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Long Form Comics, Short Attention Spans…

When I got into comics, I figured that I knew how to write and draw comics pretty well—I had years of print comics under my belt, after all.  But, I was wrong, because presenting a long-form comic on the web calls some special considerations into account.

Since 2004, I’ve discovered the following:
  • Every episode should include at least one beat. “Beats” are the individual acts in a scene, just as scenes are individual elements of chapters and stories.  Another way to put this is that every episode should have some meat on the bone—it should advance the plot, or advance character development.
  • Every episode should end on a cliffhanger, because this keeps readers coming back.  To expand on this a bit, I usually say that every episode should end on a cliffhanger or a question, but really this is just a matter of degrees.  For example, the last panel in the episode may have the hero looking off panel and exclaiming: “You? What are you doing here?”  You’ve posed a question, and if readers want to know the answer they need to come back for the next update.
  • Long scenes don’t play as well in webcomics, and if a scene is too long then some readers will lose interest and maybe not come back.  As a standard, I figure four episodes or less makes for a good scene length.  If you make longer scenes, as I have sometimes done, break the scene loosely into acts.
  • Keep fights short and decisive.  Long, drawn out slugfests, as presented in many print comics, just don’t play as well on the web.  Readers don’t want to show up for each episode to an attack and reaction--think “compression,” not “decompression.”
  • Don’t dwell on depressing subjects overlong.  People read webcomics for enjoyment, and they don’t want to be brought down with really dreadful stuff.
  • Use flashbacks sparingly and even then in the most direct way.  In general, try to keep the comic chronological in delivery. This isn’t an issue in print comics, but, when you are only putting out two or three episodes a week, it’s hard for the reader to keep track of scenes within scenes.
  • Double-page spreads don’t work that well on the web.  Most computer screens aren’t big enough to take advantage of them.
A few more notes that I’ve learned on cartooning in general:
  • When inking, you don’t need to leave all the details in black areas.  In fact, it often looks better if you lose some of the lines, and let things be obscure.  Remember, shadow makes everything more dramatic!
  • In Photoshop, you can make a brush for almost anything, such as trees, rubble, smoke, etc.  Save them for reuse, and perhaps save them as tool presets as well.
  • No matter how the final panel will be cropped, draw the whole figure.  This avoids distortion, because everything connects to everything else.
  • Assume your readers are at least as smart as you are.  This means it’s okay to include subtext and symbolism.  Indeed, treat your characters like they have long continuities, played out over many years, even when they are new to the series.  The readers won’t understand everything the character refers to, but readers will pick up on most of it through context and inference.