In the not-too-distant past, telling someone you were interested in webcomics was met with awkward stares and changes of subject. (Trust me.) Web-exclusive comics have existed just about as long as the internet itself but, commensurate with the web’s early demographic, the early comics’ subject matter typically dealt in science-fiction, computers, and video games. Sluggy Freelance, Player Vs. Player, and the still-ubiquitous Penny Arcade were among the most popular. At that point, the internet commerce model was still too shaky to support any revenue generation.
Over the past few years, however, a small group of webcomic artists experimenting with diverse subject matter and stylish writing with a genuine interest for advancement of the medium have emerged as the new vanguards of the form. Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, Nicholas Gurewitch of The Perry Bible Fellowship, Dorothy Gambrell of Cat and Girl, and Joey Comeau of A Softer World are some artists making their living from their relatively esoteric art.
These four artists are, in their own ways, paving the way for both artistic and commercial models on the internet. The success of their highly personalized, small-scale models seems to simultaneously laugh in the face of more bloated startups and paves the way for a new form of artistic distribution and commercial viability. By taking financial and artistic risks and just generally doing weird stuff, they’re in no small way changing what it means to be a cartoonist and a so-called “starving artist.” That might sound like exaggeration, but try not to be impressed at someone who can make their living creating a comic that regularly references things like “temporal presentism.”
Ryan North’s comic, Dinosaur Comics, is almost perfectly self-explanatory: it’s a comic about dinosaurs. DC’s most remarkable quality, however, is that North has used the same six-panel art every day in its four-plus years of existence; the dialogue is the only thing that changes. North, a twenty-six year old Toronto resident with a graduate degree in computational linguistics, freely admits that he can’t draw, opting instead for the relatively crude clipart that’s become a backdrop for jokes pertaining to everything from linguistic descriptivism to kissing. He maintains, though, that his choice of static art isn’t as restrictive as it might seem. “A month in I was going to change it,” he says, “but couldn't find new art that I liked. Keeping the same pictures every day isn't actually as restricting as I thought it was: Yeah, the pictures tell a story, but you can alter that almost as much as you want by simply adding narration that reads ‘THREE YEARS LATER:’ or ‘MEANWHILE, IN TUDOR ENGLAND:’.”
North does an impressive job keeping these comics fresh, offering only brief spats of continuity, but throughout the strip characters have (sort of) begun to emerge: the curious, romantic, exuberant T-Rex; the video game-obsessed devil; the raccoons and cephalopods that live next door to T-Rex, inviting him to “bleed with them;” and a personal favorite, Morris, the invisibly tiny bug on the tip of T-Rex’s nose. Other characters that recur, always out of frame, include God, William Shakespeare, and a mortarboard-wearing Diplodocus named “Professor Science.”
While the sheer variety of subject matter and formal creativity of Dinosaur Comics might speak for itself, the comic’s large, rabid fanbase espouses the comic’s quality every chance they get. North seems to take much of the appreciation in stride, regularly displaying a downright classy amount of appreciation for his fans, but he points out that certain aspects of his notoriety have more of an effect on him than others. “The most surreal is the tattoos,” he says. “A few people have gotten DC tattoos and that always freaks me out. In a good way, but still! It's my characters on their skin, for as long as they live. I always warn them and say, ‘what if tomorrow I reveal that T-Rex is actually a CRAZY RACIST? You'll be stuck!’” He adds, “It's trust, I guess, and it seems to me like a huge amount of trust to get a tattoo of T-Rex. I try not to let them down and T-Rex hasn't been a crazy racist yet.”
Primarily because of its “esoteric” nature, North is quick to admit that “Dinosaur Comics couldn’t have gotten its start in print.” He adds that, being online, Dinosaur Comics isn’t pushing anyone else from the finite space of a comics page. “It makes it so that I can do something as obscure and narrow as I can imagine,” he says, “and odds are I'll come across someone else who has the same interests. I could have done ‘One-Legged Parachutist Comics’ focusing entirely on one-legged parachutist issues, and while I'm not saying it would have been a Grand Success, it still would have had a chance to find an audience. Not so in print!”