Special Post: Yes, Virginia, there are webcomics
Last spring, someone asked if they could ask me some questions regarding webcomics for a school project. I happily agreed. I thought the questions were pretty good and quite relevant. I probably would’ve forgotten about it if Ping Teo of Lonely Panel hadn’t posted an answer to one of her reader’s questions (about sprite comics, in her case). I thought she offered sound advice, and I appreciated that she posted her e-mail online. So, being the copycat that I am, I decided to do the same thing. The following is my unedited response to a student with all the questions.
Throughout, I’m peppering this post with pictures of the famed luchador (and movie star) El Santo (not Blue Demon, the guy whose mask I’m usually wearing) … mainly so you can envision me replying to every question while wearing a mask and looking very classy at the same time.
What aspects of webcomics appeal to you the most?
I’m an avid comic book reader, so I’m going to compare this comic books (and comic strips). The most appealing aspect of a webcomic is the accessibility. With most comic books, you have to dig through back issues to get the full story. With webcomics, there’s usually a button that puts you on Page 1. I can read the entire run of “Sluggy Freelance,” “Scary Go Round,” and “Megatokyo” without having to go into the store.
What aspects of webcomics do you think appeal to people in general the most?
In these economic times, never underestimate the value of free entertainment! Webcomics, I think, are really competing with blogs, Youtube videos, and message boards. So what do webcomic writers have to offer? Sometimes, it’s the writer’s unique spin on humor. Sometimes, its looking for a good narrative without having to spend too much time on the internet. Unless things have changed in the last three years, online novels still haven’t taken off, mainly because of the time commitment. Stories with visual aids (e.g. webcomics) seem perfectly suited for the “instant gratification” culture of the internet.
What do you think are the most important parts of a comic? (i.e. storyline, humor, etc.)
For me, it’s definitely the character development. I have to want to follow the characters through any situation. That’s because most webcomics will be published in a span of years. Why should follow a character for that long? Storytelling is important, too, but you can have an awful story with magnetic characters. I haven’t run into many webcomics that have “must-read” stories, but I have have run into many comics where I couldn’t wait to see what the characters were up to next.
Do you find yourself drawn to standalone comics more, or long continuous stories?
I haven’t read that many standalone comics. The only ones that come to mind are “The Lady’s Murder” by Eliza Frye and “Captain Estar Goes to Heaven” by Winston Rountree. Both are actually quite good (the former being up for an Eisner Award this year). I have to say standalone comics tend to focus on plot elements more, and if well done tend to stick with the reader more. I suppose I have to say long, continuous series by default, since that’s the sort of comic most creators go for.
What genre of webcomics do you think is the most popular?
Video game humor comics, easily. Last year, Comixtalk listed Penny Arcade, Ctrl+Alt+Del, VG Cats, Megatokyo, and PvP as among the most read webcomics. Why? I think it’s as simple a reason as that humor pertaining to video games is not that prevalent in other media (e.g. TV, movies, comic books). Video games are a relatively new phenomenon, and the executives in old media aren’t sure what to do with it yet.
I’ve also noticed that video game comics are frequently referenced in online discussions, so I sense there’s a strong overlap with pre-teen to college-aged readers (the prime reading age for comics of any sort). If anything, I think it’s the allure of pop culture knowledge that the older generations aren’t privy to.
What do you think detracts more in a webcomic, poor writing or mediocre art?
Great writing is a must. “The Order of the Stick,” “Cyanide and Happiness,” and “xkcd” get by on barely anything more than stick figures. “Dinosaur Comics” infamously features the same panel every strip with different dialogue. Online readers value content (and the speed which content is delivered!) over meticulously detailed art. I can’t think of any webcomics that have art that matches some of the today’s current celebrated comic book talents (such as John Cassaday, Brian Hitch, or Jim Lee). “Lackadaisy,” maybe.
Just out of curiosity, what is your favorite webcomic (and why)?
Ah, the toughest question yet! I have a lot of favorites. I think “Gunnerkrigg Court,” by Tom Siddell, impresses me the most. The art style is a whimsical balance between cartoony and Gothic. I love this comic almost more for its world (which is divided between a fantasy forest and a sprawling Gormenghast-like city) than it’s characters … yet the main cast is among the strongest in webcomics as well.
What would you say catches your attention in a comic the most? A character, a setting, a premise…
I think I might come off as a little contradictory with two of the answers I gave above, but I think you’re referring to that initial hook. And, bay and large, it’s the artwork. With one comic, “Fey Winds,” I came across a panel that featured a well-drawn rendition of a dragon. “Definitely someone to check out!” I mentally wrote in my mind. The most eyecatching ones, to me, are the ones with fantastic elements. If it looks vaguely sci-fi or fantasy, I’m all over it. I’ve unearthed some gems that are in neither genre, but they’re not the sort of comics that I would have read if they weren’t recommended to me by someone else initially.
How do you find your webcomics–browsing, recommendations, sites?
When I was doing my blog early on, I was picking up recommendations from the Something Awful message board. Believe it or not, there are three active threads about webcomics there, spread out over different sub-forums. I think that’s the best way to come across a webcomic, by the way: the internet is a communal experience, and you can formulate your own opinion on whether or not you want to follow a comic based on sample artwork, reader recommendations, and the occasional input from the creators. It’s like an interactive, digital book club.
Lately, I’ve been trying to expand my scope by reading other webcomic-centric sites and sampling the reviews and recommendations on my own. The downside here is that almost all reviews are positive. (I value negative reactions, since it prompts me to think, “Well, it can’t be that bad.” Then I go to the site to see if the original opinion can be proved or disproved.) Still, it does point me to more obscure webcomics that message board denizens may have passed by. Good sites I have bee inspired by include ComixTalk and Websnark.
Do you see webcomics more as an entertainment or as a distinct art?
They’re both, but — as with any media — the “entertainment” ones are the popular ones. Webcomics haven’t matured as a medium where one of the “art” comics has had such a large cultural impact that it’s marked as a touchtone or game-changing by pundits. (Not to the effect of how “Ulysses” and “Moby Dick” are culturally important in literature or how “Watchmen” and “Love & Rockets” fundamentally changed comic books.) I haven’t seen discussion go beyond “Is this funny?”
From your observations, do you think there is much of a future in webcomics?
Yes! I think many of the brick-and-mortar publishers, such as Marvel, DC, and Image, know that the publishing industry is dying. Webcomics are an independent option now, but the day is swiftly coming when big name publishers will go totally digital. It’s happening in other publishing circles, and comic books are now recently being drawn in. Marvel’s budgeting a lot of cash for it’s digital projects, DC seems to have its founding with Zuda, and Image is winning critical acclaim with Shadowline. There are some high profile independent collectives like Act-I-Vate that seem to be making headway as well.
As for the independent webcomics, I think they’ll survive as well. Compared to print publishing, the overhead costs of hosting a website (viewed globally) is phenomenally low. With Diamond Distribution suddenly dropping low-order comics from its shipments, the internet is swiftly becoming the only option for creators aspiring to pursue a career in cartooning.
When Matt Groening decided to move “Life In Hell” to the internet, I was struck with a sudden thought. What if the next “Simpsons” came out of webcomics? It sounds a little ridiculous now, but it’s no more ridiculous than having the longest-running primetime comedy coming from a creator who drew cartoons for an alternative weekly.