If you’ve looked at more than even a few webcomics, you’re pretty likely to find a fairly wide range of sizes and formats. Some are square, some are horizontal, some are vertical. Some are about the same proportions as a comic book, some are more like a newspaper strip, some don’t seem to fall into any regular pattern at all. Why are webcomickers all over the map with this?
Let’s take a quick history lesson first, and look at the comics of the early 20th century. Newspapers are the size they are because paper manufacturers. When paper manufacturing first became industrialized, the sheets they could cost-effectively produce topped out at around two feet by two and a half feet. This was called a broadsheet, and printers built their presses to fit that size. If you fold that sheet in half, you’ve got a pamphlet that’s about 15” x 24”. With that booklet style format, you could nest several of these folded sheets together and -- voilà! -- you’ve got the basics of a newspaper.
Some of the earliest comic strips were actually designed to fill either an entire page or a half page, making the same ratio as the paper itself, just a little smaller. (Since you didn’t print the comics all the way to the edge of the sheet!) Other strips were basically used as filler around the news articles, and were sized to fit around ad blocks that had set up. Newspaper strips got short-changed primarily during World War II. Paper rationing meant publishers tried to squeeze every ounce of space out of the paper they used, and one of their cuts was to the size of comics. While cartoonists shrank their strips out of a sense of patriotism, publishers liked that they could fit more on a page (now two abreast, instead of one) and kept the format.
The earliest comic books were designed as inserts for the newspaper, so they conformed to the same sizing conventions too. They were half a broadsheet, folded in half -- about ten a quarter by seven and a half (after a little extra trimming). As comic books got away from the newspaper roots, publishers would periodically shave a little extra paper off one side or another to save money, and most American comics are now around ten by six and a half.
To sum up, then, newspaper comics are the size/ratio they are because that’s what newspaper publishers dictated to the artists and comic books are the size/ratio they are because of paper sizes that kept getting cropped by bean-counters.
Marshall McLuhan was a noted philosopher and communication theorist in the 1960s and ‘70s. He predicted the “global village” that is now known as the internet and coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” One of the other things he pointed out was that the content of new media is at least initially based on the content of the previous media. In our discussion here, that boils down to: webcomics are the size they are because they’re copying what came before in other venues. The typical three and four panel gag strip online is often the same size as a three and four panel gag strip in the newspaper. And the typical serial adventure story online is often the same size as a typical serial adventure story in comic books.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t valid reasons for that! In both cases, printers are long accustomed to those two formats because they’ve been printing newspaper strip collections and comic books for decades. They’re comfortable with that format and don’t need to worry much about making special modifications. So for webcomickers looking to sell printed copies of their work, their online designs are set up to take advantage of existing printer specifications. Not only is this easier for the printer, but it’s also easier for the cartoonists (as they’re essentially handed templates and specifications that they don’t have to design from scratch) and their customers (as they’re used to looking for, reading and storing similarly sized volumes).
You might notice that the two visual examples I’ve included in this column are by the same creative team: Oliver Knörzer and Puri Andini. Gaia is an ongoing serial fantasy, while Sandra and Woo follows more of a gag-a-day style (although with some serial components). The fantasy adventure is formatted as a comic book like something you might see from Dark Horse or IDW. Their comedy piece, though, is closer in format to something from King Features. They’re just following the formats already established by previous generations.
None of which is to say those are the only options, of course! There are plenty of examples of webcomics that use different “non-standard” formats, often to the betterment of the storytelling. But if you’re wondering why there’s anything resembling a standard in the first place, blame the folks who built the first paper factories!