Have you noticed how your bigger comic publishers don’t do webcomics? You don’t see Marvel or DC doing webcomics. Some of the smaller publishers like Oni and First Second do them. Even Dark Horse, in a way, does. So why can’t you get a Batman webcomic?
Well, first, I suppose I should point out that they have tried them in the past. Marvel had a few different programs in the 1990s experimenting with the form, and DC more recently ran that Zuda “imprint” for a few years about a decade ago. (Yes, a decade ago. It launched in 2007. #Ifeelold) But what about those attempts “failed” that they haven’t tried much of anything since then? We know webcomics can work economically, so wouldn’t publishers want to capitalize on that?
I think we first need to take a look at the stories other publishers put out as webcomics. One of the first things to note is that they’re primarily one-person operations. The writing and art almost always handled by a single individual, and they often do the coloring and lettering as well. This means, of course, there are fewer people who need to be compensated for the work, making it generally cheaper to produce in the first place, compared to the traditional production model which includes a separate writer, penciler, inker, letterer, and colorist. There’s also less editorial oversight, as the bigger publishers are also frequently looking at cross-title continuity and paying closer attention to intellectual property brand consistency.
Second, many publishers who do publish webcomics are only picking up a license agreement after the creator has done a bulk of the creative work, and has proven the story has some measure of success on its own. Creators are not (generally) being hired or commissioned to create a work; they’re doing it on their own, and a publisher simply steps in to say, “Hey, this is good and we’d like to publish it.” This means publishers can cherry pick what they think is the best material, and aren’t limited to stories with characters they already own. In that sense, they’re not so much driving the creation of webcomics; rather, they’re taking advantage of the good ones already being created.
Both of these elements suggest that publishing webcomics isn’t as profitable a venture as publishing, say, Batman comics. So while a Marvel or DC might still be able to make it work financially, they likely wouldn’t be as profitable with it as publishing pamphlet comics. So they focus their energies on where they can get the most buck for the bang.
This is further emphasized by the (admittedly limited) data we have on self-sufficient webcomics. I have yet to hear of any webcomic creator making a six figure income from webcomics. That’s not to say five figures is nothing, but that can only support a handful of people at most. If you try getting everybody else in the publishing line a cut of that, it dwindles very quickly and makes for an unsustainable venture. And, ultimately, that’s why the webcomics that you do see printed by “name” publishers are comparatively small scale relative to places like Marvel and DC. While some people have been able to figure out a webcomics business model that works, it doesn’t scale up very well.