When Bill Watterson left Calvin & Hobbes, the strip he had been working so hard on for a decade, readers were shocked. In part, because they enjoyed Watterson’s work and would prefer to see it continue, but in part, because that just simply doesn’t happen. For pretty much the entire history of newspaper comics, the strip continued until the syndicate felt it wasn’t profitable any longer. Even if the creator retired or died, it was usually handed off to someone else to continue. That a creator like Watterson felt he had said everything he wanted to say creatively with the strip and just leave was virtually unheard of.
That is not the case with webcomics, however. Webcomics are old enough now that we’re getting a number of creators who are hitting or shot past a ten year mark with their creations, and more than a few have set their strips aside to work on something else. Joey Comeau and Emily Horne just ended A Softer World (launched in 2003), Danielle Corsetto finished Girls with Slingshots (launched 2004) earlier in March, Jonathan Rosenberg puts Goats (launched 1997) on hold in 2010, Christopher Baldwin completed Bruno (launched 1996) in 2007… These aren’t creators whose work was going unnoticed, or was not earning them decent amounts of money; these are creators who simply finished telling the stories they wanted to tell, and wanted to creatively move on. In the former cases, it’s still early enough that they haven’t made formal announcements about what they’re doing next, but Rosenberg and Baldwin simply went on to make completely different strips. And they’re hardly isolated examples. David Willis, John Allison, Brad Guigar, Kris Straub, Alex Heberling, Pascalle Lepas… They’ve all had successful webcomics that they simply felt they were done, and have gone on to make other webcomics.
Now, to be sure, many newspaper cartoonists have created strips after they had already started one. Winsor McCay, Lee Falk, Mort Walker, Dik Browne, and Jim Davis all immediately spring to mind. But none of them ever left their original creation because they felt they were done with it creatively. They kept those going as a steady and commercially proven revenue stream.
At a cursory glance, that would imply that webcomikers are closer to a capital-A Artist, favoring their craft over commercialism. There might be some truth to that. It’s certainly true that webcomikers are greater risk takers than newspaper cartoonists just by virtue of how they go about putting their work out for public consumption.
But I think there’s another aspect that might be less obvious. With the internet and especially social media, creators are now considerably more accessible than they were a decade or two ago. And part of what readers find attractive about webcomics is the direct connection they have with the creators; there is frequently a dialogue where there was none before. Which means that the stars of comics are not the characters, but the creators. Readers are less connected with Snoopy, Blondie and Dagwood, and Garfield than they are with Kurtz, Holkins and Krahulik, and Moen. So when a creator opts to switch gears and follow a different path, many of their current followers will simply switch gears as well.
That’s not a guarantee, of course. Many will certainly drop off, others will come along but decide they don’t like the new strip, but many will continue from one venture to the next. It’s not a cult of personality per se, but webcomic audiences are more in tune with the creators themselves than newspaper strip audiences. I don’t know that that’s necessarily an advantage, but it certainly seems like one in an age of Twitter and Facebook.