Guest Column: The Historiography of Webcomics

[Shaenon's Note: This month, comics writer and historian T Campbell has graciously agreed to write a guest column on the unique problems of researching webcomics history.  Thanks, T!]

The Historiography of Webcomics: Reasons Not to Be a “Webcomics Historian”

by T Campbell

I like Shaenon Garrity. She’s funny, clever, and emotionally well-balanced. And so far, she’s managed to walk the odd tightrope of being a comics-maker who’s also a commentator on the comics scene, like a snarky Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Still, when she wrote me and said, “I’m doing an article for The Comics Journal about the history of webcomics,” I nearly flew out to San Francisco to talk her down from that bridge. (Not literally the Golden Gate Bridge. Work with me here.)

The history of webcomics and I are old enemies, you see. I wrote a series of essays from 2003-2005, “The History of Online Comics”, and expanded them into a written-in-2005, published-in-2006 book edition, A History of Webcomics.

This was, in some ways, the most ambitious project I ever put out… and for better or worse, I tend not to skimp on the ambition. It had a bibliography of 614 endnotes, covered a dozen years, invented terminology, and tried to introduce a whole new field to the cultural-studies landscape. It detailed the new scene from literary, visual, economic, and social perspectives.

It was also my single biggest regret in my creative career. And I’m a guy who thought that Search Engine Funnies was going to be a monster hit.

Politics: “I Value Your Feedba—OW, OW”

Reactions to the essays had been largely positive, at least the reactions I knew about. That was pretty remarkable during that period of webcomics culture, and it said to me that I was doing a good job navigating choppy political waters. Prominent cartoonists of that time could act a lot like your stereotypical Internet trolls today, getting into bitter flame wars over economic models, matters of artistic integrity, or just, “No, you are the dumbass.”

When the book was announced, I braced myself for a backlash, but again with a few exceptions, it didn’t come. Even as I struggled with the book’s actual contents, I heard mostly encouraging things from the cartoonists I was representing in it. And I thought, I have given the community something that no one else could give it. I have come bearing gifts, and been welcomed to the dinner party.


Of course almost everyone liked the idea of being written about, in theory. Of course everyone would be nice to me while the book was still being written and there was time to add a sentence about how great they were. The online essays were likewise open-ended, always leaving room for more stories. But once the book was nearly finished and I sent out e-copies of early drafts, things were going to get stickier.

Not like I wasn’t asking for it. Writing about a real person is inherently an act of aggression. No matter how gentle and friendly you try to be about it, no matter how many of their own words you try to use, you are defining that person with your language, and limiting their ability to do the same.

This is necessary aggression. Nonfiction is necessary. But you shouldn’t be doing it if your primary goal is to be part of the community you’re making this transgression against.

When the book was advertised in Diamond’s Previews, I got to be on the receiving end of such definition, and my little fantasyland finally went up in flames. Some criticized me for featuring webcomics characters on the cover without explicit permission, even though there’s a strong fair-use precedent for that in comics history books. Worse, my publisher, surely with the best of intentions, had revised my original blurb to describe me as a “world-renowned webcomics historian.”

This was a ridiculous phrase. It conjures up an image of Beatlemaniac-like crowds assembling to greet me in Athens, Greece, as I disembark from my private jet to favor them with a hearty “Penny Arcade was first published in 1998!” The “History” essays did have enthusiastic readers on multiple continents, but by that measure, virtually every webcomic with a daily audience of more than 100 is “world-renowned.”

Comics marketing has always been a little winky and hypey, so perhaps I shouldn’t blame my publisher too much for its enthusiasm. But my e-mail inbox contained plenty of messages I would’ve been happy to forward to it: “How dare you call yourself a world renown historian!” (sic)

I always expected some cartoonists to resent me for paying too little attention to them. There was the one who tried to convince me he was webcomics’ Leonardo da Vinci, having invented color webcomics, story webcomics, infinite canvas, micropayment-based and advertising-based revenue models, and more. Then there was the one who hadn’t published his e-mail address anywhere I could find it, who hit me for not tracking him down and interviewing him, thereby ignoring his side of his story… a side that he’d declined to publish online for years, because, I eventually learned, of a nondisclosure agreement.

Self-parodying behavior like this is easy to shrug off. It’s tougher when cartoonists whom I admire still think today that I’m “the guy who tried to take credit for webcomics.” A year or so after the book came out, I learned about a private message board for webcartoonists to discuss their craft, an online version of the “dinner party” I’d imagined, featuring many “big names” in the field, but also at least two people whose Web traffic was lower than mine was. Needless to say, I had not been invited.

About a year later, I investigated Wikipedia’s practices toward webcomics (how many they included and on what basis), and got to interview Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Afterward, someone who’d stuck by me through the whole History rigmarole, someone I actually considered a good friend, informed me that I was now dead to him.

The reason? While I’d used some reader-suggested questions in the interview, I had not used his, and the ones I used were not sufficiently hard-hitting. Therefore, I was a collaborator in the destruction of Wikipedia’s true potential, and had therefore, essentially, “helped burn down the library of Alexandria.”  This was sufficient grounds to end our friendship.

That was it. I chugged along for a little while longer, but that was when I accepted the truth: you want to be a historian? Deal with making enemies. For me at least, the rewards were getting outweighed by the risks.

Truth In Ambiguity?

This kind of thing would be easier to take if I knew how much of it to take to heart. I mean, severing all ties because of differences over Wikipedia seems pretty crazy to me. But still… could I have asked harder, more probing questions of Wales? Was I looking at the right artists when I did biographies of “key figures” in Chapter 3? Did the tone of the History come across as too smugly assured?

I still ask myself those questions every so often. The last of them is a little funny, because when writing about comics history, I normally feel anything but assured. Instead, I’m all too aware that history is full of bias and agenda-based research, often on two or more sides of an issue. Just get ten comic book readers in a room and ask them what kind of guy Stan Lee is. Supply them with cream pies.

In fiction, I can turn this ambiguity to the work’s advantage. If I’m torn between two or more opinions, I can dole them out one to a character, let them fight it out, and let readers decide for themselves who won. This is preferable, in fact, to using characters as “sock puppets” for your own opinions. I write stories because I want to ask questions, not believe I have all the answers.

Writing a history book, though, means trying to bring all the issues to some sort of conclusion. And even the issues you choose to mention, never mind the side you seem to favor, comes off as a political statement. There is no unbiased history.

A Zombie Document

My opinions change from year to year. So putting down my thoughts in such a permanent form was like putting a drunk picture on my Facebook page: guaranteed to embarrass me once the novelty wore off.

Anyone who reads the book as comprehensive today does so at their peril. Just to pick my favorite example, the book completely fails to anticipate the rise, already begun when it was published, of two stick-figure comics that, according to some evidence, surpass even Penny Arcade in popularity. Cyanide and Happiness and xkcd , occupying opposite ends of the humor spectrum, have influenced a whole mini-generation of cartoonists whose artistic refinement makes Dilbert’s Scott Adams look like George Perez.

I wasn’t completely blind to the problem of change. The cover describes the book as “v1.0,” implying further editions to come. But the political problems mentioned above, the low odds of profitability, and my own doubts about the book’s quality have kept me away from it ever since.

Besides, the pace of traditional book publication is too slow to keep pace with comics’ ever-evolving story at this point. In 2007, one of the biggest “game changers” in webcomics seemed to be DC’s formal entry into the marketplace with the Zuda imprint. By 2008, it was pretty clear the imprint wasn’t having much impact. By 2010, it was dead. And though it’s worth noting when a multi-million-dollar comics publisher honestly tries and fails to get into the field, it’s just as well that nobody ever published a book that ended with the line, “Will Zuda change everything? No one can say.”

If I had infinite time and resources, I’d consider refashioning the history project into a wiki of its own, or at least a constantly updated, publicly available document. But that’d be something close to a lifetime commitment, and I doubt I want to go there. History is never finished.

Was It Really That Bad?

In early drafts of this essay, I thought it’d be funny, and properly self-deprecating, to pull out some reviews that emphasized how bad the book was. And I discovered something that really surprised me. History has been somewhat kind to History.

Granted, I’ve been spoiled. I waded through a hundred flames in a week after the Previews thing. I saw myself satirized in comics form by three “name” cartoonists, one of whom rendered me as a bow-tie-wearing, stuttering cartoon gasbag. After that, any criticism can come to seem “mild.”

But generally speaking, the book has done very well in reviews written after its first year in print—funny, considering how quickly parts of the book went out of date. Heck, The Comics Journal itself was barely standoffish. Reviewers now come to the book without axes to grind, and generally finish reading it before outlining their notes.

And so every so often, I’ve picked the book up again, and done my best to self-assess.

In my view, it really is still that bad. Not so much because the ideas are wrong. By 2005 standards, the ideas are all right. But my conflicting desires to define the truth, to admit uncertainty about the truth, to be witty, to be fair and to be kind resulted in half-hearted, half-baked half-work. The tone reads like five different people are writing it at once, punching each other away from the keyboard at random intervals.

And the presentation! It desperately needed a co-designer! Good God, why were there endnotes instead of footnotes? Why weren’t there page numbers? Why, why, why was the whole thing done in the most bargain-basement font imaginable, with some of the art muddied to near-incomprehensibility by the black-and-white printing? Apparently, what with trying to serve five different goals on the book, I didn’t have sufficient energy left to make it not look like crap.

(But at least I didn’t do the art-history textbook thing, where the text refers to artwork that you’ve got to turn backward or forward five pages to view. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages, I’m looking at you.)

The root of my dissatisfaction, though, doesn’t come from anything that a fair critic could criticize. Even if you put “1993-2005” on the cover, a book like this can never be finished. There’s always one more interview to make, one more comic to research, one more insight to have or paradigm to try. When is enough enough?

You’ve got to admit when you’re wrong. But to do that, you’ve got to know when you’re wrong. I’m still more comfortable as a question-asker than answer-giver. Ultimately, if the desire to define the truth doesn’t emerge as your largest, strongest impulse, and if you can’t make peace with the limitations of the format, then you shouldn’t be doing a history. History should be firmly written.

I don’t have it in me right now to be that firm writer. My opinions still wander too much. Maybe in another five years, or ten, or thirty, my priorities will shift again.

But maybe they won’t have to. Maybe somebody else will be able to write a fair, interesting, novel-length account of webcomics history. Maybe it’ll be you. And if it’s you, send me a copy! I’d sure be glad to look it over.

I mean, I’d still think you were kind of suicidal for trying. But better you than me.


T Campbell is the author of A History of Webcomics and the prolific creator of such webcomics as Fans!, Penny & Aggie, and The Guilded Age.  All of his work is available at tcampbell.net