Panels and Pictures: Long Form Serialization
In the wake of last month's column on ordering in comic strips, a fortuitous juxtaposition of two webcomic updates in my feed reader got me thinking about serialization in webcomics, particularly the online serialization of long form narratives that are more graphic novel than comic strip. I came up with a few examples of webcomics I read that fall into this category, and I'm going to take this month to look at how the narrative and serialization are organized and how this affects the reading.
The two pages in question that started me on this topic are Chapter 12, Page 21 of Flipside and Page 36 of Issue 40 of Finder. I only recently started reading Flipside by Brion Foulke (I think Joey Manley mentioned it on Talk About Comics), so I ended up reading most of it in chapter-long chunks. The comic is done in a manga style and, as is typical of much manga, it often has a very slow pace.
The current chapter has spent a lot of pages on a single confrontation. Page 21 of Chapter 12 features four panels for a single action. For two weeks now, I've been reading the pages as they go up; I'm now seeing one page each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This makes for an extremely disjointed reading, particularly in scenes that move at a very slow pace (like the current scene). Clearly, no attempt has been made to make this read like a page by page serialization. Rather, the overarching narrative unit seems to be the chapter, which consists of a dozen or more pages. There is no narrative independence to each page. They are closely reliant upon each other, yet I read them at a distance. Instead of making me anxious to know what happens next, I find myself bored by the pace.
Reading Flipside one or more chapters at a time, I could quickly move through the pages, feeling a sense of the story developing and themes emerging. This gets lost when I read one page at a time, where each page is separated from the preceding one, not by a click of the mouse but by a span of days. As such, I'm going to give up on the feed for the comic and try to come back to it in a few weeks and read the chapter in its entirety.
Finder by Carla Speed McNeil is a print comic converted over to the web. The series was previously serialized in conventional comic issues and then collected into longer trade paperbacks. McNeil moved the comic over to the web to serialize online instead of in print issues. A new page is posted on Mondays and Thursdays.
Finder pages are generally more narratively rich than those in Flipside (that traditional comics vs manga narrative comparison), making it easier to read a page as a larger point of focus. There is a greater sense of each page as an individual unit and, as such, it makes the serialization more palatable. I've been reading Finder at the 2 page a week pace for months without tiring of it or feeling the need to wait for a larger chunk of reading, but it can get difficult sometimes to follow the more complicated parts. I have also found that I only really appreciate the comic when I go back and read the book all at once. McNeil's ultimate goal seems to be selling the books (there are 7 volumes preceding the online serialization) and this serialization method works quite well for this purpose. It isn't the ideal for the reader, but it is enough that you want to get the book.
Jenn Manley Lee's Dicebox is another long form narrative that updates one page at a time, but if you read back through the individual pages (hard to do on the website as she puts each "scene" into a long vertical scroll, merging the individual pages in the process) you'll see that each page is, in some sense, an individual narrative unit. The story progresses some in each page and each has a sense of unity both to itself and the longer narrative. Look at some pages in Chapter 7 Scene 4, which starts with Page 21 (5 panels), where Molly starts off asking a question of Mare. By the end of that page Molly has an answer to her question. The next page (7 panels) continues their conversation, with Molly providing context to her question. Page 23 (6 panels) starts with another question (not directly related to the previous page's discussion) and ends with Molly and Mary entering Griffen's room in a long panel that provides a slight narrative pause (note how the words are all at the left side of the panel, so the right side, where the reader ends up is a long slow silence). Page 24 (6 panels) again starts with a new path on the conversation and ends in a pause. And so on, throughout the scene, until the last panel that smoothly transitions into the next scene. The beauty of this, is that the reader gets updates to the comic that are both individual and linked to the whole. We can read each page as a micro-narrative, but each one is also linked in many ways to the ones that precede it and leads forward to the ones that follow. This form of serialization, the attention to the page, allows for a more satisfying week to week reading, more so than the less individualized pages of Flipside or Finder.
What Birds Know by Emelie Friberg and Mattias Thorelli is another recent addition to my webcomics reading list. I read the majority of the story in one long sitting but have been reading the serialization for a few weeks now. Instead of a one page at a time pace, What Birds Know comes out once a week with 3 pages at a time (so the website says, but sometimes it's 2 or 4 pages). While the individual pages are often short of narrative movement, as a group of three there is movement and room for progress and suspense. For instance, Page 155 is not much on its own, but in conjunction with the two subsequent pages (click on next page at the bottom of page 155), we not only see the story moving along but the excerpt also comes to a narrative point of suspense that increases the desire to come back next time. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem that the release of pages and these narrative movements are coordinated. Looking back at the release time for the different pages shows that often the updates take place at the middle of a movement, or cross over from a small climax to the follow-up in the same update. Regardless of this, getting a few pages at a time does help in following a longer, more complicated narrative.
Another smartly serialized long form narrative is Brian Ralph's Daybreak (irregularly serialized at New Bodega. Each update consists of 12 square panels in a vertical scroll, which, in the print version of Daybreak, is reformatted into two six panel pages. Similar to Dicebox, the updates are like mini-episodes. Take a look at part 33 and part 34. Part 33 starts in the morning and sets up the current situation of the protagonists (the fellow we see talking and the unnamed, unspeaking first person observer) and their need to climb the "other side" of wherever they are. It ends with the discovery of a knife and the guy putting it in the front of his sweatshirt. This image becomes the beginning of part 34, where we see the guy starting the previously mentioned climb. This episode focuses on the characters' climbing (up and down and up it seems, based on the perspective) and ends with a moment of suspense.
Neither episode would be quite as effective were they split into one page sections. The first half of episode 33 is almost a non-event. The mention of climbing in the sixth panel wouldn't connect as well to the next 6 panels (which contain nothing further on that front) as it does as part of the 12 panel whole that leads to the climbing episode. Similarly, episode 34 splits in half poorly, as it would again lead to a non-event page (6 panels of climbing with no ending that looks forward to the next episode). The unity of the updates allows for easier reading as they appear, even if they are two or three weeks apart. I don't always remember exactly what happened in the last episode, but each new episode is, at least, partly satisfying on its own.
I imagine that most webcomics creators publish pages on a regular schedule, one at a time, to maintain regular visits from their readers, and keep them interesting (and maybe advertising dollars?). For a comic strip that is one-off jokes or very loosely linked narratives, that works great. For those serializing longer narratives, it is worth considering how serialization schedule and the narrative coordinate. As I understand it, long-form webcomics narratives aren't as popular as other forms. Part of this may be the trouble with a page by page unrolling of a narrative that is meant to be read in multi-page sections. It's easy to get bored with a story when you see it one page at a time and those pages do not offer any forward movement, suspense, or something else to keep the reader interested.
In earlier days, having readers who knew to come back at regularly scheduled intervals was very important. There weren't many other options for notifying them of new updates, except for possible email lists (always problematic, I think). With the proliferation of feeds (and feed readers) and various webcomics tracking sites (OnlineComics.net, Piperka), I wonder if the need for such regular updates is still there. Readers of the traditional monthly comic book wait a month for the next episode; TV viewers wait a week for their next episode. What if instead of three pages spread out over a week, a webcomic offered three pages at once. Or 12 pages every month. In this way, the pages could be better organized as groups, better able to tell a story that invites the reader to come back and that allows for the reader to better follow subtler elements of the comic that are lost in a disjointed, one page at a time reading.
I do think that a daily serialization would be less problematic than my examples above. The less time between the individual pages, the easier it is to follow the narrative and make connections from one page to the next. But the most successful comic I read in this vein is Scary Go Round, which also successfully makes each page a more individuated unit.
It seems to me that if one considers the idea of having art and story that work together, that relate to each other, it should also be important to have a method of serialization that works with the narrative. Not all narratives should be read in small daily installments, and not all should be read in single page installments. Conversely, if you are publishing in such ways, think about how the narrative can connect with that method of serialization. Thoughtful serialization will not only be appreciated by readers, it can also strengthen the story.