Jeff Smith first began drawing figures that would eventually become Bone characters when he was five years old. By the time he was nine, he was drawing the characters into his own hand-made comics. When he got to college, he developed them further in his Thorn comic strip which was published in the school newspaper. He finally published the first pamphlet issue of Bone in 1991. He collected those first issues in his first two trade paperbacks in 1995, shortly after portions began to be serialized in Disney Adventures magazine. Smith then essentially had a collected edition of Bone stories come out every year through 2004, at which time Scholastic published a one-volume edition of the entire Bone saga. They then published a color edition of all the original paperbacks every six months through 2009. In 2011, in conjunction with the first issue’s 20th anniversary, Scholastic released a new one-volume edition in full color.
If you look at Smith’s work with Bone, you can see a progression, not only of his art and storytelling ability, but also his audience. Those earliest drawings were probably seen by no more than a handful of people. The Thorn comic strips were collected, but had a print run of only 1,000. I seem to recall his initial print run of Bone #1 was only a couple thousand, but that steadily increased as word got out about the book. Obviously, by the time he was seeing his work published by Disney and Scholastic, his readership was in the hundreds of thousands.
What I’m leading up to with all that is that Smith just didn’t suddenly “appear” on the comics scene. He built up his audience slowly, and odds are many people came to know his work gradually. Maybe they caught reference to it in another comics’ letters page. Maybe they saw a review in Hero Illustrated or Wizard. Maybe they saw it plugged in Diamond Previews. Over time, people’s recognition morphed from “Bone? Yeah, that sounds kinda familiar,” to universities asking him to give commencement addresses.
Smith’s notoriety grew in that way in part because there were very few outlets to discuss comics. If you wanted news about what was going on in the industry, you only had three or four options beyond anything that came directly from the publishers themselves. So nearly all of comics fandom shared the same information, and everybody’s awareness of Smith and Bone came about, not quite simultaneously, but certainly in tandem.
With the internet, however, we no longer have a small number of outlets for comics information. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of news sites, blogs, fan pages, etc. all talking about different aspects of comics. Which means that, while a webcomics’ reach is potentially much farther than traditional print comics, it’s also more challenging to gain widespread name recognition throughout the industry. Fans are able to filter their information circles so that they essentially travel in echo chambers, where everyone always talks about the same things. Which means that as one creator’s circle of fans is slowly growing, another circle might not hear anything about it.
Consequently, with these echo chambers in place, it’s possible for a webcomic creator to develop a significant and devoted following and still fly under the radar of more “mainstream” comics news outlets. And if one of those fans happens to be an editor or a publisher, it’s entirely possible that the first thing you might hear about a creator is when they’ve got a new book being published with a sizeable marketing campaign behind it.
While there have always been comic creators who seemed to spring from nowhere, it’s increasingly common for webcomic creators to take this “surprise” popularity route. Just as we no longer have only three television stations which allow nearly everyone to collectively share the same shows, we no longer have a small handful of outlets trying to act as comics tastemakers. There are so many looking at so many different webcomics, it’s not difficult to find webcomickers who’ve got years of strips behind them already, with a devoted audience, and see them picked up and suddenly given center stage and a spotlight.