So, what’s this newfangled “webcomics” thing, anyway?

DISCLAIMER: The linking of a webcomic in this post should not be taken to mean these are the only good webcomics out there, or even that I necessarily endorse them. They are primarily intended as demonstrations where they appear.

“Wet tonic”? What’s that?

A webcomic is, basically, a comic that appears on the web. It’s pretty much as simple as that.

Okay, so what kind of comic are we talking about? There’s a lot of different kinds out there. Are we talking newspaper comic strips, comic books like with the X-Men in them, stand-up comedians, or something else?

All of the above and then some. (Well, maybe not the stand-up comedian part, although that kind of “webcomic” could exist too.) Many of your favorite newspaper comic strips are available online, and have been for well over a decade, complete with archives of at least a month, at sites like GoComics.com. And both Marvel and DC comics have made a substantial portion of their libraries available online as well. The beauty of the web is, because it’s not tied to the size of a printed page, a comic can be any size you want – but we’ll get to that later.

So, those newspaper comic strips and comic books that I can read online, those are webcomics?

I guess technically they are. This is where we get into the thorny area of our definition of webcomics. For the most part, calling something a “webcomic” typically means it appeared on the web first, before appearing in some other form. For example, there was a series of steampunk graphic novels called Girl Genius whose creators decided to start publishing its pages on the Web for eventual collection into print form. Once they did that, it became a webcomic.

On the other hand, that still means you could conceivably call most newspaper comic strips webcomics, not to mention a handful of comic books that show up online on the same day they’re published. So I guess it’s not good enough to be simultaneous; they have to appear on the web before they ever appear in print. If they ever appear in print.

Okay, but I still don’t have a good have a good idea of what a webcomic is. What does a webcomic look like?

Well, again, there’s really no constraints as to what a webcomic might look like, so webcomics come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, though most try to look like newspaper comic strips to some extent, and most of the rest look like comic book pages. PVP is about the goings-on in the offices of a gaming magazine, and essentially looks like it would fit right in in your local newspaper. Penny Arcade, a commentary on video games so wildly popular it’s become a franchise spawning its own gaming conventions, uses substantially taller panels. Ctrl+Alt+Del, a comic about a group of gamers and the subject of a very vocal section of the Internet that hates its guts, arranges its panels in a 2×2 grid. Questionable Content, which can probably be best described as a snarkier Friends, uses four panels stacked one on top of the other. And plenty of other webcomics don’t use a consistent style at all, especially the more memetic or editorial-cartoony ones like the even more wildly popular xkcd. Most webcomics in the comic-book tradition, like the aforementioned Girl Genius, post a single page each time they update, though the lack of constraints the format provides means that some, like The Order of the Stick, can be more flexible with the format when circumstances warrant. And then there are comics with even weirder formats.

Scott McCloud, a comic writer and artist who revolutionized the way people saw the medium in the early 90s when he created Understanding Comics, wrote a sequel, Reinventing Comics, in 2000 where, among other things, he suggested that the freedom the Internet and computers in general provide from the constraints of the page could allow comics artists to sprawl out indefinitely, allowing comics to take whatever shape might seem natural, even in three dimensions, an idea he somewhat inadvertently gave the name of the “infinite canvas”. So far such ideas have mostly been limited to gimmicky works where the idea is part of the point, with limited application in other works, partly because it’s harder to make money when your work isn’t serialized, and there’s a lot less reason to use the infinite canvas when it is serialized, leaving the infinite canvas to those who have free time and are more concerned about “purity” than anything else. Nonetheless, there are certainly a goodly number of interesting applications out there if you know where to look, and perhaps smartphones and tablets may make it more viable. For more traditional comic-book-style webcomics, McCloud suggested a half-page format that could fit within a monitor window to minimize scrolling.

I notice that a lot of these webcomics have to do with video games and other nerdy pursuits. Are there any webcomics a normal person might be interested in?

Yeah, that’s the thing about the Internet and technology in general: the first people to flock to something new will generally be geeks, nerds, geeknerds, and nerdgeeks. Unless it’s porn. But then, is there really a difference?

But yeah, nerds definitely seem to be over-represented in webcomics, even the ones that aren’t so obviously nerdy (Randall Munroe has a degree in physics and xkcd used to be infamous for its esoteric math jokes). Heck, many of the less nerdy gag-a-day strips have ended, though Kevin and Kell, a comic about a society of anthropomorphic animals made by a newspaper-comic veteran, is still going strong. Beyond that, a lot of the rest tend not to be for the faint of heart, whether it’s a comic about a sex freak (Least I Could Do) or a comic that just goes for as much shock value per comic as it can (Cyanide and Happiness).

I’d like to read a good story. What are some good comic-book-style webcomics out there?

There are three “long-form” webcomics in particular that tend to get praise heaped upon them for their stories, two of which we’ve already mentioned. Girl Genius, in addition to becoming a milestone for migrating from print comics to the web, tends to rack up a ton of awards; its steampunk – er, “gaslamp fantasy” – setting is utterly overrun by mad scientists. The Order of the Stick started out as a simple stick-figure comic riffing on what the Dungeons and Dragons rules must look like within the game world- and achieved enough popularity that way to start looking like the Penny Arcade of D&D – but eventually expanded that out into a truly epic fantasy story that I would be willing to put among the greats of the genre. Gunnerkrigg Court may look superficially like Harry Potter with a female protagonist, but it has its own themes and direction that give it a more mythological feel. All three are available in print, though I doubt you’ll find them at your local bookstore.

There are plenty of other good stories to be found among the world of webcomics as well; one of the deans of webcomics is Sluggy Freelance, which started out as a wacky anything-goes style comic, and never really stopped being such, but managed to turn its anything-goes nature into a huge sprawling plotline that now spans close to a decade and a half of material. Schlock Mercenary has been churning out its own brand of space opera every single day for over a decade now. And special mention should go to Homestuck, about a group of kids who begin playing a knockoff of The Sims – with a twist that leads them down a road beyond imagination, which has become a phenomenon that must be seen to be believed, and whose unique format defies description even as a webcomic.

Wait, all of those are incredibly nerdy too! Are there any story comics that aren’t sci-fi or fantasy?

Yeah, same problem as with the gag-a-day comics. Here’s the thing: a lot of the older, more successful webcomic creators tend to all know each other, as well as a number of more prominent webcomic bloggers, and they often tend to circlejerk around to work with each other and promote each other’s work, and since they tend to all be nerds, when they’re not promoting each other’s work they’re typically promoting stuff that’s equally nerdy. As a result, there’s a certain ecosystem of webcomics out there that tend to be more prominent than the others (which doesn’t necessarily correlate with popularity) and which tend to determine which comics occupy the next tier of prominence, and it’s very difficult for a non-nerdy webcomic to break into that logjam, especially when you consider that webcomics, as a whole, are still in many ways sort of a niche.

The closest things there are to a non-nerdy story-based webcomic – or really, the most prominent non-nerdy comics at all – are really more akin to soap-operatic newspaper strips that follow the ongoing trials and tribulations of a group of friends and the relationships between them, like Something Positive, Girls with Slingshots, and the aforementioned Questionable Content. But even those comics tend to have wacky elements that can border on the fantastic, to the point that QC has actually been described as sci-fi (though the other two aren’t really any weirder than, say, Dilbert). Then there’s Red String and Megatokyo, two manga-styled romance comics. But for the most part, it’s slim pickings if you’re not a nerd and want to add a true webcomic to your daily routine, though there are more than a few out there if you know where to look.

Aren’t all webcomics piles of utter bullcrap, often bordering on porn, created by egotistical d-bags with no one to stop them from publishing their monstrosities for the world to see?

It’s true that there are more than a few egotistical webcomics creators out there that rub people the wrong way, most prominently Scott Kurtz and Tim Buckley of PVP and Ctrl+Alt+Del respectively, but most webcomics creators seem to be genuinely interested in their fans, the world at large, and the development of the medium. The formation of a “webcomics community” may have formed a circlejerk that keeps the attention focused on certain kinds of work, but it’s also a mutually supportive place that seeks to elevate the standing and success of all involved, and it’s possible to become popular without it anyway, the same way anything else on the Internet becomes popular.

And while there are relatively few barriers to entry in webcomics, just as on the Internet as a whole, creating a webcomic is a bit more technically complex than creating something more textually oriented – the Internet is really more optimized for text than images, so the popularity of webcomics vis-a-vis more text-based fiction (webnovels?) is somewhat surprising if not mystifying. At the very least, you need someone with artistic skills, a useful art-making program like Adobe Illustrator (possibly along with expensive add-ons like a drawing tablet) or a good scanner, and the ability to upload images to a web site and stitch them together with hyperlinks in a coherent way. Between that and the general difficulty of making it in the crowded marketplace of the Internet, in my experience a webcomic generally needs to be pretty good in order to achieve the level of popularity necessary for success, so the cream does rise to the top. There are certainly plenty of crappy and porny webcomics, but also a number of truly worthy works, some of which I’ve named above, and which aren’t even that hard to find.

But if they were really that good, wouldn’t they have been published by a real comic publisher or syndicate?

Well, for one thing, a publisher or syndicate is a middleman who takes a cut of whatever money you make and often tries to exert control over your work, which has good and bad aspects. Perhaps that’s a tradeoff you’re willing to make when you compare it to the uncertainty that you’ll make one red cent off your comic online. But neither publishers nor syndicates are really all that good at it anymore; newspapers are dying, and while you can make some guaranteed money getting your strip syndicated, if your comic is really worthy you can get a larger, more devoted, and younger fanbase online. As for comic books, that market hasn’t been that big to begin with since at least the mid-90s, especially outside the big two superhero publishers, so if nothing else publishing your story online to start with can be a massive advertisement for potential readers, growing your potential fanbase exponentially, as the creators of Girl Genius can attest. So the creators of the best work might actually be better off on the web, regardless of their desire to make money. In other words? Webcomics are the future. Resistance is futile.

Okay, I’m interested. Where do I go if I want to learn more or discover more webcomics?

You can check out some of the webcomics I’ve reviewed, including some listed here, though keep in mind that I tend to be focused on my own enjoyment of a comic more than anything else and my tastes may not be the same as yours. At the least, be sure to read the full review and take my comments (especially some of my older reviews) with a grain of salt. There are some other webcomics critics out there, but you can probably count them on one hand; the dean of webcomics criticism is Eric Burns-White of Websnark, but these days he tends to post very rarely if at all, and even in his heyday he didn’t really “review” comics so much as comment on the ones he personally regularly read. Still, you can trawl through some of his older posts for some interesting insights. Really, the only other active, worthy webcomics critics I’m really aware of (aside from some occasional ventures on broader comics-focused sites) are Tangents and The Webcomic Overlook, both of which do engage in actual reviews of webcomics, though Tangents, like Websnark and myself, tends more often than not to go off on comics he’s already reading.

There are a number of other sites that aim to help you find webcomics you might enjoy, such as The Webcomic ListInk Outbreak or Just the First Frame. TopWebComics is the last bastion of what used to be a fairly big thing in webcomics, the ongoing popularity contest; while the big comics don’t need the publicity and so don’t partake in it, it’s still a good way to find some up-and-coming webcomics with a devoted enough fanbase.

I’m considering creating a webcomic. What should I do?

First, if you’re considering creating a webcomic for the fame or fortune, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. It is still incredibly difficult to make money on the Internet, with advertising rarely being a sufficient money stream by itself, and only a fraction of a fraction of webcomics are actually successful; by most counts, you’ll need a readership in the thousands before you can expect to see more than a trickle of money. The number of webcomics to make any sort of impact anywhere remotely resembling broader culture can probably be counted on one hand (namely, xkcd and Penny Arcade). Most webcomics attempt to make money through selling T-shirts, which generally means finding something memetic that people will lap up, with the comic itself struggling to become more than a thinly-disguised T-shirt advertisement. Selling print collections of the online comics is another popular monetary stream, though the availability of the comic free online kind of undercuts it. Still, it seems to be the main money stream for long-form, story-based comics, though it undercuts the whole idea of the infinite canvas. Since McCloud, the messianic promise of “micropayments” has hovered over webcomics and the Internet as a whole, and probably always will.

Second, the easiest way to set up a webcomic site is through something set up for the purpose. Webcomic hosts like Comic Genesis, the Duck and Webcomics Nation can give you everything you need to get going quickly, though they may not be the best choice for aspiring professionals, especially since they tend to attract works of mixed quality. Generally, the best comics on those sites leave when they really start going. Another approach is to use pre-boxed tools to build your own site; there are several plugins you can install on a WordPress site (like this one) to optimize it for webcomic publishing, ComicPress (and its sister Comic Easel) probably being the most well-known, though stripShow and Webcomic are options as well. Not having experience with any of these, I can’t tell you which is best. If you have programming knowledge or know a programmer, you could code your own site by hand, but that could very easily run into problems; I took a crash course in PHP and coded a fairly simple webcomic script when I dipped my own toe into webcomics for about a year and a half, but it doesn’t seem to work with modern versions of PHP and I can’t seem to get it to work.

Third, keep in mind that the setting of the web allows you to do a lot of things that aren’t really feasible in print, and not just making your comic any size you want. You can flesh out your comic beyond the comic itself with all sorts of metatextual information, such as cast descriptions and other aids to new readers, or hide exposition about the world or characters of your comic on separate pages so they don’t get in the way of the comic itself, or leave little notes alongside each installment of your comic that might include reminders of past events, comments on the action, or just whatever’s on your mind. It can help to see your webcomic as an entire web site of which the comic is only a part.

Finally, try to suck up as much knowledge as you can about how to do this; I can’t tell you everything you need to know, not least of the reasons why being I don’t have much experience at it myself. How to Make Webcomics, by four successful webcomic creators, is often considered the Bible for making a successful and profitable webcomic, though it definitely reflects the authors’ agendas and points of view, so take it with a grain of salt. There’s plenty of other advice out there on the web, including by webcomic creators themselves, reflecting that community I was talking about earlier. You might also want to check out McCloud’s books Understanding Comics and Making Comics, especially the online chapter of the latter all about webcomics.

Anything else?

Nothing leaps to mind. You might want to leave a comment on this page if you have any other questions, though. With the way webcomics continue to evolve, I’m sure most of this post will be obsolete within five years.

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