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2018 Goals for the Parkington Park Webcomic

Before I begin planning out 2018 I want to reflect on how 2017 turned out: One of my personal goals for 2017 was to start some sort of creative project. I knew it was probably going to be a webcomic, but the issue was, and still is, my complete and total inability to consistently draw any person place or thing that is even remotely recognizable as a person, place or thing. When I draw my own comics I have to explain them in the same way that a toddler might explain a crayon scribble to his mother.

Baby with ChampagneOver the summer of 2017 I started writing out comic ideas, playing around with formats and graphics and really figuring out what I could and couldn’t do with my current abilities. In July and August I started putting graphics together with words and spent a lot of time experimenting with colors and layout. During that time I also started buying up silly domain names and modifying WordPress themes, getting frustrated, giving up, deciding not to try again and modifying new WordPress themes two days later.

By late August I’d put together a domain, a website and about five finished comics with another five mostly finished. I printed out a bunch and showed them to a few family members. Everyone was supportive and I even got a few giggles from my 11-year-old so I figured if nothing else I could resort to poop jokes to get a few laughs. I started publishing weekly comics to the Great Void known as The Internet in September, but I didn’t really announce it to anyone until the end of October.

By the end of 2017 I’d only created about 18 comics, which is a relatively small number compared to any established artist or author, but it’s also 18 more comics than I had produced in 2016 and it’s 18 more comics than most people have made.  I’m happy with my progress so far.

But enough about the past! It’s a new year and it’s time to look towards the future. I’m still relatively new to this whole webcomic thing, but now that I have a few months under my belt I’m getting a better idea of the challenges that come with making a free comic.

Making the comic is fun, but getting that comic in front of interested people and growing a regular audience is hard, especially when I’m only publishing on a weekly basis. As a busy dad, husband and guy with a time-consuming full-time job I don’t see my publishing frequency changing this year, though it is a long-term goal to have the freedom to produce more comics on a regular basis.

Here then are my personal goals for Parkington Park for 2018:

Create 52 More Comics

I have a few commitments throughout the year which may throw my publishing schedule off by a day or two, but I plan to stick with a weekly schedule and publish, at a minimum, 52 more comics this year. Along with creating these comics is the unspoken part about getting better at making funny comics. I learned long ago that humor is subjective and different people really like different things, but better made things are liked by more people. It may not be easily measurable, but you can get better at writing humor and I intend to work at it.

Create Five Design Pieces

I have some ideas for somewhat silly, non-linear comic art pieces that could work on T-Shirts or mugs a little better than a 3 or 4 panel strip comic. It’s hard NOT to have ideas when you spend as much time looking through tens of thousands of vintage images in all your free time.

Increase Web Views

Right now the visitor traffic to Parkington Park is a series of peaks and valleys where web traffic spikes on publishing days and then drops to almost nothing the rest of the week. I get an average of about 60 visits per day during the week and usually a spike of a few hundred visits once a week when I publish a new comic and drop it onto Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. My goal in 2018 is to average around 500 visits a day during the week.

Increase Followers

I publish my each comic on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. I have, approximately, zero followers on any of those platforms right now. I get a few nice compliments and a few nice likes, but there clearly isn’t any sort of real audience yet. I would like to have an audience. That would make things a little easier for me and would keep me pushing forward when I start doubting myself in the wee hours of the morning. The goal for 2018? Have about 200 followers across all the social networks that I use.

Pay the Bills

Ahh, the controversial goal. There are a lot of heated discussions about artists making money online right now. I think if people make things that are enjoyed by other people then they should be compensated for that work. So far Parkington Park has earned me about 13 cents, which tells me I probably haven’t added much value to the world yet. I think I’d like to aim low on this one for 2018 and see what happens. If I could end up making $365 for the year, or an average of $1.00 per day, then I think that would be amazing. I don’t really see how that might happen at this point, but I’m guessing making better comics and bringing in more readers would help.

So there you have my five goals for 2018. I have no idea how I’ll accomplish most of these right now, but that’s a challenge for another day. I’ll try to post updates to these goals every few months and let you know how I’m doing as a new comic webcomic author.

An Illustrated Victorian Christmas

One of the most rewarding and fun aspects of making a webcomic out of vintage graphics is constantly discovering beautiful and engaging illustrations that have not been widely shared or seen for over 100 years. In order to make a simple comic I often have to browse through hundreds, if not thousands, of vintage images looking for just the right character or expression needed for a particular strip. I have spent many hours simply paging through old Life and Punch magazines being astounded at how a few black lines on a piece of paper can convey a sense of place and emotion.

Victorian Department Store Christmas decorationsThese old books that I page through are considered to be “primary sources” of the Victorian time period because they were created during that time. Primary sources are great because they allow us to see and experience exactly the same things as the people from a particular past time period.

When I page through old books and magazines I’m often struck by how “modern” they feel in tone even though the fashion and style may be a bit archaic. I think most people have a tendency to break all of history into two groups: “Us” defined as those of us living in the present and “Them” defined as everyone else who ever lived in the past. We also tend to think of all those past people as being inherently different and foreign to us, but that’s really not the case at all.

The more of these primary sourced documents I see, the more I realize that humans really don’t change that much over time. People of the past often felt cold and hungry, grew tired and cranky, had dreams and aspirations, fell in love, had daily problems, made silly dad jokes and surely got annoyed with one another. We regularly forget that are ancestors were really just like us, just with a few less electronic gadgets. That’s generally true of any time period you examine, and it is part of what makes history so intriguing.

So I was particularly delighted when I stumbled across this comic illustration of the Victorian Christmas season in an 1890 issue of Life magazine. It’s by an American illustrator named Frank P.W. “Chip” Bellew. His father, Frank Bellew, was also a famous illustrator and people said young Frank was a “chip off the old block” so the son began signing his artwork with the name Chip. Here’s the full illustration:

Click for full image

You might notice that, yes, it looks like it’s something that came from the late 1800’s because everyone is wearing suits, top hats and dresses. But as you begin to pour over the image you quickly notice all the little details and even cliches that are still true and familiar today. Here are some of the wonderful details I noticed about this image:

Christmas Decorations: Over 100 years later we instantly recognize this as a department store during Christmastime. We recognize the columns draped with garland, the holiday banners, the Christmas tree, the large Santa Claus and even the special holiday advertisements as being part of the Christmas tradition.

Retail Mayhem: We still recognize this as a department store because there are crowds of customers bustling back and forth, there’s still a sales counter, and there are the familiar frazzled, berated, thoroughly demoralized retail employees. This scene could easily be depicting any modern store on a Black Friday.

Rampant Consumerism: We like to think that our materialist tendencies around the holidays are a relatively modern phenomenon and everyone tends to romanticize Victorian Christmases as fairy tale scenes centered on friends and family. This illustration shows us the real Christmas season. It was funny to the people of 1890 because it was true, and it’s no less true today. The Christmas season was messy and chaotic and entirely centered around buying stuff… just like it is today. Even the variety of products presented in the store are all pretty familiar Christmas presents: books, socks, toys, knick-knacks, home decorations, gloves and numerous boxes and packages of every shape and size.

Victorian woman convincing husband to buy more.People are People: A lot of the people in this illustration are what we’d consider caricatures but they could also be seen as simple truths about human nature. You have the well-dressed older gentleman flirting with the pretty sales girl. You have the wife trying to convince her poor husband to buy one more thing. You have the policeman catching the old lady shoplifting while being pick pocketed himself. You have the questionable sale price where an item is reduced by a single penny. You have the rambunctious child causing trouble and you have the harried sales staff. Every stereotype in this illustration from 1890 is still a stereotype today.

There are, of course, a few things that are fascinating simply because they are unfamiliar to us. Here are two quick examples:

Dress: The way people are dressed for a frantic day of shopping has obviously changed a great deal since 1890. We no longer wear suits and top hats or done our frilliest dress to saunter down to the department store, but the entire idea of a retail culture was still relatively new to the people of 1890.

Technology: It took me a moment to initially recognize this, but the store is rigged with a pulley system with a series of hanging baskets attached. Google tells me they’re called cash carrier or cash railway systems and they were found in a lot of large department stores as the retail world boomed. They helped move packages and money quickly around the store and allowed retail employees to avoid the crowds on the ground. You’ll even see a package falling out of one of the overhead baskets, so one can imagine that was not an unseen occurrence.

This one simple illustration showed us what life was really like during Christmastime in the late 19th century, gave us a good laugh or two about the absurdities of “modern” life, and we taught us a bit amount some of the emerging technologies in late 19th century retail establishments.

Those are some pretty amazing accomplishments for a simple magazine drawing that’s over 100 years old.

Formatting, Fonts and Frustrations, Oh My

This is the first of many posts about my experiences in starting a webcomic from scratch. I “published” my first Parkington Park webcomic on 9/1/17 but I’ve since “re-published” it about four times in the past few weeks. Why would anyone do such a thing? Formatting issues.

The Comic Format

Both traditional comics and webcomics handle the “formatting” issue in different ways. As any experienced comic or webcomic creator might tell you, the creator does NOT have the final say in how a comic is seen and read by various people around the world.

The traditional comic writer was always at the mercy of the publication his or her work was featured in. Different newspaper editors would make different decisions based on what needed to be on the pages that day. Would the comic be shrunk down to fit? Would it be flipped into a vertical layout? Would it change from one week to the next?

With webcomics the artist doesn’t have to worry about an over-zealous editor because he or she usually controls his or her own website and, to some extent, how the comic is distributed. But a creator does have to worry about the final delivery method: Comics can be read on desktop computers, laptops, tablets, phones and through different software and user-interfaces include Facebook, Twitter and whatever the next big social media company might be.

Virtual Reality

Third rendition of the Virtual Reality strip. It’s still a three panel strip and it’s still too horizontal for mobile use.

While developing Parkington Park I’ve mostly stuck with a horizontal strip format of 3 or 4 panels. This works great on a wide monitor and with today’s resolutions I was able to create a strip where you could easily see the detail and words. You wouldn’t have to scroll up and down to read the strip and you could quickly jump from one comic to the next with a single click. But I quickly learned that horizontal strips look awfully tiny on the mobile version of Facebook and Twitter, which both force you into a portrait (and thus narrower) vertical screen experience.

So my beautiful horizontal strips were being squished down to fit on the small, narrow, portrait sized screens…and you couldn’t see what was really happening. With a large percentage of any web traffic coming from mobile viewers these days, I thought it would be best to make my comic as mobile-friendly as possible.

First, that meant ditching a strictly horizontal strip and instead making it a little more “square” in shape. By reducing the width and adding some height to my three panel layout I could make the comic appear larger on mobile screens. Most of my comics were written with a three panel story flow in mind, but an odd number of panels doesn’t really work in a square, so I created a four panel square template as well. The new three panel strip is still readable in portrait mode provided there are not a lot of words. When the comic characters begin getting a bit verbose I have to switch it over to a four panel format for readability.

That also meant some re-writing had to be done to fit the words into a 4 panel format. Adding silly things is usually easier than taking them away for me so it might actually be fun to build out some stories.

The template panels were different enough in size that I had to remake each past comic to fit in the new panel sizes. That’s a tedious process and I’ve done it a few times before. The first five comics or so have been put together in Photoshop at least four different times over the course of a few months. While doing that I also re-designed all the meta info on the comic image so that it was actually legible.

After more testing I determined that you could finally see the comic on a mobile phone… But you still couldn’t read what they were saying.

Comic Fonts

More research and more test runs concluded that my font size, which looks fine on a desktop monitor running at 1680×1050 pixels, was actually impossible to see on a mobile phone. So I spent a fair bit of time experimenting with different font faces and sizes and came to the conclusion that font size is sort of a trade-off. Larger fonts are easier to read, but they take up so much space that you’ll have to limit your dialogue. Small fonts are difficult to read but allow you to have long, rambling conversations between the characters.

I like fonts that appear to be hand drawn but aren’t too sloppy or too neat. The general idea comic font in my mind is the lettering by Charles M. Schulz. It was easy to read clearly and contained a lot of warmth. For those who are curious, I started out using Anime Ace 2, then purchased and tried Action Figure BB and finally settled on LetterOMatic. All of these fonts are available from Blambot. If you’re starting a comic they’re a good resource not only for fonts but for a lot of the overall basic mechanics of drawing and designing a comic.

Once I settled on a font I still had to experiment with sizing to see what would be readable on a mobile phone screen. This website, in theory, is mobile friendly and formatted for smartphones, but even then the images are smaller than they should be. I don’t have the patience or CSS knowledge to make everything perfect, but I did enable the ability to pinch-zoom in and out of ParkingtonPark.com for your convenience.

When I took an informal survey of other webcomic sites (by visiting them on my iPhone) I found that most were not very mobile-friendly, so maybe Parkington Park is on the cutting edge!

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