The Year in Webcomic News
One year, twelve months, 365 days, 8760 hours. However you slice it, 2005 was a newsworthy year. As every month, Through The Looking Back Glass takes a look backwards, this time at the year that was. For this edition, I also talked with several frequent contributors to Comixpedia, including Alexander Danner, Ping Teo, Kristofer Straub, T Campbell and Phil Kahn, for their comments.
The year could hardly have started off oÃ¯Â¿Â½n a sadder note as as comic pioneer Will Eisner passed away at the age of 87, following quadruple bypass heart surgery. Eisner created the comic book crimefighter The Spirit and coined the phrase "Graphic Novel" among many other things.
Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick decided to make his webcomic his full time job.
The Daily Grind Iron Man Challenge launched amidst tremendous interest. It's a straightforward challenge -- every participating creator must update every weekday or end up in the losers lounge. A total of 56 creators signed up, paying the entry fee of $29, which resulted in a sum for the last remaining creator of $1120. To date, 23 creators have dropped out, leaving more than half still fighting for the title.
The Keenspot Newsbox were the source of a major controversy.
This weekend, we ran a newsbox for Friendly Hostility which featured two men kissing (or, debately, very close to kissing). Another Keenspotter, who objected to the content running oÃ¯Â¿Â½n their site, subsequently removed the newsbox. Since then, we've been flooded with emails from outraged readers.
Admittedly, the cause of this controversy was as much due to confusion about Keenspot's policy surrounding the newsbox, as it was to a "controversial" image.
"The Newsbox debate wasn't really about Boy Meets Boy," said T Campbell, "it was about webcartoonists waking up and realizing they didn't all share the same values. I don't think that lesson has really sunk in yet."
When the Eisner awards announced that it would be accepting nominations for a potential digital comics category, the news was met with both joy and hesitation. Joy, because the Eisner's are arguably the most prestigious print comic award, and hesitation because cautious voices were heard saying that just because they asked for nominations was no guarantee that the category would materialize.
But materialize it did as Eisner nominees for the new digital comics category were announced in April.
Phil and Kaja Foglio moved their comic Girl Genius to the web. While the Foglios weren't the first professionals to move from print to publishing oÃ¯Â¿Â½nline, they are without a doubt the most well known to date. It was the beginning of what became a trend throughout the year -- established professionals moving their projects to the web. The calculus to the Foglios and others like Carla Speed McNeil was simply whether it was financially more advantageous to publish monthly periodicals for the direct market or to publish oÃ¯Â¿Â½n the web. For many independent creators (i.e., non-Marvel/DC), the trade book collection is the most profitable format and the web offered a lower cost option for periodical publishing as well as the potential for greater exposure beyond the direct market audience.
"The distinction between webcomics and print comics blurred steadily in this 'Year of Print,'" said T Campbell. "On oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne side, McNeil, [Batton] Lash and the Foglios. OÃ¯Â¿Â½n the other, Tycho's argument [regarding art versus commerce] and a growing number of cartoonists using their web background to break into print."
In May a veritable exodus occurred, when several well known creators left Keenspot within a short interval. The reason soon became apparent as the creators banded together to start Blank Label Comics, a brand spanking new webcomic collective.
"For me [the most important thing this year] was the formation of Blank Label Comics, easily," said Kristofer Straub. "It's not that collectives didn't exist before BLC -- but there was some shift in the atmosphere when it arrived. I won't even boast that it was related to Blank Label itself. I think the age of the webcomics collective is here, and we'll see even more of them in the coming year."
When news broke that a trailer for the documentary Adventures into Digital Comics had been released, Penny Arcade was quick to comment. This was the first shot in what would become a barrage of discussion oÃ¯Â¿Â½n the topic of art versus entertainment.
"The 'Adventures' thing was really about the art-for-art's-sake crowd vs. the plebian moneymakers," said T Campbell "and left us with Tycho's memorable quote: 'I Hope Your Infinite Canvas Comics Double As A Nutritious Meal, because creating a comic that can't be printed out is not pragmatic.' That line is going to stick around long after people forget who Sebastien Dumesnil is."
"Entirely too many flamewars are the result of simple mis-communication; it amazes me how often I've seen people in vicious arguments with each other, yet both sides are saying more or less the same thing," said Alexander Danner. "Where that isn't the case, though, flamewars are usually caused by oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne or both parties thinking there's oÃ¯Â¿Â½nly oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne right way to do something -- whether it's experimentation vs. commercialization, or pay content vs. free, or whatever."
Jon Rosenberg, creator of Goats, conducted a high profile "experiment" with the micropayment system Bitpass. Rosenberg said he was acting in response to a challenge issued to him by Scott McCloud. McCloud has been a long time proponent of micropayments and is an advisor to Bitpass. After oÃ¯Â¿Â½nly oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne week though, Rosenberg declared the test a complete failure. In fact, Rosenberg went so far as to claim that the use of Bitpass had a negative effect oÃ¯Â¿Â½n his overall business. While many agreed with Rosenberg's conclusions, many others did not believe that Rosenberg's oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne week trial with Bitpass was a fair approximation of how micropayments would fare for a popular webcomics creator.
The Washington Post covered webcomics in a column that would later appear in several other newspapers.
The Clickwheel application launched, bringing comics to the iPod.
The summer brought conventions and as usual the mother of all geekfests was the San Diego Comicon. Plenty of webcomics made the scene and there were several panels devoted to webcomics. Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies won the Eisner award in the brand new category for Best Digital Comic. (Somewhat perplexingly, Fies took his comic off the web as part of an agreement he signed with Abrams Book which will be publishing a book based oÃ¯Â¿Â½n it.)
Connecticon ran into financial problems that spilled over to its organizers' personal finances. But very quickly, a number of webcomic creators came to their aid and started the Save Connecticon fundraiser, which managed to raise the funds needed to sort things out in record time.
And then hell froze over as Joey Manley announced the launch of Webcomics Nation. The long planned Webcomics Nation provided a hosting and business services solution to webcomics creators. The launch received both approval and critique, but at year's end the endeavour seems to have a fairly solid number of subscribers, judging from how many webcomics are published there now.
"The launch of Webcomicsnation [was an important] thing," said Ping Teo. "For oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne, it made putting up a webcomic ridiculously easy (barring the money factor). And secondly, it greatly affected the subscription-model webcomics."
"I'm pretty excited about the possibilities that Webcomics Nation opens up," said Alexander Danner. "For talented creators who maybe don't have the time or the skills to deal with the technical side of site building and business maintenance, WCN opens up all sorts of avenues that wouldn't otherwise be available. I don't think this will immediately lead to anyone making a living from their comics, but it certainly allows more people to try."
In August, webcomics received perhaps its most high profile coverage so far by the mainstream media in the form of a New York Times article. While this was cause for celebration, the article was perceived by some as critical of the medium.
"Making headway into the mainstream?"said Ping Teo, "We seem to have garnered a lot more attention that we did previously, with podcasting and blogging and New York Times articles and all."
The Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) returned for its second year to bigger crowds and massive publicity from the gaming community.
As the disaster that was hurricane Katrina made its way across the gulf coast of the United States, webcomic creators rallied to the flag of Brad Guigar and the Webcomic Ttelethon to raise money for the victims.
"The Telethon [was important]," said Phil Kahn, "because it showed us just how much good a ragtag underground art community like ours can accomplish when we actually manage to stop fucking squabbling for a few days and come together."
"I think that 2004 and 2005 should be regarded collectively as 'the years of giving'," said T Campbell. "Between Randy Milholland, Michael Jantze, Connecticon and [the] Katrina [Webcomics Telethon], there was a phenomenal outpouring of generosity from the community. I would love to see that continue. But I'm not staking my mortgage oÃ¯Â¿Â½n it."
As relations between Wikipedia and webcomics deteriorated, the Webcomics Encyclopedia at comixpedia.org was created following a suggestion from Eric Burns.
"Eric Burns passingly suggests a webcomics encyclopedia, and a week later the thing is already up and running?" said Alexander Danner. "That's amazing! And it's continuing to grow at an impressive rate."
Keenspot announced that Fox had optioned the Keenspot comic You Damn Kid. Hell becomes even colder.
Lea Hernandez stepped down as Girlamatic editor.
Zoinks magazine relaunched.
OhNoRobot, the search engine for webcomics goes oÃ¯Â¿Â½nline. The site supports collaborative efforts to make the text from an entire webcomic searchable.
"Ryan [North] and I founded OhNoRobot to address what I see as a major problem: comics are almost search-invisible," said T Campbell. "Randy Milholland has put years of great ideas into a format that is completely illegible to search engines everywhere. And that matters, because Randy's work contains oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne of the most powerful arguments against suicide I've ever heard and it deserves to be found by those who might be considering the act who are not already comics loyalists. I'm going to spend a chunk of next year trying to level the playing field for people like Randy, oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne step at a time."
"WebcomicsNation, the [Webcomics Encyclopedia], OhNoRobot, Clickwheel... there are probably others that I'm forgetting. Not that I think any of these is going to drastically change the landscape in and of itself, but they really show just how big the landscape has gotten," said Alexander Danner. "The fact that there's a demand for such big, ambitious services demonstrates a high level of commitment oÃ¯Â¿Â½n the part of both readers and creators alike."
So how do you sum up the year in webcomics? Was it the year of collectives? Of giving? Of web and print colliding and possibly merging? Of "support" services like OhNoRobot and the Webcomics Encyclopedia? Are creators going to be able to make a living in webcomics?
"We still don't really have a business model. We have six revenue streams of varying reliability. With a number of webcartoonists hitting or approaching their thirties, I'm concerned about the integrity of the talent pool," said T Campbell. "I am quite pleased, though, by the rich variety in webcomics, not oÃ¯Â¿Â½nly at the indie level but even at the six-figure audience level. For all the jokes we make about gaming comics, they don't come anywhere close to the market dominance of superhero comic books and gag newspaper strips. The community is still made up of people who care about the form."
"I'm not sure if we've seen any truly profound examples of [business models] that work yet, but it does seem like there are a lot of strips that are getting close," said Kristofer Straub. "A big part of a business model is advertising, and I think Google AdSense will have a huge impact in the next year or so as other ad networks try to use context to find consumers."
And where are webcomics headed in the future? There has been so much change from the earliest days of putting comics oÃ¯Â¿Â½n the web to now that it's not even easy to keep perspective oÃ¯Â¿Â½n what's happened to date. But it's clear that webcomics are growing and headed for bigger things.
"As the use of the Internet increases, so does our potential audience,." said Ping Teo. "I don't think it's exaggerating to say that there are going to be more people using the net than people buying paper comics. Five years ago no oÃ¯Â¿Â½ne I knew in real life read PvP or Sluggy Freelance. Nowadays they're everywhere, and a lot of my mates, even those who weren't into comics, read webcomics because they are easily accessible and cater to a wide range of tastes."
This is my last month writing Through the Looking Back Glass for Comixpedia, but the column will be back next year. Thanks for reading.