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The First Comic On the Internet (The History of Online Comics: Part 1)

In the caves at Lascaux, four-thousand-year-old drawings of men, spears raised high, hunt drawings of animals. Today, thousands of artists around the world have slathered digital paint o­nto the cybernetic equivalent of cave walls, their work bold and vigorous in the electronic firelight. Those sequential artworks are hosted in servers around the globe, downloadable in Tibetan monasteries and in military bases in Iraq.

The desire to communicate, through art and through stories, has been part of human nature at least since Lascaux. But not since Gutenberg invented the printing press has there been such a fundamental shift in communication as there has been through the Internet.

"File o­n networked computer" is the most democratic medium in existence. Though others like "pen and paper" may be easier to use, none is easier to distribute to large numbers of people in short periods of time. Television and film require elaborate production and millions of dollars; Web hosting can run as low as 30 dollars a month and sometimes goes for free. Books and comic books are bought in specialty shops or through snail-mail subscriptions and catalogs; but webpages come into our homes instantly, the moment we invite them.

Comics are well-adapted to this new medium. They cost far less time to produce and download than most moving pictures, and they engage the readers' senses immediately, in ways that paragraphs of unadorned text do not.

O­nce the technology of the Internet developed to the point where drawings could be shared o­nline, the birth of o­nline comics was inevitable.

 

From Out of the Desert...

Boulder, Colorado is a fairly busy town for the Midwest, which means it's pretty sleepy by the standards of cartoonist havens like New York and Los Angeles. But it featured some of the most inventive local talent of the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Holley Irvine (Ozone Patrol), Tom Oling (40th Parallel, later USS Utopia), Terry Krueger (SOS) and last but not least, Hans Bjordahl, who in 1987 began a strip called Where The Buffalo Roam while in college.

He filled the strip with sharp observations about college life: fake IDs, Nietzsche, pot, and "parking Nazis." Some of the strips focused o­n his cast of four characters, others o­n general themes. The second type read a bit like Matt Groening's Life in Hell, but in a gentler fashion and from an older perspective.

The four cartoonists enjoyed a friendly competition for several years, peaking in "The Great Comics War of 1990," a four-way crossover occupying the entire Colorado Daily comics page and providing a thinly veiled parable of Gulf War I. The sense of community brought by such work left Bjordahl hungry for more.

The next year, Herb Morreale, an IT worker at XOR Network Engineering, recruited Bjordahl to further his own agenda... an agenda shared by many Internet workers at that time. As he recounted it in a Usenet posting:

About six months ago I was sitting around thinking about all the neat things the net had to offer. You know, the usual stuff about "where is this whole things was going to be in 20 years?," and "I wonder if we will ever be able to shop o­n-line and transfer money directly," and "maybe we will be voting for the president o­n-line soon." While considering these types of things, I usually end up thinking about having the morning paper pop up in a window for me every day when I sit down with my cup of coffee. Clarinet is now offering the UPI wire in USENET format, so some of the "morning paper" is already available (though at a price). So what's missing? Not just Dear Abby, but the Comics!

On April 15, 1992, Morreale and Bjordahl posted the first WtBR to the Internet, in GIF and PostScript formats. And a strip that had never left Colorado before began to spread as far as...

Well, Ohio. And Michigan. And NASA, but mostly because of the Colorado University alumni.

Not quite the global reach enjoyed by today's webcomics... and limited almost exclusively to college campuses and research facilities. But that was the Internet in 1992. Net communities were smaller then. And to establish a community, you didn't get a personal URL, you got a Usenet newsgroup.

Like Yahoo, Usenet is divided by category, subcategory, and sometimes subsubcategory. The "alt" category (short for “alternative”), for better or worse, is the category to which anyone can establish subcategories with no special permission. Alt.comics.buffalo-roam became the home of the strip for a year or two.

But Roam soon shifted its focus from Usenet to the World Wide Web, as seen through the new "Mosaic" browser. The shift was not a difficult decision. For o­ne thing, Web traffic grew by a factor of 341,634% in the course of 1993. That’s like starting with the population of a small town (say, 17,000) and ending with all six billion people o­n the planet.

For another, Mosaic actually displayed images instead of just providing them for download. This made it much easier to see Where the Buffalo Roam whenever you wanted.

Unfortunately, Bjordahl had already been doing Roam for six years by the time of Mosaic's debut, and was well out of college and increasingly aware of the need to make a living. He didn't last long enough to take advantage of the Internet ad boom, the concurrent stock rush, or the current beginnings of charging for content. Sales of T-shirts and book collections couldn't sustain the strip for long. Neither could a planned-but-never-launched film adaptation, and by late 1994 the strip had ended, keeping samples o­nline, but adding no new material. Bjordahl, now married to Holley Irvine, has relocated to Seattle and works o­n the carping review site, Mr. Cranky. His current homepage apologizes simply: "Sorry, but cartooning just doesn't pay the bills."

Today, Where the Buffalo Roam is not particularly famous, even by webcomics standards. Though witty and insightful, it was not head-and-shoulders above the many other college- or school- life strips that have emerged more recently. However, it proved there was an interest in comics o­n the Net, and paved the way for the next wagon train of pioneers. Pioneers like Dr. Fun, Jax & Co., and Net Boy. Pioneers whose contributions we will explore in Part Two.