One way to think of the history of webcomics is as the big bang of comics. At the beginning there were far fewer webcomic creators and they were (virtually) clustered together much more tightly (hence all the wistful talk of "webcomic community") and then, if the inflationary webcomicology theory is correct, those early webcomic exploded into the universe of comics online we have today.
Okay, maybe that's a bad analogy. Still the early periods of webcomics are of interest to me. I interviewed several creators about the Big Panda website and that era of webcomics. Some of them were hosted at Big Panda before bolting to start up Keenspot. Lots of others were on the Big Panda top list or wanted to be. There was drama, there was top site cheating!, there were comics. Good times…
One of my long-not-finished projects has been to write more articles about webcomics "history". T Campbell wrote a good series of articles covering many of the "ages" of webcomics, but having also created and consumed webcomics through the earliest years, I know there are many more stories to tell. Nevertheless many of my ideas for stories and projects that I started in late 2005/early 2006 I never got finished. I'm still struggling with that – doing both the immediate day-to-day stuff around Comixpedia, but also then finding time to write longer pieces for the site.
Nevertheless one hook I wanted to explore was the website Big Panda (which was at bigpanda.net – check The Wayback Machine for screen shots). There were two components to Bigpanda.net – hosted webcomics and a webcomics list. The hosted webcomics comprised a sort of "proto-Keenspot" which isn't hard to fathom when you know that almost all of the Bigpanda.net hosted comics joined up with Keenspot when it formed.
The list – which was the far more prominent part of the site – was designed as a variation on a top list site where traffic into and out of Big Panda to webcomics improved the "ranking" of the webcomics at Big Panda. But the site did some nice things alongside that including creating a dropdown of "related" webcomics for each webcomic and allowing each webcomic to "tag" itself (it was a bit more primitive than current "tag" systems, but a similar idea). Sure there was a lot of cheating after awhile and eventually the proprietor Bryan McNett lost interest in it and stopped updating it (it was a database driven site, but at least partly statically updated. I had several conversations with McNett after the website was largely dead, but not yet disappeared and any descriptions of how the site worked are from my memory of those conversations.) but for awhile it grew into a fun little community of webcomic creators.
At Big Panda, each creator could post a small image (technically 3 images as you could have one initial image, one for mouse roll-over and one for mouse click) and a description. At first creators used the images and descriptions to advertise their webcomic, but soon some creators used it to send other messages, with some creators getting into a back and forth taunt-a-thon on the front page of Big Panda. From someone who was largely a bystander (I was on the front page for awhile during the beginning of the site) it seemed mostly harmless, but others may remember it differently. Certainly it was the place where many of us went to check out what was new, and it was also a useful tool for actual webcomic reading. In fact, many of the webcomic creators that went on to form the initial class of Keenspotters were on the Big Panda list (however, not all of them were hosted by Big Panda).
It was a smaller time in webcomics, one with fewer numbers and if not fewer dreams, then at least far fewer ways to achieve them. The biggest success stories at that time were probably Pete Abrams (Sluggy Freelance), J.D., Frazier (User Friendly) and maybe Peter Zale's Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet. The rest of us, even those that have made a success of themselves since then, still hadn't climbed much more than small foothills at that point. At that point back then you could only guess about what would happen to any of the webcomics you read. Nothing was obvious. Still a lot of webcomic creators went at it with gusto and good intentions, hoping to figure out how to make a success of a webcomic, sometimes at the same time they were figuring out how to make comics at all. Sure a lot of the work created was raw, but there was a lot of passion and dedication involved. So I may have my tongue a bit-in-cheek as I write this, but I truly believe the "old skool" tag does apply to many of the webcomic creators from those early days. Old skool in the best sense of that phrase.
So what's happened to those creators who were active then? A lot of this article is based on email interviews from early 2006. I asked several of the creators of those bigpanda.net "hosted" webcomics about the experience and the era. I also asked an assortment of creators who had listed their webcomics on the list (Than late last year I asked the latter group if anything had changed since my first barrage of questions). I will hopefully find some time this year to ask more of them a few more questions but in the meantime though, let's catch up with some old school webcomic'rs.
The Proto-Keenspot – Bigpanda.net's Hosted Webcomics
The hosted comics appeared in their own green-colored box on the site titled "Top Panda Comics" and included initially Sluggy Freelance, Superosity, Bobbins, Funny Farm, Clan of the Cats, Bruno the Bandit, Elf Life, Roomies and Boat Anchor. Of those it was fairly obvious that Pete Abrams had never had any intention of being part of Bryan McNett's Big Panda site and Sluggy Freelance soon disappeared. The next to go was actually Chris Crosby's Superosity which resulted from a dispute between Crosby and McNett over the future ownership and control of the site and by all accounts precipitated the idea for and organization of Keenspot. Of the remaining Top Panda Comics, all of them except for the mysterious Boat Anchor eventually joined Keenspot.
1. The Top Panda Comics all got a prominent spot on the Big Panda portal. I know many of the rest of us wanted to be on the front page for exposure (and I guess some folks competed for the top spot) – did you all care who was at the top of the "Top Panda Comics" box?
Chris Crosby: A little bit, I guess. I think everybody wants their comic to be popular, and I know I sure did (back then especially). The thought didn't consume my every waking moment or anything, though. I don't remember where I ranked on that list.
John Allison: Only when it was me! It took ages to get to the top of that meaningless list, and I can remember checking every day as I climbed, bit by bit. But I had a very purist approach, I used the power of my mind to improve my ranking. But by that I mean the actual list. The "Top Panda Comics" were comics that were hosted by Bryan McNett of Big Panda, there wasn't any competition involved at that point.
David Willis: I cared, as long as it was me!
Ian McDonald: Not in my case. I was too busy working on my comic strip to care where I was on the list.
2. Did you play some of the games (early webcomic drama actually I guess…) with your text entries that some of the other did? The in-jokes and taunting were sort of part of the culture of it after awhile. Was that "teh drama" or was it a little more light-hearted stuff?
Crosby: I don't remember doing that myself, but I could be wrong. I did record some stupid little audio files. Just stuff like me doing a JarJar Binks impersonation for no reason, nothing "drama" worthy. Those little audio files were fun.
Allison: I don't really remember this! Ryan Duchane of Hound's Home used to write the odd sassy comment, but it was very anodyne. No one called anyone's momma a fat old sack of potatoes.
Willis: I think I lost interest in the nitty-gritty of the Big Panda schematics before the height of people taking "creative liberties" with their comments and icons. By the time it had become a funny little war, I was more wrapped up in my own work. Also, I was permanently affixed to the top anyway, so why bother? Even after Big Panda imploded, we still got our links stuck there in limbo.
McDonald: I vaguely remember some chatter about it back in theday, but it was something I stayed out of. The cliche "tempest in a teacup" seems to come to my mind, as it almost always does whenever a webcomics controversy springs up!
3. If you look back at an archive.org snapshot of the site (unfortunately the earliest one is only from May 2000) it's interesting to see how many names are still around today. You've got Josh Lesnick and Jon Rosenberg, Tatsuya Ishida and Jeff Darlington, Greg Dean and Jeff Rowland for example. But you've also got all these folks who were making comics back then and now are really not doing much (at least publicly). Why did you keep at it and what's different about why you're making webcomics and what you get out of it now as opposed to back then?
Crosby: I was always in it for the long haul, and I get the exact same thing out of it now that I did then. The #1 reason I've kept at it isbecause I love making comics. The #2 reason is, just like way back then, I see big things happening for webcomics in the future. And the future is starting to be NOW, it looks like… thankfully. Long time coming, that.
Allison: I don't think I've changed, but I think the other people didn't have the staying power, or the level of mania that I do. Drawing a comic every day is quite hard and if you get out of the habit of it, it's probably not that easy to get back into. i don't think it's strange that so many people dropped out, I think it's strange that so many people kept at it!
Willis: I love making webcomics. If you like to draw, but you hate working, and you have a short attention span, what better way to express yourself than in four-to-six panel chunks? To do that for years, I think, requires a certain fevered dedication to the artstyle. That much hasn't changed. What has is the realization that, hey, people will give you money. I mean, hot damn.
McDonald: I'm at it because I love my strip, I love the world I've created, and it's a lot of fun, and a greatsource of pleasure to continue working on Bruno the Bandit even after all these years. I'd say many of my fellow "old timer" webtoonists who haven't hit the big time feel the same way about their work. Last year I gave up on the idea of ever trying to make a living with my comic strip. Instead, I've decided to pursue it as a hobby. This has removed a lot of the frustration I've felt at the strip's lack of financial success. Now I'm drawing the strip for fun,and I'm enjoying it now more than ever.
4. What were your favorite webcomics of that era? And who from back then that isn't making webcomics now do you wish had kept at it?
Crosby: My "favorites" list is still sort of stuck in that era. Jeff Rowland, John Allison, Jon Rosenberg, Bob Roberds, Illiad, Pete Abrams… to name just a few. Those were the guys doing some of favorite webcomics back then, and they're still going strong today, albeit many of them drawing different comics now. I wish Scott E. Kuehner was back at it, and I wish Ryan Duchane and Mike Leffel were doing it a lot more consistently. Though I'm partly to blame for Mike Leffel, as I've taken up a lot of his time with a graphic novel he and writing partner Bob Scott are doing for me.
Allison: I loved Hound's Home and Superosity. Superosity was very fresh, it used to really really make me laugh. Hound's Home was such a clever comic, well drawn, funny and intricate. But I don't look at the list and think, I wish comic X was still going – everything has a shelf life.
Willis: To be honest, I didn't read very many. Avalon comes to mind, which started in very late 1999, just as Big Panda was starting to head for trouble as a webcomics host. Road Waffles was big when it first started, and I remember liking it. Which is odd, because apparently it's still going. (It is, right? *checks* Yeah, I guess it is.) So I dunno why I talk about it in the past tense.
Despite the Big Panda "community," I was too focused on my own thing, sadly, to give that good of a perspective. Hell, I didn't request anybody for the April Fools comics switcharoo in 2000, what with my general seclusion, so I ended up getting paired with David Gonterman. Oh man. That taught me a lesson.
That lesson is not to get paired up with David Gonterman.
I can't think of anybody that isn't doing comics today that I loved back then, but I do wish Rowland had kept doing Project THINGY. Project THINGY was awesome. Also, Science Police. What's a man got to do to get more of that? Does he take bribes? From poor people? With nickels?
McDonald: Many of my favorites from back then are still my favorties today: Sluggy Freelance, GPF, Superosity, Freefall, and the grand-daddy of us all, Kevin and Kell.
One comic I miss from the old days is one called Jargon, written by Phil Clarke and drawn by John Holiwski. It was a great strip, and Phil and I had some pretty good e-mail discussions about online comics. Alas, they quit doing the strip, and Phil disappeared from the comics scene altogether. Hope he's doing well these days.
5. Mike Scandizzo, creator of Boat Anchor and the only Big Panda comic not to join Keenspot: the Pete Best of webcomics?
Crosby: Boat Anchor! I don't know what happened with that one. I don't think I've ever talked to Mike. I don't think we were able to get in touch with him, or something. He wasn't someone who participated in the webcomics scene, I don't think.
Allison: I may be wrong on this, but I think Mike was a friend of Bryan McNett or Pete Abrams who had drawn those comics years before. He was less Pete Best, more Brian Epstein's milkman. During the war.
6. You all got into being on the web in a big way fairly early on – do you think you would be as excited about webcomics if you had to start over from scratch right now?
Crosby: I think so. It's always fun to start something new.
Allison: Since I work on comics all day, they don't really form part of my leisure time any more. So I don't know if I have the excitement that I had back in the day. But I like to think if I started from scratch now that I could make it back to the same point, even today. If you're committed, you can claw your way to the top much faster, and to a much greater audience, than you possibly could in 1999.
Willis: I think you can be successful even if you start up today. There's all sorts of new comics that are the talk of the town. Like … wait, Questionable Content is 3 years old. Well, never mind. Okay, forget all that. Those were lies.
McDonald: I think I'd be just as excited about my own strip, as it's always been fun to do. For me, success is having a strip you're proud of, so in that respect, yes, I'd be just as successful. Maybe not as well known, as there are now so many online comics out there competing for readers' attention, but stillsuccessful.
7. If we put all of the Top Panda Comics creators into a room together would you… (1) talk shop; (2) form Voltron; or (3) ???
Crosby: Talk shop, probably.
Allison: I think there would be a long and awkward silence. Then, one by one, we would leave.
Willis: Tell Chris Crosby to stop hitting on me. Dude, I have a girlfriend.
Big Panda.net – Old Skool Top List
The rest of the site was devoted to the top list with some space for new comics added to the list as well as a few random "underdog" webcomics promoted to the front page (the list included the top 25 on the front page, the rest followed on subsequent pages). The same drill – I reached out to many of the creators on the list and actually managed to get some to respond!
1. Can you give me an update on yourself – what webcomic were you making back then (is it still online at a URL?) and what are you doing now?
Josh Phillips: I started Avalon in November, 1999, and yeah, Big Panda was pretty big back then.
Avalon's URL at the time was http://ceilidh.dhs.org, which no one could spell, so my Big Panda rating skyrocketed just because people needed to click a link to get to my site.
Avalon kinda went on "indefinite hiatus" back in early 2004, but I just resurrected it a week ago [in 2006].
Maritza Campos: I started making College Roomies From Hell!!! (better know as CRFH!!!) in January, 1999. At that time it was named Roomies, it was made with a borrowed 72 dpi hand-held ancient scanner and it was updated on a horrible Geocities site (and later, a Tripod site) with an URL so complicated even I can't remember by now. I changed the name at some point during that year too, as I discovered David Willis' Roomies.
Mark Mekkes: Zortic is still going strong. It started in Febuary of 2000, originally it was hosted on Angelfire but quickly made the jump over to ComicGenesis (Keenspace at the time) when it was formed. (When I joined Keenspace, the dates on my archives changed so they don't represent my actual start up date.)
Josh Lesnick: Back then I drew Wendy which was consistently somewhere between #2 and 5 on Bigpanda, because I was a cheating twat. Right now I draw Girly.
Darren "Gav" Bleuel: Nukees then. Nukees now. I bought the nukees.com domain when I joined Big Panda. Previously, I was hosting it on my UC Berkeley school account.
Tim Dawson: My webcomic, then and now, is Dragon Tails which started in 1999 and ran as a daily color webcomic till the end of 2004. My webcomic has always been a hobby. I'm currently a 3d animator in the videogames industry.
Eight: Yep, still doing Road Waffles, still at the same place. Lots of in-betweens, but still, same thing.
Tim Broderick: I was doing the same thing then as I am now â€“ writing and drawing Odd Jobs.
Rudi Gunther: Well, I'm still working on the one and only comic I've ever worked on, Deathworld. Back in the Big Panda days I used the http://welcome.to/deathworld URL. I've expanded somewhat – I also produce ashcan editions of the comics, have had some work published in anthologies, and created a Deathworld combat card game.
2. I'm trying to write about why people decided to make webcomics back then – what was the motivation (fun, $, art, ??) and what do you remember about it good and bad? Was it time well spent or do you think now you should have invested your energy somewhere else?
Phillips: Avalon started right after I personally discovered webcomics (and in particular, Sluggy Freelance). The two big motivators were 1) discovering this method of divulging creative ideas that I felt I could be adept at, and 2) the thought that I could do better than these people. 😉
So Avalon started as both a creative outlet and something fun. It was so fun that it became an irresponsible #1 priority for me, and was probably one of the factors leading to my dropping out of Engineering after four years of university (not because I wanted to replace it with comickry, but because comickry shoved out everything else). After a while though, drawing Avalon daily became an unwelcome chore, and the comic faded into obscurity.
Having created Avalon has opened up an entire new world to me, and I would never trade the experience for anything. I've tasted "celebrity status" for the first time ever, and made some genuine friends. I've also suffered from a great deal of angst and depression, but it's a fair trade, I figure. I pretty much define my life around webcomics now — it's the thing I "do." Or, uh, *used* to do… but I'm trying to fix that these days.
Campos: Mostly fun, I guess. At that time webcomics were more an oddity than anything else. I think the only webcomic making money back then was User Friendly, I think, because it had a McGrawHill book if I'm not mistaken, and it was HUGE with the dominating linux geek/slashdot net population back then. Later came Plan 9 [Publishing] and Sluggy Freelance started making money too. Keenspot was making money too, by 2000, because the dot-com crash was not killing ad rates yet.
Mekkes: I have backgrounds in both Theater and Illustration and I was getting frustrated by not using any of my creativity in my job. So creating the comic was originally an attempt to scratch that itch. At the time I thought I was being incredibly original. I didn't think anyone had thought of putting comics on the Internet. Of course I quickly found Big Panda and several other strips which proved I wasn't that original, but I did find the foundation of a new kind of comic industry. So even though I wasn't able to "invent", I was eager to jump into it and do whatever I could to help it. Growth has been a bit slower than I had hoped, but I'm pretty happy with the direction it's going (as long as it continues to progress).
Lesnick: I was already posting comics online before the Bigpanda days, mostly because it was an easy way to share my work. Before that, I was publishing homebrewn comics printed at Kinko's. Those took a while to put together, could only really be sold at conventions, and were ultimately seen by around 10 to 20 people. Scanning and posting them on the internet was easier, cost almost nothing, and made the comic available to… like, HUNDREDS of people, so it was just logical to move to that format.Bigpanda was actually the site where I discovered there were a lot more people doing this than I thought.
Bleuel: I didn't know "webcomics" existed when I started in 1997. I drew Nukees for the UC Berkeley student newspaper, "The Daily Californian," and thought it would be a good idea to put all the strips on the web as well so Daily Cal readers could read strips they may have missed in the paper. It was only after I was contacted by other webcartoonists years later that I realized this was a growing medium.
My primary reason for starting drawing was because I didn't like the strips in the newspaper and felt that someone should do something aboutit. I also wanted to learn to draw better, and figured that only regular practice would accomplish that. A comic strip enforces a commitment to draw regularly.
Robey: I decided to make a webcomic to learn the discipline to do a daily — at the time I wanted to be a syndicated (newspaper) cartoonist. The good — it was easy to get noticed! There were something like 50 webcomics and we all knew each other. The bad — there were no resources! You had to do everything yourself, pay your own hosting fees, etc. Keenspot was a godsend in that regard for me.
Dawson: Dragon Tails' motivation was kind of horribly naive, looking back on it. My original aim was to produce a 3D toon shaded tv show. At the time I had recently been involved in an (overly) ambitious MMORPG attempt, and what had left a large impression on me was the way that we had a dedicated community, wanting to believe in the project, waiting to see something come of it, which of course it never did, slowly turning people from project supporters to bitter project bashers. Since I recognised that a TV show fell into much the same category, and I could see it taking a similar route, I decided instead it was important to have something small, achievable and real, mini goals that I could achieve again and again as time went on. Instead of telling people to have faith, every comic I uploaded would be another self standing 'success', and at the same time refining the characters and humour I wanted to use for the TV show. It didn't take long to stop taking that part seriously and just focus on the comic itself though.
I never expected to get rich off my webcomic (which was lucky, I didn't) and while I wanted to reach a large audience, I didn't expect to become famous (which was lucky, I didn't) so really I think I did it for kicks, self expression and after a while, the fact that people seemed to like it. I never got the stockpiling approach down very well, every now and then I'd have comics made in advance but the majority of them were made late at night in a kind of "can't sleep until it's done" mentality that bordered on masochism. For a while the dot com boom made it all look very simple – put banners on your page, increase traffic, profit! The bad coming in the way of the dot com crash, just as Dragon Tails readership really started becoming significant, so suddenly I had more readers than ever before, sucking down more bandwidth than ever before, my host sending me polite emails asking what I wanted to do about it, and realising that for the last month, I netted myself an entire $5 in advertising commissions. Larger comics managed to move onto highly targeted advertising, or other more reliable revenue streams while I was just the right side to be kind of stranded in the middle, eventually putting a Paypal button on the front page and offering to remove all advertising forever if I could raise $10 total. The first guy sent me $50 and that's when I said goodbye to advertising.It has definitely been time well spent, not just because I know a lot of people have enjoyed it, but because no matter what happens now, I have over two thousand comic strips which I still find entertaining enough to read the archives from time to time.
Eight: Back then, yeah, it was all about the fun. I was just starting something bigger and I just wanted to get it out there to as many people as I could. It was a step up from doing a comic book once every six months and selling them at school. I wanted to see if I could keep up with a daily.
Broderick: At the time I decided to start drawing, I was working nights while my wife was working days. Our twins were young and when I got home from work, no one was up. Also, a basement flood had destroyed all my college and early art â€“ I had nothing left. My kids had no evidence I was a cartoonist. One day I found True Artist Tales
Gunther: For me, I simply wanted to get exposure for my work, both locally and abroad. I originally made the comic for publication in my university's newspaper, and when some of my fellow cartoonists started putting their comics on the web, so did I. Putting Deathworld on the Internet helped me expand my contacts, and it gave me a reason to continue making the comic after I finished school.
3. Any memories of the Big Panda site or webcomics at large back then that stuck with you worth passing on?
Phillips: Big Panda was pretty much the authority on webcomics back then, as I recall. It somehow defied the laws of Internet Entropy and remained a reliable, trustworthy authority… well, at least until Internet Entropy finally kicked in after all. In fact, I think the birth of Keenspot was the death knell for BP's reliability (even though the site maintainer had allegedly abandoned it months earlier, it was still pretty damn self-sufficient). Maybe the Keenspot exodus dissolved peoples' trust in BP, 'cause after that I remember there was a lot of abuse of the system, and the whole thing started to implode.
Campos: Well, Big Panda, the first webcomic collective ever, had a few comics that I remember… Sluggy Freelance, Superosity, Nukees, and um, I *think* Elf Life. I think Big Panda *was* a business, at least in the sense that I have the vague memory of Sluggy Freelance paying for all the bills of that network, and when SF went its merry way, Big Panda fell apart as it was abandoned by the guy who was running it. From there Darren Bleuel and Chris Crosby decided to found Keenspot. They invited me before the big launch, but I didn't join until May 2000 or something.
Now, bigpanda.net was a huge listing of comics. This was a really neat "popularity based" webcomic list, that was also customizable. It was the rage in those days. I remember Road Waffles was ALWAYS on top. I also remember some cartoonists used their space there to prank other webcartoonists, either parodying their entries or the strips themselves.
Here's a blast from the past! Check out my April's Choice Awards. All good comics, some of them dead, some of them alive.The two most popular strips ever (at least that I knew of) were User Friendly and Sluggy Freelance. I remember Sluggy Freelance winning the Top 100 Website Award or something like it for some years in a row.
Mekkes: I really caught the end of the Big Panda site. A lot of the communication problems were already starting to show up. I never was hosted there, but I did take part in their "top comics" system. As a newcomer at the time, I never really did very well compared to some of the more established comics and it was a bit frustrating.
Lesnick: I rather liked Bigpanda's system of simple taglines and icons which the artists could update at any time. A lot of artists had fun with it and used the system to be all sassy with each other. Among all that, the comic that was #1 forever was Sinfest, from an artist who never was all that involved or enthusiastic about the community, and had nothing but a simple Big Panda link at the bottom of his page. So while Eight was using his entry to initiate pranks, Dave Kelly was putting tits in his icon for no reason, and artists were using their descriptions to have verbal arguments with the other artists, we could always count on Sinfest to be up at the top informing us that it's a comic about "The madcap exploits of one Slick, Monique, God, and other funny characters. Desi…"
Also, Bigpanda spawned Keenspot, which did more for webcomics than mostpeople would care to admit.
Bleuel: Oi! Don't get me started! Sorry, this is too open-ended a question. So much came out of that era, most notably Keenspot, which of course killed the dying Panda.
Probably the best memory from back then was the very first April Fool'scomic swap. I believe it was April 1999. That's when I really found out that webcomics (other than my own) existed, and got involved withthe community. I got to switch with the very talented Vince Suzukawa, which was a real thrill and new experience to try to draw something other than Nukees. These were the days before spam made email a chore,and I remember wasting lots of time on long email exchanges with Vince, learning a lot about art and materials and drawing. I had no artistic training when I started Nukees, and no artist friends, so this was my first chance ever to actually find out how other artists work.
Those first encounters also led to a little webcartoonist club called "The Hotseat" that was great fun and a very valuable learning experience. A group of about 15-20 of us would read one comic's complete archives from our group each week, and give scathingly honest feedback. The advice I got on Nukees was great, but more importantly, it really also helped strengthen this emerging webcomic community. That was the excuse I needed to take a second look at College Roomies from Hell!!! which quickly became one of my favorite webcomics back then.Unfortuantely, the group kind of fell apart as more and more of us seemed to have less and less free time to take part. But I was lucky to be in the Hotseat before it did.
I remember when it was Thomas K. Dye's (Newshounds) turn in "the hotseat," the biggest criticism of his site was that he had no navigation buttons. Ah, those were the rough 'n' tumble frontier days, when everyone had to make their own websites by hand. I realized then that there weren't too many artists who could program, or programmers who were artists. So I offered to write a little script that created navigable archives for him. And I said at the time, "Gee, in the future, it would be nice if I could do something like that for ALL webcartoonists…" Who knew that less than a year later, I *would* be doing just that?
Robey: The main thing I remember is how chummy it all was then, compared to now. It was easy to do, say, the Halloween Fright Night Crossoveror the April Fool's Day Switcheroo, because as I say, there weren't that many of us and we were all at least aware of each other, even if we didn't converse that much. Now, by comparison, there's a new strip born every week — and another one dying somewhere else! Starting a webcomic was a lot more daunting a proposition, so generally speaking most of the people who did it were pretty serious about it.
Dawson: BigPanda was an eye-opener for me. As corny as it sounds, I kind of thought webcomics were a wonderfully new idea, that maybe I had come up with. It was like newspaper comics, but… on the Internet, for free! By then I'd read that cute little Penny Arcade comic in LoonyGames, and there were other online comics I'd seen, but stumbling across Big Panda was a bit like someone who was used to a one car town stumbling into a major city. Exciting times.
Basically it exposed me to a lot of webcomics, and the thrill of binge archive reading.
I had a few issues with BigPanda, most notably the fact that the feedback/ranking system seemed somewhat rigged, as there were comics that would consistently sit at the top and occasional days of atypical traffic wasn't reflected in the stats properly. I wasn't entirely sure who's side I was on during the unpleasantness between BigPanda and the then emerging Keenspot, although it made me uneasy enough to turn down a Keenspot offer during 'the big switch'.
Eight: Nope, not really. I was number freaking one for a good long stretch though. I'm pretty proud of that, since that really was my heyday when I actually had a lot of readers.
Broderick: It was fun in the beginning, but then it got ugly. I guess some people were doing something to cheat and get on the homepage. Then, the whole thing just ended. But it was always just one portal â€“ by the time I was finished with my first story, I was pretty happy with the readership I had. It became more about my personal development than numbers on a website.
Gunther: Oh jeez… I'm not sure… I do recall BigPanda had a ranking system that allowed you to put comments about yourself and your work on the site, and that there was some public squabbling between some of the more "childish" artists using this system.
I remember liking the fact that they hosted a number of excellentwebcomics – it was one of the first communities that brought artists together. Another thing about that time period was that there started to be a push for large collaborative efforts, like the April Fools Day switcheroo, or the legendary Fright Nights.
4. Who did you think back then was going to do big things in comics?
Phillips: Pete Abrams was pretty much the man in my mind, although I forget if I was aware of User Friendly at the time. I think I regarded Keenspot as just another Big Panda back then, and didn't really expect it to do anything new, but I sure didn't let that stop me when they invited me to join.
Campos: Sluggy Freelance. And it happened! I thought a lot of people was gonna make it… but a lot just stopped making webcomics. Moved to print, or onto other things. Of course, it's been a lot of years. Not everyone wants to make webcomics forever, especially if they haven't had a lot of rewards from it.
Mekkes: (Not sucking up, I promise. But… ) I really found the Altbrand comics very exciting and appealing; Chopping Block, Boxjam's Doodle, Greystone Inn, Gluemeat and Life in 4 Panels. Also several of the comics that helped found Keenspot were the biggest and best of the time.
Lesnick: I never really thought much about that. Being self-absorbed, I was just hoping I'd be among them… you know… with my comic about squirrels and tits, and for some reason, that didn't happen.
Bleuel: Heh heh. Well, ME, of course. Those were the first days of Keenspot,after all, when I was programming madly every day to make more and better automation devices for artists (when I should have been working on my thesis). Other than me, however, I suppose I was much impressed with Pete Abrams (Sluggy Freelance), and Tatsuya Ishida (Sinfest). It was a real humbling experience to see Pete treated like a rock star at Dragon*Con in 1999 (my first convention), when pretty much no one had ever heard of me, and no one would even pick up my newly-printed book as they scrambled over each other to get at the Sluggy Freelance books.
Robey: That's a toughie; most of the people who were important back thenare still around in one form or another. Pete Abrams was and still is popular, for instance. I didn't expect that webcomics were going to become so big generally, although I'm certainly glad they have!
Dawson: I'm not sure I can think of any webcomics in particular that I thought were 'going places'. A lot seemed like the deserved to succeed, but then I didn't exactly see the path to riches other than the PvP style juggernaut model. I remember Roomies having a strong impact on me, and I still read Shortpacked so that says something…
Eight: Well, when Sinfest came around it was obvious that was gonna go somewhere just based on his ranking at BP. (Yeah, I still beat him though!)
Broderick: I don't know. I think it was more about changing the paradigm. We had a whole lot of talented people doing comics and they couldn't find a place, they couldn't find a job. So we went out and proved that we could do things that people would value. Things are still changing. A subscription site started up and kept creators going. Now there's google ads. Who knows what will happen next?
Gunther: Oh, generally the people who've gotten big now… Pete Abrams, Scott Kurtz, Martiza Campos, Fred Gallagher, and so on.