Plotting the Vectors by T Campbell

I raise my hand and flap it in the air, quickly, but not too hard. I want to look a little eccentric, but not crazy – just weird enough that I might have something interesting to say.

The Otakon panel moderator takes interest in (or pity on) me. He passes me the microphone. I arch an eyebrow challengingly at the guests – cartoonists from Applegeeks, Little Gamers, Paradox Lost, Mac Hall, and the "other" Avalon – and say…

"Webcomics. 2009. Where are we?"

Dave Lister murmurs, "Hopefully I'll have updated", which gets a laugh. Someone (sorry, I no longer remember who) says, "Sitting at a table where a kid in a red shirt with a twitchy eyebrow asks 'Webcomics. 2014. Where are we?'" Which gets a bigger laugh.

I didn't mean to put anybody on the spot. But it is on my mind, a lot.

Where is the art form of webcomics going?

Once, artistic movements spread through literature and art more or less simultaneously – Realism and Romanticism affected the poetry and prose of their eras as much as their painting and sculpture. By the twentieth century, that had changed. Pop art and German Expression affected art first and literature second, and nobody ever wrote a Fauvist book.

Modern movements are primarily either visual or verbal. But the visual often leads the verbal: what we see is a more visceral experience than what we read.

In the last few years, webcomics have grown their own artistic movements. Instead of Pop Art, Fauvism and German Expressionism, we have Sprite Art, Drolism, and Manga Caricaturism. Studying these may give us some clue to our future.

Sprite Art is a fairly obvious movement, best exemplified by comics like Bob and George, Uncanny X-Sprites, A Modest Destiny, and Secret of Mana Theatre. Minimalist parody, Sprite Art uses pixellated character designs (pixellated backgrounds are frequent, but not required).

Sprite comics typically subvert the video game "sprites" which inspired them, either re-casting established characters like Mega Man and Wolverine, or adopting video-game-inspired storylines. The style tends to go hand in hand with Game Narrative, a writing genre that imitates video-game storytelling, or Gamer Narrative, a writing genre that shows the lives of gamers. Too soon to say whether Sprite Art can work consistently with more realistic content. More people need to try this.

Drolism is more purely artistic, and seen in Mac Hall and Scary-Go-Round, who share this year's WebCartoonist's Choice Award for Best Art. Odds are we'll be seeing more of this style, since it's a logical extension of the graphics program as art tool.

The Fauvists of the early twentieth century de-emphasized outlines in favor of bright, "wild" colors ("Fauve" means "Wild Beast" in French). The Drolists of the early twenty-first century de-emphasize outlines in favor of slick, sophisticated, "droll" colors ("Drole" means "Droll" in French). What emotional response do non-outlined figures create in the reader? They seem less independent, more inseparable from their environment. Scary-Go-Round and Mac Hall use this feature to reinforce their blasé humor: nothing really matters, folks – it's all just colors on the screen. Scary-Go-Round's color palette is close to Matisse's, but the lack of contrast (such as red outlines around Caucasian figures) balances it out: it's always a little wild in John Allison's world, but because everything is wild, the wildness doesn't bother anyone much. Mac Hall's more muted palette reflects its world of darkened, computer-lit dorm rooms, and its shading owes a bit to anime chic, the better to appeal to its college gamer demographic.

Manga Caricaturism is a formation from the "manga waves" sweeping Anglo-American comics since the mid-1990s. Its influence is almost impossible to gauge. Examples include Errant Story, Sparkling Generation Valkyie Yuuki, Chugworth Academy, and Elf Life. You can probably think of more.

Anglo-American manga fans tend to consume ALL things manga. When those fans become webcartoonists, they freely mix the wild expressions and gestures of Ranma 1/2 with the technothriller chic of Ghost in the Shell or the magical-girl fashions of Sailor Moon. "Manga faces" show up often in all genres – big eyes, simple lines, and raw expressions of embarrassment, anger, joy, sadness, and snoring. Curiously, the "anime nosebleed" has not really made the leap to webcomics, perhaps because Anglo-Americans, unlike the Japanese, have much fewer taboos about showing sexual desire.

Manga has captured many webcartoonists' imaginations with its range, its mix of "high" ambition and "low" comedy, and its concern with fantasy, young romance, studies and other aspects of high school and college life (and the webcomics community is quite college-centered). The styles of Japanese manga, though, haven't translated as directly as one might think.

To some, there is only one "manga style." To others, there are two: shounen and shoujo. Most Americans don't go any further than that. They treat the super-deformed style, the kawaii style, the mecha style and even the hentai style as parts of a whole, with no divisions between them… and freely mix American and Japanese traditions for displaying action, backgrounds, transitions and more.

"Anime chic", an overlapping style, simply uses the value-chiaroscuro and lighting associated with the best anime to bring simple caricatures into three dimensions. Often, this is considered simply a matter of artistic "quality" rather than a style. You can see its use in Penny Arcade, Chugworth Academy, and Mac Hall.

So what next?

Where are these movements moving toward?

The continued use of sprites hints at a future relationship between the video game and webcomics media. Perhaps video game designers will craft webcomics, either as art or as self-promotion, or a little bit of both. We've already seen game promoters tap the Penny Arcade creative team to do some Game Narrative comics promoting recent releases.

Drolism is unlikely to become a mainstream force in webcomics. Webcomics readers tend to fall in love with characters first, and a style that makes those characters one with their background prevents that. But when the major source of appeal is the artist's worldview and not the characters, the style has great potential. If we identify with the characters and they are inseparable from the world of the cartoonist, then we are inseparable from the world of the cartoonist. A=B, B=C, .: A=C.

With the continued success of Tokyopop and Viz, Manga Caricaturism has no end in sight. But connoisseurs are beginning to feel that foreign manga has peaked in quality, and it may be Anglo-Americans who take things to the next level. In the name of bigger and bigger laughs and reactions, characters' facial features may become even more plastic than they are in manga now, until we see Sailor Moon's face metamorphosing into Howard Cossell's to make a point. This kind of comedy, seen in Disney's Aladdin, could easily become standard, with no one finding it any stranger than they find it now when a girl's mouth opens to two-thirds the size of her spherical head.

Increasing the range of visual communication like this has far-reaching implications for comics, art and the world in which we live. But that's another article.

These three movements will doubtless be joined by others. Possibly they have been already, and we haven't noticed yet. The future of webcomics – the sum of all its vectors – remains unknown. But observations like these are the first steps to plotting a course.


  1. Qualifying “webcomics” as only those comics that use “infinite canvas” is like qualifying poetry as non-prose writing that rhymes.

  2. Curiously, the “anime nosebleed” has not really made the leap to webcomics, perhaps because Anglo-Americans, unlike the Japanese, have much fewer taboos about showing sexual desire.

    Actually, I’d say it’s because most Anglo-Americans don’t get the whole nosebleed thing. If they watch anime, the first time they see it, they need it explained to them. People working with manga influenced styles and techniques still write stories in their own voice and society and joke style.

    As for the future – I expect to see digital painting as a comic form, totally eclipsing Alex Ross’ contributions to the print world.

  3. Maybe it could be considered that the relative affordability of creating comics on the web makes for a different set of rules. If the creator is less concerned with whether or not his comic will sell to an audience, then in some ways the artist is more free to create something unique. This is by no means to suggest that webcomics are all “free” in this sense, but it is to acknowledge that the inherent structure of the internet allows for creation and distribution of material bypassing all previously established channels for distribution. Does this mean that all webcomics take advantage of this inherent capability? Heck, no.

    Basically, what I’m trying to say is that from my point of view, a webcomic is just that- a comic on the web. It doesn’t need to employ infinite canvas techniques to qualify for this label, because what makes a webcomic is the method of distribution, not experimentation, quality, or “legitimacy”. (whatever that means these days) Webcomics are tied to blogging for a reason. They are both examples of not only freedom of expression, but of the freedom to associate. A speaker needs an audience, and the internet allows speakers and audiences to connect without the previous tight economic restrictions faced by comics creators just 15 years ago.

    True, a creator could work very hard and maybe get a job with a large company, but what happens to the creator’s voice then? True, a creator could have a book printed and then self-publish, but how to distribute? Drive to all the neighboring states and try to convince comic shop owners one at a time to carry their books? Start your own company and work to get a distribution deal through Diamond? I’m not saying it can’t be done, because it has been done. But heck, when you can take five minutes to create a Geocities account and then start publishing work in your spare time, after work, as often as you like, it frees you up considerably. That’s basically what I have done, although I have made the switch now to an authentic, bonafide domain name.

    I think the position that a webcomic needs an infinite canvas to be called a webcomic is unnecessarily restrictive. Maybe those webcomics employing those techniques could be called more experimental, but I certainly don’t think they are in any way more or less a webcomic than a strip like Something Positive or Lowbright.

  4. I don’t know if that reply was a joke or not, it sounds like whoever it was has read McCloud, but that they managed to take it the wrong way. I could be misunderstanding, but I thought part of the whole point of Reinventing Comics was the revolution in distribution offered by the Internet.

  5. I must admit that I have little love for the whole sprite thing – I suppose that it’s good for gags, but I don’t understand how people can keep that interesting over any period of time.

    I personally hope we see more people developing new styles. The web is a great place to experiment, so I think that the most popular comics of the future will be those that find a way to stand ut from the crowd visually.

  6. Frankly, I think it’s pretty clear that the infinite canvas “revolution” has been a bit of a wash. A few people have played with it with varying degrees of success, but they can be counted on one hand, and otherwise it’s really made no impact. In theory, yes, the screen canvas is “infinite”, but in practice it’s mostly constrained by the window size and readers’ dislike of excessive scrolling (especially horizontal scrolling).

    Infinite canvas was an experiment. The results were mostly negative. That’s what experiments are for: determining what works and what doesn’t. It makes no sense to force the issue.

  7. It depends on what you think of webcomics as. I don’t think any of the listed comics are “true webcomics”(maybe i’m wrong, I haven’t read them all). I think of a webcomic as something that has uses infinite canvas to create an effect that’s very hard or impossible to create on a print comic. Otherwise, the only difference between it and a print comic is just that its a print comic placed on the web.

    With that said, advancement should be judged on infinite canvas techniques rather than art style.

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