Love him or leave him, no one has set the comics world on its ear in the last several years like Scott McCloud. His books Understanding Comics, and its sequel Reinventing Comics have challenged many preconceived notions of what comics are and still might be. Like a general marshalling his troops, McCloud has invigorated discussion and debate, and inspired a host of people to take up their pencils, markers and tablets to become part of the push towards whatever it is that Comics may become.
So, what are they becoming?
Comics have gained a certain level of momentum in recent years. Fueled by journalistic curiosity, film and television tie-ins, and the occasional university curriculum, comics have entered the public eye as something far more complex and relevant than the cheap and questionable form of entertainment they are sometimes perceived as being. But can Comics be Art? Could we consider Comics Literature?
Answering questions like these is difficult enough when we are basing our answers solely on what appears in print, but the waters are somewhat murkier when we turn our attention to webcomics.
Print comics, at the very least, have a history, and more importantly, an economic presence that carries with it a certain degree of legitimacy. There is, after all, a Comics Business, and some artists and writers actually make their living writing, drawing, or producing print comics. Under those circumstances, it’s not inconceivable that someone with sufficient talent, time and inspiration might produce the sort of works that elevate Comics to a level of legitimacy that the public generally reserves for other, more established art forms.
Webcomics, though they may bear a striking resemblance to their page-bound brethren, have little of their own history as yet. It is a relatively new medium by most standards, and the experimentation phase has only barely just begun.
Much of the visual vocabulary of webcomics has been borrowed from print, and the vast majority of what can be found online is of the (newspaper) comic-strip variety. Webcomics, for a variety of reasons, has been particularly suited to serialized strip adventures. The ‘Business of Webcomics’ has generally been geared towards the serialized strip. Until recently, Keenspot and Modern Tales , two of the most conspicuous webcomic publishers in the business, published little in the way of longer form comics (with John Barber‘s Vicious Souvenirs and Rick Smith‘s Shuck standing out as obvious exceptions).
There is nothing wrong with the serialized comic-strip model for webcomics. It is a perfectly acceptable narrative model, and an art in itself when done well; however, as a model the webcomic-strip depends heavily upon inherited conventions and restrictions that can limit a creator’s ability to explore the medium.
With the recent launch of Modern Tales Longplay, and the increased profile of new publishers like Evolution Comics, there seems to be some hope that money and long-form comics may be coming together on the internet. If that is the case, then we may very well be entering a new phase in the evolution of webcomics, taking one more step towards the kind of respectability and legitimacy that print Comics creators once only dreamed of.
If Comics can be Art and Literature, then it stands to reason that the potential to be those things also exists within Webcomics. That is not to say that it has to be those things, or that it has to conform to any one particular vision of what it may be. The potential to be is a powerful thing in itself, and in webcomics that potential is still largely untapped… like an atom, waiting to be split.