For the December issue, we assembled our second annual virtual round table of writers to give us their thoughts on the state of webcomics at the end of 2006. (We did this last year – you can read it here.) Our panel discussion was conducted by email and has been edited for length.
- Eric Millikin is the creator of Fetus-X, editor of Serializer, blogger for The Detroit News and Talk About Comics, and occasional writer for The Comics Journal.
- Daku is the host of Digital Strips, a podcast and blog about webcomics.
- Gilead Pellaeon blogs at The Webcomicker.
- Mike Russell is a writer, critic and cartoonist who has appeared in the The Oregonian and The Boston Globe. He also blogs at Culture Pulp.
- Lewis Powell is the co-creator of the webcomic Terror Island and blogs at Wax Intellectual.
- Alexander Danner is a writer and occasional contributor to Comixpedia. He also maintains Full Story, a directory of completed webcomics.
- Eric Burns is a writer and game designer. He blogs at Websnark.
- Michael Rouse-Deane blogs at Webcomics in Print.
- Johanna Draper Carlson blogs at Comics Worth Reading.
- Gary Tyrrell blogs at FLEEN.
Xerexes: What were your favorite five webcomics for 2006 and why?
Eric Burns: Narbonic, first and foremost. This is Narbonic's last year, and Shaenon Garrity's still bringing her â€œAâ€ game. Questionable Content and Achewood immediately after that, followed by PvP. The fifth favorite webcomic varies from week to week, and on any given week I'll say Starslip Crisis, Shortpacked, Evil Inc., Schlock Mercenary, Superosity, Scary-Go-Round, Count Your Sheep and a bakers' dozen of others. Oh, and Something Positive. Which is in the top five at all times. So, in any given week, my top five has six strips in it, and a good number of them are variable.
Think of my lineup as the 1980's Boston Celtics.
Alexander Danner: Well, there are the perennial favorites, of course. I'm still in love with Dicebox on every level. And Narbonic continues to be my favorite humor strip, though by the time this article reaches an audience, Narbonic will probably have only a few days left in its run. With both of these, I think one of the defining strengths is that Lee and Garrity both know how their stories are going to end – they have a clear sense of direction, which is vital to a narrative comic. So, as sad as I am that Narbonic is ending, I know that I wouldn't have enjoyed it as thoroughly as I did if not for the fact that Garrity was working toward an end all along.
Also, I'm hoping that the end of Narbonic will give Garrity's delightful quasi-superhero series, Smithson, more room to shine.
Gilead Pellaeon: The tough part about picking the five favorite is to determine which five did the best job this year. Some comics are just perennially great, but you want to give props to the strips that may not have been as consistently high quality, but delivered some absolute gut-busters along the way or some particularly special moments.
First off, Penny Arcade. I know it's the "cop out" answer, but for some reason Penny Arcade really hit home with me this year, more so than any year prior. There were so many strips I just had to go back and read over again, ones that had me laughing out loud and quoting for weeks. When a strip that's been so popular and around for so long still continues to improve this much, you've got to give them props. Second, Girl Genius. It covered a lot of good ground this year, starting with a rather interesting twist and building from there. Plus, you gotta love those Jagermonsters.
Third, Penny and Aggie. They tackled some tough issues this year. We saw a lot of character advancement (as we should, highschoolers are building character all the time) and climaxed (ooh, bad pun) with a storyline on teenage sex that gave one of the most accurate, most tasteful, and altogether one of the best treatments I've ever seen. Shortpacked! proved this year that David Willis has learned how to advance a story without resorting to OMG SERIOUS and has consistently pushed both the boundaries of good taste and humor, which gives him a nice thumbs up from me. Those four really stand out in my mind for this year, and all my other 'stories' had their ups and downs, so I'm giving a whopping five-way tie for fifth place to Rob and Elliot, Killer Robots from Space, Mousewax, The Order of the Stick, and Ugly Hill.
Johanna Draper Carlson: I read very few webcomics, mainly due to time and technology — I have so many print books I try to keep up with that I'm not actively looking for more venues to read comics in, and print is still more portable. That said, the few strips I follow are Questionable Content, Unshelved, Irregular Webcomic (mostly the â€œMythbustersâ€ strips), Wally and Osborne, and Bunny. It is not a coincidence that these strips all have RSS feeds, and most of them publish the actual comic in them. I like entertainment that makes it easy for me to approach it conveniently. And they make me laugh.
Lewis Powell: I am almost certain I am forgetting some, but here goes: Killer Robots from Space, Killroy and Tina, Starslip Crisis, Thinkin Lincoln, and Rob and Elliott. I'm excluding Wondermark, which I would otherwise include, but I haven't finished reading the archives yet, and so I cannot really comment on its 2006 performance. These comics basically play really well to my sense of humor, and that's the thing that keeps me coming back for more.
Daku: I use to think this question was so hard, but having read soooo many comics over the past two years there are some that always make me laugh and keep me coming back. The top two have to be Least I Could Do and Questionable Content. The other three are on my list on shear â€œwowâ€ factor for both art and story. There's Dreamland Chronicles, A Lesson is Learned, and Inverloch. All three of these impress me every time I visit.
Eric Millikin: Considering the sweeping changes of the 2006 midterm elections, I think political webcomics deserve a special group hug and a series of high-fives from all of us. One of my favorites is Keyboard Kommando Komics from the Poor Man Institute for Freedom, Democracy and a Pony. It's the type of sphincter-faced, Nancy-Pelosi-on-the-cover-of-Fiend-Folio political comics that really has no place outside of the web. Or on the web, in most people's opinions. I've also greatly enjoyed Johnny Ryan's Klassic Komix Klub — between that and Keyboard Kommando Komics, 2006 was the best year yet for comics with the KKK acronym. Klassic Komix Klub is a lot like Classics Illustrated except with a lot more jokes about planet Mars taking a galactic death shit and Huckleberry Finn getting punched in the testicles about a million times. I suppose my third favorite comic of 2006 would be Minnie Pauz, which is an absolutely fabulous single panel comic all about menopause. It's totally huge and has been on CNN, PBS and in TIME magazine.
Of course, I spend quite a bit of time reading what's on Serializer. It's hard to pick one highlight, but it's great to see Patrick Farley's return from about a three year retirement to continue his Book of Revelations manga Apocamon: The Final Judgement. It displays some of the best artwork on the web, it's one of the best truly web-specific, you-can't-print-this sound and animation comics, and the writing by St. John the Divine is as strong as you'd expect from a saint.
For my fifth pick I'd like to give a shout out to whatever webcomic artist is thinking about flaming me for leaving their comic off my list. Really, I mean it, my fifth pick was totally going to be you.
Mike Russell: My first pick is Achewood, specifically its "Great Outdoor Fight" storyline — the most addictive story I've ever read (and re-read) in webcomics. Onstad followed it with Airwolf, "The Badass Games," Pat's coming-out…. Mr.Burns has referred to this strip in musical terms, and that's very much been my experience of Achewood, too: Onstead launched into this totally surprising guitar solo with "The Great Outdoor Fight" that he's been playing for the better part of a year.
My second pick is Scary Go Round. This year, John Allison pulled off two very difficult gear-shifts, and he made both look effortless. He embedded a new, younger generation of characters into the strip without fans feeling like they'd been carpet-bombed with Cousin Olivers. And he walked away from the slick, crowd-pleasing Illustrator style he'd mastered and pioneered. Switching to lo-fi hand-drawings infused SGR with the wonderful, jangly energy of his Scare-o-deleria experiments — but it took some serious brass.
Iâ€™d also include Overcompensating, Dinosaur Comics and Cat and Girl.
Michael Rouse-Deane: I've always stood by HOUSD no matter what, because HOUSD was basically the first webcomic that really got me to read more. It's always been my favorite and it is sad that it has ended. Another favorite of mine is Beaver & Steve. I just don't know how James Turner writes that stuff, but it always cheers me up. I also got into boot_error this year, itâ€™s very British and very funny. Since I am addicted to the furry characters, I'm a huge fan of Ninja Bunny. It's good to have a comic that doesn't have much, if any, speech in it, because sometimes actions do speak louder. Finally, my other favorite this year is Multiplex, because I love films so much. Whereas other people have their gamer comics — which most of the time I don't understand — this is my kind of comic. I seriously love it and laugh at all the in-jokes about films because I know what they're talking about!
Gary Tyrrell: Achewood started the year with the brilliant "Great Outdoor Fight" storyline, and has only gotten better since then. Scary Go Round has seamlessly shifted between characters and plots, and given John Allison's hand-drawn art an opportunity to shine. Girl Genius has shown that you can do long-form stories in small chunks without losing momentum (or failing to bring a killer punchline with each update). Ursula Vernon continues to do a fabulous job with Digger. For number five there are a bunch of candidates, but I'm going to have to give it to the recently wrapped Concerned, because Christopher Livingston did a terrific job of making me care — contrary to all my tendencies — about a complete and utter moron. That's living proof of the transformative power of storytelling.
Xerexes: Were there any comics that debuted on the web in 2006 that really stood out for you?
Rouse-Deane: There's only one that really stood out this year for me personally and that is Grumps by Chris Jones. I was quite shocked at the level of artistry (and also nudity!). Who would have thought that a webcomic about an old folk's home would be so funny and, in my mind, successful. Sure there's a lot of things I wish I wouldn't see and I'm sure reading it will make you go blind sooner or later, but it's stood out for me because it's so fresh and new.
Burns: I'm going to open with Cheshire Crossing. This both represents Andy Weir moving on to something different and interesting, and a new model — one that others have triedÂ where an entire 'comic book' gets produced and then released to the web, rather than daily or weekly regular updates of strips and pages. I like the artwork and the story and the pacing, and that's a good set of things to like. I'm also seriously grooving on Girl/Robot — Petie's really hit his stride, and while I'm a little curious if he can keep up with it — it's a formula that could become repetitive after a while — so far it's been heaps of fun.
Danner: I'm a little fuzzy on the dates, so correct me if I'm misremembering, but I'm pretty sure Family Man, I Am a Rocket Builder, and Templar, Arizona all debuted in 2006. I always love to see people playing with non-linear structure, so B. Shur's four interconnected stories are a treat, especially when combined with his quirky artwork, and the playful experiments in â€œThe Pocket Witchâ€ storyline. And Spike's completely absurd setting and over-the-top personalities are a consistent treat in Templar, Arizona.
But more than anything else, it's Family Man that has me completely hooked, and nothing has really even happened yet. I'm just loving the subtle family dynamics. As much as I enjoyed Bite Me!, it just never quite drove home for me how talented Meconis really is. Clever, yes. Bite Me! oozed cleverness. But in Family Man, I suspect Meconis is going to display an emotional depth to match her wit. And somehow, she's going to revolve it all around werewolves.
Powell: I'll echo Alexander Danner listing Templar, Arizona which has me constantly wanting more updates, and also add Justin Pierce's Non-Adventures of Wonderella, which is new, but has already become one of my favorites. Pierce has a good fix on where exactly the funny is, and he has made himself a home there.
Pellaeon: Actually Templar, Arizona debuted in May of 2005. It's still good though. Definitely in agreement on Non-Adventures of Wonderella. I love the idea of a self-centered, snotty, spoiled super-heroine. Classic. I'll agree with Mike Rouse-Dean at least that Grumps made me want to claw my eyes out. The horror…
Another new comic that should certainly not be overlooked is Kawaii Not, which is devilishly cute and fiendishly clever. Iâ€™ll also mention Banished, which doesn't get nearly the props it deserves for being a consistently funny four-panel story strip, which is tough to do. Lastly, let's not forget the new Platinum Studios comics launched on Drunk Duck: Cowboys and Aliens and Hero By Night. All jabbering about creative rights and reimbursement aside, these are both really good comics.
Daku: There is one which I've only come across recently. As a judge for the Bomb Shelter Webcomic Idol contest I was finally exposed to What Birds Know and it's simply a jewel waiting for a cult following. With so many reviews under my belt I was starting to think I'd seen everything, but leave it to webcomics to prove that's impossible.
Millikin: Married to the Sea was a good debut by Natalie Dee and Drew. It sort of makes me wonder what webcomics or holographic genital implant comics or whatever we'll have a couple centuries from now will look like when all of today's artwork passes into the public domain. Maybe we ought to just give in to the inevitability that today's artists are all just making clip art for our great-great-great grand children to cut up and make fart jokes out of. Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet is another nice debut, A Six Feet Girl. It's published by the Mainichi Daily News, which I expect gives it a huge readership. It's also got a cool roll-over translation from Japanese to English.
Also, Johnny Ryan's Klassic Komix Klub that I talked about earlier started in 2006, as did the ACT-I-VATE group, featuring some amazing artists like Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Dan Goldman, and Jason Little. ACT-I-VATE is by far the best new web based anthology or collective. Nick Bertozzi and Heidi MacDonald's Battle Fart alone gets them that title. It was great to watch ACT-I-VATE inspire almost immediately the creation of like-minded, high-quality efforts like DE-ACT-I-VATE and The Chemistry Set. Good show, people.
Russell: Lackadaisy. My stepdaughter turned me on to this recently, and it dropped my jaw. If you haven't seen it, Lackadaisy is this gorgeously researched, sepia-toned comic by computer-game artist Tracy J. Butler. It's about a St. Louis speakeasy in 1927 populated by Disney-style cartoon cats — and it's one of the most charmingly rendered webcomics I've seen, with joyful pacing and Warner Bros. action. It just leaps off the screen. I mean my God, just check out the character sketch gallery.
Tyrrell: A Girl And Her Fed by Brooke Spangler has consistently made me both smile and think, and the re-re-launched Wigu, if that counts.
Xerexes: What webcomics stories from this year do you think were the most important? Or if not important, at least the most interesting to you.
Draper Carlson: The story that I found most significant was the changing nature of webcomic economics. Long-established print publisher Slave Labor began selling digital copies of both old and new titles. Former publishers of comic issues Airship Entertainment (Girl Genius) and Lightspeed Press (Finder) seem to be doing quite well with their "serialize on the web/print books yearly" paradigms. Various aggregators switched from subscription to ad-based models, using free readership to build audiences which could be monetized in other ways. There are so many choices out there that asking people to pay up front seems less desirable; let them sample what they want and then pay for more permanent editions once they become fans. (This is the opposite of the Slave Labor model, but they still plan to sell print collections later on of their digital-only titles.)
I was also pleased to see the Nan Grant announced, and I look forward to seeing the work of the winners.
Danner: In talking about webcomics getting recognition, let's not forget American Born Chinese being selected as a finalist for The National Book Award. I know a lot of people see awards as being largely meaningless, but the truth is, they really can make a substantial difference in the commercial viability of a title. It factors into bookstore and library purchasing and generates curiosity among readers. At the bookstore where I work, I'm sure I'm the only person who had even heard of ABC before that nomination. But two days after that list came out, we had a short stack of them in the store and they sold almost immediately. We've had to repurchase it at least twice already, that I know of. And the book didn't even win!
Pellaeon: I think two of the biggest stories both had to do with syndication: Rich Stevens taking Diesel Sweeties INTO syndication, and Dave Kellett taking Sheldon OUT OF syndication. It was so funny to see everyone saying "Yay Rich Stevens got syndication, he rocks, this rocks, this will be so good for his comic!" and then seeing everyone saying "Yay Dave Kellett got free from syndication, he rocks, this rocks, this will be so good for his comic!" The point is, Kellett went in the wrong way as the little guy trying to make it big while Rich is going in the right way as the big guy giving the syndicates a hand. And it points to some interesting directions for the future.
The other big news was animation, with the big battles over the relative quality of Ctrl-Alt-Del The Animated Series and now the announcement of a PvP animated series produced by the same production company (Blind Ferrett Entertainment). This is VERY interesting.
Daku: I would mention Scott Kurtz winning the Eisner (Best Digital Comic) and the purchase of Drunk Duck by Platinum Studios. The former because it's good to get re-affirmation that one or people is good and the later because it's one of the first steps of the rest of the comic world really taking notice of webcomics.
Millikin: I don't think anyone's mentioned the Penny Arcade Child's Play charity yet. Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins have really raised the bar to the point where if you want to stake a claim of doing the most important thing in webcomics-related activities for any particular year you've got to somehow top "We helped buy half a million dollars' worth of toys for sick and dying children."
Rouse-Deane: I always find the interesting stories being those that have webcomic creators basically getting the recognition they deserve. They spend hours creating, designing, drawing, etc. and usually for free. Two such stories were Zach Miller winning a Lulu Blooker Prize Award and DJ Coffman winning the Comic Book Challenge with his Hero by Night project.
Xerexes: All interesting stories about webcomics. Some of you, however, took my last question to be about webcomic "storylines" — so what storylines this year that really grabbed you?
Burns: The ones that leap out have been the Narbonic "Madness" arc (and most of the other Narbonic storylines this year), the "Death of Faye" and the attendant subarcs in Something Positive, the "Faye's past" arc in Questionable Content (no relation between the two Fayes), and the "Esther and the Boy go to Wales" arc of Scary-Go-Round. But all those stories pale in comparison to Achewood's "The Great Outdoor Fight," which quite honestly might be the best webcomic story since we started having webcomics stories.
Russell: God, I so totally agree. Excuse me while I geek out. â€œThe Great Outdoor Fightâ€ was a turning point for me in webcomics appreciation. I'd sampled Achewood on multiple occasions, but didn't get that the comic was best enjoyed in fortnight-sized chunks. Then that GOF storyline came along. Soon I was devouring the entire archive, hectoring my wife to do the same, buying WAY too much merch and evangelizing to anyone I thought might enjoy it.
What's wonderful about â€œThe Great Outdoor Fightâ€ is how Onstead has his cake and eats it, too. It's a satire of two-fisted tales that also rouses you like a good two-fisted tale should. It satisfies the reader on multiple levels that really ought to contradict each other. Sometimes this happened in a single strip: I'd be laughing at all the pseudo-poetic man-bluster, and then Ray would rip a cowboy's face off and I'd actually gasp.
It was this crazy Jenga tower of jokes, surprises, character moments, killer dialogue, hard-boiled action and heartbreaking little friendship beats that never toppled. AND it had this whole other fan-participation front with the Great Outdoor Fight wiki. Anyway. It was just this astounding, full-bodied comics experience that seemed to spring out of nowhere. We won't see its like often.
Tyrrell: "The Great Outdoor Fight" achieved the impossible — it converted members of the "I don't get it" crowd into dedicated Achewood fans. What Jon Rosenberg has been doing with Goats over the past year is breathtaking in its scope (planning out a 7 year series of story arcs? Insanity!), and watching the relationships of Erin Winters, Dark Esther, and The Boy in Scary Go Round (through two or three separate story arcs) has been alternately sweet, hilarious, and poignant.
Xerexes: Do you think the medium of webcomics grew this year or did it stagnate? Which creators do you think contributed the most?
Pellaeon: Oh, it's definitely growing. Leaps and bounds. I mean, look at all the creators who went full time with their webcomics this year (Ryan North, Jon Rosenberg). When a strip like xkcd is capable of supporting its creator, you know things are growing. And look at Penny Arcade: 4 million readers?!? Sure, a lot of those don't read anything more than Penny Arcade, but the PA guys are actually really active in the webcomic community and promoting its growth, so I think they are siphoning off a lot of newbies to other webcomics as well.
Burns: A little of both, really. There continues to be significant growth of strips on the web (and good strips, to boot), and we continue to see a lot of excitement growing in both the potential and execution of webcomics. At the same time, the whole concept of the 'webcomics community' seems to have grown stale — this is the year a lot of web cartoonists seemed to realize that there isn't a single webcomics community, and that the fanbases of different comics might have nothing to do with each other. In the end, the medium of webcomics is becoming exactly that — a *medium* for storytelling, cartooning and sequential art — and the fandoms and communities that grow around specific comics are now outstripping any concept of 'webcomics' as a whole.
Tyrrell: Nothing but growth across the board, and I think we can credit a lot of it to Ryan North. The tools that he's released (Oh No Robot, RSSpect, and especially Project Wonderful) are making it possible for people to take it for granted that a robust infrastructure for webcomics need not be an impossible dream.
Milikin: Webcomics have definitely grown, and are completely out of control despite the best efforts of some to force them into a neat little box. There's so much growth every day in world wide webcomics that nobody can possibly hope to keep it all on their radar, let alone contain it. The 2006 growth at the Modern Tales sites alone was huge enough to fill several internets. Between Shaenon Garrity becoming editor of Modern Tales, Tim Demeter taking over as editor of Graphic Smash, Serializer relaunching, the opening up of free archives across the formerly all-subscription sites, the launch of the free version of Webcomics Nation, Lisa JontÃ© becoming editor of Girlamatic in late 2005, creators like Chris Onstad moving their work to Webcomics Nation, all the great comics created by new and classic artists on the Modern Tales-related sites like Ryan North, RenÃ©e French, Ursula Vernon, Merlin Goodbrey, AndrÃ© Richard, Patrick Farley, Chuck Whelon, Matt Bayne, Sam Henderson, Karen Ellis, and Neil Babra.
Multiply that type of growth times what's going on with ACT-I-VATE and Dumbrella and Clickwheel and in the other four corners of the Ultimate Fighting Octagon of world wide webcomics and it's pretty clear that the Big Bang we started back 1995 or so is still expanding at an explosive rate. Or maybe exploding at an expanding rate, I don't know. But that's really the way it has been since the mid-nineties — if anyone has ever thought they've had a firm grasp of every comic on the Internet they've only been deluding themselves about the size of their own blind spots in relation to the size of the internet. For example, Olia Lialina (experimental film maker from Moscow) and Dragan Espenschied (the 2004 People's Voice NET ART Webby Award winner from Germany) can team up to draw Zombie & Mummy on an old Palm Pilot for the Dia Art Center in New York and yet they don't get nearly the mad props as they would get if I ran each and every one of the internets myself.
Xerexes: What do you think were the most interesting developments on the business side of webcomics?
Rouse-Deane: Project Wonderful, you have to mention that. That's definitely the most interesting development.
Pellaeon: No doubt on Project Wonderful. Ryan North is going to make his first million on that thing. Probably his second million too. It makes me sick that I didn't think of it. We've also seen a lot of webcomics try to make it with sponsorships, having people pay to put their ad on a site for a month or something. Starslip Crisis has been a big proponent of this.
We've also seen continued movement toward the collective model with shared advertising, with Gamers Pair of Dice and SpinZone Comics launching this year.
Danner: Never mind Project Wonderful, Ryan North himself is the most interesting development on the business side of webcomics. How many useful services can one guy build? He's already the record holder, and he just keeps turning out more.
Millikin: Probably the most interesting webcomics business development for me is the absolutely ridiculous amount of money I've been throwing in my bank account and the accompanying amazing amount of guilt and powerlessness I feel while watching homeless people dying in the streets as my tax dollars go off to fund secret prisons, torture, and war crimes. Some people call this making a living; but it really feels more like making a killing. In a lot of ways, things were so much easier when I was stealing Pop Tarts from vending machines for survival.
Draper Carlson: I was very excited to see favorite series I thought were gone for good find new lives online. I'm thinking of titles like Max & Lily, Eyebeam, Galaxion, A Distant Soil: Seasons of Spring, Strange Attractors, and Xeno's Arrow. It's a great way to expose good material to a new audience, and I'm very hopeful that growing interest will allow more original stories to be created down the road, because I love those comics, and I'd love to see more from their artists. Similarly, it's also neat to see mini-comics that would have previously been limited to 200 or 300 readers find a bigger audience online.
Burns: Diesel Sweeties getting a newspaper syndication deal that didn't snag its rights for self-publication and self-merchandizing leaps right out at me. This is a radical change of business models for the syndicates, and it's a recognition that the old way of doing things just ain't working any more. If You Damn Kid does indeed premiere on Fox and do well for itself, then we'll see a webcomic move from the virtual page to mass media just as well as the Boondocks has done over on Adult Swim — at that point, the question of whether or not a comic appears in newspapers will grow even more irrelevant than it currently is. (It says something, as a side note, that even after Berke Breathed's loud promotion of the Sunday papers over the web, Opus is now a webcomic as well as a Sunday comic. It's more important to get the strips in front of eyeballs who might want merchandise than anything else, and more and more that means the web instead of newspapers, since people aren't buying them).
The launch of Modern Tales Free continues to deeply interest me — obviously, there's still some lingering self-interest there, though Shaenon did far more than I ever did with it. As the bastion of pay-for-view webcomics goes to a free and advertising model, we have a real chance to see which works better in today's market.
The most interesting thing I've seen over the past year has to be the first real replicable webcomics business model. Dumbrella, lots of Dayfree Press, bits of Blank Label and others have discovered that you honestly can give up your day job if you really want to. All you need is a good comic that appeals to a solid core of readers — and finding and keeping those readers is key Â followed by a successful pairing of merchandise. Now, the thing I find interesting is most of that merchandise is tee shirts, and most of those tee shirts don't have the webcomics characters on them, and sometimes a tenuous or no connection to the webcomic at all. Have a look at Questionable Content's tee shirt shop — or Wigu/Overcompensating's, or Goats, or a bunch of others. With rare exceptions, you'll find funny and cool tee shirts that people will want to buy, but they won't generally have much to do with the strips that 'spawned' them. This is perfectly fine and good. I own some of those tee shirts and I'll buy others when they come out and hit me — but the question is, are these people making their money as web cartoonists, or are they tee shirt salesmen who have hit on webcomics as good advertising for their store? I don't know the answer. I'm sure it doesn't matter even slightly, either — except of course that rather than quitting their day jobs, for the most part these guys have traded one day job for another. But since it means they're doing things they enjoy and the webcomics make it possible, I'm willing to count it.
Tyrrell: The sheer number of people that have made webcomics a primary vocation in the past year is the most interesting thing for me. That, and the fact that we're able this year to talk about "the MOST interesting development" in webcomics business, instead of marvelling, "Holy crap, can you believe that somebody can actually scrape by doing this?" In addition to the names that came up before, massive respect to Jennie Breeden (having served the equivalent of an apprenticeship with a series of rent jobs) and Randall Munroe (having been let go by a foolish NASA) for taking the plunge.
Related to that is what I see as a general acceptance idea that webcomics doesn't have a single path to success. Rich Stevens is poised to achieve great success by joining the same syndicate that Dave Kellett is poised to achieve great success by leaving. Joey Manley's revamped his sites and a great deal of the content is now freely available. Not so long ago, you'd find enormous flamewars over the notion of free versus subscription, t-shirts versus books. Now, it seems that all business models in all combinations are valid to the extent that they work for a particular creator.
Russell: One minor motif this year was watching webcomics entrepreneurs realize that "making a killing" required them to pay closer attention to their words during "the drama." This happened several times in 2006 — but I'm thinking specifically of the flame war that followed Joey Manley's Webhead column about "The Golden Age of Webcomics". Manley ultimately apologized and quit writing the column — probably after weighing "teh drama" against his growing WCN customer base. I was fascinated by what Manley had to say later — in the comments section of a Fleen post about DJ Coffman's own flame-war antics as they related to his brand-new Platinum Studios deal:
Many of us in webcomics have lived under the illusion that there are no consequences for obnoxious or mean online behavior — in fact, in webcomics, it seemed for a while that you could only be rewarded for that kind of thing…. I'm learning, and hopefully a lot of us are learning, that now that webcomics is Actually Getting Real, and serious money is coming into play, courtesy and civility are likely to pay better dividends in the long-term than baiting and harrassment.
I think he's right; I also think that sort of statement heralds the arrival of a mini-mainstream within webcomics itself.
Xerexes: What technical developments from this year do you think will have lasting impact?
Rouse-Deane: Again, Project Wonderful is something that will definitely have a lasting impact because people who never had ads before are using it.
Draper Carlson: The only technical development that made it onto my radar was Joey Manley's announcement of WCN Free, but I don't know if that's particularly significant.
Danner: WCN in general is definitely significant. Content management is about as vital a technical tool as there is for a webcomics creator. And while Webcomics Nation is neither the only, nor even the first such service to become available, increasing competition only raises the bar for all the providers in the field. The "Free" development isn't exactly technical in itself, but it does open up the existing technical features to the more frugal creators, of which there are many.
Burns: I'm the curmudgeon when it comes to 'technical developments' in webcomics. The most helpful things I've seen are things like Girly's bookmarking system (letting you save your place). For the most part, I want the simplest means of getting the comic panels onto my screen to happen and then get out of my way.
Powell: Piperka. I donâ€™t know if itâ€™s from this year, but I certainly only found out about it this year. It has totally altered how I read comics. First off, the way it is set up allows me to actually go through humongous archives chunk by chunk, which meant that instead of just thinking about reading Superosity, Checkerboard Nightmare and Wigu, like I'd been meaning to do for some time, I actually did it. Secondly, it has totally replaced manual bookmark checking. I don't mean to imply that WCN or Project Wonderful aren't important, they certainly are; but Piperka has had the biggest impact on my interaction with webcomics.
Danner: Actually, I have to agree on the excellence of Piperka. There's been a lot of talk about RSS lately, but I can't stand reading comics in an RSS aggregator, so the technology as a whole just doesn't hold much appeal for me. But Piperka has saved me a whole lot of time in checking to see which of my comics have updated. It isn't able to track subscription comics yet, unfortunately, but that drawback aside, I love it and use it every day.
Pellaeon: Oh yeah, I've been preaching the gospel of Piperka for as long as I've known of it. Not only does it track your webcomics, but it has great tools for bookmarking as you read the archives of webcomics, all in one place. Beautiful. Everyone needs to use this service, and to make their website easier for Kari to crawl, because he spends hella time fixing broken archives from lousy linking.
Obviously, Project Wonderful is a big deal as well, practically overnight changing the shape of webcomic advertising. I'm still waiting for someone to take up the call and develop a really good multi-purpose webcomic website management system. Tyler Martin is getting closer with his work on the Comic Press add-on for WordPress, but there's still more work to be done. Someone take up the call!
Russell: I remember being struck earlier this year when the act_I_vate group was throwing video footage of their New York pub gatherings online — and, if memory serves, Heidi MacDonald's The Beat linked to it as news. Webcartoonists like Kurtz and Staub who follow the Stan Lee model — making their own personalities part of the larger entertainment package of their strip — are really embracing audio/video podcasts, and that's just going to get more and more prevalent. Kurtz is currently running his PvP LiveCast like it's "The Howard Stern Show."
And sometimes it's going to blow up in people's faces.
Millikin: I'd never seen that Piperka site before. I think it's interesting that they've discovered there are only eleven genres of webcomics, and those are Adult, Elves, Fantasy, Furry, Games, GLBT, Graphic violence, Real life, Romance, Sci-fi and Weird. I see that they manage to categorize Fetus-X as a graphically violent weird GLBT romance comic, which is pretty much right on target.
But probably for me the most important technological achievement of 2006 was Dr. Weilie Hu's pioneering penis transplant surgeries at Guangzhou General Hospital which will forever change the way we make webcomics. I'm thinking about getting like a fringe of flaccid zombie penises grafted onto the underside of my arms which will look sort of like my girlfriend's biker jacket from the late '80s or maybe some wings like The Falcon from Captain America comics except with a lot more penises grafted onto my arms that I'll wave in the air like I just don't care as I jump off buildings and fight crime and stuff. That and help bring free Webcomics Nation accounts to everybody in the world. By the way, the Webcomics Nation engine is already amazing, but what I've seen from beta testing some of the new features of the 2.0 version makes the future look even more incredible. There's parts of the next generation interface that feel more like you're using Adobe products then a typical web-based interface. I've probably already said more than too much.
Xerexes: Everyone here writes about comics — looking back on what you wrote this year what was your favorite piece and what piece provoked the largest response from your readership?
Danner: My favorite piece of writing that I did about comics this year won't actually have a chance to receive an audience response until next year. I've been largely absent for the past half year or so because I've been working on a new book with Steven Withrow, called Character Design for Graphic Novels. And I'm particularly happy with it because we were able to get away from the idea that character design is a purely visual process — we explored the writing aspects as much as the visual aspects, which I hope will distinguish it from most of the design books out there. More pertinent to webcomics, though, is that in looking at a broad swath of working creators, we didn't draw any sharp distinction between graphic novels in print and graphic novels online. So we have the work of creators like Jenn Manley Lee, Dylan Meconis, and Demian5 discussed right alongside folks like Craig Thompson, Kurt Busiek, and Jeff Smith. My hope is that this will help expose more readers of print comics to online creators who might interest them, and vise versa.
Draper Carlson: The pieces that provoked the largest response are those that I would also nominate for biggest story: the treatment of women in comics, both as people and as characters. Sexism has been a problem for decades (and one, sadly, that some webcomics aren't immune to), and while it's disheartening to note the lack of progress, it's refreshing to see so many individuals aware of and speaking out about the problem. My favorite piece? Probably the interview with manga adaptor Kelly Sue DeConnick that I did for Publishers Weekly Comic Week, because it was so well-received.
Burns: I like a lot of what I wrote this year, though there was a lot less of it than there was in years past. If I had to pick one — both in terms of the response I got and in terms of the subject matter, I'd have to pick my essay on sexism in comic depictions. It wasn't anywhere near the best such essay written this year, but it's a subject that bears repeating over and over again.
Pellaeon: I think the greatest response from my readership was when I posted my thoughts on the Web Cartoonists' Choice Awards. I think some people may have already been on edge since the WCCAs got so royally screwed up this year, and then I took a cheap shot at Comic Genesis which got interpreted as an attack on the quality of certain comics — which got me in hot water with some folks. My favorite thing I wrote was when I established some words for the lexicon of my blog that people seemed to really enjoy and even elicited a response from Eric Burns, which I rather enjoyed.
Daku: My favorite was Digital Stripsâ€™ interview with all the Platinum Studios guys. I felt it was the best one I have done to date.
Milikin: The largest response I got was when Fetus-X was disqualified from the Web Cartoonist Choice Awards category for Romance Comics. Those conversations spread across multiple sites, but there's a roundup of comments on my livejournal site here. I'm still not sure what that was all about other than that some dudes on the Internet decided they know all about being romantic with the ladies, and they thought my comics about how much I miss my dead girlfriend weren't up to their romantic standards. Plus apparently they thought that the person with the long-hair and the beard in my autobiographical comics was like my mom or something. Seriously, I'm not making this shit up.
Tyrrell: I can never tell what's going to cause a big reaction, but I think the biggest response came from the pre-release drama regarding TCampbell's "A History of Webcomics" back in March. My favorite was probably the investigative piece I did about Kris Straub's hidden attacks against T Campbell. If I can toot somebody else's horn a bit, I really enjoyed Eric's well-thought-out dissertation when HOLY CRAP RAY SMUCKLES TORE THAT GUY' S FACE OFF.
Xerexes: We spend a lot of time at Comixpedia on webcomics, but it's always interesting to look at comics as a whole. What were the biggest stories in comics this year and how different are they from what you thought the biggest webcomic stories are?
Burns: At the core — I really wonder when DC and Marvel became ashamed of superheroes. It's really the only explanation — both Infinite Crisis and Civil War are wholesale attacks on the very foundations of what the superhero is. Both his trappings (codes vs. killing, secret identities) and philosophical underpinnings (heroes are a good thing in society). Somewhere along the line, they decided they didn't want to be in the superhero business any more, and they've written accordingly. Now, we have devastation across both lines — and most of the core comics in both lines really aren't appropriate for twelve year olds any more — and no real exit strategy for them. This pops short term sales, but a year from now who's going to still be reading Iron Man? Hell, *why* would someone still want to read Iron Man? Iron Man's depressing. Regardless, whatever they turn the post-superhero comic into might be interesting, but I have to admit I kind of wish there was still a place for guys and girls in tights fighting crime in comics.
Pellaeon: It's hard to say what really qualifies as "big news" in the comic industry. Is DCs "One Year Later" storyline big news? What about Marvel's "Civil War"? I'm guessing the biggest news of the year is American Born Chinese getting nominated for a National Book Award, suggesting that the mainstream media is finally beginning to recognize graphic novels as legitimate forms of literature. I can only hope that someday my children will be reading comic books in their English class, and not having to hide them behind their "real books".
Milikin: The Danish Muhammad cartoons controversy was the biggest comics story of 2006 and probably all time. It was a powerful reminder of the potential that comics have to shape world events, of the global media network that we're all part of, and of the dangers of cross-cultural miscommunication inherent in making comics in that globally networked world. I would hope that most artists when they see a dozen people die in protests and buildings being torched over comics are forced to evaluate their own role in the world and whether their comics are helping or hurting things.
The other top story that comes immediately to my mind — and this may just be the timing — is the recent death of Playboy magazine's long-time comics editor Michelle Urry. First, I think it's important to remember that she did so much for so many artists and readers, and that there are really so many people in comics beyond just artists and readers that make this magic happen. And second, I think with the relative youth of webcomics, the artists and the various webcomics blogs are sort of insulated from mortality. It'll probably be another quarter to half a century, knock on your lucky surface of choice, before we're regularly writing webcomic artist obituaries. I think that each of the many different webcomics scenes will probably change quite drastically when we start blogging about going to each other's funerals. And I think that change will probably be for the better because I think there is a sense of urgency and responsibility and respect and, I don't know how to put this, and just getting the artistic priorities in order that comes with really feeling that sense that tragic death isn't this thing that just happens to other types of people.
Xerexes: Webcomics are comics. The same and yet different. Or are they? How would you describe the relationship between comics and webcomics at the end of 2006?
Milikin: I think the divide between print comics and webcomics has pretty much been gone for years. I'm sure there are still some vocal print and web purists out there, and artists who want to explore things that can only be done in books or on the web, but I think on the whole everybody takes as a given that both printed paper and web sites are here to stay.
I remember when we first launched Serializer, which included then as now Matt Feazel. Some readers knew Matt as the king of print minicomics. Others knew Matt as an altweekly newspaper cartoonist. And then we launched Serializer and readers started talking about him as a webcomic artist. So those types of oversimplified, limiting labels have really been fairly useless since at least 2002 if not much earlier. And I think some of the better books of 2006 reflect this. Like Scott McCloud's Making Comics, which talks about Herge, Moebius, Lewis Trondheim, Mike Krahulik, Jeffrey Rowland, and Dylan Meconis all on the same page. Or Ted Rall turning to artists like me, Ryan North, Dorothy Gambrell, and Richard Stevens for his third Attitude book. And then Rall, in his role in finding talent for United Media again turns to R Stevens for a syndicated newspaper strip.
So I think when you see so many artists just ignoring these narrow, artificial divisions between this type of comics and that type of comics, it just becomes more clear that those walls were never really there in the first place, other than in some people's heads.
Daku: I like to think there isn't any difference. To be honest, though, webcomics have come to be the new medium for independent comics. I don't think it will be long until all the minor comic shops simply either buy their way onto the net or try to do the Ka-Blam thing. The main difference though is just the age of the two mediums. Print and syndication have been around so long that they have dynasties while we pretty much have Penny Arcade and KeenSpot. Given another 5-10 years I don't think there will be any distinction between the two.
Russell: I don't even think it'll be that long: The continuing circulation drops in the newspaper industry are probably going to force a major syndicate evolution. And webcomics and the small press are just going to keep overlapping more and more. I was at Stumptown Comics Fest in Portland this year, and webcartoonists like Chris Baldwin and Jenn Manley Lee and the Pants Press crowd were cheek-by-jowl with Oni Press, Top Shelf and Adhouse Books — and, for that matter, Dark Horse. There was no "webcartoonist ghetto."
Tyrrell: Ever since the first volume of Flight came out, I don't think there's been any real difference, other than where the material first appeared. You've got webcomics getting reprinted, print comics being repurposed for the web, and every permutation in between.
Draper Carlson: If I'm any kind of indication (I may not be), they're progressing in different tracks with different communities with only minimal overlap. I know I'll never read something like Dicebox until it's a nice thick book, because that's how I'm comfortable reading comics, in print.
Danner: The amount of overlap really varies with the kind of comic audience we're talking about. Clearly, there isn't a whole lot of overlap between online comics and superhero comics yet. But at the same time, I have a strong suspicion that most of the people who are reading manga online are also reading it offline.
Works like Dicebox are a whole other issue, though. It's true that there isn't much overlap between readers of thoughtful, literary comics in print, and readers of online comics yet, but that's due in large part to the fact that there aren't many people reading thoughtful literary comics online at all. First off, there just aren't very many of them. And second, even those of us who do read and enjoy them aren't convinced that it's the ideal presentation for them (though that's due more to the disruptive nature of serialization than any perceived inconvenience in reading works online).
All that said, I'm not sure how much that overlap matters. To me, blurring the line between webcomics and print comics isn't about getting print readers to start reading online comics. It's about getting your work out to readers any way you can. The fact that soon readers who only read print comics and readers who only read webcomics will all be reading many of the same comics is more a testament to the idea that comics are comics are comics than any amount of readers changing their reading habits. If we can both discuss Dicebox on equal footing, then it won't matter which of us read it online and which of us waited for the eventual print edition. In this sense, the line is growing increasingly blurry, as more and more comics are using both distribution methods.
Xerexes: Give me a bold prediction about where webcomics will be at the end of 2007.
Rouse-Deane: I think even more webcomics will venture into animation. I know some of them are dabbling in it at the moment. Also, even more so, webcomics will expand off the web and into print. So webcomics will become offline and animated. I think the next big milestone for a webcomic will be a TV series!
Pellaeon: Last year I predicted people would be jealous of Tim Buckley and start making their own animations. And it happened. First with Blamimation, then a test episode of a VG Cats series, and now with PvP going to Blind Ferret. I also predicted more books, and that happened too. I didn't foresee Penny Arcade going into video game development, but now that they have, look for others to follow suit (I'm thinking Ctrl+Alt+Del and VG Cats here).
I really like the prediction of a webcomic TV series. Stranger things have happened (I mean, who could have guessed Invader Zim?) and You Darn Kid already has a potential in. Animated series are hot again, with Family Guy coming back in a major way, the return of Futurama, and a lot of cable channels looking to start including some animation in their lineup (I'm thinking of The Amazing Screw-On Head here). Many webcomics already have strong followings and could translate well to animation. Also, I predict Platinum Studios and Drunk Duck will have a far bigger impact than any of us are giving them credit for.
Daku: You Damn Kid seems obvious and having a game will be the new fad like podcasts were this year. I also see more distribution in the form of getting webcomics on your phone/media device.
Tyrrell: In addition to You Damn Kid, I know of at least one webcomic that's on the verge of signing a development deal, with a fairly major star wanting to be involved in production and voice work; call it 50-50 that we see three or four others in a similar position by the end of 2007. I also wouldn't be surprised to find that Diesel Sweeties started to let the Public At Large in on the existence of this secret world we all play in, with all the good and bad that implies. And there's a 14% chance that in a year, all of webcomics will be controlled by Sky and Winter McCloud; if those girls decide to sieze control, the best and smartest thing we'll be able to do is surrender and swear undying loyalty to their regime.
Draper Carlson: It may not happen as soon as 2007, but I expect that there's going to be an economic readjustment. The webcomic books I've seen have been relatively high-priced (often due to the use of color) and hard to find in the usual outlets due to lack of distribution. As a result, they seem to be aimed only at existing readership. I'd like to see more economical packages more readily available to new readers. (Which means more professional marketing and promotion, too. Not that what's being done is unprofessional, but there's a lot of competition out there, so it needs to be done right.)
And on a selfish note, I hope one day to see a print collection of Raina Telgemeier's Smile.
Danner: Well, I don't think I'd be going out on a limb to predict that Johanna's going get her wish, regarding Smile. I'm looking forward to that myself, and Telgemeier certainly doesn't seem to be hurting for publisher's interested in her work. And whether we see Smile that soon or not, we're definitely going to see a steady increase in web-to-print books in the coming year.
And the reverse as well — I'm particularly curious to see what role Warren Ellis' Rocket Pirates site is going to play in moving creators across that line. I definitely agree with Johanna's assessment of the coming (and necessary) economic readjustment, but I don't think it'll happen until we have considerably more web-to-print books available.
Something I do think we'll see in the coming year is greater cooperation between the various technical service providers. For instance, it would be very lovely if users of WCN could simply click a check box to activate an account with RyanNorth's OhNoRobot transcription and search service. There are a lot of services out there that are wonderful individually, but would be golden in combination.
Powell: In one year's time, webcomics will be on the moon. More seriously, I hope that any predictions we make now will later seem to have been overly shortsighted. If, in one year, webcomics aren't further along than our best conjecture of where they will be, I think that will be disappointing. The best advancements and improvements are the ones that catch us all by surprise. And especially since this is the Internet, I think its safe to say that radical changes can and will happen faster than we all expect.
Milikin: Bold Predictions for 2007? Webcomics will help bring peace to Iraq, cure cancer and AIDS, clothe and feed the poor, end bigotry, make dick jokes.
Russell: Joey Manley will make a close study of TypePad's user interface, and Webcomics Nation will introduce LiveJournal-style site templates allowing people to make sweeping changes in their design schemes at the touch of a button.
PvP's animation experiment (which I'm looking forward to watching) will turn out fairly well and make a huge initial splash. However — and I hope I'm wrong about this — dramatic revenue tapering will follow, because he's asking for a lot of money for six minutes of video and he's going to have to fight a never-ending war against piracy. Kurtz will also distribute episodes via iTunes by year's end.
Wednesday White will finally debut her long-promised webcomic.
The current self-employed stars of webcomics will start being referred to as "the webcomics mainstream."
Burns: Almost certainly webcomics will be on the web at the end of 2007.
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