Many webcomics tend to fall into one of two categories: serialized drama or gag-a-day. That certainly doesn’t account for everything, of course (educational/instructional comics, for example) but as with print comics, most people think of comics generally in relation to comic books and comic strips. People think of Action Comics, Uncanny X-Men, and the like when they think of comic books. If they’re a little more savvy, they might have a broader range of titles and consider books like Baby Mouse or A Contract with God as well. But regardless of genre, they’re still primarily thinking in terms of a dramatic narrative. And when they think of comic strips, the ones that pop into people’s heads are ones like Peanuts, Garfield, and Beetle Bailey.
Comic books can, of course, be something other than a dramatic narrative. Look at Nick Sousanis’ Unflattening or Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics. But the comics market has, for the past several decades, primarily been driven by the serial nature of ongoing adventures, whether the protagonists are wearing Spandex and capes, or trenchcoats and fedoras. Similarly, comic strips don’t have to rely on gags and punchlines. Newspapers used to be filled with the adventures of Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, and Prince Valiant. And while those types of strips are still published, they are by far in the minority.
So it’s no surprise that people associate the medium of comics with those two formats, as that’s what they’re most familiar with.
What’s striking, though, is how often webcomics not only fall into those two formats as well, but how they continue to lift the dimensional trappings of them as well. Long-form, dramatic webcomics are often scaled as if they were to be printed in a typically sized comic book, and gag-a-day webcomics are laid out much the same way newspaper strips are. While this would convey to readers a sense of what to expect, I don’t think most creators are thinking of that when they opt to work in a given format; they’re more likely just replicating what they’ve seen done elsewhere.
Some creators have expressly noted that their intent is to print a book version of their webcomic at some point, and want to mimic the format of other comics. But that convention is also an instance where they’re not necessarily putting thought into how best to express their ideas.
Not every creator does this, of course. In fact, some of the most popular webcomics use unusual formats. Dinosaur Comics, for example, utilizes something roughly twice the height of typical comic strip, and strips like xkcd and The Oatmeal switch their format with almost every installment. They have books of their comics whose dimensions don’t conform to what you’re seeing at the bookstore, and they still sell.
But these guys are exceptions (in several respects, frankly, but we’re talking mainly about how they format their comics for now). Seeing a webcomic formatted at either the same ratio as a comic book or a comic strip is generally a dead-giveaway about the creators’ future plans. And while that may work for many, possibly most, creators, it’s not necessarily the best approach; it’s just the one that everyone they’ve seen is using.