I first started reading webcomics about ten years ago. I had been enjoying Phil and Kaja Foglio’s Girl Genius in its printed form (I was actually a fan of Phil’s going back to his days working on “What’s New?” in the back of Dragon Magazine) and they dropped the printed version in late 2004 when they realized it was only breaking even and all the money they were earning from the series came the online version. So if I wanted to continue reading the story, I had to switch to the online iteration.
At the time, I felt I was a long-standing holdout to webcomics. By that point, comics like PvP and Penny Arcade were already big hits. Even though I still loved my print comics, I could see that comics as a whole were heading towards the web. My biggest issue at the time was that my favorite characters from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc. weren’t available in digital form. But since I had broken the ice with Girl Genius, I figured I might as well start checking the whole webcomics scene out.
Any of the webcomics that were basically just gag strips were easy to pick up. Just like how you can grab a newspaper and follow along with everything, even if there are a bunch of strips you’ve never seen before. There’s no real continuity or on-going story; that day’s strip has all you need to understand and appreciate it.
But webcomics that were more serial in nature, the ones that were telling long-form stories over the course of months and years… those were scary. I didn’t like the prospect of trying to dig through years of updates to sort out what was going on. But I soon struck on an interesting realization: I had already done exactly that.
When I first really got into comics, I started with John Byrne’s run on the Fantastic Four. I was gifted issue #254 and found myself hooked within half a dozen pages. I promptly went out to buy #255, and #256, and so on. But it wasn’t long before it dawned on me that there were over 250 issues that already came before that I had no clue about! I had jumped into the middle of huge story and just figured it out as I went along.
Why not do that with webcomics?
The big reason one could argue is that Byrne was a long-standing professional by the time he was working on the FF, so he knew how to tell a story well, but a webcomicker might not be so talented and figuring out the story from the reader’s perspective might be more difficult without going all the way back to the beginning.
Which is a fair arguement to make. But the flip side to that is that if you, as a reader jumping into the middle of a webcomic, can’t parse what’s going on after a month or two of updates, maybe the creator—and thus, the comic—isn’t very good. There are literally thousands of webcomics out there, and you can use the creator’s long-form storytelling abilities as a gauge to keep your reading list from getting too overwhelming. (Which is easy to do—trust me! I stopped counting when my dedicated webcomics feed reader went north of 300 titles!)
Now there may be any number of other reasons why you might want to keep following a webcomic where you can’t completely follow the broader story, but if you’re trying to determine whether it’s worth starting to follow it, go ahead and dive in! If it turns out you can’t follow along, then you can drop it without having invested anything more than a little of your time. You’ve probably already spent more testing out different pamphlet comics; why not give some webcomics a chance as well?