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Three Kinds of Webcomics I Can’t Believe I’m Not Seeing

Around the time my webcomics reading list included one comic about two married female itinerant laborers in space, one about eighteenth-century Bavarian religious politics, one that was at the time devoted to drawing gag strips based on Nancy Drew book covers, and one with a holiday installment entitled “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas”, I started to suspect that Rule 34 had officially extended from pornography to webcomics, and there was now a webcomic on literally every subject conceivable to the human mind. That was two whole years ago.

And yet, despite all the thousands of comics knocking around in the tubes, some genres remain surprisingly underrepresented. Not entirely unrepresented, of course; in a field where math comics become mega-blockbusters and something as bizarre as “Homestuck” attracts cosplayers and slash fiction, there really is something out there for everyone. And yet there still exist near-virgin territories of webcomicking into which the enterprising artist could make considerable inroads, and here are three that strike me as particularly hopeful.

Children’s comics

Kids have been on the Internet for a long time now, mostly looking for porn. But now, with every other parent handing their kids smart phones and tablets to shut them up at restaurants, the time has never been better for online comics aimed at children. Hell, with Axe Cop on the scene, there are even hit online comics by children.

The internet already has a small canon of classic kid-friendly comics, including Adrian Ramos’s Count Your Sheep and Christopher Baldwin’s Little Dee. Kid-comics portal Kidjutsu offers a library of long-form comics which, although not necessarily designed for kids, are appropriate for younger readers, like Sarah Ellerton’s fantasy epic Inverloch and A.P. Furtado’s comic fantasy Elf ’n Troll. Of the current crop of kid-friendly webcomics, I’m a fan of The Last of the Polar Bears, by Lindsay Cibos, which follows the lives of two polar bear cubs born in a near future where their species is nearing extinction.

Little Dee, from June 7, 2010.

With mobile devices blowing the kids’ digital book market wide open, many publishers, programmers, and San Jose startups are competing to introduce kids’ comic apps to the market. Mobile apps definitely seem like the ideal way to bring webcomics to young readers, but it remains to be seen which providers will live and which will die. In the meantime, this is the time for kid-friendly cartoonists to get online and start building an impressionable young audience.

Political comics

Back in October of 2001, I thought political webcomics were starting to be a thing. I’d been following clip-art cartoonist David Rees from the days of My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable and into its office-themed follow-up, My New Filing Technique Is Unstoppable. Post September 11, Rees suddenly launched a new comic, the hard-R-for-language political strip Get Your War On. As with the Onion September 11 issue that had hit a week or so previously, it felt like permission to laugh. In the wake of mass slaughter, you can only take so much sober commentary and color-coded government doublespeak; sometimes what you need is a guy willing to reframe the debate via a clip-art businessman saying, “We’re living in the 21st Century, and people still wage war to impress invisible superheroes who live in outer space! I thought we would all be chilling out in solar-powered flying cars by now!”

Get Your War On strip from November 8, 2001

Over ten years later, that promise has been squandered. Squandered, I say! Yes, there are a few enclaves of online political cartooning, especially in the right-wing cartoonosphere, which runs the artistic gamut from the old-school, editorial-newspaper-style cartooning of John Cox and Allen Forkum to the slapdash cut-and-paste of Chris Muir’s Doonesbury­-inspired Day by Day. On the far left, Eric Monster Millikin has been posting multimedia comics with political themes for almost as long as the Internet has been a thing, and editorial cartoonist Stephanie McMillan draws both one-panels and ongoing strips about anti-corporate activism.

And yet, even as newspapers jettison their editorial cartoonists and the free weeklies—longtime beer-money providers for lefty political strippers—stop paying, political cartooning has made surprisingly little headway on the Internet. Some of the most successful political-themed webcomics, like Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest and Owen Gieni and Chris Crosby’s Sore Thumbs, succeed by mixing politics and current events with more popular material, like gaming humor.

Zahra’s Paradise, a First Second-backed webcomic set in Iran in the wake of the 2009 pro-democracy protests, gives a high-minded taste of what online political cartooning can be. Created by a Persian writer and an Arab artist (both of whom work anonymously), it’s published online in over a dozen languages, taking advantage of the Web’s potential to reach an international audience.

But there’s room on the Internet for less lofty political cartooning too. You know what would be awesome? If political blogs included cartoonists as a matter of course. Big blogs like Slate and Daily Kos often ape newspapers by running political cartoons, but a dedicated staff cartoonist gives a blog a distinctive look. Alas! A Blog, for example, features political cartoonist and Hereville creator Barry Deutsch as one of its core contributors, which gives its feminist/civil-rights messaging a distinctive visual style. As news outlets move online, let’s bring back the tradition of the staff editorial cartoonist.

Crit comics

That’s with an R, people. I already did a column about the other kind.

Maybe it’s because I recently started a webcomic in which I draw comic adaptations of every episode of The X-Files because it seemed like a good idea for about ten minutes, but I’ve been thinking about the dearth of criticism in comics form. Every part of the Internet that isn’t devoted to cat photos is devoted to nerds sharing their opinions on pop culture, and yet few have taken the debate to the sequential-art realm. The only area of pop culture that attracts much webcomics commentary is video gaming, and even there you see surprisingly little in-depth analysis of the games themselves.

A few cartoonists have delved into movie reviews/synopses, including Mark Monlux with The Comic Critic and Chris Shadoian with the regrettably short-lived Popcorn Picnic. And, inevitably, there are comics about comics, like Brandon Hanvey’s Comic Critics (I’m seeing a recurring theme in the titles here). But the territory still remains surprisingly undercolonized.

What about book reviews? TV show recaps? (The X-Files: TAKEN.) Or the Holy Grail of sweet cartooning gigs, restaurant reviews? I still miss Thien Pham’s I Like Eating, which ran in the East Bay Express until around 2008, and Abby Denson’s The City Sweet Tooth is still excellent. There’s already a small but growing body of recipe and foodie comics online, and restaurant reviews fit right into the trend. Plus, cartoon food always looks delicious.

I Like Eating, from August 8, 2007.

Enough with all these webcomics about science and history. The time has come for cartoonists to use the Internet the way it was meant to be used: to share their opinions about meaningless pop-cult ephemera.  Forward the zeitgeist!


19 Responses to Three Kinds of Webcomics I Can’t Believe I’m Not Seeing

  1. Greg McE says:

    Here’s a fun food (well, sort of) crit comic for you: Bill Roundy’s Bar Scrawl, which reviews bars in Brooklyn. It says a lot that I don’t live in Brooklyn and still find this a joy to read every week. http://www.barscrawl.net/

  2. Rob Kirby says:

    Agreeance with Greg: that Bill Roundy strip is great. Agreeance with this feature in general.

  3. Michael F. says:

    Just wanted to mention that I recently read your 2009 interview with Nicholas Gurewitch and really enjoyed it.

  4. My son, who’s almost 8, absolutely adores Axe Cop. In the past I’ve tried to get him to read more respectable stuff, like Little Lit, and he had absolutely no interest. I guess it took a kid to really understand what kids want (well, my son also loves SpongeBob comics–but then, he always reads the Kochalka page first, so that doesn’t exactly contradict my point–and, of course, Pokemon manga). But too many kids’ comics are so self-consciously “kids’ comics” that they leave little space for kids’ actual enjoyment.

  5. Lightning Lord says:

    Why would a child have an interest in something you’ve described as “respectable”?

  6. Don Druid says:

    Why not? Bone, Calvin & Hobbes, take your pick . . .

  7. Lightning Lord says:

    Those aren’t respectable in the way Andrei meant at all.

  8. I’m not saying he should, I’m saying those are a) seen as more respectable, and b) marketed as if made for kids, and often recommended for kids by alternative-comics fans (though I suspect many of the people who recommend them may not have kids of their own, and that, despite the marketing, they’re “children’s lit” by grown-ups for grown-ups, or at least what passes for grown-ups in comics fandom. But I digress). For the record, I too enjoy Axe Cop about a million times more than, say, Little Lit.

  9. michael L says:

    I agree the Little Lit really hammered it home. That recurring phrase — “it was a dark and silly night” — I mean, how patronizing does that sound? Some tight cartooning in there though.

  10. Don Druid says:

    Shift those goalposts!

  11. mateor says:

    Ughhh…that makes me sick. I will probably come home to my wife reading it to my son some day soon.

    She loves that silly shit. The kid, not so much.

    The only comic I have ever really got him to read was old Howard the Duck. He only likes Batman merch, not the comics yet. But he just turned three. Time.

  12. Lightning Lord says:

    Yes, I can totally hear Spiegelman chuckling to himself, “This’ll keep the little SOBs away from damn sooperheroes!”

  13. Lightning Lord says:

    How so? Bone and Calvin and Hobbes are mainstream successes, not indie darlings “slumming”

  14. Briany Najar says:

    Hang on… Lightning Lord vs Don Druid?
    This is starting to turn into…
    http://img244.imageshack.us/img244/9945/petergray020dg1.jpg

  15. Yeah, a lot of it shows that kind of “ain’t we silly?” would-be zaniness that adults sometimes put on as a show for kids, and that kids usually find cringe-inducing.

    This is not to say that I don’t love a lot of the cartoonists involved, because I do. But for each one of them, I pretty much prefer their work elsewhere.

  16. MariNaomi says:

    I do review comics about restaurants and other businesses (and stuff) in SF: http://sfbay.ca/category/marinaomi/page/2/

    Also, Sarah Becan does excellent comics about food:
    http://www.sauceome.com/

  17. I do a “kid-friendly” comic that’s been running online for roughly 7 years now. I’ve had moderate success in garnering a great local fan-base (here in sunny Hawaii) with occasional newspaper coverage and library talks. I also do a spinoff comic that gets printed every-so-often in the local newspaper as well.

    I believe I have a good body of work and I work hard to improve it daily with a variety of short stories ranging from picture-book-esque sequences to longer form adventure stories, to the familiar newspaper comic gag.

    But garnering an online audience — particularly of that age range — is much harder. My husband works at a school where each student has an ipad. Aside from attempting to read manga scanlations (he’s a sys-admin — he can see where kids try to access on campus), a majority of them spend their time playing games.

    If anyone has any suggestions on how to get onto people’s radars with all this “kid-friendly” material, ripe for reading — short of getting a publishing deal — which is what I’ve been suggested by more than one fellow “kid-friendly” comic creator, I’m all ears. The internet is changing daily and we all have to move with the flow of things.

    … and yes, I have an iOS app as well. ^^

  18. matt jeske says:

    A far as political webcomics, I think Keith Knight’s K Chronicles and Th(ink) and the website Cartoon Movement are worthy contributors to that category.

  19. Bret Juliano says:

    In case anyone is still reading this, I draw a kid-friendly webcomic entitled, “The Dust Bunny Mafia.” Think of it as a modern Looney Tunes. You can read it at http://Comics.DustBunnyMafia.com.

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