COLUMNS

No One Knows You're A Dog No One Knows You're A Dog

The History of Webcomics

Many thanks to T Campbell for his input and his years of experience trying to figure out webcomics.

1985-1992: The Stone Age. The earliest webcomics predate the World Wide Web and are almost as old as public online file transfer. Eric Monster Millikin, best known for the alt-strip FetusX, lays claim to the first online comic, a Wizard of Oz parody called “Witches in Stitches” that he distributed through CompuServe. Hans Bjordahl’s Where the Buffalo Roam, a gag strip published online through FTP and Usenet starting in 1991, billed itself as “The Internet’s First Comic Strip” and was the first regularly updated online comic. Doctor Fun (1993), a gag panel by David Farley, was the first comic published on the Web, with its own website and everything.

These were hairy and primitive times, with comics sparse on the ground. The few comics that made it online tended to be work by college students studying computer-tech stuff, since those were just about the only people with Internet access. Readers had to subscribe to mailing lists or Usenet groups and have comics emailed to them. How did we survive? Well, I didn’t. I was ten years old and just starting to think a computer would be a cool upgrade to my IBM Selectric typewriter. I always had very wrong ideas about cool. But not even I discovered webcomics until…

1993-1995: The Bronze Age. With the Web successfully invented, cartoonists who were nerdy even by cartoonist standards began to colonize it with comics, mostly black-and-white, newspaper-style strips. Many were college newspaper strips posted on student websites; some of these, like Darren Bluel’s Nukees (launched in 1997), continued long after their creators graduated from college. Now-familiar genres arose: computer/technology strips, gaming strips (the first, Polymer City Chronicles, launched in 1995), and general geek-interest strips like Steve Troop’s Star-Trek-reference-heavy sci-fi comic Melonpool (1996).

Penny Arcade, the gaming-humor juggernaut that now earns Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik six-figure incomes and their own branded electronics convention, started in 1998, as did Scott Kurtz’s eternally popular PvP, a workplace strip set at the offices of a gaming magazine. In the immortal words of Strongbad, webcomics were “all about video games, gamernerds, webgeeks, dorknerds, gamewads, nerdgames, webwebs, and elves.”

That said, some webcartoonists were already beginning to play with the possibilities of the form. Well do I remember sitting in front of my uncle’s modem-enabled computer in 1995, waiting half an hour for each page of Charley Parker’s full-color, animation-embedded, visually experimental Argon Zark! to load. Story-wise, Argon Zark! is geeky simplicity itself: a nerdy guy, a hot girl, and a robot wander through the Intertubes encountering weird stuff. But Parker was playing with flashy and imaginative visual ideas when most webcartoonists were still drawing basic art with BASIC gags.

Parker wasn’t alone. Psychedelic alt-cartoonist Cat Garza launched his website, The Magic Inkwell, in 1996. Jesse Reklaw’s Slow Wave, launched in 1995 and still running weekly, latched onto a smart, simple premise: readers emailed Reklaw descriptions of their dreams, and he adapted them into four-panel strips. It was a concept that would be hard to pull off without the instantaneous communication of the Web, and it presaged the importance of reader/creator back-and-forth in the webcomics world.

The first webcomic published from outside the U.S., Dutch cartoonist Reinder Djikhuis’s Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan, launched in 1994. Some print cartoonists started posting work online, most notably Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who built a loyal online fan following. Starting in 1995, cartoonist Bil Holbrook began a daily Web-only strip, Kevin and Kell, in addition to his two newspaper strips, Safe Havens and On the Fasttrack, which he had syndicated since the 1980s.

1996-2000: The Singularity. Around 1996, as the online population touched a crucial event horizon, webcomics exploded.  Suddenly you could even make money from these things! Newspaper-style strips continued to dominate, but now the winning genre was the ongoing serial adventure strip, usually done with a heavy dollop of geeky comedy: Pete Abrams’s Sluggy Freelance (1997), Jonathan Rosenberg’s Goats (1997), Maritza Campos’s College Roomies from Hell! (1999), and my own Narbonic (2000). Not all of these strips were sci-fi/fantasy nerdfests; Chris Baldwin’s Bruno, launched in 1996, was a gentle slice-of-life comic about the travails of a young woman, and brainy, surrealistic strips like Dorothy Gambrell’s Cat and Girl (1999) and Chris Onstad’s Achewood (2001) were and are uncategorizable.

Trendy art styles emerged. Manga-influenced art began to appear in the late ’90s, most notably in Megatokyo (2000), by Fred Gallagher and Rodney Caston. Furry cartoonists formed their own massive, insular community with its own stars, like Eric Schwartz’s Sabrina Online (1996). With the success of sprite comics like Brian Clevinger’s 8-Bit Theater (2001) and clipart comics like Ryan North’s Daily Dinosaur Comics (2003) and David Malki’s Wondermark (2003), people discovered that they didn’t need to be able to draw to be webcartoonists. The barn door flew open.

Webcomics Explosion 1.0 climaxed with the publication of Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics in 2000. Entranced by the possibilities of the Web, McCloud devoted a sizable chunk of his book to what he saw as the three areas where computer technology and comics could intersect: digital production (producing comic art on the computer), digital delivery (publishing comics online), and digital comics (creating comics specifically designed for the Web). Reaction to Reinventing Comics was mixed, in both the print and web-based comics community, but McCloud was right in all the ways that counted. From here on out, comics and computers were increasingly inseparable.

2001-2006: The Age of Shit Getting Real. Reinventing Comics ushered in a flowering of webcomics experimentation. Some webcartoonists were inspired by McCloud’s book; others were just taking advantage of the new digital tools available for artists. Patrick Farley launched Electric Sheep Comics, a website for his many experimental comics projects, in 2000. In 2002, Cat Garza started Cuentos de la Frontera, an collection of Hispanic folk tales and urban legends adapted to explore McCloud’s idea of the online “infinite canvas.” Swiss cartoonist Demian5 published his silent infinite-canvas strip When I Am King in 2001.

In 2001, Justine Shaw posted an entire longform comic, Nowhere Girl, in a single chunk, in pages formatted to fit the Web. The word-of-email success of Nowhere Girl helped start a wave of online graphic novels. Around the same time, a loose group of cartoonists calling themselves Pants Press launched a number of smart, engaging longform comics, including Dylan Meconis’s vampire comedy Bite Me!, Jen Wang’s supernatural romance Strings of Fate, Vera Brosgol’s surrealistic comedy Return to Sender, and Bill Mudron’s sci-fi crazyfest Anne Frank Conquers the Moon Nazis. The Pants Press comics were all the more impressive given that, except for Mudron, the artists were all teenagers. More online graphic novels followed, including Jenn Manley Lee’s sci-fi epic Dicebox (2002), Spike Trotman’s alternate-universe bildungsroman Templar, AZ (2005), Tracy Butler’s anthropomorphic 1920s gangster comic Lackadaisy (2006), and Swedish artist Rene Engstrom’s slice-of-life drama Anders Loves Maria (2006).

Autobiography became another popular frontier. In 2002, James Kochalka moved his daily diary strip American Elf, which he had been drawing since 1998, online, making it possible for him to post each strip the day after drawing it. Kochalka’s example inspired many other cartoonists to try their hand at online dairy strips. Some, like Jennie Breeden’s The Devil’s Panties (2001) and Jeffrey Rowland’s Overcompensating (2004), mixed autobio with comedy and fantasy elements. Erika Moen’s DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary (2003) attracted attention and occasional controversy for its cheerfully frank portrayal of Moen’s shifting thoughts on sex and sexuality.

Truly it was a time of stunning invention! Stunning invention and gaming comics! But mostly gaming comics! All this experimentation notwithstanding, the most popular webcomics tended to be gag strips about nerd interests. Strips about video games outstripped all else in popularity, with Penny Arcade and PvP standing atop a pile of lesser (but still often enormously successful) “two gamers on a couch” strips.

As the 2000s wore on, it became increasingly clear that gaming strips were just the most prominent example of a larger trend in webcomics: special-interest niche strips. One of the most successful webcomics of the era, Unshelved (2002) by Gene Ambaum and Bill Barnes, is a strip about librarians. The jokes may only be funny to people who work at libraries and bookstores, but a lot of people work at libraries and bookstores, and they all read Unshelved. The most esoteric and academic special-interest comics were often, nonintuitively, the most successful: the most widely-read webcomic today may be Randall Monroe’s xkcd (2005), ground zero for obscure math and physics jokes, and few webcomics have been as warmly received as Kate Beaton’s brilliant, witty history comics.

During this period, web and print started to feed off each other. As the direct market became increasingly hostile to small-press comic books, a number of indie artists moved their work online. Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius, which began life as a print comic in 2001, became a phenomenon after it moved to the web in 2005, attracting a massive readership and winning the Foglios two Hugo Awards (the only two Graphic Story Hugos awarded to date). Other comics launched online, then moved into print. Gene Yang’s National Book Award-nominated graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006) was initially serialized on the webcomics site Modern Tales.

Also, during this period, webcartoonists learned how to draw. Historians remain unsure how or why this occurred.

2007-Present: The Age of This Whole App Thing. Throughout the 2000s, the reading habits of webcomics fans underwent a gradual shift. Graphic novels and ongoing serial strips gave way in popularity to stand-alone jokes that could be emailed, Liked, and shared. Nicholas Gurewitch’s sleeper hit The Perry Bible Fellowship (2001) paved the way for bushels of edgy gag strips like Cyanide and Happiness (2005) by Kris Wilson, Rob DenBleyker, Matt Melvin, and Dave McElfatrick. Few, if any, of these strips matched Perry Bible Fellowship for cleverness, skill at constructing gags, or visual imagination and polish (over the strip’s run, the art evolved from sketchy to elaborate, including spot-on pastiches of artists like Shel Silverstein and R. Crumb), but that didn’t hurt their popularity, especially after Gurewitch put the strip on hiatus in 2010, leaving a gap for other cartoonists to fill.

Today, webcomics are increasingly moving off the Web, adapting to social media sites and mobile devices. Kate Beaton, for example, originally posted her comics on LiveJournal, until her readers demanded a dedicated website. Her work is now available on LiveJournal, Twitter, and her website, Hark! A Vagrant! Art-oriented social media sites like DeviantArt remain fertile soil for new webcomics to develop.  Many webcartoonists are now using or building apps to distribute their comics over iPhones or other devices.

Webcomics are, in fact, becoming memes; the most successful are those that can flee their original context and put a girdle round the earth, skipping from format to format.  T Campbell argues that graphic/text memes like Hipster Ariel (look it up) are effectively comics.  What’s more, they’re comics anyone can produce, publish, and share in minutes.

Is this the future of webcomics: stick figures and screencaps that can fit to an iPhone?  Maybe, but at the same time, good webcomics are better than ever.  When I started drawing webcomics in 2000, my chicken-scratch drawings and barely-legible lettering represented some of the better effort in the field.  I could never have imagined that work on the level of Danielle Corsetto’s raunchy lady strip Girls with Slingshots, Ursula Vernon’s fantasy graphic novel Digger, or Blaise Larmee’s haunting experimental comic 2001 would be representative of the medium.

Let’s face it: webcomics are now better than regular comics.  You can argue this statement, but remember, DC just took the red underpants off Superman’s costume again.


19 Responses to The History of Webcomics

  1. Pingback: History of Webcomics 1985 to present The Daily Cartoonist

  2. ][][][ says:

    KC Green (http://gunshowcomic.com/, http://rumblo.com/) needs a bit of a shout-out I think! A lot (lot, a lot) of his work has spawned memes that never end up referencing their source so if you’ve ever played around with dickbutt, staredad, swordvan edits aaaahhh frig it i ran out of letters

  3. DanielJMata says:

    This seems a tad cursory. More of a timeline, really, and missing an obvious biggun: Tristan A. Farnon

    His involvemnt with Jerkcity (a milestone in itself), as the catalyst of the reworded Dilberts, the creator of the criminally underrated and supremely perfect Leisure Town (http://www.leisuretown.com), one of the first (and few) webcartoonists to be interview by The Comics Journal, and (at the time) it’s very digital, very anarchic creation are all, to me, touchstones of webcomics development. Achewood alone will never be able to repay it’s debt to the site.

    I’d love it of Jordan Crane did a followup interview with Farnon. He had ideas that I would have killed to have seen develop.

  4. Dave says:

    I dont think apps for webcomics are really the way to go, I still go to portal sites. I just recently started going to inkoutbreak.com and that has been an awesome way to see whats up to date and what else I would like.

    The other portal sites have kinda fallen apart because of either non maintenance or voting is just too scewed.

    I find webcomics to be very quick sources of entertainment, if I could draw or had a better sense of humor maybe I would try and attempt to make my own.

  5. Mario500 says:

    Please change the title for the time period between 2001 and 2006. It is really unnecessary in a history article such as this one.

  6. Steve Broome says:

    One thing that’s interesting about the memes is that they don’t reflect any actual talent for creation, so it’s hard for me to consider them comics. More along the lines of the “caption this” contest my local papers used to have. If people want top notch quality work to be produced regularly going forward imo it will have to be bought through apps. The webcomic model is fine and I do it to get eyeballs on my property but the webcomic community seems too cynical of ads for that model to generate much revenue.

  7. mir says:

    Out of curiosity, is this more a history of Western (or at least English-language) webcomics, or are there really no Asian comics of influence or import?

  8. Lots of interesting points. Did Keenspot, Modern Tales or any of the other collectives have no effect on webcomics?

  9. I’m with Clint – why weren’t Keenspot or Moderntales mentioned. In fact, there seems to be a few weird omissions from this list.

  10. Pingback: Comics A.M. | No new bidders for Borders; CCI sets 2012 prices | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment

  11. Pingback: Links: Preview of Coming Attractions

  12. Pingback: Current Times 14 | this cage is worms.

  13. bob says:

    You definitely need to mention MSPaintAdventure if you’re discussing the current age of webcomics. It started as a Choose Your Own Adventure game on a forum and evolved into a webcomic that makes full use of the medium more than any other comic I know. (The current panel is photos in a photo album which you click on to navigate different branches of the story while part of the story of the photo albums owner is shown in the site’s banner, and many of the updates are animated gifs, and occasionally an update will be a longer flash movie).

  14. Mike says:

    The nascent trend in “photocomics” such as A Softer World and Skidmore Bluffs should have been mentioned as well. They are usually one-off pieces without much story line and tend toward the dark. A subgenre about to bloom, if you ask me.

  15. Garth Wallace says:

    Leaving out the collectives like Keenspot and ModernTales is provocative…but not necessarily an oversight. They’re probably not actually significant enough to the development of webcomics to warrant inclusion in an overview this short. They weren’t really the origin of any of the trends here, though they participated in them. Hell, Big Panda, the granddaddy of webcomic collectives, was probably more influential despite its short life (the vast majority of webcomics still use a site format based on it). Keenspot had some good comics, sure, but mostly what it developed was a sort of club mentality/brand recognition, which ultimately doesn’t matter much–it was a site ring with delusions of grandeur. ModernTales promoted more “arty” webcomics, but they were hardly exclusive to it (some of them, including some on the site, predated it).

    One thing that might merit inclusion is the creation of Keenspace. Although at the time it seemed like a sort of ghetto for the not-accepted-to-Keenspace, I think it was actually a significant step in further democratizing webcomics. Before, you had to have your own site, or set up a crappy Geocities site that you had to update by hand. With Keenspace, all you had to do was upload your comics and it’d do the rest, for no fee. It led to a huge explosion in the number of comics on the web. The vast majority were unreadably terrible and/or ended in “indefinite hiatus” after a few strips after the artists were surprised to discover that they had not become instant web superstars, but there were some gems that probably would not have appeared if it hadn’t existed. It probably contributed to the rise of non-gamer niche topic webcomics.

  16. Lee Cherolis says:

    I have nothing to add! Great article, Shaenon!

    Obviously, in a piece this short there are going to be things left out, you gotta make choices with limited space. The pacing is so brisk, every sentence is making a new point of mentioning another comic or creator. The internet is vast, it’s likely impossible no one of us will ever be able to experience ALL of what webcomics has to offer.

    Best line: “Also, during this period, webcartoonists learned how to draw. Historians remain unsure how or why this occurred.”

    NICE!

  17. Pingback: Newscast for August 7th, 2011 | The Webcast Beacon Network

  18. Pingback: The History of Webcomics : The Cultural Gutter

  19. nepetafan_spellchecker says:

    I agree with Bob. Especially after the epicness that was [S] Cascade., MS Paint Adventures and Homestuck need to be edited in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>