Webcomic Communities (Part One): Motivation Through History
There's something about comics that make people want to talk.
Comics are accessible. Cheap or free, buried in a newspaper or posted on a web page, racked at the 7-11 or stacked in a comic shop, they lure us in with lots of pictures and not so many words. We think quick and easy and that's how they hook us.
Eventually we begin to feel weird, personal connections to these characters, these sketchbook creations and their complex lives. We start to care deeply about them and what they say, sometimes to praise, sometimes to condemn.
Look at the flaming complaints, the huge fan base, and the letter-to-the-editor debates that comic strips have generated. Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury was first dropped by certain papers (the Oregonian and the Washington Post, among others) in 1973, three years after its launch. Each dismissal caused a storm of protest – devoted readers who organized and lobbied the implicated publications to bring the strip back. That pattern repeated itself throughout the early history of the strip.
Today, strips like Aaron McGruder's Boondocks are rousing tempers and pulling opinions out of the complacent every day. Less than a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, McGruder's strip was temporarily suspended from two New York papers (the New York Daily News and Long Island's Newsday).
But things have changed. McGruder admits that certain strips are held back by newspapers all the time, not on a permanent but on a day-to-day basis. This limits angry feedback and makes organized protest more difficult.
One look at the active guestbook at www.boondocks.net, however, and you can see that even if organized public responses to newspaper suspensions have declined, people are transferring their support and their complaints to the Internet. There are well over 35,000 entries in the Boondocks guestbook. With no apparent input from McGruder, the guestbook is a thriving community interested in discussing (and dissenting with) the perspectives and issues McGruder addresses in his strips.
For over fifty years the letter pages of comic books have helped to create communities of fans who communicate with each other, the creators, and the editors of each book willing to carry them.
According to Matthew Pustz in his book Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers:
As comic books grew in popularity in the early 1950s, publishers began to transform a text page mandated by postal regulations from an infrequently read short story to a compilation of readers' comments. William Gaines's EC Comics was one of the first companies to prominently feature these letters pages on a regular basis. (p. 166)
These postal regulations required comic books to include a couple of pages of non-comics to be eligible for cheaper shipping rates. Although EC Comics was key to their beginning, it was Marvel Comics' (specifically Stan Lee's) devotion to responding to as much mail as possible that brought about the popularity of letter pages in the 60's and 70's.
Something about the way a comic is put together involves us, encourages us as readers to fill in the blanks between panels and link up the sequences; this interaction puts us in a sort of mindset that we're part of the game.
And that investment makes us want to talk.
Although the web was launched in 1991, the Internet has been around in various forms since 1969. There have been Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes), usually a single computer full of text files sitting in someone's house with one or more phone lines connecting it to the world outside. There's also been news by Usenet, a distributed bulletin board with hundreds (and eventually tens of thousands) of topics. Both were invented in the late 1970s.
In the varied and often strident discourse of BBSes and Usenet, it was normal for people to discuss comic books. In fact, Usenet is still alive and well. See the rec.arts.comics.* hierarchy for details, specifically rec.arts.comics.strips for webcomics discussion.
Discussions about webcomics in forums managed by the creator are a natural extension of this dialogue. Bulletin boards predate the launch of the Web by twelve years. Today, there's an industry around providing bulletin-board style communication and a wide variety of free and for-pay software available.
The webcomic format itself is new and yet strangely familiar. You might even say the webcomic represents a paradigm shift -- a new framework for an old idea. And in that new space, a different sort of community is forming. While still an artificial community, these webcomic communities are more intimate than an organized political action group and more immediate than a printed letter in the back of a comic book, with often-daily interaction between creator and fans.
Which will be the focus of part 2 of this feature.