| Click here for a companion |
list of Web comics and sites.
Mention Web comics and you'll most likely get a blank stare. Although there are probably thousands of comics on the Web—and more going up every day—they remain esoteric to the mainstream comics world, let alone to the book publishing world. However, for their growing legion of fans—who number in the millions—Web comics are the wired world's answer to Garfield and Dilbert. But even as their popularity grows, questions remain. Will print collections of the best known Web comics cross over to the book audience? And can print comics find a wider audience on the Web?
Consider Penny Arcade, the most successful Web comic yet. The strip, like many, presents videogame-based humor for young men who are most often found playing on an X-Box or logging into the Internet game City of Heroes. Yet the strip has a daily readership of 800,000 and throws its own yearly convention that attracts 10,000 fans. Penny Arcademakes enough money from advertising—mostly from gaming companies—to support a staff of five, and creators Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, known as Tycho and Gabe, have enough loot left over to regularly donate thousands of dollars to charities. Dark Horse will publish the first Penny Arcadecollection in January, and it remains to be seen how much of its Web success will translate to bookstores.
But Penny Arcadeis far from the only Web comics success story. Scott Kurtz's PvP, another videogaming-themed strip, has gone from 700 readers to some 20 million page views a month in eight years. PvPhas already been collected into three trade paperbacks from Image; the first is in its second printing. Fred Gallagher's Megatokyo, an online comic about two videogamers stranded in Tokyo, is both an immensely popular Web comic and a series of bestselling book collections from Dark Horse. Other popular online strips such as Sluggy Freelance, Diesel Sweetiesand Ctrl+Alt+Del have big audiences and robust merchandising sales. None of these titles, with the exception of MegaTokyo, have approached anything like their Web success in printed form.
However, no one can question the devotion of the online audience. Just as newspaper readers always complain when a favorite strip is removed, Web comics fans have been known to speak directly with their wallets—one Web cartoonist raised $60,000 when he switched from print syndication to Web subscriptions.
Much of the appeal of Web comics is their insider nature. The most popular Web strips are gaming-themed, and someone who's never spent the night with Ultima Online or rolled a saving throw may have a hard time getting much of the humor. Compared to traditional newspaper strips, Web comics are also a world of unfettered humor. Dark Horse's Mike Carriglitto, who edited the Penny Arcadecollection and an upcoming Cntl+Alt+Dltbook, feels this freedom is the key to their popularity. "No publisher or editor is telling [Web creators] what they can or cannot do. They speak in the audience's language, and nothing's holding them back," he says.
According to T. Campbell, editor of GraphicSmash.com, a Web site devoted to comics, and author of The History of Webcomics, due next year from Antarctic, the popularity of Web comics is due to the interactive nature of the Internet itself. Just as Stan Lee famously used the "Bullpen Bulletins" page of Marvel comics in the 1960s to promote a clublike feeling of inclusion, today's top Web cartoonists have developed a close relationship with their audience. "We can e-mail our favorite cartoonists and most of them that aren't too big will respond. Almost every Web comic in existence has a forum," Campbell points out.
For many cartoonists, the Web a place to get an audience for a project before taking it to book format. Such books as James Kochalka's American Elf and Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference(both from Top Shelf) started out as Web comics, and it's hard to find a young non-superhero cartoonist who hasn't done a Web comic.
One of the most spectacularly successful examples of the Web comics—to-print transition is Flight, an anthology of young fantasy cartoonists who started serializing their stories online. Two print collections garnered critical praise, award nominations and a new book deal from Random House. Editor Kazu Kibuishi eventually signed a deal with Scholastic for his fantasy graphic novel Amulet.
While no one doubts the Internet's power to garner exposure, making money off it remains a bit more difficult. The biggest Web comics are free to readers and ad-supported, but several pay comics sites have become established, the best known being Joey Manley's Modern Tales family of sites and Chris Crosby's Keenspot. Keenspot has grown from 100 million impressions in 2000 to about 950 million in 2005, and its featured strip, You Damn Kid!, is being developed by Fox TV for a sitcom.
Manley started Modern Tales with modest goals, but it grew much more quickly than he expected and his sites now gross six figures a year. On Modern Tales, the most recent strips are available for free, but subscribers pay $2.95 a month, or $29.95 a year, for access to all material.
Recently Manley launched a site called Webcomics Nation that offers paid hosting for cartoonists who don't have major Web chops. "A lot of people don't have that kind of dedication to technology," says Manley. "The younger cartoonists do, but some older cartoonists don't." Webcomics Nation has already become Manley's most profitable project ever. "It's a completely new world," he says.
Even as more projects are developing online, Web comics are becoming a marketing hook for graphic novels. This year several well-regarded comics creators gave up entirely on publishing traditional comic book periodicals and took their stories to the Internet, led by Phil and Kaja Foglio's Girl Genius. Carla Speed McNeil's award-winning Finderended its 36-issue run, and she's now posting her pages online for eventual collection in more profitable trade paperback form.
Recently, cartoonist Batton Lash joined the move to the Web, putting his long-running Wolff and Byrd: Supernatural Lawcomics, published by Exhibit A Press, on Webcomics Nation. Although he'll continue to publish traditional comics and trade books, for Lash the move is a way to reach new readers, outside of what he sees as a stagnant market in comics shops. He explains, "The whole point of a business is to grow—you want to be more successful and your profit margin to grow, and that's just not happening in comics shops."
So far reaction has been good, he says, and the Web exposure has garnered some new readers and book orders.
Not everyone is sanguine about the Web, however. Cartoonist Tom Hart, whose Hutch Owen books from Top Shelf have been critical darlings, edits Serializer.net—currently undergoing server upgrade—which was for a time a home to such art comics favorites as Brian Sendelbach, Glenn Dakin, Greg Stump and Nick Bertozzi. The art comics crowd is very different from the Web comics crowd, and Hart feels that's why he had minimal success in gaining a wider audience for Hutch Owen. "I'm finding it very frustrating now to get my stuff out there," he says. By his own admission, Hart isn't someone who enjoys sitting around in front of a computer, and the predominantly young audience for Web comics isn't the one he's trying to reach.
But even Hart suspects that there is a way to reach his audience electronically that he hasn't figured out yet. He says, "The book is my ultimate goal, but the ideal goal would be a decent Web audience, too."
Most of the Web comics people PW spoke with say that the online and print audiences are just very different beasts. Shaenon Garrity, whose Narbonicis both a Web comic and a series of books from Blueshift Studios, points out that the audience for Web comics is much larger than the one for print comics. "But, at the same time, there are 10 or fewer cartoonists who are making a good living off their Web comics," she says. "It's a huge phenomenon, but in many ways it's a worse market than printed comics."
Will the most popular Web comics make the jump to printed format? Manley says it doesn't matter. "It's just another way to get the content out."
Dark Horse's Carriglitto believes the sales potential for books of collected Web comics is there, although "it may require some patience on the part of the bookstore and comic shop markets for the audience for these titles to get in sync. A lot of their audience lives online and doesn't necessarily go to bookstores. But they definitely go to Amazon.com."
While the world of Web comics remains almost numbingly vast, there's no question that the format will become increasingly influential. Although its aims and content are far different, the category is a bit like manga five or six years ago: a cult audience that is increasing steadily under the radar of the conventional media. Some of the cartoonists and editors working with Web comics believe that the accessibility of the Web eventually may doom conventional comics "pamphlets.". Even Marvel—traditional comics pamphlet publisher incarnate—is eyeing the Web. In a recent interview on the comics news Web site Newsarama, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada pointed to the minimal costs involved in Web publishing. Or as Joey Manley summarizes: "You'll lose a lot less money publishing on the Web than publishing a printed comic."
UPDATE (12/19/2005): Since this article was written, the world of web comics keeps on developing at a dizzying speed. Marvel has made their web comics initiative official. Four recent Marvel issues have been put on the web, with plans to eventually launch an issue a day, including both recent and classic material.In a statement, Marvel Online Creative DirectorPeter Olson said that they're trying to reach two audiences with webcomics "For people who have only been exposed to our products through movies and TV, we want to use this as a vehicle for introducing them to comics as a medium. For our long-time fans we feel it'll be a good way to check out titles they aren't familiar with and also to catch up with our archives." On another front, Speakeasy Comics, a Toronto-based publisher that launched this year, announced a new plan to publish issues of their creator-owned comics on the web instead of printing them if they don't reach a certain minimum sales order. While Speakeasy publisher Adam Fortier sees this as a way to get exposure for material, creators were more undecided on the venture. SSS Comics publisher Saul Colt told the comics news site Buzzscope "I can't see any benefit to the creator for a few reasons: 1) He/she could just post it up on his/her own site and no longer need Speakeasy, and 2) I don't believe people will continue to come back every two months for a new issue because in a marketplace with thousands of titles, people can't remember every book."