Ok. That’s a bit of a stretch. What we call the Internet is actually the evolution of a communication network designed to keep government and defense department computers connected in the case of a nuclear attack. Initially, this loose network wasn’t much to look at, until Tim Berners-Lee created a way to view it. He called it the World Wide Web. The result was an explosion that has resulted in a new way to do everything. The Internet. It’s a place where you can buy and sell anything. You can communicate with people all over the world. You can also purchase and download everything from music to movies and television shows as well as my favorite entertainment, comics. I’m not talking about the slim books that are bagged and boarded. I’m talking about comics that exist in the land of pixels.
Web comics are a relatively new addition to the world of sequential art, but in a short time they have grown into a movement that is helping to define the future of the medium. Like other types of entertainment, comics are adapting to the new economy. Today there are literally thousands of web comics and hundreds of sites devoted to displaying or discussing them. But it wasn’t always that way. A little over ten years ago, this new form of sequential art was just emerging from the primordial stew of the nascent Internet. What was the birth of web comics like? To answer that question, we need to journey back in time to the year 1992.
Where the Buffalo Roam is known as the first web comic
Popular wisdom states that the first web comic was “Where the Buffalo Roam,” created by a Colorado student named Hans Bjordahl. “Where the Buffalo Roam” was a comic strip that offered humorous insights into college life and in 1992, it was made available on the Internet through a Usenet newsgroup. Basically a text based “Bulletin Board,” Usenet newsgroups offered a way for people to share information about common interests. Although Usenet groups were all text based, one could provide links to downloadable image files. Where the Buffalo Roam is notable, not so much for the fact that it was the first comic of its kind, but because it developed a loyal following. That meant that there was an audience for web comics.
Argon Zark has been publishing since 1995. It's known as the longest running web comic.
Throughout the early days of web comics, the emerging form changed and grew along with the technology that spawned it. The introduction of web browsers allowed web comic creators to display their comics without the need to download them. More web comics were introduced during the 1990’s including one launched in 1997 called Argon Zark. Argon Zark holds the distinction of being known as the longest continuously running web comic. By this time a community was developing around web comics. By 1995, the first sites that collected web comics in one place began to appear. These sites provided search functionality as well as the ability for creators to post their own web comics. Web comics were beginning to gain recognition.
Reinventing Comics, by Scott McCloud, covered the emerging world of web commics.
In 1998, comic creator Scott McCloud launched a web site that served as a place to experiment with digital comics. Using the new, limitless environment of the web page, McCloud began what continues to be an ongoing exploration of comic storytelling in the digital age. Around the same time, a handful of other new web comics began to achieve a level of popularity that allowed them to generate income for their creators. In 2000, McCloud, already known for his book “Understanding Comics,” published “Reinventing Comics,” a book covering the emerging world of digital comics. By this time, the technology was catching up to the content as well. Newer web comics were larger, allowing better visuals and more storytelling alternatives. Web comics were becoming a real and recognized form. Beyond that recognition, web comics were becoming a viable business. What followed was inevitable.
The next step in the evolution of web comics was the introduction of the hosting service. As web comic creators continued to multiply, sites offering hosting services began to appear. Most of these sites offered to host a web comic for either a small fee or a cut of any profits that a web comic generated. The most famous of the early web comic hosting services was Keenspace. Hosting services provided a home for web comics that included automatic updates as well as well as a place to sell related merchandise.
In the years since the appearance of web comic hosts, the business of web comics has started to mature. Although their methods have adjusted, most web comic hosts still offer a place for creators to archive and update their web comics while selling related merchandise. Places like Modern Tales, Web Comics Nation, Drunk Duck and even Keenspace (now renamed to Keenspot) provide homes for thousands of web comics spanning just about every genre of storytelling and humor that you could imagine. And the list keeps growing.
Since their inception during the early days of the Internet, web comics have tended to be less rigid than their printed cousins. Early readers of web comics were much more tolerant of non-traditional content while the low cost of creating and publishing web comics allowed anyone to join the party. Like any new medium, web comics have created a forum for new voices and new creative visions. More importantly, web comics have carved out a growing niche in the world of sequential art that will be evolving continuously for the foreseeable future.
Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge a research debt to the amazing work of T Campbell. Campbell is a writer of web comics, an editor for the subscription web comic site Graphic Smash, and a regular contributor to comixpedia.com. For anyone interested in the history of web comics, he is currently writing a book on that very subject. You can learn more about T Campbell at http://tcampbell.net.
Next column, we’ll take a look at the business of web comics. Who is making money and how. Until then, click on over to one of the many web comic resources mentioned above and start read some web comics. You’ll be glad you did.