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Looking back at Scott McCloud’s ten webcomic tips

As a change of pace, I thought it would be nice to take a look at something written about webcomics but one of sequential art’s most influential voices: Scott McCloud.

McCloud’s thoughts on webcomics, which were written nine years ago, often get a bad rep because he was wrong on the micropayments issue. (Chief antagonist: Scott Kurtz, unsurprisingly.) That’s unfair; no one can really predict which economic model eventually succeeds over the other, since it’s the market (e.g., the audience) that ultimately decides what or what doesn’t work. I seem to remember experts laughing at Apple for offering songs at $0.99 when you can get them on Kazaa for free. Yet Steve Jobs is out there, laughing himself all the way to the bank on his iTunes money.

Micropayments, though, aren’t the only thing McCloud wrote about. He also compiled a list, perhaps overly optimistic, of where he would like to see webcomics as a field transcend to in the future. His ten tips were encapsulated in comic form within the panels of I Can’t Stop Thinking! #3.

Do they still hold up today? Or has time and the demands of the readers proved him wrong?

#10 – Choose your name wisely.

This is always a good tip. I’ll bet when Josh Lesnick created Girly, he didn’t think about the perils of having to secure a very expensive domain name. (The comic’s been on gogirly.com and is currently at girlyyy.com.) I’d also suggest googling a title ahead of time and seeing what pops up. “Find Chuck Norris” might be an awesome name for a comic, but it’ll probably end up on the 30th page of hits after “Google won’t search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don’t find Chuck Norris, he finds you.”

#9 – Don’t make ‘em hunt and peck.

McCloud’s tip is to use the image itself as link to move you to the next page. I don’t know if this is such a great tip anymore. First, the page forward and page back buttons are more or less standardized now. Second, this tip may have been defeated by new technology. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to zoom in to a comic page using the double tap on the iPod Touch, only to inadvertently click on a link that you weren’t expecting. It’s MADDENING.

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#8 – Think before you hatch.

Use cross-hatching sparingly. This will probably be the most controversial ruling, since most people will argue that art has no boundaries man, and you shouldn’t limit how an artist does his or her work. But the reality is that art does has boundaries, one of which is the medium. Webcomics are presented on a light-emitting screen. Simple, clean shapes just look better. I think that’s why so many webcomics created using Flash continue to thrive: they’re just more aesthetically appealing than an overly cross-hatched comic that looks like it came from an alternative weekly on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

#7 – Get your fingernails dirty.

Scott here is saying that you should learn HTML. Now, while learning HTML is always a good idea, coding has gotten far more complicated these days than it was in 2000. Perhaps it’s a good tip in the long run, when you want to give your site a distinct look. However, there are tools available from sites like WordPress that, while generic in appearance, do look more professional than beginner’s HTML.

#6 – Use the Web to get on the Web.

Or, find free downloads. I’m not really qualified to comment on this, since I’ve been using a Mac for the last five years and I have no idea what tools are for free on the PC. Still, I imagine this is a good tip. DaFonts, for example, is an absolutely invaluable resource where you can download several fonts, including a lot of nice looking comic fonts, for free. And, unless I’m mistaken, I think there’s still a free copy of Paint Shop Pro floating around somewhere (which is a must for people who don’t want to spring for the very expensive Corel or Adobe products).

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#5 – Learn GEOMETRY.

This one really ticks Scott McCloud off. You can tell because he draws himself yelling at the reader. Shame on you, webcomic types, for making Scott McCloud lose his cool. I imagine his hand trembled as he drew that panel, his voice catching in his throat as he tried to control the rage within.

His point: it’s very necessary to learn how to use the dimensions of the screen properly. Most webcomics I’ve encountered have adapted fine. The biggest culprit? Those comics using Flash format. Shadowline, for example, is the home of Carla Speed McNeil’s Eisner Award winning Finder. However, there is no good way to view these pages. It takes forever to load, and when it does load, the lower part of the page is cut off. If you zoom out, it’s difficult to read the text.

#4 – Small is beautiful.

Or minimize your image file size. Oh ho ho, the days before broadband when anything over 4 KB didn’t load properly. You might think we’re beyond this, now that our computers are capable of faster speeds. But what about those friggin’ Flash comics? Despite running on a high-speed broadband wireless connection, Zuda Comics is still plagued with slow load times. Unless you’re competing for that phat DC publishing contract, I wouldn’t wish Flash on anyone.

#3 – Trade in the “page” for the “window?”

This ties into McCloud’s theory of the infinite canvas, which everyone praises but no one implements. I’m of the opinion that the infinite canvas is only good as novelty — such as in “Pup” (reviewed here) or Nawlz (reviewed here) — or a one-off panel, like the transition of Starslip Crisis to Starslip.

The web has evolved differently from what McCloud expected. People are tired of scrolling. Online magazines that used to print long articles have been breaking them up into manageable sizes. Like the old saying goes, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” A scrollable page, like the ones featured in McCloud’s “I Can’t Stop Thinking!” series, is too much information at once in a medium that’s drowning in it.

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#2 – Do something only the web can do.

This is the Holy Grail of webcomics. Charles Kochman calls it the “Sgt. Pepper moment.” Which is, include sound, motion, interactivity, an expanding canvas … any of the advantages that the printed page can’t bring.

Very, very few people have done this. Why? Well, it’s a lot of work. If it’s done wrong, it’s very distracting. And I’m guessing most artists didn’t want to be computer programmers. Heck, I’m an engineer, and I hate computer programming. (Plus, when it’s time to compile them in a volume for people to read, the cutesy touches don’t translate to the printed page.)

In its heyday, Argon Zark!! tried to pioneer the way (and frankly, I don’t come across many webcomics that handle animation as seamlessly). Most anyone has done, though, are GIF animations of the simple kind.

But, you know, that doesn’t mean McCloud was wrong. There may still be a day when it’s a standard feature to remove word balloons so you can admire the art, or when raindrops dance across the panel, or when onomatopoeia is replaced by actual sounds. I guess we need to wait until there are tools available that make adding that kind of effect easy for artists, especially ones who don’t want to hassle with coding.

#1 – Value your freedom.

With webcomics, there are no editors … so rest assured the vision you put online is your own. There is absolutely nothing I can add to this tip. It’s golden.