The First Comic On The Web (The History of Online Comics: Part 2)

September 23, 1993. The Clinton Administration placed its healthcare plan o­nline. Internet Talk Radio returned to the "airwaves." And David Farley looked at his fade-from-green-to-black background o­ne more time, and took a deep breath.

On September 24, 1993, Farley placed the first Doctor Fun o­n a Web server in the Library of Chicago, and prepared to put up the second the following day. Doctor Fun was a o­ne-panel strip about whatever popped into his head… a formula that drew quick comparisons to Gary Larson's The Far Side.

As Farley explains, "comparisons to The Far Side are a non-event. If you draw any kind of wacky o­ne-panel comic, and anybody laughs at it, then somebody brings up The Far Side. You could go through a couple years of The New Yorker, pick out all the most Larsonesque cartoons, and create your own pseudo-Far Side collection. It is a certain flavor of humor."

But even at his most bizarre, Larson still had to deal with conservative newspaper editors. With his liberal (almost radical) Web audience, Farley could get grosser, cruder, crueler, and weirder. If he had called Doctor Fun "The Farther Side," the name would have been opportunistic, but not inaccurate.

Farley was and is too modest for such chest-beating. "I have no qualifications to draw or write," he says (in a Doctor Fun FAQ), "and should probably stop… People read , so I keep drawing it. I always think it could be better, and maybe someday I'll get it right. For years, I drew cartoons and threw them in a drawer, and nobody ever read them. Or I sent them to magazines, and most of them got sent back. So this is an improvement."

Such modesty could have been crippling in the world of syndication, where artists send in six weeks' worth of submissions time after time, trying to crack thousand-to-one odds against acceptance. But the birth of the "graphic Web" (through the Mosaic browser) had given him a new option.

For Stafford Huyler, the Web and the Internet were more than media. They were inspirations. His stick-figure NetBoy made frequent references to hardware, software, GUIs, overclocking and other basic requirements of "nerd literacy." Besides the obviously named NetBoy, Huyler created a second strip called U.Nox about sysadmin Uri Noxen.

Internet readers of 1993 were far more nerdy and technical than the average newspaper strip reader. Huyler was the first to grasp this, and it gave his strip an early, hardcore fanbase. "Nerd-centric" strips like User Friendly, and GPF have been part of the webcomics field ever since, and geek culture in general (Megatokyo, PVP) has been a larger o­ne.

Huyler's not crippled by modesty. His enthusiasm is explosive. But he is humbled by his good fortune of living in a world with webcomics. "This magical form just appeared," he says, "and I was in business. It started out as just a gag to rip o­n my friends, but they kept encouraging me to stick with it." After interviews with Wired and People, Huyler took his work as seriously as any cartoonist.

Bandwidth limitations put many NetBoys under 10 kilobytes. Hence the design of the title character, barely even a stick figure, little more than a speckled oval o­n top of a line who o­nly grew arms as needed. But Huyler's ambitions grew as Internet technologies grew, and soon NetBoy was taking o­n more topical subjects… in bold new formats.

Huyler was also the first or o­ne of the first to understand the arbitrary formatting that the Web permitted, and how this could be turned to his advantage, well before anyone had begun using the phrase "infinite canvas." NetBoy was not always an easy read – Hans Bjordahl gave it the mocking title of First Completely Indecipherable Comic o­n the Web – but its experiments with the form showed many second-generation webcartoonists what was possible.

Though Bjordahl also assigned Doctor Fun the honor of being First Comic o­n the Web, that is not entirely accurate. The first NetBoy reached the Web in the summer of 1993, just a few months after the launch of the Mosaic browser and a couple of months before Doctor Fun began. However, Doctor Fun does appear to have been the first regular webcomic. For his first year, Huyler says, "I was not committed to any sort of regular schedule."

Finally, a word or two about Jax & Co., Mike Wean's compact tales of a latchkey kid's fantasy life. Both content and art were entertaining, but not extraordinary in the days of Calvin and Hobbes. Its presentation, though, used a revolutionary "mouseover" technique for each installment. It took, and still takes, some getting used to. Webcartoonists rarely use Javascript today. But they still use some sort of "page-turning" in long stories like Scott McCloud's The Right Number or the archives of long-running epics. That page-turning keeps the reader's eye from skimming, putting the pacing of the story into the control of the artist.

Jax represented the last "first" in o­nline comics history for a few years. The pioneers had planted their flags by now. More settlers would soon follow. But some would find the terrain was rougher than they had expected.

We cover that and the "stone age" of webcomics in Part Three.