Portraits / Visual Media

Zach Weinersmith and the Evolution of the Webcomic Species

Zach Weinersmith is the creator, author and owner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (or SMBC), one of the web’s ten most popular online comics. His career path illustrates the evolutions cartooning has undergone as a genre and as a professional activity thanks to the web. 

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Internet has radically changed the way we produce and apprehend art. This can be seen with the increased production of webcomics, self-edited online comics that artists post directly on the internet for their fans to read. With his 14 years experience as an online-based artist, Zach Weinersmith has been a prime witness of the evolution of web creation. This freelance cartoonist started in the 90’s by posting small comics on his website to amuse his friends. More than a decade later, SMBC’s quarter of a million daily visitors now provides him with a solid readership base.

 

Conquering the Internet … One Panel at a Time

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Calvin and Hobbes (© Bill Watterson)

Comics are naturally adapted to the Internet, says Zac: “they’re little sets of images that can be read quickly and are easy to share.” Indeed, when print newspapers were the standard, one to three panel comics -like Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes- were traditionnally published as daily features. They led the way for a new generation of web cartoonists and their webcomics. With very limited audiences and small or complex dissemination means, it however took a few decades for the new web format to set popularity records. Eric Millikin’s Witches and Stitches (1985), the first ever-published webcomic for instance, had to be accessed through the online service provider CompuServe, and readers had to suscribe to mailing lists to get the comic’s updates. This however helped Millikin avoid censorship and publish on the Internet what was actually a forbidden parody of The Wizzard of Oz. Millikin thus opened the way for a new generation of artists.

 

A New Artistic Frontier

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Some SMBC jokes need specific knowledge to be understood (© Zach Weinersmith)

And indeed, the development of webcomics in the 90’s lies in the artistic freedom the Internet actually offers to cartoonists and that goes beyond the mere possibility of bypassing censorship. As format limitations imposed on printed works such as size, number of pages, editorial lines, etc., do not apply on line, web-cartoonists can experiment freely. The democratization of the Internet then turned what was merely  a sub-cultural movement into a viable alternative to traditional publishing. As stated by Zach :”You can experiment more on the web since nobody’s investing in you. Sometimes I wonder what people like Bill Watterson would have done if they had had total freedom.

 

From Cartoonists to e-Entrepreneurs

   The growing success of webcomics kept intensifying in the years 2000’s, as more and more cartoonists chose to work online and hit titles like Jerry Holkin’s and ‘s Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade (1998) or Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics (2003) emerged. But even if Zach considers that “the competition is a lot tougher today”, this trend has also been accompanied by the emergence of new online business models. Advertising or merchandising are strategies now used by Zach, who has several revenue streams (from books to other merchandise) and is now able to get a good living from his art, while being in control of his finances.

  The search for steadier incomes has led authors like Zac to turn towards fan-financing platforms like Patreon. Reflecting on his own very successful page Zach says: ‘As an artist, money doesn’t typically come in consistently. Patreon means you have a nice consistent source of money.’ 

Zach Weinersmith's Patreon page

Zach Weinersmith’s Patreon page

  But online-financing also allows authors to take more risks, as platforms like Kickstarter are used by creators to gather funds for future projects. For example, Zach successfully used Kickstarter to launch his SMBC compilation books, whose first version Save Yourself Mammal sold “five or ten times faster than any previous book”.

 

Back to Traditional Publishing

In the end, what was first seen as an alternative to hard-to-access print publishing has now become a new and legitimate medium of artistic expression. The reccuring view that online cartoonists were just not good enough to be printed has also been proved wrong by the commercial success of people like Randall Munroe (creator of the online comic xkcd), whose first book, xkcd: volume 0, sold over 25 000 copies in six months.  Virtual and traditional cartooning now intertwines, and as Zach notes: “At this point I fairly regularly get offers to do things in traditional publishing, which would have been unusual ten years ago.” This new legitimacy has also allowed Zach to experiment on various kinds of projects, and he is now preparing a graphic novel on immigration with the economist Bryan Kaplan. He is also working on “a big book project” as well as “a science toy”, though for now, the rest is “top secret.”

 

For further information:

Leigh, M. (2016). Webcomics: From printed comic strips to digital. [online] Pop Verse. Available at: http://pop-verse.com/2014/02/19/webcomics-from-printed-comic-strips-to-digital/ [Accessed 22 Nov. 2016].

Tcj.com. (2016). The History of Webcomics | The Comics Journal. [online] Available at: http://www.tcj.com/the-history-of-webcomics/ [Accessed 20 Nov. 2016].

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