Captain Nihilist on appreciating a webcomic in absence of a comments section
Before the internet, interaction between the comic creator and the readers were pretty small. I imagine most of the reader correspondence was through mail. I imagine that in some hazy room somewhere, an underpaid intern (or Stan Lee himself) would sift through the piles of envelopes and separate the interesting letters from the boring (and I’m guessing confrontational) ones. The good ones would make it into the letter columns at the back of the issues. Even those were hardly immediate: if I remember right, sometimes the letters would refer to an issue from 3 months back. Marvel would usually publish mostly good notices, while DC was a little more daring and would include one or two negative notices … only a few of which were written by Geoff Johns.
These days, the internet is all about immediate feedback. Or “Instant Gettification,” as one super annoying commercial from a few years ago put it. It’s like you can’t put a new application out there without sticking a “Like” button. “Like” us on Facebook. “Like” me on Instagram. “Like” us in the iTunes app store. I get the commercial benefits, but it sounds needy sometimes. Then there are “the thumbs up” from YouTube. Immediate reactions from Twitter, which have to be posted right now or you miss the hashtag bandwagon. And, of course, there are the comments sections on every single blog and webcomic, include this one you are reading here.
It is, in many ways, a good thing. We are human beings, and as human beings we like to share. These strides in group communication tap into our urges of “building a community,” which is itself a copyrighted buzzphrase of Web 2.0. Heck, “blog commenting” is the number one way to promote your blog, according to the fine folks at Blogussion. The downside (and advantage) of the web is that it isn’t face to face. Everyone’s anonymous. But all these community building tools help bridge the gap and bring us closer together.
And yet, sometimes I miss those good old days when a story could be told without all those other readers chiming in.
Just to be clear, though, I’m not ragging on comments that are negative or critical or ultimately derailing, like that time on ESPN.com where the readers turned on Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons right after the Bears/Colts Super Bowl (causing them to shut off the comments section for that column and that column only). Most webcomic comments sections are downright civil and very polite. I think that most readers know that the writer and/or artist put a lot of time and effort into their comic, and it would be rude to bring up criticisms on their own site. Most of the time, comments revolve around where the story is going, or the examination of the details. Perhaps rallying the cause of some little known character. Or speculating sexy times between the two leads.
You know, harmless stuff.
However, it’s usually fairly unnecessary… and sometimes it can actually be pretty detrimental to a webcomic.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of Evan Dahm’s Overside series. Each installation (from Rice Boy to Order of Tales to Vattu) has gotten a solid 5-star rating from me. While it’s got decent readership, it’s not been all that great. (Compete.com puts its number of unique visitors at a paltry 1.6K in July 2012.) This would clearly be a candidate for the community building magic of a comments section, right?
I imagine that most Rice Boy fans would probably agree with me that it would ruin the overall zen-like feel of the comic. Much of the Overside tales are about contemplating silence and letting the images speak for themselves. The layout reinforces that. There are no Project Wonderful ads with scantily clad ladies in bikinis. There’s no distracting comments section at the bottom. Just a plain layout, where the images are surrounded by a sea of negative space.
In other words, it’s gorgeous.
I alsom remember there was a time when John Allison was flirting with adding a comments section to Scary Go Round. He expressed some hesitation including a comments section on his site, but went ahead anyway. After a while, though, he turned it off. Scary Go Round, though, is not a comic that thrives in the serene blankness of space. It’s a very colorful, wild comic. Here, the various ads surrounding the panels seem more at home. So why did he turn off the comments?
It may have been negative comments or exhaustion from moderating, though — from what I saw of the comments section the brief time it was there, the comments were, as I described earlier, ultimately harmless. I suspect that even innocuous remarks have a tendency to steer a narrative. Back in the comic letter column days, reader input was not registered until long after the fact of publication. Now, it’s immediate, pretty much to the day that the creator hits the “Publish” button. Comments are to the day, since (from the standpoint of the reader) a comment left a day or two later is already rather obsolete.
Are these immediate reactions warranted, though? A creator should have the purview of publishing a comic — especially a longform comic — at their own pace. Sometimes, like Rice Boy, it will take many days for the story to arrive at anything relevatory. But that’s a little at cross purpose with the reader, who wants to make a comment on something immediately. “Instant Gettification,” if you will. And that sentiment takes you out of the overall spell that the webcomic creator is weaving, where they’re in the process of creating a world that is separate from our own.
Comments sections are mainly used to build a relationship between the webcomic creator and the reader. However, unless you’re Andrew Hussie, I’m guessing that most creators have a vision independent of that of the readers. This is probably why many long-form comics choose to either move discussion to a separate forum or to hide the comments so that the main content can be viewed independently.
I think comments are fine in gag-a-day comics, even if I don’t think much of the discussion would go beyond commenters trying to the top the webcomic writer with their own punchlines. But I think silencing the commentariat is the preferred direction for long-form story driven webcomics. Hey, I’m all for giving the creator a pat in the back. He or she deserves it. But sometimes it’s preferable to send an appreciative e-mail.