The Theory of Webcomics: Dead Comic, Living Archives
I’m a chronic re-reader/re-player/re-watcher. Combine having a lousy memory with a love of the familiar, and you’ll find someone who loves re-reading old comics, re-playing his old collection of Super NES games, and re-watching TV shows of years past. This carries just as much with webcomics: I’ll discover a comic, read all the archives, keep up with it regularly, and periodically go back and read the archives again. It’s like a chunk of my comic collection that I can use to procrastinate at work.
Webcomic archives mean that there’s never a continuity lockout: You’re always able to go back and learn what came before. If DC doesn’t reprint a Martian Manhunter story from 1992 and I wasn’t reading comics at the time, then I’m totally lost when it gets referenced in Infinite Crisis. If Fred Gallagher wants to reference a previous storyline in Megatokyo, he can just put a link to it in that day’s news post and rest easy.
As an aside, a few comics make the most recent strip freely accessible, but make the archives pay-to-view. This model is okay for low-continuity gag-a-day or newspaper-type strips, but effectively locks out much of the new audience if you’re very storyline-focused. But then, if there’s no storyline, you don’t have the same desire to go back and read older strips. Garfield liking lasagna and hating Mondays gets old fast(err) if you read 200 of them in a day.
And oftentimes, even when the comic is finished, the archives will stay. Often, the author has another project in the works, so it contributes to his online presence and, as the occasional new reader discovers it or an old reader like me re-reads it, it might even bring in a little ad revenue or a few new book sales. The old comic, typically completed intentionally, rather than having faded out, is archived like a classic novel, available in its entirety. (Expect a few of these to show up in my Webcomics You Should Be Reading columns.)
But then there’s the tragic circumstances when a comic disappears from the internet entirely. This happens more often to comics that end abruptly, due to disillusionment or personal circumstances on the part of the author. The comic will slowly stop updating, then stop altogether, then there won’t be any news posts, then you’ll check back two months later and the site is gone completely. Especially if the comic hadn’t put out any compilation books or CDs, this can come as a blow to the fans — It’s gone forever!
I’ll admit, I was one of the few stragglers holding out hope for years between when Corey Kitley took down the archives of her comic Life’s So Rad and when she made the comic again available in book and CD form. (If you liked LSR back in the day, Corey Kitley, now Parkhill, has a new comic called Scene Language that follows a similar vein.) I will occasionally check dead links to see of Shaw Island or the long-dead Residence Life has reappeared, mostly out of a sense of misguided hope that I’ll someday get to enjoy those comics again.
So I’ll propose this to any and all webcomic authors who consider taking their comics down: If you can avoid it, if you can bear to leave them up, then you should do so. Keep them there for the world to continue enjoying. If you need to take them down, for personal or monetary reasons, then at least be kind to the faithful readers: Announce that you’re taking down the site at least a month before you do so, and offer CD-ROMs (or DVD-ROMs) of all of the comics in the archive for some nominal amount, say $5 + shipping. That way, the folks who really care and want to be able to go back and enjoy the comic in years to come, still can. (Zach Stroum, if you’re reading this, I totally mean you.)