Obey Your Comic Cravings: Sprite Comics Explained, by Ericka Crouse

If you look up the definition of sprite in a dictionary, you’ll probably see an entry that tells you that a sprite is a spirit, fairy or elfish-type person. If you google it, you’ll find references to a form of upper-atmosphere lightning discharge being researched by people all over the world, references to a classic Australian car, references to various pieces of software and, of course, references to the soft drink.

So you might not quite understand when someone starts talking about “sprite comics”.

You might assume they were comics about little elf-like people (or cars, perhaps) until you find one definition that’s missing from the bevy of “sprites” above. A sprite is a small bitmap of a character, which used to be used in animated games. According to Dave Anez of Bob And George, “Back in the days of the Super Nintendo, most games were designed using sprites, the pixilated artwork that made up the characters and the backgrounds. Nowadays, polygons and textures are used instead. When making a sprite comic, one copies the sprites from the game, in various poses, and pastes them into the comic strip.”

Bitmaps are images that use a type of encoding that was once quite prevalent in the world of digital pictures. They use square blocks of color called pixels. These are what give the sprite characters their blocky look. In sprite comics the characters can be dropped onto any kind of background, anything from a blank page with maybe a line to signify where the ground meets the sky to a bitmap background from a game to a full-blown photograph. Sometimes these are mixed up for the comedic effect.

More modern video games use polygons and texture mapping – that is, three dimensional wire frame characters and environments built out of basic geometric shapes. Certain colors or textures are placed on the wire frames to make them look like fabric, sky, skin, or whatever they’re supposed to be within the world of the game. This provides for a much prettier game world as well as far more impressive graphics and movement in each generation of games. But there is a prevailing opinion in the gaming world that it is very difficult to improve on the actual game play in the older generations of games.

Perhaps this nostalgia is part of what fuels the love of sprite comics, which almost always feature characters from pre-polygon days. Comics have been made featuring characters from Mega Man, Super Smash Bros. (which features a host of Nintendo’s staple characters), The X-Men, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy and a host of others. Some of these comics feature sprites taken directly from games, some are created or modified versions of the old-school bitmaps, but all are cut and pasted with written words that give ideas of the sprites’ characters, put them in new situations and create humor.

That may seem incredibly simple, yet a host of webcomic readers find sprite comics amusing and compelling. The main appeal is “that they get to revisit the adventures of their favorite video game characters, or that they get to see their favorite characters in humorous situations,” according to Anez, “I know I’ve personally changed how people view Mega Man, and Brian Clevinger‘s versions of the original Final Fantasy characters have forever skewed how people imagine them.”

He added, “A secondary appeal is the writing. In the case of some hand-drawn comics, the artwork can make up for poor writing. That is, the reader may allow for sloppy spelling or sub-par plot if the pictures are really pretty. In the case of sprite-comics, the artwork is fairly non-existent, so the writing had better be good or no one will read them.”

So, do you need to be into the video games in question to enjoy sprite comics?

“Not really,” according to Brian Clevinger of 8-bit Theater, a Final Fantasy-based comic. “I suppose an unhealthy love of video games could easily lead one to making sprite comics instead of making comics with original art, but it’s not mandatory.”

Anez said, “Not necessarily,” and stated he could think of one sprite comic that doesn’t use sprites from video games, but he added, “I think for the vast majority of sprite-comic creators, you have to at least love the video games that your characters come from. In my case, while I happen to suck at playing Megaman games, I love the stories and the characters… even if they don’t always make sense.”

Anez believes in the artistic merit of sprite comics, as well as the importance of the writing, “A big part of making a sprite-comic is modifying the sprites to do what you want them to do. There are a number of things the characters in the video games never did, poses they never originally had, that you have to make them do. But at the same time, any changes you make to the sprite have to look like they belong, like they fit with the original feel of the sprite, or it looks completely off. I’m always surprised how often a single pixel difference can change the feeling a sprite gives to the viewer.”

Though, when asked why he makes sprite comics, Anez’s answer was, “I make this kind of comic because I can’t draw. My original intent was to make just another hand-drawn comic, but my art skills are so terrible I decided sprites would be a much better way to make a comic.”

Clevinger, who cited “Expediency” as his reason for making comics of this kind, believes that the creator’s intent is important in determining the level of artistry, “From the beginning I thought of it more as a collage comic. The emphasis was never that my comic uses old video game images, the emphasis–in my mind–was in using all kinds of images from a variety of media and putting them together in a new way. In this sense, I see my comic as pastiche. It’s an original work that goes out of its way to hearken to a previous work while adding whole new dimensions of appreciation to both the original and what I’m doing. I seriously doubt 99% of sprite comics do that, as their authors likely never heard of pastiche in the first place.”

“I’m not saying this makes me a superior person or an artistic genius,” Clevinger continued, “Far from it. It’s just that collage and pastiche were very central themes and techniques in my mind from the very onset of 8BT, and the impression I get from most sprite comic authors is that their line of thinking is closer to “I like Sonic the Hedgehog too!” or what have you.”

Satire, while an important aspect of many sprite comics is not always central, according to Anez. “I would say it depends on your intent in making the sprite-comic. I think all sprite-comics using video game characters are, in a sense, parodying the original works. By giving the character personalities, you’re commenting about the original characters in the game and how you perceived their actions.”

“On the other hand,” Anez added, “I think you can have a perfectly good comic without necessarily making fun of the original work. Maybe you just feel like continuing the adventures of your favorite characters without feeling that you need to parody what has come before.”

Whatever the reasons and motives an individual creator might have, making sprite comics is a pastime enjoyed by thousands of people. Because of the ease of creation, sprite comics are a far more accessible art form than creating comics with original art, and because they are based on popular video games, they have a far broader built-in fan appeal than many comics with original art. Reading them is fun, but making them is somewhere close to the ultimate in video game fandom.

Ericka Crouse is a staff contributor for the Comixpedia.