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Beyond Journal Comics: Life-like Webcomics

If there’s a favorite pastime among the literary criticism set, it’s probably defining terms.

Well, maybe tearing down some piece of sub-standard work, closely followed by defining terms.

In anticipation of this month’s theme, which is a "beyond journal comics" look at webcomics that build from reality, we thought we’d open a discussion of what might be included in this genre.

First up is the king of the "my life" perspective, the journal comic. The journal comic is a very popular subgenre, probably because it has a certain amount of simplicity to it. Just document your day or your week. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy, as comickers often struggle with the material of their lives to condense something readable and interesting from it all. Facing the blank page is probably the most common topic of journal entries. But the raw material is at hand – no plots to track, no fictional backgrounds to create, no baby books full of possible names for new characters. As discussed last month, many comickers start out basing their comics on a semi-autobiographical representation of their lives in college, but eventually give up and throw in extra elements.

We could debate whether illustrated blogs should be considered part of the journal comic subgenre or its own subgenre, but we might get lost in semantics and that’s never a good place to be without an excellent map.

Autobiography is a deeper look by the comic creator at her own life. We are differentiating the journal comic (and illustrated blog) from the autobiography by focusing on the level of detail. On any given day, a journal comic might cover what the author had for breakfast or discuss the vagaries of a dead-end job. The autobiographical comic looks at the bigger picture. For our purposes, the autobiographical comic is the story of a person, narrated by that person. It can be a complete life or some portion of personal history, excerpting an important event or chronicling some portion of the narrator’s life. Conclusions may be drawn ("this is how I became an artist") and the daily details are abridged.

The biographical comic is the history of a person’s life, or some portion of it, as documented by someone other than the subject. In a biographical comic, the author is narrating portions of a person’s life or providing some sort of overview of that person’s life and work. Biographical comics don’t seem to be terribly popular online. Where are the Speigelman and the Sacco of the online crowd? In print we have a whole series of illustrated works like Introducing Kafka and Introducing Camus, but there doesn’t seem to be any equivalent online. The nearest we might come is Teaching Baby Paranoia where Bryant Paul Johnson brings reality, biography and creativity together to create frisson and doubt. Of course, one has to believe Johnson's webcomic contain true tales.

Rounding out our discussion of terms, beyond autobiographical and biographical work, there is realism. It’s existed forever of course, but realism officially came to life as a literary movement in the nineteenth century. Proponents of realism attempted to represent people and society in ways that seemed true to life, rather than romanticized.
Within realism is the slice of life work, wherein some part of a person or character’s life is narrated, but very little happens and no conclusions are drawn. Slice of life stories are like portraits and consist of moments or a series of moment that may or may not mean anything. There are many moments within journal comics and illustrated blogs that definitely fall within the slice of life category, but there don’t seem to be any devoted to that type of portrayal.

The vast majority of webcomics look at the trivial moments of daily life without delving into deeper issues. Whereas many print creators are examining their personal histories, seeking some understanding of the past or making an effort to tell a good story, webcomickers are not doing that kind of work. Any of these types of comics can also narrate the "life" of an object. Where are the webcomic versions of The Evolution of Useful Things (by Henry Petroski) or meditation on particular critters, ala Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (by Mark Kurlansky)? These stories could be framed humorously as an autobiography or with serious intent to provide societal context in a biography. Instead we get ruminations on bad cooking and boring jobs.

Here’s to hoping that these journaling artists decide to take it to the next level.

Re: Beyond Journal Comics: Life-like Webcomics by Kelly J. Coope

I find it interesting that this article ends by wondering why webcomics don't have anything like the creative nonfiction books that seem to be spawned in multitudes to weigh down the racks at Barnes and Noble and clog NPR's air time. I think the simplest reason why there are no webcomics like that is that there's simply no need. Nonfiction is the most popular genre of book and it gets vast amounts of space and attention in the mainstream media and book outlets. Why would anyone who had done the research and had the skill to write in this genre well prefer to launch their works into webcomics obscurity? It's not like the comic form is better suited to the task of nonfiction. Prose is brilliant at conveying lots of information.

The reason I think that this is an interesting suggestion, though, is that it would mean replacing a form more or less unique both to comics and to the internet (there are some pre-internet examples of what would be called journal comics and one could argue that a journal comic is just comics' answer to the blog, but the journal comic as we know it is a unique creature). If webcomics are going to make a significant contribution to the arts, it is going to be by playing to their unique strengths, not by covering ground covered better elsewhere. Is every journal comic a work of genius? No. But that's a big part of the point. The journal comic records life at life's speed and in the hands of good artists like Kochalka or Kean Soo, can take on a sense of depth and complexity. Journal comics make the statement that everyday life is interesting, damnit. We needn't necessarily cut out all of the details to make nonfiction fit a larger narrative mold.

In short, I disagree with the assertion that because journal comics don't meet the criteria of print nonfiction they are necessarily inferior. A different form needs to be judged by different standards and the journal comic is a form worth preserving.

Connor Moran