Making the Most of Filler

Nearly every webcomic has some point when the creative force behind it needs to take a break. Whether it’s because of life getting in the way or just a bout of writer’s block, sometimes the regular scheduled page just isn’t ready in time. Instead of making a subpar page in a hurry, many will choose to announce a break until things are back in order and post a placeholder in the meantime. This placeholder, commonly known as filler, is usually some concept art, an unfinished page, a guest page, or bonus art. Around the holidays, it’s especially common to see filler reflecting that holiday as the creator takes some time off. Often seen as a distraction to keep fans occupied until the real update, filler is not often something people give a lot of thought to, but with a little creativity and pre-planning, filler pages can be just as enjoyable to create and to view as a regular page.

                Probably the most fun kind of filler is guest art. There’s a special thrill that comes from seeing another artist’s take on a comic, especially if the guest artist is familiar with the comic and knows how to represent it well. Most fans appreciate this kind of work and in a webcomic that isn’t heavy on canon, like a gag-a-day comic, it can become a permanent fixture in the archives for people to enjoy for years to come. However, a certain level of courtesy is required in this case; first, always credit the guest artist and provide a link to their webcomic. Second, if the filler happens to be part of an art trade, which is common, make sure there is a good permalink so fans can travel back and forth between webcomics with ease. Giving a short description of the other person’s comic is also good form, as is a recommendation, but the most crucial thing is the artist gets due credit and the links work properly.

                Holiday or anniversary art also tends to be an enjoyable form of filler. The winter holidays are the most commonly referenced, but some webcomics will also point out a more obscure holiday or one local to the creator’s home. This sort of filler can be made in advance and planned for, which means more time and effort can go in to making these pages. Showing the main cast celebrating in their own unique way or having them interact with historical or mythical figures associated with a holiday is common, but more unique approaches are always welcome. Some creators will even have a regular theme or running series with these annual pieces, making them highly-anticipated among longtime fans. Just take care not to let too many of these accumulate in the main archives if the webcomic is heavy on story. After a week or so past the anniversary or holiday, it’s best to move them to an extras page so they don’t interrupt the pacing.

                Appreciation filler, otherwise known as the “thank you for x favs!” pages, are also well-received for their grateful acknowledgement toward readers. These are usually bunched in fifties or hundreds and feature some cast members celebrating the new readers. They’re not usually high-quality, since the fan count fluctuates unpredictably for many webcomics, but rather quick sketches put together on a whim. It’s probably best to keep these out of the main archives since their relevance vanishes after a day or two and it’s also better to make these in moderation, since too many of these can come across as a bit sycophantic. A similar form of this is the milestone filler, which celebrates a certain number of updates. Once again, these are usually bunched in fifties or tens, but unlike the appreciation filler, these are often pre-planned and extravagant compared to the usual pieces. Fans not only accept these, but look forward to them, especially if the creator has done something like this before. While they may not follow the canon of the story, they can be a great opportunity to show off and try something more artistically bold and elaborate.

                Finally, there is the hiatus filler, in which the creator is unexpectedly forced to skip an update. If this happens often, it’s better to simply not announce an official update schedule and just update irregularly. However, if this is a rare situation, a simple draft of the pending page or a short announcement can do the trick so regular readers aren’t left wondering why there’s no new page. Even better is to provide a heads-up beforehand that an update will be late, assuming this can be anticipated. Things like school finals or a vacation, for example, can be prepared for ahead of time and if there isn’t enough time to make a full page, some short filler can be created as a placeholder in the meantime. Other things, such as illness, are usually too sudden to make anything very elaborate. In this situation, things like guest art can be very helpful. As long as the update gap is explained and the filler is removed later to make room for the real page, most fans will understand and wait until the hiatus is over, especially if the filler says when they can expect the next page.

                There are two general attitudes seen in hiatus filler and it’s important to be aware of both. The first is the “funny” variety, when the creator relies on humor, often of the self-deprecating variety, and the other is the apologetic type. The humorous ones can be enjoyable depending of the tone of the webcomic, but it’s much too common for these pages to make fun of the creator for being "lazy". It’s so common that it’s becoming cliché and unique ways to pull this joke off are growing rare. It’s better to find a joke that suits the webcomic's unique style and avoid lazy artist jokes altogether. As for apologetic hiatus filler, these become less appreciated the more often hiatus occurs. After a while, just a simple announcement when to expect the next page or just taking an irregular schedule becomes the more sensible route. Also, even if hiatus is rare, it’s usually best not to go too overboard with apologies. Fans are usually fairly supportive and if the occasional break in schedule crops up, they won’t mind much. As long as they have an idea of when to expect the next update, they tend to simply wish the creator well and wait until things get back into routine.

                There are plenty of ways to play with filler and make it fun for everyone. It doesn’t need to be a chore or a way to simply occupy empty space. Although their typical function is to explain a schedule gap, when used well, they can be an effective means of keeping reader interest and even flexing some creative muscle. Like all aspect of webcomics, filler is an art too and can ultimately add to the experience.

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