Panels & Pictures: The Pleasures of the Comics

In my "webcomics" folder in Google Reader there are 29 feeds. Most of these are single webcomics, though a couple are collective groups such as Act-i-vate or the recently relaunched Top Shelf 2.0. Comics come and go on this list as I find new ones to try and lose interest in old ones. Someone recently asked me what I look for in a webcomic, and, in thinking about that, I wondered about the pleasures of comics. Why keep reading them? What are my criteria for sticking with or dropping a comic (when money is not a factor)?

I believe I can delineate a few general answers to this question, based on my own readings. I doubt their exhaustiveness, but I think the issue is worth considering as I believe we should not be wary of examining our tastes. I offer these as a start:

1) Narrative Drama/Suspense (i.e. "What will happen next?")

One key element of any serialized narrative is evoking the question "What happens next?" in the reader. Any long form serialized webcomic will have to address this issue, if not in every update at least on a regular basis. Something about the need to know the answer to this question is a large part of taking pleasure in narrative. This can take on many forms: the cliffhanger, ending a page/strip on an open question, mystery, or character identification (where you just want to hear the next part of their life story).

Sin Titulo makes great use of both mystery and suspense. I'm not completely clear what is going on in the story, but the pieces of the mystery have enough going on that I want to find out. I believe that there is some plan by the author that will unfold over time. Cameron Stewart also tends to use the single page narrative unit to effectively tell a section of story and leave a small mystery or surprise at the end (the classic form of the adventure strip like Terry and the Pirates or Flash Gordon).

Some comics don't rely so much on suspense as on sheer oddness, the question of what the author will come up with next. I recently started reading Karl Stevens and Gustavo Turner's Succe$$, and I keep going back because it is such a genuinely odd story about young businessmen. Each episode adds a new layer of strangeness to the story, such as this week's guest appearance by Don Draper from the television series Mad Men.

Not all long form comics rely on the single page as a hook for further reading. Some are serialized but are not planned to take the same advantage of serialization (or at least they don't appear to be planned that way). I'm thinking of comics like Finder by Carla Speed McNeil, Dicebox by Jenn Manley Lee, or Family Man by Dylan Meconis. All of these rely on narrative drama/suspense as a part of their interest, but they do so on a larger level. Each page is not necessarily a micro-narrative of mystery. These stories tend to require a longer term commitment by the reader but also tend to have a greater pay-off as the story builds.

2) Humor

An obvious answer. Many webcomics are of the "gag a day" variety. We read to laugh or chuckle or thoughtfully grin. I don't read a lot of humor comics, so I have little to say on the matter. Most of the funny comics I read are also enjoyed by me for some other reason. I keep following Scary Go Round because of it's off-the-wall humor, but also because John Allison makes good use of narrative drama to make the comic work on another level. Similarly xkcd is funny but frequently also inventive in its formal aspects.

Strictly humor driven comics often provide the least ongoing engagement, which I suspect is what makes the gag-a-day strip so popular. You don't have to worry about missing a day, the situation will stay the same in a week or a month: a set-up, a chuckle. This can lead to less voracious readers, which might account for the comics that mix the gag-a-day with some kind of larger narrative movement.

3) Aesthetics (beauty)

Simple (or complex) aesthetic beauty can often provide enough pleasure to override any other concerns or deficiencies. This is also one of the trickiness areas to discuss. It is easy to overlook aesthetics when your reading is driven by other motivations (laughter, the pleasure of "what happens next"). We forgive poorly drawn strips if we are otherwise amused by them. But we should also not confuse aesthetics with a slick style, which is too often the case. I'll refrain from any further aesthetics discussions at this time.

4) Formal Interest / Experimentation (i.e. interesting uses of the form)

Though not an area everyone is interested in, interesting or novel uses of the comics form will get me and keep me reading a comic. I often find xkcd as engaging for its use of the medium as for its humor. Munroe often incorporates diagrams, icons, maps, and other visualizations into his work in a way that is rarely seen as well as the occasional mixing of drawing styles. Similarly, my interest in Brian Ralph's Daybreak (which recently finished up) is more about the use of the video game style first person point of view (what I'd call internal focalization) than post-apocalyptic zombie stories.

Paul Madonna's All Over Coffee is all about the beautiful drawing, but it's often as thought provoking for the small formal inventions of text-image interaction that Madonna adds. This week's strip is a great example, where the division of the text and the slightly yellowed panel within a panel complement each other for greater effect.

This is one area where I wish there were more webcomics that captured my attention. For a publishing format with low entry costs and low risks, experimentation should be more prevalent. (Suggestions welcome.)

5) Habit

It is easy to have a comic (particularly a daily one) become a habitual action even after you may have lost real interest in it. This is something I've been trying to avoid in an effort to save time and effort. A mediocre comic that works well exclusively for the narrative drama of "what'll happen next" can easily become an empty habit. I get the feeling a lot of newspaper strips are read as a matter of habit. You get to the page of comics, you read them. On the web, we create our own page of comics (in my case, my webcomics RSS category) and we don't need to settle for the habits of syndication and lack of editorial taste.

6) Thematic Relevance

Sometimes the themes, issues, topics, or other content aspect of the work connects with the reader. These are often elements that are built over time and not necessarily what first captures the attention. In the long run this is a powerful aspect of reading pleasure, a ticket to lasting reading, and in some ways a flip side to reading solely out of habit.

Carla Speed McNeil's Finder is a great example of this. Her web updates are the pencilled pages of her story (helping her stick on schedule and, I suspect, making the planned collection a more attractive purchase). These are not always the most clear or attractive images (though the pencils sometimes are very attractive), and reading the story on a micro-level can be outright confusing or boring. But if you spent time with the comic, the macro-level of the story becomes clearer and the power of McNeil's work comes to the fore. Her science fiction is of the sociological/anthropological vein seen in the more literary varieties of science fiction, and over the course of time, her themes become evident and reading pleasure is increased. This type of work probably suffers most from a serialized reading in attracting new readers. You can't look at one page and have an immediate reaction. (Which is to say, click over there and read a lot of pages, or buy one of the collections.)

In a similar way, I've been reading Dylan Meconis's Family Man for quite awhile. It moves at an almost glacial pace, but I've stuck with it because some of the discussions and issues brought up in the story related to religion are interesting to me, and I believe Meconis is going somewhere with them.

7) Intelligence

I mean intelligence of the comic not necessarily the creator (I have no idea how intelligent any of the creators are). I want to think about what I read. I want to be repaid by paying attention. This can come in many forms, from subtle humor to allusion, theme, narrative structure, or well conceived setting. I have to come back to Finder on this one. McNeil's whole work exudes intelligence, planning, and conceptual depth (this is further strengthened by the extended endnotes that appear in her collected volumes).

Now I should stress that none of these are sufficient on their own nor are they all necessary. Certainly, my reading of Sin Titulo is some combination of narrative drama (the story is full of mystery and suspense) and aesthetics (I love Stewart's drawing style) and Scary Go Round is a combination of humor, drama, and aesthetic style. Dash Shaw's BodyWorld is a great example where I'm reading for at least five of the seven criteria listed above (not out of habit and not so much for humor). But often one reason is the overriding reason for sticking with a comic over the long term. Each work (and reader) has its own pleasures (if it has any at all), and I'd be interested to hear what others find are their pleasures in comics.

Derik Badman

Derik A Badman is a web developer (for Springshare, Inc) and comics artist/critic living in the suburbs of Philadelphia, PA with his wife and two cats. His comics are often abstract or poetic in nature, frequently drawing from appropriated sources.

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