By Chris Buchner
What do newspapers, movies, TV shows and comic books all have in common? All of their content is available online. In the 21st century, the internet is more prominent than ever, but before the other media began finding their way onto it comics have been there for quite some time. These comics are called webcomics.
What is a webcomic? Simply put, it’s a comic available online created with a variety of mediums. Without the limitations of paper, these comics can be produced quickly and cheaply while not being forced to conform to a particular structure standard, and able to reach a much broader audience. Like their print counterparts, it has taken some time for webcomics to gain the respect and artistic recognition they deserve, but in recent years they’ve begun to get their own spotlight.
Before there was an internet as we know it today, there was Usenet and CompuServe. Usenet offered a place that functioned much like present day message boards for the free sharing of pictures and ideas, and CompuServe was the first to offer E-Mail and chat as well as a structured environment with many internet-related services in a user friendly interface. These are the services where the earliest webcomics found their roots as far back as 1986. Among them were Joe Ekaitis’ T.H.E. Fox and Where the Buffalo Roam which started out as a college strip in the Colorado Daily.
In the 1990s, webcomics began the shift into the world wide web with the introduction of the Mosaic browser when creators realized the freedom it offered. Bryan McNett created a hosting service called Big Panda, and then a webcomics portal that readers could use to find new works and creators. McNett, though, began to lose interest in the endeavor but sparked the creation of additional portals. Chris Cosby ran his own webcomic Superosity through Big Panda, but after his dealings with the site decided to create his own hosting service called Keenspot in 2000 with Terri Crosby, Darren Bluel and Nathan Stone. The plan was to have readers pay to see the strips and profit sharing with creators. In 2001, they formed Keenspace, offering free hosting services to creators. That would eventually become known as Comic Genesis with a focus on revenue through advertising. In 2000, Scott McCloud published a book called Reinventing Comics, which encouraged readers to embrace technology and take their comics onto the infinite space of the web. He believed webcomic creators could make just as good a living as those who worked in print.
Keenspot was a success, leading to more portals such as Joey Manley’s Modern Tales, Serializer and Girl-A-Matic. Hosting sites were also on the rise, such as Drunk Duck, Smack Jeeves and Webcomics Nation. While professional creators were doing original work on the web, they had also begun taking previously printed stories and creating new material for them online. Lea Hernandez, editor-in-chief of Girl-A-Matic, was one of the first to move her series, Rumble Girls: Silky Warrior Tansie, to the web after being dissatisfied with how Image Comics was handling it. Since then, many creators have begun to do the same, or at least create supplemental material to go along with what was being printed.
Slowly but surely, webcomics began to receive their due notoriety. As their popularity grew, comic awards began to take notice. In 2000, the Eagle Awards introduced a category for favorite webcomic. Following that, the Ignatz Awards and the largest comic award ever, the Eisner, added their own categories. The community also created their own awards, the Web Cartoonist’s Choice Wards, as a form of peer recognition.
Today, the line between print comics and webcomics gradually fades. Strips like PvP and Garfield Without Garfield have been published in both standard comic and collected book form. NBC’s TV show Heroes ran a webcomic on its site that filled in gaps between events of episodes and was later collected into a hardcover book. Meanwhile, in 2007 DC Comics began their own webcomics imprint, Zuda Comics. They also place several page previews for their upcoming vertigo issues, and PDF files of first issues of certain books to coincide with their release. Dark Horse puts its monthly anthology Dark Horse Presents on their Myspace page. Marvel has also recently began publishing their own all-ages webcomic strip on their site, as well as releasing free samples of certain upcoming publications and a library of back issues through their new Digital Comic subscription program.
Comics took some time to gain recognition in the artist world, and so too did webcomics within the comic world. As the internet began to grow and with the changing tastes of new readers leading towards the electronic, the print guys have begun to realize there’s something to what the web guys have been doing for some time. While it’s not likely print comics will disappear anytime soon, there is a viable market to be reached through the web, and many of the old warhorses of the industry are finally realizing it. With webcomics, creators have all the space they want to tell a story in any way they choose, can add things like animation or links, and they’re very cheap to produce. The comics industry is always looking for ways to hook in new readers, and by keeping up with the times and making the shift onto the web, they may succeed in doing just that.