Monday, October 7, 2013


Remember when you'd wake up on Sunday morning, pick up the newspaper from your driveway or porch, and then read thoroughly mediocre cartoons in the Sunday comics section?

The days before the Internet were desperate.

Thew newspaper is dead, but the spirit of the newspaper comic is alive and well. Webcomics and their ilk have found great popularity online, for a new generation to get their fix of mediocrity.

Let's pick on Garfield, for a little while.

Upon the birth of the online platform, traditional cartoonists quickly jumped on making websites for their brands. A comic like Garfield could now have a comprehensive website, complete with archives of every official Garfield strip in existence. Thanks to the power of ad revenue, this brought another source of profit to the cartoonists.

Opening your work up to free online access, however, also empowers people to show more immediate criticism of your work. Although Garfield is the most syndicated newspaper comic in the world, it isn't actually funny at all (and apparently, isn't even supposed to be).

Many people have jumped on the opportunity to lampoon Garfield for its flat humor. Garfield minus Garfield is an independent work where Garfield is edited out of the comic strips, suddenly making the strip about Jon's declined mental state and adding a dimension to the comic that even Jim Davis (Garfield's creator) called "an inspired thing to do". The Random Garfield Generator takes three random panels from the comic strip's archives and slaps them together, with the nonsense comic often being about as funny as a regular comic. A YouTube channel named lasagnacat featured a far more surrealist interpretation of the comic strip, with each installment highlighting how unfunny each strip's joke is before veering right into left field. Even if the spins on the comic aren't necessarily coherent on their own, the fact that it's a Garfield spoof adds its own level of irony.

The surreal ones are my favorite.

But even outside of Garfield, a lot of newspaper comics weren't that funny at all. This is anecdotal, but a lot of people I know who even bothered to read newspaper comics would only swear by The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes - everything else was basically noise. There had been an alternative comic scene since the mid-20th century, made by people who wanted something other than the mainstream content. However, the ability to circulate your work to a wide audience simply wasn't there if you weren't syndicated by a newspaper or major publisher.

Enter the webcomic.

The Internet's open platform enabled anyone to post content without having to worry about getting a publisher's support. Young artists looking to explore their creative faculties could do so online, and the fruits of their work could occasionally be surprisingly good. Perry Bible Fellowship started out as a newspaper comic and eventually found its major success on the Internet. Its surreal aesthetic, often colorful in style but dark in humor, has won it several online accolades.

There are other webcomic flavors where that came from.  Hark! A Vagrant! goes for a Victorian aesthetic, making accessible humor on various pieces of literature. Pictures for Sad Children exploits the expression of deadpan humor through use of soft gray imagery, non-capitalized dialogue, and dark or depressing narrative content. Cyanide and Happiness goes for a simple cartoon aesthetic with completely vile and over-the-top humor to go along with it. Comics like Piled Higher and Deeper and Questionable Content operate entirely by following the wholly mundane lives of their characters, presenting "slice-of-life" narratives that resonated with their audiences.

Because online content is so accessible, a lot of genres would emerge around the success of one or two webcomics. XKCD caters towards "nerdy" humor, focusing on more academic subject matter. Other webcomics like Saturday Morning Breakfast CerealAbtruse Goose, and others go after a similar niche, forming a whole subgenre of webcomics for science-loving nerdy types. Penny Arcade became a tour de force within online gamer culture, and webcomics like Awkward Zombie, VGCats, and others cater directly to the interests of gamers. A sub-genre within gaming comics - the sprite comic - emerged as well, with 8-Bit Theater leading the charge and many others following in its footsteps.

So many gaming webcomics. And a not-so-subtle jab at one of the worst ones.

Much like how website administrators could create sites around their own interests and find a like-minded audience, webcomic authors could make cartoons that catered around their own interests and find a loyal fan base. Fans could even watch the artist grow their skills over time, fostering even greater loyalty to the artist. Questionable Content's cartoonist started as someone putting doodles on the Internet in-between doing a job that he hated. His drawing skills changed steadily over time while his audience also grew. Eventually he stopped working his other job and started working on the comic full time, making his income off selling merchandise and ad revenue.

Much like how YouTube saw the rise of the professional YouTuber, we have seen the rise of the professional webcomic artist. Much like YouTubers, the successful webcomic artists extensively network with one another, often making guest strips for each other's comics. Some webcomic artists even break out of merely publishing webcomics altogether. Brian Clevinger started out making 8-bit Theater, grew his name through his website and comic, and now he publishes traditional-format comics like Atomic Robo. The creators of Penny Arcade have developed a whole empire behind their work, hosting a breadth of gaming media, hosting gaming conventions, and founding a gaming-themed charity.

Somehow started by doodles about video games.

For all the praises that one can sing about webcomics, we should probably ask ourselves: in the larger picture, have webcomics really done any better than Garfield?

They certainly don't compete in terms of popular respect. Webcomics primarily get popular by word of mouth, and hardly ever get a mention in mainstream media. This blog post delineates some of the attitudes that traditional cartoonists have towards webcomic artists, accusing webcomic artists of making their living off advertisements instead of their actual work, and therefore being lesser artists for it.

Nor do they compete financially. Ad revenue and peddling merchandise can push the most successful webcomic artists to live fairly comfortable lifestyles, but the vast majority of webcomics do not bring in a profit for their authors. Meanwhile, Jim Davis sits on millions of dollars from all of the Garfield merchandise that exists. Granted, he's been in the business for far longer, but it reveals an implicit advantage that traditional comics had: certain income, and mainstream popularity that could permit wider marketability.

Webcomics also tend to have narrower and more devoted audiences, which can sometimes be problematic for the authors. Andrew Hussie is the creator of Homestuck, a webcomic with a cult following. His most devoted fans are infamous for being obsessive and perverse, having sent death threats to Hussie over plot twists and delayed updates. Whether Hussie's career success isn't exactly suffering for it yet, his brand is forever tied to a loony fringe on the Internet. The worst that we know Jim Davis had to deal with was an ill-timed Veterans Day joke that bothered all ten people who cared.

But that's all the stuff around the comic. Are webcomics better than something like Garfield in terms of quality? Do these comics, on the whole, make us laugh more often than traditional comics?

Oh dear god, probably not at all.

are we really about to jump into the abyss of terrible webcomics right now

The webcomics that I've name-dropped happen to be some of the most successful out there. But most webcomics on the Internet are absolutely terrible, and even some of the successful ones can be pretty bad.

Many, many webcomics suffer from half-assed art, poorly contrived jokes, and awful storytelling. Some people even choose webcomics as their medium to express their weird political views and sexual fetishes. Some of these webcomics can get so bad that, in the modern online context of trolling and subtlety, it's hard to even say if their creators are just being ironic. Earnestly awful webcomics can even end up having a following of people who read the comic entirely out of irony.

Then you have popular webcomics run by very problematic people. For all the success that Penny Arcade has brought its creators, they've been shockingly unapologetic about their comic's rape jokes. The webcomic Dominic Deegan, aside from featuring incredibly ugly art, also sexualizes dying women, has the only black character in the narrative be a criminal, and features a plot point where a 14 year old girl is raped in order to save her. This is certainly not an issue that you'll run into with comics that have to go through editorial scrutiny.

But then you have an issue that's also fundamental to how the Internet works - the content of even the most popular webcomics can get too insular to be funny.

Is this XKCD comic funny? I mean, if you don't get what the author is trying to do, it's just that resistors in circuits correspond to certain numbers. But is the act of accidentally saying resistor colors in place of numbers really all that funny of a concept?

The thing is, XKCD's demographics already cater to nerdy references, and since it's sooooo cool to be a nerd now, XKCD can get away with merely dropping a nerdy reference and not having to worry about humor. Couple this with the fact that making webcomics on a regular schedule can be very difficult, and you can anticipate that there will be lower quality comics here and there (much like in traditional newspaper comics, in fact). But if a comic's demographic is already niche to some degree, the comic can get away with poor humor so long as it hits the right buttons with its core audience.

The result is a lower quality comic, but if an outsider were to point this out, the core audience can hide behind a perception of being "nerdier" than you and say you simply don't "get" the joke. Sure, within the core audience, you have some weird effect where people are going to find the comic funny no matter what it is. If you're not in that niche, however, the comic is simply mediocre.

No, no, I'm an engineer. I'm licensed to say this isn't very funny.

Newspaper comics are also of fairly low quality, but it may be because they have to go in the opposite direction - they have to appeal to a low common denominator, and their concept is whitewashed to the point of mediocrity.

All in all, the Internet has allowed good webcomics to be more diverse than what you'd expect to find in a newspaper. But with the way online audiences splinter, webcomics might have more in common with the old "alternative comics" scene than they do with traditional newspaper comics. And even the "best" webcomics can't avoid having some misses now and then. So yes, while your good webcomics probably tend to be better than Garfield on average, the quality remains very variant and there's a sore lack of self-regulation among webcomics.

That said, it's still reasonable to have enthusiasm about the webcomic scene. Perhaps things will go the way of YouTube, where webcomic artists develop a more centralized network with one another and become the gatekeepers to success for new webcomic artists. This way, you have an emergent vetting process for webcomic artists, and some degree of quality control. Such measures could allow for an increase in the quality of the average webcomic.

...Or, things could just go the way of DeviantArt, where the high quality stuff gets overshadowed by the strange fetish porn and Microsoft Paint anime.

I mean, I hope the first one happens, but if the second one were to happen then I guess that'd be kind of funny.

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