A handy guide for anyone who can use it, from someone who’s been doing this for a while.
This is part of the “how do I webcomic?” series, with useful information on all kinds of comicking-related topics.
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, why Tumblr?
This post was written in December 2018, shortly after Tumblr announced a ban on all “mature content.” Which would remove pages from any comic that ever got NSFW…along with plenty of pages that were completely worksafe, since the content-flagging was done by overenthusiastic bots.
Tumblr also hid tons of content from search results, including anything tagged “lesbian” or “transgender”, anything tagged with a character name like Dick Grayson, anything with an external link (say, to your own Patreon)…
It was a mess. Even if your webcomic got through this completely unscathed, you still lost a bunch of viewers as other users decamped from Tumblr en masse.
It wasn’t the first time something like this happened, and it won’t be the last. Less than a year later, in November 2019, SmackJeeves announced the end of custom site layouts and domain names, kicking off their own mass exodus of comic creators looking for a new home.
If your comic is on a free-to-use hosting site, no matter which one it is, there is a very high chance that one day they’ll make a decision that sends you looking for a post like this.
0.5) What if, at least for now, I just want to move to another free hosting site?
Maybe you can’t afford to spend anything on hosting right now. Or your comic is 100% a casual hobby that you don’t want to put too much work into. Whatever your reasons, this is also a valid way to go.
I break down the features and advantages of some of the major Free Webcomic Hosting Options in “Help, I want to make a new webcomic, how do I start?”
Don’t just pick one at random — choose the one that’s right for your comic. Hopefully you’ll get lucky, and it’ll be a good reliable host for years to come!
But, as history has shown, not everyone gets that lucky.
Whenever you hit the point where you’re prepared to invest some money in your comic’s long-term security, you should move on to…
1) Choosing an Independent Website Host
This also involves doing some research, to figure out the cheapest hosting plan that will cover your comic’s needs. (I won’t even try to list all the hosting services out there.)
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 “email@example.com” 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.
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/Wix. These sites are 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.
To be clear, a paid host is not immune to problems of its own. The good news is, once you’re set up, it’s possible (in fact, relatively easy) to pick up the entire site — posts, images, comments, layout, the whole shebang — and settle it on a new host in exactly the same condition. If you want a specific case study, I migrated hosts in summer 2017.
Once you’ve purchased a hosting plan, 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 (which is not webcomic-friendly).
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 (limited themes, not much customization, 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:
(This is the “Classic” editor. You also have the option to use the flashy new “Gutenberg” editor. Again, it’s worth doing your own experiments to figure out which one works best for you.)
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.)
Got a big archive of existing pages? Dreading the process of uploading them one-by-one? No worries, Webcomic 5 can upload them in bulk and auto-generate posts for them.
One more note: As of this latest update (August 2020), the most recent version of Comic Easel is from November 2018. The download page will warn you that the plugin hasn’t been (officially) tested with the latest WordPress release, and may be out-of-date.
That’s auto-generated based on the age, not based on people actually reporting any bugs — I’m using it with WordPress 5.3.1, and haven’t hit any noticeable issues. So it’s nothing to panic about, just something to be aware of.
As of the same update, Webcomic was updated earlier in 2020, and is currently tested through WordPress 5.3.4, so it’s good for a while.
Okay, back to the 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.
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. 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 has the same auto-generated age warning as the Comic Easel plugin, and again, I’m using it with WordPress 5.3.4 with no actual trouble. It shouldn’t need many updates anyway, 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.
There’s also a point-and-click editor, if you want to keep things simple.
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, 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 “serious security breaches” to “messes up your site layout.” 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 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.”
And 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.