The best Web comics: Just cuz they’re free don’t mean they’re cheap

I believe I’ve already sung the praises of that Will-Rogers-esque philosopher showman, the Heath Ledger Joker, for teaching us all in The Dark Night: “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”

Seemingly wise advice. Yet the Web is full of creatives plying their craft for free (no, blogging doesn’t count; you call this craft?) and some of these artistes are even finding ways to profit from their no-cost generosity.

God bless the Web cartoonists.

These creators are like the garage bands of the art scene, hustling for shows, carrying all their equipment to and from the van, building an audience one gig at a time, and selling CDs at a folding table to fund the dream.

Puppet Homestar: Every bit as funny as Potter Puppet Pals.The very first art entrepreneur I can think of on the Web is the evergreen Homestar Runner, who has been running for almost 1o years with true basement-style Flash animation and voice recording. Early on, I wondered how the creators, Mike and Matt Chapman, could keep up with such regular updates of such high quality without giving up their day jobs. The answer? "Between the milk and the cold ones."The answer, of course, was T-shirts. They kept it up until they had so many fans they could sell merchandise on the side, including posters, patches, DVDs and now a PC game. (The site carries no advertising. And I’ve heard, and Wikipedia confirms, that the “Brothers Chaps,” as they call themselves, have refused multiple offers to make movies or TV shows out of their little Web enterprise. If they can make a comfortable living and keep creative control, I say bully.)

Here’s the great thing about working for free: As Web cartoonists develop deeper and deeper archives of material, they can bundle their strips into book form and charge 20 bucks a pop — yes, they’re charging for material that was free, most of which you may have seen already. But for many fans the cost is worth it; they might even feel compelled to give something back to the creators who have delivered so much for so little for so long.

To that end, here are the Web comic sites in my personal Google Reader queue, all with archive books for sale. Buy someone’s book and help keep those Wacom tablets running, won’t you?:

XKCD

It’s OK to ask for a crib sheet when reading XKCD, the ultimate nerd strip: science, math, computer programming and pop culture all get the most innie in-jokes ever delivered. Half of the time, I need a dose of Wikipedia to straighten me out (and even then, I still may not get it, as is the case with one of XKCD’s most popular posts among computer people.) But when I do get it, I usually bust a gut.

Consider this entry that mocks Stephanie Meyer (author of Twilight) as well as the Web trolls at 4chan.org, the snarkiest site of Internet juvenilia ever:

It even manages to work in a joke about Edward's hair.

Click to biggify.

I can’t even begin to describe how magnificent it is that author Randall Munroe manages to mock Meyer and make her the hero of this strip. This guy is brilliant. Not only does he have the usual T-shirts and posters available, but he’s also just released “Volume 0” of his archived strips. Consider it an $18 college course.


PVP ONLINE

Another nerd comic, this time with special emphasis on video games and role-playing. It’s also a slice-of-life office strip — creator Scott Kurtz realized that as he was making daily jabs at the video game industry, he was developing a compelling cast of characters. These days I’d put the ratio of gaming jokes to interpersonal relationship jokes at 1:3, and that is a very good thing.

Whereas Munroe updates XKCD twice a week, Kurtz posts daily almost religiously. The result is a rich trove of storylines where characters grow and change; of trenchant commentary; of silliness; of mad genius cats and lovable imaginary trolls.

Here’s a strip from 2004, when the TV show “Lost” was still baffling and new. (It’s still baffling, just not new.) The PvP gang gets together for one of their familiar role-playing sessions, summing up my feelings of fascination with the show:

Click to embiggen.

Click to embiggen.

Usually the action centers around the narcissistic Macintosh fanboy, Brent, who works at PvP Magazine (“Player versus player,” a video game term), which is run by his childhood friend, Cole. But sometimes, PvP indulges Kurtz’s sudden wacky inspirations, like this strip that introduces one of my favorite off-shoot characters ever: LOLBat. Riffing on Internet slang (and the crew of Web-denizens who gave rise to the LOLCat craze), LOLBat fights crime the Information Age way:

U can has clik to mak bigr.

U can has clik to mak bigr.

You may not be in the market for PvP’s $85 hardcover “Awesomology,” compiling eight years of strips; if not, try the more modest $13 “Dork Ages” collection, which includes the series of strips that got me hooked on this comic: a “Matix” parody called “The Comix.”

THE NON-ADVENTURES OF WONDERELLA

Justin Pierce updates this colorful comic once a week. He parodies not just Wonder Woman, and not just the whole notion of superhero comics, but just about anything that lies in the path of his sarcasm. He’s also wildly absurd, too, which is usually what gets the biggest laugh out of me.

Click for more bigness.

Click for more bigness.

Wonderella has a penchant for speaking in a pastiche of urban street and valley girl, and neither she nor anyone in the cast is all that bright. But Pierce manages to put something ridiculous and subversively funny in nearly every panel, which is a comedic coup. His online store has plenty of merch, including a ubiquitous bobblehead doll, but I have my eye on his first collection of 99 strips, “Everybody Ever Forever.”

THE PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP

Talk about a misleading title. T’aint nothing about bibles, fellowships or anyone named Perry in this strip.

Nicholas Gurewitch doesn’t update here much these days — if at all– but the body of work he’s already amassed at PBF will last the ages. He channels the same zany outlook on life as The Far Side, only with more jokes about sex and violence. Expectations are regularly subverted by Gurewitch, all without a cast of regulars, or even a consistent design or medium; the only thing that matters is that people get what’s coming to them: if you bring home a magical egg from the forest, expect to hatch a bloodthirsty raptor; if you put “spankings” on the list of “things I hate,” then expect to get spanked. Gurewitch always manages a fresh surprise in these super-short gags.

Here’s my very-favorite-for all-time-forever strip:

It's the look on the kid's face that gets me.

You want to see it bigger? Click it, champ.

And I defy you not to laugh yourself sick over this:

I've seen this a hundred times before, and still I laugh until I choke.

Clicky.

Gurewitch may not update his site very often because he is selling a blue jillion of his collected work. He’s just released a bigger, fancier version of his first collection, called “The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack.” Worth every penny.

ADDENDUM

Those of you who are well versed in the buffet of Web comics available now will undoubtedly point out two embarrassing omissions from my brief list: Penny Arcade and Achewood. Both strips are amazingly popular, the former with video gamers and pop culture specialists, and the latter with people who like to mock things. Yes, these are both genuinely funny strips, with loads of fans and book collections available for the purchasing. Quite simply, though, they are just not to my tastes. I can’t say why; it’s inexplicable, but there you go. Do not send me angry letters now, please.

ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM

While not strictly a Web comic, the blog at Shoebox.com has regularly funny material posted to it multiple times a day. Yes, that’s Shoebox, the little greeting card company inside of Hallmark. They generate so much online content, it’s hard to imagine what these people are doing with their work days, but it’s obvious they are spending a lot of time making each other laugh. Quite often, their efforts work on me, too.

My favorite gem to come floating up from their blog:

I doubt we'll ever see this one as a greeting card.

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