I'm Thankful for Webcomics (Even the Bad Ones)

Around this time in the US we celebrate Thanksgiving, which embodies wholesome American values like overeating and awkwardly tolerating a group of people for a short period of time before going at each other's throats again. But the holiday is meant to be about giving thanks to people and things you take for granted. So let's take some time to give thanks to the webcomic, both the ideal and the reality of the medium.

To really appreciate webcomics, you have to look at what came before it. In the early 20th century, Western comics were created through the traditional publishing system, but represented a large amount of creative output from a variety of publishing houses, with different genres like Westerns, humor, horror, “true crime,” and eventually superhero comics. In the 50's, Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent blamed the medium on teenage deviancy, especially the crime and horror comics. The comic industry engaged in self-censorship, limiting some of these genres and resulting in the death of others. This combined with various business acquisitions over the next few decades eventually resulted in the two monolithic companies Marvel and DC. In the 60's and 70's, the counterculture responded to the homogenization of comics (and culture in general) and the lack of representation by starting the underground comix movement, pushing as many cultural taboos as they could. One group, the Air Pirates, had their comic taken to the Supreme Court over whether depicting Mickey Mouse engaging in sex and drug use was considered fair use or copyright infringement. While the comix movement continued with alternative comics in the 80's and 90's, traditional publishing was the main way to print and distribute comics.

Until now.

While niche content might have always existed throughout comic's history, it was limited by its expense and physicality. Even the underground and alternative comics cost the creator's money to print them, even if they were just using a cheap photocopier and home office supplies. And they mainly were sold in cities with an active counterculture scene, so while you might have been exposed to them in San Francisco or Seattle, good luck finding them in some backwater town in the Midwest. No R. Crumb for you kid, hope you enjoy Archie. Now, majority of comics online are free, or in the very least easier to find and more affordable than they would have been in the past. And with site hosting becoming cheaper or even free, the barrier of entry has been lower than ever, allowing anyone with an idea to make a comic, no matter how marketable.

Despite all this McCloud-esque optimism for the future, it's easy to see how disappointing it might be to see in practice, making it incredibly easy to be cynical (this is the internet, after all). In theory, we should be escaping the monotony of bland Sunday comics making golf jokes in lieu of more unique fare, but one of the most popular genres online is bland webcomics making video game jokes. Instead of the passionate artist denied readership by suits because his masterpiece didn't neatly fit in some target demographic, they're denied readership because they can't find it buried under a sea of crap. And while the idea of democratizing art sounds good in theory, in practice it gives a megaphone to some of the most deranged, egotistical wack jobs on the planet when they would have otherwise languished in obscurity.

All of those are legitimate points, some of which I've held in the past. If you get turned off by those things, that's your right and I don't begrudge you at all for it. But I think those are the costs of the freedom of the medium, and in some ways are part of its charm. Yes, the most successful comics in the medium pander to a smaller, but still significant demographic than traditional publishing. That's great, since these comics act as a gathering place for people with common interests and allow them to share that interest with others in a way that they wouldn't have been able to before. And unlike print comics or newspaper comics, it's much easier to find something that caters to your interests instead of what the media thinks you want. It's harder to find good comics buried under the bad ones, but part of the pleasure I get from reading webcomics is digging through all that crap to find the gems. And even the bad webcomics have some value, even if it's at their expense showing them off because they're so bad they're hilarious. And even though they're awful, the authors at least try to do something different, making them memorable in their own right. Same goes for the crackpot comic artists. They barely can contain all that crazy for long, and watching their inevitable meltdowns is often just as fun as the comics that result from it, significantly reducing their negative influence.

So far, webcomics represent the freest the comic medium has been from economic or political influence. Almost anyone can make them and upload them to the internet where almost anyone from anywhere can view them. Yes, this has resulted in a lot of crap, but it makes the gems all the more worth it, and even the crap isn't completely worthless. So this year, give thanks to webcomics (even the bad ones).


  1. The "So, you're a cartoonist" link doesn't work. (It's the second link in the 4 links in a row - the one underneath the word "egotistical").

  2. I think you meant this link, "http://badwebcomicswiki.shoutwiki.com/wiki/So..._You%27re_a_Cartoonist%3F"