Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: A History of Webcomics

A History of Webcomics – The Golden Age:1993-2005
by T. Campbell
Antarctic Press, 2006
ISBN 0-9768043-9-5 / 978-0-9768043-9-0

I must confess that I’ve never been an online comics reader. There’s just something about reading comic strips on a pixelated screen that doesn’t quite measure up to the comfort of good old ink and paper. I know that there’s a vibrant community of online cartoonists, and some of the material I’ve stumbled across over the years is not only professional, but on occasion superior to the stuff we find in our daily papers. Without the ‘benefit’ of syndicate editors and the Victorian attitudes of newspaper editors about comic strip content, the online cartoonist has the elbow room to explore subjects outside the extremely cramped box that syndication allows. The online cartoonist also has the freedom to let their creations grow and change, an entirely natural and healthy process that is rarely condoned in the buttoned up world of the newspaper cartoonist.

So I was happy to stumble across this book by T. Campbell, with its promise to bring me up to date on the happenings in the vibrant world of web-based comics, a world that I’ve supported philosophically but ignored in practice. And in the opinion of this utter neophyte, Campbell does an excellent job.

The book starts out with prehistory, an entertaining bit of nostalgia about the days before the ‘real’ web. Lewis discusses Arpanet, and how that medium used for scientific communication quickly had its own humor back alleys. These were the days of the first ‘net based art — it was ASCII art at the time, kiddies! Lewis bounds past this point quickly, pretty much ignoring the days of the home-based BBS, and the pseudo-Web services like PC-Link, Compuserve and Prodigy. I’ll reinforce my geezer-hood by admitting that I was disappointed by this omission.

Campbell goes on to discuss the early web-based strips, most of which fall into a category termed ‘nerd-core’. These were the days when a net strip was a guaranteed fan-favorite if the jokes revolved around programming and computer gaming. But subject matter quickly branched out, though certain genres, including nerd-core, have remained fertile ground. Manga and fantasy-based comics have done well, as have autobiographical/journal comics, and even pixel-comics (a form where the characters are low-res images, often sampled from old computer games). One of these, Diesel Sweeties, has even made the jump to newspaper syndication against seemingly long odds.

The web allows cartoonists to experiment with the form and poses no restrictions on coloring and size, so Campbell discusses a lot of the experiments, both successful and unsuccessful, that have passed across the ether. A proper amount of space is also devoted to philosophical discussions about such experimentation — Scott McCloud has apparently been acting as cheerleader and soothsayer in this movement, and his ideas, and reaction to them, are discussed.

But I found the most interesting aspect of the history was the business end. Every cartoonist on the web has two problems – how to get people to read their work, and when they do, how to convince them to pay for the privilege. Although the rank amateur can be happy just posting his or her scrawlings to a website visited only by a close circle of indulgent pals, those who have ambitions to be professional cartoonists, to actually make a paying job out of web comics, face the inevitable, and practically insoluble problem, of getting paid. Campbell’s discussion of the business aspect of web comics is tremendously thoughtful, entertaining and well-researched. The soap opera-ish tales of the comic strip ‘portals’ and their creators is fascinating stuff, as are the stories of the individual creators who struck out on their own.

The book is a worthwhile and entertaining read whether you are a long-time fan of web comics, or like me, a sideline observer. I will, however, point out two problems. First is that Campbell is far too enamored of footnotes … and more footnotes … and yet more footnotes. There are pages in this book that look like a bingo card. Thankfully his notes are all at the back of the book, but with practically every sentence festooned with a numeric garland it gets downright annoying, especially when he doesn’t restart his numbering in each chapter. The footnote numbering in this thin book finally tops out at 614 — enough already!

Illustrations are the second problem. Many are too small to be comfortably read, and some are printed so dark as to make the images little more than ink blots. My guess is that the author intended the sample strips to be printed in color, and they should have been — Antarctic Press was penny wise and pound foolish in going the black and white route. On the other hand, given that quite a few web comics include animations or infinite canvas techniques, some dilution of the material was inevitable. Perhaps Campbell should have arranged for all the illustrations to be made available on a website, maybe one that includes links to the creators’ current output. Given the impoverished state of the typical web comic creator, I assume the authors of the sample strips would have been happy to oblige if it meant that they might gain some new, maybe even paying, readers as a result.

Minor quibbles aside, Campbell has done a fine job and he deserves our thanks for committing this history to print. The evanescent web, like a beach that quickly and efficiently erases the footsteps of all who pass, has no memory beyond what resides on the servers in the here and now. Without Campbell to chronicle these early days of web comics the stories would inevitably be forgotten, leaving those of us who value history with no record of the trailblazing days in this important new cartooning medium.

8 comments on “Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: A History of Webcomics

  1. The only Web comics I’ve found that I regularly enjoy are Joy of Tech and Tundra. The rest of the lot seem to be aimed at 20-somethings who are too intelligent for society, an excuse to proliferate obscenties, have a narrow-minded liberal viewpoint, or are just generally smarmy. I am seriously open to recommendations for what good mass appeal Web comics I should be reading. And if any can point me to a good adventure Web comic, I’d be all the more grateful.

  2. Though I do plan to check out your recommendation, I apologize for not specifying. I’d like to find a good adventure Web comic in the classic adventure comic strip vein. Something that would remind me of Terry & the Pirates, the Phantom, Flash Gordon, Rip Kirby, Brick Bradford, Lone Ranger, et al, and drawn in a classic newspaper strip style.

  3. Okay–I only became interested in webcomics the lst few years and I’m old enough to remember many of the ones you mentioned! You don know many of the old strips from newspaper days are now being rerun online by the syndicates that own them? I haven’t yet seen Terry and the Pirates, but Steve Canyon is now on Humorous Maximus, and The Phantome old and new is King Features Syndicate. My criteria for a web comic is good artwork, and adventure with a decent storyline. Girl Genius hits well here, along with Mega Tokyo. Although MT’s plot line can be a little confusing at times, I have actually bought the books to keep up. Another new one by an amature is Get Medieval, entertaining and nice artwork, regular posting. Alpha Shade is a good one with a twisty story, and Lackadaisy has beautiful artwork if you don’t mind cats! The Wotch–while not having the best artwork, is an entertaining story, Crimson Dark is a new one that promises to be good, Tales of the Revenant is black and white, but is fairly dark in a Phantom-ish way. The Rainbos Orchid is another one with beautiful artwork and an excellent storyline. Classic newspaper strip style isn’t seen so much anymore since webcomics allow for a different stle of format. Try some of the ones I’ve suggested here and see what you think!

  4. I’m not really looking for comics that have magna-style artwork on comic book size pages, and I definitely don’t like cats. However, in following links offered by mamafrog, I did find another link to one that looked somewhat interesting, Captain Spectre. I’ll have to go back and check it out. Can anyone vouch for it, or does anyone know of adventure strips out there in a similar vein?

  5. Captain Spectre is an excellent strip–very “Phantomish” in artwork and storyline. Unfortunately its update is very irregular due to the need of the artist to make a living! It currently hasn’t been updated in awhile–but I check on it once a week to see of anything has happened.

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