In print comics, there’s a number of works that might be described as canon. That is, the comics that pretty much everyone agrees are worth reading and studying. Not necessarily because they’re great (though they frequently are) but they have some level of significance. Even if you haven’t actually read them, you’re probably familiar with Maus, Watchmen, Understanding Comics… These are works that are read by a large cross section of comic fans, and are regularly referenced by people writing about the medium. Indeed, in many cases, these works have more analysis written about them than there is content in the original material itself!
I don’t know that we really have that in webcomics, however. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus on which comics are “universally” known. Now, one could argue that webcomics are too new to really have a canon yet. After all, you do need some measure of distance to assess how significant a work is relative to everything else being done at the same time, as well as what sort of impact it might have.
But then again, we are a solid two-decades-plus into webcomics being a thing, with a second generation of cartoonists taking up webcomics. You’d think some of the newer crop of creators would start referring to a small group of webcomics they collectively found influential. While there are some titles noted, to be sure, I haven’t seen much of a consensus on them yet.
The other thing worth noting is that there is not really a body of critical work analyzing webcomics yet. Maki Naro recently commented that his favorite review of his current webcomic, Sufficiently Remarkable, is one from a Comics Alternative podcast this week, noting that he enjoyed the review “not because it showers the comic with praises, but because it opens it up and really pokes around its innards.” This type of critical analysis apparently has never really been done with his work before. And while that is a single anecdote, I think it is typical in that the few reviews and commentary about webcomics that come up don’t really get into any level of depth.
Which suggests that critics—real critics who understand the overall medium and present their summaries within a broader context, thus highlighting how a work fits within said medium—are largely ignoring webcomics. For whatever reason(s). While the critics themselves are not necessary to define a canon, they tend to be a strong influencing factor, by providing analysis and understanding in a concrete, digestible manner that many readers might have difficulty fully articulating. In essence, no one is out there saying, “Hey, this work is significant because…”
Do we need a canon per se in webcomics? Not necessarily, but without one, it can be more difficult to connect readers with not only the medium writ large, but other webcomics readers as they wind up staying more tightly around the webcomics they know they like with fewer people suggesting other works they might find useful or enjoyable.