Art for Art’s Sake rejects the idea that the success of an art object can be measured by its accuracy as a representation or the effectiveness with which it tells a story or suggests a moral. Instead, it implies that an art object is best understood as an autonomous creation to be valued only for the success with which it organizes color and line into a formally satisfying and therefore beautiful whole. Smithsonian – Freer Gallery Of Art
So what, then, is an online comic for online comics’ sake?
I do not necessarily agree with all of the implications of the aforementioned statement about art. I certainly believe that art exists which can be best appreciated for its beauty and wonder as a whole piece more than for any other sort of measure. I am glad there are people striving to create such pieces. However, I would like to think that art can also succeed due simply to its ability to tell a story or convey an idea. More importantly, I would say that in the case of comics, you have the advantage of being to accomplish both â€“ look at Scott McCloud’s proffered definition in Understanding Comics, defining comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."
A textbook example of an online comic that focuses more on the sensual experience than the actual story being told is Demian5’s When I Am King. The story reads like a scenic route — the long way around telling a short and simple tale. But this picturesque sidetracking is clearly deliberate: visually, my eyes can barely believe themselves as they take in this brilliant collage of color and form. There is also something new happening here, which to me is the most appealing part of the way this comic work unfolds. By putting this online, the options open to Demian5 as to how the art gets sequenced are at the very least as important as anything else going on here. It can move left to right, up or down, and the infinite canvas allows for ALL of the art to appear as an aesthetic whole, rather than, say, being broken down into pages in print format.
The images can be animated in portions, and while this helps to convey an action like running, sneezing, etc., what is most striking about the animation is its ability to be more directly sensually stimulating. By that, I mean I look at someone sneezing (as opposed to a static photograph of this action) and feel an itch in my nose, or I see someone running and feel my pulse quicken a tad. Overall, I feel Demian5 succeeds in using the technology of the Internet to create a body of work that, regardless of the actual events taking place in the stories, stands alone as an example of what beauty in this medium can be.
There is a further opportunity presented in the creation of webcomics for tickling the senses of the audience. Comics on the Internet have the inherent potential to be far more interactive than those in print. One way the artist can take advantage of this is in how they "frame" their comic by the website it is placed on. Look back at the definition of art for art’s sake I mentioned at the beginning of this piece – "… to be valued only for the success with which it organizes color and line into a formally satisfying and therefore beautiful whole." To me, a webcomic’s site design is at least as important to the aesthetic experience as the comic works presented therein.
Sadly, a great number of comic creators who put their work on the web produce fairly bland websites. Likewise, there are some brilliant website designs that are spoiled by the shortcomings of the work they feature. Ultimately, the goal should be a harmonic balance between the two — both the design and the work proper should interact and mesh to produce an even greater whole. I don’t know of any webcomics site that I would consider an overall masterpiece, though I would reference Nowhere Girl (intuitive, simple, and elegant interface while keeping the comic the focus of the site), Serializer (easy to navigate from one comic to another, sharp use of color and format) , and Goats (like DVDs nowadays, offers many bonus features that tie into the comic, all within a slick design) as taking great strides towards framing wonderful online comics with websites worthy of them.
"Comics are a visual medium." Paul O’Brien’s piece over at Ninth Art illustrates this better than by anything I could add to the discussion. (The piece specifically delves into comics being critiqued for their artwork rather than, as the so often are instead, their writing.) Sequential art can stand alone as breathtakingly beautiful without even the pretense of telling a story. My hope is that as more work is done using digital media to create comics, people seek to use the technology at their disposal to its full advantage, be it to create art for art’s sake, or as I will explore in my column next month, to further the story being told.