A case for free online comics

sir-rob
Self-portrait by Rob Cham for SUPREME

I’m gonna make comics where there are no words and I only have one panel per page, and I’m gonna see how it works,” comic artist Rob Cham told himself as he conceptualized Light, his first graphic novel, published last year under Adarna House, Inc. Having sold out its first print run, it is now on its second.

A hundred-page silent comics, Light tells the story of a guy trying to find light in a black and white world. He is given a map to five crystals, falls into an underground cave, and each time he picks up a gem, the world starts to become more colorful. “He goes on looking for these things, and eventually finds his way home,” Rob describes. “It’s better if you don’t really think about the plot and read it. I want people to experience it for themselves.”

Rob continues to explore the art of the silent comic in his second graphic novel, Lost. It’s not a sequel — “It has the same characters, the same world, and it’s another silent comic… but the stories aren’t really connected,” Rob says. In Light, it was more lighthearted (no pun intended). With Lost, I’m trying to make it scary and heartbreaking and funny. And something will happen in the story that will break people’s hearts — and that everyone will possibly hate me for.”

Another difference between Rob’s two projects is that while Lost is set to be published this April under Anino Comics, an imprint of Adarna House, in the meantime, he uploads the content for free, two pages per week, on lost-comic.com.

Supreme sat down with the illustrator, designer, and artist to ask him why the hell he’s doing that, and to check in on the current state of the local comics scene.

SUPREME: Does it really work to distribute your comics online for free at first?

ROB CHAM: You get to read it for free online, but I only upload two pages a week. By the time the book comes out, there will only be about 30 pages up. If people want to read ahead, they will have to buy the book (laughs). I’m hoping that experiment works.

Here in the Philippines, I don’t think it’s proven to be another path into publishing, but in the States it kind of works. Examples I can think of are Octopus Pie and The Perry Bible Fellowship. I think it’s a good way to get your comics out there. No one’s really exploring web comics here besides the few I can think of, like Mervin Malonzo. He puts out Tabi Po, which is a really good deconstruction of what an aswang is. He did that model where it’s all free online and compiled it into a book. That’s kind of how he got the book deal, too. People noticed his work online. Manix Abrera also posted his strips of GMA News Hardcore. It came out as a book, and it still sells well.

But aside from that, I’ve always loved the format of web comics, and I figured this would be a good way to get into that world. A lot of my influences are web comic artists, and all of them are people I still look up to now, like KC Green, Kate Beaton and Nedroid. They all get jobs now from professional comic books and actually make a living off their comics online because people buy their merchandise, their books, and support them any way they can.

Tell us about the comics scene in Manila.

There’s a surplus of good comics right now. I’m surprised, every time I go to Comic-Con, I find new artists from here whom I like and want to see more work of. But sometimes they fade out and go away because that’s just the cycle of it, where they start to have friction between the comics they want to make but also have to make a living.

You can’t make a living off comics yet. You kind of have to make rackets here and there. And when you have time, you work on your book, release it at Comic-Con and hope that it sells. But no one really gets back their investment. Well, publishers like Visprint or Adarna House, probably. But for the smaller scale, it’s all you handling distribution, finances and production. It could be too much for a person. You’re just hoping that maybe you make something worthwhile and get it out there. That’s all I think anyone should hope for.

A lot of people in the comics scene will try to make their own Marvel DC imprint, for example, where it’s all a superhero line. But they can’t keep up with a monthly schedule. There’s no one to sell to at a monthly schedule. But it’s getting easier in that there are more cons to sell at. There are more people who come to each con every year, and hopefully we can get more people interested in buying books. Sometimes, they see a book they really like for P500, which seems like a good deal for a graphic novel. Marvel and DC books go for P800 and above for the same quality. But they pass it over because in Comic-Con, there will be books that sell for P100 or P150. A survey done by the National Book Development Board found that a large percentage of Filipinos said they’d be willing to pay only P350 and below for a book. That’s why sometimes you see some books like Manix Abrera’s or mine that are priced under P350, and then only a few local comics at P500.

How can it get better?

Well, fix the education system, fix the economy. We’re doing it all out of passion. This is my point of view where putting your work online isn’t the worst thing. If we can’t rely on the local market for our work to get out into the cultural capital, we can at least try to put value into our cultural capital — and maybe get other people to recognize it out of the country.

We kind of have to make it on our own, whether it’s through alternative publications such as the web, or foreign publications. An example would be Gerry Alanguilan. He works for Marvel as an inker, but when he’s not doing that, he’s doing his own work. He finished this one book called Elmer, which got picked up by French publishers who wanted to translate it. It also got a US distribution from a European publisher in the States.

I’m trying to see if I can make stories about people here, like the local Filipino way of life, and put that into my work more. You just have to seek out other venues for your work to be recognized. For the industry to get better, we have to make it something that it’s not. We have to make our own way through the Internet, through the tools we’re given — social media, connections — and try to get someone from out there to look at it and say, “Yo, we want this.”

***

Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (6 February 2016)

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