What’s happening everyone, welcome to a new week, which typically can suck, but it also means we’re only three days away from New Comic Book Day…so that’s something. Normally, on Mondays, I talk about a particular webcomic I’m enjoying. Something special, a story or comic that I feel the compelled to share with all of you wonderful people. Today however, we’re going to break away from the normal and instead, talk about the the origins of webcomics and why they’re so important to today’s comic culture.
Now, I know I’ve made some jokes about my age, me being an old man and whatnot. Well, today’s no different. Due to the fact that I used to roam free in the lands before time, the biting terrain of a world before the internet, I able to recall what it was like when newspapers controlled comic strips. That might sound maniacal, as though newspapers were these ivory towers, looming over the cartoonist and comic’er with dominant power, but it was pretty darn close to that. Not that long ago, maybe twenty years, the comic(strip) industry used to work very differently. Newspapers would buy the rights to print/publish comics from businesses known as syndicates, not the creators themselves. Syndicates owned these comics because creators would submit their work, often months of work upfront, in the hopes that the syndicate would buy their comic in order to sell it to newspapers. They would then pay the creators royalties based on the number of newspapers who bought and printed your comic.
However, depending on how popular your comic became, these profit splits with syndicates didn’t mean big money. A comic strip creator would need over a thousand newspapers to buy their comic from a syndicate to see serious income, and unfortunately for many strips, sales would only make it into the hundreds. Sure, certain comic creators made huge dollar amounts, but those were the rarity not the regular. This all might sound crazy considering things are much different today, but this is the business model cartoonists worked under for decades, a business model that hinged on creators never reaching out to their audience directly. Syndicates established themselves as the gatekeepers between the readers and the cartoonist. If you wanted your work published, and possibly had a powerful need to eat and pay bills eat, you submitted your work to a syndicate, hoping they deemed you worthy of acceptance and money.
Why am I describing this process? Because unless you were someone like Jim Davis (Garfield) or Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), these syndicates couldn’t care less about your work. Great, classic webcomics such as PvP, Penny Arcade, Chainsawsuit, Diesel Sweeties, Girl Genius, Girls with Slingshots, Hark! A Vagrant, and Questionable Content would’ve been lost to a submission desk, or worse, the trashcan. None of these comics would’ve fit “the standard” of syndicates in the 80’s and late 90’s. No one wanted different, because different didn’t sell. These business only wanted the next Dilbert, Doonesbury, and Bloom County.
This mentality left a huge gap in the public interest, while simultaneously creating a one-trick-pony show. Due to the fact that no one was allowed, or even able, to break out of the norm, comic strips quickly became gag-a-day style, with very little depth. No one was looking for, mostly because no one expected, a comic that talked about subcultures, video games, or Dungeons and Dragons. They most certainly weren’t looking for a comic that had stick figures talking about hardcore science. They wanted comics that fit their own criteria, something that might attract the largest audience possible. Worst of all was the volume or work creators had to sustain in order to survive. If a newspaper bought your strip, and wanted to run it seven days a week, you had to create seven new strips every week, often including a full color, larger strip for Sundays. Imagine being forced to create a constant stream of “funny” ideas, seven days a week, non-stop, for years…possibly decades. There was no breathing room, or time to recharge the creative batteries, and you sure weren’t thinking of exploring something new because deadlines loomed overhead. Syndicates demanded, to the extent of it being contractual, that the creator would produce new work, seven days a week…all…year…long.
Once you begin to understand the grueling nature of creating comics under these conditions, it’s not surprising that creative types were looking for something better, something like the internet. In the late 90’s, the world as we knew it was flipped upside down and changed forever. With the introduction of the internet, creators were given an opportunity for change. With the connectivity of the internet there was now a possibility that a creator could sidestep the syndicates and newspapers and deliver their work directly to an audience, or at the very least, generate an audience large enough to get the syndicate’s attention. A new way of doing things had suddenly arrived at the fingertips of those willing to explore.
What came next were some of the worst decisions ever made by businesses, in this case, newspapers and syndicates. The short version is that newspapers and syndicates basically refused to acknowledge that the internet was a viable marketplace, and blinded themselves to the swinging market changes that were inevitable. Meanwhile, creators were freely experimenting with no real cost to be found, but massive possible gains. Creators, often times with very little computer knowledge, started creating their work and putting it online. Specifically, they started putting their creations in front of audiences that understood their work, without these lofty, money driven mindsets telling them whether or not they could be successful. Creators were now able to reach the audiences they were once so disconnected from. Folks who wanted to read, and be a part of something that touched them on a personal level, were able to find creators offering them just that. The days of tepid, generalized humor, stories, and characters were being threatened, and the changes that were happening changed the landscape of comics forever.
Creators from every walk of life started to find an audience for their obscure work. They weren’t breaking record numbers with web-traffic, but instead they were gathering, in small pockets, people who genuinely loved what they were doing. Ten new readers here, fifteen from over there, twenty from a forum that allowed them to post their work, over and over again, these creators cultivated a community around their work. What was quickly discovered, and probably the most revolutionary find for the comic industry in the internet age, was that this burgeoning community of comic creators didn’t need the same numbers as the syndicates.
An individual creator could make a living, supporting his/her family with far less than a 100k readers. Instead, comic creators found income with a fraction of the audience. Why? Because unlike their syndicate counter parts, these independent comic creators had two things working for them. The first was that creators were able to communicate with their audience directly through comments and message-boards, and eventually social media. This allowed people to become personally invested in both the comic, and the person creating it. The drive to support the individual rose because they were no longer some faceless corporation, but instead, a real person readers could get to know.
The second thing creators had that syndicates didn’t was a low entry cost. Syndicates employed hundreds, possibly thousands of people. There was a reason syndicates needed to sell comics to thousands of newspapers. Huge businesses have huge payrolls, but these independent comic creators just had themselves, and the tools they needed to create. No big budgets, no marketing team, advertising costs, editors, sales teams, senior staff…just themselves. The internet allowed creatives to break free from the huge corporations that had been in control for decades. Creators were quickly realizing these syndicates weren’t needed in any capacity, whether it be validation, sales, or pay. Instead, they could just set out and find their own audience, one that loved not just their work, but them as creative individuals.
Fast forward a decade, we’re a few years into the 2000’s, and creators are making a real living from their work without aide. The freedom to work and create with a daily breath of fresh air, and new ideas to explore, many of which had been bottled up for years. Stories that were once shaped to find a syndicate’s acceptance letter, could now be as weird, wild, uncanny, and original as the creator wanted. If someone wanted to create a story about a guy who lives inside a computer, loves chocolate covered raisins, and fights evil viruses in his spare time, they could. A syndicate would never buy that, but this viable separation allowed creators to discover an audience who wanted to read that comic specifically. All they had to do was keep pushing to find their people.
More recently, comic creators have learned that audiences have specific tastes and interests. Things no longer need to be painted with broad, all appealing strokes. Instead, small groups of people, who not only understand the inside jokes and references, but cherish them, are supporting the things they love. Every subculture, every fandom, every small group with their highly specific knowledge of things only they understand, have creators making comics that speak directly to them. They’re able to talk with the creator, share his work, support him or her directly, and see merchandise that’s specifically created for them.
What started out as a business dominated by corporations, passing acceptance judgment on creative’s work, has now bloomed into a world where anyone who wants to share their creation with the world, can do so freely. The world of comic creation is now boundless. All cultures, subcultures, small groups or large groups, special interests, niche pockets found within a sub-pocket of some random fandom, everyone now has a place at the comic table because of what webcomics have done. They have quite literally changed the comic landscape and culture forever.
Creators can now find their small pockets of people who share their passions, and have a desire to support their favorite creators in wonderful and encouraging ways. No one is telling anyone, anymore, whether or not they’re good enough to create things. Instead, webcomics helped shape a world in which, if you love something, and have a desire to create something that is personal and representative of your feelings, thoughts, and passions, you are now good enough to do so. Skill, talent, ability, all of it is no longer in the hands of the big businesses, nor the editors or submission offices, but instead, the people who sit down and decide if your work is for them or not. The beauty of that is found in this vast world we live in, where there are people billions of people with a billion different interests. People who absolutely share in the same enjoyment and ideas as you do. All that’s left, is to reach out, find your audience, and after that, the sky’s the limit.