How Web Comics Work

Web comics deliver chuckles and spare you the ink-stained fingers associated with newspaper comics. But there's nothing funny about the complex process of crafting the perfect Web comic. See more images of comics and comic book characters.
HowStuffWorks 2008

The Web makes creating and accessing entertainment easier than ever. There are Web pages with video, music and animation that rival the production values of a theatrical film. But not all entertainers are going high-tech. Hundreds of artists are using the Web to create, display and promote an art form that's been around for decades: comics.

Unlike print comics, Web comics can be any size. Some Web comics are single-panel cartoons. Others are three- or four-panel comic strips that have the same structure as newspaper comics. Some artists work in a comic book format, releasing one page at a time to readers. A few cartoonists attempt to move beyond the constraints of the physical page into a medium they call the infinite canvas.


Comics and Comic Book Characters Image Gallery

The term "infinite canvas" refers to the potentially limitless size of a Web page. Readers navigate through an infinite canvas comic by scrolling up and down or left and right. An artist can present an entire storyline on one page instead of breaking it up into individual comic strips or pages. The Web page can be as big as the artist needs it to be.

Web cartoonists enjoy another luxury that most print artists don't have: No content restrictions. Most newspaper and magazine cartoonists work within strict content guidelines. Web cartoonists can make their own boundaries, or even ignore boundaries completely. Comics on the Web can be as surreal, gritty, philosophical or perverse as the creator likes.

In this article, we'll learn about the process of creating a Web comic. We'll also look at some of the tools and programs cartoonists use to publish comics on the Web. Additionally, we'll find out how some cartoonists are making a living off of their art.

But first, let's take a look at how an artist creates a Web comic on the next page.


Creating a Web Comic

Web and print cartoonists share a lot in common. Most of the terms used in Web comics come from the world of print comics. Press play below to see the process illustrated.



Here's the typical process for most Web cartoonists:

  • Sketching: In this phase, the artist makes a rough sketch and can experiment with everything from characters' expressions to the perspective of the strip (what would be the camera angle in a movie or television show). When the artist is satisfied with the sketch, he or she can move on to the next phase. For some artists, this includes using a scanner to convert the image into a digital file. Other artists move on to the next phase before scanning artwork.
  • Inking: Next, the cartoonist finalizes the art for his or her comic by inking it. For artists who scan their sketches, this is done by using image editing software. The artist traces over the sketch, replacing the rough drawings with what will be the final art. At the end of this phase, the artist deletes the sketched art from the comic, leaving only the inked image. Artists who ink their strips on paper and then scan them in follow the same process as print cartoonists. They use ink over a sketched drawing to finalize the comic, then scan it. Artists often will sketch using blue pencils because most scanners won't pick it up, so there's no need to erase sketch marks from a finished inked drawing.
  • Coloring: If the cartoonist wants a colored Web comic, the next step is coloring. While there's nothing stopping an artist from coloring a comic by hand and then scanning it, most Web cartoonists prefer to use image editing software to color strips. With the right software, an artist can add complex shading effects that would be difficult to replicate by hand. It's also easier for an artist to keep colors consistent using image editing software.
  • Lettering: In the last step, the cartoonist adds words to his or her comic. A few cartoonists hand-letter their comic strips, meaning they write in each word by hand. The artists then ink over the letters just as they would the sketched drawings, then they scan the finished artwork. Other artists prefer inserting text after converting the drawing into a digital image. For one thing, it's easy to edit text this way. An artist can add or delete words, change the phrasing of a sentence to put more emphasis on the right words or even replace one joke with another.

With print comics, a mistake lasts forever -- or at least until the next reprint. With Web comics, artists may have the option of fixing a mistake without having to completely recreate the comic.

Now that we know a little about the process, let's take a look at some of the tools artists use on the next page.



The Web Artist's Arsenal

Wacom's Intuos3 graphics tablet provides Web cartoonists with an alternative interface.
­Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

For most cartoonists, pencil, pen and paper are still an important part of the creative toolkit. On Webcomics Weekly, a podcast created by four professional Web cartoonists, artists occasionally debate the value of various writing utensils and paper quality in one show, then discuss top-of-the-line technology in the next episode. Let's look at some of the high-tech gear cartoonists can use.

The first thing every Web cartoonist needs is a computer. Whether it's a PC or a Mac, everyone who plans to produce Web comics must have a computer. They also need a Web host for their Web comics. Most artists who are looking to promote their comics seriously register a domain name. Usually, the domain name matches the comic's title.


If the cartoonist plans to draw comics on paper, he or she will need a scanner. Scanners analyze images and then convert them into a digital format. Different Web cartoonists use different formats and resolutions for digital artwork. Artists have to consider many factors when deciding upon an image format, including the software he or she uses to make edits and the ultimate size of the image file.

One input device that Web cartoonists might find useful is a pen tablet. Pen tablets are electronic computer peripherals. They include a pen-shaped input device and an electronic pad. The artist can control his or her computer cursor by moving the pen across the pad. Pen tablets provide artists with an interface that feels more natural than a normal computer mouse.

Along with hardware considerations, artists must decide what sort of software they want to use for editing purposes. In general, there are two main kinds of software programs artists can use: pixel graphics or vector graphics. Pixel graphics programs like Photoshop convert images into a collection of pixels, or points. Vector graphics programs like Adobe Flash convert images into a series of lines, curves and shapes rather than points.

One of the interesting things about these programs is that cartoonists can select portions of the strip and save them to use again later. For example, if an artist really likes a particular facial expression, he or she can save the art and use it again later without having to redraw it. In theory, an artist could build an entire library of art and use it over and over, turning each character into a digital version of Mr. Potato Head. However, there's a downside to this approach. Most artists see their styles evolve over time, but if they rely on a copy and paste method, they may not develop artistically.

Want to know how Web cartoonists make a living doing what they love? Find out on the next page.


Making Money with Web Comics

Image courtesy HowStuffWorks A plush doll and two comic books based on Scott Kurtz's Web comic "PvP"
HowStuffWorks 2008

Not many Web cartoonists are able to support themselves on cartooning alone. Most Web comics are available for free. Cartoonists might find it challenging to convince potential readers to pay for a Web comic -- why spend money on something you may not like when there are thousands of free comics on the Web?

Here are a few ways cartoonists can make money from their work:


  • Donation buttons: Some cartoonists include a way for readers to donate money to the artist. In general, this isn't a very reliable way to earn revenue.
  • Web advertising: Artists can sell advertising space on their Web pages. Google AdSense is a popular choice since the service uses Google's search algorithm to determine the advertising that best fits with the content of the page. But Web advertising revenue depends on readers clicking on the ads. While it can be a nice supplement to income, most Web cartoonists won't make enough from advertising to support themselves.
  • Selling original art: Web cartoonists like Dave Kellett, creator of "Sheldon," offer readers the chance to buy the original artwork for every strip. Kellett hand-inks and letters all of his comic strips, so a buyer will receive the hand-drawn original version of his or her favorite strip.
  • Merchandising: One way to make the big bucks is to land a lucrative merchandising deal. Cartoonists can make money selling shirts, stickers, toys and plush dolls based on their strips.
  • Getting into print: Ironically, one of the best ways a Web cartoonist can make money is to sell printed collections of his or her work. This usually requires partnering with an established publishing company. Some Web cartoonists will include new material in printed works as a way of encouraging Web readers to pick up the collection.

Web cartoonists can also make money through appearances at comic conventions. Conventions range in size from small groups of a few hundred attendees to massive gatherings numbering more than 50,000 people. Many of these conventions include an area where fans can meet their favorite artists. Some artists supplement their income by selling original sketches to fans.  

The great thing about Web comics is that the sky's the limit. Cartoonists can tackle any subject that interests them. Their work can be dramatic or humorous. They can choose to follow established comic formats or try something new and innovative. And with a lot of hard work (and a little luck), they can even make a living doing what they love.

To learn more about Web comics and other topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Guigar, Brad, et al. "Webcomics Weekly." Weekly podcast.
  • McCloud, Scott. "Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels." Harper Paperbacks. 2006.
  • Straub, Kristofer. Co-author of "How to Make Webcomics" and creator of "Starslip Crisis." Personal interview conducted by Jonathan Strickland on 12/13/2007.