Comics are a big part of our culture. Whether you prefer Manga, American Graphic Novels, or the funny pages, it is quite possible that you read at least one regularly. But the comics for sale in the world of dead trees have had a new rival for a while now: comics published on the internet. What this means is that instead of being sold in issues or as a part of newspapers, internet comic strips are published on their creator's website, as often or as seldom as that creator wishes (although the most popular ones do have a daily or semi-daily schedule). Mostly they are free, although there are exceptions, as discussed later.
Just as their paper counterparts, internet comics are a diverse bunch covering a vast range of subjects. But since they have evolved in a certain environment, there are features that can be compared. The pros and cons of the digital medium are slightly more than this article can chew, but there are some big differences between traditional comic media and the new - many of which will be described here.
The most obvious visual difference is that internet comics have no limitation on size or layout. Being digital, there is no need to take the cost of paper or the demands of newspaper layouts into consideration.
Referred to as the Infinite Canvas, this phenomenon means that the artists may publish their work in whatever format they please. Although squares are by far the most popular shape, they are by no means the only one available. Comics drawn as a series of circles, triangles and stars are certainly not unheard of. More common variations are simply larger panels, or asymmetric pages. The point is that the author of an internet comic is free to create whatever layout he or she prefers, as opposed to having a standard shape to fit their images into.
Jokes on this theme are of course common, and fifty-foot panels abound. But mostly this just means that each individual artist is freer to explore their own unique style.
As touched upon above, a main difference between internet comics and traditional ones is that the artist often has complete creative control in the former. Generally there is no syndicate to please and no backing money to keep coming. While this means most internet comic artists do have to work at a loss, it does mean that they can work as they please. They can draw whatever they choose, and make whatever point they want. Or just draw boots. It's up to them.
The internet, with its world-wide market, is a playground for aspiring artists who might otherwise never have had a chance to find an audience for their work. This is not because what they make is low-quality, but because frequently it does not have direct commercial potential. However, the internet is also a great place to develop whatever skills one has. Internet audiences are more forgiving than those who buy comics in a shop, and many an internet artist, now supplying beautiful work to devoted fans, started out with little or no artistic skills whatever. Since most internet comic strips provide free access to their entire archive of past strips, this can be easily verified. Almost all of the internet comics available show signs of development - even if the quality was okay to begin with.
The flipside of this is that there is a lot of substandard work out there. But, unlike comics that you have to pay for, on the internet you are largely free to browse and read what you like. This means that everyone can find something that suits them, and that most artists can find a following with which to share their work. That brings us to the next difference.
The readers of internet comics have direct access to the creators of what they read.
Think about that again. If a reader has something to say, they can usually just send an e-mail. Most artists even provide forums where their readers can talk about their work, or just get to know each other. Many comics spawn online communities, with a culture all of their own. The artists can take part in discussions with their fans and react to criticism, as well as sharing trade secrets and personal stories. Some fans get to know the creator of their favourite comic well, and get to share in the ups and downs in the lives of each other. Announcements of good fortune are likely to cause general jubilation, while admittance of tragedies big and small can cause everyone to offer sympathy and support. This level of interaction between fans, and between fans and artists, is unheard of in the traditional comic media.
Another advantage of this is that the artist can receive the opinions of his fans directly. He can see if a particular move went down well almost as soon as a comic strip hits the net, and he can share his plans and ask for criticism. No one says he or she has to listen, but the option is there, and often fans do have an impact.
There is of course one main drawback to this form of publishing: money. Since most of these comics are free, money is made through the sale of merchandise, advertising, or from donations from fans. Very seldom can an artist make a living from this, although there are exceptions (see below).
Along with its sister sites, Modern Tales operates a business model which offers readers the option to subscribe to 25-30 comics for a monthly charge (usually not much). While many claim that this violates the whole 'point' of internet comics, the fact remains that the site provides artists with a relatively steady income and reasonable working conditions - along with offering readers a selection of the best the internet has to offer, since these comics must uphold a certain standard. Another attempt at solving the money problem is to offer comics for free, but on such a scale that significant advertising and sponsorship deals are attracted to the fold. Keenspot is one such phenomenon. The Keenspot community is a collection of the most popular comics on the internet. The comics here are still free, but since more comics means more readers, they are more lucrative for advertisers. Individual artists also offer such merchandise as T-shirts and books (see below), but the main thing is the comics themselves. The case remains that since very few internet comic artists make much money from their work, it is largely a labour of love.
Funnily enough, a company exists that turns internet comics into printed books. Plan 9 is an internet publishing company that caters for fans of online comics by publishing their favourites in book format. The irony involved in this is too much for the author of this article to tease out, but nevertheless it proves that it is possible to make money from publishing something that is also offered for free. The books often contain additional material, such as extra stories, bonus drawings and the like, and a great amount of work is put into them. The results are usually good, so this certainly appears to be a positive development.
Here are a couple of strictly subjective recommendations. However, there are enough comics out there to choose from, so don't limit yourself - go and find some that you like.
College Roomies From Hell!!! - This comic has gathered a rather large following and is the ultimate in the bizarre. It follows the misadventures of six college students and has, as stated in the newbie introduction, a tendency to grow on you - like evil mould. Featuring such elements as freaky super-powers, resident devil-worshippers, possessed appliances and more weirdness than you can shake a rocket-launcher at, the main attraction is that you never know where it will end.
Clan of the Cats - A classic adventure comic, this follows the life of Chelsea Chattan, who one day discovers that she is not only a werepanther, a witch and very, very cursed, but that she is apparently also the subject of a prophesy. Top notch art and a knack for mixing the supernatural with everyday themes are the main reason for this recommendation, since it features both epic hero tales, and stories dealing with Chelsea's family and life away from magic. A strong cast of characters is an added bonus.
Sluggy Freelance - This is a true gem of oddness - more a phenomenon in its own right than a simply a web comic. A testament to its popularity is that this one actually manages to pay the bills for its creator. Featuring a switchblade-wielding mini-lop bunny, assorted demons, a mad inventor with a penchant for exploding giant robots and resident ghost named Beth, it is really a treat to watch the long, involved, and totally incomprehensible storylines unfold before your very eyes.
Bruno the Bandit - Think Robin Hood with cell phones. And without Robin Hood. This is the most topical of the ones shown here, occasionally centring entire storylines on the issue of the day. On the other hand, the brilliant use of anachronisms, and the great art and dialogue in them are themselves worth a peek, and the author is not above sending sense and sanity into merry oblivion. Be warned though, puns galore. To be avoided by anyone with cracked ribs.
Graphic Smash - If you don't mind paying for your pleasure, try this Modern Tales sister site, which focuses on action and adventure. There are many gems here, including Digger, a chronicle of the adventures of a talking wombat. Or should that be pickaxe-wielding smart-alecky wombat? Anyway, the price is something like three dollars a month, and you get thirty-something comics, with anything from Westerns to space adventure, and from serious to really, really goofy.