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Acknowledging Professional Best Practices, or BREAD GOOD!

You know me. One of my pet peeves are people who make their comic strip their job -- which is to say, the wellspring of their income, be it through syndication, subscription, donation (the Public Radio model), advertising or merchandising -- and then treat it like a hobby. You know the ones most guilty of this -- the people who sometimes post recriminations but go three or four days without posting... or even longer. The people who are dismissive of their audience. The fucking "Shirt Guy Whothefuckever" stick figure strips you sometimes still see, years after "Shirt Guy Tom" got retired as lame.

I don't count people like Randy Milholland or Scott Kurtz in this, by the by. I did, sort of, back when I started Websnark, on the theory that Kurtz should update at a consistent time of day. Well, I was wrong, and boneheaded. There's a difference between your strip being a priority, and your readership being a pack of anal fucks. That day, I was an anal fuck, and I admit it. The fact that there's always a PvP strip (and 99% of the time always a Something Positive) shows that threshold. So, understand who pisses me off and who doesn't.

Because that can annoy me, the people who are rock steady on updating don't get the love from me they deserve. Superosity, Nukees, Narbonic, Scary-go-Round, Wigu... these folks are just always there, every day. You can set your watch to them. They deserve recognition for that. And dozens more I didn't mention here but who still deserve to be noted -- I'm sure my faithful readers will pile in comments on all the people who just get it right, and good for them.

But this snark, while acknowledging the people who bring the professionalism, is actually meant to celebrate something more: Best Practices.

Professional Best Practices are, in a nutshell, the practices that consistently can be shown to be most effective in a given field. Run amok, they can be a scourge on any endeavor, as the practice becomes more important than the product, but used appropriately and in moderation, they stand as a hallmark -- the methodology that gets things done. Our school is a Best Practices teaching school, and since adopting those Best Practices, found through research and rigorously tested, our indicators have all shot up. Say what you like, but when the same population of students ups their average SAT scores by close to a hundred points, you're doing something better.

Well, I've begun to identify Best Practices in cartooning, and today I'd like to talk about the king of Best Practices. His name is Howard Tayler, and he writes Schlock Mercenary.

Schlock Mercenary updates on time, each and every day. I mean, he nails updates. But it's no big deal for Tayler to nail updates, because he works with a buffer. A sizable buffer. I think his preferred buffer is fourteen strips. That's fourteen days worth of completed comics, plus an equal number of completed scripts. He generally has a block of completed inked drawings, a slightly smaller block of completed colored scripts, and a block of scripts and penciled strips.

What does this mean? Well, among other things, it means that when he had a commercial project come up last week, his strip was uninterrupted. He could do the freelance work, give it the time and attention he felt it was due, and not have any worries that Schlock Mercenary would appear each and every day.

That's respect for his audience and respect for his strip, right there, in a nutshell.

This isn't a practice, however. This is a policy. He set a policy of having a buffer of X size.

The practice in question is a scrupulous adherence to deadlines in the everyday, and a scrupulous reclaiming of buffer in situations where it's needed. Tayler doesn't treat his strip like something he doesn't need to do in a timely fashion because he has a backlog. He knows he needs seven strips a week, period, even if it's another two or more weeks before those strips appear on the web. He has a quota and he meets it, just the same as if he had no buffer at all, and any day he missed a strip would be a day with no Schlock Mercenary. When a commercial project comes up and he has to set aside the strip while he works on it, he does, confident he won't lose anything... but then he busts his hump the following week to get caught up, the same as if he were running on the edge of deadline.

Not all artists can do this, and I don't mean to denigrate those who can't. You don't need three weeks of strips in the can to be a professional. But this practice works astoundingly well at promoting consistency and a reputation for being solid, and Tayler deserves to have that acknowledged publicly.

I'm taking lessons from this, by the by. As the search for an artist continues for my own strip (we've narrowed the field down considerably at this stage -- we're very, very close to an announcement), I've been very up front with expectations. Before we even put this strip on the web in any form, I want twelve completed inked strips in the can, so we start with a solid buffer. (It's going to be a 3-day a week strip, generally between 6 and 8 panels per day, so we're talking about a month-long buffer.) When we get to that point, I intend to have at least another 12 strips scripted and in the artist's hands, giving him or her the chance to comment, edit, complain, suggest, or what have you. So, a month of strips ready for publication, plus a month of scripts ready to be drawn, on day one, which will be a Monday.

Then, each week, both I and the artist would be responsible for three strips. We'd both have until the following Sunday to do them, but the idea would always be that we have three strips worth of work to do each and every week. That way, if there's a major problem, or a commercial project, or just the point where we separate ways professionally, the strip can go on without trouble while we unsnarl things.

The artists so far have been cool with this -- after all, it's exactly the same amount of work a week as if we were running with no buffer at all, so it's not unreasonable. (I also don't expect the 12 strips to be done a week after announcement. We have time to do this right.) We also have an advantage in that this strip is going to be story with humor, as opposed to gag-a-day. It's also not going to be topical, per se, so we can work with a nice, healthy lag time.

Why go to all this trouble? Because I've seen the continuum of comics producers -- the guys who update incredibly steadily, the guys who run at the edge but always get the strip out, the guys who swing and miss but are constantly trying to keep up, and... well, Piro -- and I've seen what produces the most solid result while generally keeping the creators unstressed.

And it's Howard Tayler who's at the forefront of it. Good show, sir. Good, good show.

Oh, his strip's funny too.

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Comments

I don't read Schlock Mercenary. It's just one of those things that doesn't interest me that much. However, I do respect the fact he's able to do this... and envy him in fact.

My own little web-comic died partly because I didn't build up a backlog. I was new to drawing and it is a bit of a chore for me to draw consistantly. Add to that the fact I kept going outside the box for panel sizes and consistancy... and well, I just petered out, tried to restart a couple of times, and then gave up. I keep telling myself I'll restart one of these days, and no doubt I will... but I also will learn my lesson about consistant updates... and backlogs.

It amazes me how Jamie Robertson and Maritza Campos can pump out their comics consistantly with next to no backlog. Often, Mari is pushing out the strip the very day it updates, and considering she's doing this five days a week... it is no mean accomplishment. But it also means that should there be a hardware problem, or that her morning sickness get the best of her... the strip will be delayed. Or even postponed 'til the next day.

That's one thing about backlogs that are useful. And while the artist/creator can't react to fan commentary, maybe add a tiny bit in one panel as a nod to the fans, as those who update on-the-cuff can... I'm sure their fans don't mind, and appreciate the fact that each day, unless Keenspot (or Modern Tales or whichever service they're using to get the comic out) suffers a glitch and goes down... the comic comes out on time.

The only other strips that do that are the newspaper strips. *grin* And many of those suffer from the limitations that come with being in a newspaper (format, editing, content...).

*raises a glass in toast* So here's to Howard Tayler, and Schlock Mercenary. You do well by your fans, and they (and we) appreciate you for that. It is something for *all* web-cartoonists to strive for. I know when Tangents finally returns... it will be with such a backlog.

Robert A. Howard

Schlock Mercenary is quite possibly my favourite comic strip. Often this is for being quite funny and having an engaging story with interesting characters. However, being able to check at midnight and KNOW that there will be new Schlock there, every day, rain or snow or sleet, is a huge bonus. He does well by his fans, indeed.

I'd heard a number of webcomic authors mention that they *should* build a buffer, they *ought to* build a buffer, they knew their fans *wanted* a buffer, but they never got around to actually doing it. Howard Tayler is the first person I ever heard say, "Ack, my buffer's dropped to 20 [or whatever], I'll be building it all weekend!" It was inspiring -- until I actually heard someone say they were building a buffer I somehow didn't think it was possible.

Tangent suggested that building a backlog means you can't add a "nod to the fans" or react to their commentary as quickly as you could if you finished drawing each strip an hour before it's scheduled to post. The nice part about the web, though, is that we're not locked into our backlogs the way that the newspaper artists are -- I can pull a strip out of the buffer, modify it, and re-upload a few minutes before it goes up. I can even pull one that's published, fix a spelling error or add a missing arm or fix a color problem, and repost.

Eric, when you choose your strip management software, make sure it's something really flexible. I'm using a free flat-file-based strip manager called iStrip, and while it's great 'cause it allows me to build a buffer, and it's great because I can add news articles and a status bar and all that stuff, and it's great because it doesn't require a mysql database, the actual buffer manager is a pain in the tail. There's no easy way to shift the entire buffer forward or backward in time if you add or remove a strip. (If anyone has any suggestions for better flat-file strip managers, I'm all ears! Heck, at this point I might even consider dropping the cash to add another msql database to my account if someone knows of a really good flexible comic manager.)

Ironically, if I didn't have a five-week buffer, it wouldn't matter!

Pfft. My buffer is currently six weeks. Admittedly, this is unusually productive for me. I generally like to be only about four weeks ahead.

Really, I only posted so I could brag about being six weeks ahead on my comic strip. Because I'm a very sad person. And my wrist hurts.

It's because of inconsistent updates that websites like www.comic-nation.com exist. (shameless promotion)

I've always kept a 4-6 week buffer. When I use to do a strip for newspapers, it was nearly mandatory, so it just stuck. -- I think a 2 week buffer is perfect for keeping things kinda fresh--

You'll fucking thank yourself when you get hit with the flu or some crazy cold that leaves you sitting clenching your brain and not being able to move. I can't imagine the feeling of being sick AND letting my readers down at the same time. I'm anal like that.

Holding Schlock Mercenary up as the archetype of professionally produced comics is like holding Spam up as the archetypal foodstuff. It's always available, it won't poison you, but you get bored with it pretty fast - if you can stomach it at all!

Schlock is a lame duck target though, science fiction fans have about the lowest quality threshold of any group and if people enjoy it, the world is a richer place for the joy it brings.

But I'd rather have something like Achewood or Wigu that operates without a safety net (but shows genuine, maverick invention and can genuinely surprise me) than predictable, generic work that updates at cock crow Monday to Friday.

Eric, I believe you're going to be starting a comic! Maybe you should post a little something about it instead of being so shy.

Oh, silly me!

A day without Spatchcock is like a child without courage or a night without the stars. The world would be a darker place and there would be much more sobbing. Sobbing!

And I think Achewood actually has something of a buffer as it is. Wigu I think flies by the seat of its pants. On the other side of it, I don't think the sheer quality of Achewood or Wigu can be attributed to the buffer size. I think Jeff Rowland would remain funny even with four weeks of strips in the hopper.

I don't think I can agree that Schlock is generic. It's pretty distinctive in voice and method. That being said, it's also something you either enjoy or you don't. Which is true of most strips, now that I think about it.

Except fucking Hi and Lois. Bastards.

Lyndon -- comic-nation looks promising in a lot of ways. I wish it'd explain its purpose a little more clearly, so people don't think it's a scraper site, but its functionality looks pretty high quality. So promote on, you crazy rider.

Spatch, a lot of it comes down to answering the question "Why am I doing a webcomic?"

If ANY part of that answer includes something like "I want people to read my stuff," then keeping to a schedule is pretty important. There's stuff out there that's pretty good, but I almost never read because it comes out "whenever" and I get tired of checking back every day (or every week) and seeing nothing new. Once in a while I may go into the "Intermittent" folder in my bookmarks and catch up on a bunch of strips, but it's also likely I'll go into that folder and delete stuff.

If you're just creating because you have a drive to create, and it doesn't matter who reads it, then consistency isn't as important. If it's brilliant, people might put up with that, and read what you give 'em when you give it to 'em. Anything short of that, though, and you might as well be posting the strips to your blog as private entries.

Face it...this isn't 1998 anymore, when you could follow all the webcomics and still have a life. People have to make choices about how they spend their webcomic-reading time, and keeping to a deadline is one of those things that counts in the favor of a webcomic...because a consistently updated comic has to be pretty bad to be worse than NO comic.

Howard is one of my heroes indeed when it comes to the buffer practice and updating. I'll be candid and admit I got more serious about following the two week buffer practice (three now for me) after I learned he did this as I could see the advantages. (Never missed a day! Like... wow!)

As for the comparison for Schlock as spam and stuff, I think webcomics, like most other things, need a varied diet.

There's the stuff on my read list that updates regularly, and where it's not as mind blowing, it keeps you going, and there is comfort in the fact it updates all the time. They're the staple foods, if you will.

Comics that are 'brilliant' but less reliable are more of luxuries, and as much as you may like them better, the wait for those to update would be hell a lot more hellish without the staples to keep you going.

So don't knock the staples. If I had to wait for every time Kazu updated Copper I'd starve. ;)

Another fellow who deserves mention here is Sam Logan. Dude is usually months ahead on his strip. I'm quite jealous.


As much as I wish I had some sort of backlog, there's something to be said for working under an extremely tight deadline. Like last night, when I accidentally took too much percoset and spent a good two hours twitching when I should have been drawing, leaving me three hours to get an entire strip done...oh wait that actually was no fun at all.


Anyway, yeah. I know not having a buffer is going to bite me in the ass one of these days. Maybe it's time to start spending Saturday afternoons working on extra comics as well.

Well, if I knew announcing that I worked with a substantial buffer would result in a snark... ;-)

In fact, I'm currently rebuilding my normal buffer after a hectic RPG writing deadline last week. I was proud that when I went on vacation for 3.5 weeks last year, I had enough comics in the can so that nobody missed a daily update.

As for not being so responsive to the readers, that's true. I often get a reader comment that would be good for a strip, but can't be used because I already have the next few in the story done. But on other occasions, when it merits it, I actively modify or resequence completed strips before they appear, or insert new strips. You just need dedication! :-)

Buffer. Yes. I think I need this. But for now I'm going with the "wholly unambitious update schedule" strategy.

Also, regarding timely updates, I would like the submit that one Isabel Marks (namirdeiter.com and others) is a crazy, crazy webcomicsing machine. She does multiple strips (writes and draws one, draws at least two more) and--though I haven't been following them *too* too long--I can't seem to remember any notable hiatus-ing. Admirable.

Well, even when I have a backlog, RL often prevents me updating at regular times. OTOH, I do all updates manually- I don't know how to use autoupdate software- so I have a feeble excuse.

Of course, most of the artists I work with can't -afford- to make it their main job, so backlogs are difficult at best, and often impossible, to maintain.

Kris -- and as I've always said... when it's not their job, we're lucky to get what we get with no damn bitching on our part. ;)

To elaborate on that, a webcartoonist who doesn't do this as his day job asked me if guest and filler art was okay. I said it certainly was -- there's a core difference between Shirt Guy Leon and honest filler art -- but when you're putting in a full work week to get food on your table and giving us comic goodness for free, you get an automatic bye.

The ironic part, I find, is that Fred Gallagher is actually getting better about getting his comic up by midnight (his local time) of the posted date. Not saying he's always good for it. But he's actually managed to do it for multiple weeks, which leads me to believe his wife is chaining him to the drafting table until he produces something.

I'm all in favor of praising Howard Tayler in general, and specifically anyone who works with a buffer. Or is that the other way around? But I don't think it's right to be so hard on those who don't.

Some artists can organize themselves well and produce solid, entertaining stuff in advance. They make buffers, and they consistently bring something for their fans. But other artists, try as they might, can't work that way. I tried to create a one-month buffer (I write a video gaming column; I'll spare you the link as this isn't the place for it), and I couldn't do it. I just couldn't pace myself to do it. The buffer columns were, overall, crap (to be technical). And I felt drained.

But when I switched to thinking on my feet, I felt the juices flowing again. The deadline made me think faster and more precisely. Yes, I do still miss the occasional week here or there. But I think those blank weeks are a small price to pay for making the best possible piece appear on the vast majority of weeks, when I do get something up.

Now, if you'll pardon me, my deadline is 1 AM, and I need another 400 words.

32 footsteps -- I agree, actually. Up in the snark proper, I acknowledge that this method isn't the way everyone can work. And people (who do this as their job) who are solidly consistent in their posting even if they have no buffer have no argument from me. I have no complaints about Jeff Rowland or Randy Milholland or Scott Kurtz at all. (I did once, but I was wrong and I admit it.)

But, if someone can work this way, it seems to be a much more effective method, with lower stress for everyone involved. That's all I'm saying. ;)

Enumerated responses:

1) Thanks, Eric!

2) All these folks who also have buffers are proving Eric right... maintaining a buffer is a Best Practice, per Eric's definition of same. It's the rule for syndicates, and it allows much more flexibility than does cartooning hand-to-mouth. There's more time to refine gags, and strips in the can may always be tweaked if current events or reader feedback make that appropriate. And in this web full of fickle fans, updating at the same time every day forever without resorting to filler is a proven way to keep your audience.

3) Schlock is like spam because I color caucasian flesh-tones with a uniform grade of Official Hormel Pink #6 (FFCCCC). My hope is that during the next siege of Great Britain I'll be picked as the canned-humor export for beleaguered British citizens.

My evil punny roommate read over my shoulder about some of you having a bit of a backlog... he says a little Exlax should take care of that nicely.

I'm a long time reader of Schlock and a big fan.

I am a one time eater of spam and am not a fan.
Not since, years ago, someone decided it would be brilliant for that to be the only thing to bring on a camping trip. I was sick for a week.

Thankfully, Schlock has yet to have that same result... Though I guess my stomach did churn a little at the though of "Schlock in a Cup."

Sometimes I have a backlog - sometimes I don't, but the only ones I've missed are when I'm in the hospital.. oh, and there was that 3rd degree sunburn ..

I work on a very simple principal : If I don't update regularly, 5 days a week, I can't bitch about those who don't. ^_^

Yeah, you can tell I'm a rabid Schlock Mercenary fan... as I was reading, up until the sixth paragraph, I was thinkg "Where the Hel does he get off not mentioning 'Schlock Mercenary'?" Then, as I'm going along and watching his continuing praise, I'm thinking "I'm gonna need to shoot this to Howard... he's going to enjoy this." Then I read the comments, and see that Howards already seen it.

Now I'm just thinking, "Damn, my tattoo itches. I'm glad I've taken the day off work so I can go clean this bastard and put some more bactine on it. I wish these things healed faster."

I aim to update three times a week. That means I need to have 13 pages done before the first of any given month. If I don't get all 13 for that month--and since I only seem able to do 11 pages a month, this happens fairly regularly--I update twice a week for that month. All rather confusing, really, as they used to say on the Goon Show...

Mike

www.comic-nation.com now very explicitly states its purpose.

eh... I remember when Howard Taylor posted about the 2004 Websnark awards and how he mentioned that he hadn't actually been "snarked"

Then the post Websnark made "finally" snarking Schlock along...

Anyways, back on topic, I started reading Schlock since... I believe Schlock and Nick fell out of the tower while rescuing the "good" lawyer (there is such a thing?). Since then, a couple of times Howard has made mention of the strips continued updates on a daily basis for a couple of times. It's nice to see it mentioned elswhere now.

As to Piro... well, hope you don't mind links:

http://forum.jerichocomics.com/viewtopic.php?t=224

First post I think gets the bread.

I really can't knock too hard on Megatokyo though. Okay, so Piro's lousy at updating on time. At least he's learning. At least he's willing to learn. Okay, so maybe his story skills arn't altogether. Okay, maybe he needs an editor to kick his rear end. But at least he's trying. At least he's still going. At least he's recognized that Shirt Guy Dom is lame. Even to the point of often injoking on the strips that Dom was going to pay for the lame strip.

What I see, is a lot of people who've run webcomics, or had them, that just give up. Take a few hard knocks and just dissapear. Piro's taken knocks from just about every major site out there involved with Webcomics. And yet he's still there. Even today people still yammer on about events or items that are extremely irrelevant.

Makes me wonder who's trying. Or whose just got an ax to grind that really needs to be put away.

I think artists who take knocks for no updates, and yet who keep plodding away at their strips for months or years are to applauded, yes. Dogged determination is an admirable quality, to be sure. But why not seek to SOLVE the problem that you're taking the knocks for? In the tired, Dilbert-ified parlance of the business world, "work smarter, not harder."

Whether buffer-building is the answer or not, the underlying principle is a sound one: seek to solve the problem before resigning yourself to grinding away in spite of it.

(Or, in many cases, decide that it's NOT a problem, and ignore those who say that it is. That's a solution too.)

I've downloaded Firefox pretty much just so I could chip in my two cents to this discussion. I've no idea whether after all this time anyone will notice it's here.


Much of what's said about buffers here is less applicable to gag strips than to continuity strips; and becomes a matter of the writer's working style. I had a week's buffer in the can when I started Arthur, King of Time and Space last May, and I maintained it for about three weeks. Then I stopped.


What I do instead is maintain a buffer of fillers, with the aid of which I've gone all this time without missing an update. Not counting Christmas Week when I ran out my buffer to keep it from getting stale, I've used fillers four times since May and none since Halloween. Presently I have six strips in the buffer which you can see next Christmas week if you don't see them sooner.


For me there's no other thrill to compare with updating on time with a gag that wasn't yet written when I woke up in the morning. Not that I do that every day, but working from a buffer disallowed it entirely.

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