New media for broadcast create new forms of media for consumer consumption. The invention of the cinema led to short films, newsreels, serials, and feature films. Later on, the emergence of television largely killed all the forms but feature films, but it brought TV series—like serials but they could keep going for years. Computers brought video games, and of course e-books.
The Internet…well, the Internet has brought a number of new media forms. Blogs, fiction mailing lists and newsgroups, social media, YouTube videos…the list goes on and on. But the one I’ve been thinking about today is webcomics.
If you’ll look at the Wikipedia entry on webcomics, you find that the earliest online comics came about in the 1980s, but they only started getting really popular in the mid to late ‘90s, at about the same time the general public rather than just college students found their way to the web. Some of the best of those comics are still going, and some of them have racked up amazing strip tallies. Sluggy Freelance just today celebrated its 17th anniversary. And then there’s Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary, which I finally got around to reading from the start all the way up to the present day.
Tayler is well known for never ever missing an update in over 14 years and 5,000+ daily strips. That is to say, there has literally not been one single day since June 12, 2000 that has not had a new Schlock Mercenary comic strip on that day. That’s pretty impressive. I can’t even say I’ve taken a shower every single day for the last 14 years, but Taylor has produced a new comic every day for that time. His secret? He works well ahead and keeps a buffer so he can always post on time.
The strip is a hard-ish SF space opera following a band of mercenaries as they go from job to job and ship to ship, trying to survive in a hostile universe rife with ancient alien technology and plenty of alien races, many of whom have it in for them. After the strip gets going, the story arcs end up being pretty amazing. It’s epic storytelling at its finest.
But back to webcomics themselves, consider that years before Amazon made it possible for self-e-publishing to take off, some lucky few web cartoonists were making a living from their work, including Pete Abrams of Sluggy and, after a few years’ work (as he explained in my interview with him), Howard Tayler of Schlock.
This was comic strip publishing without newspaper gatekeepers—anyone could put a comic up on the web, and sometimes just about anyone did. Because the strips weren’t in a position where newspapers could cancel them no matter how bad the art was at first, that made it possible for a strip that started out looking as Schlock did at left to keep going day after day, year after year, and evolve into looking like it does now, at right (same character).
Can you imagine a strip drawn like the one at left running in any newspaper for very long? Yet, extensive practice is how any artist improves over time. And you certainly can’t say Howard Tayler hasn’t had that practice.
Now, of course, there are thousands of webcomics, covering all genres and a multitude of languages. That some people can make money from their webcomics is more or less a given. By now, Schlock Mercenary (and many other web comics) have found a variety of books and comic-related goods to sell (such as Schlock Mercenary challenge coins, which actually featured prominently in a recent Schlock storyline), and Taylor makes a good deal of money from convention appearances. (In fact, as he lamented in a recent blog post, he makes enough money that he can’t really afford to take time out of manning his booth at GenCon to play games at the gaming con.)
And strips like Schlock, Sluggy, and many others continue not only to be free now, but you can actually go all the way back to their very beginning and read them all the way from the beginning at any time—as I did with Schlock over the last few days.
Have you considered just how much free content that is? In Schlock’s case, that’s like reading through 13 complete graphic novels and part of a fourteenth, for free. Of course, you can buy the print collections on Amazon, or e-books of the first few collections via Baen, if you prefer, and they do come with bonus stories. (Plus the print versions are something nice to have doodled and autographed at a convention.) A lot of other comics also have print collections available, too. And if you like the strip, you should buy them. It’s good to support the comic creator in that way. But you don’t have to pay a penny just to read them.
All that content, from all those comics, is right there on the web for, free, waiting for you to click through. It could take all your free time for days to get through all the archives on just one long-running strip. And there are plenty of long-running strips available.
At any rate, webcomics are just as much a new digital medium as e-books. Possibly even more, given that e-books only started being self-published in a major way just a few years back, but webcomics have been doing it since the ‘90s. I suspect we tend to take them for granted now, given how long they’ve been with us, but in a way that just makes it all the more remarkable how they’ve snuck into being just another every-day “normal” thing on the Internet.
Now I need to get me one of those Schlock Mercenary challenge coins…