One of the curious differences between comic books and comic strips is that successful creators tend to have a decidedly more finite association with the comic books they create than with comic strips. A creator can be hired on to work on Amazing Spider-Man or Detective Comics and they might stay with it for a year, or two, or three. But it’s rarely considered a viable life-long career goal to stay with a single title. Comic strips, on the other hand, are more often uniquely married to their originator throughout his/her life. The Bill Watersons of the world who willingly leave their comic are rare, and the Berkley Breatheds who even try to start another comic are rarer still. (And even in that example, Breathed largely kept returning to his same cast of characters.)
But with webcomics, there seems to be a greater willingness to find a middle ground between those two extremes. Though webcomics on the whole don’t yet have a history long enough to consider as a life-time’s work, there seem to be only a handful of webcomics at present that even stand a chance of seeing that play out. Conversely (and in contrast to my interview with Michael Mayne last week) there are few webcomics that continue beyond their original creators’ intentions.
One of the options some webcomic creators explore in this middle ground is stopping a webcomic, and starting a new one that spins off of the original. John Allison’s collective work is a prime example of this. He created the strip Bobbins in 1998 and ran that until 2002. He wrapped that up and began Scary Go Round a couple months later, using some of the same characters. When that concluded in 2009, then Allison started Bad Machinery (still running) which picks up the stories of the children in the town where Bobbins and Scary Go Round took place.
Likewise, Evan Dahm has been doing something similar. He began Rice-Boy in 2006 and ran that for about two years before starting Order of Tales. That concluded last year, after which Dahm began Vattu. In these three strips, Dahm has deliberately tried to carve out a larger world and, while he tries to have each subsequent strip build upon the previous one, they remain independent of one another sharing essentially just the world on which the stories occur.
But a creator can just as easily shift focus to an entirely new webcomic. Steve LeCouilliard earned himself a Xeric award working on the Robin-Hood-inspired Much the Miller’s Son. He put the strip on hiatus back in June, citing: “As much as I enjoy drawing this series, it's time for me to take a break from Sherwood forest to focus on other projects.” One of those other projects is a sword-and-sorcery webcomic that already has gotten a fair amount of attention, despite not having even launched yet: Una the Blade. This seems to be an example of a creator just wanting to exercise somewhat different mental muscles, and using a change in genre to help facilitate that.
One of the more prolific and diverse writers I’ve seen -- with regards to tackling different subjects and genres in webcomics -- has been Dwight MacPherson. Though I don’t believe he has any webcomics running currently, his webcomic work includes The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo (something of a cross between the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Carroll), Interagents (a 1940s superhero tale) and Sidewise (a Young Adult themed steampunk story). Though I suspect part of the changes reflect various levels of success in the works (Interagents and Sidewise no longer seem to be online) but MacPherson is clearly not content to focus squarely on a small niche. He’s trying different things in part to see how readers respond to them.
But I would be remiss if I neglected one of webcomics’ most famous examples. Ryan Sohmer and Lar DeSouza continue work on two radically different webcomics: Least I Could Do (a somewhat adult-themed gag strip) and Looking for Group (a sword-and-sorcery adventure). Sohmer also writes The Gutters (a superhero parody) with a collection of artists. While this last strip is a comparatively recent addition (2010), LICD has been running since 2003 and LfG since 2006, giving Sohmer a decidedly more stable group of writings than most contemporary comic book writers.
It’s perhaps too early to see if successful webcomic creators become as tied to their creations as comic strip artists. Comic strips, after all, do have almost a century long head start. But so far, webcomic creators seem more open to changing things up to help ensure they don’t repeat the same stale jokes year after year. Changes force them to think in different ways and try things they might not be otherwise able to, as well as exercising different sets of creative muscle.