2003 was a pretty scary year. Whether you agree with it or not, war is a pretty terrifying thing. We lost another space shuttle, another crew, and – in a bad case of déjà vu – followed a flurry of finger-pointing in the aftermath. The world decided that coughing would kill you and whole economies suffered from tourist-anemia in the wake of SARS (less commonly known as "severe acute respiratory syndrome"). The names Elizabeth Smart and Jessica Lynch were repeated so often that their stories lost all meaning and the word-sounds became aural torture devices. A heat wave in Europe killed thousands and thousands of people. The Recording Industry Association of America tried to sue everybody. Lots of things and places and people got blown up.
On the plus side, some fishermen caught a Colossal Squid – only the second ever whole one to be seen. Martha Stewart got taken down a notch. A new Harry Potter book hit the bookshelves. Liberia got rid of one very big problem and is working on the rest. The U.S. economy appeared to kinda-sorta stop spiraling out of control. In a real stunner, Libya actually accepted blame for the bombing over Lockerbie.
Actually, it’s pretty hard to find "good" news in the world. Not necessarily because there’s a lack of it (although there is a lack), but because it’s tough to define good. Bad or evil or wrong stuff is easier. We can all generally agree that death, human suffering, bullies, and the like are all really awful. But what constitutes good in the eyes of some (e.g. gay rights, cloning) may be things that are anathema to others.
With that conflict in mind, we reached out to various webcomic creators to get an idea of what was good and bad and weird about 2003 in our own little webcomicky corner of the world.
1. Best of 2003 (in webcomics, comics, or the rest of the world)
John Allison: All year, American Elf, Achewood, and Wigu have been duking it out to be the best daily strip, and I still can’t determine a winner, because they’re all different. L’il Mell by Shaenon Garrity and Vera Brosgol was the best non-daily I saw all year. The best comic book I got was Sweatshop by Peter Bagge.
T Campbell: WEBCOMICS: I’m surely biased, but I’m very proud to have discovered Ursula Vernon’s DIGGER for Graphic Smash. Of webcomics to which I have no ties, check out Patrick Farley’s excellent "The Spiders".
THE WORLD AT LARGE: It hasn’t been a great year for the world. Popularity polls indicate that Dubya might be slipping at last, does that count?
Jim Zubkavich: Fables, Vertigo. Showing people how to take the familiar and craft it into compelling storytelling every month.
Jeffrey Rowland: Best comic: Hard to say. Of the half dozen I read furiously, they are all the best to me. I’ll just say Scary Go Round.
Jamie Robertson: Webcomics: Digger
Rest of the World: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band voted best album of all time by Rolling Stone.
David Wright: Webcomics? Who had time to read webcomics in 2003? This was the year of porn! Between Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s contest to see who could dress sluttier, and be more provocative, to Paris Hilton’s numerous sex tapes, most guys, and let’s face it, girls, too, were too busy looking at nudity on the web to look at webcomics! Next year doesn’t promise to get much better, as the Olsen Twins are about to turn 18, and web-surfers all over are rubbing their palms in creepy anticipation.
Shaenon Garrity: I was thrilled when the first collection of Derek Kirk Kim’s webcomics, Same Difference and Other Stories, came out in print this summer. Derek is one of the most gifted cartoonists working today, on or off the Web; thankfully, the book is introducing his work to a wider audience. Late this year, he started posting new material on his site, smallstoriesonline.com, thus infusing my otherwise empty life with meaning. His work is invariably insightful, beautifully-drawn, and funny as hell; he’s a comics treasure.
The Pants Press group continues to blow just about everyone else out of the water. Their "Wary Tales" minicomic, a collection of short fairy-tale stories, is lovely. Dylan Meconis’ "Bite Me" has really hit its stride in recent months – it just gets funnier and funnier. And this year both Vera Brosgol and Bill Mudron illustrated my comic Li’l Mell, which leaves me pleased as punch. Oh, and they all have great hats.
Is everyone aware that Roger Langridge, creator of Fred the Clown, is the most underappreciated cartoonist on the planet? In addition to drawing Fred for Modern Tales, he published a complete new graphic novel, The Thirteenth Floor, on Modern Tales Longplay. And it’s friggin’ awesome.
2. Worst of 2003 (in webcomics, comics, or the rest of the world)
John Allison: DC cancelling Sweatshop after 6 issues.
T Campbell: WEBCOMICS: The glut of gamer comics. I’m not going to name names, and some of them are not without merit, but the genre as a whole is quickly getting as creatively barren and in-jokey as the worst of superhero comic books.
THE COMICS SPHERE: The HULK movie and the associated adaptation. It was oddly appropriate that this movie managed to overthink itself so much and yet, at the same time, be really stupid.
THE WORLD AT LARGE: Well, this Iraqupation isn’t exactly making me dance a jig. Runner-up: the spread of easily hackable voting machines, which may be the largest single threat to democracy in the century to date.
Jeffrey Rowland: Webcomics: the fact that there are like a hundred thousand of them now. Rest of World: The continued reign of belligerent, self-righteous chaos led by George W. Bush and the resulting death, horror, and ignorant, misguided jingoism.
Jamie Robertson: Any comic devoted to the Michael Jackson debacle, ’cause, you know, it’s just too damn pathetic now.
David Wright: "Hitler Kitten on the Moon": What started as the tender story of a kitten with the unfortunate name of Hitler, quickly devolved into your average cliché ‘Kitten on the Moon With Space Lawyer Babes’ space romp/musical, that we’ve seen webcomics do hundreds, if not thousands of times before.
Shaenon Garrity: Bad webcomics? Perish the thought.
3. Most interesting webcomic event of 2003
John Allison: A lot of webcomics this year put out books that actually sold, that weren’t just vanity projects. I’ll be fascinated to see next year if publishers start to court web-based creators. If you can sell 2000 books out of your spare room, what could you do with actual distribution?
T Campbell: Keenspot’s rapid-fire recruitment of webcartoonists, a severe about-face from their policy of the last two years, when Alan Moore would have had a tough time getting on there without six months of lobbying. Was it a response to the growth of Modern Tales? Hard to say, but either way, some promising talents got rewarded.
Jim Zubkavich: Graphic Smash starts up and is able to create a solid niche for itself.
Jamie Robertson: Maritza’s Birthday!
David Wright: Did I mention Paris Hilton?
Shaenon Garrity: Gotta be the launch of BitPass, the first micropayment system to get the thumbs-up from longtime micropayment cheerleader Scott McCloud. There are some very very fine comics available through BitPass now: the Pants Press Wary Tales book, Ethan Persoff’s creepy "A Dog and His Elephant," Scott McCloud’s "The Right Number," and of course my own comic strip Trunktown, drawn by Tom Hart. I don’t believe that webcomics will survive in any worthwhile form unless webcartoonists can be paid for their work, and BitPass presents one possible avenue in that direction.
4. Webcomic history made in 2003
T Campbell: BitPass.
Jim Zubkavich: BitPass sneaks in and starts to build the micropayment momentum.
Jeffrey Rowland: PVP made some pretty good histories this year.
David Wright: "Sphincter Man" became the Ten Millionth web-comic to debut on KeenSpace, which was interesting for two reasons. The first of which, is that it was the ten millionth webcomic to appear on KeenSpace, which quickly prompted the KeenSpace server to explode in a nuclear mushroom which also caused the "Great BlackOut of 2003". Keen was back up in no time, though, and thankfully, "Sphincter Man" went on to produce 2 weeks of great comics before retiring due to artist burnout. Though the comic itself was short-lived, you can still relive the magic by buying lots of Sphincter Man related merchandise at the comic’s swag site.
Shaenon Garrity: "Nowhere Girl" became the first webcomic nominated for an Eisner Award. Two Eisners, actually. Artists of Justine Shaw’s caliber make it impossible to ignore the fact that much of the interesting work in comics right now is being done on the Web.
5. Freakiest webcomic shit that went down in 2003
John Allison: Boxjam’s "Blue View" column.
T Campbell: Oh, man, I think I might be sworn to secrecy. The San Diego Comic-Con was a wild time… a WILD time. All kinds of deals were getting made between Keenspotters, Modern Talers, Graphic Smashers and others, spanning several different media. T’was a life-altering weekend. I can say no more.
Jim Zubkavich: Keenspot posting a link to an anti-Bush site in their Newsbox on September 11th and then wondering what the big deal was… I don’t even like Bush and I know that’s a bad idea on so many levels.
Jeffrey Rowland: The fact that this entire subculture hasn’t collapsed under the weight of its own self-importance.
Jamie Robertson: Anything involving an "argument" over webcomics, ’cause that’s pretty damn pathetic, too.
David Wright: The announcement that Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade had gone off to Massachusetts and gotten married was both surprising and romantic. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of Penny Arcade clone creator/writer combos went off and got married, too.
Shaenon Garrity: James Kochalka had a baby.
6. Most interesting forum/online conversation of 2003 (link?)
John Allison: There’s too much analysis now. Every move dissected until it’s meaningless. I’m always torn between keeping my own message board open (because I like my readers – A LOT – and they like the board), and closing it (because I can’t stand it). All that said, I think The Comics Journal boards generate some excellent debate, though I couldn’t pick out an individual thread.
T Campbell: I really can’t keep track of all the discussion pulsing through the Internet. There have been interesting discussions about the nature of webcomics, BitPass, the infinite canvas, and much more.
The one that sticks in my mind, though, is here.
This wasn’t typical of the discussions I usually have, but it brought up a moral issue that needed addressing.
Jim Zubkavich: I love perusing the art of the Drawing Board forum. Inspiring work and discussion there constantly.
Jeffrey Rowland: I’m gonna have to cheat here and say the Topato Art Thread where hundreds of folks photoshopped Topato into various works of art. It even spun-off a t-shirt.
Jamie Robertson: I don’t know about the rest of the world, since I don’t read that many forums, so I can only speak for the COTC forum. Oddly enough COTC opts out of the Nipple Liberation Front by popular vote.
David Wright: The BitPass versus other forms of online payment schemes. Many artists made a good case for the micropayment system, while some went to a grass roots bartering system, trading comics for illicit drugs, pornography, Star Wars paraphernalia, and homemade pies.
Shaenon Garrity: Derek Kirk Kim’s forum, when he activates it, invariably generates entertaining and disturbing discussion. Some people get awfully upset – can’t imagine why – when a cartoonist pokes fun at men who have never gotten laid. No permanent link, because he keeps taking the forum down and putting it up again as the whim strikes him.
7. Most interesting webcomic DEBUT(S) of 2003 (alternately, your favorite new comic(s))
T Campbell: I’m sure the most interesting webcomic debut of 2003 is something we won’t find out about until 2005 or 2006. How many people knew about SLUGGY from the beginning? Keep your eyes open.
Jim Zubkavich: The The Right Number by Scott McCloud
Jeffrey Rowland: A Softer World got out there and made people laugh and think. Okay Pants tore out of the gate and brought some serious hijinks. Viewers who enjoy things that are fun will keep an eye on hingos.com — I’ve seen previews of this new comic and it is nothing short of a revolution.
Jamie Robertson: Digger
David Wright: Shoe on the Other Foot: an interesting new comic that shows what life would be like if the shoe was on the other foot. Favorite episodes include the ones where politicians kids had to go to war, a Republican Senator’s daughter dies while getting a back alley abortion, the President goes on trial for war crimes and terrorism charges, and CEO’s are forced into slavery for the people they defrauded of millions. Sure, that comic doesn’t REALLY exist, but I can dream, can’t I?
Shaenon Garrity: Modern Tales started a couple of new spinoff sites this year: Girlamatic.com, for frilly girly sissy comics, and GraphicSmash.com, for big tough he-manly comics. (Naturally, I write comics for both.) One thing I love about these anthology sites is that they invariably introduce me to talented artists I’ve never seen before. On Girlamatic, I’ve been consistently amazed by Spike, who draws Lucas and Odessa and has recently added her comic Sparkneedle to the lineup. On Graphic Smash, Ursula Vernon’s Digger is shaping up into something special.
I also want to put in a word for Robert Stevenson, who draws my comic More Fun on Graphic Smash. I had never heard of him before I put out an open call for a More Fun artist, and he’s wonderful. Take a gander at his site, Journey Into History to get an idea of the breadth of his work.
And there you have it, folks. Straight from the mouths of those who actually replied to the call to ACTION! Lots of attention going to Justine Shaw, Graphic Smash (and in particular, its wombat epic Digger), BitPass, Paris Hilton, those crazy Pants Press folks, and everything in between.
John Allison is the creator of Scary-Go-Round
Jeffrey Rowland is the creator of Wigu
David Wright is the creator of Todd and Penguin
Kelly J. Cooper is the Executive Editor for Features.
Editor’s note: The author came up with the vast majority of links for this piece and takes full responsibility for anything that might be accidently implied by the website choice for any given reference.