Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Teeshirt treatise, a treatise on tees

Over the five years of writing this blog, I don't think I've moaned more than when designing tshirts.

The moaning (and the designing) were necessary because t-shirts formed (and still form) a vital part of the webcomic moneymaking ecosystem. The combination of low order requirements/reasonable profit margin/quick turnaround/potential quasi-viral popularity outside the comic sphere made printed tees the foundation stone of making a living out of your comic on the internet.

Like all bubbles, it had to burst. And this was a bubble - in the early to mid-oughts, printed tees enjoyed a popularity that they hadn't since the seventies heyday of "I'm With Stupid". Around 2007, it got a lot harder to sell designs. And because almost everyone I know in comics had been strip mining memes for five years, there was almost nothing left to say on them! When I stopped seeing people at rock shows wearing webcomics tees or Threadless tees it was obvious that the jig was up. Ubiqity bore obselescence. The hip nation didn't want tshirts any more. They had bought big into checked shirts.

You can still sell a shirt or two if you want. Stick something a nerd recognises on it (an Ewok, the Higgs Boson particle, Omega Supreme flanked by Cindy Birdsong and Diana Ross) and there you are. But where's the pleasure in printing endless variations on "here's something you recognise"?

Now, I've got nothing against nerds, my dad worked with a nerd once and there was one in the year below me at school. And I have seen every episode of Babylon Five - twice! But I can't hoe that row. People can tell I'm not into it.

Those years of the super hit t-shirts I made - Bears Will Eat You, Books Rule etc sold and sold for years on the back of a couple of hours effort - really spoiled me. But it was a great run.

I can't tell if I quit or if I've been fired. But I've made one last shirt. Buy it if you like it.

24 comments:

Roman said...

Checked shirts, you say?

I've got it!

Web comic authors should each design their own tartan and sell them as button-down shirts!

ReadingFiction said...

I always thought I'd grow up and stop wearing webcomic t-shirts. That Web-comics would grow up an stop selling me t-shirts never occurred.

Molly Watson said...

I don't think comic/snarky tees are necessarily "dead"... but I do know a lot more of those t-shirt-wearing hipsters are feeling the squeeze of the recession (at least, in the States). I see great shirts offered by you, and the fine folks at Topatoco, and I really WANT to buy them and wear them. I think they're AWESOME! But I just can't justify the expense. Either I spend $30 (with shipping) on an awesome new t-shirt, or I make my monthly credit card payment. I've been looking at that "Bears will eat you" shirt for years, wanting it.

All I can say is... your fans love you, and very much want to support you. And we do it whenever we can. Love the new comic, John. <3

Red_Dog said...

I'm with Molly on this one, although I do also feel that your own t-shirt work doesn't fit in with the "geek meme" stuff you find elsewhere, so I wouldn't be too hasty to throw everything out with the bathwater. But hey, you're the CREATOR, and it's up to you to choose how you make money. But I'm still wearing my SGR t-shirts...

John A said...

Molly:

the recession has definitely contributed, I am sure of that. I think my own lack of inspiration has contributed too! So many great people making tshirts. I don't have the graphic mastery to compete at the sharp end of that with people like Olly Moss.

My readers have done a wonderful job of supporting my comics!

Red Dog:

The disparity between my stuff and the "geek meme" stuff is reflected in sales these days. I'm hardly likely to stop selling shirts tomorrow - what would I do with all my stock?

rippon said...

I'll agree that the geek meme webcomic shirt bubble has burst; just from my own observation I would imagine shirt.woot and teefury have probably taken a healthy chunk of the business. But while I read a lot of webcomics for geeky pleasure - Diesel Sweeties and PvP come to mind, I've never once thought of Bobbins or SGR or Bad Machinery as a geek comic. I read your comic for your art and for your skill at prancing about with the written word. I've bought some of your tees for that reason, although I've bought far more of your books and tea towels (love those tea towels - never use 'em, but I have 'em on my wall). Just promise me you'll keep making beautiful things for me to buy and I'll keep buyin' 'em when they tickle my fancy - be they shirts, posters, tea towels (yes please!) or etchings on a antique stein.

mordicai said...

I am a happy supported of the t-shirt & tea towel sphere.

Kat R said...

I wish I had money as this new shirt would be perfect for my webcomic reading, giraffe loving friend who I shall be seeing later this month. Sadly, I am dirt poor ;_; I wish I could buy stuff from you.

Also, today's word verification is 'ingwons,' usually those things are actual words.

K said...

Is this really the last shirt? 0_o

Personally, I wear them under my checked shirts. But then I've been wearing checked shirts since the last time they were hip (1995ish). So I am far from the crest of the style wave.

Still... that's a very nice shirt indeed.

.M. said...

Not sure if the question has been asked during your time designing t-shirts, but what's wrong with putting your characters on them?

Given the amount of love professed for the SGR characters alone, I wouldn't be surprised if, for instance, the Shelley tote bag print sold alarmingly well as a tee.

Ellie said...

I think it's a good idea to sell shirts displaying characters or quotes from original comics... they're not mainstream, and the diehard fans will buy them.

bartofdarkness said...

When I first stumbled across SGR, I was captivated by the art first, the story second. The only merch you were selling was the 'Truck Power' T-shirt...

Needless to say, I didn't buy.

But, as time progressed, you came out with more and more unique designs, and I started to purchase... my first was the 'Ook-Ak Monkey' T-Shirt. I still wear it, along with all the other Tees... In fact, I was wearing one of your 'I Feel Your Pain' Luche Libre Tees at the last Webcomix thing, and had a lot of comments and questions about it. Naturally, I pointed them in the direction of your table!

I like buying Tees from you. I can say I get my Tees 'exclusively from the web - you can't buy them in stores'. In fact, to be honest, about the only other types of Tee I own are the ones I sleep in!

The recession hit me as well, and curbed all my non 'roof over my head and eating' spending. But I now have filthy lucre to pass your way again... I bought all the Tees that I really really really wanted, and now I'm working my way through the ones I just really really want...

I can understand why you might be having a dry spell with the Tees... you can't strike gold every time! Also, with the fact that you'd effectively lost half your audience (and therefore your market) when you finished SGR and started BM, its not surprising you are feeling a bit jaded about the whole affair.

I hope that your final Tee is not your final final Tee...

*whispers* Personally though, you should have gone with with the design you used for the Tote, IMHO...

John A said...

.M. - I have to answer this question a lot - tshirts with the characters on sell terribly. They always have.

Several people seem to want Serge and Jane on a tee though so I see no reason not to print those at the same time as the bags.

The Dapper Gent said...

The only webcomic shirt I've ever bought was one of yours; It was the one where Shelley was surrounded by a bunch of skeletons. And I've at least wanted to buy several others, but, as other people have mentioned, money is the issue. I do think that you've come up with some interesting designs, things that rise a bit above Nerd Joke #289.

So, while you may be done designing shirts, I hope you won't give up on all the merchandise. I also bought one of your tea towels, and my mom has been clamoring for one of those Crotchet today tote bags ever since she saw one.

I'd also like to chime in and say that I've really been enjoying the new comic.

glenatron said...

Your problem with me is that I just have enough t-shirts. My draw is full- the yellow of Tupping Liberty beside the blue of Best Monkey and the green of Books rule side by side. They're good quality shirts, they last. Being something of a duffer I don't often replace things unless they need it, so as potential market I'm more limited than I was. Still buy them as gifts sometimes though.

I have just lost one though- broke my collarbone on Sunday and my Saddest Wookie had to be cut off so maybe I do have room for something new...

Mike said...

It saddens me to see the economics behind Bad Machinery crumbling at the same time that the artistry continues to advance. Now that I've gotten used to Bad Machinery, I'm really appreciating how both the art and storytelling are more refined than SGR. If only there was a way to make a living simply by doing something beautiful really well, instead of the usual way of doing a half-assed job at something boring.

John A said...

Mike:

while t-shirts have made up less of my income in the last couple of years, I've been able to make up a lot of the shortfall with commissioned work - though this did necessitate the drop from 5 to 4 comics a week a while back. I was always realistic about the state of the marketplace for these things. I just wanted to make a post on my blog about it because these things are seemingly the omerta of webcomic artists!

Kent said...

I've gotten several of your shirts over the last couple of years. Amy Acker Ate My Hamster (which I continue to wear because I love it so, despite a mystery stain that appeared on it; would that I could replace it), Saddest Wookie, Bears will Eat You... Also bought my drummer/fellow music addict the "To My Own Detriment" shirt. I'm trying to get any of them that I really love now as I'm still overly melancholy over missing out on Wales is OK and any character shirts. I would definitely pick up a Serge. I might pick up one of the totes for a friend of mine.

rippon said...

Oh yeah, that Amy Acker shirt was brilliant - sad that I didn't know who Amy Acker was until after you discontinued the shirt! But if you ever find a few girly tees in a back room, by wife would stab a puppy in the brain for one. Let us pray that she does not :)

Colin Rankine said...

Your market is aging. We have less opportunity to wear interesting tees, and maybe we want to draw less attention to our midsections. Maybe you should go more upscale with novelty ties and mailboxes, china patterns, condolence cards, that sort of thing. Decals for the rear windows of American automobiles.

Tangentally, do you ever wonder what the nerds of the future will be into, as we have basically stopped generating popular culture? Do you think that Battlestar Galactica will become like classical music, something that was once rollicky and affecting but is now a strictly formal exercise?

I ask you because someone told me you are an expert on these things.

Colin Rankine said...

I don't think a fallow popular culture is a bad thing per se. I just think it would be amusing if in the year 2075 people put on their finest space tuxedoes to watch Buck Rogers at the Metropolitan Opera house.

Are you going to take my advice and make a J. Allison china pattern? You could go on HSN and QVC. You could meet Kelly Ripa.

plegmund said...

I would buy a shirt based on the last frame from June 8 (...turns out he's a good boy).

John A said...

Colin, as you very well know, only the best of any given age is celebrated by future generations in a gala setting. The rest is condemned to the rubbish bin of history and that is where Twiki and Wilma Deering probably are already.

darrylayo said...

Dear Colin Rankine,

You speak of a beautiful future world. When you are finished building your time machine, can I come along