January 12th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Has the Webcomics Fad Jumped the Shark?

It seems like every day, somebody sends me a link to yet another webcomic. 99% of the banner ads on webcomic sites are for yet more new webcomics. They're proliferating at an incredible rate. There are now more daily-updated webcomics than there used to be webcomics, and more irregularly updated webcomics than there used to be web pages. I just checked, and I have 42 of them bookmarked myself. That's how many tabs open every day when I middle-click the Comics tab on my bookmarks toolbar.

So it has occurred to me to wonder if this isn't the peak of a fad? Back when only a handful of people were doing it, it was easy to feel special. If you managed to crank out a daily webcomic, you could count on finding an audience. You could count on daily ego-boo. Now, it's almost as common as blogging. It seems to me that that means that a lot of people who are doing it now, who are telling stories that would have captured attention a year ago, are going to have a hard time finding an audience. And unlike daily blogging, producing a daily webcomic is hard work, at least for most cartoonists. How many of them will keep doing it if the pool of ego-boo keeps getting drawn down to lower and lower levels? Some, absolutely. But I'm thinking maybe half to a third as many as are doing it now. If so, then one could argue that Clint Hollingsworth and Aeire, to name two people who used to be seriously famous for their daily or near-daily webcomics, got out when the getting was good, at the top of the game.

I'm wondering if I have an inkling as to what might be the next big thing for creative people on the web? What got me thinking about this was that I've become rather fond of an approximately-bimonthly updated web page called Tiki Bar TV. Roughly every two weeks, Johnny Johnny, Dr. Tiki, and Lala star in a short video, around three minutes, about a guy who's turned his apartment into a free tiki bar. What made me think to compare it to the webcomics is that there are passing similarities between the way the three characters relate to each other and the early storylines involving Torg, Riff, and Zoe in Sluggy Freelance, which is one of the grand-daddies of the webcomics fad.

So you've got sites like JibJab proving that anybody who's a halfway decent filker not only can you take news photos and clip art, and crank out hysterically funny animated short features in Flash, you can actually get world-famous for it. The soft-porn world colonized Flash animation ages ago; I'm actually kind of surprised that more people aren't using it for storytelling. And scattered among all the one-shot machinma, there are sites like Red vs Blue cranking out 30 some episodes a year of a series. And what was one of Apple's big announcements this week at MacWorld Expo, but an even simpler, and much cheaper piece of software for editing videos, iMovie HD 6, part of the $79 iLife package -- just the thing for filling up those hot-selling video iPods, perfect for running on the new twice-as-fast Intel Macintoshes. And now that 20 million Americans and 36 million non-Americans have broadband Internet access at home, it doesn't have to take any longer to view a 60 second weekly "web cartoon" than it used to take to read Kevin and Kell.

I've got a very good friend who owns more costumes than your average regional repertoire theater, 20 or 30 actors and want-to-be actors who are willing to work for free or cheap in her phone list, a life that's sneaking up on being as "interesting" (and potential story-filling) as mine, post-graduate level knowledge of fairy tales, and substantial experience writing and directing theater. I can't shake the suspicion that we need to raise money to buy this girl a newer Mac, a digital camcorder, and some off-site storage so she can adequately empty and light one room of the condo she's in as a soundstage. Because if anybody I know could keep people on the edge of their seats for a monthly or twice-monthly short video fix, it's her. And it'd make an excellent ongoing promo for her theater troupe, too. But whether or not she drops her vague plan to create a web comic and jumps into Internet semi-pro video, I suspect that some time in the next year or two all the Cool Kids will be doing it.