From My Little Pony to Warning Label, comics pro Thomas Zahler has found the formula for success
Here’s how sucessful Thomas Zahler’s Warning Label webcomic has become: The most recent episode he posted at Webtoons — episode #21 — earned 4,031 likes and generated more than 160 comments.
That’s a comic that connects with its fans.
And Warning Label isn’t the only successful comic on Zahler’s resume. He’s also the creator of superhero romance Love and Capes and Long Distance, the appropriately named tale of the joys and struggles of a long-distance relationship.
As if that’s not enough, Zahler also created a My Little Pony micro-series for IDW Publishing featuring the character Twilight Sparkle.
Careers in Comics recently spoke to Zahler about his success with both online and print comics, and the work ethic that has made it all possible.
Warning Label has become an incredibly popular comic at Webtoons. What steps have you taken to build your audience?
Thomas Zahler: I was approached directly by Webtoons to work on a comic for them based on the work I’d already done on my Long Distance book. I was at the Baltimore Comic-Con when they approached me. I pitched a bunch of comics, and Warning Label was the one that they picked.
Webtoons does a launch week where they feature certain strips. They featured three chapters of my comic. That gave people a sizable chunk of the strip, and it also generated a lot of attention. Being featured was the big thing that happened to Warning Label.
Beyond that, I promote the comic through Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, everywhere I can. I also spend time engaging with the commenters on the comic. You do have to walk that fine line of engaging too much and not engaging enough. But I think when I respond to the comments, it gives my readers more reason to comment. They know they might get an answer from me.
Does engaging with the commenters take up much of your time?
Zahler: It doesn’t take up a ton of time. And it does help form that connection with the readers. There was one time when I got the math wrong. A couple of characters were buying breakfast burritos. I had changed the script at the last minute and forgot to change the numbers in the comic. The math, then, was wrong. I fessed up to the readers who caught that and admitted that I messed up. But if there are questions about the direction of the story itself, about where the story is going, I won’t give those answers away. I’d rather have the readers discover on their own what happens.
Which of the promotional tools you use does the most to bring readers to Warning Label?
Zahler: That is kind of nebulous. I have a hard time tracking the success of one over the other. I tend to do as much as I can. I cross-post on all of them, so it’s kind of like one-stop shopping. I do feel, though, that Instagram gets the most notice. It’s mostly people posting photos and liking photos, so it’s less time-consuming than the others. You can get into great discussions on Twitter. But Instagram, with its simplicity, tends to work the best for me right now.
You’ve worked on both Webcomics and print comics. What is the big difference between the two?
Zahler: The biggest difference with Webtoons is that it is a beast that always needs to be fed. A lot of the buffer I had built up is gone. A lot of that is due to my stupid, awesome, crazy convention schedule. It’s been tight. But it’s not tight enough so that I can’t get the strip done. I’m pretty deadline-focused. The decisions I make on the strip are often based on what is going on in my life. If I’m coming back from a convention and I have a day to turn something in, I won’t be working on a big party scene. I’ll be working on something more manageable that I can draw quickly.
Are there any differences in how you tell your stories if you’re working on a Webcomic or a print comic?
Zahler: In some minor respects. I am, roughly, doing five pages a week for Webtoons. That is about the same as doing a comic book at 20 pages a month. That part isn’t any different. Doing five-page chapters, though, does have a different beat to it, a different cadence. You need to have an ending every five pages or a cliffhanger, some sort of thing that makes it seem as if you have read a complete thing rather than part of a thing. You don’t want the episode to just end abruptly. That is different.
You mentioned your crazy convention schedule. How important is it to attend these conventions?
Zahler: Conventions are hugely important, a place where you can actively engage with fans. The Webtoons fans have been energized in a way that most comic book fans aren’t. There is a definite energy with the Webtoons fans. That sort of energy seems to be unique to Webtoons and Webcomics. Some of it is the demographic. Some is the way readers approach the strip. There is an immediacy to a Webcomic. You consume things on a phone a little differently. There’s a little more sugar and less complex carbohydrates. The comic gets into your system a little faster. The Webtoons audience is younger than the normal fan base, too. When you’re younger, you get a little more excited about things. When you are older and bitter and jaded, you don’t.
You are always working on several jobs at once. How do you juggle all this comic work so effectively?
Zahler: I have always juggled multiple assignments. When I’m in the zone on something, for lack of a better term, I try to jump into that specific assignment. Most of my day today, for instance, is being spent on Warning Label. If I have to switch out of something that I’m really focused on, it takes me a little bit of extra work to get into the new project I’m working on. If I just go with my work on Warning Label, though, I’ll be more productive. When I’m completely focused on a project in my head, it takes me less time to work through it.
It’s also important to know how long everything you do will take. Some of that comes with experience. I know that every job I letter will take three hours longer than what I think it will take. Once you know how long things take, and what things drain you and which ones don’t, you can schedule your time better. For me, drawing and writing are harder than lettering or graphic designing. There is more emotional engagement with drawing and writing that tend to tire me out a bit, exhaust the reservoir of energy I have.