Online cartoons: not your old Sunday funnies
A decade ago, Scott Kurtz was a bored Web designer at a radio station in Dallas, doodling away on his comic strip, “PVP Online.” Three times a week he posted the cartoon on his Web site.
To Kurtz's amazement, the strip about the wacky employees of a video game magazine quickly garnered nearly 1 million hits each month. With its growing popularity, his wife suggested doing the unthinkable: quitting his stable job to follow his passion full time.
“It seemed like a pipe dream,” he said. “I thought, 'Surely it can't last.'”
But it did. Now “PVP” has nearly 200,000 regular readers. Last year, it won an Eisner Award, the most prestigious accolade in the comics industry. And Kurtz, 35, makes double what he did at his old job.
Online comic strips first gained notice in 1997, about the time "PVP" first went up. Now there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of online cartoons. A few have achieved commercial success, leading to new sources of income for striving cartoonists.
“I would be nowhere without the Internet,” Kurtz said. “I would have some day job and hating it, and still dreaming of doing this.”
Many Web cartoonists come from high-tech backgrounds with day jobs in information technology. Others are simply creative, drawing comics on paper and then scanning them into the computer. All have found they can reach a wider audience with themes ranging from alien roommates to a girl’s vitriolic battle with a pig.
“It defies reason to think this isn't a direction comics will be headed, as all media has,” said Scott McCloud, author of “Reinventing Comics.” The book heralds the “infinite canvas” the Web provides to cartoonists. McCloud, best known for his work on DC Comics' “Superman” and his own “Zot!” comic book series, said online success required a quality cartoon and good business sense.
“It's up to the content to attract an audience,” McCloud said. “But what you do once you have 50,000-plus readers decides if you will make a living at it.”
None have succeeded quite like “Penny Arcade,” which first went up in 1998. The cartoon claims 325,000 readers each day, according to the strip's business manager, Robert Khoo.
Yes, business manager. The comic's creators, high school classmates Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, who began the venture as a hobby, now employ a staff of 10 in their Seattle office. More than half of their company's revenue is generated by advertising and merchandising. The rest comes from marketing for game companies and the Penny Arcade Expo, a video game exhibition that attracts 30,000 people each year.
Not all online cartoonists are as lucky.
Bob Roberds puts nearly three hours each morning into his cartoon, “Soap on a Rope,” before heading off to his IT job in Durham, N.C. The zany comic chronicles life in a dysfunctional office of a software company that features extra-terrestrials and parallel universes. With an average 1,200 visitors reading his daily strip, Roberds brings in a little advertising revenue from Keenspot, the site host that specializes in online strips. But money isn't the point.
“I always enjoyed drawing and was into reading the comic strips in the paper, but never really took the idea of doing it myself seriously until the Web came along,” he said. “It offered me the opportunity to just do it and let people see it right away. That was awesome.”
Another cartoon done just for the joy of it is “The Pet Professional,” about a hit man who liquidates pets. The strip, which has killed off Garfield and other “celebrities,” reaches about 5,000 readers each day. The writer and artist duo who create the cartoon have yet to convert the comic's popularity into profit.
“I do it just for fun,” said the writer, Jason Salsbury, who is a systems analyst by day. “I get to meet people, hang out and do conventions, which are a lot of fun. And I like to think it’s making people laugh.”
For those that do make it big, success has brought a new challenge: newspapers.
Kurtz has received offers to syndicate “PVP” in daily newspapers. So far he has resisted the temptation because he fears he would have to censor the often non-politically correct content.
“I would love to see it run in papers,” Kurtz said, “but I don't think it would work because many stories don't meet the family paper constraints.”
In addition, publishing in print would remove the interactive nature of the Internet. Readers and Kurtz regularly converse on the Web site’s comments section.
Taking advantage of the opportunities the Web offers, Kurtz released an animated version of “PVP” last month. Unlike the comic, which is free, the series is being offered via a subscription service for the first year. Kurtz hopes to offer it free after the initial investment is recouped.
While profits may be sweet, a high profile has its downsides, namely nasty comments on Kurtz’s site. He has also had well-publicized spats with other online cartoonists. One such dispute with the “Penny Arcade” guys led to a vicious war of words on the Web.
The two camps made up and now restrict their battles to online games like "World of Warcraft." They invite their respective fans to help obliterate the other team.
“We keep the rivalry going just because it's fun,” Kurtz said. Paraphrasing the words of Henry Kissinger about university politics, he added, “It only ever got vicious because the stakes are so low.”