Web comic artists are a competitive lot, and at first there doesn’t really seem to be a reason why. With television you can pretty much only watch one channel at a time, so until everyone has a DVR, there’s still a very real need to “outdo” your competitors in your time slot. In comic books people are only going to have so much money they’re willing to spend on books week to week: you have to make sure that yours is the book they’re reading. These imperatives don’t exist in the web comic world: reading one comic never prevents you from reading another comic, and in general they’re free. The free part is important: in other media, no matter what people actually think of the work, at least you’re basically always going to get paid for your contribution. Christopher Walken gets paid millions for every movie he shows up in, whether or not it’s a flop in the box office (this may account for why Walken was in almost every other movie that came out for a while there.)
There’s little to no money for most of the people who make web comics. You could fit all the artists making good money off of web comics in one apartment, and maybe get a decent reality show out of the deal. Donations and ad revenue largely go to maintaining the site or towards art supplies. T-shirt sales can bring in good money, but the tricky part is that only a small minority will want to buy a shirt just because it has their favorite characters on it. If you don’t have the right eye for design when creating a T-shirt people will like no matter who’s on it (and trust me, the skills of design and cartooning don’t always intersect) then you’re only going to sell a few shirts to your most hardcore fans. Most business ventures all start with another problem: it takes money to make money. Plush toys are tremendously popular, but it costs hundreds of dollars just to get a prototype built, let alone a whole line of dolls. With so few prospects to make money, is it any wonder that those who are making so little can get jealous of those who make any at all?
It’s not all money, though. For most people there are rarely any outside incentives to keep going on a comic. It takes a lot of time out of your day, you have to maintain a website, and you have to deal with the chance of harsh criticisms lobbied at your work. Even when you love your characters and their world, if no one is reading it one tends to feel a bit silly about bothering to put it out on the internet in the first place. If I’m going to be the only one looking at it anyway, I might as well save myself the cost of hosting and just leave it in my notebook. What really gets you, though; what just buries itself into your brain and digs away at it with a rusty spoon is… that comic. It doesn’t matter which one. But every web comic author has experienced that comic at least once. Maybe the art is just terrible. Maybe it’s the worst story you’ve ever read, but it has loads of fan service. It could be crude, or boring, or perhaps it’s painfully pretentious. The important part is that you can’t stand that comic.
And it’s got way more readers than you.
It doesn’t even have to be crazy popular: just more popular than one’s own work. Why even bother trying to please the masses if they’re already wasting their time with this garbage? There’s definitely a sense of rejection about the whole thing, though it’s easy to feel guilty about these feelings. After all, what are the odds the people would specifically be reading your comic if that comic didn’t exist? It’s a big audience, and with a lot of specific tastes. But really, for most of us, visitor numbers is all we have. There’s no money at the end of the week for us to say, “Well, at least I’m getting the bills paid.”
So you start signing up for all the top 100 webcomic lists, joining forums, maybe write a few scathing reviews about that comic (or, Hell, those comics). The important part is that you want your comic to be important to someone besides yourself. Who knows: maybe you’re just trying to make it important to yourself as well. Why else would you spend so much time on it? You’ve gotta do all you can to get the word out (y’know, short of buying ad space. Who’s got that kind of money these days?). The most interesting one to me are the web comic lists. I’ll give you a quick rundown in case you’re not familiar with the idea: you join the site because it’s basically free advertising. All you do is put a button on your web page, fans click the button, and every click is a vote for your comic. They list the comics based on who gets the most votes, with the top 10 usually rewarded by having their actual banners displayed (instead of just having their name in the list). It’s kind of fun, actually, to monitor yourself a bit. You can also set up a system of vote incentives, which is a great place to make use of the odd sketches or wallpapers artists tend to make from time to time.
The problem comes when people start to take things too seriously. I remember getting into a brief argument with somebody because I was publicly lamenting how my comic was less popular than a mediocre Sonic sprite comic (apparently they didn’t think they were as mediocre as I did). There’s also the little problem that the only people who consistently benefit from these top lists are the people who are already popular, since they’re the ones whose comics are at the top where the banners actually show up. You find yourself staring at them with a little more scrutiny than other comics you read. It’s all too easy to find yourself looking at some aspect of the comic and deciding, “Oh, that’s only popular because of X. I may not be as popular, but at least I don’t rely on X to get me readers.”
I think it comes from an inherent need to be important: to matter to the world at large. It’s probably some extension of basic survival instincts: whatever you do, you want to be good enough at doing it that other people will want to procreate with you so their children are likely to be able to do that thing well also. In general, no matter what you’re doing, if you do it well enough you’re bound to get recognition for it. Even the world’s fattest man gets a certificate for his efforts. This is especially true if it’s something you want to do. I mean, being the fastest cashier at McDonald’s is nice and all, but I can’t imagine there are a lot of people who dream of doing that for the rest of their lives.
One thing I’ve learned from my own experiences is that striving to be popular isn’t worth the effort if you don’t enjoy simply making your comic. Spending hours a day producing a web comic you don’t enjoy isn’t any different from working any other job 9-5 (except you probably get paid a lot less, if at all). I’m not saying that it’s bad to care about readers. Hell, it can be a lot of fun and rewarding. But try and play nice with the other authors, even the ones more popular than you. They’re usually in the same boat.