Though comics have been posted online since there was an online to post them on (the earliest known webcomic being uploaded on CompuServe in 1985), in the last decade, the landscape of the internet and digital comic hosting have changed drastically. Today, even children read webcomics on their smartphones, whether they be four-panel gags posted on Instagram and Twitter or long, lushly illustrated romance dramas on Webtoon. But how did we get here?
The most recent History of Webcomics article was written for The Comics Journal by webcartoonist Shaenon Garrity in 2011, which means that the whole past decade of developments in digital comics have gone mostly unsummarized. Since 2011, a lot has happened, in the world, in technology, and in webcomics themselves.
The 2010s in comics are marked by the rise of services that make it easier than ever for creators to fund their projects: Gumroad, Patreon, Kickstarter, Ko-fi, and other such things, and simultaneously the slow decline of independent websites as people spent more and more time on mass social networks.
In 2011, Gumroad launched, enabling people to sell downloadable PDFs of their comics easily and conveniently which allowed creators to make money independently off their own digital comics in a new way. Also in 2011, Hiveworks, a webcomics collective that offers advertising and merchandising packages for its members, launched.
But what was happening then creatively? What comics were people reading, and what would influence the next generation of webcartoonists?
In October 2011, Andrew Hussie’s Homestuck crashed Newgrounds. The impact of Homestuck in Western webcomics cannot be overstated. Ava’s Demon by Michelle Czajkowski (also a Homestuck fanartist) borrowed its single-panel-per-page format and animated interlude. Prequel Adventure by Kazerad started on the Homestuck forums, and likewise imitated Homestuck‘s format with animated sequences and single-panel pages. The creators Maya Kern (Monster Pop), Zack Morrison (Paranatural), Taylor C (Monsterkind), Bea (A Ghost Story), Taylor Robin (Never Satisfied) and many others also took direct inspiration from Homestuck in some form or another. Homestuck’s popularity inspired dozens of aspiring cartoonists to start posting their own webcomics online, leading to a boom in independently-hosted, colorful, cartoony story-driven comics launching between 2011 and 2014. Not all animated webcomics were influenced by Homestuck, of course– Emily Carroll’s short horror webcomics use creative web design and animation to build an immersive horror experience entirely outside of the Homestuck sphere of the internet. Nevertheless, Homestuck’s use of animation, music, and interactivity changed the way webcomics used the digital medium, for better or for worse.
Today, the controversy around the Hiveswap Kickstarter’s extremely delayed release and Homestuck’s sequel, Homestuck^2 making questionable narrative decisions before abruptly ceasing publication, has soured a lot of former fans on the comic. But for a few years, a young man standing in his bedroom was the weird internet subcultural icon that launched a thousand imitators in its wake.
Becca Hilburn, creator of webcomic 7-Inch Kara, pointed out that webcomics go through cycles of “BIG DEAL sites/networks, then decentralization.” If we think of webcomics publishing as cycling between these two forms, before Webtoon launched internationally in 2014, webcomics were fairly decentralized. Though Keenspace (now Comic Genesis) and other free hosting services and comics portals still existed, the majority of popular webcomics were being hosted independently, with some creators aiming to join some sort of network that would offer them greater support on the business side, such as Hiveworks.
How did people know what webcomics to read, if they were all on different separate sites? Word of mouth. Many webcomic creators had a sidebar or page where they linked to their friends’ comics or comics they read themselves. Some creators had forums or subreddits dedicated to discussing their comic, where people could also share recommendations for other things people might enjoy. Occasionally, a webcomic would go viral and break out of the tiny webcomic fan sphere, like Emily Carroll’s short horror webcomic His Face All Red in 2010 (later published in print in the collection Through the Woods). But such instances were rare.
Being a webcomics reader before around 2015 was kind of like being an anime fan before the 2010s. There was a list of Classic Webcomics Everyone Read (or at least Knew Of), and then everything else. The exact contents of the list varied depending on your specific interests — gaming webcomics like Awkward Zombie, furry comics like Bittersweet Candy Bowl, fantasy like Gunnerkrigg Court, slice of life like Octopus Pie — but the idea of a definitive list of Comics Worth Reading was prevalent. You might ask your Friend Who Reads Webcomics, “hey, what webcomics do you think I should read?” and your friend would send you their list, or their spreadsheet, or whatever else they used to keep track of the dozen or so comics they kept up with.
Webcomics creators with their own independently-hosted comics would often have a page on their site with a list of links to other webcomics they liked or comics their friends made, which readers could then use as recommendations for other comics to follow. Some webcomics still have such lists on their websites today. RSS feed aggregators like Google Reader made it easier to keep up with dozens of comics updating on different days of the week (until it shut down in 2013). Enterprising webcomics fans created aggregators including Comic Rocket and Piperka specifically for tracking, indexing and sharing webcomics, some of which still work today.
Hiveworks was so effective when it was founded because it formalized what was already there: a network of comics and creators who linked back to each other, promoted each others’ work, did guest art for each other and advertised on each other’s sites. And since Hiveworks is curated, it ensures that new additions to the collective fit the established tone and quality standard. Hiveworks was far from the first webcomics collective or network to exist, but it is perhaps the most enduring today.
Having an independent website with its own domain was seen as more legitimate and professional than posting to Smack Jeeves or Comic Genesis, and creators often advised aspiring cartoonists to do so if they could afford it. Independent websites also allowed for creators to support themselves through advertising.
Some creators use the website Top Web Comics (TWC) to get eyes on their independent website. TWC allows fans to vote for their favorite webcomics once a day, and the most popular webcomics are higher on the list. Creators can upload “incentives” like exclusive drawings to encourage more votes, and promote their comic on the TWC site either by joining the list of comics for free or paying a dollar a day for banner advertising. TWC claims to bring “hundreds to thousands of unique visitors” to the top comics on their ranking list.
Monetization has evolved significantly since the decade began. Before Patreon, webcomics were forced to rely on merchandise sales and advertising to make a profit. Cartoonist Jeffrey Rowland founded Topatoco in 2004 to sell t-shirts and other merchandise for webcomics to fans around the world. Today, Topatoco also sells merchandise for musicians and podcasts, and helps creators fulfill Kickstarter backer rewards with Make That Thing! To make money off advertising, webcomics creator Ryan North (Dinosaur Comics) created Project Wonderful in 2006, an advertising service that sold ads based on time rather than clicks in an “infinite auction,” and was used by many webcomics sites. As blockers for banner advertising became more and more popular, creators needed to find alternatives. When Patreon launched in 2013, it allowed creatives to offer exclusive content with a paid subscription model. Suddenly thousands of cartoonists could get paid on a monthly, biweekly, or even per-comic basis to keep doing what they were already doing. Patreon revolutionized the ability of independent artists to make an income from their work. While today there are alternative services like Ko-fi Gold, when Patreon launched, it was one of a kind.
Also in 2013: Strip Search. Penny Arcade, the Ur example of the “two gamers on a couch” subgenre of webcomics, had grown into a wildly successful media empire, including a charity for children called Child’s Play and the PAX series of conventions (PAX stands for Penny Arcade Xpo). In 2013, the Penny Arcade empire expanded into reality television, producing a webshow in which twelve aspiring webcomic artists compete for a cash prize and the chance to work in the Penny Arcade offices in Seattle for a year. Strip Search only ran for one season, but the winner, Katie Rice, went on to make Camp Weedonwantcha to great success, even making an animated pilot based on it.
While in the early 2000s being able to draw was considered a bonus, but not a requirement, for a webcartoonist, by the 2010s webcomics were used by art students and aspiring cartoonists and animators as valuable portfolio pieces and potential entry points into the comics and animation industries. The award-winning graphic novel Nimona by Noelle Stevenson started life as a webcomic in 2013 when the creator was still a college student before being published in print by Harpercollins. Check Please!, a webcomic by Ngozi Ukazu which started out on Tumblr in 2013, was picked up by First Second to be published traditionally in two volumes and completed four wildly successful Kickstarters for self-published printed editions. Award-winning anime and manga One Punch Man was a webcomic by Japanese cartoonist ONE before being adapted into other media. More recently, original webtoon Lore Olympus is getting an animated series by the Jim Henson Company, while Webtoon partners with Crunchyroll to create new animated content based on webtoons like Tower of God and The God of High School. The webcomic Marry Me is being turned into a film starring Jennifer Lopez next year, apparently! Anything can happen.
Speaking of webtoons, in South Korea, webcomics were evolving along a very different route— vertically. The internet comics that took off in South Korea in the early 2000s were long, full color affairs that required readers to scroll down instead of clicking from one book-shaped page to the next. As the smartphone revolution continued, more and more readers demanded comics that could be easily read on the small screen of a phone. Webtoons filled that need, with their large panels and long scrolling format (occasionally enhanced by music or limited animation) that quickly spread overseas. LINE Webtoon, a subsidiary of Naver, launched its international mobile app in 2014. Today, Webtoon has over fifteen million daily readers worldwide. For comparison, when Homestuck was at its most popular, it averaged around a million page views per day.
Many webtoons from Webtoon and rival company Daum Communications (whose comics partner is better known in the west as Tapas) have been adapted into live action television dramas, from fluffy romcom Love Alarm to urban fantasy Mystic Pop-up Bar to apocalyptic horror Sweet Home, which are all available to international audiences on Netflix. The quality of these adaptations varies, like with all adaptations, but the buzz around new K-dramas does help introduce new readers to the comics they’re based on. Unfortunately, not all these webtoons are granted official translations and international releases, like the aforementioned Love Alarm which cannot be found online in English at all.
Webtoon features original webtoons paid for and promoted by the company (known as Webtoon Originals). There’s also the Canvas feature, which allows anyone to post their own comics at will. Webtoon’s unprecedented success inspired Tapas and Smack Jeeves to redesign their sites to imitate the appearance of Webtoon’s interface, at the expense of the features that made those sites unique to begin with. Smack Jeeves’ redesign also came with bugs and errors affecting searching, logging in, and links to comics, finally culminating in the site’s permanent shutdown on December 31, 2020. (Reddit users were able to archive about 34,700 comics out of 36,100 on Smack Jeeves.)
Webtoon has also been aggressively courting new talent, hosting regular “Short Story Contests” with cash prizes up to $15,000 and the chance to see their comic animated as the rewards. The most recent of these contests received thousands of entries. Creators today are being influenced by a myriad of inspirations, from anime to K-dramas to other webtoons, and creating comics that could never have been made just a few years earlier.
Tapas (then known as Comic Panda) launched in 2012 as a webcomics syndicate founded by South Korean entrepreneur Chang Kim. Tapas offers its creators less customizability for greater convenience, billing itself as “the YouTube of comics.” In 2014, it partnered with Daum Communications, which runs a webtoon portal of its own, to publish the English translations of Daum Webtoon’s most popular comics on Tapas. By 2015, there were over 5,000 comics being published on Tapas, with various plans of monetization available for their creators. Today, there are over 88,000 stories (both prose and comics) being published on Tapas. In May 2021 Kakao Corp, the parent company of Daum, bought Tapas, and in August 2021 Daum Webtoon rebranded to Kakao Webtoon.
Creators are concerned that as Tapas seems to be pivoting closer to Webtoon’s model of operation, all of these webcomics portals are going to look the same, with less room for new and more experimental creators to get noticed. Unlike most Western webcomics, webtoons are often made by large teams of people or studios to keep up the output their audience expects of them. It’s not uncommon to see nearly ten people credited on a single update. Some creators start out writing and drawing their whole comic on their own, but have to hire freelance colorists, inkers or other types of assistance later. Webtoon requires its Original creators to put out 40-50 panels per week, which is the equivalent of 6-8 traditional pages every week, while most per-page webcomics post one or two new pages every week.
Those Original creators are paid by Webtoon to produce this much content, but for Canvas creators posting comics in their spare time, it can be hard to compete with what readers have grown to expect from a webtoon comic. . And to meet these goals and deadlines, creators have developed cartooning shortcuts unique to the vertical-scroll format and digital medium. 3D-rendered backgrounds are common, as well as copy and pasting a panel to create a sense of pause. Creators also use scrolling to control the pacing of their comic, adding extra white space between panels to lengthen the time between them. However, for artists hoping to print their comics eventually, reformatting a vertically scrolling comic for print will take hours of extra labor that page-format webcomics had already accounted for.
In the other direction, some print-focused comics publishers are beginning to realize the potential of webtoons to reach wide audiences. On August 17, 2021, print comics giant DC comics announced a partnership with Webtoon to bring standalone comics featuring its stable of superheroes to the platform. Not much is known about this partnership yet, but fans are both curious about the new direction and cautious about what DC’s involvement might mean for Webtoon’s existing creator base. There is a fan perception of Webtoon as a scrappy independent startup that’s at odds with Webtoon’s actual status as a huge, multimillion-dollar corporation focused on maximizing profits for their parent company. Popular webtoons reach more readers than books sold to comic shops several times over (over a million subscribers compared to less than 300,000 units sold.) The first comic from this partnership, Batman: Wayne Family Adventures starring Batman and his adopted children, gained more than 500,000 subscribers in its first week and rave reviews from both existing Batman fans unfamiliar with webtoon and existing Webtoon fans unfamiliar with the DC universe.
The recognition and public perception of webcomics within the comics industry has changed significantly over the past few years. The Eisner Awards went from having a category for “Best Digital Comic” in 2005, to “Best Digital/Webcomic” in 2014, to having both “Best Digital Comic” and “Best Webcomic” as separate categories starting in 2017. However, the distinction between the two categories is unclear. What’s the difference between “material originally published digitally” and “material originally published as a webcomic” if a webcomic is a comic published digitally? But this separation implies that a “webcomic” has something that makes it different from a comic simply published digitally, something known only to the Eisner jury.
In 2018, Project Wonderful shut down, after a twelve-year run. As adblockers became more and more common, banner advertising became less profitable across the Internet. This meant independent hosting became less viable, and creators were spurred to move to centralized networks that promoted their comics in other ways, including social media. Last year, a replacement for Project Wonderful called Comic Ad Network started up, but it’s been slow to gain traction because of the aforementioned decreasing effectiveness of banner advertising.
That’s one of the reasons why many Western creators began mirroring their webcomics on Webtoon in addition to posting on their own site, besides the massive audience. Tracy J. Butler, who started posting Lackadaisy in 2006, launched a Webtoon version of the comic, reformatted to be more mobile-friendly, in 2016. The Webtoon edition of Lackadaisy now has over 127,000 subscribers, and Butler is working with Iron Circus to create an animated short film based on the comic.
The structure of Webtoons and Tapas eliminates the reader’s previous need for word-of-mouth recommendations. The recommendations and advertisements are not personalized to what you, a specific reader with specific tastes, might enjoy based on what you’re already reading — they advertise what they believe will appeal to the greatest audience. So instead of creators cultivating a small audience of dedicated fans supporting them directly (the “1000 true fans” concept), a featured creator on a big portal might have more subscribers, but not necessarily more fans who promote the comic to their friends and spend money on more content from the creator.
Word-of-mouth recommendations and personal networking are essential for niche creators trying to cultivate a loyal audience. Such recommendations happen out of a genuine love for the work rather than an algorithm deciding who to promote the comic at. Meanwhile, the large amounts of readers a creator might get on a comics portal don’t directly translate to increased financial support for the creator.
But what about webcomics on social media? Tumblr used to be a popular host for webcomics, with people creating custom blog themes designed to support a webcomic format. Though Tumblr has less users and webcomics readers today than it once had, some comics such as Dame Daffodil still host their pages on Tumblr due to its familiar interface and tagging system. Today, Instagram comics, four panel comics that tell a simple joke or make a profound commentary on society in 1-10 square-cropped images, are booming, with over 500,000 posts tagged #instacomic on the platform. More and more cartoonists are turning to the algorithm-powered, picture-driven platform as a vehicle for narrative storytelling. Breena Bard tells a sci-fi space adventure inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic in Mayday76, while Lois Dolores posts a short conversation between a small horse and a dog every Sunday. These comics don’t have the massive followings of some webtoons, but manage to reach an audience all the same. In a completely different direction, Alex Norris’s simple gag strip Webcomic Name is posted on multiple social media platforms with every update, allowing them to reach different audiences in different spaces and creating a wide reach for their comic. More recently, Spike Trotman is posting her new comic Blikada to the platform Pillowfort.
Today, it’s clear more people are reading webcomics than ever before, and more people are making webcomics than ever before. I’ve met people who say things like “I don’t really read comics, but I like webtoons,” or, “I like those funny cartoons on Instagram.” But of the people I know who have been reading webcomics for a while, or read other forms of comics such as graphic novels, serial print comics, or manga, not many also read webtoons or comics intended to be enjoyed in a mobile format. Some dislike the length of webtoon updates and the amount of scrolling required with each weekly episode, others just distrust external hosting sites in general.
I ran a poll on Twitter while gathering information for this article in which I asked people if they read webtoons, other forms of comics, or both, and of the 200 responses I received, approximately 14% read Webtoons exclusively, while 27% read comics that aren’t Webtoons exclusively, which are fairly significant proportions. Though my poll is obviously biased towards the kinds of people who follow me on Twitter and are probably more interested in webcomics and webtoons than the average nerd, I think it’s interesting that while the majority of respondents do read both webtoons and other forms of comics, it’s still just barely over half of the responses to my survey.
PEOPLE WHO READ COMICS I HAVE A QUESTION
do you read Webtoons (here meaning mobile-format comics not just things posted on webtoon), manga/graphic novels/floppies/webcomics/other, or both
pls RT after answering!
— Masha! (@mashazart) March 14, 2020
While Webtoon’s audience allows creators to reach more people than ever before, there are concerns about longevity and conversion to print media for comics optimized for the digital format. It’s difficult to convert comics from scroll format to print if it’s not planned for from the start, and if the vertical scrolling sites shut down, where are those comics going to go? As Smack Jeeves’s 2020 shutdown shows, comics-hosting platforms don’t last forever. If a comic can only exist at the mercy of an external host, what’ll happen when that host decides it’s not profitable for them anymore?
So where will webcomics go from here? Will Webtoon and Tapas collapse eventually, or will independent page-format webcomics end up changing their format for broader appeal? Will banner advertising and merch come back (okay, banner ads probably won’t) or will the direct subscription model for supporting creators last for a while? Will the world collapse entirely before any more major shifts in the medium can occur? All of that remains to be seen.