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New Comics in New Media

The irony was deliberate when Steve Outing and Steve Kearsley soft-launched their new online comic strip, techGRL, a week ago yesterday. It’s a humor site, yes, but the goal — “not just a comic strip, but also an online community” — was no April Fools joke.

Reinventing comics online is an expanding arena. Mark Fiore and other talented folks have been blazing digital paths to revive a once-tired form. Adding online community is a natural extension of going digital.

steveouting.jpgBefore I continue, several disclosures: Steve Outing (pictured at left) is a longtime associate and friend in the online journalism world. He’s written about my work, and vice versa. I also was an investor in his now-closed company, the Enthusiast Group.

Needless to say, I empathize with Outing, having had a business letdown of my own, a failure that taught me more than just about anything I’ve ever done. Steve has jumped back on the horse, I’m glad to see, with this new project.

In a conversation about the new comic site and other current work — which includes consulting on an as-yet unveiled venture to help newspapers regain some of the classified advertising revenues they’ve lost in recent years (ahem, good luck…) — Outing described some of the ideas behind techGRL.

He and Kearsley worked together on the San Francisco Chronicle years ago, both in the art department. Their collaboration on techGRL is classic comic-strip talent-sharing — Kearsley draws it and they work together on the dialogue — plus social dimensions.

The look of the strips, currently published Mondays and Thursdays, is what you’d see in any newspaper, and that’s no coincidence. “It would be great if we got syndicate deal,” Outing says. But the syndicated strip field is “incredibly competitive, so we’re not counting on it.”

The innovation, he hopes, is in the team’s adding of conversational and social media to the mix. A Facebook application is in the works, for example. And each strip has its own blog posting, “written” by Lexie, the 15-year-old lead character. “This gives readers a way to get to know the character. beyond just the 10 seconds they might spend looking” at the strip, Outing says.

Which raises the obvious question: What do two middle-aged men know about the lives of teenaged girls? That was the first question someone named Jill asked on Outing’s personal blog when he announced the project. Here’s part of his response (from a third-party commenting site that serves comments on his blog):

Despite the name, the comic is not just about “techGRL.” “Lexi” is our 15-year-old main character (coincidentally the age of my oldest daughter), but her dad is a David Pogue-like tech reviewer who brings a lot of technology into the household, and he’s an equally important character. So we think it’s broader than being “just” a teen girl comic. We’ll have both teen and technology themes.

Some of the characters are “real people in our lives,” Outing says. And visitors to the site are invited to become characters themselves via a survey, and to help create other new characters.There’s much more at the site; take a look for yourself.

What’s the business model, assuming there is one? It’s unclear. Certainly advertising may play a role, especially if the site takes off in any remotely serious way; teenaged girls spend a lot of money in this country and are a much-favored demographic. Perhaps tech-oriented dads will also become faithful readers.

But this time around, bootstrapping, not investor financing, is the way of making it all happen. It doesn’t cost much to try these days, and that’s a big advantage for creative folks.

As noted, Steve Outing’s last venture didn’t work out financially. When he and his partners decided to shut down the business, he posted a long and extraordinarily thoughtful analysis of what happened from his perspective — and, vitally, his lessons learned about citizen media — on the Editor & Publisher website, where it now languishes behind the E&P paywall. (Read it here instead.)

(Photo from

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