A handy guide for anyone who can use it, from someone who’s been doing this for a while.
If you don’t need all the step-by-step explanations or nitty-gritty details, here, I’ll put the takeaway right at the top:
If you do want a detailed explanation of each step, though, keep reading.
This is mostly directed at people who are familiar with the Tumblr blogging system, but the same process will work for anyone. I’m gonna try to make it as dead-simple 101-level as possible, so feel free to skip the sections you already know.
Such as, perhaps…
0) Background: Wait, what’s going on with Tumblr?
They just announced an upcoming ban on all “mature content.”
Which might sound like it only affects NSFW webcomics, until you consider the following:
Tumblr is automatically flagging content as NSFW, and the automatic process is terrible. Totally random things are being marked “sensitive content”, which on December 17 means the posts will be marked private. And there’s no easy way to see what’s been flagged. (I had to scroll through more than 1500 posts to find and unflag…a screenshot of Sailor Saturn.)
ETA: okay, some good news, there’s finally an easy way to see what’s been flagged! Still picking up a lot of random innocuous stuff, though. Check yours here:
Webcomic artists need to keep on top of that list (since new flags can be spontaneously added to old posts), and manually request a review of every flagged page (which will be hidden from new readers until they get cleared).
Even if your content in general doesn’t fail the Mature Content Standards, if you have even one page that does, you’re screwed. Was a female character ever topless, even in a nonsexual context? My tumblr has sketches of naked models from life-drawing sessions. I follow tumblrs with anatomy references, tumblrs with trans people discussing medical procedures they’ve had.
Whole tags’ worth of content have been hidden from search results. Everything tagged “chronic pain” was marked unsearchable. Tags related to the character Dick Grayson have become unsearchable. And (unsurprisingly to the LGBT community, we’ve heard this song before) tags like “lesbian” and “transgender” are out too.
Tumblr has also started hiding posts with most links from search results. That kills the usefulness of the site for anyone who’s trying to have an art business. Link your Patreon, you become unsearchable. Link your commission rates, you become unsearchable.
All of this put together means a LOT of people will be decamping from Tumblr. Everyone who doesn’t feel like checking their last 10,000 posts for NSFW flags. Everyone who has something to sell on Etsy. Everyone who, in general, wants to do their blogging somewhere that doesn’t hide the posts about their flare-ups or their gay dating life or their Teen Titans fanfiction. Everyone who wants to follow anyone who does literally any of the above.
So even if a particular webcomic manages to squeak through all of this untouched…a huge chunk of its audience just evaporated. Which takes away one of the major reasons people bother to post webcomics on Tumblr (as opposed to a free host that was, you know, designed for them) in the first place.
0.5) Wait, there are free hosts that are designed for webcomics?
Ohhh yes. Some popular examples:
Advantages: built-in community that hooks you up with new readers, features adapted for webcomics, some are designed to be monetized.
Disadvantages: some have limits on content and format, they can be hard (or impossible) to customize, no guarantee that poor site management won’t drive away the userbase all over again.
If you can’t afford to spend anything on hosting right now — or if your comic is 100% a casual hobby that you don’t want to put too much work into — this is a good option!
Each site has its own specific features and advantages. I’m not gonna go into the details here, just to say that you don’t want to pick one at random. Do a little research and decide which one sounds like the best fit for your comic.
But if you’re at the point where you want to invest a little time and money, you should move on to…
1) Choosing an Independent Website Host
I migrated hosts in summer 2017 — if you want more about that, you can read the juicy details here.
So based on that relatively-recent research, and on my ongoing good experience, I can generally recommend SiteGround. No downtime, cool features, customer support made up of responsive human beings.
However! Every host sells different site packages, and your comic(s) may have different needs than mine. Some things to consider:
Storage space. How big is your current “finished comic pages” folder? (Images will be your biggest filesize-filler.) How often do you update? Look for a plan that you aren’t going to outgrow by next year.
Traffic. A lot of plans offer unlimited bandwidth these days — although keep in mind that this means “unlimited as long as your usage doesn’t send up any red flags.” If you turn your account into a download center for Doctor Who episodes, they’re going to notice!
Email accounts. Not exactly essential when you already have one, but it might be nice to have “firstname.lastname@example.org” for business purposes one of these days.
Domains and subdomains. Some people buy a domain name for their comic, and that’s it. Some buy one for themselves (or their brand), and use subdomains for their comics. Some buy multiple domains for multiple comics. How many do you want right now? Will you want more in the future?
(Good news: if your situation changes, these are easy to redirect. I bought erinptah.com first, then later I added leifandthorn.com and bicatperson.com — but that doesn’t break any old links, you can still get to the sites through leifandthorn.erinptah.com and bicatperson.erinptah.com.)
Websites/SQL databases. Each separate installation of WordPress will use its own MySQL database. (I…am pretty sure this is what most plans are talking about when they say “number of websites included.”) If you have multiple comics, or if you plan to, better keep an eye on this.
So! Look up different hosting services, think about your comic’s needs and your own budget, do some side-by-side comparison, and make your own call.
(And if you do go with SiteGround, please use my referral link. It’ll get me entered into a drawing to win free socks.)
A few hosts I recommend avoiding:
- A Small Orange. If you research them you’ll find a ton of great reviews…from 2015 and earlier. Those are no longer accurate. They’re the host I moved away from, after one too many unexplained downtimes.
- Squarespace. It’s much less flexible; they don’t let you use WordPress, or anything nearly as customizable, they just have a pre-existing content management system that everyone gets to use. It’s not designed for webcomics, and although some creators have made it work, I’m not a fan of the reading experience.
Once you’ve made your purchase, you can move on to…
2) Installing a Content Management System
The CMS is the engine that organizes your site, instead of leaving you to hand-code every page’s HTML one-by-one.
You do have options here, too. A lot of creators swear by Grawlix, although I can’t find an active site to download it anymore. Comics in the SpiderForest Collective are offered a CMS called proPanda. As mentioned above, SquareSpace has its own.
But there’s a reason at least one-third of the Internet runs on WordPress.
Try it out with the free blogging site at WordPress.com. Like Tumblr, it’ll let you set up an account and make posts. It doesn’t have all the options available on an independent website (there’s a limited selection of themes without much customization, and the free level doesn’t allow plugins at all), but it’ll get you familiar with the basic interface.
Here’s the “add new post” form on a free WordPress blog, side-by-side with the “add new comic” form on Leif & Thorn:
(They’re actually in the middle of releasing an updated post-editor form right now, so we’re all about to be learning a new system. Enable “Gutenberg” to start using that from the beginning.)
As for the version of WordPress you’d install on your own website — that’s handled over at WordPress.org.
Back when I started BICP, you had to actually download a ZIP archive, tweak some files, upload it to your hosting service, and click some buttons. Even that only took a few minutes.
These days, when you log into the administration panel on a lot of website hosts, you’ll see a button like this:
Click it, fill in the details of the site you want, and poof, you’re off to the races.
…well, partly. See, WordPress by itself is not actually optimized for webcomics. Which is why you have to address that by…
3) Installing a Plugin to Optimize WordPress for Webcomics
Tumblr users, you’ve all used Xkit, right? You know how it has a couple dozen different little plugins you can install, to improve and extend the way Tumblr functions?
WordPress plugins are like that, except (a) they’re designed to work with WordPress, not in spite of it, and (b) there’s more than 50,000 of them.
There’s a “Plugins” option in the sidebar on your WordPress dashboard. Follow that to “Add New,” and you can find, install, and activate new plugins with (all together now!) just a few clicks.
Right now there are two widely-used plugins that will enable WordPress with the architecture to smoothly run a webcomic.
And, listen, I’m speaking from experience here, because I have currently-running comics that use both of them:
- But I’m A Cat Person runs on Comic Easel (the successor to ComicPress)
- Leif & Thorn runs on Webcomic 5
Up to this point I’ve been saying “do your own research and find what works best for you” a lot.
I’m not gonna say that now.
Here’s the thing. Comic Easel…works. It works just fine! If it didn’t, I would have made the effort to move BICP to something else.
But Webcomic 5 does all the same things and more. I can’t name a single feature I’ve used in Comic Easel that isn’t included in Webcomic 5. And I can think of multiple useful functions in Webcomic 5 — ones that are a working part of the site right now — that you just can’t do with Comic Easel.
A few examples:
- Add multiple images to one comic update! (Lots of Tumblr comics are gonna need this.)
- Host multiple comic archives on one site! (Useful if you have, say, a NSFW spinoff.)
- Put content in more places in the layout! (Important if you have a banner that you want to go in exactly the right spot.)
Speaking of layout — that’s not just handled by a plugin, you’ll also want…
3.5) Installing a Theme to Go With Your Plugin
Webcomic 5 is paired with the Inkblot theme.
ETA: there are tools to help integrate Webcomic with other themes! However, these can be buggy and take some effort to get right. They’re designed for people who already had a comic site, and don’t want to redo their existing layout. But if you’re starting a new website from scratch, I’d recommend using Inkblot from the start.
Click the “Appearance” option in the WordPress sidebar, choose “Themes,” and you can search-and-install it from there.
WordPress themes work a lot like Tumblr themes…except that you don’t edit them by “diving into one long sheet of HTML/CSS, where deleting the wrong line could break the whole layout.”
Instead, you use any/all of these options:
- Tweak the defaults in “Customize” (also under “Appearance” in the sidebar menu)
- Search for other plugins that make the specific changes you want to the site’s appearance
- Make a whole child theme, which is literally just a CSS stylesheet, and go wild
The basic Inkblot theme hasn’t been updated since 2015, because it’s just a plain wireframe — tons of functionality, but no inherent style, unless/until you start tricking it out.
All the same theme!
The child theme stylesheet for Leif & Thorn is an example of how much detail you can play with, if you’re into that sort of thing.
And if you’re not, Widdershins appears to be an example of what a lovely site design you can get just by opening the point-and-click editor and making some tweaks.
By the way, while you’re doing all this setup, you’ll probably want to take a look at…
3.75) Installing Some Other Plugins
Like I said…there’s Over Fifty Thousand of these things. Any feature you always kinda wanted on Tumblr, but didn’t know how to code? It’s almost definitely here. (And very probably free.)
A word of warning: some plugins do have problems, from “messes up your layout” to actual security issues. For best results, keep these habits in mind:
- Use plugins that have high reviews, recent updates, and lots of active installations
- Keep them up-to-date (when you’re logged-in, you’ll see notices if there are updates available)
- Keep WordPress itself up-to-date (some hosts, like SiteGround, will enforce this automatically)
- Activate new plugins one-at-a-time, so if anything does go wonky, you’ll know which one to blame
Here’s a few I’m using that are working out swimmingly:
- Want to add polls? You’re covered.
- Want to hide storyline warnings behind spoiler cuts? Got your back.
- Want to auto-push updates to Facebook and Twitter? Can do.
- You can even automatically mirror updates on Tumblr. It’s that easy.
Although you probably shouldn’t activate that option until after you’ve finished the last step…
4) Uploading Your Comics
WordPress does have a default import-from-Tumblr option. It’s in the sidebar under “Tools” > “Import.”
However, as far as I know, you can’t configure it to smoothly import comic posts — not the way Webcomic 5 handles them or the way Comic Easel handles them.
ETA: I was wrong! Webcomic 5 has a mass-comic-import tool. It’ll only get the dates right if you had a consistent and regular update schedule, but once they’re all imported, you can go back and manually edit them one-at-a-time if necessary.
The good news: you can backdate them to the original day they were posted; you can tag them with characters and organize them into storylines; and you can include non-comic content (status updates, etc.) separately, as regular blog posts, so they don’t interrupt the flow of reading the archive.
You have all kinds of options. And your site is in good future hands.
Anything I missed? Something you want to hear more about? Run into a technical-support issue and want some input?
Comment and let me know!
I’ve been hosting my comics this way for almost 8 years, and I’ve seen plenty of other series make the same upgrade after one site or another failed them. If you’re in a place where it sounds good for your comic, I want to help make it as easy as possible.