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Captain Nihilist on appreciating a webcomic in absence of a comments section

Panel from Shi Long Pang, by Ben Costa

 

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.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on September 11, 2012, in The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Perhaps have some sort of entirely separate page for the comments-section, instead of just including it below the page? That way reading the comic could be smoother, and still people get to give their feedback, what they really liked about some particular page, what they thought could be used bit more thinking etc. With music composers, all “Gettification” happens in their public Facebook profile, which could also serve as the “comment section”-in webcomics.

    I’m one of those kind of “constantly pestering fans” who really like asking questions about the comic, characters, where the author gained their inspiration, etc. So pages with no commenting section anywhere are bit of a let-down. Emails share many similar problems with the traditional mail.

  2. Anyone starting a webcomic right now will probably get the impression that comments are a must for building a community and providing interactivity to readers. That seems to be the prevailing wisdom. It probably doesn’t even occur to them that they might opt not to allow comments as an aesthetic choice. Also, most webcomic sites are built on WordPress, which includes a convenient commenting feature, which is active by default.

  3. My readers become my editors, if I do a mistake like grammar or something else they tell me and I can see real time reactions what things in the comics get them excited and the things they dont like, they force to make regular uPdates etc
    Also being a cartoonist is a lonely job so love/hate interaction with the readers makes the Job a lot easier

  4. My favorite moments in the comments area of my webcomic is when two or more people start talking to each other: speculating on the plot, answering each others questions, etc. I’m keeping their interest long enough for them to have a discussion, and that for me is something I really cherish.
    I also love running through other webcomics’ comments sections to see what people are asking/getting answers on. Reading through those comments is something I look forward to.
    Of course I feel my comic and all comics should be able to stand alone from their comments, but they add an interesting dimension to a story experience.

  5. While comments feel great, I think ultimately including discussion of a work within the work itself is a really bad idea.

  6. I think forums are a better way to foster community than simply putting a comments section underneath each comic anyway. I think there’d be a lot fewer webcomic comment sections if it weren’t for the popularity of webcomic WordPress plugins.

  7. I don’t find comments intrusive if you don’t have to look at them. Which you generally don’t, unless they’re above the navigation buttons. As has been mentioned, from a personal perspective, cartooning can be a lonely endeavor, and it’s nice to know that the people who are reading your comic actually exist. And unless you have a huge readership forums are terrible.
    I’ve never really looked at my comic as existing to be a webcomic. Its presence on the internet is a means for people to read it, and generate a fan base, not to be the ideal presentation of the story. If a comments section detracts from some people’s reading experience, they can buy the book 🙂

    • I have a policy of not really participating in the comments during debates (mainly because everything I need to be said has been written down in the main piece, and saying any more would be a little pushy, I think).

      However, I just wanted to say that I was relieved that you dropped by, Ben! Mainly because I felt a little guilty using a panel from your comic as one of the examples. It wasn’t intended to be in a negative light; just an example of what a comments section on a long-form comics look like.

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