Webcomics, as a medium, are pretty young. The first online comic (according to T. Campbell) was Hans Bjordahl’s Where the Buffalo Roam in 1991, and there are webcomics still running today that have been around for most of webcomic history. The medium is 26 years old – about the average age for Millenials.
That isn’t a coincidence, either. The popularity of webcomics ties into millenial identity, such as it is. It’s not just 20-somethings writing them, or reading them. However, just like crowd-funding, social media, and cheery nihilism, it’s all part of the package.
So what makes webcomics so important? And what accounts for their sudden explosion in popularity over the last ten years?
1. We Don’t Trust Corporations Anymore
Ten years ago, the stock market crashed, and Millenials – largely children and teenagers at the time – learned a valuable lesson. Corporations, banks, and the government were not family members. They have their own interests at heart.
The stock market crash isn’t the only thing affecting this particular Millenial outlook, of course. Between Occupy Wall Street, Green Day’s American Idiot album, and the revelations of both Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the world of the 2000s is a lot more cynical than the previous century.
What’s the relevance to webcomics? It means it doesn’t matter what the brand is on the comic book – Marvel, DC, Image or Dark Horse. McDonald’s has already noted a distinct lack of millenial brand loyalty. Instead, independent comic authors are capturing more and more of our attention. We’re more prone to trust individual people – and as a result, webcomic personalities like David Willis make upwards of 5,000 dollars a month.
2. We Don’t Have Any Money
It’s no secret that Millenials are also known as ‘Generation Screwed‘. We have less money than our parents and fewer prospects. Most of us have resigned ourselves to never having a house, never having a car, and probably struggling under crushing student debt for the rest of our life. This is particularly noticeable in the continental US, where you find young adults using GoFundMe and YouCaring to pay such things like hospital fees, rent, and grocery bills.
With that in mind, it’s easy to understand why Millenials do things like torrent movies and music. But webcomics are an entirely different beast. Webcomics, by their very nature, are free; they’re passion projects, started on whims and put online out of a desire to share. You don’t have to pay anything to read a webcomic. Instead, because of things like Patreon and Kickstarter, those rare times when you do have an extra buck or five, you can throw it at a creator. Even better, when people with a few extra bucks help support a creator, everybody benefits.
This has a pretty direct effect on what people will make and draw, too. It’s hard to imagine comics like the fantastical, feminist fairytale Blindsprings or the cheeky, sarcastic Rock Paper Cynic being picked up by mainstream publishers, but both comics are fully funded by Patreon. Instead of the marketing logic that gets things like Teen Titans and Young Justice cancelled for appealing too much to girls, the popularity of webcomics is pretty easy to gage: if people like it, they’ll let you know.
3. We’re More Interested in Hearing People’s #OwnVoices
Recently, AfterShock Comics published a new series, Alters, introducing ‘the world’s first transgender superhero‘. The critical reaction to the series, however, was decidedly mixed. This is in pretty sharp contrast to Paul Jenkins’ pride that he worked with trans women to write the story. So what went wrong?
No one thing, really. It’s just that Alters, groundbreaking for a comic by a mainstream publisher, isn’t nearly as ambitious when compared to webcomics. KhaosKomix by Tab Kimpton started in 2006 and told the story of a trans girl in 2008. Assigned Male Comics by Sophie Labelle (who is openly transgender) has been running since 2014. Labelle has actually garnered enough attention from hate groups to have her Facebook hacked and replaced with Nazi imagery.
Quite simply, comics aren’t keeping pace with the stories being told in webcomics, especially ones written by diverse authors about their own experiences. It’s all well and good to set out to write a trans story for a comic book. In fact, it’s great! But the first step is to realize that for Millenials, half-hearted, single-faceted representation isn’t enough anymore. When queer creators have the ability and medium to make their voices heard, we can’t be satisfied with the glacial pace of mainstream representation.
Another example of this is the newest Beauty and the Beast movie. There was a lot of kerfuffle about LeFou being the ‘first gay Disney character’, and his ‘big gay moment’ which entailed about 5 seconds of him dancing with another man. Without webcomics, this might be a big deal. But when it takes 30 seconds to find in-depth stories about gay men – whether sci-fi robot/human love, or gay dads raising a kid – LeFou being gay is a lot less interesting.
Webcomics and the Digital Age
Webcomics as a medium didn’t originate as something for the ‘new generation’ – but that’s what they’ve become. As part of the growing world of online media, they’re an unavoidable part of the new digital age. That puts them right alongside podcasts, fanfiction, and Youtube videos as an evolved form of storytelling that uses the Internet to its advantage.
It’s not obvious if this is a bubble that’ll pop in the next few decades, or if these are around to stay. In the meantime – take your pick. There’s plenty to choose from.
Please leave your thoughts below!