In 1950 an aspiring cartoonist who drew a comic strip for his local paper wanted to get wider distribution for his work. So he took it to a syndication service. An editor at the syndicate liked the strip but didn't care for the name, so he changed it. To Peanuts. Charles Schulz always hated that name. In 1987 he told an interviewer, "It's totally ridiculous, has no meaning, is simply confusing and has no dignity--and I think my humor has dignity." Schulz's name for his comic strip was Li'l Folks, which admittedly isn't that much more dignified. But the point is, if Schulz started out today he wouldn't have bothered with a syndicate. He would have taken his strip straight to the Web, and we would be watching Li'l Folks specials every year at Christmas.
There's no better textbook example of the Web reinvigorating an old-school medium than the humble comic strip. (Um, besides porn, that is.) Comic strips in newspapers are dying. They're starved for space, crushed down to a fraction of their original size. They're choked creatively by ironfisted syndicates and the 1950s-era family values that newspapers impose. But on the Web there are no space restrictions. Need I add that the same goes for family values? Now that DIY ad serving is cheap and easy, cartoonists can go into business for themselves online, and syndicates and newspapers both be damned. In the promiscuous, radioactive, no-barriers ecology of the Web, the humble comic strip is flourishing.
Webcomics have been around since the late 1990s, and today there are thousands of them. The diversity of artistic styles is astonishing: anime, clip art, crude scribbles, beautiful finished drawings and everything in between. The Web also frees comics from the iron cage of the traditional strip format. "Being online, there's no reason our strip has to be three panels right next to each other," says Mike Krahulik, half of the team that produces the webcomic Penny Arcade. "It often is. But there's nothing keeping us from making full-page comic-book-style layouts. There's nothing stopping us from doing whatever we want." Webcomics aren't shackled to the grinding schedule of the daily paper either; Penny Arcade publishes three times a week. And Penny Arcade is always in color. On the Web, every day can be Sunday.
Krahulik, 29, didn't set out to be a Web cartoonist. In 1998 he and his collaborator, Jerry Holkins, created Penny Arcade to enter a contest run by a video-game magazine. They lost. "Eventually we sent them so many that they told us to stop," says Holkins, 31. "So then we basically just started publishing them online. Typically the route is to go to a syndicate and negotiate for visiting rights to your work. We knew there was no way that was ever going to happen with Penny Arcade." Now their strip, which stars two young men who are obsessed with video games, has 4 million readers a month. Penny Arcade has a staff of eight. Holkins and Krahulik run an annual convention, Penny Arcade Expo, which is expected to draw 20,000 people this summer, and a charity called Child's Play that donates video games to children's hospitals. Last year they raised more than $1 million.
The writing in webcomics is different too--it's bizarre and wildly inventive in a way that's reminiscent of early print pioneers like Krazy Cat and Little Nemo in Slumberland. One of the most ambitiously literary--though still bracingly, crudely hilarious--comics on the Web is called Achewood. It's about a loose community of creatures--cats, a bear, a squirrel, a baby otter, a few robots--who are variously wealthy, clinically depressed, psychotic and gay. It swings, sometimes disconcertingly, from funny to sad and back. In one story arc a wealthy pleasure-loving cat named Ray dies and goes to hell, where he's forced to drive a 1982 Subaru Brat and gets drunk with legendary bluesman Robert Johnson at a Best Western. This kind of thing never happens to Garfield. The characterization in Achewood is so thorough it's almost novelistic, to the point where it breaks the frame--the strip's creator, Chris Onstad, maintains blogs in the voices of his characters. Achewood's depressed cat, whose name is Roast Beef, even publishes his own 'zine, titled Man Why You Even Got to Do a Thing.
At a certain point newspapers just aren't worth the hassle. When Scott Kurtz wanted to be a cartoonist, he figured he would sell his work to a syndicate like everybody else. When he got started in the mid-1990s there was no such thing as a webcomic. But Kurtz, 36, put his work up online anyway, just to get it in front of people's eyes. "There was no plan, there was no goal, and there was no belief that it was real," Kurtz says. "I stumbled onto it." His strip was about office life at a magazine, and he called it PvP (short for Player vs. Player). By 2000 he was getting a million page views a month and could quit his day job doing Web design for a radio station. Now PvP has more than 150,000 readers a day, and Kurtz sells PvP merchandise and produces a regular animated version of the strip.
Still, the "real" funny pages do have their appeal. Just as a few bloggers are drawn to the old-media respectability of print, some Web cartoonists are succumbing to the siren song of syndication. In January a popular webcomic, Diesel Sweeties (which features robots and hipsters making hyperironic pop-culture references), was picked up by United Features--the same company that renamed Peanuts more than 50 years ago. "I don't know why you'd want to rush to get to that cemetery," says Krahulik. "I guess everybody wants their dad to like them, right? They feel like they need that approval. I think we represent the exact opposite of that."