I was chatting with a comics fan the other day about webcomics. He’s freely admitted to me in the past that webcomics aren’t necessarily his area of expertise within the broader medium of comics, but he’s also been actively working to change that over the past year or two. He mentioned in passing something about FreakAngels by Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield, and how it was one of the earlier webcomics. He hadn’t read it yet and wasn’t sure exactly when it came out, but I think it was probably one of the first ones that really popped up on his radar.
In some respects, that’s not surprising. Ellis is, of course, a very popular comic creator, so when he launched FreakAngels, it made news on comics sites that typically only cover works by Marvel or DC. So if someone wasn’t particularly paying attention to webcomics, that might well have been their first real exposure to them.
Except FreakAngels started in 2008.
By 2008, webcomics like Sluggy Freelance, Piled Higher and Deeper, and PvP had been running for at least a decade. Robert Khoo had turned Penny Arcade, itself a decade old by then, into a profitable and growing business by 2003. Girl Genius, which started as a print comic in 2001, had given up on that model and made a successful transition to a webcomic by 2005.
Now, keep in mind that all those comics I just listed? Those are the bigger, successful ones that you might know about. They’re only the earliest big successes that have continued to this day, but there were years of webcomics before them and years of what you might call proto-webcomics before them! Kind of like Blondie or Alley Oop in newspapers; they both debuted in the 1930s and are some of the oldest strips still running, but there were decades of comic strips before them.
Admittedly, we’re still only talking about an industry that, in its entirety, is still younger than the decades of newspaper strips before Blondie was first published. In that sense, I suppose one could argue that FreakAngels was an early webcomic. But at the same time, we’re talking about an industry that’s less than 25 years old, so there’s twice as much time between webcomics’ origins and FreakAngels‘ debut than between that same debut and now. Additionally, a number of futurists have argued (convincingly, in my opinion) that technological, and consequently cultural, changes are happening an increasing rate. So the changes that are going on in webcomics occur at a much faster clip than changes that happened in the nascent newspaper strip industry. In the past 20 years, we’ve made more advancements in webcomics than any earlier 20 year period of newspaper comics.
My point here is that almost regardless of when you started hearing about webcomics, much less reading about them, there’s almost certainly a deeper history of them that goes back much further than you’re probably aware. When Ellis and Duffield started FreakAngels, they really weren’t doing anything revolutionary in the medium, other than bringing it to the attention of a lot of people who didn’t know anything about them before.