As with everyone else in the webcomics ‘scene,’ I’ve been following the progress of webcomics experimentation with tremendous interest. I track experimental events over on Websnark. I make note of the many and sundry things that webcartoonists do that they simply couldn’t do (or at least not do effectively) on paper. And, with time and energy, I’ve come to develop an opinion about experimentation in webcomics.
Namely, I’m against it.
Let me qualify that. I think those webcomics that truly break the mold, that truly break out of the constraints of the newsprint format, that truly do something new for artistic reasons are phenomenal. I read them and I support them. And I get truly excited when I see a webcomic and think "this wouldn’t work on paper at all, but here on the web it works brilliantly."
However, that’s frankly rare. Most of the time, experimental webcomics intend to be experimental before they’re artistic — they throw in touches or flourishes because they can, not because they should.
This is a necessary and good step in the evolution of any art form, mind. There has to be an avant garde, pushing the envelope of what art is, so that the artists who follow have the trail broken. You need someone to throw splatters of paint against the canvas to prove it can be done, before you can have a Jackson Pollack do it well and with artistic reason. You need someone to abandon meter and rhyme in poetry and end up with a mess, before you can have an E. E. Cummings (yes, we’re allowed to capitalize his name these days) flirt with meter and rhyme and the abandonment of both willy nilly for aesthetic purposes.
And you need to have people who throw up long, overblown infinite canvas comic strips, sheerly because they can, before the artists who follow can do it well.
Obviously, the parent of Infinite Canvas on the Web is Scott McCloud. He’s done plenty of experimental comics on the web, and they’ve been fun in their own way. Take Choose Your Own Carl, which was a reader-chosen multiple ending evolution based on an example McCloud used in Understanding Comics. Essentially, you had seed strips that people could then build divergent paths for, leading to different endings (well, generally the same ending — Carl’s death). It was clever, and fun in its own way, but if you read the Carl strips now, they come across as… well, clever.
And there is a world of difference between a clever online comic, and a good online comic.
Going from there on McCloud’s site, we have a look at Zot! Online, which is a hard movement into Infinite Canvas (Carl was also an infinite canvas story, but of a very different sort). And it’s well done. Heck, I liked Zot! back in the eighties, and Zot! Online proves McCloud knows his business still… but the Infinite Canvas bits left me feeling… almost distracted. "Oh, yes," I thought. "The canvas is infinite. How… clever."
It’s not that it’s bad. It’s that the infinite canvas doesn’t add much, aesthetically. He flirts with panel layout to suggest motion — including some interesting multiple storyline tracks and a feel of falling — and he doesn’t make the elemental infinite canvas mistake of extending the canvas to the right instead of down (web browsers are designed to automate scrolling down. Right hand scrolling typically has to be done manually and not particularly intuitively. Needless to say, I’m not impressed with the Serializer.net homepage design).
But a good dose of the point of Zot! Online was to prove it could be done. And to inspire others to follow. And they have.
Some of them have done well. Others have done… not so well. (But their canvases are infinite! Oh yes indeed!) Some have tried to do Infinite Canvas for aesthetic effect and failed (there was a run in Fans! — itself a webcomic that often goes to the experimental well and does it well, particularly with the alien species that speaks in "xenochicklets" — where they did infinite canvas with story panels connected by chains. It tried to convey a sense of the story being chaotic. It succeeded at confusing what should have been straightforward). Others have taken up the Infinite Canvas toolset and succeeded — often by making the Infinite Canvas secondary to their actual aesthetic purpose. My old favorite Queen of Wands comes to mind here. Aeire uses the canvas to tie her panels together, and to allow her to take the sequential art form and incorporate lush, almost short story amounts of dialogue to tell her story.
We’re seeing a similar evolution in the use of Flash, right now. There are Flash Comics out there that use popup elements and navigation elements throughout. At the moment, most of these are doing it because they can, and it’s more a distraction than an artistic decision. But with time we’ll see more strips using the tools being forged to make more interesting and unique and — above all — artistic strips.
And if someone wants an example of things that appear on the web that couldn’t appear on paper in their current form that impresses and excites me? Have a look at Vigilante, Ho! or No Stereotypes. Their canvases might be decidedly finite, but their use of shadow and gradation of color is staggering, and exploits the huge range available on the web to perfection. No newspaper could reproduce these strips without massively tightening their line screens (have a look at Opus if you don’t believe me), and both broaden our expectations of what a webcomic can be.
Now that’s exciting.