Are We Entering a Post-Webcomics Era?

I’m becoming a little wary of writing about how the webcomics industry is changing, because every time I look back on those articles six months later, they seem so obvious that I’m a little embarrassed to have written them. But I want to respond to a blog post from Monday written by John Allison (of the excellent Bad Machinery).

Titled “Post webcomics“, Allison explains his worry that we’re leaving the era in which webcomics like his could succeed. His take is that online comics of the past decade used a dedicated website to create an identity and maintain loyal readers. Now that most people experience the internet through social media services instead of individual websites, that relationship between artist and audience is lost. Instead, sites like Tumblr let many more people distribute comics, but everything goes into a single messy feed that doesn’t promote loyalty. Allison’s concern is that it’s becoming easier to get people to click a Thumbs Up button, but harder to find anyone who will stick around to give you money.

I want artists to get paid for their work, and I sympathize with Allison’s concerns. However, I don’t think it’s really getting harder to succeed. It’s not like the webcomics industry has ever been a safe, static one, and I’m sure Allison (who has moved confidently between three major comics now) understands this. Yes, the trend towards social media sites is a challenge, but the movement towards social media itself is an opportunity. By definition, social media gives you the chance to create the fanbase and identity that Allison wants his website to provide. The recent explosion of webcomics Kickstarter projects is evidence that fanbases are still willing to support creators. In fact, Kickstarter is a brand new way for webcomics creators to make money. We also seem to be getting closer to iPhone apps that provide a small, regular revenue stream for creators. And as sites like ShiftyLook show, webcomics have become so popular that companies are willing to fund them for their own marketing purposes.

That last point is my key takeaway. Not because I think that corporate sponsorship is the wave of the future, but because webcomics have become that popular. I remember in the heyday of John Allison’s alleged “webcomics era”, when Joey Manley posted his predictions for the year 2007. Chief among them, that popular comics would become ever more entrenched and that no new ones would challenge their popularity. That seemed self-evident at the time… but 2007 turned out to be the year of XKCD. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of Homestuck, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, Axe Cop, and many others. (Not to mention juggernauts like Dresden Codak, which existed before then but hadn’t yet become popular.) Name your ten favorite webcomics, and I’ll bet you that Manley’s prediction predated half of them. The webcomics world is a much more diverse, vibrant place now than it was at the end of 2006, and a lot more money seems to be changing hands as well.

If I were going to summarize the difference between making webcomics now and making them in the last decade, it wouldn’t be in terms of websites vs. Tumblr streams. Instead, I think the difference is that webcomics readers used to be a small, dedicated scene, and now they’re basically the world. In 2006, your webcomic could only be successful if virtually everyone in the community was aware of you. Today, there is no “community”, because “people who browse the web for entertainment” describes pretty much the whole developed world. You could be virtually unknown in the wider world and still have thousands of true fans willing to support you. That requires a different way of approaching things, but it’s not necessarily bad.

Yes, Allison is right that 99% of the audience is just going to glance at comics as they stream by. But if the audience itself has increased one thousand-fold, then the 1% who are active represent a huge increase overall. It’s always been true that most webcomics will fail to find an audience, and that most people at comic conventions won’t appreciate Bad Machinery. Allison has seen that before, and I think his current worries come just from seeing a different angle on it. It seems to me that the webcomics industry is healthier now than it’s ever been.

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  1. I’m glad I was wrong about that!

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