Webcomics as a Geek Market

Jason Wray has a post up about why webcomics won’t break into other media and find broader audiences, for the most part. (Link via Journalista.)

Some of his points are apparent enough, like the fact that there are just a whole lot of webcomics. More relevant here, though, is Jason’s proclamation that web comics are for too narrow a niche to really take off:

The thing is, most comics on the web are targeted to the obvious audience: nerds. And I mean that in the nicest way. You see, the people who are reading most webcomics are above average in their web-savvy, are more likely to play video games, and are (well, sometimes) highly intelligent. This is why you’ll see writers like Jerry Holkins (Penny Arcade) and Jeph Jacques (Questionable Content) using massive, obtuse words that people don’t actually use in conversation. […]

To be fair, this is how they want it. These comics are FOR nerds and geeks. Because they’re made BY nerds and geeks. It’s a way to strike back, and say, “this is OURS.” Geekdom is, for a large part, a collection of obscure movie/tv show/comic references. That’s how geeks categorize themselves and separate their cliques from the outside world. So the fact of the matter is, these comics often follow this pattern, and therefore: nobody gets it.

I do think Jason is on to something here with regard to the overwhelmingly geeky content of webcomics; it makes sense that people would come to the web to find niche-market content that would be unfeasible to produce and distribute in the brick-and-mortar world. Plus, I’m presenting a paper next week at MIT on geeky t-shirts, and I’ve long been fascinated to notice that so many of the popular geeky shirts at cons come from webcomics’ stores as opposed to dedicated geek merchandise producers. I suppose it’s possible that (arguably) geeky content somewhat overwhelms non-geeky content in just about any online media format (including encyclopedias, as we’ve discussed here recently), though this phenomenon may be especially pronounced among webcomics just because audiences assume comics are pretty geeky to begin with.

On the other hand, we may be using a pretty narrow definition of “webcomics” here. Even if we’re talking about comics that are distributed on the web before or instead of distribution in other media, we may be leaving out comics that don’t really belong to the “webcomics community.” The now-dormant Buttercup Festival, for example—one of my favorite comics of all time—had strips appearing online days before appearing in our school paper. It had a substantial online and offline readership, sold t-shirts and books both through the site and in the campus center, and inspired at least one or two tattoos.

That tattoo was linked to in a forum post about “webcomics in tattoos”, but I sometimes find it hard to think of Buttercup Festival as a webcomic. It never really got into the whole link exchange thing; it didn’t have a regular “news post,” even as such proto-blogs seemed essential in the early webcomics community; it wasn’t drawn or colored on a computer; it didn’t share characters with other webcomics artists. It was just a pleasantly weird strip that did its own thing before its creator went on to start writing poetry, a children’s book, and a novel. It may have been a bit too pleasantly weird for modern family newspapers, but it did get syndicated in various college newspapers, it did spin off into a single mini-comic for fun, and it could have gone further in the print world if the artist were so inclined.

So, I have to wonder: when we ask whether webcomics are too geeky to branch out, are we answering our own question by defining webcomics by an existing community and common genres, and not defining by the form itself?

5 thoughts on “Webcomics as a Geek Market

  1. Hey! I totally just found your blog from a link on Journalista… hows it going? I was wondering who the hell was talking about Buttercup Festival so lovingly and bam, it’s you! Haha.

    I just started doing research for an ongoing mini-comic series I’m going to start producing this summer. So far, so good. I’m going to dramatically change up my style and work much more cartoony and focus on horror genre work instead of autobio… I’m gonna try to put together a blog soon to document some of it.

  2. Hey, thanks for the link/write-up!

    You’ve raised an interesting point, one I completely missed. I may have employed my favourite logical fallacy, and begged the question on that one.

    “Only geeks read webcomics.”
    “Webcomics are just for geeks.”
    “Only geeks read webcomics.”


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