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Out of the Inkwell: Print Comics Now on the Web

A friend of mine, reading my last article for ComixTalk ("A World of Fantasy"), wondered how I could write a whole piece on fantasy webcomics without mentioning Girl Genius by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

So I had to admit that it was only the artwork and some of the dialogue that got me through the very slow opening section of that comic. And just as I was finally gleaning enough information to get a feel for the character and the setting, they tear the character out of the setting and throw her down some place new. I've tried, but Girl Genius just isn't for me.

Thinking about it, though, and with this summer's Comic Con International still on my mind, I realized that several webcomics that I do read were also once published on paper. So here I am, writing about Girl Genius without actually writing about it so I can focus instead on Finder by Carla Speed MacNeil, Xeno's Arrow by Greg Beettam and Stephen Geigen-Miller, and Galaxion by Tara Tallan.

I'd guess they all moved to web publication for similar financial reasons, but all these comics use the web in different ways. Girl Genius started its web career both with scans of the paper comic and with new pages that picked up where the last print edition had left off. It's then been advancing three times a week on both fronts; and now the reprinted material has caught up to the new material, and the entire saga is available for reading free of charge while new pages continue appearing. In other words, Girl Genius became a full-fledged webcomic.

Finder, though, doesn't seem to be interested in that. The comic itself is set in a far-future where Arthur C. Clarke's observation about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic is a fact of life. For those who can afford it, that is: everyone else clings to the edges, and Jaeger, an outsider everywhere he goes, moves between the various levels of society and finds things for himself and for others. Like the best science-fiction, it's more about the present than the future, and MacNeil's art and writing are absolutely breathtaking.

Finder by Carla Speed MacNeil

But reading the newest pages on the site is like putting down a novel after one page, then picking it up two or three days later for the next, a problem I also had, truth to tell, when the comic was still coming out as individual print issues. These aren't the sorts of stories that work well as serials, something MacNeil seems to feel, too: if you'd like to read earlier Finder stories, for instance, the site contains "first chapters" followed by links to places where you can buy the collections, and the story "Free Trade" looks like it's just scans of her rough, uninked pages.

Finder, in short, isn't a webcomic, not the way Girl Genius now is. MacNeil seems to be using the website mostly to keep herself on track, to make sure that she finishes so many pages in a certain amount of time so she can then have a collection ready for printing each year. These collections are the natural form for Finder, too, and I'd recommend them to you unreservedly.

Xeno's Arrow Xeno's Arrow is also a science-fiction story, as it happens, about a little round-headed alien who is discovered in a derelict spaceship by lizard people. The Lizards are the dominant culture in known space, and they decide which races are "civilized" and thereby entitled to full membership in galactic society and which races are "uncouth" and should be treated more or less as animals. Since they've never seen anything like this little alien, they name him Xeno and take him to their Zoo, where specimens of the uncouth races, regardless of their sapience, are housed until the Lizards decide they're fit to join civilization.

Beettam and Geigen-Miller published 16 issues of Xeno's Arrow on their own and through Radio Comix between Feb. 1999 and Dec. 2001, and with the exception of coloring the first issue, it's those same pages that've been appearing since Nov. 2006 in Modern Tales' "Longplay" section: they're trying to put up about half an old issue on the first Monday of every month.

This works well for folks who never saw the print comics, and I'm at least happy to wait the two more years it'll take for them to get to new material because I really like the characters. The relationship between Xeno and Dr. Brathwaite, the Head Zookeeper, is quite touching, and Xeno's clandestine interactions with other "guests" at the Zoo are equally well-written. A good thing, too, because the story is so slow-paced, I don't know if I'd be willing to stick with it otherwise. They've missed their last two scheduled updates, something I find a little disconcerting, but I'm hoping they'll keep at it, continue once they've got all the old comics scanned in, and become what I think of as a webcomic.

Galaxion by Tara TallanGalaxion, now, is what I call a webcomic. Another SF tale and one I never saw when it was in print, it's unique among the comics I'm writing about here because Tara Tallan has decided to start over from the beginning and not only redraw but rethink and rewrite her whole story.

In the web version, we meet Fusella Mierter as a student at the Terran Space Academy, then jump forward to her days as captain of the Galaxion, a small and slightly run-down ship. The story opens with the Galaxion having been tapped to take part in the testing of an experimental engine, and we're only now entering the second chapter, Tallan posting a new page every Tuesday since late last year over at Girlamatic.

The characters, the artwork, the dialogue, the plot: Galaxion combines them all very nicely, and with each page advancing the overall story, it works as a serial, too, even at its weekly pace. Maybe it's just that this is the only one here that I wasn't familiar with before, but it's definitely the one I look forward to the most. Tallan has shown me that she can tell a story, and I'm very interested to see where this one's going.

None of these comics, though, is a clear-cut case of a creator abandoning print for the web, but then that's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking to see how well the various creators are using the web as an alternate means of distribution: after all, you put your comic on the web, it should work as a webcomic. Girl Genius and Galaxion definitely do, while the jury's still out on Xeno's Arrow, and Finder has always been too densely plotted for me to read easily in a serial fashion.

As costs for ink and paper increase, it'll be interesting to see how other former print comics handle the web.