On Webcomics: About Guest Strips

By | Monday, December 30, 2013 Leave a Comment
It doesn't happen often in newspaper comics, but it's almost a given that, if you've been at your webcomic for a while and need to take a break, you can get some other webcomickers to contribute a few strips to run in your absence. Typically, those contributions use the regular characters, and try to emulate the same voice of the original creator. The differences are usually in the artistic style, and sometimes the characters, while still faithful to their established identities, are put into places and situations that aren't normally found in the regular strip.

There are, I think, two main benefits to utilizing the guest strip. First, you're able to keep the regular rhythm of the comic going. Readers who come to the site every day (or whatever the update schedule is) can continue to do so without an interruption in their habit. And that's the primary key here: as a webcomicker, you've established a pattern with your readers, and you want to keep that ongoing with as minimal disruption as possible. You don't want to risk them getting out of the habit of coming to your site daily.

The other benefit, although it's a smaller one, is that readers get to see slightly different takes on the same characters. In a best case scenario, it gives readers just enough of a difference that they can use that to identify just what it is that they like about the original, and how changing that even subtlely can shift the overall vibe of the comic.

There's a flip side to the guest strip, though; one that I've really only heard pointed out by Brad Guigar.

Readers come to a webcomic to read YOUR work. Whether it's your voice or your art or your sense of humor or whatever, it's some combination of what makes you you that readers respond to. When that's replaced with someone else basically doing an impression of you, Guigar argues that you find yourself in a lose-lose situation.

The first "lose" is that the guest strip is worse than your regular work. Readers comes to your comic with a set of expectations of quality -- however emphemeral that is -- and a guest strip that isn't up to par with what you normally do reflects badly on you. "Wow, this is crap," a reader might think. "And he thought this was good enough to be a temporary subsitute for his work? Maybe I've been giving him too much credit!" Maybe readers won't think that in so many words, but the danger's there that they lose interest in your work by the negative association.

The second "lose" is that the guest strip is better than your regular work. How is that a bad thing? Well now readers can see how much better the strip could be if someone else were doing it. "Wow, this is awesome," a reader might think. "This strip is fantastic compared to the crap I was seeing before!"

Here's the thing: we don't have any really solid data on any of this though. We do know that if you leave your comic dormant for too long, you will lose readers, but what's "too long"? A week? A month? Three months? But does having someone else's work for some interim period paint you in a bad light? I'm pretty sure no one is going to leave your comic specifically to read someone else's who guested for you, but would they leave because they've been shown what your strip could be but isn't? I don't know that anyone's been able to definitively answer that.

Which puts the question of guest strips in the same category as EVERY other decision about webcomics. That is, that with even two decades of webcomic history behind us, we still don't collectively have a solid grasp on what works and what doesn't. But, as is also the case with every other webcomic decision, each creator needs to at least consider the pros and cons in order to make a choice that works for them.
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