Who writes the history of webcomics?

Depending on your source, webcomics may have been around for 15 years. Or 25 years. Or, I don’t know, since the beginning of time. (This theory only applies if you consider cave walls to be an early version of the internet. You can expect my thesis on this to drop in about a year or so.)

So, given that suitable time has elapsed, isn’t it high time someone wrote up a webcomic history?

“A history about webcomics, El Santo?” you say. “Scoff, scoff. That is quite an arrogant pursuit you propose. What next? The history of the emoticon?”

Now hold it right there, pahd-nuh! (Yes, all this talk about history naturally makes me want to adopt an old-timey Wild West accent.) Sure, such a project wouldn’t exactly be on the same magnitude of, say, the history of the American Revolution or the Post WWI Germany or all that other stuff you had to write essays for in high school. But, you know, there are several books on print comics history. And it’s not like other online properties don’t get historical treatments. Did you hear that a movie is being made out of the origins of Facebook? Of course you did. Like everything Justin Timberlake is involved in, it’s ubiquitous.

There’s several benefits to writing a history of webcomics. First of all, some readers have emailed me that they’re going to write about webcomics for a school project. A webcomic history would be an excellent educational resource.

Secondly, I have a feeling most writers who want to talk about comics history tend to ignore webcomics. It’s not that rare to be hanging around a site devote to print comics, ask why they don’t cover webcomics, and get the response, “We’d love to …. It’s just nothing we’re interested in.” And they have every right to say so. However, that just means its up to people who are passionate about webcomics to write a history.

It’s an essential ingredient to being passionate about webcomics. It leads to a deeper appreciation and understanding of your own passions. Roger Ebert once made a comparison between a movie critic and a Cubs fan that incorporates the knowledge of history as essential to the experience. I think the comparison applies here:

It is not enough simply to be a “Cubs fan,” although I confess I am one. It is necessary to feel the philosophy, the history, and even the poetry about the activity called “baseball.” It is helpful to step outside a little, and see that sports teams are surrogates for our own desires to conquer, and expressions of our xenophobia.

And finally, history is fun. Who doesn’t want to look at old comics and see the crude early efforts? This isn’t meant to be a slight against creators, by the way. Print comic fans get the same thrills digging up the relatively simple Silver and Golden Age comics.

Where The Buffalo Roam

There’s a pretty big peril writing a webcomic history, though. If there’s anything webcomic creators and readers love more than the webcomic itself, it’s drama. It doesnt matter if you’re writing a book about webcomics or trying to film a documentary about webcomics. T Campbell’s book, “A History of Webcomics,” left him disheartened. In an interview I had last year, he stated, “The book took the idea too far, and I wound up alienating a lot of people I respected, all for a project that I can’t even look at today. I still sort of like my old fiction, where the amateurishness gives it a goofy charm, but if I could burn every copy of that book I’d be happier and live longer.”

Think of the politics involved. Who deserves to get covered? Who doesn’t? Penny Arcade, Dinosaur Comics, Megatokyo, and xkcd are probably shoe-ins, but then what? With over 38,000* webcomics in existence, how do you pare down the list of webcomics to mention without sounding biased? How do you come across as being impartial when encountered by controversies where both sides are quite vocal in their opinions?

(Note: while I’m pointing at webcomics specifically, these same challenges, I assume, face anyone who is trying to write the history of anything. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, for example, faced accusations that his World War II series ignored the contributions of Hispanic Americans.)

Still, brave souls have tried, and there have been several attempts to put together some sort of webcomic history. I raise a glass of Guinness to them. If no one tries, the alternative, after all, is having nothing written at all.

Here are a few notable examples freely available online:

  • You’re probably best starting off with Wikipedia’s entry on webcomics. It’s short, sweet, and — as long as you’re tight with Wikipedia’s notability board — editable. There’s been a lot of talk about Wikipedia purging webcomics out of its system, but for the most part many of the bigger players still are represented within its pages.

    Earliest webcomic: Witches and Stitches, by Eric Monster Milikin.

  • There’s also a chapter devoted to webcomics history on Zach Whalen’s site, which is hosted on a teaching guide page at the University of Mary Washington. This is part of a collectively authored book about webcomics, which, I assume, was written for an accredited college-level English course (ENGL375: “The Graphic Novel”). Webcomic history is separated into four sections: Pre-History of Webcomics, Early Webcomics, Modern Webcomics, Future of Webcomics. Of the webcomic history entries I’ve seen, it’s the most recent one, written in 2009.

    Earliest webcomic: T.H.E. Fox, by Joe Ekaitis.

  • Argon Zark

  • The short-lived Sequential Tart website brings us A Brief History of Webcomics, written in 2008. This is an overview of webcomics from the “first” webcomic all the way until the Eisner Awards of 2005. Despite being called “The Third Age of Webcomics, Part One” and the promise of a follow-up in the closing paragraphs, I think this piece is all there is. It’s probably for the best. Did anyone really need to cover webcomic drama?

    Earliest webcomic: T.H.E. Fox, by Joe Ekaitis.

  • From the Comic Book Bin site comes The History of Webcomics (h/t Dijana’s Blog), written in 2006. It’s short and very much focused on the webcomic culture pre-2000′s.

    Earliest webcomic: Where The Buffalo Roam, by Hans Bjordahl

  • Before he wrote the controversial book, T Campbell wore the History of Online Comics series (Parts 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9) in 2004. It’s, by far, more in-depth than any of the other pieces linked here. While the other accounts provide a general overview of webcomics as a whole, Campbell zooms in on several movers and shakers: PvP, Keenspot, Penny Arcade, and Modern Tales, for example.

    Earliest webcomic: Where The Buffalo Roam, by Hans Bjordahl

A lot of these, by the way, seem obsolete already. Many things have happened that don’t seem to have been covered by any of these accounts. Like the entire saga of Zuda Comics and the stuff coming out of the growing Portland webcomic community, for example.

Who will write the follow-up chapters?

NOTES:

* – Corrected. I’d put 700K before, but the Wikipedia entry only lists 38K based on a rough estimate by J. Manley.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 15, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Since yellow kid magazine there has been thousands of comicbook tittles,
    its not like you need to mention the thousands of super man clones from the 40s in your comicbook history book, the same applies to webcomics,

  2. There is a fantastic book called “Rebel Visions” by fantagraphics about the underground comix of the 60s (it’s huge and has beautiful comic reproductions), and the one thing that was poignant about the whole endeavour was it’s sense of surrounding history.

    I have read a few articles on webcomics history, and they seem a little lean. A history of any medium is intricately tied to the events and sociological conditions surrounding the artists of said medium. There has to be something said about the geographical location of webcomic artists, their political positions (or lack thereof), their interactions with other artists and the way that they have organised themselves over time. The nice thing about this approach is that it discusses a medium as a community with notable individuals as the hubs. This isn’t a history of Dinosaur comics afterall.

    I look forward to your thoughts on the subject. Your reviews are well thought and articulately written, a history book would be very welcome.

    • Thanks for the compliment! I’m not sure I’d be the right guy to go about writing a book about webcomic history. Probably the best would be someone who graduated with a journalism/history major who is also a webcomic fan. They’d be best prepared to endure interviews and engage in research (which I imagine would involve digging through old blog posts… today’s equivalent of memoirs). I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. At worst, I think any book I’d write would be less impartial and too opinionated (since that’s the type of writing mode I’m most at ease with).

      However, if I were to write a book about webcomic history, I’d probably do something focused strongly on the video game comic phenomenon. It was a driving force for the medium that’s often conveniently ignored in webcomic discussions. I’d compose a profile of the gamer between 1998-2010, the controversies that made the community feel isolated (e.g., Jack Thompson, games vs. art), the growing media presence (e.g. G4, E3, PAX), and the rapidly evolving technology for gamers and online users. Plus, if I needed to conduct some interviews, the Penny Arcade guys and Scott Kurtz are right here in town.

      And then I’d tick everyone on this blog off because here I am talking about video game comics again. :)

  3. I wound up alienating a lot of people I respected, all for a project that I can’t even look at today.

    I’ve had many a conversation with T and firmly put him in the “Nice guy with good intent” category. He feels very strongly about the importance of the idea of “Community” and fandom as something that draws people together being a wonderful thing. I don’t believe that shared interest in something means commonality, but it’s a big world.

    My opinion is that the people he’s discussing here aren’t worth his respect to feel bad about alienating in the first place. All of the hate that got sent his way came from those who wanted the book to be part of their P.R. rather than the dispassionate warts-and-all thing it was.

    Well, hate from those people and the scores of mindless sycophants that hang off their dicks…. Fandom disgusts me fairly often.

    T’s mistake was in trying to treat the webcomics “industry” like a collection of mature individuals making art instead of the idiotic internet high school it still is. Until it passes that threshold, treating it as a scholarly subject is pointless.

    tl;dr: The man has nothing to feel ashamed of.

  4. i’m surprised none of those early histories mentioned ‘The Parking Lot is Full’, that used to be pretty popular back when (1993ish to 2002ish) and i still see individual strips reposted, usually without attribution.

    i guess Space Moose doesn’t rate, as it was originally a student paper comic which was placed online in it’s entirety in ’97. but it’s well-known enough they made a reference to it on Futurama, and it was one of the first comics i came across online (through IRC) and the author continued to post new strips for a year or two.

    • I’m guessing the joke is the name of the Bull Space Moose Party?

      • yeah, that was it. space moose was watching the booth.

        i found them mirrored:
        http://www.hackcanada.com/canadian/zines/spacemoose/

        i’m not surprised they’re on a hacker site, that’s the scene i first encountered them in.

        • while i’m at it, Bob the Angry Flower is still going strong, and he’s been online since, what, the early 2000s? at least.

          man, doing a thorough investigation of online comics would be tough, i’m sure there’s all sorts of niche comics online that would be hard to even hear of unless you were involved in their respective subcultures (for instance Unicorn Jelly).

          • Good point!
            I think that webcomics ahould be studied as vehicles of self expression, a lot of bizzare stuff has been posted and read on the internet and has achieved a baffling amount of success, from furry porn, vore, weeaboos to Jennifer Diane Reitz.
            Although as an art form tha majority of them still have a long way to go. But no doubt it is an interesting effort to cover all ground.

  5. I think webcomics are still too recent to try to write their history. Record the current goings-on, by all means, but we can’t practise the proverbial hindsight look yet.

  6. I pick at the webcomics* history idea occasionally, like it’s an old scab. The book had many, many problems, but I think the root of them was a severe excess of ambition.

    The Comixtalk articles were mostly successful at the time because they were limited in scope and perceived permanence. Detailing the first few webcomics, and why they succeeded or failed, is a worthy endeavor that tells us more about art. But as a history moves closer to the present, or into speculation about the future, the strain of producing a defining, readable account increases exponentially. This makes writing anything comprehensive a serious challenge, because you have to be more tentative right when the reader is expecting a rousing conclusion.

    In my personal case, the difficulties were multiplied by the different roles that I tried and failed to balance– how could I hope to write an unbiased account that includes people I consider friends (and a few that I sadly have to consider enemies), about a scene that I myself have participated in? There’s just no way. This problem was already cropping up at the end of the Comixtalk series.

    El Santo, I’d love to pass on my experiences to your hypothetical journalism student, or possibly a media-studies professor, who’s ready to chronicle webcomics’ more recent history– I feel like that would be the most productive way of taking the idea forward. I’m looking into that, slowly. It would be nice to think that something good could be made from my work’s ashes.

    *Or possibly “Internet comics,” since the non-Web Internet’s getting a lot of attention of late.

  7. As someone who has a passion for history and loves hearing about events from the Cold War era, I don’t feel like it’s too soon to write a history of webcomics. Penny Arcade has been around for 10 years, and other webcomics have started before that. A lot has happened in that time frame.
    But I agree with El Santo that maybe a more focused historical account is needed. Look at World War II: so much happened during that war that it would be insane if anyone tried to encompass every battle, every technological advance, every story into one book. That’s why the Military History Channel can have dozens of WWII documentaries – there are so many stories to tell. For webcomics, you could have a book about the Keenspot comics since Keenspot has closed its doors. You could have a book about Zuda comics. You could even have artist biographies (I just got done with “Schultz and Peanuts,” and that was a good book). The idea of encompassing all the webcomics into one book would be too much for anyone.

    And T. Campbell, I’m sorry you got a lot of hate for your book. You had good intentions, and despite the flaws in your book, I respect your desire to record webcomic history.

    • Perhaps now is the best time to start writing things down, as webcomics are subjected to the forces of their digital medium. How many early comics are inaccessible now because they no longer exist online? Just because they aren’t still around, doesn’t mean they didn’t have any impact.

      WWII had the benefit of being recorded. Not just regular history recorded either, it was MILITARY recorded. There is paperwork of pretty much every little piece of minutia you could want to know.

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