Not only has the Internet shrunk the world to the point where I can virtually walk through a shack in Antarctica, it’s also brought us the versatile and exciting medium of webcomics. Webcomics are free from the constraints of editors and publishers and the physical dimensions of paper. One or two people can sit down with an idea or concept and with the smallest amount of technical know how to create a body of work that touches millions of people daily. The only constraints of the medium seem to be an author’s personal time, funds for reliable web hosting, and determination to stick to regular publishing schedule.
The talent pool that has moved to online distribution has been, for the most part, incredible. As the newspapers began neglecting their comic pages and only reprinting work from long-established series many of the emerging voices moved online, as did many alternative comic book artists whose distribution would only have been possible with copiers, adult book shops, and coffee shop bulletin boards. As the print comic industry shrank and only tried-and-true artists and stories were printed, the writers and artists left to the sidelines worked together to build a presence online. In the last few years, mainstream comic strip syndicates and comic book publishers have seen where the market is moving, and launched new distribution platforms with their libraries either partially or completely online.
Webcomics have been a part of the modern Internet almost as long as it has existed for the general public. The earliest recorded webcomics appeared on CompuServe in the mid-eighties, and as the internet and it’s graphic capabilities grew, so did the medium. You can find newsprint-style comic strips, full page graphic novels, sprawling short stories and single panel gags. Art styles include scanned pen and ink pages, lush digital paintings, clip art, pixel art, and CGI figures. In the mostly censorship-free playground of the internet, the boundaries of content and taste can be pushed to the extremes, but the lack of editing can also work against the medium. Many rough and nonsensical comics exist only because of some lucky author’s plethora of determination and free time. I have put together a collection which I read regularly, and once the subject comes up, I often can’t stop talking about my favorite webcomics and the future of the comics industry on the Internet. While I certainly can’t rhapsodize as well as Scott McCloud on the subject, I am going to share my thoughts in a weekly column here at GonnaGeek.
While a great deal of media attention has been given to major publisher’s choices to move more content online and build digital distribution methods for their books and to the rise of new media giants like the creators of Penny Arcade and the Oatmeal; I wanted to share some of my personal favorites, introduce new readers to some of the classics, and some webcomics I think are doing something new and exciting. While many webcomics are bound together in excellent curated subscription editions such as moderntales; the ones I will focus on will be free to read.
As I mentioned before, the only limit webcomics face is the ingenuity and dogged persistence of their authors and creators. Many wonderful ideas and storylines get left behind and abandoned. Because of the massive amounts of time and often money involved in creating a rich web comic you can’t fault an author for having to leave a story behind. Some of my favorite series have had long pauses because of the time constraints of the author’s day jobs. The comics featured in this column will be either completed and continuing, or with a proven track record of returning from hiatuses.
Many friends and acquaintances have mentioned that one of the reasons they do not read webcomics regularly is the inconvenience of bookmarking and finding their place among a massive archive of comics. While I used Google Reader for a long time to track my comics with RSS feeds; I had to manually set each of them to display the oldest comic first, and Reader often distorted the art or displayed only links and thumbnails. Many webcomics design their sites around the atmosphere and tone of the comic itself, and Google Reader only displayed them against a white background. Also, my RSS feed viewing did not contribute to pageview counts, nor could I see my authors side projects, advertising, or donation buttons. Every other simple RSS reader I tried had the same issues or worse.
Luckily, a group of people who know how to write code have started to solve these problems. A small team of programmers has created Comic Rocket, a crowd-sourced indexing tool. Using my Facebook login, I can bookmark every single comic I read, and it tracks the last page I read, so if I leave a comic alone for a short time I can pick up right where I left off. It also takes the reader directly to the authors site with an unobtrusive HUD under your browser bar, so that it is not stealing pageviews. If you decide you want to reread, it’s simple enough to replace your bookmark anywhere you like. I have also used their recommendation section to find new comics as well, although it’s still pretty rough around the edges. It’s still in beta, so they have a robust system for feedback, with the ability to vote on popular suggestions. They also have author tools which are sadly underutilized, but as authors see the traffic coming from the site and are told about it by their readers, they are discovering the tools and using the site to advertise. They did just have a very successful indiegogo fundraiser to begin development of their free iOS and Android app, so I expect the site to explode soon, and I look forward to all of the crowd-sourced features filling out.
So please stay tuned for next Wednesday’s Webcomic when I will begin gushing about my favorite webcomics, the artists who make them, and the communities who follow them.