Art & Narrative: An Opportunity For Comics Discourse

One of the interesting offshoots of the webcomic model has been its propensity for sharing. Because very few people are actually making a living at this, ownership of a particular imaginary world or character has not become the political minefield that it is in print and animation. It is still possible for webcomics creators to ape one another, use someone else’s characters (with their permission, of course) and do the occasional cross-over. It is a luxury of not being in "business" that many webcomics creators have taken advantage of, and it’s a luxury, I believe, which takes comics places that print can only rarely go.

Over the last several months I’ve done my best to push the idea of comics as being a language, I’ve made reference to the grammar of comics, and the way in which the various elements of this language interact and inter-relate. But what about discourse? What about discussion, exchanges, and debate? Those are the things that make language vital and necessary, and one more reason why webcomics are so darn exciting.

Though it is not rampant among webcomics creators, the possibility exists of sharing stories, characters, art, and themes on a level that is limited only by the desire of the participating creators. Open source comics and open source characters open the door for a variety of creators with different skills and interests to cooperate in the creation of something that is far different from the traditional creator/publisher controlled fare that occupies most print comics.

Anyone familiar with the loosely associated comics which form the Dumbrella group has no doubt taken note of the various and sporadic appearances of the mysterious creature known as Spummy. Spummy, or Space Mummy as he is known to some, has played a part in several different storylines over the last several months. Spummy (and I’m not just saying this) is an excellent example of the kind of discourse that webcomics make possible. Though his development at the moment, he is a character defined by the co-operative efforts of a group of people working more or less independently. The decisions that each creator has made when including Spummy in their stories, and in choosing how he will interact with their own characters has helped to define who and what he is.

Another interesting experiment I came across several months ago is Jon Towers’ Non-Standard Assembly, which draws together such webcomics characters as Dodds Calavera, Annabelle Harper, Butch, Golem, the Red Robot (something of an "open" Source character in his own right), and Towers’ own Johnny Axx.

Non-Standard Assembly is Towers’, self-described, "open love letter to the webcomics community." It is a somewhat scaled-down version of "Arcadia City", which Towers describes as being an imaginary "nexus, where anyone from any webcomics could meet." Where Arcadia City required a massive amount of participation from other creators however, Non-Standard Assembly only required the permission of the five other creators.

Through the course of the TNA project, each of the characters has been given an opportunity to take part in a sort of loose dialogue with one another, wherein each character is given a brief opportunity to step outside of the reality they inhabit into a sort of meta-reality. All of it is imaginary of course, but if you’ve ever studied Greek philosophy, these sort of fictional dialogues might not seem wholely unfamiliar.

Discourse, discussion, debate. These are the tools we use to better understand those parts of our reality that cannot be easily defined – the intangibles. When webcomics step out of their singular and somewhat insular realities into a realm where creators and characters can exchange anything with one another, the possibilities are startling. A better understanding of any given character from his/her re-interpretation? A strengthening of connections between creators? These and other things are more readily available to webcomics than to print or animation.

Anyone who has taken part in an online jam, done a fill-in strip, or even submitted a piece of fan-art, in some way enters the creative discourse I’m talking about. Arcadia City, though I’m sure some might not see it that way, exists in every one of those exchanges, and as the webcomics community becomes more cohesive and sophisticated the possibilities for more sophisticated discourse also increase.

There may not be any future League of Extraordinary Gentlemens in print due to copyright and ownership laws, but perhaps there is still hope while those who publish comics online are willing to share and participate.

BIll Duncan