AlexChurchill agrees. The medium has unique expectations, constraints, and trends. It bears a lot of similarities to older media - most notably daily cartoons in newspapers. But one key difference is that people would normally buy a newspaper for something other than the cartoons, and idly flip to them as a diversion from the normal newspaper-reading. In other words, the comic itself didn't have to hold its audience - that was the newspaper's job.
Most webcomics aren't in that situation, of being carried by some other major source of viewers on which they can just tag themselves. Instead they have to attract, and keep, viewers on their own merits.
This doesn't mean they have to make their chief aim "to keep viewers", however. SunKitten is one of many authors of WebComics who have stated "that they draw what they want to draw and it's up to the audience to decide if that is what they want to read." (Kazuhiko's words.)
The aim of WebComics' authors will vary. Some will want to make jokes - certainly, comedy is a common theme to a large number of WebComics. Some will want to make cynical comments on the world. Some will want individual, one-off strips, or if there is any continuing story it'll be finished and wrapped up in about 10 strips. This is common in WebComics which started as newspaper comics, like Dilbert, Garfield, and so on, as well as being true of a number of web-native comics like PennyArcade.
But in contrast to this, many will want to tell a long story with genuine plot. And here is where a potential difficulty comes. The medium of a webcomic is very different to that of a book for telling a story. It's even different to that of a progressively-released story, chapter-by-chapter, for example BoyAndDarkness or most FanFiction above a certain size - or, for that matter, the FirstStory. In all of these cases, the author is free to spend a long time polishing the words (and pictures if applicable), checking for readability, getting comments from proofreaders, and so on.
WebComics aren't like that. If the author wants to tell a real story, they have to split it into small strip-sized sections. And each of these strips tend to be judged on their own merits. For example, PhoenixFeathers, /AngelMoxie and MegaTokyo (to pick three at random) have each often featured a joke at the end of strip, which is viewed as a punchline. This could very easily set up an expectation in viewers' minds that there should be a punchline to each strip, and so they get disappointed when the day's strip doesn't have a joke in it, even if there's plot advancement or characterisation.
There are some viewers who will be very happy to see the plot advancing, and not mind the absence of a specific joke. It's certainly true that it can hamper the WebComic author's job to try to insert a punchline every strip if there are other things they're trying to do. I suspect there are some viewers who wish the plot would advance faster and not get tied down with jokes so much. But some viewers, even if they're happy with plot and/or humour, can feel disappointed if strips seem to focus on characterisation, without either plot-advancement or punchlines.
Of course, it's impossible to please all of the people all of the time. And if a given WebComic isn't to a given viewer's taste, there's nothing forcing them to continue reading it. It's obvious that the people who keep coming back to read any given WebComic will be those who most like the things which the author does well, and/or who can cope best with the things the author does badly.
So an author shouldn't feel that they have to try to change their comic-authoring style to match their viewers' expectations. (Such attempts can never fully succeed anyway.) But at the same time, authors do seem to be interested in what their viewers think - who wouldn't be? - which is why discussion forums will often be present on a WebComic's website.
There are many different styles of WebComic, and things which can't be generalised about in a rant such as this can be discussed more meaningfully in specific cases. For example, if a WebComic author has stated they've got a plot which they're planning to tell over the course of some time period, but every strip appears to be just a joke with no continuity, then it's likely that the author is failing at their aim. Conversely, if the author has stated they're just aiming to comically critique current computer-game releases, then a lack of continuing plot isn't a failing on their part.
Writing a good WebComic isn't the same skill as telling a good story, drawing good pictures, or making good jokes. It can combine elements of all of these, as well as working to deadlines, communicating through words and pictures combined, and a variety of other aspects which haven't occurred to me, not having tried to write one myself. It is an interesting new medium.
Insert comments, disagreements, thoughts here. Please note I don't consider myself an authority on the topic, just someone who's read a few WebComics and had a few thoughts...
Vitenka thinks about WebComics. I'd disagree ith it HAVING to be a different medium. It CAN be a different medium, but some authors release their work in folios and manage to keep a similar pace of editing and chapter based story. Although reading such works is very annoying for the way I read webcomics (voraciously) it works for many people. Two examples (the first updates monthly, the second updates daily, using up a backlog, then goes into text mode, then has a break and cycles around again) [WishThree] and [ElfLife] for example.
There's an interesting point. Some people read webcomics daily - and some comics are set up for that, with punchlines and so forth. But even they often dive off into the realm of plot. [DandyAndCompany] is a good example. Many other people read comics in huge wodges of archive - and the TodaysComic? is only there to lure them in. If they like it, they read the archive. And some comics are well suited to THAT model. If you haven't already, read the first two chapters of [Xenith].
Both ways of reading comics work - as does 'read it while doing something else'. You got [MyWebcomic] while you read [MyNews] for a whgile, for example.
As for 'their own patterns' - I'd have to say most webcomics follow these stages:
I'd like to draw, oh what the heck, I'll slap it on the web.
Wow, someone liked it, ok, I'll draw more. All these other comics are doing it. It must be easy.
Oooh - I could do nifty web-based things.
Hmmm, running low on plot. Maybe we should try some running gag type humour.
Oh bum, I'm getting behind on my schedule. Better reschedule / take a break.
And then either they find their groove, or they die.
If they didn't die, then they slowly lose their core audience, who get bored of the same old thing over and over - but if they are good AND popular, then they gain new viewers at least as fast or faster.
Ending in "Help me, I can't pay my bandwidth bills"
From where only a few comics survive, becoming a real job.
The truly truly wonderful thing about webcomics is that there is one on ANY topic. It's at the stage webpages themselves were at maybe a decade ago - expanding rapidly, but still with identifiable subcommunities and identity. For example, [MissMab] can be found doing StandIn? comics all over the place, especially at [DragonTails] (whose forums she appears to live on)
But there are sooo many ways to make a webcomic. We are seeing genres emerge (gaming, blog, sprite...) but there are many many. And the audience on the internet is what, eighteen million now? No matter what trash you slam up someone will like it.
Case in point. I used to draw, when I was like EIGHT, this little cat thing in a sorta comic. A typical episode would be:
Some kind of unidentifiable scribble that might be a Rabbit.
I stylised it a bit, and slammed it on the web. At the time I was heavily into TeamFortressClassic? and so I put in dialogue about that. It's dead now, but in its time it clocked several thousand hits a day.
My only conclusion is that I cannot understand what people find funny.
I don't find it funny, and I created it.
It was drawn in MS-Paint for crying out loud. It's full of typos. Things are all over the place... And I was told that was part of its charm, and asked how much work it was to plan it out that way. MindBoggle?.
So yeah - WebComics are unique because they are easy to make, and someone is sure to enjoy them. They take more work to create than it looks. And the fact that you can get instant audience feedback (and the audience can get instant input) really gives them something normal comics don't have.
I'm not sure how well this applies to 'the big ones' - which don't have time to answer all their fanmail. But if they get that many viewers, they've obviously got something right. Though, as billions of comics ask "WHY do people like PennyArcade?"
Vitenka had a point, once, but appears to have lost it. Feel free to refactor that if you can divine it.