I’ve been thinking a lot about how the internet and social media have changed the way writers and readers interact with each other. (…) What I want to ask you is, has being so close to your audience changed the way you tell the story? Do you think the story would be different if you went with the traditional publishing route of finding an agent, an editor, and a publishing house? And since you also have a fan perspective that I lack, how does creating fanart influence the way you feel about the original content?
My response got a little too big for tumblr, so I decided to move it here.
For some webcomic creators, being close to the audience directly effects their stories. Consider Drowtales interactives and the early MSPaint Adventures, where the audience actually voted or suggested where the story would go next, and it would go there — the content was directly audience driven. This sort of interaction would not be possible (certainly not in a timely way) with traditional print comics.
But I think unless audience-driven plots are your exact intention, one shouldn’t let audience interaction interfere with your storytelling. That can be hard when you get lots of immediate feedback, including people misinterpreting, not understanding, or not liking your writing. It can lead to an author wondering if she should be dumbing down her content or explaining or clarifying things. E.K.Weaver has been seen struggling through this recently- how do you separate legitimate storytelling criticism from lazy reading or incidental misinterpretation due to language or background? This is something you wouldn’t have to struggle with in print/industry comics, because you wouldn’t have a choice. Mass feedback would come after the fact, and after you could do anything about it. If you determined any of those criticisms to be legitimate and helpful, the only thing you could do is apply it to your next story.
That’s how I conduct my story. Does fan interaction change the way I tell a story? No. My story is the same whether I get fan art and instant feedback or not. My writing is critiqued by my editors who see the story before it’s published, and they’re the ones who highly influence how I change my story. My readers follow my story because they trust in the story I want to tell, not the one they would have told.
Though, to be fair, I can’t avoid internally gauging the success of my storytelling based on audience reactions. Whether I intend to steer the story based on audience reaction or not, I’m surrounded by it and engaged with it, so it of course has some sort of influence. Just often not one I can quantify. (I have consciously made more side art of secondary characters based on their surprisingly emphatic reception, though.)
I’m highly invested in webcomics as a medium because of that insane level of accessibility, especially to young people, because they’re free and they’re on the internet, where more and more people spend more and more of their time. I get to see people connecting with my stories and characters, and becoming invested in the mission and values that my comic represents. I establish relationships with some of them. I can inspire them and they can inspire me. So they effect my confidence and motivation, too. I’m humbled (and really really giddy) every time someone draws a picture of my characters.
But I don’t know that it’s fair to compare webcomics to the traditional industry comic track, because you could still interact with and be accessible by fans no matter how your comic is distributed. A webcomic like yours or mine does not have the same reach or profit an industry comic has; in terms of print, we are more like indie zines or comix. Compare Homestuck to a comic like Batgirl if you want- both Andrew Hussie and Gail Simone communicate on twitter, but you can’t expect a response from them directly like a fan would from you or I. It’s the level of success/size of brand that severs accessibility, not whether it’s print or web published.
Fanworks often fill in the needs or desires of fans that aren’t congruent with what the original content delivered. Romance that was never consummated, sex that never happened, alternative endings and universes that might have provided less anguish, for example. It doesn’t mean it was missing something or needs a better conclusion (ie; it doesn’t mean it was bad so it needs to be fixed with fanwork,) just that there are spaces that people want to fill with the content they desire. That’s how I engaged in fanworks too.
It certainly is exciting to know that the creator of the content you’re making fanwork for can see what you make- makes you feel like part of the family, part of the process. Naoko Takeuchi will never see my Sailor Moon fanart, but E.K.Weaver sees my TJ and Amal fanart — and often reacts! Young Adult author John Green has been known to contact fanartists and actually put their work in his webstore for shared profit. Andrew Hussie hires fanartists to do illustrations for his Homestuck merchandise regularly. So the connectivity of the internet is changing the author/audience relationship in a lot of ways that we are just starting to explore — for collaboration, for community, and for profit.