Kleefeld On Webcomics #1: Webcomics, A Primer

By Sean Kleefeld

Not that long ago, the only comics that most Americans read were printed in the newspaper. There were the standard gag-a-day comics like Blondie and Peanuts, of course, and more dramatic, serialized narratives like The Phantom and Mary Worth, whose storylines would run over the course of weeks and months. As the 20th century waned, these latter strips became less common and the comics page of any given newspaper was almost exclusively given over to the likes of Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible and Marmaduke.

Comic strips were largely controlled by what are called syndicates. These basically act as middlemen between the comic strip creators and the newspapers. Not unlike how an agent negotiates between an actor and a film studio. With barely a handful of comics syndicates, that means that the newspaper funnies across the U.S. are hand-selected by a small group of men based on what they think people will want to see.

Of course, that was all before the Internet. Comic creators now don’t need to go through a syndicate. They don’t even need to deal with a newspaper. They can publish whatever comic they want online.

These are webcomics.

The term “webcomics” is perhaps not ideal. There are a lot of comics that can be found on the web. You can go to Garfield.com or HeathcliffComics.com and read those cats’ adventures on the web too, but they’re essentially just republishing material that was meant for the newspaper. Webcomics are those that were published first (and possibly only) online.

As I suggested earlier, a prime benefit of webcomics is being able to publish a comic without a syndicate filtering the work. Anyone can publish their own comic and many people do. So it should come as no surprise that, even back in 2007, there were 18,000 readily countable webcomics being published online, with some estimates of the total number ranging up over 35,000. Compare that to the 200 or so that the major syndicates deal with.

Now, admittedly, many of those comics probably aren’t very good. Sturgeon’s Law states, “90% of everything is crud” after all. But even 10% of 18,000 is still nine times more than all of the newspaper strips, so there’s bound to be something there for everybody!

See, not only are there a lot more webcomics to choose from, but they range all over the map in terms of genre and style. Some are based on gaming humor, some on fantasy adventures, some on slice-of-life moments, some on exotic space epics. There are webcomics made with simple pen and ink tools, some made with 1980s-style computer sprites, some made with cut paper, some made out of century-old clip art. The range of what’s available, especially in comparison to the 20th century, is staggering.

That, then, becomes the primary problem. There are so many out there to sort through, where can you even begin?

One place to start is to simply ask your friends and acquaintances. There’s a good chance they’ll rattle off some of the more well-known webcomics like Girl Genius, PvP and xkcd. They might also point you to some lesser known favorites. It’s worth poking around on those sites because, even if you don’t like that particular comic, they tend to have links to others that you might enjoy.

Another place to hear about them is right here! Not only has MTV launched The Gloom and Breathers on this very site (plus I hear rumors of other comics in the works as well!) but I’ll be taking this column to talk about different webcomics and webcomic issues. I’ll be looking at the comics themselves, as well as the creators, their processes and even different ways of reading webcomics. I’ll be trying to cast as wide a net as possible so there’ll hopefully be something for everyone!

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