My first comic work, the Frog Pond, was destined not to be a commercial success right out of the box. My experience is what you would call “typical” but I’ve always wanted to know why it wasn’t working conceptually. A comic’s concept may or may not be possible to rework, but how to know what has potential and what doesn’t? What will hit the mark?
My examination of many comics since then has led me to believe that certain genres (or more specifically genre elements) were more likely to be popular than others, though I wasn’t sure why. Obviously, there are a thousand things that affect how popular a comic becomes. The art style, the connection to the audience, marketing, effort, random chance and more. For the moment, let’s consider the basic genres. Which are popular?
Here’s the first problem: genre categories. A made up example…The backdrop could be cowboy western, with the overall plots tend to revolve about dealing with squabbling families andself sacrifice and it’s in a gag-a-day newspaper format, with a humorous tone. What’s the genre? I dunno.
I heard about this book on writing screenplays for movies… Save The Cat. Despite not being about comics, it held out the lure of showing which kinds of movies (and possibly stories based in other media) will be commercially successful. So, could this be a path to understanding what webcomics will be commercially successful?
I bought the book; the ten categories the author uses are not your typical… western, space opera, romance, etc. and it is possible there are many other categories that exist but are not as commercially viable. It turns expectations on their head. For example, the author said Monsters, Inc. and The Matrix were the same movie, if you can believe that. If the details interest you, you really have to read and digest it before you can agree or disagree that Rain Man and Lethal Weapon were the same movie under the details.
Notably, the method used lets you analyze movies yourself to see if they hit certain touch points. I can assure you it does nicely explain where those movies you-wanted-to-like-but-just-couldn’t went wrong and you can then brainstorm your own solutions based on your observations**. It can be applied to movies, tv and even commercials and documentaries. I have begun analyzing movies I like but not, as of yet, used the method to analyze a specific webcomic. I think it will be useful, but it has to be broken down and modified to fit something else besides movies. You could argue that all comics tell a story, even single panel comics – but I’m not so sure a single or short form comic can be a complete story in this sense.
Being unwilling to do all that modification work before trying to make use of this method***, I compiled a quick list of 31 popular webcomics and found they did fit in just a few categories. Specifically, most of them fell superficially into the categories of Rites of Passage (16/31,) Golden Fleece (10/31) and Superhero* (2/31.) Hmmm…
Rites of Passage, or the drama of life – teenagerdom, family squabbles, jobs, hobbies – represent half of the most popular webcomics. It’s understandable, we can all relate to these things no matter our background.
Superhero is a genre that is almost the definition of comics, so I get why that’s there. It’s interesting that there are so few in the lists I found but I suppose it’s hard to tell new stories in that well worn ground.
Golden Fleece, or adventure stories lend themselves to ongoing story lines which is more achievable by webcomics than any other medium I can think of with the exception of writing, due to ease of updating.
A few fell into another category that might be specific to literature and comics, which is (yet unnamed in my version of this scheme and not present at all in Snyder’s) along the lines of witty, observational humor replacing the story function as the entertainment. This is the danger, of course. It’s not quite as easy and straightforward as I’m making it sound. These ten/eleven categories and touch points**** are not the only stories that exist, just the ones that commercially successful movies fit into and many of the most popular kinds of stories.
Glancing through some top newspaper comics lists, I likewise see a lot of Rites, a few Superheroes and a good number of those unnamed. Commercially successful comics aren’t limited to just these few types, but they seem to be a majority.
Let’s bring this back to my initial effort: Can this be used to pick comics with commercial potential? I think so. As you already know, if you can’t sum up what the comic is about, then the concept needs work. These are the stories we live and look for. Without them, our interest as an audience wanes.
This finally lets me see how The Frog Pond concept was none of these ten genres in any clear way. Among some of its other faults, the characters did things but the stories lacked definable, recognizable, emotional story. Right now, I can’t see myself making the conceptual adjustments needed to bring it into line, but I am satisfied that I understand why it performed as it did – and why it received the comments it did.
You might ask yourself if you have a comic doing poorly or doing well, does it one of these genres? I’ve been bouncing different ideas against this Save The Cat scheme and nothing has escaped its logic so far – some things don’t fall right into place at first, but everything else has with a little time. And lest you think this is just a semi-disguised advertisement, I’m open to counter-examples of things that don’t fit, as they would be very instructive.
We can discuss it further in the comments, if you like.
* The argument is already half made, in my mind, that Superheroes tend to go on Golden Fleece style adventures – almost like they are two sides of the same concept. But there are probably other reasons why they are categorized differently and I will likely soon recant.
** I might make this all sound very simple, but seeing why some stories don’t work can be very difficult – especially your own. You’re often not sure what to examine, what to break, what to re-do – even the author of the book had trouble with it. Hence, he developed some techniques to help zero in on what works and what doesn’t.
*** Ready, Fire, Aim!
**** These touch points are another whole line of things to process when moving from movies to webcomics. Some of them are likely combined in specific ways in gag comics, for example. One specific touch point is called Fun and Games, which is all the stuff they show in the movie trailers. It is possible that short form comics focus mightily on Fun and Games and less on the overall story.