Getting On Board the Relationship

Webcomics, like most other narrative forms, rely upon interaction and conflict to drive their plots. Fight with your roommate, go out with friends, have dinner with your significant other, argue with a waiter, meet a new boyfriend’s buddies, have lunch with your ex’s new ex, or stave off an alien invasion and save the planet. These everyday occurrences provide a launching point to tell a story, develop a character, or make a point.

When we talk about relationships everyone’s first thought is usually the boyfriend or girlfriend type of attachment. But that’s far too limiting. There are an infinite number of relationship types out there and romantic ones are merely a subset. Family ties, friendships, professional or co-workers relationships, and housemate situations are some of the more common (and most often presented), but every day we interact with all sorts of people in all sorts of ways.

Many webcomics start off with one focus, like the painful interactions between college roommates, and then change to something else. College roommates are in fact a pretty common starting point for many webcomics, since quite a few webcomickers start their work while in college.

But often creators find that the basic traumas of surviving college, while emotionally immediate to the creator and chock full of interesting characters, do not make for much in the way of plot. Also, often the creator graduates (or leaves). Thus their angsty but somewhat idyllic webcomic worlds are invaded by aliens or mutations or demonic influences. But those plot devices, no matter how clever and interesting, depend upon how the characters react and interact with them to give them depth.

It’s the handling of these relationships that separates the good comics from those lacking depth. We learn about individuals by observing their actions and comparing (or contrasting) their words with what they actually do. And most actions require the presence of others. Sure, you could write an expository paragraph, or you could have one character explain something to another. The writers of all three CSI TV shows use the latter quite often – perhaps too often. But more development for both the characters and the plot comes from having the characters discuss (or argue or debate or gossip about) the topic with one another to both illuminate details for the reader and move things along. You often learn more about a character based on her responses to situations – verbal or physical – than you do from what she says. Actions speak louder than words.

Even a snarky commentary about plot re-caps or other violations of the fourth wall can let the reader know that the comic isn’t taking itself too seriously.

Probably second most popular a setting after college is high school. Or maybe high school is more popular than college? It’s hard to tell with the thousands of webcomics available for perusal. High school is an especially popular setting for manga or manga-influenced work, especially shoujo or girls’ comics. It’s possible that, given the structure of Japanese life, high school is the last place where people can easily mingle and experience a variety of social interactions. But even high school sometimes needs a good infusion of demons to make it more interesting.

Various observers of the high school setting, especially those who’ve studied the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer have noted that fighting monsters is a good way to present an externalized view of the many pressures on young people. It’s not always easy to see the subtle machinations of popularity and rejection worming its way into the psyche of a teenager. Add to that the stress of maintaining a secret, being special but not being appreciated for it, and having to make sacrifices – these are all issues that resonate with people going through those decisions that shape their character (in high school or beyond).

Are the monsters just symbols for difficult problems? Or do they represent our fear of the feral and uncontrollable? This brings us to another common way webcomics start off – with an entirely fantasy or science fiction-based setting. But, no matter how alien the characters or circumstances, we can only understand them within the context of our own experiences as human beings. But by using alien settings, the webcomic creator can explore prejudices, the hazards of assumptions and stereotypes, as well as all sorts of cultural differences in ways that may be too painful or too trite with normal human characters in familiar settings. That and blowing things up or jetting around the galaxy is just plain more fun than getting up early to go to work in a cubicle for 9 hours a day.

With as many antagonistic and other-worldly webcomics out there, it seems only fair to mention that quite a few of the most famous webcomics started out as buddy comics, albeit with a twist. Sluggy Freelance was an amusing romp with Torg and Riff, although the very first strip was about summoning Satan. Goats started off with Phillip and Jon sitting around watching TV while their goat, Toothgnip, picked up women in a local bar. Eventually, of course, they added a Satanic chicken. Penny Arcade started off being about two guys who play video games and experience (or perpetrate) a lot of strangeness. And it’s still pretty much the same, but possibly funnier. And stranger.

Buddy and partner comics have become popular enough that people have gone so far as to generate long lists of cartoon and comic character pairs. Very few are couples.

And the opposite of the buddy comic is the enemy interaction comic. Humans, North Americans in particular, are heavily influenced to NOT express their anger, even in healthy ways. This is especially true for women and kids. This intense pressure to not be angry sometimes finds other ways to express itself. Some, like sporting competition and webcomic creation, are probably healthy. Others, like killing sprees and robbery, not so much.

To touch on a few other popular relationships… While syndicated strips are normally best known for their family-friendly ways, there are a number of online comics that cover the family territory: Kevin & Kell by Bill Holbrook; WIGU by Jeffrey Rowland; Squinkers by Sandra Lamb; and Clan of the Cats by Jamie Robertson (which, while not for the young due to violent content, does focus greatly on three generations of women, their family and friends-based support systems, and their ancestry).

And, of course, the workplace comics like User Friendly, PvP, General Protection Fault, and Way of the Dodo should definitely get a mention. Many of us spend over a third of our lives at work. That’s gotta hurt, er, influence the work.

Relationships make the plot move forward, deepen our understanding of individual characters, provide creators with various ways to explicate and complicate stories, and generally make life more interesting. What would the original Star Wars trilogy have been without the conflict between Luke and Vader? What would The Great Gatsby have been without the attraction between Gatsby and Daisy? And what would Penny Arcade be without the friendship between Gabe and Tycho? Nothing! Or, at least, not nearly as interesting.

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.


  1. Hint: use a text editor rather than a word processor for editing HTML. ‘“’ isn’t ‘”‘ isn’t ‘”’.

  2. Exactly. Comixpedia usually does pretty well on that front already because we’re split between Macs and PCs so we try to pass along files that are txt or rtf. I think I just plain missed those goofy quote marks.

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