Three Tips For Including Popular Culture In Your Webcomic


Well, since I’m busy making a webcomic mini series (that will appear here in early October) at the time of writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about webcomics again. In particular, I’ll be looking at including things from popular culture in your webcomic.

After all, webcomics are often reactive things. If your webcomic is set in the present day and/or in something resembling the real world, then pop culture is probably going to appear every now and then. After all, it appears in everyday life every now and then.

So, how should you (and when should you) include it in your webcomic? Here are a few tips:

1) Copyright: First of all, I’m not a copyright lawyer and none of what I am about to say should be taken as legal advice.

That said, you’d be surprised at how much leeway, both officially and unofficially, there is for including visual references to popular culture in your webcomic. Just remember, if you are including highly-specific visual references to copyrighted things (eg: detailed drawings of copyrighted characters from movies, games etc…) in a webcomic update – then don’t release that webcomic update under any kind of Creative Commons licence.

Generally, most copyright laws (eg: US and European laws, amongst others) make an official exemption for parodies and/or critical review or commentary. So, if you’re making a satirical point about something, then you can probably include it in your webcomic. Likewise, if you are comparing different elements of popular culture, then this possibly also falls under “fair use” or “fair dealing” exemptions found in many copyright laws.

For example, here’s a panel from an upcoming comic update of mine which is about changes in the media since the 1990s. It features a drawing/painting of one version of the poster art from Robert Rodriguez’s “Desperado” (1995), as an example of how mid-budget films (which are a lot less common these days) made popular culture much more interesting during the 1990s. The cool-looking poster art is contrasted with a cynical comment about modern Hollywood below it, so it almost certainly falls into the realm of critical commentary and/or parody.

 The full comic update will be posted here on the 7th October.

The full comic update will be posted here on the 7th October.

Likewise, non-commercial fan art (as long as it is tasteful. Unless it is a parody, in which case you can possibly be a bit tasteless) is usually tolerated by most major media companies even if it goes against the letter of copyright law. After all, it generally isn’t in their interest to alienate their fans (by censoring fan art) or to miss out on something that strengthens the loyalties of existing fans and could possibly also serve as free advertising.

So, yes, occasional parodies, visual references etc… to popular culture are usually ok in webcomics. Just make sure that you actually have a good reason for including them though.

2) Copy by sight: Yes, if you’re making all or part of your webcomic digitally, then it might be tempting to just copy and paste parts of screenshots, posters etc.. directly into your comic. Don’t do this!

Not only can this often look visually jarring (eg: realistic images contrasted with cartoons), but it also means that both you and your audience will miss out on one of the coolest things about including visual pop-culture references in your webcomic.

I’m talking about the opportunity to see what parts of the surrounding culture look like when they are rendered in your own art style.

Yes, learning how to copy by sight can take a bit of effort and you might find certain things easier to draw than others, but it’s worth persevering with. Not only will your pop culture references fit seamlessly into your comic, but you’ll also get to see what your favourite characters, actors etc… look like when they’re drawn in your own style.

3) Have a reason: I know I mentioned this earlier when I was talking about copyright, but it’s worth discussing purely in creative terms. Have a good reason to include visual pop culture references in your comic!

In other words, don’t include pop culture references as a lazy substitute for actually coming up with good jokes, developing interesting characters etc…. The amount of original stuff in your webcomic (as a whole) should outweigh the amount of references to other stuff in there.

A good attitude to take is to actually be reluctant to include pop culture references in your comics. Taking this attitude means that they’ll only appear when they are absolutely essential to the comic update that you’re making. In other words, they’ll be funny, distinctive, thought-provoking and/or interesting every time they appear.

Likewise, another good reason for including visual pop culture references is that they can also help you to illustrate elements of your original characters’ personalities (eg: their perspective on the culture around them). But, if references appear too often, then your comic can end up being less about your own characters and more about your own perspective on popular culture.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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