In Search of Lost Webcomics
I have a query. And a plea.
First the query. I am teaching a graphic medicine seminar, and we recently focused on Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person (2006).
I first read Engelberg’s work in book form, unaware of its existence on the web the book’s publication. So when a student asked me what the original online publication looked like, I suggested we use the seminar’s break to see what we could find online.
We found very little. Engelberg’s LiveJournal, which she set up after the book deal was arranged at the suggetion of her publisher, still exists, but the links to what was the original site for the comics’ posting (miriamengleberg.com) is now dead. The Internet Archive turned up only a couple of snapshots of the lost site, none of which featured more than 3 of the original comics and none with any blog discussion or comments, if there indeed ever was any (I suspect not).
I probably would have been able to avoid obsessing over it if not for a passing reference in one of Engelberg’s late entries in her LiveJournal, from August 17, 2006, in which she let her readers know that she was entering a home hospice program. Even as she is facing the worst possible news and at the end of a very long fight, however, she mentions that she “did manage a new cartoon today,” and that she is “going to try to put up a new comic of the week but it may be in black and white this time (or Photoshop color).”
Engelberg’s post suggests that the black-and-white familiar to readers of the book was not the only format in which her comics were originally shared— some were in color, and presumably hand-colored (given the suggestion that the pressures of late-stage cancer might force her to turn instead to Photoshop for her color work).
Digging a bit deeper with the powerful if blunt instrument that is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to recover one late post to her site’s “Comic of the Week” page, presumably the last one posted to the site (all earlier posts to the page are unrecoverable using this tool). The color was a revelation:
So here’s my question: did anyone out there in comics-land archive the site?
And here is my appeal: save all web comics! By which I don’t mean simply download the image files to a hardrive. What we need if the history of this moment is to be recorded is for a systematic and redundant system to be put in place by which we might archive entire sites—commentary, comments, correspondence and even when possible ads—so we can see these comics in future decades as they were originally published, read and engaged with.
Since my vision of such a systematic and redunant system is clearly utopian, at least given the resources at our disposal, let me redirect my appeal as a stop-gap measure to the cartoonists themselves. There are lots of reasons why cartoonists stop publishing to the web—such as: What begins as an inspiring joy devolves into a source of stress, guilt or frustration—none of which are conducive to art-making. The average lifespan of a webcomic hovers somewhere between that of a fruitfly and a gerbil.
And once folks decide it is time to walk away from a webcomic—or, as in Engelberg’s case, are forced to leave it before their time—it becomes very hard to keep up with the website or the annual payments for webhosting and domain registration.
It is always worth thinking about the history of earlier storage media when making predictions about the future. Film is as good an example as one could hope to find: a vastly popular medium with international reach and lots of industrial and institutional support. At only 120 years from its origins, one might imagine that the history of cinema is fully at our disposal. Sadly, this is not the case. Today, only about 20-25% of all silent films produced in the United States between the origins of cinema and the end of the silent era in 1927 still exist. In some part of the world, that proportion is considerably lower; for example, in Japan over 90% of all film made before 1945 is believed lost forever.
By comparison, if we turn to the history of the print—a technology that is fast approaching its 600th birthday—we are hard-pressed to find examples of “lost” books. Yes, we have lost many manuscripts—papers, letters, unpublished novels—which would have been invaluable to history. But the overwhelming majority of printed books published remain in existence on the face of the earth today.
The story of print is of course a less happy one when we include what are often classified under the broad brush of ephemera—newspapers, magazines, handbills, broadsides, greeting cards, etc. Not surprisingly, these are all things I find fascinating and in a career of trying to learn all I can about them, I know how much is lost. After all, these were the what people used as kindling or to wrap fish, or simply read and shared so often that they were literally loved to death. And yet even here it is amazing how much a historian of popular culture can recover—especially compared to the history of “post-print” technologies.
Most of us know the story of Bill Blackbeard who earned his title as “man who saved comics.” What earned him that legendary title was that he saw the weaknesses inherent in a technology that others saw as savior. Microfilm was marketed to libraries across the country battling post-war space challenges as a way to clear the shelves of all those bulky bound periodicals and newspapers in favor of a storage medium that took up a microscopic fraction of the space. Sure enough, libraries started dumping bound volumes of historic newspapers, and with them the legacy of the color newspaper comics supplement was bound for the dumpster. Blackbeard’s mission was a simple one: to rescue as many abandoned volumes as he could and give them shelter in his home, where he he would devote himself tirelessly to cataloguing and studying them.
Today, Blackbeard’s collection is one of the pillars of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, where it will survive for many generations to come. Micofilm—which had failed visual texts (especially color ones, like the Sunday comics) from the start—is now all-but obsolete, replaced by digital versions of the same. As is often the case when it comes to the “promise” of technology, we have learned precisely nothing from the failures of the previous generation’s promises.
100, 500, 1,000 years into the future, the technology of print on paper will still “work.” Within a decade of its publication in 1994, the HyperCard version of Art Spiegelman’s Maus was no longer readable on any machine in existence at my very large university. There are many reasons to believe that digital comics will be the future of the medium. But the recent history of post-paper storage technologies has given us no reason to believe that the web will leave us with any historical record by which that future might be charted.
Download, backup, and print your webcomics. Future (and present-day) generations will thank you for it.