Almost since webcomics began, there’s been a sense that they’re set apart from “mainstream” comics. Which is hardly surprising, given that the people doing webcomics cater to a very different crowd than those who hit a comic book shop regularly to pick up the latest adventures of Batman or Wolverine. Webcomics have always been a way to tell more personal stories that might not appeal to as wide of an audience. They have more in common with the independent or alternative comics scene in that sense. But it dawned on me recently that there’s actually a fair divide between webcartoonists and the indie comics crowd as well.

There’s no great animosity that I’ve been able to detect between the two groups, mind you; there’s just a lot less overlap than one might expect. Especially when you consider that the typical business model for webcomics is to give the comic away online for free to generate interest to sell print copies. The difference isn’t so much in the content, but in the marketing tactics. The goal of both camps is to tell their own stories the way they want to tell them, and to connect with a like-minded audience. One could argue that the differences between webcomics and indie comics is as neglible as the type of brush they use or the printer they go to.

So how is it that making comics in their own voice and putting them online appreciably different than Robert Crumb selling his books out of a baby carriage on Haight Street?

I heard Gary Panter and Robert Crumb discuss some of their techniques a couple years ago at the University of Chicago. Panter was talking about how he used to have to argue with his printers because he was deliberately trying to mis-register the colors to achieve an intentionally cheap-looking comic. Crumb was flabergasted because he spent so much time arguing with his printers to avoid precisely that look.

See, I noticed at CAKE this weekend that the people who had webcomics and were selling print versions of their work by and large had their books together in pretty straightforward packages. They looked not unlike anything you’d see on the shelves in a bookstore. There folks who were not starting with webcomics, by contrast, tended to spend more time hand-crafting their books. Silk-screened covers, hand-trimmed cut-outs, neon ink colors that simply don’t translate online… There was one woman whose books were individually hand-stitched together with a unique cut-paper cover for each one. Another had book shaped like a slice of pizza and unfolded in an origami-like fashion to reveal each page was actually a perfect circle. Their comics were not just personal stories, but personal artifacts.

Like Panter and Crumb before them, these creators wanted each individual book to have as much significance as the narrative it contained. Whether or not they were successful is obviously up for debate on a case-by-case basis, but that isn’t so much a concern for webcomikers. They’re putting together their personal stories and, while the format is considered and often used to great effect, the notion of each individual copy of the work as a unique artifact that is itself an attempt to connect with the audience doesn’t hold very much resonnance.

That’s not to say, of course, that one approach is better than the other. They’re simply different means to different ends. But because of that different path the creators are taking, there’s surprisingly little overlap in the webcomics and indie comics crowds despite sometimes having much the same type of personal content. Which means that, whether your a fan of indie comics or webcomics already, there’s likely a whole other set of material out there that you haven’t really tapped into yet!