Skip to main content

Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

As with everyone else in the webcomics 'scene,' I've been following the progress of webcomics experimentation with tremendous interest. I track experimental events over on Websnark. I make note of the many and sundry things that webcartoonists do that they simply couldn't do (or at least not do effectively) on paper. And, with time and energy, I've come to develop an opinion about experimentation in webcomics.

Namely, I'm against it.

Let me qualify that. I think those webcomics that truly break the mold, that truly break out of the constraints of the newsprint format, that truly do something new for artistic reasons are phenomenal. I read them and I support them. And I get truly excited when I see a webcomic and think "this wouldn't work on paper at all, but here on the web it works brilliantly."

However, that's frankly rare. Most of the time, experimental webcomics intend to be experimental before they're artistic -- they throw in touches or flourishes because they can, not because they should.

This is a necessary and good step in the evolution of any art form, mind. There has to be an avant garde, pushing the envelope of what art is, so that the artists who follow have the trail broken. You need someone to throw splatters of paint against the canvas to prove it can be done, before you can have a Jackson Pollack do it well and with artistic reason. You need someone to abandon meter and rhyme in poetry and end up with a mess, before you can have an E. E. Cummings (yes, we're allowed to capitalize his name these days) flirt with meter and rhyme and the abandonment of both willy nilly for aesthetic purposes.

And you need to have people who throw up long, overblown infinite canvas comic strips, sheerly because they can, before the artists who follow can do it well.

Obviously, the parent of Infinite Canvas on the Web is Scott McCloud. He's done plenty of experimental comics on the web, and they've been fun in their own way. Take Choose Your Own Carl, which was a reader-chosen multiple ending evolution based on an example McCloud used in Understanding Comics. Essentially, you had seed strips that people could then build divergent paths for, leading to different endings (well, generally the same ending -- Carl's death). It was clever, and fun in its own way, but if you read the Carl strips now, they come across as... well, clever.

And there is a world of difference between a clever online comic, and a good online comic.

Going from there on McCloud's site, we have a look at Zot! Online, which is a hard movement into Infinite Canvas (Carl was also an infinite canvas story, but of a very different sort). And it's well done. Heck, I liked Zot! back in the eighties, and Zot! Online proves McCloud knows his business still... but the Infinite Canvas bits left me feeling... almost distracted. "Oh, yes," I thought. "The canvas is infinite. How... clever."

It's not that it's bad. It's that the infinite canvas doesn't add much, aesthetically. He flirts with panel layout to suggest motion -- including some interesting multiple storyline tracks and a feel of falling -- and he doesn't make the elemental infinite canvas mistake of extending the canvas to the right instead of down (web browsers are designed to automate scrolling down. Right hand scrolling typically has to be done manually and not particularly intuitively. Needless to say, I'm not impressed with the Serializer.net homepage design).

But a good dose of the point of Zot! Online was to prove it could be done. And to inspire others to follow. And they have.

Some of them have done well. Others have done... not so well. (But their canvases are infinite! Oh yes indeed!) Some have tried to do Infinite Canvas for aesthetic effect and failed (there was a run in Fans! -- itself a webcomic that often goes to the experimental well and does it well, particularly with the alien species that speaks in "xenochicklets" -- where they did infinite canvas with story panels connected by chains. It tried to convey a sense of the story being chaotic. It succeeded at confusing what should have been straightforward). Others have taken up the Infinite Canvas toolset and succeeded -- often by making the Infinite Canvas secondary to their actual aesthetic purpose. My old favorite Queen of Wands comes to mind here. Aeire uses the canvas to tie her panels together, and to allow her to take the sequential art form and incorporate lush, almost short story amounts of dialogue to tell her story.

We're seeing a similar evolution in the use of Flash, right now. There are Flash Comics out there that use popup elements and navigation elements throughout. At the moment, most of these are doing it because they can, and it's more a distraction than an artistic decision. But with time we'll see more strips using the tools being forged to make more interesting and unique and -- above all -- artistic strips.

And if someone wants an example of things that appear on the web that couldn't appear on paper in their current form that impresses and excites me? Have a look at Vigilante, Ho! or No Stereotypes. Their canvases might be decidedly finite, but their use of shadow and gradation of color is staggering, and exploits the huge range available on the web to perfection. No newspaper could reproduce these strips without massively tightening their line screens (have a look at Opus if you don't believe me), and both broaden our expectations of what a webcomic can be.

Now that's exciting.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

m_estrugo's picture

Drats! There goes the idea I had for the second comic! I've got to think something else.


Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

See, what I would argue, with regard to the side-scrolling, isn't that creators should bear in mind that browsers are designed to automate downward scrolling. Instead, I would argue that browser designers ought to consider that there are people making use of side-scroll, and should build in funcionality to automate it. People have been using side-scrolls for a long time -- it's time the browser desgners caught on to that.

In any case, the mouse designers already have -- the first generation of mice with side-scroll wheels have been out for a while now. It's only a matter of time before that, or some other variant on the idea, becomes common.

As for a case where side-scrolling was absolutely the right decision: Drew Weing's "Pup Ponders the Heat Death of the Universe." Wouldn't have worked at all without infinite canvas, and wouldn't have worked nearly as well in vertical scroll as it did in horizontal.

All that said, though, your basic thesis -- that it's when experiments are turned toward aestetic purpose that they become genuinely relevant, rather than merely interesting -- is something I very much agree with.

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Eric Burns's picture

See, what I would argue, with regard to the side-scrolling, isn't that creators should bear in mind that browsers are designed to automate downward scrolling. Instead, I would argue that browser designers ought to consider that there are people making use of side-scroll, and should build in funcionality to automate it. People have been using side-scrolls for a long time -- it's time the browser desgners caught on to that.

Well, yeah, they should. But they haven't. Which means for the moment sidescrolling is a monumental pain in the neck.

That being said, let me add Patrick Farley's Delta Thrives to the list of side-scrolling infinite canvas comics that absolutely works and is gorgeous to boot. There is clear aesthetic thought informing Farley's decisions. (I only came across it after I turned the article in, or I'd have mentioned it. I may Snark it just because.)

Interestingly enough, Farley's Apocamon is about the best Flash online comic -- using Flash to produce aesthetic effects -- I've seen. Farley is a brilliant disciple of experimental comics, because everything he does is directly informed by artistic decisions, instead of purely to be experimental.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

"Which means for the moment sidescrolling is a monumental pain in the neck."

Browsers created within the last millenium support the following feature:

1- Click middle button on wheel mouse. You'll see a starting icon with some arrows on it.

2- Move the pointer in the appropriate direction to scroll. The further you move away from the starting icon, the faster you'll scroll.

3 -Go back the the starting icon when you want to stop scrolling.

Why, it's even easier than playing a MMORPG!

Really though, the main hurdle for any artist using an infinite canvas approach isn't an inaccessability to the work. It's the monstrous laziness of web-surfers, coupled with the whiney conservativeness of comics fans. People who want everything to move forward while staying exactly the same as it always was.

In some cases there is no reason to display the comic in an infinite canvas outside of the aesthetics of the creator, this is true. But on the other hand, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be done that way outside of the aesthetics of the creator either... aside from the reasons I mentioned above.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Some have tried to do Infinite Canvas for aesthetic effect and failed (there was a run in Fans! -- itself a webcomic that often goes to the experimental well and does it well, particularly with the alien species that speaks in "xenochicklets" -- where they did infinite canvas with story panels connected by chains. It tried to convey a sense of the story being chaotic. It succeeded at confusing what should have been straightforward).

A couple corrections. The aliens themselves are called "xenochiclets," a fair description of how they look. They speak in pictograms.

And the original layout for the "chains" story, "Bound," was so confusing to readers that we promptly abandoned it, revising it out of the archives as if it never were.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Eric's been mentioning me a fair amount lately. THIS'll teach him not to do that!

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

That works, but I find it too juddery for viewing image properly. If only it were possible to click-and-drag the screen contents as you can with pdf images in Acrobat, that would be ideal.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Eric Burns's picture

In some cases there is no reason to display the comic in an infinite canvas outside of the aesthetics of the creator, this is true. But on the other hand, there is absolutely no reason why they shouldn't be done that way outside of the aesthetics of the creator either... aside from the reasons I mentioned above.

Actually, in this I completely agree. If a creator does Infinite Canvas for aesthetic reasons (and I'd include William G's own infinite canvas work in this), I have no complaints. It's when it's done purely to do it that I wonder what the purpose was.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Eric Burns's picture

"And the original layout for the "chains" story, "Bound," was so confusing to readers that we promptly abandoned it, revising it out of the archives as if it never were."

Which if you think about it is a triumph for the web method all by itself. Live revisions is a huge advantage over print, any way you look at it.

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Eric Burns's picture

Damn my acknowledging ways!

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

Rob "Tragic Lad" Clerk is my personal favorite infinite-canvas guy, though that's as much to do with his general style as with the i-c. His trails ramble pretty much in all directions, and I think they give an interesting "exploring" feel.

There's some interesting stuff done in Marcus Muller's Infinite Canvas Application software (see the showcase page).

Re: Feeding Snarky by Eric Burns

"Live revisions is a huge advantage over print, any way you look at it."

Amen to that. It amazes me just how little live revision gets done. Though, I also have to say, I never found the "Bound" layout particularly confusing. I thought it worked fine.

Then again, I've never understood why people get so irritated by side-scrolling either, so what do I know?

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

Feedback from Neil Von Flue

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

There's a great and lively debate on Eric's column started by Von Flue on his LJ here:

http://www.livejournal.com/users/nvonflue/103524.html

And Eric's right in his LJ when he notices that Comixpedia doesn't always generate the kind of lively discussion that I suspect most of the contributors wish every article started.

Excerpt from Von Flue:

For the record, my stance is Experimenting IS the most important artistic merit. Just because someone hasn't used an infinite canvas to write another goddamn sprite/office/nerd comic made with fucking legos, or whatever you perceive as being of high quality, doesn't mean it is poor work. And also, for the b-side of that record, it's my understanding that Jackson Pollack WAS the first. He didn't wait for someone else to blaze that trail, He did it because it hadn't been done and he threw away the convention of what is "good" or has "Artistic merit". And that is precisely what makes his work important and the reason he is remembered... Not because he did it with a "higher quality" than the guy before him.

My other two cents is my perpetual bewilderment at how no matter what Comixpedia publishes, somebody hates it. :) In all seriousness, it's not easy to put this baby together. You think it's hard for creators to figure out how to support themselves to work full time on their art? It's outside of the laws of physics as we understand them to figure out how to do webcomic journalism full time. So I can appreciate that no matter what the theme of any issue, it will often disappoint those to whom the theme is particularly important, like in this case Von Flue finding a lot of fault with this issue. It's certainly not the first time an issue has not met someone's expectations. It won't be the last.

But to the extent we can encourage more discussion from the readership, the community, I'm all for it. I don't know Neil for example. Maybe he just dislikes Comixpedia too much to write here as opposed to his LJ. Maybe he just didn't feel like posting here. Maybe he had a ham sandwich that day... But wouldn't this site be all the more interesting if it was more inviting to robust, intelligent discussion? Not that there's not a lot of good discussion here already (particularly in the forums) but I am curious if there's more I/we can do to promote intelligent discussion, particularly in response to columns and articles, like Eric's.

Okay, putting my soapbox back... carry on... :)

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.

Re: Feedback from Neil Von Flue

Neal Von Flue's picture

I'm glad you noticed the discussion Xerxes! It was lively and Eric is very good to take time out and defend his position. I went back and forth about whether to post about it here, but didn't. The post was mainly about me putting away the critic hat and getting back to making comics. The irony here is that I spent the whole time being a critic! But by the time I was done whining, It didn't occur to me to cross post it here...

As far as me not liking this months content: You're right, I don't. I think there is ALOT more to experimental comics than PVP, comics McCLoud did 3 years ago, and the Infinite Canvas theory. But I didnt contribute to it so I'm not going to come here and complain specifically to you guys. Most of the posts I've seen here that criticize comixpedia end up being ignored or fired back upon (Although I'm sure, silently taken into account as well...)
Plus, I think I've already got enough of a curmudgeonly persona around here, and don't actively seek out to add to it by coming to your site and regularly bitching and complaining. LJ's are made for bitching, and here I try to keep my comments on the positive side (I think, gotta go look through my posting history...Well, maybe I should be more vocal, period).

With that being said, I have an enormous amount of respect for what you (and your contributors and editors) do here Xerxes, and how hard it is. I have tried to do it and have failed miserably. I still come back every week to see what you publish, I was impressed with Tymothi Godek's work in this month's issue, and that fact that Farley will be interviewed later. I may hold you to a high standard this month, because as you know, experimental is my thing, but don't think that I dislike what you do here by and large. You guys are still the best spot to get current webcomics news and discussion.

neAl

Re: Feedback from Neil Von Flue

I am curious if there's more I/we can do to promote intelligent discussion

Here comes the cynical response: "Don't invite comic fans."

And there it goes...

Re: Feedback from Neil Von Flue

Xaviar Xerexes's picture

I'm, uh, trying not to laugh at that :)

I run this place! Tip the piano player on the way out.