Siddell’s Gunnerkrigg Court, and Dr. McNinja from Christopher Hastings’ comic of the same name, McPedro from Danielle Corsetto’s Girls with Slingshots among others.
Unlike many flat, printed art pieces, figures such as these are difficult, if not impossible, to automate enough to produce in a print-on-demand fashion. They either have to be made (and paid for by the creator) in some bulk quantity, or they have to be crafted individually by hand for each order. Which means that, in order to have a figure available, you either need a good sized fan base and a chunk of cash to outlay (i.e. you need run a fairly long-established and successful webcomic) or you have to personally have the skills to create something on your own.
The same can be said of other types of figures. Kurtz has vinyl versions of Skull, LOLbat and Panda now available, and Jon Rosenberg produced a plastic Diablo the Satanic Chicken action figure and a resin Doughboy from his Goats comic. They’re made from a combination of personal connections and not insignificant initial cash investments. Which is why, here again, we don’t see many webcomics with their own figures.
Legend of Bill creator David Reddick provided the most open data I’ve seen with regard to making a three-dimensional version of his characters. He needed 150 pre-orders for a $20 figure before he could begin production at all. That’s $3000 committed before anything has been produced. Easily do-able if you’ve got half a century of successful stories behind you like Spider-Man does today, but more difficult if you’re still working on your first decade.
Though companies like Squishable and Mascot Factory are out there to help creators, the promise of 3D printing does provide hope that creators would be able to more readily have figures available in an on-demand fashion, just like their books and shirts now. But that has not quite gotten cheap enough to be practical yet. Until then, fans are limited to just a handful (relative to the number of webcomics out there!) of pieces from more old guard of webcomics like Shortpacked, Elsie Hooper and Wapsi Square.