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Comics on the Web -- and Many in Book Form

by Zack Smith

*This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of RA News.*

Online comics or webcomics represent some of the most diverse and widely read examples of the comics medium, employing a wide range formats, subject matter, and artistic styles. They are often produced by cartoonists using their own resources, supporting their work through online advertisements, merchandise sales, and (more often) day jobs.

While it's impossible to list all the best webcomics out there in a single article, here are some examples that have earned wide acclaim and fan followings. Where possible, I've mentioned where hard-copy collections are available from larger publishers for those who might want copies for a library.

Cult Comedy Enjoys Widespread Success

Creators of webcomics oriented toward adult readers have used the freedom of the internet to create a number of uniquely introspective, existential, or just plain randy humor and a number of these have been collected into hard-copy form by mainstream publishers.

One of the most popular examples is Achewood, the wry tale of a group of jive-talking animal roommates, who get involved in such absurd tales as "The Great Outdoor Fight," a massive 100-person brawl. Creator Chris Onstad had the strip on a long hiatus as he developed an Achewood cartoon, but has recently returned with sporadic updates. Several collections are available through Dark Horse Comics.

In a similar vein are such webcomics as A Softer World, Three Word Phrase, Cyanide and Happiness and Gunshow, which display absurd and often very dark humor. Of particular note is The Oatmeal by Matthew Inman, a website that often features elaborate comics with limited animation that deal intelligently and humorously with such topics as depression. A hard copy collection is available through Andrews McMeel. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh deals with similar issues, using a deliberately crude art style to depict Brosh's autobiographical musings.

"Mainstream" Creators Going Online

A number of creators associated with larger publishers such as Marvel and DC have taken to the web to produce unique comics. Major examples include Thrillbent, a collective overseen by major writer and editor Mark Waid (Kingdom Come) and MonkeyBrain, overseen by iZombie co-creator Chris Roberson

Different models are employed for producing these comics, such as creating regular "issues" available for a small payment. Some creators employ a "pay what you will" format. Brian K. Vaughan, writer and co-creator of several popular comics (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Runaways, Saga) and artist Marcos Martin (Daredevil) use this model for The Private Eye, a near-future detective story for mature readers set in a world where a massive online security breach has rendered everyone's secrets public, and privacy has become so valued that people wear masks in public.

Other creators rely on the more traditional comic strip format. Karl Kerschl, who worked on such superhero books as The Flash and Gotham Academy has earned widespread acclaim and an Eisner Award for The Abominable Charles Christopher, the story of a non-speaking Sasquatch wandering through a forest full of very talkative animals. The story is appropriate for all ages (albeit with a few darker moments) and features lushly detailed artwork depicting the forest and its inhabitants.

It's also not unusual to see creators associated with print comics serialize a graphic novel online before producing a hard-copy version. A recent example is Oyster War by Ben Towle (Midnight Sun), an all-ages fantasy tale set against the backdrop of the real-world 1800s conflict where pirates illegally harvested the oysters of the Cheseapeake. Towle received an Eisner nomination for the strip, which recently concluded its run, with plans to collect the full story in print.  Another example is the popular fantasy webcomic Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, which recently concluded its story and has a collection planned from Harper Collins. The strip is a witty tale of the fun loving sidekick to a supervillain who is not as villainous as he seems. Stevenson also produces the acclaimed all-ages comic Lumberjanes for BOOM! Studios.

Completed and Recurring Webcomics

Just because a webcomic completes its storyline doesn’t mean it leaves the web – most of the time, it means the full run of the strip is left online to create a full story to be enjoyed from beginning to end.

One example is Sin Titulo, a David Lynch-esque paranoid mystery by Cameron Stewart (Seaguy, Batgirl) that won the Eisner Award for Best Digital Series in 2010 and has been collected in hard copy by Dark Horse Comics. Popular comics writer and novelist Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitian) had a similar run with FreakAngels, a futuristic tale that was published in hard copy by Avatar Press. A more gentle completed webcomic is the fantasy Digger by Ursula Vernon, about a wombat who gets involved in a mysterious land full of mystical creatures. Vernon's work won a Hugo Award for best comic, and Vernon herself has gone on to a successful career writing and illustration such children’s books as the Dragonbreath series.

Some creators produce webcomics a few times a year in extended, self-contained stories that occasionally employ uniquely online aspects such as Flash animation. One example is the French cartoonist Gilles Roussel, who publishes comics online as "Boulet." Boulet’s comics take a thoughtful and subversive look at many fictional archetypes; one, "The Long Journey," uses an "infinite scroll" format to contemplate existence as Boulet's cartoon counterpart explores the infinite possibilities of existence.

Other Webcomics Worth Checking Out

For those who miss Calvin & Hobbes, Max Overacts has a similarly-charming look at an over-thinking child in its all-ages tale of a would-be famous actor, who applies theatrical verve to every conversation and interaction with his family and classmates.

Gronk is another charming all-ages strip, about an adorable little monster who lives with a young musician in British Columbia. Writer/artist Katie Cook also writes the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic comic for IDW.

Emily Carroll combines a variety of illustrative styles, some more simple and cartoon-like, others more detailed, for atmospheric tales of creeping horror for older readers. Some of her work was recently published in the volume Through the Woods by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Strong Female Protagonist is a subversive take on superhero stereotypes for older readers by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag. The story tells the tale of a teen superheroine who retires from superhero work to go to college, but finds changing the world, being part of "real" life and leaving her superhero past behind are things easier said than done. The comic is collected in hard-copy form by Top Shelf Comix.

How to Be Happy from Fantagraphics collects a number of comics, some originally published online, by Eleanor Davis. Davis' colorful, expressive work deal with everything from mythology to devastated futures, with a focus on the simple neuroses that make us human.

Webcomics offer a look into the diverse possibilities of comics as a medium, using a wide variety of topics and styles to express creativity. With many collections now available for libraries in addition to online archives they are a great way to bring new and lapsed fans into comics, and  show what kind of stories comics can tell. For more information on new webcomics, try such websites as www.webcomicshub.com.

PRO TIP

To find webcomics collections in NoveList -- do a simple search for the genre "webcomics."

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Zack Smith (http://www.zswriter.com) is a longtime comics scholar and journalist who has written for a number of top comic book sites and publications.  His work has been included as supplemental materials in the collection Absolute All-Star Superman and was part of journalism that received the Eisner award in 2008..