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.