Underground. Edgy. Raw. Inventive. Independent. Webcomics have all of that and more. That said, the following may seem like an absurd question, but it needs to be asked: are webcomics having an impact on mainstream popular culture? When do we get to pay 8 dollars to watch Sluggy Freelance II: The Search for Oasis or an animated Fanciest Froglin on the big screen, or flip the channel to Mad Science with Doctor Helen Narbon on the television?
Like any new artform, webcomics started somewhere in obscurity. Only now are they beginning to reach audiences large enough to attract even cursory coverage from the mainstream news media. How long until webtoonists can join artists in other mediums for a chance to sell out for Hollywood dollars and creative compromise? Webcomics can feature engaging stories with powerful visuals that offer a ready template for movies or television, just like their print comic brethren.
And webcomics are published on the Internet. Wasn’t there a day not so long ago when you couldn’t pan an Internet connection in Big Business waters without coming up with sackfuls of deals and contracts?
It has been asserted that Undercover Brother was in fact the first instance of an Internet-spawned piece of entertainment crossing over into a Hollywood film, and into mainstream, pop-culture America. Undercover Brother, however, is really the only one of a countless number of "web-animation" projects to make it to film. In some ways, it is the epitaph to a brief spurt of dot-com-funded entertainment sites that have all since folded. Sites such as Icebox, Shockwave, Urban Entertainment and the Digital Entertainment Network (DEN) used the strategy of hiring mainstream talent like Tim Burton, Spike Jonze, Kelsey Grammer (!) and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to develop new material, in part with the very hope that they could sell the resulting "product" right back to the Hollywood industry.
Urban Entertainment, the home of Undercover Brother, was one of the first to ink a deal for a feature film with a major studio. Regardless of whether or not any of the others would have made better or worse projects, studios soured on the use of the Internet as a "farm team" for possible projects upon the collapse of the dot-com mania.
What we have not seen yet is any sort of impact from webcomics on broader, mainstream popular culture. Perhaps it is simply too soon. Back at the end of 2000, Keenspot announced a deal with talent agency Bender-Spink to promote Keenspot properties to Hollywood. As Chris Crosby, CEO of Keenspot, explains, this venture did not work out as planned:
Our deal with Bender-Spink kind of petered out a year or so into it, and we are currently shopping around for new representation to the entertainment industry. The guys at Bender-Spink seemed to get very busy around the time their first major production hit it big (the summer animatronic animals-plus-Jeff Goldblum movie CATS & DOGS). They just didn’t seem interested or had the time to devote to working with us to develop our properties into movies and TV shows. The farthest we ever got with them was treatment stage on (believe it or not!) a LOOK WHAT I BROUGHT HOME! live-action movie pitched as "the anti-SEX & THE CITY."
Crosby adds that all of this was happening at the time Hollywood was focused on all of those web-animation sites, and that Keenspot’s former agents thought it would be difficult to pitch webcomics to movie executives expecting "Flash animation properties." After the dot-com investment bubble burst, however, all of those web-animation projects disappeared – and along with it any hopes of following in Undercover Brother’s high-top shoes. Asked about his estimates of moving a webcomic property in Hollywood now versus the year 2000, Crosby is still positive, "I’m more realistic about it but still as optimistic. I think all it takes is one big sale, and the floodgates will open. It’s definitely something Keenspot plans to focus on much more in the next year."
Of course, there have been countless movies based on comic book source material. From Superman to Batman, X-Men to Spiderman, there are several big screen versions of superheroes. There are other movies based on non-superhero comic books such as Men in Black and Road to Perdition. Television has also managed to use comic books as source material successfully and unsuccessfully, including such popular icons as Superman (Smallville),
the Hulk (The Hulk) and – don’t blink or you missed it – The Flash (The Flash). Certainly, let’s not skip over the Batman phenomenon of the sixties that not
only saturated the children’s entertainment market at the time, but also managed to provide Adam West with a career. It’s clear that Hollywood still retains an appetite for at least a certain kind of comic book storyline and character.
But many webcomics don’t exactly fit the stereotypical comic book Hollywood seems to like to option. Do webcomics therefore remain an untapped gold mine for merchants of mainstream entertainment? Crosby, for one, believes strongly in the potential of many webcomics to make the leap to the big screen. "[M]aybe webcomics just don’t have the right people (or ANY people) repping them. Because there are dozens of webcomics that would make AWESOME movies or TV shows. Who WOULDN’T go see a well-made Sluggy Freelance or College Roomies From Hell!!! or WIGU or Elf Life movie? NOBODY, that’s who." And it’s not hard to share that enthusiasm.
There are clearly several webcomics with strong individual characters and mythos that, in the hands of a talented production team, could make for an exciting big budget production. If Buffy can have a huge following and succeed in both television and film, why couldn’t Demonology 101? If sitcoms can rule prime time, why shouldn’t CRFH!!! be in the lineup?
Perhaps it’s merely timing, like the dot-com-bust. Maybe it’s just a matter of underexposure, or something lost in the translation. Unlike print comic books and strips, webcomics by definition are not limited by format or genre. While this makes for great innovative potential, it also alienates those who are comfortable with things that look and feel more familiar. In contrast to the strong public image of the superhero comic book or the inoffensively amusing comic strip, webcomics have no simple phraseology to describe them to non-aficionados, and certainly to big money producers looking for the next Wolverine.