Through the Looking Back Glass by Erik Melander
Webcomics have been receiving a surprising amount of mainstream media attention this year. The Washington Post column, which was reprinted in several other papers, and the G4techtv feature on the WCCA both painted webcomics in a fairly favorable light. But when the New York Times critic Sarah Boxer's article on Infinite canvases and webcomics was published in August, it was not perceived as an endorsement of webcomics by most. It immediately gave rise to some furious discussion, most of which focused on whether the article was well-researched or not.
A few people made the argument that not only was it good publicity to be mentioned in the New York Times, regardless of the content in the article, but that there were lessons to be learned from it. That Boxer's article provided us with a rare insight into what someone sees when they, for the first time, come into contact with comics online. So let's focus on trying to find those lessons, while trying to disregard whatever shortcomings the article, or the research behind it, might have had.
The first couple of paragraphs delved into Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics and the argument between him and Fantagraphics head honcho Gary Groth that surrounded it. This was of relatively little interest to most webcomic creators since most do not use infinite canvas techniques and it could be debated how many have been influenced by Reinventing Comics to begin with. It was where Boxer aimed the searchlight at webcomics of today that we should start to look for clues as to what lessons we may learn.
Next she covered some sites for finding webcomics, including onlinecomics.net and WebComicsNation.com. But from the follow-on paragraphs it became clear that it was in fact the fifth annual Web Cartoonists Choice Awards that was her main source for the webcomics she used as examples in the article. This is probably not how most readers come across webcomics. But on the positive side, the winners this year showed high quality. It is safe to say that the webcomics she was exposed to probably held a substantially higher standard than what she would have gotten if she chosen a few random comics on, for instance, onlinecomics.net.
This would be the point in the article where we find the infamous quote that made its way around the blogs and news sites. And this would also be the point that probably damned Boxer in the eyes of most webcomics creators.
But when it comes to the content of Web comics, Mr. Groth was right. The comics that use digital technology to break out of their frozen boxes are really more like animated cartoons. And those that don't are just like the old, pre-digital ones, without the allure of the printed page and with a few added headaches for reader and creator alike.
The first point she made to support this argument was that most webcomics are not adapted to the horizontal screen. This is certainly true. The vast majority of "comic book" webcomics use the dimensions of a printed page, forcing the reader to scroll in order to read it. There are exceptions, such as Sordid City Blues or Atland, but for the vast majority of webcomics it's the standard page layout that is used. It is possible to speculate why this is, it may simply be aping print comics, but it may also be because the creator harbors the dream of, at some point, seeing his or her webcomic in print. This is also true for "comic strip" webcomics, although to a lesser extent. Take Count Your Sheep or PvP, they don't exactly fill out the screen either. It is probably similar reasoning that lies behind this choice of layout as well.
Boxer second complaint is reading.
The problem with "Narbonic" is that the plentiful words almost crowd out the pictures, and reading them on the screen is a lot more eye work than reading them on a page.
I'd have to agree that reading text on a screen is more work than reading it on paper, but does this not mean that webcomics have a leg up on other digital media? After all, the combination of text and images in a webcomic offers a much more varied reading experience than say an article on the New York Times website. In the end, this complaint seems to be outside of what we as creators can influence. We'll just have to wait for better screens.
The next paragraph was dedicated to the problem of making money your webcomic. While it would be simple to disregard Boxer's opinion on this as ignorant of advertising, merchandising, etc. and thus uninteresting, it is noteworthy that when she wrote about money she only referred to ways to charge for content. The inability to charge for content is yet another way that webcomics are perceived as inferior to print comics.
Boxer ended the article by stating that the best comics on the web fall into two categories.
First, there are the short, sweet ones, like "Count Your Sheep." This comic, about a girl and the one sheep she counts each night to get to sleep, fits easily on the computer screen. There's not much to it. And at the end of each strip the artist, Adrian Ramos, tells you what he thinks of the strip (a good Webby touch) and ends with the same kicker, "Now go to bed, Adis!" And then there are the comics that really try to use digital technology. The prize in the category "outstanding use of flash" was shared. One prize went to "Alpha Shade" (the one with the great page-turning feature). Another went to "The Discovery of Spoons" by Alexander Danner and John Barber. That tale, about a man who wraps small poems around spoons and throws them in water, is told in pages that dissolve one into the next when you click on them. It's a great use of the Web. But it verges on animation.
I'll assume, for the sake of argument, that she was talking about presentation and that the reason she thought Count Your Sheep was among the best was because it "fits easily on the computer screen" and not because it was short and sweet. This also appears to be a factor when taking the web savvy comics she mentions into consideration.
The question is what to make of these issues that Boxer brought up. And perhaps it was not the individual things, but her overall perspective that's important. After all, what are the comics she thought were "best?" Well, the ones that are tailored to the screen (medium) and the ones that used technology to present themselves, also by adapting the presentation to the medium. The fact is that most webcomics do not cover topics that are common in print comics, but they are formatted to ape the design of print comics. This has implications for whenever someone, especially someone with a history with print comics, comes looking for webcomics. They are going to find comics presented to look like the comics they are familiar with, but perceived as "inferior" due to the constrains of the web. Those readers might very well find themselves missing the "allure of the printed page." Readers coming to webcomics from the other direction, looking for web content, might very well also be disappointed when they find comics tailoring themselves after print comics instead of adapting to the medium.
By allowing ourselves to be compared to print comics on their terms we are setting ourselves up to be found wanting regardless of the background of the reader. Any attempt to try to recreate the allure of the printed page would seem to be doomed, at least at the present. Instead webcomics should make some real effort in try to find, or create, an allure of the digital page.
Erik Melander has read comics his whole life. Vir Bonus is his own attempt at creating one.