The Strip Archive of a webcomic is, at its simplest, a collection of the previous strips which are kept on line for the readers to read. While some premium series may charge a fee for archive access (either being only available to paying customers, or having just the most recent strip viewable for free), most series allow free access to the archive. The only stipulated limitation is that the reader not archive the strips separately, since many webcomics depend on banner ad hits for supplemental income. This is requested on the honor system, being otherwise unenforceable, but it's usually not worth bothering with for those who would break the rulesnote .
Many series have additional archive features, such as indexes, search engines, character descriptions, Story Arc summaries and so on, but the basis of the archive is just that: the older strips themselves.
Sequential art critics such as Scott McCloud predicted that web comics would have several advantages over print comics - Infinite Canvas, Multimedia Comics, Direct Demographics, Micro Payments, and other features made possible by computerization - which would lead to new forms of expression unique to webcomics. However, after a decade, these advances are less common than you'd think. Many of them proved to be too unwieldy, would limit the ability to sell print collections to fans later, and failed to take into account the part-time nature of most webcomic artists' work. As an artform, webcomics have by and large become an offshoot of their print equivalents.
Despite this, one aspect of being online which has had a dramatic effect on webcomics is one which most enthusiasts had completely missed: the immediate and continuous availability of the full series archive.
The Strip Archive dramatically shapes both webcomics and the expectations of the fan base; in effect, the strip archive dramatically extends the reader's attention spans, even over sporadically updated strips. Because new readers can familiarize themselves with the whole series in a relatively short time, and older readers can easily re-read them to remain familiar with the whole storyline, the authors can write much longer Story Arcs than would be feasible in most sorts of print comics. Conversely, it places great pressure on the artists to retain continuity (in series that have any continuity at all), as fans can go over the series with a metaphorical microscope at will.
One side effect of this is that most major series have a core of intensely devoted fans who may well know the series better than the author does. Another is the reversal in going from Comic-Book Time to Webcomic Time: Whereas print comics often have a sliding time scale that is shorter than the total in-story time of the series, webcomics tend to dilate time such that several months or years of strips may only cover a day or less. This would be impossible without the Strip Archive, as readers would soon lose sight of events, a problem which has appeared in print daily strips such as For Better or for Worse or Doonesbury.
Some traditional newspaper comics have started posting their archives online as well. For example, the entire 30+ year run of Garfield is now available online, free and colorized. Can, and does, lead to Archive Binge.
- Nearly every webcomic has open archives. This is a basic feature of webcomics themselves.
- Bob and George is one among many long, finished webcomics, but due to its nature, particular attention is paid to make the archive accessible. It is divided into helpfully descriptive chapters, partially annotated, and can be displayed seven at a time for speed-reading.
- MS Paint Masterpieces gives readers the option of reading anywhere from one to ten comics at a time.
- Irregular Webcomic! has its archives dividable by separate themes. They also can be viewed five at a time for speed reading.
- The Doonesbury website now has a "Doonesbury Flashbacks" feature, which displays the strips corresponding to today's date 5, 10, 15...to 35 years ago.