Modern Times Matures Comics

From the beginning of the 1960’s to the end of the 1970’s, we saw a dense amount of activity happening in the comics world. From Marvel creating their pantheon of superheros and dominating the market alongside DC, the counter-cultural rebellion with underground comix and the downfall of the Comics Code, to comic book stores opening and the content of comics diversifying – giving birth to the graphic novel. In the 1990’s we start to see newspapers decline in consumption and inevitably syndicated comic strips are among the first to go down with them. While newspapers are going under, use of the internet starts to go up and these comic artists transition to the new technology and web comics are created.

The word graphic novel was coined by Will Eisner himself when he was “trying to persuade the editors at Bantam Books to publish the book-length comic book,” A Contract With God. It’s not until the late 80’s that we see the next graphic novels, but the artists that are to create them are hard at work, treading the new waters that the comic books stores allowed to flow.

Frank Miller’s early work, Daredevil and Alan Moore’s early work, Swamp Thing

Frank Miller in the early 80’s has been commissioned by Marvel and is working on Daredevil, which is a hero more complex than it’s predecessors. “Daredevil was blind but his other four sense had been sharpened due to exposure to radiation. In real life he was a lawyer who sometimes defended the very criminals he chased when putting on his red suit.”  Alan Moore, at this time, has been hired by DC to rework Swamp Thing, and this edition of the old character displays a greater depth to it’s content, from the human emotion, to the almost God-like nature the monster posses, to the environmental concerns in the plot.

Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen

After these two artists picked up some momentum working on their superheros, they were allowed more freedom in their work. In 1986, Frank Miller debuted Batman: The Dark Knight Returns which is where Batman returns to Gotham city after retirement where he is psychologically compelled to fight crime. In this new rendition of Gotham city, Miller tries to capture the atmosphere of “1980’s America, which is a frightening a silly place.” Then in the same year, Allan Moore creates Watchmen which features a group of superheros in a dystopian world where Richard Nixon wasn’t impeached and superheros are outlawed. This publication, like Swamp Thing, had a level of seriousness to it that hadn’t been seen before, with deep questions about time and power, to “references to Einstein, William Blake, Carl Jung, and Bob Dylan, and a segment of it appeared as a prose memoir of a retired superhero.” These two publications raised the bar for comic books, and in their wake, we’ll start seeing others strive to reach this bar and push it higher.

Art Spiegleman’s MausNeil Gainman’s Sandman, Jeff Smith’s Bone

In the following years, Maus was published in 1986, Sandman was conceived in 1988, and Bone in 1991. All of these books were regarded as graphic novels and pushed what a comic book was thought to be. Maus was created by Art Spiegelman where he “interviews his father about his experiences as a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor.” The art depicts characters as various animals like mice, cats, and pigs set against a dark and grim historical story.  Sandman was written by Neil Gainman who revived the superhero Sandman who was originally created in the 1930’s. This time around, the superhero was the “incarnation of dreaming itself, and his power came from the dream world.” He then created a pantheon of superheros to accompany Sandman, all of them embodied primitively human states such as death, destruction, destiny, desire, delirium, and despair. He also incorporated elements from preexisting mythologies and the comic book world highly prized this work of art. In 1991, Jeff Smith was impressed by what comic books were turning into and turned his comic strip series Bone into a traditionally mythic epic. His story is of “three Bone cousins lost in a pretechnological kingdom amid a brewing war between the forces of light and dark.” Bone would go on to win 10 Eisner Awards. These books show a trend that more people are becoming more interested in these graphic novels with more literary elements of fantasy and mythology, rather than the comic books with superhero fantasy, simple stories, and cheap humor.

Newspaper employee numbers start to decline in the 1990’s and 2000’s

While graphic novels are gaining momentum, newspaper comics are on the decline. In the 90’s, personal computers and the internet are on the rise which is detracting readers from printed newspapers. With a lack of money to create newspapers, “one of the first things that editors cut is space, and the first page that is downsized is the funnies page. Cartoonists are forced to fit their strips and story-lines into increasingly shrinking panels that limit their artistry and creativity. Newspapers will also often cut strips entirely to make more room for other, more serious articles.” These syndicated artists used to be able to support themselves solely off of their comic strips, but as the trend starts to head downwards, they are forced to change their means of income.

Many artists started publishing books of their collected strips in order to make some income, but that can only go so far. Other artists turned the “internet as their sole means of production and distribution,” and this is where we start to see the culture of web comics arise. Making web comics is incredibly hit or miss for artists, where some are able to make a stable income from their websites, either donations from their fans, ad revenues, and later through their online shops. A lot of artists would miss, and have to find a primary job and turn their comics into a hobby to make ends meet.

Map of Online Communities by xkcd showing the various cultures and subcultures that exist online

Before we get into how these artist got paid, let’s talk about web comics in and of themselves. When these artists publish their work electronically, they lose the restrictions of the newspapers – specifically, the content guidelines and the spacial restrictions. A lot of freedom is given to the artists when when it comes to web comics. They can create them how they want them to be created, without having to appeal to a mass audience. They can also make them as long and colorful as they want without the cost restrictions of printing them into newspapers. The digital world acts like the comic book shops did, a place where people can gather and diversify the content – and that’s what happened. You start to see subcultures of web comics crop up with content being about video game culture with Penny Arcade, or about math and language with xkcd, or the comic illustrations like the art of Jake Parker.

Art from Penny Arcade, xkcd, and Jake Parker

Another comparison to comic book shops and web comics is that web comics are directly connected to their audience. Their viewers can send a direct messages about what they like and don’t like, through email, comment sections, or forum boards. The artists see this feedback and their future creative actions are influenced by them because they are catering to a growing audience. This connection to the direct market nature of web comics leads us to payment methods.


As mentioned above, some artists will not reach this level of web comics being their primary source of income. But, the ones that do get to that level do it through a number of ways. The earliest methods that artists received payment is through ad revenue and reader donations. There are three ways that ad revenue is generated, according to, but really only two ways apply to use of web comics due to their nature.

  • CPM (cost per thousand views). This is the traditional way television, radio, magazine, and newspaper advertising is sold. A few higher value sites can sell ads this way on the Internet, but it’s not easy.
  • CPC (cost per click) or PPC (pay per click). In this pay-for-performance model, the advertiser pays only if a potential customer cares enough about the ad to click on it. By far the largest amount of Internet advertising is sold via this model.

Donations software have played a huge role for some creators successes. An example would be through Penny Arcade and this is their story:

We were on the verge of loosing Penny Arcade and everything we had built. I remember when efront went bankrupt and Sam fled the country after being charged with tax evasion Tycho and I considered quitting PA. We had both quit our jobs during the few months we were receiving checks from efront. Now the money had dried up and we were unemployed.  We figured we had to quit PA and try and get our old jobs back.

Right at the same time Amazon started their Honor System that allowed readers to donate money to websites they liked. At the time only about a dozen sites were using it and none of them were making any money. We figured we’d give it a shot and if it failed we’d close down the site and go back to our old jobs. We never told you guys that was the situation because we didn’t want to worry you and we didn’t want that to be the reason you donated. Obviously you guys stepped up and gave us the income that we needed to keep the site going. We ran Penny Arcade off of your generosity for a few years before finally returning to an advertising model.

As you can see, there’s ways comic artists can thrive professionally. Throughout these posts I’ve given numerous examples where that’s happened. So, let’s continue and distill them down to their core essence and see what it takes for someone to get into this industry of making comics.


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