In the earliest days of the comic industry, almost anyone could be a part of it. If you flip through some of those old comic stories from the 1930s, there were a lot of them that were just plain poorly done. Artists who couldn’t draw a proportional figure to save their lives, and writers whose plots were so full of holes you could drop entire planets through them. But they got jobs because it was a nascent industry, and people were scrambling to find anything resembling talent.
That settled down by the 1940s and you see some real talents emerge and become an ersatz extended family. There’s long been a story floating around that Carl Burgos, Bill Everett and almost a dozen other creators spent a weekend in Everett’s apartment slinging ideas and pages of half-completed artwork back and forth while they tried to bang out a 48-page story by Monday. Not something you’re likely to succeed at if you’re not pretty comfortable with everybody!
It was no great surprise to see creators working at different publishers because they all knew one another. By the late 1960s, it was becoming difficult to get into the business unless you happened to already know someone. And it was in that environment that we see creators who couldn’t get in starting to branch out and try other things. There were the undergound comics of the ’60s and ’70s, the independents of ’80s…
And each group formed informal small bands or collectives in the process. Robert Crumb didn’t entirely work in isolation. He knew and worked with guys like Harvey Pekar, Rick Griffin, Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Robert Williams, and S. Clay Wilson. They formed their own community of sorts, one that wasn’t really penetrable by either newcomers or established creators who tried getting in on the types of things they were doing. Wally Wood, despite his efforts, was always treated as part of “the establishment.”
Enter webcomics. In that sense, they’re simply following in a decades-long tradition of doing their own thing instead of breaking into the establishment. Some couldn’t get newspaper syndicates to buy into their strips, others couldn’t get the attention of publishers of graphic novels. Both groups of creators then turned to the web to publish their ideas and, hopefully, make a little money from them.
And here again, you see the creators, after being excluded from the “in” crowd of mainstream comics, form their own groups. Some formally, some informally. But the creators all talked and got to know each other. Several of the early adopters of collectives like Modern Tales and Keenspot remain friends to this day, years after they parted company with the original group.
The difference between the groups started around webcomics and those started around undergrounds or independents is largely that webcomics, thanks to their low overhead costs, have been more financially successful — or at least tenable — than the others. Which means that we now have multiple groups of webcomickers that are somewhat more stratified. The guys who started in the late ’90s and early 2000s tend not to mix that much with the creators who’ve only started in the past couple years. But these new guys, not needing to become part of the “in” crowd, form their own informal groups. You tend to see this played out in the comics when an artist runs a series of guest strips; typically, they pull from their group of friends who all came about more or less contemporaneously.
But what then sets webcomics further apart is that, unlike mainstream comics or undergrounds or independents, there’s always room for more!