Ever since a friend introduced me to Penny Arcade back in Year 10, I’ve been a devout gaming/geek webcomics fan. At one point, I was checking seventeen different strips on a daily basis; realising this was insane, I scaled back to fourteen, where I settled until my first year of college. Probably, this would’ve continued, except that the internet connection in my new room was mysteriously broken, and took three weeks, umpteen phonecalls and five consultations with university IT support to fix. By that time, the amount of banked strips had reached critical mass; I didn’t have enough time to catch them all up, and so I pared back to a bare ten, farewelling 8 Bit Theatre, GPF, Nodwick and others with a heavy heart.
Since then, different strips have come and gone – Machall and Demonology 101 have run their course, while Dresden Codak is a new favourite – but my affection for the genre has remained. As has my admiration for the creators of my favourite strips. After eight years of being exposed to their humour, social commentary and general musings, watching the changes in art style and hearing snippets of personal data, they somehow feel more like acquaintances than anything else, people I could bump into and share a laugh with. This is, perhaps, the big difference between webcomics and traditional print media: connection to the creators. I grew up on Snoopy and Garfield, but couldn’t have picked Charles M. Schultz or Jim Davis out of a crowd; I knew nothing about them, their lives or interests beyond an intangible sense that it must somehow influence what they drew and why they drew it.
Not so Fred Gallagher, Scott Kurtz, Jerry Holkins and Michael Krahulik, Greg Dean, Randy Milholland and Tatsuya Ishida. Perhaps more consistently than any other creators, these guys have been with me through the most formative years of my life. I’ve changed since I started reading them, and they’ve changed, too: since my readership began, two have been married and three have had their first children. I’ve left school, gone to university, moved states and tied the knot – but even on my honeymoon, I was still checking comics along with email.
It’s strange to think of geeks grown up – at least, so mainstream society would have us believe. There’s still a strong bias against the idea that you can play video games, enjoy fantasy or sci-fi and read comics as an adult without being just as immature as you were at fourteen, because of the perception that these are childish persuits. As a kid, I was a geekling born to normals; and worse, I was a girl, which made it harder for my parents to notice. Had I been male, perhaps my compulsive interest in dinosaurs, Mario and Transformers would have fit a pattern, rather than seeming incongruous compared a similar fixation on My Little Pony. The penny finally dropped when, after years of playing every console and computer game my friends possessed and saving hundreds of dollars pocket money for a colour Gameboy, I woke up one Christmas to my very own PlayStation. Since then, I’ve never looked back – but had I not stumbled on a group of like-minded webcomic geeks, things might have turned out differently.
One of the greatest trials in growing up is figuring out who you are, not just in relation to other people, but on your own terms. Without friends who shared my interests, I never would have discovered webcomics; but without webcomics, I might have lost confidence in the idea that I could succeed that way, too. Because that’s the other thing I learned: that quirky, geeky, interesting, creative people can, with sufficient effort and support, earn a living through what they love. Although I read books, watch films and listen to music, I’m not privy to the everyday struggle and success of the creators. The end product just appears, disconnected from any personal genesis: like a magic trick, it entertains and inspires, but the mechanics are deliberately concealed. Authors like Neil Gaiman lift the veil through individual blogs, but back then, it was webcomics that got the message through.
Unlike Peter Pan (or today’s lost boys), geeks can grow up. And if webcomics are anything to go by, they can be happy and creatively successful into the bargain.