Webcomics History: Fantasy Soup and Crossover Wars

Many early webcomics were notoriously a mishmash of genres and themes. Undoubtedly this trend was tied to the popularity of “monkey-bacon-ninja” “random” humor that was overbearingly popular at the time. But an equal factor was that webcomics in those days had little chance for mainstream exposure or success. In the absence of pressure to hone a craft or make a commercially viable product, an atmosphere of exploration, experimentation, and subcultural comradery flourished. Many webcomickers chose to ignore traditional genre boundaries, and in doing so created a new genre, which I will call “fantasy soup”.

Anything goes. Anything.

Fantasy soup is an odd genre in that it’s kinda… every genre. It’s a catch-all term that I use to refer to settings where anything goes – ghosts? Aliens? Robots? Magical girls? Gods? Demons? Mutants? Shapeshifting? Mad science? Nothing’s off the table, everything’s in the pot.

Except… maybe this one. Maybe this one is meant for me.

Anyone who used to read webcomics in the early Aughties probably understands the mixture of emotions I feel when I think about fantasy soup. While it was often fun to read wacky stories about squirrel girls with three biological parents or college roommates who became superpowered paramilitary peacekeepers, the lack of narrative constraints also meant their plotlines tended to meander interminably, adding new fantastical elements with each new chapter like some kind of genre katamari. While some comics simply lost my interest after their 7th consecutive year with no major plot developments, others I quit because after I realized I was trans I suddenly understood that the many “boy transforms into a sexy girl” comics I followed were not actually meant for me. Yikes.

The conclusion of the Accidental Centaurs/The Wotch crossover. In 2005 you could have an interplanar portal that looked like a vulva but you couldn’t say “ass”.

Webcomics were not the first medium to explore the art of throwing different genre tropes in a blender and setting it to “purée” – Terry Pratchett was doing this decades earlier with Discworld, for example – but there was something unique about the way that webcomickers approached it. While webcomics today are still a niche market, in the old days they were downright fringe. Almost all the creators whose work I used to read were friends with each other, or friends of friends. On top of that, most comments that creators would get were from deeply loyal readers. This illusion of “we’re all friends here” helped creators feel safe with wild experimentation, meaning that a lot of seemingly staid comics went totally off the rails as they went along. This gave rise to a number of oddities, including my favorite: crossovers.

This early draft of Namesake sucks.

Crossovers, cameos, and references to other webcomics were rampant in those days. Here are just a few examples (though, sadly, most of the links on those pages no longer work). Some hinged on extradimensional travel to teleport characters from one universe to another, while others simply revealed that the two comics canonically took place in the same world, but one way or another, almost all of these comics were fantasy soups. They pretty much had to be, since there was no telling what another author might do during or after the crossover that would become canon by proxy.

Fantasy soup has been dying out as a webcomic genre since the late 00s as comics created in those early days have gradually been completed or abandoned (though it’s not extinct yet!). Some, like El Goonish Shive and CRFH! are still stubbornly hanging on to the same loyal audiences they cultivated over a decade ago, but as more and more creators achieve commercial success with print versions of their webcomics, the medium as a whole has gotten a lot more serious. More importantly, the field has exploded; there are so many new authors and readers who don’t remember the old days that the titles that once defined webcomics are now forgotten, irrelevant.

Dr. McNinja was sort of the natural conclusion of the whole trend. How do you follow this?

If the Old Guard (comics started before 2005ish) was mostly inspired by syndicated newspaper strips and to a lesser extent American cape comics, the generation that followed them (2006-2011, give or take), which I will call the Vanguard, was more a reflection of the self-contained stories in graphic novels and manga. The Vanguard consisted of many instant classics like Rice Boy and The Meek, and represented a shift away from the exploratory approach to storytelling that had previously been thriving. Encouraged by the success of the Vanguard, the third wave of webcomics is actually countless overlapping waves, a Webcomic Renaissance of diverse voices finally finding a platform to tell their stories. Though the age of crossovers may be over, webcomics has never lost its communal spirit: the primary inspiration for most of the new comics I encounter seems not to be print comics at all, but other webcomics.

I actually had no idea Crossover Wars was happening at the time and I’m kind of thankful for that.

So what do we learn from all this? The weird world of early webcomics was always a transitional period: a half-decade or so of creative people finding their footing in a relatively new artistic frontier, testing the limits of what was possible and figuring out what was good along the way by trial and error. And while those errors are perhaps the most memorable artifacts of that time, the rare successes are its true legacy – the good ideas and stories with real potential that gave the Vanguard a foundation to build on. I’ll always have a soft spot for the wild ambition and uninhibited nonsense of early webcomickers – who else could have possibly come up with an idea as off-the-fucking-wall as 2007’s Crossover Wars? – but ultimately the decline of fantasy soup and the rise of more focused stories has been a boon to the medium, increasing accessibility, popularity, and *ahem* quality.

So pour one out for the terrible comics that came before, but don’t disturb their graves. They don’t belong in this world anymore.

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