It is difficult to find an official definition of the word “webcomic”. The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for it, although the Random House dictionary defines it as “an online comic strip or cartoon, especially one that was originally published online”1. Webcomics are a new enough medium that the OED has not yet found it necessary to include a definition. However, they have been slowly emerging to prominence since the early nineties. Like other comics, they typically use a combination of words and pictures to tell a story; however, the definition of webcomics is as difficult to pin down as the definition of comics themselves. Scott McCloud’s famous definition of comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader”2, applies, but the Will Eisner definition of comics as “the printed arrangement of art and balloons in sequence, particularly as in comic books”3 does not work as well–by including the word “printed”, webcomics are excluded. Although this is likely a function of the time in which that definition was written (1996), it is a first clue that webcomics are not precisely the same as their printed cousins. In McCloud’s definition, there is a temporality arising from the sequence of the panels, and a spatiality tied to the placing of the panels on the page, the gutters, and the pages within the printed book. These elements are present in webcomics, but are expanded to include the temporal element of an “update schedule” and the digital spatiality of the host website, but not typically the page-breaks of the printed book. They are digital, belonging to the web intrinsically—their form, content, and audience reaction defined by their online nature.
The history of comics and related graphic narratives has been traced back to the beginning of man, to cave painting and papyrus scrolls.2 Webcomics, on the other hand, are necessarily more recent, as they by definition only exist after the invention of the Internet. Sources differ on exactly which comic was the first to be properly termed a webcomic. Witches and Stitches, Where The Buffalo Roam, and T.H.E Fox have all been named the first webcomic.4 However, they were all distributed on a “proto-Internet”, through systems like CompuServe and UseNet (services that offered networked computing power, for a price; with a user base of a few thousand). CompuServe was invented in 1969,5 but the first comics were not posted in its forums until later, with T.H.E Fox dated to 1986. Other early comics emerged in the early nineties. The audience for these was small, because access to these services was mostly comprised of computer programmers and technology students. This first audience continues to influence webcomics at their roots, with technology and “nerd” culture consistently being popular topics through today.6 The first comic hosted on the Web (browser-accessed Internet, as is typical today) was Doctor Fun, in 1993. Similar to many early webcomics, it was a gag strip, not dissimilar to a newspaper comic.6 Throughout the nineties, many webcomics continued to maintain a focus on humor or adventure strips with a nerd or geek culture focus. 7

The first webcomic hosting site, Big Panda, made it much easier for web users to find webcomics. Started in 1997, it hosted 770+ webcomics, asking a fee from the artists for hosting services and paying dividends from ad revenue. Sluggy Freelance, one of the longest running and most successful webcomics, was originally hosted there.8 However, Big Panda did not last, and was replaced by Keenspot in 2000. Keenspot operated by charging readers and sharing revenue among the creators. This system has been implemented on a number of other sites since. Pay-to-read systems are seen as a relative guarantee of quality in a market glutted with amateur productions. Because of the number of free webcomics, however, it is difficult to sell subscriptions to such sites. Therefore, many sites rely instead on ad revenue.

The end of the nineties and the early 2000s witnessed the beginning of some of the most important webcomics to date. Penny Arcade, launched in 1998, is one of the most financially successful webcomics, and Megatokyo, started in 2000, is a prominent example of the beginning of the incursion of the Japanese manga style into English-language webcomics.6 2000 also marks the publication of Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics, a follow-up to his immensely popular Understanding Comics. In Reinventing Comics, McCloud dedicated much of the book to promoting the use of the internet and other technology to further the development and popularization of new kinds of comics. The first webcomics awards also made their appearance, with the addition of a “Favorite Web-Based Comic” category for the Eagle Awards. The peer-based Web Cartoonist’s Choice Awards followed the next year, and in 2005 the prestigious Eisner Awards added a Best Digital Comic category.8

The 2000’s were also the decade in which webcomics saw a significant increase in readership, due to increased access to the Internet. New demographics demanded new subject material. Girl-o-Matic advertised webcomics that appealed specifically to women, and in general the offerings diversified to represent more genres and perspectives. However, the trend of catering to niche interests remained—for example, a popular comic started in 2002, Unshelved, is a strip about librarians, featuring in-jokes and references for librarians and book-sellers. xkcd, another particularly famous and financially successful title, frequently relies on esoteric mathematical knowledge for the punch line of its jokes.6 While webcomics are not the only medium to cater to specific interests, it is widely acknowledged that it is more feasible to have a small target audience online, because of the internet’s ability to bring together people from different locations.

Today, it is unknown how many webcomics there are, but there are certainly tens of thousands of comics, many relatively unknown. Wikipedia lists a count of approximately 38,000, but that number’s source is unavailable, and as such cannot be verified or dated. It appears no other count has been made.4 Low barrier to publication means that many comics are made and abandoned, adding significantly to total count of webcomics ever in existence. Popular comics can be sources of revenue for their creators through ad revenue, merchandise, and other avenues. However, the estimated number of webcomic artists who make their primary living from their comics is in the dozens.9

Technical innovation is one of the more unique aspects of webcomics that differentiates them from their print cousins. Even as far back as 1995, experimental comics such as Argon Zark, by Charley Parker, incorporated animated elements into its pages.6,10,11 In Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud introduced the idea of the “infinite canvas” comic. Because digital comics are not constrained by traditional print sizes, conceivably an entire story could take place on one “page”, limited only by the user’s willingness to scroll.12 While this has been implemented, oftentimes as an occasional break in more typically formatted strips, many have found it difficult to navigate, and nearly impossible to transfer to print format should that become desirable.13 Navigating forward and backwards, rather than side to side, has also been used through layering of pages. The Harry Potter site Pottermore could arguably be an example of this, with users navigating three-dimensional space by zooming in and out of layers.14 Picture format is not the only area of innovation—text can also be technically “enhanced”. In Hwei Lim’s Hero, the comic page is presented as wordless, and the narration and dialogue only appear as alt-text when the viewer hovers the mouse over the relevant panel.15 Alt-text is in fact an important aspect of many comics, providing a venue for the author to elaborate on the page’s joke, or to explain or comment on the events portrayed. Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck,16 a comic with a large cult following, is arguably the comic that most takes advantage of the web’s capabilities. At various times, following the plot requires vertical and horizontal scrolling, interactive game elements, animation, parallel panels with separate plot lines, and choose-your-own-adventure style decision-making. Homestuck and other comics also use their very website as a story element, changing website formatting, banners, and other background elements to contribute to or complement the story’s events.13

All of these web-specific innovations complicate the idea that webcomic are merely web-based comics, because they include dimensions beyond the word + picture formula of print comics. In his discussion of infinite canvas, Scott McCloud mentions the “Z-axis”—the impression of time given by distance.12 Time is also brought into play if comics use animated elements. This lets them act in a quasi-cinematic fashion. Webcomics also frequently are serialized on a timed schedule, updating on a given day or days of the week. This allows for a unique form of pacing, and sometimes reminds one of television episodes in the potential for cliff-hangers or long-term dramatic tension.

Unlike print comics, cinema, or television, webcomics also have a distinct social aspect. Rare is the webcomic without a comments section or forum, and there are even webcomics with whole fan-made wikis dedicated to the comic and its world. Webcomics are easily shared via social media or read on mobile devices, as shown by the number of webcomic-dedicated apps for phones or tablets. The most widely-read often are subject to “meme-ification” shared out of context through entertainment and social media sites like I Waste So Much Time, Tumblr, and Facebook.6 Because of the Internet’s speed of communication, feedback from readers reaches the author quickly, and can be responded to, either in comments or by changing the actual comic itself. Therefore webcomics may be considered more dynamic than print comics.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud questions whether comics are a hybrid of the distinct disciplines of word and image, or a complete blending that transcends either to become its own kind of medium.17 In the years since, it seems scholarship has leaned toward the latter. Webcomics, then, are the complete blending of word, image, and one or more other media. Words, images, and cinema; words, images, and video game; words, images, and digital sculpture—potentially any combination can be imagined. As digital technology continues to evolve, it is difficult to predict in what direction webcomics will develop. One thing does seem certain: they will continue to represent the incredibly diversity that digital media can offer.

— Misha Grifka

  1. “webcomic.” com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. (2013). Web. 30 Jan. 2014. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/webcomic>.
  2. Chute, Hilary. “Scott McCloud.” The Believer. (2007). Web. 30 Jan. 2014. http://www.believermag.com/issues/200704/?read=interview_mccloud
  3. Eisner, Will. Graphic Storytelling. Poorhouse Press, 1996.
  4. El Santo. “Who writes the history of webcomics?.” Webcomic Overlook. 15 Sep 2010. Web. 30 Jan. 2014. http://webcomicoverlook.com/2010/09/15/who-writes-the-history-of-webcomics/
  5. Carlson, David. “The Online Timeline: Compuserve.” David Carlson’s Online World. 1999-2009. Web. 30 Jan. 2014. http://iml.jou.ufl.edu/carlson/history/compuserve.htm
  6. Garrity, Shaenon. “The History of Webcomics.” Comics Journal. (15 Jul 2011). Web. 30 Jan. 2014. <http://www.tcj.com/the-history-of-webcomics/>.
  7. Campbell, Timothy. “The First Comic on the Web: The History of Online Comics, Part II”. Comixtalk. 14 Sept. 2003. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://comixtalk.com/the_history_of_online_comics_part_2
  8. Atchison, Lee. “A Brief History of Webcomics: The Third Age of Webcomics, Part One”. Sequential Tart. 7 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://www.sequentialtart.com/article.php?id=850
  9. “List of professional webcomic artists”. Web. Accessed 2 Feb. 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_professional_webcomic_artists
  10. Campbell, Timothy. “The First Comic on the Web: The History of Online Comics, Part III”. Comixtalk. 9 Nov. 2003. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://comixtalk.com/the_history_of_online_comics_part_3
  11. Parker, Charley. Argon Zark! 1995-ongoing. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. www.zark.com
  12. McCloud, Scott. “The ‘Infinite’ Canvas”. Feb. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://scottmccloud.com/4-inventions/canvas/
  13. “Infinite Canvas”. TvTropes. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/InfiniteCanvas
  14. Rowling, J.K. Pottermore. Pottermore Limited. London, England. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. https://www.pottermore.com/en-us
  15. Lim, Hwei. Hero. Comic Genesis. 7 Jul. 2006 to 2 Nov. 2012. http://invisiblecities.comicgenesis.com/
  16. Hussie, Andrew. Homestuck. MS Paint Adventures. 13 Apr. 2009. Web. 2 Feb. 2014. http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6
  17. McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Tundra Publishing. 1993.