Is Your Comic A Purple Cow?

I used to read an all-ages webcomic that featured two talking dogs who made humorous observations. With pleasant characters, entertaining writing, and colorful artwork, it was a decent comic (more or less). It would have fit with other comics in the newspaper. Except it had been running for five years and had only attracted about 300 “likes” on Facebook. Also, it wasn’t lucrative enough for the creator to reach her goal of being a full-time cartoonist. After missing several new posts, I felt no compulsion to return and ultimately stopped reading it.

Since 2012, I’ve been reading a webcomic by Gavin Aung Tran called Zen Pencils. It uses popular quotes as the basis for illustrations that tell a story. These quotes are often inspirational in nature, such as Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” and Bill Watterson’s “A Cartoonist’s Advice.”

I read Zen Pencils to be moved by the quotes and to see Gavin’s interpretations of them. In the barely two years that it’s existed, Zen Pencils has attracted over 100,000 “likes” on Facebook. This has allowed Gavin to work on comics full-time, and has led to a book deal with Andrews McMeel (the publisher behind many comic strip collections, including Calvin and Hobbes). This “tale of two comics” is a reminder that in a world full of entertainment options, being decent isn’t enough. You’ve got to be remarkable. You have to be a “Purple Cow.”

The concept of the Purple Cow was the subject of a book by the same name (Purple Cow) by blogger and marketing expert Seth Godin. The idea goes something like this: If you’re driving down a road and see nothing but brown cows outside your window, you won’t be impressed by them since you’ve seen brown cows before. It doesn’t matter that the brown cows are good cows that produce good milk, or would make for a good burger — there’s nothing newsworthy here. But if randomly you were to see a purple cow? Now that’s something. It grabs your attention because it’s something unexpected, new, and unbelievable. You might even pull over to take a photo or to tweet about it. Purple Cows are remarkable — in the literal sense that they are “worth remarking about.”

So many things vie for people’s attention nowadays that the only way to stand out from the crowd is to be a purple cow amidst brown cows. Yet the goal shouldn’t be universal appeal. Instead, Purple Cows strike a chord with certain individuals who in turn share that enthusiasm with friends. Godin adds, “Don’t try to make a product for everybody, because that is a product for nobody. The everybody products are all taken.”

Godin believes that advertising no longer holds the same power that it once did; successful ads don’t rely on interruption. Consumers have learned to ignore advertisements since they’re just another voice in the noise. Even if advertisements bring some traffic to your website, who’s to say that they’ll stick around? Retaining an audience while growing your fan base starts with a remarkable product. As Godin puts it, “Investing in the Cow is even smarter than buying a Super Bowl ad.”

The Purple Cow comes in many forms in the arena of webcomics. A successful example is Penny Arcade by Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik. Back in 1998, this comic was the very definition of a purple cow. Instead of catering to a general audience, Jerry and Mike targeted fans of video game culture. This ultimately attracted a large following. Later on, the two brought on a business manager (Robert Khoo) and further expanded their business into a vast empire that now includes podcasts, web shows, and the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). In 2010, TIME Magazine honored Mike and Jerry among the hundred most influential people of the year. That level of success is impossible unless you first stand out from the crowd.

Hark! A Vagrant is another example. Cartoonist Kate Beaton found an audience by matching her wit with an extensive knowledge of history and literature. The pull of her work is so remarkable that fans overlook the comic’s irregular update schedule — her comic is a huge sensation. Are history or literary-themed comics for everyone? No. But that’s okay; Beaton doesn’t need to appeal to everyone.

Matt Inman has described his comic, The Oatmeal, as “very poorly drawn,” but its rise to popularity did not rely on good art or the expected “look” of traditional comics. Rather, it’s his distinctive tone and trademark humor that has readers hooked. Case in point: “5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth”? How about “Why I Believe Printers Were Sent From Hell To Make Us Miserable”? Where else can you find stuff like this on the internet?

The list goes on and on — you can probably name a Purple Cow or two I may have missed.


Success does come at a price. Creators of popular comics often deal with intellectual property theft, lawsuits, and harsh criticism. But successful creators don’t listen to the critics! Negativity isn’t the enemy — obscurity is. So these cartoonists continue working — growing their fan base — and the popularity of their comic attracts publishers, then award voters, and journalists. Acclaim only keeps them in the spotlight, and they grow ever popular.

You may be asking “How come (my favorite comic) isn’t getting the attention it deserves?” Maybe it hasn’t found its audience yet; this is why cartoonists must continue to create and share. But if countless people have had the opportunity to see the work and a fan base hasn’t developed, the problem may not lie with marketing. It might be the work itself. It’s a tough pill to swallow especially when you consider that some crude-looking comics outshine works that took hours to create.

Some cartoonists may be tempted to imitate these popular comics in order to achieve similar success. However, this goes against the concept of the Purple Cow — being new and distinctive. Why would an audience seek out a second-rate imitation when the real thing is available? Audiences don’t have the time for that. They want something remarkable. Also, it’s difficult to maintain one’s creative drive when creating work you don’t believe in.

The better option is for cartoonists to take risks and do new things — to find their authentic voice and style and to embody a quality that audiences will find worth sharing. Easier said than done! But when creators pull it off, they are richly rewarded. I find the path to being a Purple Cow challenging and rewarding; no “one path” will lead you to success. You don’t have to draw or write a certain way because the field is open to people with different interests and varying skill levels. If you struggle with some aspects of comic-making, try to emphasize your strengths (what makes your comic unique) over your weaknesses.

So keep making comics. Explore subjects you are passionate about. Experiment with style and format. Try to create something honest, unique, and interesting. Be patient with your progress. Once you’ve withstood the pressures of showing your work to the world, it can begin to attract a following of ardent fans who keep returning for more. They, in turn, will tell their friends and the world “You’ve got to see this comic. It’s a Purple Cow.”



4 Responses to “Is Your Comic A Purple Cow?”

  1. Arnie

    My comics isn’t even born. When it is, i’ll let you know what color it is. Thanks for this post.

  2. Mike Peterson

    There is a line to be drawn between unique and unique-ish, in that a webcomic needs to create the sense that you are in on something special, but be accessible enough that a lot of people can understand the something special they are in on. If, for instance, Zen Pencils chose brilliant quotes that only someone who had mastered Greek philosophy or spent years in an ashram could understand, it wouldn’t get the adulation it does, and Kate Beaton’s insights in history are chiefly new and exciting to people with an interest in, but a limited background in, history.

    That’s not a bad thing, of course. But it’s possible to be so unique as to be genuinely inaccessible, at which point you may have to settle for a small-but-dedicated following.

    Incidentally, the choice of metaphor is amusing because the author of the original poem was astonished to see what had been a throwaway filler for the newspaper go viral back in the late 19th century — and wrote what may be a cautionary sequel about seeing something silly catch on when you have more lofty ambitions:

    “It’s true I wrote the Purple Cow
    I’m sorry now I wrote it,
    And I can tell you anyhow
    I’ll kill you if you quote it.”

  3. Vince

    I’m trying to track down a late 90s web comic (not sure if the name existed yet) about a cow that went on adventures, like going to an amusement park. It was drawn very primitively on what looked a bit like MS-Paint.

    Anyway, the cow always became ill, threw up and went home.

    Later that night, in her paddock, she would dream of her next adventure. And that’s all that ever happened, really. Does anyone know the name of the comic?


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