The red challenge flag: when is a webcomic not a webcomic?

So what are webcomics? Well, the pat response (and one of my favorite lines from an old webcomic that has since disappeared from the net) is typically that “webcomics are comics … on the web!”

Except when they’re not.

Like the battle between Americans, Canadians, and the rest of the world over what or what not should be called “football,” the term “webcomics” has outgrown the original simple definition implied by the nature of it’s compound noun. So what’s a webcomic? It’s not as simple as it sounds. Webcomic readers have accepted that captioned photos and Venn Diagrams written on index cards can now be counted as webcomics. I Can Has Cheeseburger, on the other hand, is not. Where is the justice in the world?

Here are a few comic examples that often get thrown the red challenge flag for penalties against being a webcomic.


1.) Anything produced by well-established print publishers

Comics by Marvel or DC and the highly visited online version of Dilbert is often excluded from discussion about webcomics. But are they not comics … on the web?!?!?! Yes, but to the minds of many pundits, webcomics are the successor of the indie comics scene, and anything back by a company or a syndicate or Time Warner or Disney is totally not living up to that indie spirit, dude. (Never mind that Disney, which owns Marvel, also owns Miramax, one of the most prominent indie film studios.)

For example, here’s a quote by Fleen’s Gary Tyrrell, who, as of 2007, did not consider Zuda to be webcomics:

“…Zuda has been specifically pitched as webcomics, and that’s a place with a decade-long history of not doing work-for-hire. Those making their livings from webcomics do it on their own, not by partnering with a corporation and giving away the rights to their creation (exception: Penny Arcade, who managed to do exactly that twice, and bought themselves a five-year legal struggle; you won’t be that lucky).”

Perhaps Zuda disappearing from the world wide web makes this discussion moot. But What about Marvel’s online products? Dark Horse Comics Presents? Image Comic’s Shadowline webcomics? They’re still online.

Also, there’s a certain feel to published comics (which are then put online) that’s just different from “webcomics.” It’s a little difficult to quantify. It’s like print comics evolved in one direction that relies on a large collaborative effort with writers, pencillers, inkers and colorists, while webcomics went for a simpler, more individual flavor. As much as we like to say that webcomics offer all sorts of options you don’t see in print, you grow to adopt expectations about the pacing, the humor, and the artistic style. Lauren Davis’ commented on this difference with regards to some of the past Eisner nominees:

“You and I had a bit of a falling out last year, Eisners. You came out last year, all fat and happy, nominating short stories like Body World, The Lady’s Murder, and Speak No Evil: Melancholy of a Space Mexican. The comic that took home the grand prize was a few pages of Carla Speed McNeil’s long-running print comic, Finder. Now it’s not that the stories weren’t good. A few of the noms were kind of lightweights, but Body World was pretty brilliant and the bits of Finder were fascinating. But they aren’t exactly what I’d call webcomics.”

The Webcomic Overlook position: Ruling on the field is inconclusive. Therefore, ruling on the field stands.

I’ve never been averse to reviewing old Zuda Comics (like High Moon and Bayou) and the occasional Marvel comic (like the online exclusive Amazing Spider-Man issue).

However, it will be a cold day in hell before I review Dilbert. And I like Dilbert. I guess it comes down to where a work originated — was it first online, or first in print?

2.) iPod/iPad apps

Few people realize that there’s a difference between the web and the internet. Wired Magazine seems to know this. Their September 2010 issue had the very scary (and somewhat misleading) “The Web Is Dead” line emblazoned on a pictureless cover to prey on that very misconception. However, their follow-up tagline found in the article itself was less dire: “Long Live the Internet.” The article claims that web usage — which is, the stuff we see on browsers like IE, Firefox, and Safari — has dropped by percented over the peak year of 2005. On the other hand, internet users are gravitating toward streaming videos (YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix), peer-to-peer applications (Facebook and Twitter), and, yes, iPod/iPad apps.

Among those apps are the heavily publicized ones for reading comics. Most of these apps are available through Comixology. There are apps for Marvel and DC fronts, apps for smaller publishers (like Boom), and apps for individual series, like the one for the zombie comic The Walking Dead. Very little, if any, is originally unprinted content. One of the big exceptions: Ulysses Seen, which author Robert Berry had told me was always meant for the iPhone/iPod/iPad environment. But, hey, it’s also available online, so nyah.

Pundits like Robot 6 and Valerie D’Orazio have been increasingly using an alternative term: digital comics. But… doesn’t being on the web mean that webcomics are also digital comics? Shouldn’t it be a subset, not separate categories?

The Webcomic Overlook position: After review, it was found that iPod/iPad comics are not webcomics.

By definition, comics released exclusively on the iPod/iPad hardly qualifies as being on the web. Also, for the most part, you have to pay for them … which violates one of the unspoken rules that webcomics have to be free.

Wendy Pini's Masque of the Red Death

3.) Motion comics

In iFanboy‘s 250th “Pick of the Week” podcast (a two-part all reader e-mail affair), the guys were asked about their thoughts on webcomics and motion comics. They replied that they didn’t really follow either, and that’s why they didn’t cover them on their how. They also gave webcomics some mad props, saying that were the way of the future. Motion comics, however, were just a fad that was dying out.

Having experienced the Spider-Woman motion comic (supposedly one of the better ones out there), I tend to agree.

It’s weird, because for a while there was a lot of speculation that motion comics were the way of the future. Now, Scott McCloud didn’t endorse motion comics specifically. However, he did imply that motion was one of those things that can separate webcomics from their print kin in Reconstructing Comics. A few pundits seem to agree, implying that unless snazzy new things were incorporated into webcomics, they would always stand in the shadows of the far superior print comic monolith.

“Motion comics, baby! Way of the future! They’re boffo, Jerry, boffo! Webcomics are too static for today’s ADD-addled kids! No one wants to read anymore. The future is YouTube, YouTube, YouTube! Get on the motion comic gravy train before it leaves the station and gets on all the mashed potatoes!”

I think there are basically two kinds of motion comics, the ones that let you control the pace, and the ones that are basically bad cartoons with terrible voiceovers and animation. The latter seems to have been embraced by long time comic lifers.

The first type, though, lets you control the comic at your own pace and retains some parts you have to read. Plus, no bad voice-overs. You can’t believe how much of an asset that is.

The Webcomic Overlook position: Ruling on the field stands.

It boils down to simple things, like whether there’s a “Click Forward” button and speech bubbles. Under that unscientific guideline, I’d consider Nawlz (reviewed here), Wendy Pini’s Masque of the Red Death (reviewed here), and AMC’s The Prisoner: Online Graphic Novel (reviewed here) to be webcomics.

MS Paint Adventures

4.) Whatever MS Paint Adventures is

So… it’s on the web, so no one’s debating the “web” portion of “webcomic.” But is it a comic? There are no speech bubbles (Problem Sleuth‘s characters didn’t talk, and Homestuck‘s characters communication via chatlog), there’s music, and it often had long sequences that are fully animated. For the most part, though, I don’t think it violates Scott McCloud’s definition of “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” While the pictures aren’t juxtaposed in the traditional sense, they are but one mouse click away. It’s like virtual juxtaposition.

So really, what’s the dealie-o?

The Webcomic Overlook position: Ruling on the field stands. Naysayers are charged with their first time out.

Yup, it’s a webcomic. The whole crudely drawn image with dialogue printed on the bottom is, in essence, what you see in the New Yorker. The animated sequences are so infrequent that it would be sort of a mistake to call MS Paint Adventures a webtoon. At worst, Andrew Hussie’s crazy creation can be considered a bizarre webcomic/webtoon hybrid, with heavy tendencies toward the former.


About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 20, 2010, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. i can’t resist:

    [malquote]I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“webcomics”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the comic involved in this case is not that.[/malquote]

    it’s gotta be more of a cultural division than a technical one, doesn’t it? there are surely always going to be edge cases. Axe Cop is a webcomic despite getting exclusive Dark Horse content. what about Bodyworld, which appeared in it’s entirety online before publication, but was always intended to be a published whole work? likewise, Jesse Moynihan’s Forming doesn’t “feel” like a “webcomic” to me even though it’s so far exclusively online and may never see publication. but on the other hand, Riceboy seems like a webcomic in that the “online thing” is the main thing. it was self-published with print on demand.

    i can’t see much consistency in my own opinions, so i’m probably just some sort of jerk and YMMV.

  2. I’m pretty sure a blurry photo of a man standing in front of a blackboard looking smug doesn’t constitute a “webcomic”.

  3. Hmmm… yeah I dunno. I guess I tend to think of webcomics as free comics… on the web… generally not allied to a big corporation? iiidk though because I def thought Bayou was a webcomic.

  4. My own rule of thumb w/r/t what constitutes a webcomic and what constitutes a comic that is just online is that the word webcomic in my mind carries connotations of community involvement: this is not to say that a creator must be involved in the webcomics ‘community’ but must have made some effort to cultivate a community around their particular work. Whether that’s through blog posts or direct email conversations or twitter or whatever else, you see the creator’s hand in the web presence beyond drawing the artwork itself. And this (as far as I am concerned) is true of webcomics where the creators are more aloof than most, like Achewood or Jerkcity, and in comics that started as print works or were created by artists transitioning to webcomics from the print world, like Girl Genius, Axe Cop or Abominable Charles Christopher.

    I guess the real-world analogy might be that the experience you have when you’re reading a webcomic is getting a comic from the creator’s booth at a convention: they’re sitting right there at the table. Reading comics that are just comics on the web are the more impersonal experience of reading the comics page in the newspaper, or buying from the comic shop. You don’t engage with the creator.

  5. Pierre Lebeaupin

    I have a bit of a comment on the first point. There are typically two steps of comics publication, for instance US comics are published first in monthly issues, then in trade paperbacks; newspaper comics in the, well, newspapers, then collected; bandes dessinnées in a weekly publication, then in albums; and manga in a weekly publication, then collections. So I think that even with “publisher” backing, a comic on the web is a webcomic if it isn’t also in a monthly issue or a newspaper (or weekly), because publication on the web is equivalent to the first step of publication. That leaves an ambiguity if the comic is published on both, like PvP back when had a monthly Image issue, or Diesel Sweeties during its experiment with syndication. In that case, I think it’s a webcomic if its main exposure is on the web, not the other side (this is an idea I first saw exposed by Howard Tayler). So PvP and Diesel Sweeties have always been webcomics, while Dilbert is not. For this, basing ourselves only on the origin is unconclusive, for instance there are comics that started on the web but ended up being syndicated.

    One point you didn’t bring up (but touched a bit last week), but is essential for historical purposes, is the following: does the comic need to be on the web, or does it just need to be on the Internet but possibly on another Internet application (typically Usenet, at that time), or can it be any online service (e.g. Compuserve)? I think being on the web is an essential part, as it allows the comic image to be inline in the page, an aspect which is in my mind characteristic of a webcomic. You mileage may vary.

    • Good point on the Usenet/Compuserve ones. I get confused with that myself. So is it a webcomic if it was posted on a newsgroup? Technically, that’s not the web. (And I think that’s why the Argon Zark! creators can claim that they were the first true webcomic.)

  6. Formula:

    Internet based + free – (DC * Marvel) + (community involvement * and lame excuses by the creators about not updating as much as they would like)^El Santo = turkey sub webcomics

  7. 1. If it’s a comic, and it’s on the web, it’s a webcomic.

    2. IPad apps are not part of the web. They are also evil.

    3. A hamburger is not a cow.

    4. Meh.

  8. With all the researching on webcomics for my show, I’d say a webcomic was a comic for the web. Being “on” the web is simply the by-product of being for it.

    Hmm. I’ll probably do a video on it one day.

    The Archive Trawler

  9. I think the best definition of webcomics would have to be one appropriated from Damon Knight attempting to define science fiction.

    A webcomic is what we point to when we say it.

  10. Oh, and one more thing (dear to my heart since I write iPhone applications).

    If there weren’t already enough reasons for it, a comic on the iPhone/iPad but not on the web cannot be a webcomic because Apple gatekeeps, reviews, and approves them (or not); remember the Ulysses Seen situation where some parts had to be censored, IIRC (Apple has made it pretty clear recently that they do not censor books or songs, so you can write raunchy stuff if it is an ebook; no such alternative is available (yet?) for comics). If there is anything that is characteristic of a webcomic, it’s the complete lack of censorship.

    • Unrestrained freedom of content and access can be considered a basic element? or is it optional?
      A Comic posted on the internet seems simple enough as a general definition,but then it gets tricky if we want to be more specific with the details.
      Perhaps categories would help.

  11. Oh dear. And now a new edge case has just been dumped on our laps: . It has the merit, at least, to be based on web technologies, as opposed to Flash (Zuda, MySpace Dark Horse presents and Comixology, I’m looking at you).

  12. At what point will we get over calling them webcomics, and just calling them comics?

    • NNNEVVVAAAARRRR!!!! I mean, I’d have to change my web address and title banner and all. 🙂

      But … look at it this way. No one’s stopping anyone from calling them comics. In the same way, no one’s stopping “indie comics” from being called comics, either. It’s just a handy title. And, like I pointed out in this blog post, the term itself has taken on a connotation similar to the “indie comics” definition.

  13. You know, I have to say I’ve never found this complicated. And thinking about it now, even the parts I thought were complicated really aren’t.

    A webcomic is a comic that is published on the internet before it is published anywhere else. In case there’s a tie, and it’s published in print and on the web at the same time, preference goes to whichever media the comic started in. So Dilbert’s not a webcomic unless it stops being published in a newspaper, and PVP’s always a webcomic unless it stops publishing on the web.

    It seems to me that there’s a lot of no true Scotsman-esque arguments happening, where somehow a comic on the web ceases to be a webcomic because it likes tea, so to speak. Yes, there may be certain expectations about how a webcomic should be paced, or how the creator should act, etc. but the same is true of, say, newspaper comic strips. It’s hard for me to imagine that an avant garde comic published in a newspaper would stop being called a newspaper strip just because, say, it used a vertical panel alignment.

  14. Good stuff! There’s something about a comic coming from a web origin without corporate publishing’s fingerprint on it that seems more natural. In print, I can’t help but feel that the story serves the need of the publisher. On the web, I am far more charitable – probably because a given comic on the web is truer in heart and not as edited down for mass customer appeal.

    There’s something clearly different in the pacing and progression when you create a webcomic as opposed to when you create a comic for print. The beats become standardized to fit the page count, or at least that’s how it strikes me.

    Yet another interesting post. Keep up the good work.

  15. I’d agree with some other posters.

    I’ve always thought “webcomic” implied a comic designed for — and primarily distributed over — the web.

    There are many “webcomics” out there that are little more than samplings of and/or advertisements for a print comic. Technically, I guess they’re also webcomics, but I wouldn’t lump those in with comics designed for web reading.

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