Happy Birthday, Webcomics

(Originally appearing in TRIPWIRE #55 published August, 2011. Reprinted with permission.)

When I told the internet recently that I was researching the 25-year history of online comics, people tried to correct me on the typo. That was no typo: webcomics really have been around that long. As someone who’s been drawing webcomics for over ten years, sometimes it feels like even longer. And yet, like all things digital, webcomics are constantly changing, evolving, and taking hairpin turns in new directions.

The earliest online comics predate the World Wide Web itself. Almost from the moment online file transfer became available, people started using it to share comics. Eric Monster Millikin, now best known for the alternative comic FetusX, claims to have published the first online comic, a Wizard of Oz parody called Witches in Stitches which he distributed through CompuServe (remember CompuServe? No? Lucky you) in 1985. Hans Bjordahl’s college newspaper strip Where the Buffalo Roam, which he began distributing through Usenet starting in 1991, was the first regularly updated online comic. In 1993, David Farley built a website for his one-panel gag comic Doctor Fun, making it the first official on-the-Web webcomic.

In the early 1990s, I remember spending entire evenings in my teenage years waiting for pages of Charley Parker’s full-color, interactive adventure comic Argon Zark! to load on my uncle’s tiny computer monitor. No, I was not an exciting teenager. Most webcomics at the time weren’t as visually ambitious (or as slow-loading) as Argon Zark! Many were college newspaper strips whose creators had taken advantage of their school’s internet access to set up websites. Strips about the tech industry were common, too. Only a handful of people had the combination of computer access, technological know-how, and rudimentary art skills necessary to make a webcomic.

Around the mid-1990s, as home computer usage took off, the situation changed radically, and the floodgates opened to hundreds, if not thousands, of online comics.

In the first webcomics boom, two types of comics emerged as pageview-generating superstars: serial adventure comedies and comics about video gaming. Both types usually, though not always, took the form of four-panel newspaper-style strips. Webcartoonist T Campbell, author of The History of Webcomics, describes the serial adventure webcomics formula: “Start with a set of fairly ordinary-seeming young adults, quickly introduce fantastic elements, and take them on adventures, gradually expanding the story scope, slowly moving away from pure comedy to dramedy or just straight drama.” Some of the big hits included Pete Abrams’ Sluggy Freelance, about geeky housemates battling an endless array of supernatural and science-fictional threats; Campbell’s own Fans, about a college sci-fi club that defends the Earth from real monsters, aliens, and evil masterminds; and Maritza Campos’s College Roomies from Hell!, about, well, college roomies and Hell.

The first webcomic about video gaming, Chris Morrison’s Polymer City Chronicles, launched in 1995. Countless others followed, with two strips quickly ascending to the top of the heap in both popularity and overall visual polish: Scott Kurtz’s PvP, set at the headquarters of a video gaming magazine, and Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade, the inspiration for all subsequent “two gamers on a couch” strips. “Sprite” comics using pixelated video-game-style characters (often lifted directly from actual video games), developed into a popular subgenre of gaming comics, led by Brian Clevinger’s pixelated Final Fantasy-based epic 8 Bit Theater.

By the early 2000s, some webcomics were even making money. Penny Arcade became the champion of webcomic solvency, earning its creators undisclosed but considerable incomes through on-site advertising, merchandise, print editions of the comic, and even two Penny Arcade video games. Starting in 2004, the comic acquired its own branded gaming convention, Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). Holkins and Krahulik also host an annual charity drive, Child’s Play, that has raised over nine million dollars in toys and games for children’s hospitals.

Other cartoonists went for more grassroots efforts at fundraising. In 2004, when fans of Randy Milholland’s cynical slice-of-life strip Something Positive complained about his infrequent updates, Milholland replied that if they could pay his salary in donations, he’d quit his day job and draw full-time. Fans came through with the requested amount; Milholland, true to his word, quit his job and has been a full-time webcartoonist ever since.

Many cartoonists with less rabid fanbases sought strength in numbers. The first major webcomics collective, Keenspot, launched in 2000 after the demise of the major webcomics portal site Big Panda. Keenspot was soon followed by other collectives, including Komikwerks in 2001 and Modern Tales in 2002. The cartoonists on these sites hoped to share readers and raise traffic by combining their comics into a single one-stop site. Keenspot and Komikwerks made money through advertising, while Modern Tales initially worked on a subscription model, requiring readers to pay a monthly fee for access to the archives.

Daily and thrice-weekly comic strips remained the most popular webcomics, but, starting in the early 2000s, more webcartoonists started to experiment with longform comics and graphic novels. One of the first big successes was Justine Shaw’s graphic novella Nowhere Girl, published online in a single chunk in 2001. Other cartoonists, like Cat Garza (Cuentos de la Frontera), Patrick Farley (e-sheep.com), Drew Weing (Pup), and demian5 (When I Am King), experimented with the unique format possibilities of the Web, what webcomics theoretician Scott McCloud called the “infinite canvas.” Scrolling pages, interactive elements, and embedded animation were all tools available only to the webcartoonist.

As the indie comics boom of the 1990s died and the comic-book market became increasingly hostile to indie and small-press titles, many comic book creators began moving online. In 2005, Phil and Kaja Foglio retooled their steampunk comic Girl Genius, which had languished with middling sales in the print market, into a webcomic. It soon grew into one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed online graphic novels, earning the Foglios a host of awards.

“For a time,” says Campbell, “I thought video games might dominate the ‘charts’ of webcomics the way the superhero genre dominates print…But in retrospect, their rise seems tied to the general rise of special interest comics like Unshelved and Theater Hopper and User Friendly. Video gaming was just the largest and most underserved niche that webcomics found.”

Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes’ Unshelved, a comic strip set at a library launched in 2002, speaks to a very specific audience–employees at libraries and bookstores–but it’s a large and loyal audience, allowing Unshelved to carve out a comfortable niche. Some of the most successful webcartoonists of the 2000s were those who learned to use the long tail of the Internet to target an audience–whether librarians, movie buffs, video game players, or, inevitably, comics fans–with a perfectly tailored comic.

At the other end of the spectrum, one-off gag strips aimed at a casual, general audience began to rise in popularity, especially as social media sites made it easier than ever for fans to share comics with their friends. Nicholas Gurewitch’s darkly funny The Perry Bible Fellowship became a sleeper megahit in the mid-2000s, generating a bestselling print collection before Gurewitch ended the strip in 2010. Other comics, like Cyanide and Happiness, quickly filled the gap, generally with less of Gurewitch’s visual imagination but similar dark humor and shock-based gags.

Without question, the most successful, but also the brainiest, of “send it to your friends” gag strips is Randall Monroe’s xkcd, which combines simplistic stick-figure art with erudite gags often based on science and mathematics (Monroe is a physicist and former robotics engineer for NASA). “There’s an xkcd for everything” has become a common online slogan; it’s a rare internet discussion thread where someone doesn’t post an xkcd strip to illustrate a point. (Panel one: a male stick figure writes an incorrect equation on a blackboard, and another figure says, “Wow, you suck at math.” Panel two: a female stick figure writes the same equation, and the figure says, “Wow, girls suck at math.” Confirmation bias illustrated!) Today, xkcd is almost certainly the most widely read webcomic, outstripping even Penny Arcade.

In recent years, social media and handheld devices have begun pushing webcomics off the Web and into alternate formats. Having a popular website is less important than getting a comic in front of as many eyes as possible, by any means possible. Kate Beaton’s witty comics about historical figures became a huge hit on LiveJournal before Beaton created a website for them under the title Hark! A Vagrant! Beaton now distributes her comics through her website, LiveJournal, and Twitter. Other webcartoonists have begun distributing their work through e-readers and smart phones.

Says Campbell, “It seems like there’s been a general trend toward shareability, at the expense of involved storytelling, that hasn’t yet reversed.” The elaborately plotted, often convoluted story strips of the early 2000s have largely given way to niche humor and gag strips. Campbell suggests that Internet memes of the I Can Has Cheezburger variety, which combine illustrations with captions, qualify as comics.

“Everybody laughed when I suggested that I Can Haz Cheezburger was truly the most popular webcomics site,” says Campbell, “but what separates it from comics, really?” In a sense, memes are webcomics in their purest form: anyone can make them, anyone can publish them, anyone can enjoy them. Like all webcomics, they blur the line between professional artist and creative fan, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. (Okay, maybe it seems like a bad thing after the ten thousandth Hipster Ariel .jpg hits your Facebook page.)

At the same time, more ambitious webcomics, especially ongoing stories in a graphic-novel format, have found enormous success and devoted fans. The most popular include the Foglios’ steampunk juggernaut Girl Genius, Tom Siddell’s goth-meets-Harry-Potter fantasy Gunnerkrigg Court, Aaron Diaz’s transhuman sci-fi epic Dresden Codak, Tracy Butler’s anthropomorphic Jazz Age action story Lackadaisy, and Ursula Vernon’s Bone-like fantasy epic Digger. The overall level of artistic quality and professional polish in the top webcomics is higher than it’s ever been. Few current print comics can compare with Dylan Meconis’ Family Man, a meticulously researched historical drama (with werewolves) set in 18th-century Bavaria, or Jenn Manley Lee’s sci-fi epic Dicebox, about two spacefaring women in the distant future, or Spike Trotman’s endlessly inventive alternate-universe dramedy Templar, AZ.

And the world outside the Web has noticed. Girl Genius has won two Hugo Awards for Best Graphic Story, the only Hugos awarded in that category so far; the ballot typically includes other webcomics as well, such as Howard Taylor’s long-running hard SF strip Schlock Mercenary. In 2010, Time magazine included the creators of Penny Arcade in its list of the 100 most influential people of the year.

Print publishers have begun to take notice of the Web market. Newspaper comic syndicates, long hammered by the decline in newspaper sales, are moving online. In 2010, King Features Syndicate launched its first effort at simultaneous newspaper and Web publication with Oh, Brother! by Bob Weber Jr. and Jay Stephens, which appears in newspapers and on its own website. Comic book publishers have had more mixed success; DC’s webcomics imprint, Zuda, which serialized comics online before collecting them in books, folded after three years, although DC continues to publish the critically-acclaimed Zuda title Bayou, by Jeremy Love. Graphic novel publisher First Second has recently launched some ambitious webcomics projects, most notably Zahra’s Paradise, by Amir and Khalil, a comic set in modern-day Iran, serialized online in 12 languages.

Over two and a half decades of online comics, the biggest and most oft-asked question has yet to be answered: how to make money from it. It’s unclear how many webcartoonists currently make a living mostly or entirely from their comics–only a few are forthcoming about their finances–but the number seems to be small but growing. Most succeed through a combination of on-site advertising and merchandise like T-shirts and books. Experiments with the subscription model–charging a fee to read the comic or its archives–have largely fallen through, especially as the Web has become more oriented around shareability and networking.

A webcomic usually needs a massive audience to make money. The collective webcomics sites of the 2000s, once a promising opportunity for smaller webcartoonists, now struggle to survive. Keenspot stopped accepting new comics in 2009. A leaked internal memo revealed that the owners were retooling the site and encouraging cartoonists to leave: “For members on the ‘New System’ contract, everything you’re doing on Keenspot can be done on your own. You should go independent.”

Another oft-suggested business model is the system comics theoretician Scott McCloud–a major early champion of webcomics–calls micropayments: charging each customer a tiny amount of money and making a profit in volume. Over the years, a number of micropayment systems for webcomics have launched and failed. However, as micropayments catch on as a way to pay for online music and movies, most successfully on iTunes, some observers retain hope that micropayments for comics will someday become viable.

In 2009, the “crowdfunding” website Kickstarter introduced a new opportunity: an online pledge system for funding creative projects, with the creator only receiving money if the project is fully funded. Kickstarter immediately caught on with webcartoonists as a low-risk way to fund print collections. In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, Todd Allen noted that Kickstarter has become the third largest indie publisher of graphic novels in the U.S., out-produced only by Dark Horse and IDW.

“Even with a slow January,” writes Allen, “Kickstarter averaged just over $81,000 per month in funding for various comics-related projects. In May, the funding broke six figures with $102,110 split over 15 projects.” Although some of these projects came from established creators in the print world, like a Transmetropolitan art book published to raise money for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a large number were print collections of webcomics. 1

Still, no one has a guaranteed formula for making money in webcomics. The financially successful webcartoonists are usually those who are willing to get creative and tap every possible revenue stream. Chris Onstad, creator of the popular, uncategorizable alt-webstrip Achewood, tried a dazzling number of moneymaking ideas over the strip’s ten-year run, including T-shirts, posters, print collections, cookbooks, prose novels, subscription-only bonus material (first on the Modern Tales spinoff site Serializer, then on Achewood’s own site), an advice column, and a line of hot sauces. When Onstad announced in early 2011 that he was putting Achewood on hiatus to recharge, he listed “running a merchandise mini-empire” among the many commitments that had worn him out.

And that’s where webcomics are today: getting simpler and more complex, more amateurish and more professional, moving off the Web itself, and occasionally, by some fluke, making money. The world of webcomics is almost too tangled to chart. There’s probably an xkcd for that.

  1. (Recent Order of the Stick and Diesel Sweeties Kickstarters have shown crowd-sourcing finance via Kickstarter is a viable method of getting funded for specific projects related to webcomics. –Editor)