From time to time, you’ll see dredged up the discussion about whether the term “webcomics” is useful and/or necessary. That if you talk to casual readers of The Oatmeal or xkcd or some other comic with a really broad audience, you’ll find they won’t call the webcomics at all. “Comics” or simply “content” are more likely. So is “webcomics” worth keeping around? Should we push to drop the word in favor of something more people actually use?
If you think about it, too, “webcomics” encompasses a whole hell of a lot. Some webcomics are short, funny gags with no continuity; some are long, serialized fantasy adventures; some are instructional how-to guides; some even defy genre classification! It can seem a little odd to lump Diesel Sweeties in with Star Power or Cooking Comically.
But take a look at the comics page in your local newspaper. You’ve got strips like Blondie next to Slylock Fox next to Apartment 3-G next to Zippy. And those are all from the same syndicate! They’re all called “comic strips.”
Or how about the new comics rack at your local comic book shop? Comic books that are going on sale this week include: Detective Comics #46, My Little Pony Friends Forever #22, Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Coven #4, and Niobe: She Is Life #1. Pretty diverse line-up there. And while they all are produced by different publishers, they’re still all being sent out by the same distributor. They’re all called “comic books.”
We can keep doing this. Neon Genesis Evangelion, A Bride’s Tale, Lone Wolf & Cub, and Gin Tama all fall under the classification of “manga.” A Contract with God, Understanding Comics, The Cartoon History of the United States, and Smile are all “graphic novels.” Their subjects range and styles range across the board, and yet we consider them all in the same broad category.
The classifications we assign to comics here has nothing to do with their content. We identify these different types of comics by their delivery mechanism. Comic strips are published in newspapers, comic books are serial pamphlets, graphic novels are put on the same trucks as prose novels and self-help books, manga are sold first in Japan before they’re dropped into the pipeline in the States. And webcomics are served up in your web browser.
There are exceptions in every category, of course, and these days the lines can blur as a single comic can—and often is—repackaged in multiple formats. (Newspaper strips also show up online and then are collected into trade paperback form, for example.) But we still use specific titles based on the primary (by intention) delivery system. And by “we”, I mean those of us who are heavily invested in the industry. Casual readers will just call them “comics” regardless of how/when/where they show up in front of them. They never made the distinction before the web was invented; they’re not going to start making one now.