Content Lessons from Comics

Last weekend I went to camp — BarCamp Seattle, that is. I’d never been to an unconference before. One of the rules of BarCamp: The first time you go, you have to present. So I spent the morning half paying attention to other people’s presentations while working on my own, which I wrote out by hand during lunch.

So: Not so much networking, but I did speak for 25 minutes on comics and content. Here are my notes. (Acutal words used: more.) Within the next couple of days I’ll post a more thoughtful consideration of my efforts, because the time scale — commitment to presentation in 3.75 hours — meant I didn’t think all of this through.


I’m James Callan, a web writer and content strategist. I’m presenting because it’s my first time at BarCamp and I knew Dylan would call me out if I didn’t.

I founded and help run Content Strategy Seattle.

If you have  a website, you don’t just need content. You already have it. The question is: Is it any good? Is it as good as it could be?

First things first: What is content?

Content is more than just messaging. It’s what your website is about.
Information. Story.
Text, video, audio, photography, illustration.
Things that convey meaning.
It’s what all the technology that goes into creating websites is used for.

In the last couple of years, there’s been lots of conversation about content on the web.

This problem — the relationship between technology and the things the technology is used for — is not unique to the web. It’s not new. It’s been solved before.


  • Movies. Edison invented the movie camera, and for a while it was interesting to see trains pull into stations and people kissing. Eventually, people wanted more, so you get screenwriters, producers, and directors.
  • TV series. Add another problem on top of the movies: Not just a single show, but 20+ in a season. Screenwriters and showrunners plot story arcs for a season.
  • Comics. The product of collaboration between writers, illustrators, plotters, publishers.

Side note: A great book for people interested in communicating on the web is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Words + pictures = meaning — just like on the web.

Here are five lessons about content that the web can learn from comics.

1. Content vs. not content.


Cool. Mysterious. Claws and a bad attitude.

But Wolverine by himself is not content. It’s a character sketch. Fan art. Perhaps a figurine. A product of skill, but not content on its own.

Content requires context to be interesting. Wolverine needs to be pitted against Magneto or Sabertooth or a bunch of ninjas.

Lesson: Use your content wisely. People are burning out on Wolverine because Marvel slaps him in anywhere. This kills the core of the character: A mysterious loner can’t be everywhere in the Marvel universe at once and stay true to his essence.

2. Build on your existing content.

Most websites start from stuff that’s already there: Printed material, pitches, ideals, company values, what have you.

Similarly, most comics come with years or decades of backstory. Superman is 70+ years old! They’re up to 24 years of current continuity (since Crisis on Infinite Earths.)

3. Explore alternate universes.

Be true to the essence of your site, but be contextual.

Everyone knows the story of Batman. The essence. But he gets expressed in a bunch of different “universes” targeted to different audiences: The flagship DC comic, Frank Miller’s out-of-continuity The Dark Knight Returns, the TV series starring Adam West, the Tim Burton movies, the Joel Schumacher movies, the several animated series, the Christopher Nolan movies.

Different executions, pitched to different audiences, but expressing the same core idea: Batman.

Another example: Peanuts, the comic strip, vs. the Peanuts characters as shills for MetLife. People get that the characters are the same but the ads aren’t “canonical.”

Use this for your brand. Do it well and audiences don’t get confused.

But do it poorly and people reject it. The transition from the Tim Burton films to the Joel Schumacher films didn’t work; the tone slipped, and though creators tried to pretend the universe was the same, the sensibilities were too far apart.

Another example: Kevin Smith recently wrote a story where Batman revealed that he pissed his pants during his big, splashy Gotham debut. There was fanboy outrage, because although the idea is certainly true to the core of Kevin Smith, it’s not true to the essence of Batman. (Neither that he’d wet himself, nor that he’d tell anyone about it.)

4. Embrace the idea of canon.

Canon (in comics) is the idea that all stories told within a particular universe (or continuity) happen, and that future stories build on them.

But: Bad decisions get ignored. Or retconned — creatively rewritten and undone down the line.

If you put something out there that people hate, or reject, ignore it. Treat it as non-canon. But expect your hard-core fans to bring it up for a loooong time to come.

5. There’s more than one way to bring it all together.

DI all Y: Very nice if you can do it — write, design, architect, code, develop, QA; or write, draw, self-publish — but it doesn’t scale to support an entire publishing line or a major website.

Google is not written by one guy.

Collaboration between content and design can happen in a number of ways along a spectrum — but it has to happen.

One end of the spectrum: The Stan Lee approach.

Lee spitballed and plotted comic book issues with Jack Kirby — for example, the first 100 issues of the Fantastic Four.

Then Kirby went off and laid out the panels and drew it all.

Stan circled back around and filled in word balloons and captions.

Result? Happy accidents, for one — the Silver Surfer started his life as a background doodle that Kirby put in there and Lee thought was a great idea.

The other end of the spectrum: The Alan Moore approach.

Moore turns in extremely detailed scripts that spell out specific contents in each panel — he’s got a vision of the book in his head that goes beyond big-picture elements.

The artist (Dave Gibbons for Watchmen, Eddie Campbell for From Hell, etc.) is free to invent within those tight parameters.

Final result: Distinct visions from each artist.

Lee is very hands off, Moore is very hands on, but they’ve both got their hands in the game. The same is true for the web: Content needs to be involved in the process, or you end up with doodling.