What follows is my final essay for my English 1010 class, a long winded essay on webcomics, rankings and a bit of history- not in that order.
When I get onto the Internet every morning, I have one thought on my mind before anything else, check the webcomics. The ritual has been part of my daily grind for the past 4 years and in those years I have read through almost 60 series of webcomics. If averaged out to print I'd like to say that I'd have read through the Bible 4 times. My time spent is at the point that I consider myself a knowledgeable source on the topic. Webcomics are a media that reflect the entrepreneurship of the Internet and the spirit of trying that makes the Internet such a great community. Webcomics have been around for a while and have a history and like almost all things, they can be broken down into a set of tiers, in this case Upper Level Webcomics, Mid Level Webcomics, Low Level Webcomics and the Bottom Rung all with reasons for their popularity. To be able to understand webcomics though, one must be able to look back into time and understand where webcomics come from.
In the early days of the Internet, there was not much content out there since there was not much of an Internet community - at least by today's standards. The largest grouping of Internet users was on Usenet. Early images and comics made by users were the first web comics but it was not until the creation of T.H.E. Fox that there was actually a webcomic (Atchinson). This was in 1986 and would by all counts be registered as the first webcomic historically but when confronted, most web comic readers would not name this as the first web comic. For many people, the answer would be either Penny Arcade or PvP, two webcomics that began in 1998, 12 years after the first noted webcomic - over a lifetime in Internet time. In between those years some of the longest running webcomics were established but they fall mainly into the category of Mid Level Webcomics. It was not until 1997 that the Silver Age of Webcomics began. Webcomics such as Sluggy Freelance, User Friendly and Roomies! began to show up. From this point on, the webcomics boom began.
The webcomics boom was more or less caused by people having the Internet for their own use and space for hosting suddenly opening up. As some of the first webcomic hosts such as KeenSpace began to appear, the field expanded and comics boomed. The first popular sprite comics began to appear and comics began to develop fan bases. Eventually the first tiers of popularity began to form over the years. Eventually the first self supporting web comics appeared allowing creators to live solely off donations and merchandise. The boom was also marked by the birth of the overabundance of web comics. When free hosting became readily available through a variety of sources including through sites like Live Journal and Deviant Art, there was a sudden growth in the number of web comics created by people who often cared little for quality and a steady update schedule. The boom notably ended around 2006 marked by a sudden drop off of new Upper Level web comics.
The post boom era for webcomics has been heavily noted as the period in which the tiers were almost permanently established across the Internet. Webcomics such as Penny Arcade and Ctrl-Alt-Delete were offered media deals including the creation of games and animated series. Upper Level web comics were also able to begin creating their own sub cultures such as Penny Arcade creating PAX (Penny Arcade Expo). Also notable at this time was the fact that certain comics began to form their own production labels such as Topataco or Blank Label Comics which allowed for collaboration between webcomic artists and financial support. During this age, webcomics have also entered mainstream media with many comics being picked up by print publications such as newspaper or being noticed by mainline media. What is widely recognized as the changing point was the 2005 Jack Thompson controversy (see annotations) which eventually led to several lawsuits and the creation of the Child's Play charity. During this time, the Mid Level became established for the first time and a fully working tier system was fully evident.
The tier system for webcomics is essentially a self-made system I have created to be used to rank webcomics mostly based on popularity noted through views. The simple idea is that the more popular a webcomic is, the higher level it is. The levels have nothing at all to deal with content or quality of the webcomics themselves. Many well written web comics are at the Low Level solely because the art is bad or the topic may not be popular enough to attract a large audience. A few Upper Level webcomics such as Ctrl+Alt+Delete are marked for being very poor in quality by the mainstream media and yet allow the author to live off of the comic because of a devoted fanbase. The system is also imperfect due to the breakdown system as the diverse variety of webcomics makes a standard system increasingly difficult to do as one comic may have merchandise but still also be hosted on a third party site or a comic may be published in a newspaper but only gets a few views online. Either way though, it is the easiest way to explain the groupings of webcomics in a purely theoretical manner.
The bottom tier of the webcomic hierarchy is partially created by my own vindictive attitude and it is for those comics hosted on third party hosts such as Drunk Duck or Smack Jeeves. The tier actually has a sub tier within itself but is notable for being the residence of almost 90 percent of all webcomics on the Internet. These vary between sprite comics that last only 10 strips before being forgotten, 5 second doodle comics and elaborate comics that somehow have attracted a large audience and yet cannot find better hosting. There are too many to name, (possibly 100,000 or so) and very few positive or worthwhile examples that I can think of. The basic idea though is the lack of initiative to try and stick out as a web comic.
The Low Level webcomics are those that are often just starting out. They normally have only been around for a year or so but the authors have actually decided to try and stick out their thumbs so to speak by either joining a webcomic team, making a site that is easy to find (ala Livejournal) or actually purchasing a site and some hosting. The simple act shows determination to make it in the world. These comics usually have a fan base under 500 people and are done usually with a monetary loss to the artist. The comics are purely done with devotion to the art and the rewards are usually only feedback from the readers. Comics like this currently are numerous numbering somewhere around 30,000. These comics often have yet to become huge but given time and a steady stream of updates, the comics have the potential to become great.
The Middle Level webcomics are those ones that have learned the lessons of making webcomics through time and dedication. The comics usually have two years or so under their belt and have a general fan base. The comics may or may not take donations for their work and may or may not be selling merchandise, often t-shirts or collections of the comic. The main point of the middle level though is that the comics are becoming more self sufficient, often paying for the artists to at least be able to travel to conventions and generally return something to the comic creators. Comics in this tier are also on the verge of making it to the upper tier in a few years depending on factors including name drops from High Level webcomics. In estimation, there are about 500 mid level webcomics. Examples of this level of comic include Slackerz and Dead Winter both of which have gained a fair amount of notoriety from High Level name drops.
The High Level is currently the epitome of webcomic notoriety. The comics have books that can be found in average book stores, mentioning them in conversation may actually allow other people to know what you are talking about and generally High Level comics have enough fans to make the creators become Internet recluses. The power that comes from being a High Level webcomic creator often includes the comic being a major source of income for the creators to the point that some have been able to make it their sole job. Webcomics on this tier often have several thousand readers and several years under there belt, except for a few exceptions. The comics in this tier often also have active fan communities and overall are powerhouses on the Internet. Getting a comic to this point really means that you have done something right in the comic world. There are only about 100 or so comics on this level. Examples of this level include Penny Arcade, VG Cats, Dr. McNinja and a handful of other ones. The popularity for these has been heartily proven but the question arises: where does the popularity come from?
Popularity often varies based on three factors, content, time and character. Content mainly means that the easiest way to get readers is to do something that most readers can relate to. In this case the common example is video game humor. The main problem with this though is that the market is over saturated with gamer webcomics. In fact he last gamers webcomic to make it to the Upper Level was Fanboys back in 2007. If you can create an original idea though, the comic will do well. Time is another important factor in popularity for webcomics because with time, they are able to find fans first. It is more or less a fact that 80 percent of readers will stay with a webcomic over time no matter how horrible it becomes. As time builds up the webcomic is able to compile readers who then continue to expand the fan base. The character of the comic is the final factor and this is more than the characters of the comic. It refers more to whether or not the creator seems sociable and if the community is inviting. If you try and message the creator and he tells you to "bugger off" you will be much less likely to return to the comic. Likewise if the forum community has no respect for new members, chances are that you wont join the community.
Overall the world of webcomics is a diverse one with literally thousands of stories told by thousands of people. It is a great embodiment of the ideals of self starting, dreams becoming real and almost every facet of the American dream. There is something for everybody if you just spend the time to look and I'd suggest that you look sooner than later because each day you wait, you just get another update behind.