Unbound: The year in webcomics

While the rest of the world went to hell in a handbasket, webcomics did pretty well in 2009, in part because the medium provided alternatives to structures that were cracking because of the poor economy. One of the most important events of the year had nothing to do with webcomics directly but probably had a huge effect on the medium as a whole: In January, Diamond Comics Distributors raised its minimums, that is, the number of units a comic would have to sell in order for them to carry it. As Diamond has a near-monopoly on distribution to comics stores, the result is that many comics will be squeezed out of the market—and webcomics became a more attractive alternative, especially for creators who are just building a following or are marketing to a particular niche. It's hard to know how many creators turned to the web because of that—how do you measure a negative?—but James Turner’s Warlord of Io has been mentioned specifically as a comic that did not make Diamond’s minimums and wound up on comiXology’s iPhone app.

Speaking of which, one of the big trends of the year was the diversification of digital media. Publishers and creators started putting comics on the iPhone, iPod Touch and Android systems, as well as the Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s e-book reader, the Nook. And just in time for Christmas, Sony unveiled its comics store for the PSP. We’re still waiting for the Apple tablet, though, which is rumored to be the killer app for digital comics—if it even exists.

One of the first big successes was Star Trek: Countdown, produced by IDW Comics in collaboration with iVerse. Here’s IDW publisher Ted Adams saying the magic words in an interview with Heidi MacDonald for Publishers Weekly Comics Week:

"We will sell as many iTunes apps [of Countdown] as we will of as the print version," says Adams. "That's a lot of apps." The book—each issue is sold as an individual app—is regularly listed among the top 100 apps on iTunes and the first print issue of Star Trek: Countdown sold about 15,000 copies upon initial release, according to figures at the comics business site ICv2.com.

For the first half of the year, every comic on the iPhone/iPod was a single app, which led to confusion and cluttered screens. During the summer, a new operating system allowed in-app buying, so a single app could become a portal to many comics. The first publisher to jump in with this was comiXology, which had already set up a website that integrated Previews solicitations, actual previews, and links to bricks-and-mortar stores. ComiXology’s comics reader/storefront was a big hit, and iVerse and Panelfly soon brought out similar products. Many comics publishers are covering their bets by releasing content on one or more of these platforms as well as on the web and in print.

Back on the big screen, the paradigm continued to shift and evolve. The webcomic site Girlamatic, which had put some of its comics behind a pay wall, relaunched as a free webcomics site, and publisher Joey Manley has similar plans for the rest of the sites in the Modern Tales family. Octopus Pie became one of several comics to shift from regular to irregular updates, when creator Meredith Gran decided it was more efficient to update when she finished a chapter rather than three times a week.

Viz, the powerhouse of manga publishers, also went the free-webcomic route in a big way this year, starting with Rin-ne, a new series from manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi (InuYasha, Ranma 1/2). In a move that may have been designed to pre-empt scanlators, Viz put each chapter of the new series online, for free, the same day it was released in Japan. They took the chapters down once the print edition was released, but they continue to put up new chapters weekly. Later in the year, Viz launched a second website, SigIKKI, which is an anthology of manga for older readers, with the idea that the more popular series from that site will eventually make it into print as well.

Digital Manga Publishing, which despite its name is primarily a print publisher, revamped its eManga webcomics site and recently added a new feature: Harlequin manga (Japanese adaptations of American Harlequin romances). Dark Horse published some of these a few years ago, and they didn't do well, but Digital's audience is probably closer to the sweet spot for that type of comic. Tokyopop also moved its global manga program online.

Despite being spread out across the entire internet, webcomickers did some community-building this year. At the end of March, webcomics folks from all over converged on Easthampton, Massachusetts, for New England Webcomics Weekend. Bobby Timony covered it well for Robot 6, and back at my old home, Digital Strips, Jason the Midnight Cartooner did a marathon set of interviews with fellow creators. In November, Least I Could Do creators Ryan Sohmer and Lar DeSouza announced they were establishing a webcomic scholarship at the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. And when swine flu (a.k.a. H1Nerd1) struck attendees at the Penny Arcade Expo, the organizers used their blog to list the flights that confirmed sufferers had taken and keep folks up to date on the spread of the disease.

2009 was a good year for lively internet debates. In February, Valerie D’Orazio predicted that within the next two years, Big Media will buy up all the good webcomics and put them behind a pay wall. Several webcomics creators commented to her original post, basically saying “Big Media can’t afford us.” What emerged is that the top tier of webcomics creators seem to be doing very, very well, and there is a substantial group who are making all or most of their living from comics alone.

My column about the Zuda test—at the end of eight pages, do I know what the comic is about?—generated some lively conversations as well.

It was a bad year for editorial cartoonists, as economic factors led to a number of veteran cartoonists being shown the door. This got ugly in April, when webcomickers and newspaper folks got into a shouting match after Gary Brookins lost his job. And in the most recent issue of The Comics Journal (unfortunately, not available online at the moment), Ted Rall blasts the free-webcomics model, complaining that webcomics suck and they are ruining things for everyone else.

But by far the most entertaining internet flame war was the one launched single-handedly by David Rees after he learned that Jamba Juice was ripping off his comic for their ads. Just keep clicking forward to read his escalating campaign against the purveyors of faux smoothies. Of course, Rees's comic, Get Your War On, is a clip-art comic, but that just makes the whole thing even more ironic.

If anything, Rees sums up the webcomics paradigm this year, which was to take a crappy situation, turn it into profit, and leave 'em laughing. Well played, sir.

And if adversity breeds creativity, 2010 should be an excellent year. Bring it on.

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