Webcomics in The Economist

A Dec 22 article in the Economist looks at the thriving world of webcomics and suggests that they have broken the awful cycle of mediocre newspaper comics -- a cycle that Bill Watterson decried when he gave up on Calvin and Hobbes. It's a great piece:

Many of these comics are expanding outwards into little media empires of their own. “XKCD”, probably the most innovative, now features a separate blog called “What If?”, on which Mr Munroe answers questions sent in by readers. One recent post asked “if every person on Earth aimed a laser pointer at the Moon at the same time, would it change color?” (The answer is no, unless you can borrow 6 billion one-megawatt lasers from the Pentagon.) “SMBC” and “Ctrl Alt Del” have both experimented with sketch shows and animated comics. “Penny Arcade” has become a sprawling video-games industry phenomenon, hosting games conventions and fund-raising campaigns.

One thing they have in common is how they make their money. The typical audience for one of the leading web comics is between 1m and 10m unique browser visits per month, comparable to a medium-sized newspaper website (the website of the Daily Mail, the best-read newspaper on the web, gets 100m per month). But unlike on newspaper websites, where advertising is the main source of revenue, the audience on web comics are not just readers—they are also customers. Most artists sell T-shirts, books, mouse mats, posters and other paraphernalia. The most successful at monetising content is said to be Mr Inman: his site, “The Oatmeal” made $500,000 in 2011 from its audience of around 7m unique visitors per month.

Amplified by social media—Mr Inman has some 700,000 Facebook followers—this audience can be powerful. One extremely long and exceptionally geeky comic last summer on “The Oatmeal”, extolling the virtues of the inventor Nikola Tesla and attacking his better-known rival, Thomas Edison, somehow snowballed into a campaign to save one of Tesla’s labs on the outskirts of New York. By leveraging his immense traffic to attract donations and to sell T-shirts and other gear, Mr Inman raised $1m in nine days—enough, with matching funding from New York State, to buy the building.

Triumph of the nerds (Thanks, Martin!)