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Art & Narrative: Splitting the Atom Or A Comic Call to Arms

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.

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

dunk's picture

Point taken Alexander. There are a number of great sites (including Shades of December) publishing long-form comics on a regular or semi-regular basis. As you pointed out, they aren't paying markets, and I was trying to draw attention to the relatively recent change in publishing attitudes, but in retorspect, I should have said more about what's already out there, because of course, someone has to be willing to take teh risk and publish the material before anyone is going to be willing to pay for it. It's part of the process.

I had considered including Unbound Comics among the various publishers that I mentioned, but I wasn't sure whether or not they weren't simply replicating the conventions of print comics in a digital format. I confess, I haven't actually downloaded an issue, and I may change my mind when I do, but I think that one of the things that hampers the evolution of webcomics is a tendency to adapt print conventions which limit what we do with the medium.

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

dunk's picture

I think you'e hit the proverbial nail on the head Thomas. It takes much more time to produce a long-form webcomics than it does to produce a strip, and you lose readers in the doldrums between pieces. Everyone is so used to getting things quickly on the net that they find it hard to wait for such things.

I think one of the major benefits of long-form publishers is that they stand a chance to gather together enough good material that the weight of the readership isn't all based on one creator, and many creators can be working in tandem to produce a sort of anthology site.

These things are starting, but I think that there will e penty mor to come over the next few years as more and more creators take the web more seriously.

Thanks for chiming in :)

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

For about 5 years now we over at www.gutterflycomix.com have been building a long form comics publishing site as well. Though strip comics are great I do believe the use of the internet and all the things it has to offer can be far better utilized in todays webcomics. The thing that I think hurts alot of long form comics artist and pubishers is the time in which it takes to produce and read them and the time in which most people who frequent the web are used to waiting for things on the net. For now people dont want to spend any time doing any one thing too long on the net, but I feel one day the net will evolve into a more user friendly and user plentiful media that long form webcomics will fit very nicely in.

Thanx,
Thomas Clemmons
www.gutterflycomix.com
www.cafepress.com/gutterflycomix

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

Joe Zabel's picture

Bill-- Thanks for the Longplay plug!

Your column is quite well written and you obviously have a good grasp on the signifigance of McCloud's groundbreaking books to the artform as a whole.

It's especially gratifying to read your views regarding longform comics. It certainly is my belief that they're an essential next step forward for the medium in its online incarnation.

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

Joe Zabel's picture

Quite right, Alex! Not to mention many individual artists who've posted their longform works individually-- Nowhere Girl comes to mind.

That sounds like an excellent idea for a Comixpedia feature-- a survey of major long-form comics anthology sites!

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

My webcomic is 100% ongoing. I too am a big fan of this development and have received a few positive comments about starting my comic like this from the get go as opposed to evolving a longer story out of a primarily gag oriented strip. I've envisioned Genre City: Plan B as an extremely large story from the get go, and add two fresh full color pages to its narrative every week.

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

DOn't forget about KeenSpot Premium! Crosby posted this month that they were making money from Premium subscriptions.

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

While I adore Longplay, and Evolution sounds really promising, I just wanted to point out that there are a handful of publishers who've been around and putting out longform comics for quite awhile, though without the buzz that Longplay has managed to generate.

Unbound Comics (www.unboundcomics.com) publishes comics in e-book form, including Web-izations of exiting print comics, as well as original work, and have been doing so for almost two years. They're a paying market too.

NextComics (www.nextcomics.com) and Opi8 (www.opi8.com) have been publishing medium length fiction pieces for at least as long. As does my own literary magazine, Shades of December (www.shadesofdecember.com). Admittedly, these sites aren't paying markets, but they still deserve acknowledgement for their contributions to the form.

Despite my picking, great article, Bill. Long form Webcomics are what I'm really excited about, so I'm really glad to see them getting recognition.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

Re: Art & Narrative by Bill Duncan

You are correct about Unbound Comics being focussed primarily on comics that follow print conventions -- this is due in part to the fact that one of their goals is to bring old out-of-print comics back into the public eye in a cost-effective manner. But yes, even much of their original work is formatted for print.

I don't think it's fair to hold this against them though. I think there's an important distiction between digital comics (which is about expanding the art form) and webcomics (which is about expanding distribution). I realize the term webcomics has become ubiquitous, but I think it's important to note that the term doesn't really say anything about *what* the comic is, just *where* it is. My point being, just because many UC creators aren't visually innovating in the same way as a Garza or Goodbrey doesn't mean they aren't producing good webcomics. Besides which, I think there's something to be said for the ability to find new ways to tell a good story within established conventions.

Lastly, I would also point out that many of the stories on Longplay are also faollowing print conventions -- look at this month's Chutney Point, for instance, which could easily be printed as an Oni style trade.

I should also confess that I'm one of the submissions editors at UC.

BTW -- I'm certainly not offended that Shades of December got left out. In the world of webcomics, we're a very minor player. What I see as our main accomplishment is getting comics out to the literary community, more than expanding its scope within the comics community.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments