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Just as books, magazines and newspapers have ditched a paper-only form, so comic books have taken up space on the web since the 1980s. The great thing about webcomics is that anyone can publish their own, using a variety of different styles and genres that range from avant-garde to comic strips. In 2007 about 38 000 webcomics were published online, but only about three percent of webcomic creators are financially successful.
The first webcomic ever published was Eric Millikin’s Witches and Stitches in 1985. T.H.E. Fox, created by Joe Ekaitis, followed shortly thereafter in 1986. Throughout the 90s, webcomics grew in popularity and their numbers grew quickly. But, as the statistics show, few of them had a run time of longer than five years.
There are, however, some web comic creators who have defied the odds. Cartoonists like Phil and Kaja Foglio of Girl Genius have ditched print entirely to focus on web platforms and reach a larger audience. A number of webcomics such as Helen, Sweetheart of the Internet, Macanudo, Van Von Hunter and Diesel Sweeties have been syndicated and featured in daily newspapers’ comic pages. Artists such as Randall Munroe, who created xkcd in 2005, are now making a living off online advertising and things like original art sales and merchandising.
Here is a look at 11 of the most popular web comics making it big on the web today.
1. The Joy of Tech
Created by Canadians Nitrozac and Snaggy, whose real names are Liza Schmalcel and Bruce Evans, this webcomic focuses on technology-based themes, and particularly the “cult” of Apple. In 2006, the only printed version, The Best of the Joy of Tech, was published with a foreword written by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
2. Red Meat
Max Cannon’s comic has been running since 1989 and has been available on the web since 1996, making it another impressive success story for a comic creator.
Known for its unusual style where the characters have a lack of movement inside panels, Cannon has been quoted as saying that he wanted “to have a look that was somewhere between clip art and arresting minimalism, so that the text was more important than the art itself.” The main characters include a demented person called Bug-Eyed Earl, the local milkman usefully named Milkman Dan, McMoo, an anti-drug cow, and Ted Johnson, who has a creepy taste for gruesome sexual fetishes.
Megatokyo creator Fred Gallagher’s work is heavily influenced by Japanese manga. It is among the most popular webcomics out there and follows the adventures of Piro, a fan of anime and manga, and his American video game fanatic friend Largo. The comics mostly poke fun at the clichés and stereotypes of anime and video game culture and often refer to real life games in the comic.
4. Penny Arcade
Since debuting in 1998 on the on the website loonygames.com, Penny Arcade’s writer Jerry Holkins and illustrator Mike Krahulik have launched their own site which publishes new strips every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It is one of the longest-running and most popular webcomics and focuses on video gaming and video game culture. In 2010 it was listed as having 3.5 million readers.
SinFest claims to be “The webcomic to end all webcomics”. This comic strip is written and drawn by Tatsuya Ishida. It was originally drawn as black and white line art, but later, when the webcomic became independent in 2006, it started to show more colour. The comic is mostly about human nature and focuses particularly on sexuality and gender roles. It comments on popular culture, religion and occasionally indulges in political commentary.
Garfield Minus Garfield is the creation of Dan Walsh, a technology manager from Dublin, Ireland. Each strip is based on a past episode of the original comic Garfield. All the characters except Jon Arbuckle have been removed. With Garfield not around, the strip becomes “a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.”
7. Girl Genius
“Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” is the tagline for this webcomic. It “follows the career of Agatha Heterodyne, a hapless student at Transylvania Polygnostic University who discovers that she has more going for her than she thought.” The comic represents an alternate history where “where the Industrial Revolution has escalated into an all-out war” due to battles between mad scientists.
8. Homestar Runner
Homestar Runner is a flash-animated cartoon series that mixes popular culture with references to surreal humour. Even though the star of the site is Homestar Runner, another popular feature of the website is a character called Strong Bad from the Strong Bad Email series, in which the character answers emails from viewers. Once one of the most popular webcomic sites around, very little new material has appeared in recent years.
9. Cyanide & Happiness
Already a cult classic, Cyanide & Happiness started as a small series of comics by the then 16 year old Kris Wilson that were featured on Explosm.net. The title “Cyanide & Happiness” comes from a strip where one of the characters is selling cotton candy made from cyanide and happiness to which another character replies: “Happyness!?!? Hot damn! I’ll take 4.” Often described as dark, cynical and even offensive, Cyanide & Happiness attributes its success to letting the comics be hotlinked by fans on sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.
Randall Munroe’s xkcd describes itself as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” Munroe started his website by scanning some of his school notebook doodles and posting them online. He works on the comic full time now, which makes him one of the few successful webcomic artists out there.
11. Diesel Sweeties
Clango Cyclotron (an emotional robot who dated a porn-star called Maura Demeter Glee), Indie Rock Pete (who is obsessed with maintaining his indie cred), Electron Mike (who collects iPods), Pale Suzie (described as a cheerful goth chick) and a robot obsessed with killing humans called Red Robot #C-63 are just some of the names you will find in this syndicated webcomic. Diesel Sweeties imagines a world where humans not only co-exist with robots, but actually date them.