On April 12, 2002, BBCi ran a story on the works of Scott McCloud, discussing both his own works and the potential for online comics in general. The comments from readers at the end of the story were – on the whole – positive, but one, from a ‘DV’ in Ireland, derided McCloud for thinking above what he called "the essentially trashy nature of the medium."
He is, in a sense, exactly right.
The medium of newspaper comics, unlike the longer magazine form, has long been dominated by cheap, trashy, daily doses of simple humor. Despite such standouts as Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes, pretty near every print comic strip today is a one-a-day joke delivery system, with nothing even resembling character development or depth of plot.
The mistake Mr. DV made was equating webcomics with print comic strips. To even think of the two as being the same medium is doing a disservice to everything that webcomics are capable of.
When the first ‘comic strip’ was created is a hotly contested point, with easily half a dozen people laying claim to its creation. Early pioneers of the printed strip – Wilhelm Busch, Georges Colomb, Charles Kahles, Windsor McCay – certainly experimented with varying types of stories in the medium. As newspapers began to pick up on these new creations, however, they found that the most popular and profitable strips were those that simply gave their readers a joke a day: Outcault’s Down Hogan’s Alley, Dirks’ The Katzenjammer Kids, Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff. Quick and easy, with a story so simple anyone could follow, and a style so basic artists could be replaced if necessary, the comic strip, with all its limitations, was born.
An overwhelming majority of comic strips today – with only a few notable exceptions, which we’ll mention later– produces but more of the same, with a joke every day and only the barest thread of a story. When the first true webcomics – those which weren’t just scanned print comics – began, most took the form of their print counterparts and became one-shot joke delivery systems. The targets of the jokes changed – from politicians to Mac users, or from home life to dorm life – but the concept behind it all, the idea of the one-a-day gag strip, essentially stuck to status quo.
This is understandable. When a new medium is created, it usually retains some techniques from its parent medium. Early television was just "radio with pictures," relying almost entirely on its soundtrack. Early print fonts achieved nothing that hand-lettering hadn’t achieved, except greater speed and convenience. So it’s not surprising that what we will one day call "early webcomics" are so much like print comic strips. However, webcomics don’t carry the limitations of print strips –just like any new medium grows from its predecessor, so can they also carry within them the potential to surpass their antecedant form… in this case, for far more engrossing stories, where characterization is central and plots may extend for months.
A major problem with long, serious print strips is that of periodic delivery. A newspaper strip comes out only once a day, and most people don’t have the patience necessary to keep track of a dozen different plots all at once. Collections may come out, but they’re expensive and at least a year or two behind the current installments.
Thus, most print strips go one of two routes if attempting a long story. Strips can re-explain the storyline every day, recapping whole weeks’ worth of events – the standard Prince Valiant method, for example. Or, stories can continue from day to day with no explanation of the previous day’s events, allowing the story to progress smoothly but leaving new readers confused – Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse are prime examples. Neither method works especially well; both require especially dedicated readers with a gift for memory.
Webcomics do away with this problem thanks to the availability of a full archive. If a newspaper picks up a strip in mid-run, new readers will have no knowledge of these characters, their relationships, or their histories. A newcomer to a webcomic, however, merely has to read through the archives. While this can mean wading through several years of past strips, it’s still easier than finding old newspapers or buying bound collections. In addition, webstrips can showcase a ‘cast page,’ giving new readers brief introductions to major characters.
Length of story, then, is no problem to webcomics because it costs little or nothing to see everything that’s come before – not, of course, including the cost of a computer. But the computer itself solves the other problem: that of delivery. Any computer in the world can access a webcomic, so long as it’s got a modem.
The webcomic world is also completely free of syndicate control. Syndicates do exert a certain degree of creative control over the strips they own, although as a rule they don’t exert it very often. More often, they simply choose strips that consistently draw readers over those that challenge the genre, or try and find strips that copy existing, popular strips – when Gary Larson’s The Far Side ended, syndicates scrambled to find similar strips like Dan Piraro’s Bizarro or John McPherson’s Close to Home. But apart from scanned versions of their print comics, syndicates have nigh-zero presence in webcomics… and while webcomic distributors do exist – Keenspot and Modern Tales being two big examples – they have an incentive to carry edgy, off-the-wall strips, since those strips appeal more greatly to webcomics’ mostly young and intellectual audience.
Even relatively traditional webcomics have used some outlandish techniques in their growth from the gag-a-day to deeper, more involved stories . Click on Pete Abrams’ Sluggy, for example, or David Willis’ It’s Walky!, and you’re likely to find them in the middle of something.
So what’s preventing webcomics from entering the arena of ‘true art’? Why are the most well-known webstrips the most print-like? Why is it the only webcomic stories from major news sources (aside from Comixpedia) are about either McCloud’s print work or Marvel.com?
In a word: perception.
Despite the differences, the possibilities, the promise of the medium, webcomics are still just seen as print comics on a screen. Readers, on the whole, come into webcomics with the standards of print comic strips still fixed in their minds. As such, they expect a gag-a-day, easy-to-grasp slices of panels. Those new to the medium will expect what they had before, and if a strip is funny enough, it can grow and thrive simply by doing punchline after punchline after punchline. Ask Tycho and Gabe. Ask Scott Kurtz. Ask Matt Boyd and Ian McConville.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with such strips, of course. There’s a reason I read Penny Arcade every day. But if webcomic creators know that they can get an easy audience with a gag-a-day strip, why try something else? Why focus on characters at the expense of the laugh track? Why kill off a character if it means losing half your fan base?
Humor is safe. If a strip is consistently funny, then people will feel more of an incentive to stick around. If a strip is leading somewhere serious and dramatic, if every strip is another step along a path, readers may drop out along the way. Although the conclusion of a long, serious narrative is more aesthetically pleasing than a pile of punchlines, it requires more effort, more patience to stick with it the whole way through. A webcomic – or print strip – with characters that never age or change can be picked up at any point in its history and be perfectly understood. You can jump into ? anywhere, but a strip like Derek Kirk’s Same Difference needs some dedication.
Now, granted, nobody says funny webcomics are trash. And nobody says that you can’t mix drama and humor successfully – even in print, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts walked the line superbly.
If webcomics are to be taken seriously as an art form, though – and they should be – then creators need to start thinking seriously. If we continue to perceive webcomics as just pixelated print strips, then that is what will be created. If you write or plan to write a webcomic, first ask yourself: is this a stale idea? Do my characters have to be so one-dimensional? Does the world really need another webcomic about a pair of l337 gamerz?
Look at other creators and see how they work. Abrams’ now-famous Fire and Rain storyline was a major departure from earlier stories, delving into the fractured psyche of a main character. Fred Gallagher’s Megatokyo has long blended romantic drama with over-the-top action humor – sometimes even in the same strip. Even Josh Lesnick’s notoriously outrageous Wendy has just recently been moving into more serious territory.
Above all, if you create a webcomic, remember what it is you are doing. Creators need to keep in mind that webcomics, like any other medium, are first and foremost about the transmission of stories. Humor is worthwhile, yes, and it’s all too easy for dramatic stories to devolve into soap operas. Success need not be abandoned in search of artistry. But neither does art need to be sacrificed to be successful.
This article isn’t meant to imply that there’s nothing new in the world of webcomics. Far from it. There’re plenty of fresh, innovative webcomics out there. But if we continue to try and graft print preconceptions onto the infinite canvas, if we keep thinking in terms of one-joke-a-day, then that’s what we’ll have, and the (re-)cycle will be complete.
A gag a day makes the audience stay, but laughter isn’t everything.
So stop laughing already.