One of the easy benefits one can tout about webcomics is that they’re more environmentally friendly than regular comics. After all, there are no trees being cut down, no inks being processed, no physical comics to truck around... How could that not be better for the environment? Well, skeptics can be quick to jump in, citing the decidedly non-environmentally-friendly materials used to make the computer/laptop/tablet/phone that you’re using, and the fact that you’re probably using some fossil-fuel derived energy to power said device. Those certainly aren’t helping the environment any. But let’s take a closer look at both sides of the issue.
Part of the problem is that it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint what, in fact, we should be measuring. First of all, are we looking at just comic books or all comics? Does that include the funny pages in the newspaper? If so, we’d have to try to filter out the non-comics part of the newspaper, which wouldn’t necessarily be easy since most newspapers don’t devote a regular amount of space to comics regularly. Some run editorial cartoons sporadically, some run Doonesbury on a page separate from the rest of comics. And what about college papers?
On the digital side, it’s rare that you would use any device exclusively for reading webcomics. Obviously, computers are for used productive activities like work and communication, phones can be used as cameras and GPS locators, and tablets are used in research and content creation. So how much of a device’s use should be considered when weighing its environmental cost? Especially when you start using it to multi-task, having the computer run some batch processes in the background while you read the latest installment of Zip and Li'l Bit. And what if you leave Valkyrie Squadron open on your screen while you take the dog for a walk?
These are the types of questions that complicate the discussion. Most of the studies I’ve uncovered on the subject focus on books more generally, weighed against dedicated e-readers like the Kindle. The results, while varying in specifics, generally seem to find that e-readers are the more environmentally friendly choice—provided you read 20 or more books a year. That might sound like a lot to some people (recent studies say ? of the people in the U.S. don’t even read one book per year) but it’s not many at all for the majority of people interested enough in an e-reader to buy one.
Comparing webcomics to books is a little like comparing apples to oranges, but for someone like me, who reads around 50-75 comics online every day, that’s between 37 and 55 five-hundred-page books a year. Twenty five-hundred-page books would be more along the lines of 27 webcomics a day. That’s the “magic number” (or as close to one as you’re likely to get any time soon) if you’re looking at them on a dedicated e-reader.
But if you’re looking at webcomics on a device that has other uses, that’s another issue entirely: there’s a notion called “sunk costs” at work then. If you have a computer and use it to do freelance work and pay your bills and keep in touch with friends and relatives, you’ve already incurred whatever environmental deficit that device causes in its being produced. The plastics were molded, the logic boards were soldered, a truck delivered it to the store where you picked it up... all of that environmental impact happened regardless of whether or not you read a single webcomic on the machine. The additional amount of energy it would then take to call up your favorite webcomics is then negligible, especially if you would have had the computer on anyway either calling up cute cat videos or just idling while you cooked dinner.
But then there’s yet another consideration. While your daily dose of Garfield may be available in print and online, and many webcomics are also printed in both pamphlet and graphic novel form, some are currently only available online. That Zip and Li’l Bit strip you read online while you were multi-tasking? Not available anywhere else. Which means that there’s not even a viable alternative to compare to. Mister Wob versus Mister Boffo...? They’re not even as close as apples and oranges!
Ultimately, how green your webcomic reading experience is depends a great deal on what you are personally reading and how. But the more you’re reading and the more multi-functional the device you’re reading on is, the more likely it is that you’re more ecologically sound in your comics reading than someone who reads the funny pages in the newspaper every day.