Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part II: A Brief History of Comics

Blog note: The new “comic books” tag is also getting applied to Monday’s Part I. Today’s discussion will actually have more to do with comic books than webcomics. Part III will tie it all back in with webcomics. Also note that this part is almost entirely based on memory and you should consult “real” sources; even Wikipedia is more reliable than this post.

For much of the twentieth century in the United States, comics had two major forms of distribution: the comic strip, usually printed on a daily basis in the newspaper, and the comic book, distributed as an entire magazine and until the 1970s or so appearing on newsstands alongside “real” magazines. During the 1990s a third distribution avenue arose: the webcomic, distributed (as the name implies) on the web.

For many in the print comic field this may seem almost blasphemous, or at least it would have seemed such a decade ago. To compare the twaddle being released on the web by people who aren’t good enough to make it in “real” print comics, to the likes of Peanuts and Watchmen? But for reasons I’ll return to for the rest of this series, there are some very good reasons to rate comics on the web on the same level as comics in the newspaper and comics in magazines, if only because they are using the same art form.

The modern comic strip was born late in the nineteenth century, though it had been evolving long before that in the form of editorial cartoons. (I don’t count editorial cartoons as anything other than a subset of comic strips.) Somewhat arbitrarily, most histories of comics as a medium begin with Richard Felton Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid”, a key figure in the New York newspaper wars between the World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) and the Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst), getting his start at the former and eventually swiped away for the latter. (Those two papers went through various permutations before merging in 1966 and folding in 1967.) The Kid was – at least in America – one of the first continuing characters in comics, his feature one of the first ongoing fictional comic features, and most importantly, his move from the World to the Journal demonstrated the value a comic strip could have to a paper at a time when there were still more papers in a given market than you could shake a stick at. (Really, the newspaper industry has been dying for a long time, well before the Internet came along.)

So new comics popped up all over the country in newspapers desperate to stoke sales, including The Katzenjammer Kids, which introduced the sequential format and broke what we consider the “comic strip” away from the editorial cartoon altogether, and Mutt and Jeff, which was such a hit in San Francisco (where it had also made a move from one paper to another, Hearst-owned paper) it was picked up for syndication and seen all over the country. Naturally, other highlights of the comic strips swiftly made the move to national distribution. (Note: I don’t know if M&J was the first comic strip to be syndicated, or even the one that started the trend. That’s a startlingly under-studied part of comics history. But Wikipedia does say that its creator was “the first big celebrity of the comics industry”, so that’s why I’m singling it out.)

Early comic strips were either what we would call “gag-a-day” today, or in rarer cases (like Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat), travels through bizarre landscapes. During the 1920s both types gave way to the adventure comic, spearheaded by comics such as Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon, which could tell a continuing story day by day for months at a time. As these were even better at drawing people’s eyes to newspapers, since people had to come back to see what happened next, soon adventure strips were all the rage in comics.

Not long after the first comic strips came the first comic strip collections, which took a bunch of daily strips from a certain period of time and bound them all together in a book. As the story goes, someone at the Eastern Color printing company got the bright idea to take several different comics and publish a few of each in a single book. After experiments in distributing the books through mail-in coupon programs and department stores, in 1934 Famous Funnies first appeared on newsstands, and the modern comic book was born. It wasn’t long before people got the bright idea to include new material in the comic books, and before long someone by the name of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson brought in several people to create enough new material to fill an entire comic book without a single reprint, called New Fun. Thus was born the company now known as DC Comics.

I should point out that in these early days in the mid-30s, comic books were not that different from where webcomics is now. The full page of the comic book was the original infinite canvas; every month you had the full page that was then the standard for Sunday strips, without any additional daily strips to muck up the waterworks. What’s more, you could tell a story for several pages at a time (usually six to eight) every month, partly making up for the lack of storytelling over the course of the week, or at least on a weekly basis. On the other hand, having your work distributed in the likes of New Fun or its successors New Comics (later New Adventure Comics and then just Adventure Comics) or Detective Comics was considered the fate of those who couldn’t get work in real newspaper comic strips.

Such was what initially happened to the proposed comic strip from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster about an alien from another planet who ran around fighting crime in an outlandish costume while maintaining a mild-mannered secret identity as a newspaper reporter. Unable to get a newspaper or syndicate to bite on the fantastic premise, they took their creation to DC, and even there it sat in the slush pile until an editor noticed it and made it the lead feature in the first issue of the company’s latest title, Action Comics. Almost instantly, Superman was a runaway success that spawned hordes of other costumed crime fighters (including no small number at DC itself), and helped comic books climb out of the shadows of their newspaper cousins. (And ironically, led to Siegel and Shuster getting the comic strip gig they’d wanted all along.)

With adventure strips taking readers to lushly drawn faraway places and battles with pirates and evil overlords in the newspapers, and costumed crime fighters becoming an outlet for readers’ fantasies and beating up the boogeymen of the day (initially corrupt businessmen, later Nazis) in the (cheap as all get out) comic books, this was the period known as the Golden Age of Comics.

But while World War II helped bring comics’ popularity to even higher heights by giving its heroes easy villains to fight, it also helped mark the beginning of the end of the Golden Age, thanks to wartime restrictions on paper – though the changes continued later into the 1940s. Newspapers reduced the size of comic strips and replaced the full-page Sunday strip with a half-page; syndicates introduced a format that allowed Sunday strips to be reduced even further, by mandating that the first two panels be easily removed (resulting in a strip taking up one-third of a page) and mandatory panel borders be drawn that allowed the entire strip, including first two panels, to take up two lines on a fourth of the page. Ideally, if every panel was roughly square, the strip could even be run down the side. Many strips also suffered the indignation of mandatory panel borders on daily strips that forced every strip to be four square panels that could be rearranged. This effectively killed the adventure strips that thrived on freedom to roam and giving a sense of wonder, though most of the big ones stuck around, some into the present day. In 1950, Peanuts started, and would ultimately point the way forward for comic strips; gag-a-day comics proliferated on the comics pages and do so to this day.

As for comic books, the end of World War II – even with the rise of communism – meant superheroes were no longer in the cultural zeitgeist, and most of them quietly fell away. Comic books entered the only real period in their history where superheroes were not the most popular genre, as crime, romance, and horror comics started dominating newsstands. One company, EC Comics, got rich with horror comics such as the original Tales from the Crypt, but their stories helped bring the whole party to a halt, with the 1954 publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, which charged comic books with corrupting the youth and leading them to delinquency, including the disturbing images in EC’s horror comics and perhaps the first glimpse of the modern-day Internet meme that Batman and Robin might be homosexuals. Threatened with Senate action, the comics industry devised a ridiculously restrictive code of censorship known as the Comics Code, and announced that any comic had to be approved by the Comics Code Authority and receive a sticker indicating such on its cover if it wanted newsstands’ trust that no objectionable material was in there.

The whole thing drove EC out of business with the exception of Mad, which switched to becoming technically a regular old magazine and became one of the cultural touchstones of the 1960s. Left without virtually anything to publish that would pass Comics Code muster, comic books, led by DC, ran back to superheroes, which offered simple good-vs.-evil morality tales that were easier to pass the Comics Code’s bar. At first, this meant DC and no one else. But one of the imitators of the original Golden Age run, which had stumbled along at the edge of bankruptcy and had become reliant on DC for its distribution, suddenly hit a run of successes with deconstructions of the superhero like the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and the modern Marvel Comics was born. This period also saw the first birth pangs of modern geeky comics fandom, who saw fit to label this era the Silver Age. (Because you can’t just call it the second Golden Age, you have to show off how deep your knowledge of Greek mythology is…)

The Comics Code left mainstream comic books ridiculously ill-positioned to capitalize on the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. (Thanks to politically charged strips like Pogo, comic strips were slightly better prepared.) It also created a market for “underground” independent “comix” that were free from the Code’s draconian rules and were thus free to cover a wider array of subject matter. American mainstream comic books did not overcome the Code and catch up to American culture until the early 1970s, when Marvel, tasked by the US government to create some anti-drug issues of Spider-Man, saw them rejected by the Authority for daring to even mention drugs. Marvel released the issues without Code approval, and the Authority was left with egg on its face. DC also broke new ground with a series teaming conservative superhero Green Lantern with liberal Green Arrow in an examination of all the problems America faced. The Code was forced to revise its guidelines, and by the early part of this decade even Marvel had dropped the Code entirely.

(Note: Many in comic book fandom use the term “Bronze Age” to describe comics published after a number of shifts around 1969-1973. I think the spot that’s closest in spirit to the division of the Golden and Silver Ages, at least in terms of overall industry sales and the popularity of superheroes, is a decline in sales related to an ongoing recession and the shift in distribution paradigms below, in the mid-to-late 70s.)

Later in the 70s, comics were effectively forced off newsstands and into stores devoted to selling only comic books. Comics left the newsstand distribution system and moved to what became known as the “direct market”, originally used to describe a middleman-free system where comic shop owners bought their comics direct from the publisher. After a period of declining sales, what was left of comics fandom had effectively been thinned out to an almost exclusively geek crowd. Eventually the middleman-free system would evolve into a system involving a number of comics-specific distribution companies, eventually thinned out to one with an effective monopoly on mainstream comics distribution, Diamond Comic Distributors.

The new comic shops were places of superhero fandom (DC and Marvel, often now written by people raised on Silver Age comics), by superhero fandom (think the “Comic Book Guy” on The Simpsons), and for superhero fandom. Nonetheless, if you had a comic book and you wanted to be distributed, until this decade the comic shops were the way to go. Some in the business worked on the concept of the “graphic novel”, attempting to liberate the comic book from its magazine origins and write longer works in comic form, helping to inspire things like Understanding Comics. Despite the ghettoization of comics, they enjoyed a brief resurgence in the 1990s as a fad linked to stories of the high prices commanded by classic Golden Age comics, bringing hordes of people into the comic book stores looking to buy a retirement fund. Ignoring rules of supply and demand, Marvel and DC resorted to all sorts of ridiculous gimmicks to sell massive numbers of comics – then the bottom fell out and took the comics industry down so hard Marvel declared bankruptcy.

By the mid-to-late 90s, when comics started appearing on the web, both of the existing types of comics were either in ongoing or entering states of flux. The comic strip has not changed much from the example set by Peanuts of simple, gag-a-day storylines; daily newspaper comic strips with ongoing storylines are the exception and not the rule. Part of the vitriol directed at Garfield is that it is perceived as further imbecilizing the comics pages by encouraging easy-pitch formulaic premises produced in assembly line manner. Comics such as Bloom County and Calvin and Hobbes attempted to raise the quality of the comics pages, but little real change has happened.

And it’s getting worse. What comics have anything even approaching being memorable since the 1989 start of Dilbert? The Boondocks? Maybe critically-acclaimed “quirky” strips like Pearls Before Swine or Get Fuzzy? So many of the comics lining the comics pages these days seem to just be unmemorable copies of one another over and over. Imagine what an impact Penny Arcade might have had in newspapers, how different it might have been just by rising above the sea of mediocrity – or maybe it would have been lost in the shuffle and never had anywhere near the impact it did. Or both. Newspapers have always relied on comics as a way to sell newspapers, but just as the Internet started challenging their dominion in this decade, the comics they had always carried could be found on the web as well, and most of them aren’t worth reading anyway. Comics can’t save newspapers this time.

At the same time, the distribution system of comic books in place for 30 years is starting to crack. Graphic novels and collections of the monthly comics (and even the monthly comics themselves) have started to crack bookstores (if slowly), and the rising popularity of Japanese manga since the 90s have turned bookstores into a primary place to get the comics. I’ll expand on that later in the series in Part III or IV with a discussion of a recent development at Diamond with potential for great impact on webcomics. For now know this: old monthly comic books increasingly look like relics from a bygone era.

Between these developments, by 2020 webcomics could be the only first-run distribution mechanism for comics that I mentioned at the start of this post, and one of two with graphic novels. Figuring out what to do with that possibility looming is part of the point of this series.

Then there’s all the issues of creator control and creator’s rights that afflicts both comic strips and comic books. In addition to all the size and layout constraints, comic strips are a very regimented world where you are basically a hired hand and take a lot of guff from syndicates who are afraid of potentially offending anyone, and where the syndicate reaps most of the benefits of your work. The rights of the creator has been a big issue since at least the 70s, and in the 80s and 90s some cartoonists such as Bill Watterson made inroads on creative and financial control of their work (oddly, Jim Davis of all people had a lot of success with the latter), but Eric Burns(-White) suggested back in 2004 that they may have actually hurt the cause of creator’s rights in the long run, simply because they ended their strips after only ten years or so instead of continuing for decades, meaning they sent the message that giving cartoonists what they wanted wasn’t worth the trouble. One may surmise the flip side of this: wannabe edgy cartoonists going to the web instead. (Of course, only two years later Diesel Sweeties was distributed to newspapers by United Features in a deal that meant little more than a little extra work for R. Stevens, who merely wrote a parallel strip – a sign of just how far in the dumper newspapers had already fallen.)

In comic books, the problem is more with the creators of Golden Age properties and the like; you may have heard about the legal troubles DC has had with Siegel, Shuster, and their estates over various Superman rights since the 70s. Comic book writers and artists are even more hired hands in superhero comics, effectively writing what amounts to fanfic. Once again people have been pushing for more control over what they create, and early in the 90s several superstar Marvel artists left to form their own company, Image, that would serve merely as a publishing platform for comics owned by their creators. The problem, as we’ll get to later, is that only a few publishers are able to make inroads in Diamond’s catalog and while financial success isn’t exactly a sane goal in traditional American monthly comic books at all, it’s pretty much a fool’s errand if you don’t work for DC or Marvel (meaning you make superhero comics), and hard to even get started (harder now – again, for reasons we’ll get to) if you don’t align yourself with one of a handful of other companies, maybe five or so, and that includes DC and Marvel.

So that’s another reason we could be left with webcomics and graphic novels by 2020: an artist (here used as a broad term) would be insane to deal with the antiquated ways of old.

This part would serve as a great lead-in to the first current topic that inspired this series. But first, we need to take a detour through Scott McCloud’s vision of webcomics to figure out where we are and where we could be going. And as I write this, I’m not sure which I’m going to do first, and I may do them simultaneously.

This is going to become very meta very fast.

I didn’t intend for this to be YWIB week here on Da Blog. My YWIB post was originally going to be one part to be released last week, with a followup on Powerup Comics this week, but the post on YWIB itself got split into two parts and delayed to this week. Nonetheless, I really thought I was done when I finished my post on Powerup Comics, but – probably unaware of what I was doing – Eric Burns(-White) has a rather interesting and relevant post on Websnark that aims to answer the question: Is it possible to criticize the critic? Hey, that’s exactly what I did on Monday and Tuesday!

Burns(-White) also believes it’s obvious the answer is yes, and starts by identifying three definitions of criticism that, to varying extents, we’re probably all familiar with. The first is your English teacher’s definition, what Burns(-White) calls the “analyst” or “scholarly” definition, deconstructing a work to figure out what it’s saying and how it’s saying it. The second is the “reviewer”, which basically says whether a work is good or bad. The third is “critic” as in being “critical”, essentially bashing whatever you’re, well, criticizing. To broadly oversimplify, Websnark generally tries to be definition 1, while Tangents tends to fall more under definition 2, especially as it’s tried to drift away from definition 1. (We all know what definition YWIB falls under.)

We’ve probably all seen all three of these definitions, and seen them get conflated and confused (especially if we’re aware of and looking for them), but what this post, pretty much unintentionally, put into focus for me was how interrelated these three definitions are, and how these interrelations contribute to the conflation (hey, I lost this post earlier today to a Blogger/IE7 bug and I’m retyping this post from memory while something else is on trying to at least continue to claim I posted it on Friday, and failing, so give me a break – I watch TV pretty much nonstop on Fridays from 2 PM to midnight). It can be hard to review something without giving reasons why you think it’s good or bad, which often means dipping into definition 1, and similarly, it can be hard to focus on what a work does, and certainly how it does it, without slipping into value judgments on whether or not it does it right. As for definition 3, that’s basically a modification of definition 2, and it can be hard to determine whether a disapproving review is definition 3, or a negative version of definition 2. If, as Burns(-White) does, you include “constructive criticism” under definition 3, it essentially becomes a conflation of definitions 1 and 2. YWIB has a lot more to do with definition 1 than definition 2.

Burns(-White) then demonstrates how all three definitions are themselves subject to all three forms of criticism, which I won’t get into except to say that Part I of my YWIB review was more definition 2, and Part II was more definition 1. He then finishes by stating that, to some extent or another, he’s written all three forms of criticism on Websnark, prompting the first commenter to respond:

And, if you’ll forgive me a moment of critique, you fall squarely in the first definition of critic. You’re too polite to go far in the third definition, the snark. And you focus too much on things you personally enjoy (or which are created by your personal friends) to be an effective reviewer for new or unheard of comics. And that’s fine — this is your blog, first and foremost, and people should be aware that they’re getting only what you want to write.

The webcomic world really could *use* a popular, unbiased, and wide-focus reviewer. But you ain’t it, and you should push back against people who want you to be.

This prompted a later commenter to respond: “When there are so many “reviewers/bloggers/news site owners” looking to do little more than get in the good graces of their favorite creators so they can hang out at cons together? Might as well ask for all of Bill Gates’ money while you’re at it.”

First off, I’d have to disagree with both Burns(-White) and that first commenter; if anything, Websnark fairly consistently falls under definition 2, even when it tries not to. It makes a point in the FAQ that the name is somewhat misleading, as it doesn’t really snark so much (other than “You Had Me And You Lost Me” I’d be hard pressed to find a single example of definition 3), and even when attempting to simply do analysis and deconstruction can often incorporate how whatever he’s examining made him laugh or how much he’s enjoying what the strip is doing. On occasion, Burns(-White) has even mentioned times when a strip just isn’t doing it for him, so he doesn’t praise every strip.

The major issue with being a “popular, unbiased, wide-focus reviewer” mostly has to do with the wide-focus part. There are a lot of strips that aim for specific niches. It’s hard to truly appreciate a strip like Penny Arcade or Ctrl+Alt+Del or even User Friendly if you’re not a part of the gaming subculture. On those occasions when xkcd refers to some obscure bit of math, if you’re not a math major you may find it hard to assess properly.

I’m not a definition 1 critic; I’m just too detached from all the esoterica of scholarly analysis to examine comics as closely as Burns(-White) is known to do sometimes. I’m just not that much of an English major. Yet much of what I’ve done so far has been, in fact, best categorized under definition 1, in part because of the areas where definitions 1 and 2 overlap and in part because I’ve seen myself as something of a successor to the once-dormant Websnark. Now that Websnark has started to come back to life again, and with the start of school coming up in less than a month now, I’ve been starting to think about possibly dropping my webcomic reviews.

I think, especially if Part I of my YWIB review is any indication, I’ve started to see myself as a definition 2 critic and even potentially the answer to the commenter’s call. But it’s very hard to be wide-focus enough to properly assess all the webcomics out there, and it’s always very tempting to slip into definition 1. Those are the main reasons there isn’t a truly unbiased popular webcomics reviewer out there, why “the Roger Ebert of Webcomics Criticism” (definition 2) is someone who fancies himself a definition 1.

(And now one of the commenters says another reason is that you’d need to either pay someone or have enough money not to need a job, rendering any other considerations irrelevant. Them’s fighting words.)

Because there’s a chance this is the only post you’ll get from me today. Well, other than the Random Internet Discovery.

After what’s seemed like ages off – months, really – Eric Burns(-White) has been surprisingly active recently at Websnark. In fact, one recent post had all the trappings of Websnark’s heyday, complete with “click for full sized (insert description relevant to strip under discussion here)” and short, snappy description of the strip in question. (And he’s done another one since then!) I don’t think he dipped very far into the lexicon, but it was a far cry to the more in-depth analyses of the “State of the Web(cartoonist)” series, and a welcome change of pace from the lengthy exegeses on non-webcomic-related Internet controversies that had marked the last few months of seeming hiatus. Eric Burns’ audience was built on webcomics, and I think a goodly number of people reading the RSS feed probably read these exegeses and thought, “That’s great, but when are you going to talk about webcomics again, Eric? When are you going to talk about the Ctrl+Alt+Del miscarriage storyline? Or the recent racheting tension at Order of the Stick? Or Girl Genius? Or whatever the hell happened to Penny Arcade? Or or or…”

Well, on the aforementioned harkening back to Websnark’s heyday, I had left a comment saying as such. And on a recent strip marking Websnark’s fourth anniversary, Burns(-White) referenced that comment and referred to me by name.

Okay, so maybe this is a narcissistic, ego-stroking post. But if he’d bothered to link to Da Blog, it would have been an acknowledgement of a traffic bump! But it points to a reason why I’m doing webcomic posts: Websnark has loosened the slack, Tangents basically doesn’t exist right now, and I don’t know of another active site that’s really a close equivalent to either. (Okay, so Burns(-White) tells me there are “a f***ton of blogs about webcomics”, but damned if I know what they are.) But I can’t pick up the slack too much because I have other interests as well and I don’t have that kind of time.

I do feel this line may be relevant to me:

Well, for one thing, it means we can all stop taking things so fucking seriously all the time. I gave up drama a while back, and I’ve mostly stuck to that, and I’ve found I enjoy things a lot more than I used to. It means that the chances that Websnark — or any largely webcomics related blog — can claw up to almost six figures of readership again are pretty damn low. There’s too much out there, which means there’s too little need to congregate at one writer’s doorstep. It means that there’s no need to do this kind of thing… except of course if you enjoy doing this kind of thing.

Except. It’s still worth it to make sure everyone’s doing everything right, to keep webcomics honest, to show who deserves a biscuit and who deserves dog s**t, because market forces are the only way comics get forced out on the Web. That’s the stated goal of the site I intend to look at in my second webcomics post of the week. Whether it succeeds – and what its unwanted success in terms of readership numbers really means for the future of webcomic blogs, and webcomics – will be among the topics I intend to look at.

This post rambles on for ages and ends up going nowhere. I think I need a biscuit.

Prelude: At one point, when I was very young, before I had an e-mail address, I would occasionally use my mom’s e-mail account to give certain people a piece of my mind. Hey, I didn’t have anything else to work with. I would end up lectured as much for their content as for the act of using her e-mail address to do it, and sometimes Mom would discover the message before I even sent it and dissuaded me from it, like the time, shortly after the TV rating system was introduced, when I started writing an e-mail to some random web site as a starting point for starting to assign a Web site rating system, but Mom found it and dissuaded me from it. Keep in mind, I WAS, LIKE, TEN YEARS OLD! And I’m acting like huge committees all by my lonesome.
Anyway, as this behavior progressed I started including entreaties not to reply to my e-mails, lest my mom found out about them. And lo and behold, they DID reply, and my mom DID find out about them, and I DID get lectured. Such as the time (bringing this to the topic for the rest of this post, which has nothing to do with the “about me” tag) when I made some comments about how some guy could improve his web site, complete with entreaty not to reply, and I got a Notepad file on the desktop saying, among other things, something like “PLEASE don’t make comments on other people’s sites, or you will have to be chaperoned while using the Internet!!!”

(Since 2000, I haven’t had to share a computer with Mom while using the Internet, and I got my own e-mail address in 2002, minimizing the problem. And I finally started getting the hint as well.)

Anyway, the point of all this rambling is, I don’t like making critical comments on another web site.

But this is a blog, not an e-mail. And a blog is different from a web site as well. And I do feel I should probably explain this strip, because to this point I haven’t really done much to connect to the broader “webcomic community”, and I may as well make some comment on the site of which I speak.

And it helps that I’ve met several blogs that precisely do make critical comments on other websites, including, especially, the one of which we speak today. (Nonetheless, I still feel somewhat queasy about the enterprise…)

Websnark was originally the final evolution of a series of blogs by Eric Burns (as I’ll explain later, that’s not quite accurate); in fact, before the blog’s “official” birth date of August 20, 2004, one will find a number of posts dating back to January of that year, only much further spaced apart, longer form, and about more random topics – the remnants of Burns’ attempt to revive his “online journal”, ported to Websnark.

Specifically, Websnark was Burns’ plan to clear the junk out of his still-running Livejournal and allow it to be refocused. I’m going to make a metaphor using the structures in place at this site: Burns wanted his Livejournal account to be composed mostly of the sort of posts I would tag “about me”, but instead it was mostly the sorts of things I would tag “internet adventures”. In his case, “internet adventures” usually meant whatever random memes were criscrossing the Internet and “pictures of dogs”, which basically meant whatever webcomics struck his fancy, but in theory, Websnark was going to be specifically devoted to neither, just shuttling between the two. In practice, after the first post it would be another 11 posts until the next non-webcomic post. Websnark has had its fair share of non-webcomic posts – in fact, I would estimate that as it became more popular as many posts were not about webcomics as were (especially, circa early 2005, posts about itself) – but webcomics would be its bread and butter, the ticket that took it to the dance.

And as it turned out, it would deliver Eric Burns fame, fortune, and even, as made official just this past weekend, a wife.

The Internet has redefined the phrase “overnight sensation” but even by its standards Burns’ ascent seems amazingly literal, both for the speed from which he went from being maybe as famous as me to one of the biggest names in webcomics, and how quickly that ascent came after his blog’s foundation. No less than four days after starting Websnark, Burns wrote an unusually sarcastic and, well, snarky post (despite the name, Websnark does not particularly make fun of its subjects as it does neutrally, or even positively, comment on them with a funny tone) that started a chain of events that netted his little corner of the ‘net thousands of readers. He ragged on popular webcomic PVP for how unpredictably it might update each day, his ragging was brought to the attention of PVP’s creator, Burns was rapped by the PVP forum regulars, and went on his merry way.

Just two days after that, Burns returned to the topic of PVP, for substantive reasons this time, PVP’s creator liked it enough to link to it on his front page, and the floodgates were opened.

There are a few more stops along the way, and Burns himself goes into plenty more detail on the rapid rise of Websnark here. Long story short, Websnark became as much of a go-to place as some of the webcomics it remarked upon, including with webcartoonists themselves. This despite the fact that Burns engaged in a form of advertising known as “none whatsoever”.

Maybe it was the smartness of the criticism. Maybe it was the respect Burns paid to the medium. Maybe it was how constructive and neutral he could be with the criticism, coming from the perspective of a reader without a horse in the race. Or maybe it was that he was doing it at all.

…But a surprisingly large number of webcartoonists started regularly reading.
This surprised me. This surprised me a lot. And it made me realize that there
weren’t that many people out there doing what I was doing — offering up
critiques of the medium and discussions of the individual executions. […]

The dialogue is all important in art. It’s criticism — in the truest sense of the word. The understanding and analysis of what is there. The placing of art within the cosm of its fellows. The distillation and discovery of new truths from interpretation. I’m not going to claim to be the first webcomics critic, nor anywhere near the best, but through luck and timing I managed to become one of the better known. It got me two gigs that mean the world to me — writing for Comixpedia, and contributing to the Webcomics Examiner — and it’s spawned others trying to do the same thing. Tangents, by Robert Howard. I’m Just Saying, by Phil Khan. Journey Into History (and the HB Comic Blog) by Bob Stevenson. Webcomic Finds by Ping Teo. The Digital Strips Blog and Podcast, by Zampson and Daku. And many, many others.

I’m not saying I’m the reason those guys are doing what they’re doing. I’m not saying Websnark by Burns and White was necessary for all those other voices. But we clearly had an impact. We clearly caused some folks to read what we wrote and say “wait a second — I can do that!” And that’s monumental. That’s massive. That is good for comics in general. That is good for webcomics in particular. The dialogue improves everything. And if my making this blog a year ago helped that… well, that’s about as fine a thing as I could hope for.

I advise you to read that whole post, if only to marvel at how prominent Burns became after only a year of posts. There are blogs that become insanely popular for a time, there are blogs that develop devoted followings for a time, but in all likelihood Burns and Websnark takes the cake.

And there are good reasons for that. By no means was Websnark the first place that commented on webcomics, nor am I in any place to say whether it’s the best. But I can say with some degree of confidence that Websnark was probably the first place to treat webcomics like War and Peace, and certainly the first to do it in a humorous tone. And Websnark – this is important – could take webcomics seriously when webcomics didn’t take themselves seriously.

At right is a 2005 strip from semi-popular webcomic Casey and Andy. Click on the thumbnail to see it in all its glory.

Probably the majority of webcomics fall into two categories: the video game comic, in which a cast of nerds sit around all day being nerds, including playing video games and making commentary about the world of video games. Sandsday falls into this category.

The comics that aren’t video game comics tend to be strips where wacky adventures happen to ordinary people. Alien abduction? Getting turned into Bigfoot? Being made the bride of Satan? All par for the course, and in fact, child’s play for some strips. Casey and Andy falls into this category, and this strip captures the mood perfectly. (And it’s arguably tame compared to, say, Sluggy Freelance.) If a webcomic doesn’t fall into one of those two categories it’s probably some combination of the two, at times simultaneously. There are exceptions, but even the exceptions tend to be nerdy in some way.

That, by the way, is the sort of analysis Websnark foisted upon the world, and which is now far from unique to Websnark. And I haven’t even gotten into the effect created by the way Andy Weir draws eyes. But I digress.

This strip was unleashed to the world during the closing stages of Websnark’s golden age. You probably see a funny strip where wacky hijinks happen. I mean, she gets yoinked away, then returns after a few weeks of adventure and picks up the conversation as if nothing happened! And she’s wearing a bikini warrior outfit! It’s madness! MADNESS I TELL YOU!

Well, Eric Burns sees this:

Some time ago, in the course of snarking Casey and Andy, I mentioned that Jenn Brozek had become the strip’s protagonist. My thesis was simple enough: Casey, Andy, Mary, Satan, Quantum Cop and all the rest were funny characters that funny things happened to, but Jenn was the strip’s Mary Richards — she was the (relatively) normal character who had insanity surround her. As a result, her reactions echoed the reactions of the reader. She might be Queen of the Hunkinites, but her reactions are those of a normal person. More or less.

And, as a result, the major plot arcs seem to center on her. Jenn gets kidnapped transdimensionally or temporally. Things happen. Other things result. Her air of normalcy lends itself to weird situations.

However, part of character development is growth. If Jenn remained aggressively normal, she’d become a one-note joke character, existing only to not be quite as weird as everyone else. Sooner or later, she has to take weirdness in stride.

Today’s strip makes it official. Jenn getting kidnapped and going off on a several week jaunt which leads to her coming back in significantly different clothing doesn’t make her bat an eye. She’s ready to pick up her conversation.

Not to mention that even before she was kidnapped, she was casually burying a satchel in the yard.

Jenn may still be the protagonist of the strip, but she’s not Mary Richards any more. She’s gone full on Phyllis on us.

(Does anyone even remember Phyllis? I always liked her character.)

It’s a psychoanalysis of Jenn’s whole character spun out of a single strip! I haven’t even chose a particularly representative example of the sort of madness Burns brought to his craft at his height. This is a fairly good example. I think.

But I have a few more thoughts on this. (Pardon me if this post sounds really random right now. I’m really tired and I spent way too long reading Websnark posts instead of writing about it. And now I’m aping parts of its style. I really need sleep.)

I’ve talked about the rise of Websnark. Now I want to talk about its fall. Which Burns totally saw coming. “I’ve maintained for a while that we’ve found the audience we’re going to find, and readership is only going to decline from here,” he writes in that first anniversary post. By 2007, he was barely posting at all, as he recognized in one of the rare actual posts:

[I]n 2006, Websnark was running somewhere close to the height of its popularity. I think the “glory year” was probably 2005, but 2006 was still doing darn nicely. At the same time, I was at that point a creature of habit. There are things that I did, and things I didn’t do, and very little breaking up of them.

Which is the nature of a thing like Websnark. When you begin, you’re throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sooner or later, you get a sense of what sticks and then… well, you stick with it. You become formalized. You become ritualized. You become expected and perhaps complacent. And for a while, you run high on that formula, because it really is what people want to see, and you really are pretty good at it, and it’s all pretty fun.

Eventually, of course, things run their course. There is shift, and breakdown. You lose your enthusiasm. Daily posting becomes weekly posting, and then monthly posting. People might still read, but things shift from water cooler talk to “oh yeah, he’s on X again,” to nodding and moving on. You become part of the landscape, and eventually you become yesterday.

That is not a complaint, mind. It’s what we predicted from day one — there is a life cycle to these kinds of things. And no, Websnark isn’t going away. Er, more than it already has, what since it’s at best getting handfuls of posts. Regardless, I’m always happy when people come back to see what’s going on.

I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Burns portrayed his decline as inevitable, as some sort of natural law of the Internet. Until I re-read this, I was going to talk about how Websnark is not a good test case. For one thing, it dropped down to posting on certain rare occasions; for upwards of a year, Burns posted every single day. I wrote before that when you update your site every day, people forgive missed updates easier than when you update less often but still consistently. Miss a heck of a lot of updates, however, and you can see the holy fury coming down on your ass. Actually, check that. You can see people acting as if you never even existed.

Had Websnark kept updating every single day, or even a few times a week, perhaps it could have stayed popular indefinitely. Certainly there are plenty of sites on the Internet that have maintained the same level of popularity for ages. But perhaps that’s Eric’s point: he didn’t maintain the same level of enthusiasm for Websnark. Things change. Tastes change. What may seem like the thing you’re intensely, obsessively proud of today may be something you go “meh” at tomorrow. Why, just earlier this year, I fancied myself a philosopher, making pithy, insightful comments on human nature. Now? Political activist. But more on that later in the summer and into the fall. And back in high school I fancied myself a novelist, and before that a famous musician, the MTV kind (you know, if MTV still did music videos and all)…

But there are other reasons for Websnark’s decline. Nearly a full year ago, Burns explained how he was burning out on webcomics. But even at the height of Websnark’s popularity, in 2005, Websnark was starting to drift away from webcomics and into other topics. A signifcant number of posts were about Websnark itself and its growing popularity.

Anyway, the point is: Did the people burn out on Websnark, or did Eric? And if it was Eric that burned out on Websnark, does that really give us any real insight into the working of the Internet, or just into the mind of one Eric Burns?

Well, Websnark may be on the rise again. Back in February it got back into hardcore webcomic commentary with “State of the Web(cartoonist)“. Or maybe “State of the (Web)cartoonist” depending on the week. Anyway, each day Burns would take a look at one person with a webcomic and take a look at that webcartoonist’s strengths and weaknesses and what Burns thought of that cartoonist’s strip. And he posted every single day! For two weeks. Then his schedule started slipping and eventually posts became just as nonexistent as before. Recently it returned for a spell, remarked on three comics, and disappeared again.

He was going to do sixty-five webcomics. By my count, he’s done fifteen cartoonists. And I was counting on getting this strip up the instant he was done with those sixty-five comics, dammit!

Well, it’s not like he’s going to notice it in time anyway.


Dear God I need to get to bed. It’s one in the freaking morning as I finish this. It’s taken me several days to write it.

And I’m probably going to regret every word of it.