I asked, “Can I write an article about new humor websites and webcomics?” The Escapist responded, “Okay, go for it.” Said I, “Woohoo! I’m starting my research.” And then 10 minutes later: “Holy crap.”

For me, feeling like an idiot usually takes longer. I realize my incompetence gradually through steady labor, like digging a grave. This time, surveying web humor became, within 10 minutes – maybe 15 – stupidly hard. Humor sites, especially webcomics, spread like germs. Look at Comic Genesis – ye gods. Comixtalk, Fleen, The Webcomic List, Joystiq’s Weekly Webcomic Wrapup and a few other news sites try to stay current, sort of. But in June 2008, after just eight months, Webcomics.com gave up, sold its URL and fled into the night.

The web has aggregated acres of once-diffuse scribblings. Hordes of idle young amateurs used to write stories for science fiction fanzines and scrawl cartoons for college newspapers, but no observer ever saw more than a fraction of their effusions. Today they still write and draw the same stuff, in the same quantities, but we see all thirty zillion of them, a newly visible concentrate of samizdat, on Fanfic.net and DeviantART and College Humor.

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So the Idiot Feeling arrived fast this time, bringing its special friend Panic Attack. I had a personal reason for looking into humor sites, and because of that, an even greater reason to feel overwhelmed.

You see – don’t try to stop me! too late! – I’m starting a humor site.

***

Talking about new humor sites brings two contrasting dangers:

  1. Every site is already familiar to somebody, and if you mention it, the old fan gets snarky. “Gone With the Blastwave? News flash, it’s up to Strip #39! Hey, check out this ‘new’ site The Onion, ahuh ahuh!”
  2. Conversely, humor sites already known throughout the civilized world continue to make converts. When I asked friends to suggest new sites, they proposed Cat and Girl (now in its ninth year), Wondermark (started April 2003), Sheldon (June 1999) and other bulwarks of the eons. You can bet a lung that, even at this moment, some newbie in Kansas is discovering Cracked.com or ICanHasCheezburger or Worth1000 or eBaum’s World or PvP or Ctrl+Alt+Del or your own dozen favorites that I’ve bizarrely, unjustly, infuriatingly omitted – and, fired with zeal like stout Cortez upon a peak in Darien, Kansas Newbie will complain when this article omits that great new site!

It’s pointless to focus on “new” sites. On the web we’re all, always, newbies. Take Schlock Mercenary, which in late August 2008 celebrated its 3,000th strip – or, as creator Howard Tayler put it, “3,000 consecutive days of no missed updates, no fillers and no guest strips.” Even so, it’s entirely possible to surf the web six hours daily, read Digg and Reddit and 250 RSS feeds, and yet miss this popular eight-year epic. (Trust me.) Which ones have you missed? Check the webcomics lists at Wikipedia or Webcomicz – or even Wikipedia’s much shorter list of “self-sufficient webcomics” (those that support full-time creators). What, you don’t know them all? Greetings, fellow newb.

Anyway, do we really want “new”? Happening on You Suck at Photoshop, you gulp down all the episodes in two side-splitting hours and then frown at the screen, discontent. But you can lose yourself for days with Diesel Sweeties, Sinfest, Scary Go Round or Irregular Webcomic. Over time, too, long-lived sites tend to become friendlier to novices, with navigable archives, “For the New Reader” featurettes and improved usability.

Of course, even these titans were once new. There’s an excitement, a feeling of privilege, in discovering something that later becomes great – and, even more, in producing that something.

Which is why, to recap, tracking all this stuff is like naming germs.

***

Cultural corruption? An epidemic of crap? In his July 2, 2008 Zero Punctuation, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw declared, in his customarily measured way, that if you start a webcomic, “you’re a talentless cultural pollutant who deserves to suffocate to death on a bag of porridge.” That episode’s forum topic has, at this writing, nearly a thousand comments.

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I don’t see it Yahtzee’s way. Sure, he’s attacking the thoughtless me-too amateurs who are transparently unclear on this whole “humor” idea. But the alternative is professionalism – and where has that gotten us? America’s full-time professional newspaper strip cartoonists, supplicants to the gatekeepers at King Features Syndicate, are senile mass-market dodderers, mercilessly deconstructed by Marmaduke Explained and Comics Curmudgeon.

True, some comic-book pros are finally following pioneer Scott McCloud onto the web: Phil Foglio with Girl Genius and Warren Ellis with Freakangels, among others. Family Guy creator Seth MacFarland is moving online big-time. Then there are the slick promotional sites, like Diamond Shreddies and cartoonist David Reddick‘s Legend of Bill, the latter hosted on the dating site Soul Geek. Sean Tevis used an xkcd-style strip to raise funds for his campaign for Kansas state representative.

Yahtzee notwithstanding, I find the amateurs more exciting. At least they’re going for it, you know? Legendary animator Ralph Bakshi, interviewed at San Diego Comic-Con 2008, implored young creators to skip working for “some asshole studio.” They should just start making a film themselves, he said, but they don’t because they’re “lethargic, uninspired, terrified.” The web’s best creators are energetic, driven, brave. Their universal motivation seems to be sheer love. Enthusiasm is a good start, but the only lasting reason is love. Webcomic host NightGig Studios has the motto, “It’s not about what you do to live, but what you live to do.”

(Good thing, too – the other way to say “after all these years, I’m still making new converts” is “for years I’ve been laboring in obscurity.” Joel Watson of HijNKS Ensue has been chronlicling “The Experiment,” his ambitious attempt to support himself doing webcomics. It’s not going well, but he clearly loves his job.)

The horizons are wider now. Given artistic talent (or clip-art), novices find it technically straightforward to create slick-looking webcomics with Manga Studio or Comic Life software, using fonts from Blambot and other foundries. Online tools like Comicbrush are easy. Website creation is almost trivial, thanks to special-purpose templates (such as the ComicPress plugin for WordPress) and cheap shared hosting – or, for webcomics, even free hosting. You can share convention expenses and sell ads through collectives like Project Wonderful, Dumbrella, Dayfree Press and others. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s all within reach.

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Some of these sites display inventive humor that arises from different mindsets. Unshelved is the webcomic for librarians. Lark News makes Christianity funny. Manpill targets men, and I mean really strongly male testosteriffic manly men. Just as interesting are the sites that start in a niche and then grow toward general interest, the way Questionable Content expanded beyond indie rock into wide-ranging soap opera. “Niche” implies not marketing and branding, but rather self-expression. By making a site or strip about your own interests, you automatically target the niche of “people like me.” Who could object to that?

The excitement is real, widespread and infectious. It makes you think great, crazy thoughts …

… which brings me to my new site. (I’ve already pulled the pin! Try to stop me and we explode together!)

***

Once again I’ve joined myself at the hip with some of the writers I worked with in 2004-2006, when I designed a new edition of the classic tabletop roleplaying game PARANOIA. We all loved that experience, which I recounted in The Escapist, “Player-Prompted PARANOIA.” So when one writer, Greg Ingber, approached me with a funny idea, we decided to pull the band back together.

Ninjalistics is about corporate ninja – like Dilbert, but they’re all ninja, filling out requisitions for each throwing star and ensuring their assassinations are ISO-9000 compliant. The target audience is corporate cubicle drones who want to kill their boss. Yes, we have a webcomic (Greg’s “Etiquette Ninjas”), plus funny forms and certificates, text features and more.

I know, there’s already a dojo-full of fine examples: Ask a Ninja, Ninja Burger, Adventures of Dr. McNinja, White Ninja and more … Ninjalistics admires them all! But Garfield‘s success didn’t forestall the cat strip Two Lumps (or, for that matter, the curiously affecting Garfield Minus Garfield). Cute Overload rules the kitten photo world, but people still visit Stuff on My Cat and Kittenwar and Upside-Down Dogs. On the web there’s always room for more. Especially for more ninja, who are nimble, stealthy and often short.

It’s tremendous fun, the most we’ve had since PARANOIA. Best of all, I haven’t yet felt like an idiot. As I said, that usually takes longer than 10 minutes.

Allen Varney, designer of the paper-and-dice roleplaying game PARANOIA (2004 edition), now manages Ninjalistics, your top-quality provider of corporate espionage and assassination solutions.

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