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See you in the funny pages

Or maybe not. Some comic strip creators are finding enough success on their own websites.

From left: webcomic cartoonists KC Green, Andrew Hussie, Jeffrey Rowland, Jeph Jacques, and Richard Stevens. From left: webcomic cartoonists KC Green, Andrew Hussie, Jeffrey Rowland, Jeph Jacques, and Richard Stevens. (Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe)
By Jialu Chen
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2011

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Don’t try to reach Jeph Jacques before 3 p.m. He won’t be awake. Readers of the Easthampton artist’s webcomic, Questionable Content, about an indie rock lover who works in a coffee shop and owns a pet robot, are accustomed to his midnight updates.

Questionable Content is not just a hobby for Jacques, 31. It’s his job.

Webcomics were once seen as a new path to syndication. Comic artists would post their work online, hoping to attract a large enough fan base that syndicates would take notice, offer them contracts, sell their comics to newspapers, and give them a cut of the profits. But for Jacques and many other webcomic artists, syndication is out of the picture.

“There’s no real money in that,’’ he says.

Jacques, who says he earns six figures from his webcomic, is among a small but growing number of professional webcomic artists. There are, by some estimates, 36,000 webcomics in the world, but Wikipedia counts only 47 professional webcomic artists, meaning only a minuscule percentage are making money at it. Mostly they earn money from merchandise sales, supplemented by advertising and donations.

They arrived at this profession by various paths, but none originally set out to live this way.

Jeffrey Rowland, 37, of Northampton began drawing comics and submitting them to syndicates in 1999. All he received in return were stacks of impersonal rejection letters. Craving constructive criticism, he began to upload his drawings to a website.

He eventually hit his stride with a webcomic called Wigu, about a little boy named Wigu Tinkle and his adventures with intergalactic beings such as Topato, a flying potato. Successful Wigu T-shirt sales made him realize that he didn’t need to be syndicated to make a living drawing comics.

“If a syndicate came to me and offered me a hundred newspapers, I would probably say no,’’ Rowland says. “I’d have to answer to an editor, which I wouldn’t be happy with. I’d probably make less money, with more work.’’

This is precisely the situation Richard Stevens, 34, also from Easthampton, found himself in four years ago, when his webcomic, Diesel Sweeties, was syndicated by United Media, which distributes Dilbert, Rose Is Rose, Get Fuzzy, and other strips. Diesel Sweeties portrays brightly colored, pixelated robots and humans, and their romantic entanglements. The site receives a few million page views every month.

Stevens now says syndication was a terrible decision.

“It’s nice to have a syndicate handle things if you have 1,000 newspapers and your whole job is drawing seven days a week. But if you are committed contractually to draw seven days a week and you don’t have clients, you’re really working for free,’’ says Stevens, who was syndicated in about 20 newspapers. “Even when I was syndicated, I was making 80 percent of my money from my website.’’

For some, the decision not to syndicate is creative rather than financial. Something Positive, by Randal Milholland, 35, features characters with unwholesome backgrounds (one is a former sex worker), coarse language, and unsettling punch lines. In a recent comic, two characters fed cyanide to children as a “public service.’’

“Part of the joke of my comic is that none of my characters are nice people,’’ Milholland says. He scoffs at the idea of doing a syndicated comic, in which “not nice’’ would mean “taking five dollars from somebody.’’

One the other hand, Michael Terracciano, 32, of Boston, creator of Dominic Deegan, knew his fantasy webcomic about a grumpy seer who saves the world occupied a particular niche and wouldn’t necessarily appeal to a broader audience. With its complete online archive, it also allows him to draw dynamic characters and extended story arcs that would be difficult for casual newspaper readers to follow. But, according to Terracciano, his cliffhangers bring an average of 50,000 people back to his site each day to find out what happens next.

Jacques, 31, never intended to become a professional webcomic artist. Ten years ago, when he started drawing Questionable Content, he was answering phones for the Valley Advocate, an alternative newspaper in Northampton. A year later, he was laid off and decided to sell Questionable Content T-shirts for a few weeks to make ends meet.

“That few weeks turned into a few months, and suddenly it was a year and I wasn’t even looking for a new job,’’ he says. “I never set out to make it my living. I kind of fell into it.’’ Now, Jacques says, 400,000 people check his site every day.

Others launched their webcomic careers more dramatically. Seven years ago, Milholland was working in Medicaid billing for an ambulance company and drawing Something Positive. When readers complained about the infrequency of his updates, he challenged them to donate enough money for him to quit his job and draw the webcomic full time.

“It was very much a shut-your-mouth post. ‘I make $24,000 a year. If you can match that, I’ll quit my job. I dare you.’ I really honestly thought it would shut people up. Instead, in an hour I got $4,000,’’ Milholland says.

Now Milholland says he makes more than $50,000 a year, the bulk of which comes from online sales of books, T-shirts, and other merchandise. Unlike others, whose take from advertising is negligible, Milholland makes up to 35 percent of his income from ads, and claims his website averages 215,000 page views a day.

Jacques takes the opposite approach, outsourcing the distribution of his merchandise to Rowland’s company, TopatoCo, a company for webcomic artists run by webcomic artists. Other clients of TopatoCo include Andrew Hussie, also from Easthampton, who draws MS Paint Adventures (the name says it all), and KC Green, whose non-sequitor flights of fancy appear in his webcomic Gunshow and who also happens to be TopatoCo’s so-called “printer expert.’’

Others, such as Terracciano, take a more hands-on approach. He makes most of his income selling self-published compilations of his webcomic at anime and comic conventions.

His fans enjoy purchasing books directly from him - so much so that when he leaves his booth to use the restroom, “the books don’t move.’’

Relying on a webcomic as one’s sole source of income can be both terrifying and reassuring.

Terracciano describes having panic attacks every month, dreading a hypothetical moment when he realizes, “It’s all over - the bottom has finally fallen out.’’

But, Stevens reasons, “Hundreds of thousands of people would need to fire us all at once for us to lose our jobs.’’

Jialu Chen can be reached at jchen@globe.com.