I love a good comic jam. Back in my salad days at college, this generally involved sitting in a smokey dive bar with mostly strangers passing around notebooks of large format sketchpads taking turns penciling, inking and coloring panels working towards building a complete story one panel at a time. It's the perfect experience to try to replicate on the web, and that's just what Tyler Hutchison has done with We Draw Comics.
We Draw Comics takes the simple premise of the comic jam (one artist, one panel, pass to the next) and makes it a completely web-based experience, with either a basic mouse- or trackpad-controlled drawing and painting tool, or an optional plugin that brings full Wacom tablet integration to the tool through a browser. This is admittedly glitchy, Hutchison admits, but judging by some of the submissions on We Draw Comics, artists are more than willing to go through the finicky install process to get things started.
Hutchison has actually been working on We Draw Comics for years now, but only began building this version (by himself) about a year ago. He has opened up the tool before to new sign-ups, but the first time he opened the gates to the public back in September, he had to shut down access almost as fast; demand was strong, and the servers suffered under the load. In part, that was due to some high-profile signups and unsolicited promotion from sources Jhonen Vasquez, creator of Invader Zim and Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.
Now, thanks to additional help from Topatoco, which is providing Hutchison with servers to host We Draw Comics free of charge, Hutchison is ready to try bringing new users on board again this time with a soft cap of 5,000 users. As of today, new users are free to sign up and participate, which requires just a simple Twitter sign-in (without any auto-posting).
You can browse the creations at We Draw Comics without signing up, and they're often astounding. One thing that Hutchison shared, which I was surprised to learn, is that users have been very good about self-policing: even though there's no oversight on what people draw, they haven't taken things to dark places very often, and when they do, the community corrects them.
"The user base of We Draw Comics so far somehow has been an incredibly positive Internet experience in which everybody who's drawing on this site has been really good-natured, and interested in making nice things," Hutchison told me in an interview. "There have been very few people I've seen on the site who've just made something to be mean."
Hutchison is truly bootstrapping his efforts with We Draw Comics: he's taking on additional freelance jobs to try to keep the site alive, and it's essentially a one man operation. But We Draw Comics is that very rare special gem: a product designed and created with no motive in mind beyond giving people the ability to come together and make something nice. I asked Hutchison about revenue plans, and he said he's toyed with the idea of adding paid access to certain features. But in the end, he wants to make sure that free users don't have a compromised experience if he does introduce any tiered subscription levels, and really, any efforts to make money would be directed mostly at keeping the lights on rather than anything else. He thinks maybe implementing a "pay-what-you-want" donation style mechanic is the best way to go about doing that, and that could also enable future plans to build We Draw Comics for mobile platforms.
So, to recap, with We Draw Comics, Tyler Hutchison built something amazing that people enjoy using. And while it's not that surprising considering he comes from the webcomics community, where artists frequently give away their primary product and are happy to survive on merch, illustration gigs and other secondary sources of income, it's still a very good thing.