The History of Online Comics by T Campbell (Part 4)

Five Horsemen of the New Genesis

In they rode like heralds of the new era. The next fifteen months saw the approach of five sites that would define the webcomics scene for the next three years and remain important parts of it to the present. Call them the Five Horsemen.

The Five Horsemen were each a commercial success… five of the very few such successes online. This made them influential over both the art form of webcomics and its developing commerce. In this chapter, we'll concentrate on their artistic influence; later, we'll pick up the path of webcomics commerce.

Tellingly, each of them began in front of a computer screen.

On August 25, 1997, Pete Abrams' Sluggy Freelance began with two designers and "freelance bums", Torg and Riff, surfing the Internet. As Torg describes the Net's wonder, Riff blithely uses his connection to summon the devil.

Less than a week later, Abrams introduced Bun-Bun the talking bunny, because "every strip needs… a cute talking animal." Bun-Bun soon proved to be a tough-as-nails, violent, loudmouthed misanthrope. Just before the end of the first month, Zoë joined the cast as a worrywart foil for the reckless boys and selfish rabbit.

Torg, Riff, Zoë, and Bun-Bun quickly became the most frequent headliners of the strip – though the cast has changed frequently, and these cast members have taken on new roles. Torg, once a semi-narrator for the strip, is now one of its dumber characters. Riff has done a 180 from summoning demons for kicks to worrying obsessively about the dangers of the alien and supernatural. Zoë, who once only wanted a normal life, now stays with the zany group because she chooses to. Though Bun-Bun remains an unrepentant bastard, he's gathered supporting characters of his own, leading him into more complex storylines.

In fact, almost everything about Sluggy has changed. Both story and art maintain a humorous flavor, but Abrams now seasons that flavor with moments of drama and terror. Though Sluggy's stories have sometimes been shaggy dog tales about the Internet, Abrams has stirred in movie and television parodies, melodrama, horror, holiday mythology and more. Because of all these changes, the exact appeal of Sluggy is hard to pin down.

Regardless, there are constants. The title seems to mean 'lazy freelance work', but Abrams is anything but lazy: Sluggy's panel-count per day is probably the highest of any non-manga comic. Sundays are especially luxurious. That quantity, Abrams' characterization, and his sense of humor keep coming back in the strips, and keep the readers coming back for more.

These traits have kept Sluggy Freelance popular for years, but they're too inimitable to be influential. Very few artists can match Abrams' output, his gift for characterization can elude the best writers, and Abrams' sense of humor is unique. While it is true that a few of his trademark techniques – such as the juggling of serious and humorous plotlines – may have found their way into other strips, those techniques may have evolved independently of Abrams. Sluggy set a tone for the commerce of webcomics, yet has no direct intellectual descendants, unlike JD Frazier's work.

On November 17, 1997, Frazier's User Friendly began with a typical administrator-technician conflict:

Stef: Make this a priority. It's very important.
Greg: Well, I'm really busy these days. If I push hard, I can have it to you within two weeks.

As anyone who saw Scotty's appearance on Star Trek: The Next Generation could guess, the actual job would take ten minutes. This humor is more topical than timeless: back in 1997, technicians had much more power than now over their alleged "administrators". The strip has kept pace with whatever concerned geeks in any given year… the dot-com crash, Star Wars movies, telemarketer bills, and especially open-source software and Linux.

User Friendly has not evolved in many other ways. The artwork is negligible, and the characters are largely forgettable. Even the strip mascot, Dust Puppy, has little more personality than any other ball of server dust. The "random cartoon" feature shows off not only Frazier's technical prowess but also the strips' general interchangeability. This is because Frazier is concerned with a subject, not an artificial world.

Unlike Abrams character-driven work, User Friendly is a series of gags for the working geek, and it rarely pretends to be anything else. More than any other strip, User Friendly taught cartoonists by example that strips on the Web could profit by targeting the interests of the hardcore Web-user demographic. It was Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet's approach, refined. PvP would refine the approach still further.

On May 4, 1998, Scott Kurtz's PvP began with a homemade catheter and a marathon game of video ice hockey. PvP is also a geek comic, with an emphasis on gaming humor. The characters are better-rounded than User Friendly's but not as mobile as Sluggy's: the majority of scenes take place in the offices of PvP Magazine, which covers video games of the present and casts nostalgic glances at their past. Brent's irritability and ego, Cole's attempts to lead, Jade's feminism, Robbie and Jase's utter uselessness, Francis' teenage hormones and Skull's gentle innocence all strike sparks against one another for laughs. But most of the strip's laughs still come from pop culture, of which Kurtz's grasp is especially keen.

Kurtz has performed some artistic experiments, but relies chiefly upon templates, which is good and bad. Since his art style upgraded, the templated characters look sleek and refined, but they also look static and boring in large doses. Eventually, you just stop noticing how the characters look from panel to panel… which can make the few unusual visuals more effective, but it's still a trade-off of quality for quantity. This "talking near-identical heads" style has been a fixture in newspaper strips almost since their inception, but PvP proved that such a style could be a smash success on the Web, for better and for worse.

Like all the Horsemen, PvP shines best in its writing. Its later ideas are usually insightful, as when Brent wonders, "what if Star Wars isn't really cool at all?" or when Francis demonstrates why superhero RPGs haven't taken off. Kurtz is geeky enough to love pop culture but grounded enough to understand the human truths beneath it.

In June of 1998, Scott McCloud launched with an uncharacteristically moody meditation on print comics. Precise dates are not as important in McCloud's case. In 1994, he now says, " it was already a well-known joke on the convention circuit that if you saw McCloud coming, you'd better run if you didn't want an hour-long rant about digital comics." While the site featured some interesting experiments in its first two years, it wasn't until 2000 and the publication of Reinventing Comics that McCloud's output really exploded.

More than any other well-known webcomics, McCloud's oeuvre resists classification. Though clearly fond of a few characters from his print works – the cast of Zot and Carl from Understanding Comics – McCloud doesn't define himself as "the artist of Zot Online" the way that Kurtz is, first and foremost, the artist of PvP.

His only ongoing, open-ended project is The Morning Improv, which by its definition includes random shifts in style and content. He has not set out to build universes, but to explore possibilities.

Every comic on his site – The Right Number, Porphyria's Lover, My Obsession with Chess, "Hearts and Minds", I Can't Stop Thinking!, the Carl stories, Ninety-Five and The Morning Improv – is a challenging exercise. They are thrown gauntlets for McCloud himself to pick up and carry into battle.

His experiments include new kinds of visual transitions, greater interactivity with readers and a "branching" narrative structure. His most influential notion, though, has been the "infinite canvas". Virtually all McCloud's webcomics celebrate the fact that they are not bound to the dimensions of a comic-book page, let alone a strip cartoon. Many are long enough that if they were rendered in print, they would be taller (or horizontally longer) than the height of the reader. Many have experimented with this technique, and of those, a number have made it a regular part of their strips (Pup, More Fun, and at certain intervals Narbonic and User Friendly).

Penny Arcade launched on November 18, 1998 with a by-now-familiar scene of gaming obsession. It came from Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, who renamed themselves "Tycho" and "Gabe". Eventually they gave their lead characters the same names and fused them with their own online personas.

Like User Friendly, Penny Arcade makes no apologies for its tight focus… and its focus is considerably tighter than User Friendly's. This is a duo-autobiography, and a well-rounded cast of characters would just get in the way. Sometimes Tycho will play the crazy guy and Gabe will be the heavy, sometimes vice versa. Their girlfriends' principal role is to roll their eyes at how hopeless their men are. There are two kinds of PA strips: the antics of Tycho and Gabe the cartoon characters, and political cartoons from Tycho and Gabe the cartoonists. That's it. Nothing else is relevant.

You'd think this would make PA an easy read, but some of its subjects are esoteric, even by gaming standards. Penny Arcade gets away with it because of a counterintuitive site architecture which many other strips have imitated since. It does not put its latest strip on its homepage; new readers instead find a blog. The blog sometimes lays more groundwork for the strip's punchline than the strip itself.

The artwork has evolved into a comfortable compromise between the templates of PvP and freeform comic-book illustration. The humor is rude, almost cruel, yet sophisticated.

All told, Penny Arcade has succeeded because gamers identify with Tycho and Gabe's joint personality. Frazier and Kurtz stay in the background and always appear smarter than the objects of their satire. The Arcaders hog the spotlight and fearlessly portray themselves as addicts dripping with testosterone.

Current data suggests that Penny Arcade is the most popular webcomic extant. Its influence has been profound: Real Life, Mac Hall, and Little Gamers all take cues from its theme and structure, and each of these is extremely popular in their own right (though none can match PA's topicality). Though RPG World and sprite-based comics like 8-Bit Theater or Bob and George don't follow Penny Arcade's structure, they share its obsession. The gamer comic genre has arrived.

While some of the Horsemen are near-contemporaries, there seems to be an evolutionary progression: from Helen, to UF and PvP, to Penny Arcade. Each strip has gotten closer to the nerve centers of the "core webcomics audience," which, as it turns out, is pretty close to the core video game audience.

It's exciting to watch a new genre being born… but history says that nothing is more dangerous than a genre when it's the only one you have. Comic strips have largely collapsed into the gag-strip genre, and the comic-book market of the 1960s through to the 1990s was utterly dominated by superhero action stories. In both cases, hard times caused the comics industry to retreat into "what worked," which ultimately narrowed its appeal. What really "works" is a variety of genres serving a variety of demographics, as the American motion picture and Japanese comic book industries have proven. But the pressure to succeed in the short term can easily lead artists to ignore this.

Cartoonists are still laying the foundations of this art form. Time will tell whether a second, third and fourth genre really take hold with the webcomics audience.

In any event, they're not likely to emerge from McCloud's work or Sluggy Freelance. McCloud did create the "24-hour comic", but 24-hour comics are defined by the circumstances of their creation, not by literary or aesthetic requirements. Though certainly inventive enough to create a new genre as one more exercise, he's too excited by the many possibilities for comics to commit himself to any genre long enough to popularize it.

Abrams is committed to Sluggy, but is likewise too excited by the possibilities of that strip to confine it to a single genre. Both Abrams and McCloud are worth studying, as are any experts in the field, but both are too restless and too unclassifiable to attract a crowd of imitators. They dance too fast for the cartooning community to grift their moves.

What the Five Horsemen heralded was not what the webcomics field would look like in the next five years. They heralded the existence of a webcomics field. All but McCloud are reportedly making a living from their webcomics and subsidiaries. Their audience numbers have rivaled and eventually surpassed those of print comic books: in 2003, Sluggy Freelance trumped JLA/Avengers, 300,000 daily readers to 200,000 monthly copies.

So what does the field look like now? Where is it going? Where can new genres of webcomics come from? Who can answer these questions, if not webcomics' leading artists? The answers may lie with webcomics collectives, which began to spring up en masse the year after the last of the Horsemen began his ride. We'll discuss collectives – and what role they may be taking in the art and literature of webcomics – in Chapter 5.

T Campbell is a regular contributor to Comixpedia. He is the editor of the Graphic Smash anthology webcomic subscription site and the writer of the long-running webcomic Fans! and other work.

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One Comment

  1. Overall I’ve found this series to be interesting and informative. I do find this statement to be a bit off though:

    ” This “talking near-identical heads” style has been a fixture in newspaper strips almost since their inception,”

    Actually, no. Most newspaper strips in the first half of the 20th century leaned towards fairly involved artwork and situations. It wasn’t really until the late 50’s that (Probably due to shrinking strip sizes) newspaper strips started gravitating towards simple stylized characters engaging in “Talking heads” style banter.

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