Thursday, April 7, 2011


I love comics.  Lots of people love comics and lots of people love webcomics.  I'm not unique in this regard, and in fact nothing I have to say at this juncture is really unique.

Webcomics are the latest iteration of the comic genre.  As difficult as it can be to generate comics on a professional level, there are lots of people making comics that never get off the drawing board.  They write, they draw, and they don't get seen.  Large companies with large budgets and large expenses can't afford to generate comics for every little writer and artist out there.  There has to be an audience big enough to push the sales past the break-even point.  There has to be enough people willing to make the purchase to validate the production.

You can't easily afford to be edgy, to be marginal.  You can't easily afford to not have a distinctive style or an unfamiliar plot.

What if some of those issues just go away?  Take out the gigantic expensive printing press, remove the bulky logistical staff and sales teams, the offices and all that.  What's left?

A writer.  An artist.  Both might be the same guy.  Maybe you just have a couple of people, but it gets to be pretty basic pretty quickly.  You get back to the core of the storytelling genre, one person with a story, telling it to the best of his/her ability.

Scott McCloud may be the Zen master of the comic art.  His body of work, aside from his contribution to actual comic titles (I have all of Zot!, though some is in graphic novel form) is uniquely introspective.  You don't see that many cartoonists that have made more of a splash talking about the craft of comics than they have as actual artists.  McCloud's books, Making Comics, Understanding Comics, and Reinventing Comics are permanent residents on my bookshelf.

McCloud's take on the craft of comics is like that philosophical question defining intelligence and awareness - every creature thinks, but only the intelligent creatures think about what they're thinking about.

Don't spend a lot of time on that.  I did once, and it started to make my head pound.  Too much self-awareness makes you forget what you're doing.

So I have an indelible love of print comics, but even so I haven't missed the boat.  Webcomics came on with a rush and I found a few that I thought were pretty interesting, but after a while you could feel the artist (or writer, whoever) losing direction or just losing interest.  When it used to update every day, then three times a week, then Mondays and Fridays, you know someone is caring less.  It'll be gone soon.

On the other hand, sometimes the pace quickens.  Sinfest and Questionable Content both used to post less frequently than they do; Sinfest even posts new comics on Saturday and Sunday.  Warning: both have occasionally coarse language.  And frankly QC can sometimes be downright shocking.  That said, it's also a hugely engaging story.  I've been reading it since day one: 2003.  There's over 1700 strips on the archive so if you want to catch up, don't plan on getting it all done in one sitting.  You'll also note that the quality of the art is off the charts - at the beginning, QC's writer and artist Jeph Jacques was not a noteworthy cartoonist (in my opinion).  But as you advance through the strips, there's a consistent, linear progression of art quality.  As they say, practice makes perfect.  If it never improved again from where it is now, I'd say that it was more than good enough.

Sinfest and QC follow distinct forms.  Sinfest during the week is three or four frames like a daily newspaper comic.  QC is four frames, very rarely there might be an extra.  QC goes in a vertical progression, so it's both scroll wheel and up-down button friendly.  Sinfest's Sunday iteration is a big, color spread like a Sunday paper comic, very nice.  And before you get turned off by the name, Sinfest doesn't live up to its name - spiritual topics get some serious exploration, and it can be touchingly sentimental.

But the web is so much more than a sheet of paper.  The comic I think that best exploits the potentially limitless canvas is the now defunct Framed! by Damonk.  In the years since Framed! wrapped up, the support has gotten a little wonky, at least on my end.  Your mileage may vary.

Perhaps the greatest thing the Internet has made available to comic creators is space.  Bill Watterson said it when writing about creating Calvin and Hobbes that in the comics, space equals time.  You get to draw out the perceived duration of a gag, an interaction between two characters, anything.  Just putting some space between whatever is supposed to represent then and what becomes now implies a greater span of time between them.  It's nothing we've been taught, but we've picked it up by reading comics.  The psychology of visual communication is fascinating stuff, and nowhere does it come more into play in such a direct way than comics, when it becomes an integral part of the story.

Some artists can do a bang-up job of making a whole, quick little story out of a single panel.  Bil Keane has done it for literally decades.  Gary Larson made more people scratch their heads over fewer square inches of the funny pages than anyone else, ever.  But when you have so much potential real estate to play with, why would you ever limit yourself in such fashion?

I don't know if Larson and Keane and any of the other single-panel artists ever made the conscious decision to pursue that format as a way to make sales.  I imagine a single panel is an easier sell to a paper than a strip.  But on the web, you're never limited to a panel.  You're not even limited to a Sunday half-page layout.  One of Damonk's strips was so big, I was reading the page for about five minutes, and mousing left, right, up and down - all over the page.  The navigation itself became part of the story, and it was both brilliant and hilarious.  Especially the bit with the snarky signpost.

So you'll see it in the news now and then that print news is suffering, that magazines are having trouble keeping readers, or finding new ones.  They're right, they are.  And for good reason - online is cheaper to do, quicker, easier.  With the growing sales of iPads, smart phones and other portable devices, it's easy to take your online news sources with you, nearly as conveniently as the old print versions.  And what of your favorite comics, the funny papers?  Fear not.

They're already online, waiting for you.  All your old favorites and so many more you've never even heard of.  It's a beautiful world out there.

Let's go exploring!

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