Web vs. Digital: The Different Forms of Online Comics

As the internet has become more and more thoroughly integrated into our everyday lives, it is only natural that the media we consume has followed suit. Webcomics (the digital extension of the newspaper comic strip) and digital comics (electronic reprints of stories published in traditional paper form) have risen from niche content to a mainstream juggernaut of an industry with alleged readership counts well into the millions. The vast majority of webcomics are—or started out as—fan-created passion projects, independent of any traditional corporate publishing establishment. At first glance, many of these may seem very similar to (and, indeed, might be confused with) “digital comics.” However, they differ in that the latter are digital uploads of already published issues while the former are wholly original creations. Consequently, the creators of each are compensated differently.

While the first webcomics began popping up in the mid 1980s, the medium exploded in popularity starting in the mid-to-late 1990s. Numerous long-running series got their start around this time, many of which are still going strong over twenty years later. This webcomic boom was largely fueled by the explosion in personal computer sales as well as the increased availability and accessibility of internet modems for home use. Another factor contributing to the proliferation of webcomics during this era was the growth and gradual coalescence of “gamer culture.” Many of these webcomics—such as PvP, written and illustrated by Scott Kurtz, and Penny Arcade, created by collaborative duo Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik—got their start lampooning contemporary trends and events in video games and the gaming industry. These kinds of comics—many structured similarly to newspaper comic strips and focusing more on gags than story—found an eager audience among young people, most of whom identified with some form of nerd culture. Writers and artists earn revenue primarily from advertising on their sites, and more recently from setting up accounts on Patreon, where fans can contribute directly to their favorite creators.

The main functional difference between digital comics and webcomics is a matter of origin and publication. Digital comics are usually reprints or simultaneous releases of material that has been published in physical or “floppy” form. The other main difference between creator-owned webcomics and digital comics is the number of people involved in their creation. In webcomics, the creator or creator-artist duo has the final say in what material goes to print. In the case of digital comics, however, the book goes through an entire team consisting of writer, artists, letterers, and multiple editors and rounds of edits before it finally goes to print. Once the consumer purchases a physical copy of the book, the profits from the sale are split among all these contributors in addition to the parent publishing company. There are drawbacks and benefits to both systems—the former affords more creative freedom to the content producer, and the latter ensures, on average, a higher-quality product for the consumer—but the most relevant implication of these differences in approach is the way in which creators receive compensation for their work. Whereas the webcomic creators get a fairly high percentage of the revenue generated by their work (up to 95 percent through Patreon), the profit margin on digital comics is quite slim. Though these comics often retail for the same price as their physical counterparts (with newer issues on Comixology, the largest distributor of digital comics, usually priced around $3.99), their actual creators receive an even smaller portion of the sales due to the need to share the revenue with the distribution site. In the case of Comixology, this means Amazon, which reportedly takes around 30 percent of the earnings from each issue sold.

While both webcomics and digital comics have their detractors and supporters, it’s safe to say that, with the continuing rise of the internet and ereading devices, both of these forms are here to stay.

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