Webcomics predate the World Wide Web and the commercialization of the internet by a few years, with the first webcomic being published through CompuServe in 1985. Though webcomics require a larger online community to gain widespread popularity through word-of-mouth, various webcomics pioneered the style of self-publishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In A History of Webcomics, cartoonist T. Campbell stated that "few strips from this period are remembered. But a few are notable early explorers of the art form."
Predating graphics on the Internet, an artist going by the name Eerie created a comic on the Internet using ANSI art, titled Inspector Dangerfuck. The earliest known online comic was Eric Millikin's Witches and Stitches, which he started uploading on CompuServe in 1985. By self-publishing on the internet, Millikin was able to share his work without having to worry over censorship and demographics. Witches and Stitches quickly rose to popularity, inspiring other artists to upload their works as well.
Joe Ekaitis' T.H.E. Fox was a furry webcomic that started in 1986. Initially published on CompuServe, Ekaitis moved on to Q-Link and GEnie as the internet grew. Early strips consisted of one panel each and were drawn as pixel art on a Commodore 64 KoalaPad, first using KoalaPainter, then Advanced OCP Art Studio. T.H.E. Fox was eventually renamed Thadeus and started featuring regularly drawn strips, before Ekaitis stopped updating the comic in 1998.
In the early 1990s, cartoonists at various United States universities produced comics through various Internet protocols. During this period, it was unclear which systems would turn out to be the most successful. Hans Bjordahl, student at the University of Colorado at the time, started posting Where the Buffalo Roam on April 15, 1992 on Usenet, in GIF and PostScript format. Sharing the comic through the Internet, its readership extended through a few states. Even in 1995, cartoonist Dominic White published his comics The Internet Explorer Kit for the Macintosh and Slugs through Gopher rather than the World Wide Web, despite the latter rapidly gaining popularity.
The first strip of Stafford Huyler's NetBoy was uploaded on the World Wide Web in July 1993. Being described as an early example of nerd humor, the stick figure comic made frequent references to technical topics most people with an Internet connection at the time would have knowledge of. Huyler later started the spin-off comic U.Nox, about system administrator Uri Noxen. Despite the small size of Huyler's early NetBoy comics (10 kilobytes), the server it was hosted on would crash when the strip got over six visits per second. In response to the webcomic's increasing popularity, Huyler built a stronger server himself. Despite these limitations, Huyler pioneered the concept of infinite canvas, uploading strips in shapes and sizes impossible in print.
In November 1994, Reinder Dijkhuis started publishing Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan on the World Wide Web, making it the first known webcomic created outside of the United States. Webcomics popular on the internet in January 1995 included NetBoy, Aaron A. Aardvark, and The Afterlife of Bob. At this point, fans of traditional comics such as Calvin and Hobbes started sharing such copyrighted comic strips on the internet. By the end of 1995, there existed hundreds of webcomics, most of which were derived from college newspaper comics, and most were short-lived.
The first major webcomic portal, Big Panda, started in the second half of the 1990s. Big Panda hosted over 770 webcomics, including Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly, which started in 1997. Big Panda's discontinuation resulted in the formation of Keenspot in 2000. In 1995, Dilbert became the first syndicated comic strip to be published through the Internet.
Though the genre was popularized by PvP, the first video game webcomic was Chris Morisson's Polymer City Chronicles, which started being published on the World Wide Web in 1995. Three years later, in 1998, Jay Resop started the first sprite comic, Neglected Mario Characters. In August 2000, Sean McGuinness started Twisted Kaiju Theater, which is frequently cited to be the first photographic webcomic.