When I was a kid and still in Cub Scouts, I picked up the occasional copy of Boys’ Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts. I eventually aged out of Cub Scouts but never joined the Boy Scouts; it just wasn’t really for me. I don’t know how I came into the smattering of Boys’ Life issues that I did, but I didn’t get much out of them. Except for the small comics section they had! Most of which were one-off gag strips, but from 1981 until 1986, they ran an adaptation of John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy with art by Frank Bolle. I recall enjoying what I read—I was just discovering science fiction—but the spotty nature of my collection meant that I had a very incomplete story, notably missing nearly all of the final third.
I was reminded of the story again recently and looked to see if it had been collected anywhere. Turns out that it’s never seen print outside of those individual issues. (I assume because of a rights issue.) But one technologically savvy fan scanned the entire series and posted everything online. (I won’t link to it, since it’s technically illegal, but I’m sure you can find it if you’re really interested.)
So here’s my question: if I read those scans online, having not read them all before in print, does that make it a webcomic?
I think the “obvious” answer is no. After all, these are comics that were created and published years before the web was even a thing. They were written and drawn expressly for a print medium.
But so are a lot of other webcomics. That’s one of their business models, in fact: creators produce a comic and distribute it initially online for free but it’s designed to be collected in book form so they can sell it at conventions and make some money from it. Some webcomics, like Girl Genius and Atomic Robo, indeed started as print books exclusively before later moving online. No one seems to question that Girl Genius is a webcomic, but there were thirteen individual pamphlet issues before it went fully digital. They’re comics that were designed for print, but happen to show up online first.
Getting back to the Tripods, then, does their intention for print mean it’s not a webcomic? Clearly not. What about the fact that it was first distributed in print? If the answer to that is yes, then doesn’t that mean that newspaper comics are actually webcomics? After all, they generally show up online at midnight while the newspapers that carry them are still on the printing presses, meaning they are distributed digitally first.
Or is the definition of webcomics, which is essentially what we’re talking about here, more malleable? Is it a case, like the cliche of pornography, where you know it when you see it? I don’t know that I have an answer right now, but it’s an interesting angle to consider.