On Webcomics: What Makes It a Webcomic?

By | Monday, December 16, 2013 Leave a Comment
David Barrack's Grrl Power is undeniably a webcomic. It appears on the web and nowhere else.

David Willis' Dumbing of Age is also a webcomic. However, Willis also makes collections available in print format for purchase. This is a pretty typical webcomic financial model.

Then we have Derek Kirk Kim's TUNE, which was started as a webcomic with the express intention of it being printed as a graphic novel later. In fact, publisher First Second went so far as to start subsidizing the web expenses after its initial launch.

Taking that a step further, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen & Faith Erin Hicks was backed as a webcomic from the start, again by First Second. This time, however, it was expressly noted on Day One that the book was designed to be published on dead trees on a specific date. The webcomic version was pretty clearly a form of marketing to generate interest in the book before its publication.

The last example I'm going to trot out is Retail by Norm Feuti. The comic is distributed by King Features and is syndicated in I-can't-find-out-how-many-papers. But it also appears online on a dedicated website.

So in the first four examples, people generally accept and refer to those as webcomics. They showed up on the web first after all. But, strictly speaking, does Retail as well? Typically, each new installment shows up at midnight Eastern on the day it runs in the papers. Even the East Coast papers don't get finalized until a few hours later, much less the ones further west that are in later time zones. So Retail (and all other newspaper strips any more) technically get published online before anywhere else. So why aren't these considered webcomics for the exact same reason the first four examples are?

In giving this a little thought, I'd like to throw out this curious distinction. The main difference among these comics is in their business models. While the specifics of each case are obviously different, here's an interesting generalization: the first four examples use the comic essentially as a loss leader for making money through the sale of related items. Give the comic away for free, make money selling t-shirts, coffee mugs and printed copies. In the Retail example, the money is made primarily through syndication fees. King Features sells the rights to republish the comic in various newspapers, and Feuti's take-home pay is based, in part, on how many newspapers pay to run his comic.

In fact, despite the comic running in newspapers since 2006, it only just had its first collection released last month!

I think that's actually pretty noteworthy because it's not actually being published by any major publisher, but rather as a print-on-demand book from Feuti himself. And why do I think that's especially noteworthy? Because that is the standard webcomics financial model! Despite being a syndicated comic strip creator, Feuti is having to treat his strip as a webcomic. You see similiar examples with Dan Piraro (Bizarro), John Zakour (Working Daze), Justin Thompson (Mythtickle) and even Bill Amend (Foxtrot).

Let me put this analogy in your head. Right now, Dorothy Gambrell and Phil Foglio and a lot of webcomickers like that make their money from what they do on their website. That's how they earn their living. But the folks that aren't to that level of fame/popularity yet are still working away at some day job. So their income is primarily from the day job and any extra funds they get are from the webcomic.

Kind of like how Feuti and Piraro and Zakour get a regular check from their synidcates, and make extra money from turning around and treating their work as a webcomic. Instead of their employer being an ad agency or design firm, it's a syndicate.

So the question I can't answer yet is: if these newspaper strip creators are having to work just like webcomic creators, and their strips appear online before anywhere else, why are we still making a distinction between them?
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