One of the things that many proponents of webcomics have been striving for is achieving a sort of popular legitimacy. They want to overcome a stereotype of just doing a handful of doodles that get posted online where only a dozen people see them. You and I know, of course, that’s not remotely accurate, but I think that people in business still feel that’s how they’re perceived. We’re almost at a tipping point where webcomics achieve that legitimacy goal and, while I can’t tell you when or where that will exactly happen, I can tell you what form it will take.
Al Capp created the newspaper comic strip Li’l Abner in 1934. The story centered around the title character, his hillbilly family and friends who lived in Dogpatch, Kentucky. One of the recurring scenarios was that Daisy Mae kept trying to capture Abner’s interest romantically, generally with no success. Abner tended to be quite naive and oblivious to Daisy Mae’s charms. For that matter, Abner was oblivious to every girl’s charms; he was considered quite the catch and Daisy Mae wasn’t the only girl with her eyes on him.
In 1937, Capp introduced a new idea to the strip. Hekzebiah Hawkins was one of the oldest residents of Dogpatch and his daughter Sadie, at age 35, still hadn’t been married off. He called together all the bachelors of Dogpatch and, at gunpoint, had his daughter chase them. The man she was able to catch, he declared, would become her husband. Thus, Sadie Hawkins Day was born in the panels of Li’l Abner.
Two years later, it was reported in Life magazine that over 200 colleges celebrated Sadie Hawkins Day by letting women ask the men out on dates. It sounds quaint and dated here in the 21st century, of course, but in 1939, it was something of a radical change. Recall that women had only first received the right to vote in the United States in the 1920s. But by the 1950s, there were something on the order of 40,000 recognized Sadie Hawkins Day celebrations throughout the country.
The story illustrates how a comic strip influenced society at large. There’s a strong argument to be made that a form of media has reached some level of broad acceptance when it can impact culture like that. Comic strips were around prior to Li’l Abner, and often caught the brunt of criticism for being too crude or too much of a strain on the eyes and whatnot. But when an idea from the strip captures popular imagination beyond the panel borders, I think, it is a good indicator that people at large were accepting the medium. Comic strips had achieved popular legitimacy.
Here’s a more recent example: Dykes to Watch Out For. It was a comic strip by Alison Bechdel that ran from 1983 to 2008 chronicling the lives of a group of friends, many of which happened to be lesbians. It’s been cited as one of the earliest ongoing examples of lesbians in popular culture.
The reason why it can be cited as example, though it doesn’t have the widespread name recognition of Li’l Abner, part of the strip has slid into fairly common usage. Namely, the Bechdel Test.
People who have never read Bechdel’s work are familiar with this test to look at how women are portrayed in movies. It’s also been applied to television, plays, and even back to comics. A piece has to have two (named) female characters that have at least one conversation about something other than a man. BechdelTest.com has been put together (not by Bechdel) to go through and analyze movies under those simple criteria, and there are plenty of rousing discussions about whether any given movie passes the test or not. (You’d think it’d be easy, given the three simple rules, but some of the points that get brought up can get surprisingly complex on the topic.) I daresay, though, most of the people engaged in those discussions never read Dykes, let alone the specific strip that introduces the Bechel Test concept.
So where does that leave webcomics?
At present, webcomics are just enough outside the mainstream that they haven’t gotten that popular legitimacy yet. Although I suspect we’re not far off. Scott Kurtz introduced “Joss Whedon is my master now” which has gained some traction outside PvP but mostly limited to Whedon fans. Jerry Holkins’ and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade promoted the Greater Internet Fu**kwad Theory, but that still seems limited to gaming culture. That’s not to say either of those ideas -- or something else entirely -- might yet capture popular interest beyond their current base. Or perhaps it will be an entirely different concept that seeps into the public consciousness. Regardless of what idea breaks through that invisible barrier, though, that will be the point when you know webcomics have arrived!