Beyond the store: The new face of webcomic “merch”

11 Feb

T-shirts, mugs, mousepads… there is no shortage of random stuff you can slap art on via RedBubble or CafePress and sell online. And as webcomic artists, we’re also often going to conventions. So you might also produce buttons, stickers, and prints for conventions, and then shove the things that didn’t sell onto an online store for everyone who couldn’t make it to the show.

But even if an image is getting a lot of response out of your readers, or a print is very popular at conventions, you might be disappointed when nobody picks it up from your online store. Why is that? And what can you do about it if you’re just starting out?

The challenges of trying to sell art online:

  • If I’m online, there’s probably a million other things I came here to do. Check my email, post pictures of my catcar on Facebook, read my daily webcomics. Any transaction you ask me to do is extracurricular and will completely mess up the flow of what I was doing. So if you’re gonna ask me to crack open my wallet, it’d better be easy, and it’d better be worth it.
  • When I am in shopping mode, the business with the biggest budget’s probably gonna win. They’ll get more ads in front of me, they’ll be able to offer better sales/cheaper shipping, or they’ll have brick-and-mortar stores in my neighborhood where I can see the products firsthand.

    And geek products aren’t exactly a rarity. I might not be able to get your cool picture of the steampunk catcar/DeLorean mashup, but it turns out a mass-produced poster of the Death Star from Target will do the same job of decorating my wall.
  • I don’t get to see you online! I need to see how proud and excited you are about your work so I can feel that about you, too.  I need to know you’re not just another company trying to nickel-and-dime me. Seeing a real person making the stories you love is refreshing and exciting!

What you CAN sell online are stories and experiences

Nobody is going to be able to tell the stories you tell. That’s why they follow your webcomic, that’s why they make fanart of your characters.

We’ve already figured out how to tell our main story: the one we’re already posting online once/twice/three times a week at our URL (most of the time for free).  But you don’t have be a ten-ton-juggernaut or make a subscription wall to be successful. If you can make more stories and find the right way to present them, you can get more support from people who already know and like you.

Trying to find your niche in online sales? It may take some trial and error to find what’s right for you, but here’s some approaches to try:

Characters first

Shobana “Bob” Appavu has a great Patreon reward where Patrons receive written letters from the quirky-yet-loveable Pogo, the main character of her webcomic Demon of the Underground. These kind of extras are also great because they build on the brand of your longer story in a fresh way you might not have the room to do in the story itself.

Try a character-driven approach if: You’ve got a clear fan-favorite character. What does the story look like when it’s told from their point of view?

Short stories make them hungry for more

Isabelle Melançon and Megan Lavey-Heaton published two 10-page stories last year (Silver Button and Knot), bringing their fairy-tale art and story-telling style to standalone stories.  These served double duty: digital/physical versions were quickly purchased by long-time readers of their main project, Namesake.  Then later these stories were made available as small books for conventions and on social media to attract new readers at their store.

Try a short story approach if: Your readers comment on and appreciate your signature art/writing style.  What other kinds of similar-but-distinct stories can you adapt your style to? Think about Gumroad for easy digital distribution.*

Don’t fear the crowdfunding

Ally Rom Colthoff has enjoyed a small but loyal following on her webcomic Chirault, and took herself by surprise when her Kickstarter earned 200% of its goal for people scrambling to finally own a copy.

Crowdfunds are their own meta-Pinocchio story: a humble, kind-hearted craftsman carving their dream and wishing upon a star, a roller-coaster plot that can turn any which way at a moment’s notice, and the team of fairies that finally deem it worthy, descending from heaven and make it real by throwing their magical, magical money at it.

Try a bare-bones Kickstarter or Patreon if:  You have long-time readers, repeat customers for commissions, or other fans and you haven’t tried crowdfunding yet.  They’re probably itching to own your comic and looking for ways to support you and become part of your story!

Videos humanizes your art

Video based updates are worth considering more seriously with Patreon (I love watching Brittany’s vlogs from her Bad Carrot Studios Patreon.)  Even if you’re camera-shy, live streamed art or a director’s commentary series a la Gunnerkrigg Court may be connected to a paid tier on Patreon, but with the launch of my own Patreon, I’ve also decided to do regular public updates this way, as well.

Try making videos if: You have a long-running series and your audience might like a refresher, or if you’re a giant ham about being on camera (like me).

Don’t be fooled by the tchatchkes

It’s easy to fall in love with your art on a shirt or mug, because the story behind it is a thousand times stronger to you than it is to anyone else. It’s also easy for people to say “Sure I’d buy that!” and never follow up on that promise.

Don’t pin your hopes on moving the merch online. Use every opportunity to embrace a larger audience and show them the person behind it. With time, trial and error, you’ll find the story that works for you.

* A lot of things are changing in the wake of VAT regulations for EU sales. This post isn’t going into that because I’m sure as heck not a lawyer or CPA. Here’s hoping for all of us the EU sorts itself out about that.

How to begin building a graphic design portfolio

26 May

So you want to become a graphic designer. Maybe you’re just graduating and looking for a career, or maybe you’ve already got a job somewhere and are thinking about a change to graphic design. You love trying new fonts, you’re pretty good with Photoshop, and you’re always taking photos. But what next? How do you synthesize that into a graphic design career?

Growing up in a supportive but decidedly not-art-informed background, this was pretty much my situation coming out of high school. And the first obstacle I needed to tackle was…

The Almighty Portfolio

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

My physical portfolio was adapted from a photo album and has a few pieces from the same client on each page.

The thing you’re going to be focused on is building a strong portfolio, which is a website you can link to and physical book you can take with you. Your portfolio is a collection showcase of two things: what you can do and what you want to do.

  1. You should revise and update it frequently with sample photos of projects you finish
  2. You should only keep stuff in there if you’re proud of it and reflects what you want to do in the future for others. This might change over time as you get different or more exciting jobs, so see point #1 up there.
  3. You should separate it by sections to avoid overwhelming people. Generally, clients already have a certain type of project in mind when they go looking for designers, like logos or websites or business cards, so having at least 4 or 5 samples of a project looks really good.
  4. …but if you don’t have a lot to show yet, keep it to one page. A portfolio subsection with only two things is as compelling as a produce stand with two apples, and it’s not fun to do a whole lot of unnecessary clicking through barren sections. So to start with, you might keep your work together and use sections to feature the work you have a lot to show from.
  5. In your physical book, consider getting a portfolio that has pages you can add or take out. You never want to have blank pages. You can also get more pages than you need and swap them in/reorder them to cater to a particular client who’s going to be seeing it.

Getting projects for your portfolio before you have clients

But where do these projects come from when you’re first starting out? Even if you don’t have clients yet, you can still do a lot:

  • Wallpapers and phone backdropsThis great blog post has a lot of solid advice on this. Be sure to come up with a theme that will allow you to create your own art and design and play to your strengths. (Note: I would avoid using screenshots of celebrities/cartoon characters/models of cars; picking something more general will allow your design skills to not get overshadowed by how the viewer feels about My Little Pony.)
  • Gift items – create a design for each month and use it to make a calendar, or use photos from an event to lay out a cool photobook. Or get some nice cardstock make your own greeting cards or gift card holders when you give gifts. The nice thing about this is that it’s something your friends will keep and share with others, which can lead to more work for you!
  • portfolio_giftcardholder

  • Donate your skills to a nearby non-profit organizationPlaces like animal shelters LOVE professional photographers to get good shots of their adoptable pets, and other organizations always appreciate help with flyers and promotions. It’s not a great idea to commit to working for free indefinitely, but if working on a project is equivalent to the money you’d donate to a cause you believe in, it can work out for both parties.
  • Your own branding materials – Branding is something you’re going to need anyway, so your logo, business cards, and website are all testaments to your skill and should be in your portfolio.

Educate yourself!

If you take graphic design courses at a university (in my area, we have a good selection of community colleges that will offer weekend/night classes if you’re trying to do that in your spare time), your assignments can be great portfolio builders. Again, only include things that reflect what you want to do; if something didn’t turn out strong, or a teacher assigned something and you hated doing it, leave it out.

Graphic design courses will also teach you new things about the programs to use, give you the skills you need to give and get constructive criticism, and provide you with opportunities to meet and network with people. Real life classes are just a good idea all around, in my opinion. Keep in touch with your classmates, too. You never know when they might meet somebody who needs your skills.

If that’s not a good option for you at this point, you can also get a lot of great tutorials online for free or for a small cost. is pretty good for small articles, and classes about the Adobe suite of programs is money well-spent.

Courses for InDesign on will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Courses for InDesign on will unlock your ability to use more advanced print layout techniques than just Photoshop.

Feedback, feedback!

When you meet design peers or have instructors, get them to look at your portfolio early and often, and really listen to their feedback. Find your favorite design bloggers who are doing the kind of work you want to do, and ask politely if they have time to look at your portfolio because you really value their advice. (Many will agree, because we all like feeling like experts, but don’t bug the same person every time you make a change – we’re busy people.) The more pieces you have, the better advice they’ll be able to give you. And this is also a form of networking; if your style sticks out in their mind, they can refer new work your way when their plates are full.

When you get commentary, take their advice to heart. If they tell you a piece isn’t strong or doesn’t fit, you may want to remove or revise it. The good thing about such a digital world is that it’s not hard to make revisions. This is also where those skills taking constructive criticism will shine.

Once you have a strong portfolio, you’ll have more luck applying for design jobs or reaching out for your first freelancing clients. Be sure to upload your best pieces to LinkedIn and your social media photo galleries, too, so anyone who searches you up can instantly see what you do and you stay fresh in your friends’/family’s mind as an active graphic designer.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

Samples of my portfolio on LinkedIn let prospective clients dive right in.

There’s always time to refine.

Even the strongest portfolio is always getting more focused as your body of work and interests change, even years and years after you’ve been working as a designer. So don’t worry if it’s not perfect yet! The first step is getting it out there, and keeping yourself busy so that you’re always adding new things. So go forth and build your portfolio, for great justice!

And hey, take a look at my portfolio if you want to see how I did it!

Travels and journeys

27 Jan


If you don’t travel a lot, there are things you just won’t think to pack, or you’ll try to cram your bags full of lots of things you don’t need. But while you can make some educated guesses (an umbrella is a good thing to pack for Seattle and it’s much easier to get to Hawaii by air than it is by train) there’s no conclusively right way to do it, because every trip is different from place to place and person to person.

Finding your style as a storyteller or artist/designer is exactly the same. Among the things that affect your trip:

  • Where and when you’re staying: You can go to the exact same place twice and have two very different experiences from the weather, whether it’s night or day, if other events are happening at the same time. While you can guess that Florida might be warm and sunny, hurricane season can change all that. Do your research about what’s going on NOW and you’ll run into fewer surprises at your destination.
  • Your method of travel: Maybe because of the medium you’re using to travel, you have limitations. You can’t bring animation to a book just like you can’t bring a jug of Kool-Aid through the TSA checkpoints. Instead of cramming what you want to do into a bag that won’t fit it, choose the medium that best fits your content. If you find yourself writing very wordy comic pages, you might want to make a novel instead. If you design better freehand, find a tablet setup that compliments what you do.
  • What you can carry: Some of us have amazing muscles and carry very heavy loads all the time. Most of us need those little luggage wheelies. But lifting heavy loads on a regular basis increases your strength. Do lots of projects, even if they’re small, on a regular basis. It’ll increase your capacity for projects in the future and give you an idea of how to estimate your workload for other people.
  • How much you’ve traveled in the past: It’s the act of packing over and over again and seeing what happens on the trip that makes you remember the things that came in handy, and weed out the things that are just a waste of space. Experience will not only help you do more, but become more efficient at knowing what tools and techniques fit where.

Tell me about your journey!

What have you learned on your travels as an artist/writer/designer? Where do you go, and what do you pack?

4 Awesome Budgeting and Invoicing Tools for Freelancers

13 Jan

Money is one of the scariest things about being a full-time freelancer. Your workflow is unsteady, occasionally you will have to fight/diligently remind your clients to get them to pay you, and the U.S. government will take 30% of your earnings in self-employment taxes. And if you have a background like mine, Excel and Quicken give you the heebie-jeebies and were definitely not covered in art or design classes.

But if you’ve just made the move from a steady paycheck to a life of freelancing, your monthly income and spending are crucial to keep tabs on. Here are the tools I’ve used to keep track of everything.

Invoice Machine


Invoice Machine was my invoicing system when I freelanced alongside my full-time work. The free Small Account version lets you send up to 3 invoices and 3 estimates a month, with options to upgrade if you choose. It’s very lightweight and simple, and being able to have a handy address book of clients (including more than one contact per client, if you need to let multiple people know) automatically who’s paid you and remind people who haven’t beat my old system of “Make an invoice in Word and completely forget about it a month later” by a good margin.

They’ve also got some other cool features like an integrated timer you can start when you begin a project and stop when you finish, and other country codes for international clients. I don’t see a lot of resources being put into improving its features since two years ago, but if you’re just starting out with a few clients and you want something easy, I do recommend it.
Video tour of Invoice Machine


Curdbee became my new invoicing system when I outgrew Invoice Machine and needed to bill more than 3 people a month. They also give you some nice at-a-glance dashboard stats about how much you’ve invoiced and how much you’ve received each month.

It starts pretty barebones for the free version, and the features are handled with add-ons. If all the bells and whistles are important to you, you might find a better deal with Invoice Machine, but if not, you can pick and choose the ones you need as you need them and pay a small annual fee.
Interactive demo of Curdbee


blog_moneytools_mint is a free web service that helps keep track of your money and set financial goals. It can automatically sort most of your purchases into categories without you touching a thing, which is huge for me. It has given me so much visibility into where my money goes each month, and lets me really hone in on where I’m spending the most. There’s budgeting trackers as well, but as a freelancer with wildly fluctuating month-to-month income and things like quarterly taxes to worry about, it doesn’t give you a lot of tools to deal with that.
Overview of

YNAB (You Need a Budget)

So that’s where YNAB (You Need a Budget) comes in. If Mint’s strength is telling me what I’ve done in the past, YNAB’s strength is telling me what I need to do in the future. YNAB is not free and does not auto-track things like Mint, but the clarity it has given me and the phenomenal amount of learning resources they give (not only about using their software, but learning to relax about money) was definitely worth what I paid, and you can occasionally snag deals on Steam for it.

It has strong tools for breaking up things like quarterly taxes so you can save up for them, and just generally some great, approachable advice for getting off of a month-to-month mentality, which is something I’ve definitely struggled with since becoming a freelancer. They do offer a trial period, as well as free live classes if you’re curious about how it works (they give away a copy of the software after every class, so that’s pretty awesome).
Video tour of YNAB

What financial tools do you use that’s made your life easier?  Let me know in the comments!

Art Growth and Goofs in 2013

31 Dec

It’s fun to look at what changes about my art when I try new techniques or approaches. Here’s some of my 2013 art challenges, some stall-outs I encountered, and what I’m learning from them now that we’re at the close of the year:

Manga Studio 4 EX

I decided to learn Manga Studio 4 EX by drawing my webcomic in it instead of Photoshop, and it almost didn’t go very well. There’s a sketch layer (which looks blue) and a black inking layer by default in new documents. I didn’t realize that blue layer would DISAPPEAR when you saved it, so I screen captured the first few pages of the Diem Farella arc because I couldn’t figure out how to keep the blue otherwise. It was awkward in that “what am I doing wrong?!” way, and I was very close to giving up and going back to Photoshop several times.

But I stuck with it, and started to pick up its nuances and unique features, like the concentric circles/parallel lines rulers, rotating the canvas to make drawing easier, and the comic paneling tools. I’m far from expert level, but I’m so glad I took the challenge to learn it.

Red Colored Pencil and Microns

I love drawing gift art for other artist friends, but I did so much digitally, I had nothing to do when I didn’t have access to my computer. So I started an art card exchange on the Spider Forest forum, and it was great to do some small art pieces that wouldn’t take much time and that I could do away from the keyboard. I’ve had some red mechanical pencil lead for about a decade, and a friend gave me some new Micron pens in a care package, so that evolved into a limited pallet style that I used for several pieces.

The Repurposed Sketchbook Project

In 2011, I signed up for The Sketchbook Project. The idea was to buy a sketchbook from the Brooklyn Library, fill it up with art, and send it back to be in a library collection. But all my other sketchbooks had always been for… well, sketches. Non-finished work. Figuring out poses or anatomy and having the results not always be very interesting to look at. I had no idea how to fill 50 sequential pages with library-worthy art and not mess it up, and the binding is not forgiving to torn-out pages. So the deadline came and passed and I still had this small sketchbook.

When I became more confident with the red pencil/microns on the sketch cards, I decided to make it an all-Sombulus sketchbook with original finished art, perhaps as a Kickstarter giveaway or something in the future. It lives in my purse, and I work on it when I go out sometimes. I only have 5 out of 50 pages done, though. We’ll see how many more I can do in 2014!

Tombow Brush Markers

I’ve had a small collection of Tombow Brush Pens for years. I gave up for a while, out of frustration over how blended and smooth everyone else’s marker work compared to mine. But at the suggestion of the amazing Varethane, I got out my brushes and started painting with them watercolor style. Completely blew my mind, and now I’m looking at my marker collection in a whole new way. I was never great with the looseness of watercolor, but I know the basics (let the layers dry between washes, work from light to dark), so I’m really really excited about them now.

Sombulus Q&A Comics

If you’re reading Sombulus but haven’t been catching these Q&A comics (look for the vote link at the bottom of Sombulus updates to see them), I gotta say you’re missing out on a lot of ground-level world-building. They certainly don’t mark a high point in my technical art skills, but it’s almost embarrassing how answering questions like “How does Rana’s hair get so pointy?” is helping me with character and world building behind the scenes. Plus, it’s so much fun!

Manga Studio 5

The differences between Photoshop releases over the last several years have been mostly minor, so I usually expect other programs to be the same. But when I won Manga Studio from the amazing Liz Staley (who is starting up her giant robot webcomic again soon and I’m super-pumped!) and heard how awesome the coloring tools were, I had to try it out.

Still learning what all the brush and panel options do, but the blending and pen tools are as smooth as butter and the magic wand tool has options for ignoring those tiny gaps in linework that happen when you don’t ink super-carefully. Gah! That rocks my world so hard! It’s been so slick already, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. Looking forward to picking up Liz’s book and learning more.

How about you?

What kind of techniques and approaches did you try in 2013? What are you looking forward to for next year? Whether it’s developing better drawing habits or taking on new challenges, may your pencils be sharp and your erasers be handy!

Quantity leads to quality

16 Dec

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

The internet shoves a lot of junk in front of us, and those of us who were on it before Google had a heck of a time trying to find art and stories of quality. We developed search systems, review systems, traffic statistic analysis, to really hone in on finding good stuff and make the useless stuff invisible. But ignoring the invisible role of quantity can make the thought of creating great art seem more complicated than it really is.

There was a recent discussion on the Spider Forest forums about first chapters of webcomics, which unlike other kinds of stories, tend to be written in the order they’re read. So no matter what you do, that first chapter’s probably going to be the worst until you revise it later.


Seven years of making comics later, Chu, the creator of Slightly Damned comes back to an older page at a fan’s request. Read her comic at!

The true value of quantity

This is why a lot of artists seem hard on themselves and say their art is junk. We all make junk. The trick is to understand the very important things that junk is doing for us.

  • It’s getting our work out of theory and into practice. Seeing your ideas outside your head will give them a whole new aspect that you cannot predict.
  • It’s making us accountable for goals and intentions and setting the tone for work to come.
  • It’s giving us the practice we need to see which tools work for us and which do not. And sometimes, these tools come in the form of classes and other side projects to teach us what we need to know.
  • It’s teaching us what we really love doing and what we just THOUGHT sounded fun. This one’s huge for me, because when you start a new project, EVERYTHING sounds exciting and fun. But when you do enough stuff, you start to learn what you really have the follow-through to do something great with.
  • It’s giving us the opportunity to iterate. Even if you don’t pick up the same exact project and make edits to it, we tend to work with the same concepts again and again in our crafts. Practicing with those will let you build a little more onto each concept or work a little more into our art to give it the tone/message we want.

So if you do a lot of work and look back on it and don’t like it, be proud, not ashamed. Quantity is doing its job.

(cover photo by Nagy Zoltán Csongor. Check out his photography here!)

The dual myths of free rein and strict direction.

4 Nov

Occasionally, I’ll get a project lead where the client says I can do whatever I want: they have no direction in mind, and they’re giving my creativity free rein. Other times, I’ll get projects that are touted as easy because “the client knows exactly what they want”, and just need my technical expertise to make it happen.

Both can be the start of unbalanced and unhealthy relationships. I believe both the client and designer are essential to analyze whether we’re going the right direction at all: the client, because they know their business inside and out, and the designer, because once they know the audience, they’ll be able to craft the right message into the design to reach the intended audience.

It is only when they work together in the right balance that great design happens.

How does a healthy relationship start?

Here’s a path a potential client might take with me:


When the balance is too client-focused

Now, if my client’s already at point C but can’t explain to me how and why they got there, it can be frustrating for both of us. The client is standing around waiting for me to catch up to their thought process, and I either have to waste their time figuring out point A and B, or trust that they’ve researched it well enough.

But sometimes, the client has NOT had the guidance they need to give the right message to the right audience. They are making poor choices (and in a few cases I’ve seen, illegal choices) that will not have the results they want. They think they’re at point C, but they’re really on a completely different road altogether.


There’s a great post at Apex Creative about red flags she sees as a graphic designer and what prompts her to walk away from problematic projects, a lot of which I also believe. The core of it is that nobody likes being told they need to turn around, and I hate being put in that position as a designer:

  • Psychologically, I would be debasing my client’s positive feelings that they’ve found the solution into a negative feeling of being ignorant, perhaps (to a more cynical client) for my own profit.
  • If they feel resentful, defensive, or angry towards me, they definitely won’t be hiring me for future projects, which isn’t good business for me.
  • People in other fields might not have practice with integrating critique into their ideas, which might make them take my critiques personally.

In the end, it’s a tug of war, with both sides pulling in opposite directions until one gives up.

When the balance is too designer-focused

Isn’t the idea that a designer can single-handedly solve all your problems flattering? Many graphic designers start out loving the projects where they get “free rein”… only to find they’re not being given enough direction to make it relevant.

While there’s absolutely a place for open, out-of-the-box thinking, some clients withhold crucial information from designers that will make their designs more effective, and the designers will waste a lot of time trying to bring the design where it needs to be.


Why does this happen? There’s a few reasons:

  • They might not have the mental bandwidth to give a designer direction, or the designer might not understand them properly.
  • Sometimes a client is so unfamiliar with the creative process that they put the designer on a pedestal, believing they know things intuitively.
  • Other times, there are huge politics behind the scenes in a company, and (to a more cynical designer) your client might want you to fail to prove a point.

These kind of relationships also end in frustration. The client might never see the solution they need, the designer spins her wheels trying to guess, and the billable hours skyrocket.

But it’s also damaging to the way they view design. When your only experience with the design process is that it’s long and complicated, it becomes a luxury that you only utilize for the most important things, not a need for your everyday communication with your customers.

Keep your design relationships mutually healthy.

The healthiest client/designer relationship is one where a client can trust the designer to know not only their art tools, but the philosophy behind why certain techniques work (again, I’ll link to Chris Oatley’s discussion of technique from the art side).

But also, the designer has to trust that the client is putting the right kind of research and analysis into their business and has a rough idea of the right direction to go. This partnership is the best way to ensure effective, informed design that both parties can be proud of.