Blogger Matt Seneca takes a look at what webcomics do that print comics don’t
Matt Seneca at the “Death to the Universe” blog put together an interesting exploration on what makes webcomics unique from their print counterparts, and why these innovations represent the future of comics. A few excerpts from his in-depth look at some of the more artistically inclined (and, frankly, more obscure) comics on the web:
Today’s boom of young creators making web-specific comics that not only work better online than in print but engage with the visual experience of computer reading is comparable to the boom of formally audacious material that hit comic books in the early 1940s, a little while after the format got its start. The washed up and/or aspiring newspaper strip artists who staffed the comic book ranks at the format’s inception couldn’t see the page turns and opportunities for extended visual narrative that the new way of making sequential art offered. It took a few years of young kids who weren’t from any other world coming into the game before the Eisners and Kirbys appeared to show everyone the potential inherent in comics magazines. Same again during the rise of the “graphic novel”, which started out with some pretty embarrassing fumbling around in Extended Pictorial Storytelling by comic book-format natives like Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, and Eisner himself. There too, it took quite a while before anyone (in America, mind you) was producing long form comics-with-spines that both stood up aesthetically and actually utilized the long form to do something more substantial that 24 pages could fit.
And here we are once more, with a fucking crazy new format that anyone can see has the potential to massively expand what comics can be. It’s in the how that it gets tricky. More than tricky really: impossible to address critically. How webcomics are going to change the substance of what the medium is is impossible to say because it hasn’t happened yet. All we can possibly do is look around at the work that’s different from your average printed-object comic, that’s operating in a way that’s not the same, and catalog it to be recognized when its mode of operation pops up again and the real fun — influence — begins.
If I had to pick a “most-influential” webcomic out there right now it would probably be the aforementioned BodyWorld, which Dash Shaw serialized on the web between 2007 and 2009. It was hardly the most widely read webcomic (from what I understand, that honor goes to Penny Arcade, shudder), but it was certainly the only one to push the webcomics-specific “scroller” format into print — wide-release, major-publisher, New York Times-reviewed print, no less. 2010’s printed BodyWorld featured a vertical, rather than horizontal, facing-page orientation, to be read down in the manner of a scrolling web page rather than across like a book, and fold-out inside-cover flaps designed to mimic separate browser tabs. (It looked like this.) Oddly enough, and though it’s a great comic, I think BodyWorld’s greatest legacy is going to be formal rather than content-specific: the printed version was the earliest prominent formal expansion of beyond-web comics that led back directly to comics as they’re experienced online.
Probably the most exciting webcomic currently running is Blaise Larmee’s 2001, a monochromatic experiment in bracing literalism that feels a bit like Jaime Hernandez’s “Maggie and Hopey” stories reconstructed for a post-millennial audience of ADHD computer lifestylists. 2001 is a full-screen scroller webcomic: a single one of Larmee’s wide, deep-focus panels takes up the full width and twice the height of the average laptop’s browser window. Scrolling through it is disorienting, a demand for constantly realigned perceptions as the characters’ motions are tracked around inside the box of the computer screen. The between-panel motion in 2001 is almost animation, the perspective constant, the figures’ movements captured in painstaking, diagrammatic detail. They move across the screen and gesture dramatically. They recede into the black background and come so close to the viewer that their white forms fill up the window almost completely.
Willumsen’s “Blackhold” is something else entirely, a completely panel-less single image that goes even further into the scroll. Like 2001, its images take up the full width and many times the length of the screen, but in “Blackhold” there are no dividers, none of Larmee’s demarcations between separate pictures, separate moments. Instead the whole thing is one astonishingly smooth slide from beginning to end, a progression from one place to another that presents disconnected single images in the manner of all comics, but moves through them with a speed and slickness that has nothing at all to do with the typical gridded, bordered-in reading experience. It’s about as close to animation as comics have gotten, panel-less and easy to read without stopping the downward motion of one’s scroll. Movement on a screen, the only difference being that the reader dictates how fast everything goes. And though the black-and-white dot matrix background behind the images can get downright hallucination-inducing if it’s scrolled through at too constant a speed, there is one element of “Blackhold” that absolutely can’t be replicated on paper, no matter its size. Willumsen’s drawings for the comic are not digitized in the standard tiff or jpeg formats, but rather as moving gifs, which flash staccato bursts of bright red and yellow from Willumsen’s still drawings. It’s a fascinating addition to the comics artist’s toolbox, one that leads the reader to question whether it’s still comics at all. But then, these things are supposed to be successions of still pictures that somehow manage to move, and given that the light wherever you happen to read a comic dictates so much of your experience of it, why not let the digital environment allow its artists one extra element of control over their work?