What Makes a Webcomic: In Which I Attempt to Overcomplicate an Oversimplification.

So, the other day I saw this strip over at Planet Karen. And it got me thinking about about what it said. And, interestingly enough, I find myself both in agreement… and in disagreement with the proposed statement.

To start with, this topic does drag us back to the time-honored debate over “What is a webcomic?” Is it something unique and exceptional? Or is it simply comics… on the web?

Eric Burns – after several years of being the greatest advocate of webcomics – finally set that aside, and threw down the gauntlet as he said the only difference is the “fucking means of distribution.

Is that true? If so, how come so many webcomics have a hard time being fit into the standard print comics categories? There are some webcomics that feel like newspaper strips, yes, and there are some that feel like comic books – but there are also plenty that are a mix of the two. Or something else entirely.

For that matter, is he also saying there is no difference between newspaper comics and comic books? Is the only difference between them a matter of distribution?

So let’s take a step back, and ask the question – what are short form and long form comics? Looking up “short form comics” on the internet, wikipedia for once has no easy answer. While many seem familiar with the term, the only definition I can find (in an admittedly brief search) comes from the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards, who define it as comics “comics with shorter formats with regular gags, or beats to it’s story to reflect each individual strip. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Strip’ formats.”

That seems, certainly, the understood definition. The Eisner Awards do not define it – but then, they are focused on the other side of the field in general, the long-form comic, so perhaps they need no such delineations. It may simply be understood that short-form works are outside their field of interest. Oh, they had a category devoted to them in, say, ’92 and ’93, and specific creators are occasionally selected for the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame… but those are the very, very rare exceptions.

So, moving on to long-form comics, which the WCCA offers up as “comics with longer formats and extended, continuous storylines. Traditionally these comics fit (but not restricted to) ‘Comic Book’ formats.” Again, this seems the commonly understood meaning of the term. And, again, the Eisner Awards don’t directly define it – the only mention comes in during the “Digital Comics” category wherein they specify that the webcomics must be “long-form stories published online.”

(I apologize if I simply seem to be laying out obvious information – I am attempting, slowly but steadily, to work towards a point.)

So, the Eisner Awards seem to limit webcomics to only long-form works in the same fashion that they limit the rest of the rewards to comic books, or comic book related material. Fair enough.

But… wait just one second! In 2006, the Digital Comic award went to… PvP.

Now, you can say whatever you wish about PvP, but one thing that is undeniable is that it follows the standard conventions of newspaper comic strips. Four-panel layout, daily updates, color sundays, gag-a-day punchlines, etc, etc, etc. Oh, it tells a growing story, certainly – characters change and grow, new characters are introduced while older ones fade away.

But there are plenty of regular newspaper comic strips that do the same. For Better or For Worse was the poster child for this, but there remain others for which this is true. Hell – take a look at all of the soap opera style strips! Suddenly you have nothing but story. 

What does this mean? Are they not short-form comics? Are they not newspaper comics? That is clearly their publishing format, yet they seem to defy other expectations of the genre. If PvP can be honored in the Eisner Awards, why can’t they?

Or is there something different about being online that allows PvP, despite its nature, to qualify as a long-form work? The presence of an archive could be the reason – it allows one to read the entire story in one sitting. On the other hand… that option is open for comic strips, too – it isn’t as immediately accessible, or as free, but it is there.

Or perhaps all of these categories are inherently flawed, and webcomics simply serve to make those flaws more apparent.

There are, after all, webcomics that are both about short-term laughs and long-term storytelling. There are webcomics styled like comic strips and ones styled like comic books. There are ones that use elements of both… and others that resembled neither.

Of course, the same might be said of some alternative comics, or various self-published works. I’m by no means an expert in such fields, but I’m sure there have been comics put forward before that defied easy definition or categorization.

What is a webcomic?

That is the question brought up earlier, isn’t it? If you asked me what I thought of when webcomics come to mind, I would list the following elements: Accessibility, lack of any direct fees for reading the comic, freedom from editorial control, open and comprehensive archives, supplementary material such as cast pages and story guides, and internal communities in which the reader and the audience could engage in communication. And yet – these are elements found in the majority of webcomics out there, and they are certainly a good guideline as to the quality of a webcomic… but they don’t define them. An online comic that lacks one, or two, or even all of these elements is still a comic on the web. Is there a difference between this and this and this?

Let me put forth a hypothetical situation. Currently there are many newspaper comics being updated online at the same time they are updated in the paper. The comic book companies are now, ever so slowly, beginning to place their own material online. Let’s fast forward a bit, and say that all such comics were now available online.

What defines a webcomic then?

I mean, clearly there will still be differences, right? Such as the elements I listed above – even when all the newspaper comics are posted online, they will still be under the control of the syndicates, still lack supplementary material, still lack internal communities.

Or will they?

For Better or For Worse. Classic print comic. And right there it has every classic webcomic element I listed. It is online, it is free, it has over five years of archives available, it is a comic that has shown itself willing to delve into territory normal avoided in the papers, it has a ton of supplementary material, and while I couldn’t hunt down a forum, it does have open lines of communication.

On the other hand, Mary Worth doesn’t, nor does Luann. Does that mean FBoFW has transitioned from a newspaper comic to a webcomic? Or is it both?

Clearly there are differences between most webcomics and printed material. Differences in style and format, but also in content and in context.  But there are also equal differences between various webcomics.

Karen says “the problem is defining webcomics in terms of print comics, which they aren’t. They’re webcomics.” But right now, webcomics is simply used as this catch-all category for which everything is undefined. Despite – or perhaps because – of how incredibly diverse they are.

Karen is right – you can’t define webcomics in terms of print comics. But simply calling them webcomics is missing the big picture – eventually they will all be webcomics. The differences will still be there, though – will the old-fashioned terminology we’ve been using still suffice?

No. No it won’t.

We need new categories.

I, personally, don’t know what those categories will be. And I don’t know who is suited to decide. I don’t even know for sure if clear divisions can be drawn. But you have things like Narbonic, which tell a complete long-form story despite resembling a short-form comic on the surface. You have webcomics that pull style from one type of comic and format from another. Are they too diverse to be categorized? Maybe, maybe not.

Right now, the Web Cartoonists’ Choice Awards are the closest any have come to doing so. And, let’s be honest now – they haven’t met with any spectacular success. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy them every year, I like what they are trying to do, and I respect all of those involved for their willingness to try and get this right. But they also tend to make a variety of poor decisions, and even when they do things right, they still don’t represent the whole field of online comic creators out there.

Perhaps this is one area where the corporations and syndicates have an advantage – they are organized and largely unified. They have the resources to define their fields. Webcomics are a group of myriad individuals, often ones working hard simply trying to make a living from their work – they rarely have the time to try and form any sort of unified committee. And when they do, it ends up as the WCCA – a good attempt, but not enough to truly redefine the field.

I don’t know where one should go from here. I know that I disagree, strongly, with Mr. Burns and the idea that webcomics are identical to print comics save for the means of distribution. I know that I agree with Karen Ellis that online comics shouldn’t be defined by print comics – but I don’t know if simply labelling them as open-ended ‘webcomics’ is enough.

So, some 1,500 words later, I still haven’t arrived at a proper definition for webcomics. But then… I’m not sure I’m qualified to truly do so. I’m part of the audience – an observer and a commentator, but not much more. I’m not the one creating the comics – or relying on them for a living.

Nonetheless, I do think this is a question that needs to be answered – especially with the print comics digital initiative finally on the horizon. Because the terminology they use now is only barely adequate to the task, and will fall apart completely as they move their comics online and find differences in distribution becoming meaningless.

Sure, they are all just comics in the end.

But isn’t there just a little bit more to it than that?

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12 responses

  1. PvP has also published print comic books. Now this is a completely wild-ass guess, but perhaps the people who voted for it had read the books (being more print-focused) and thought they were representative of the online version?

    I agree though that the categories are wrongly named for both print and web comics, but I’m not sure what the proper distinctions should be (if any).

  2. Now this is a completely wild-ass guess, but perhaps the people who voted for it had read the books (being more print-focused) and thought they were representative of the online version?

    Sam & Max won the category last year. The title was a print comic long before it was collecting dust on the web.

    So yes, you’re right. Eisner voters are direct market sorts. If something has a presence in that, they’ll vote for it. Expect Perry Bible Fellowship to take this year it now that it has that book out.

  3. Newspaper comics will always be newspaper comics, regardless of their web presence, because newspapers are their primary format.

    Many webcomics, even those most resembling graphic novels in style and format, retain a level of gag-a-day because the delivery system only gives you one page at a time, for many only one page a week. On that criteria, even Girl Genius slips into short form.

    As far as the Eisners are concerned, they were once heavily criticised for giving an award to a webcomic (might have been Sam & Max, but I’m not sure) that only produced 7 pages over the whole year. And one year Minus was nominated, even though it states that it is specifically aiming for newspaper format, and has virtually no continuity.

    If you are going to limit what webcomics are eligible for an award, you need to have a clear and consistent definition of terms.

  4. Say, I didn’t bother following the link, but is that the whole comic you got there, or is it “Understanding Webcomics” with an 80s goth girl?

  5. Karen: Agreed on the need for a clear and consistent definition of terms. I think they know conceptually what sort of digital comics they want to focus on – ones that resemble comic books. But trying to actually define that is no easy task, as the continual confusion from year to year has certainly shown.

  6. William: The above panel is just a single update from the strip, which is a slice of life style diary comic. Given that slice of life tends to include comics, it does occasionally veer into “Understanding Webcomics” territory, but it isn’t the whole comic – as amusing as that would be.

  7. minus has super continuity! TIMES TWO.plus seven.Like,like… in the beginning minus would get ice cream from an ice cream cart, but then she found a restaurant that was better and started going there instead.

    Anyways,I’m not entering this year, but when I submitted the comic before the same “long format” line was there. It was also there when PVP won if I remember correctly, and at that time Copper was also nominee that year as well as the year before. It hasn’t stopped any strips from being nominated so I quite honestly think it’s something that people are fine with not worrying about. Maybe things will suddenly become stricter in the future, but there’s no precedent to suggest that will be the case.The fact that the category actually refers to webcomics directly suggests that things are moving in the opposite direction… even if it’s at the cost of excluding other forms of digital comics.

    Konami could have entered their PSP graphic novels last year, but if they had anything like that available this year they couldn’t unless it was put online, and that’s not cool.I think it would have been awesome for some other kind of digital comic to blindside the comic makers on the interweb and beat them in “their” category.

  8. I think it might partly stem from the way webcomics interact with their audience. The way something Positive has funded itself, Sluggy Freelance’s Sluggites or Megatokyo’s vast forums. Webcomics provide more intimate ways to interact (For better or for worse).

    Syndicate strips are funnelled down into a lowest common denominator while webcomics can explore niches far better (My particular interest being in genre webcomics means I’m somewhat biased). The geekcore audience has also changed the basis of where the mainstream in webcomics comes from, and where it can go next.

  9. After spending a while thinking on it, I think you can pretty much simplify webcomics into four categories, none of which I will attempt to give names for:

    1) Punchline- or point- oriented updates, with little to no continuity.

    2) Serial story-comics, with punchlines or points being a usual focus of the individual updates.

    3) Serial story-comics, where the particular installments focus less on themselves and more on pushing the cast through various arcs – comic-booky, I guess.

    4) Single story comics. The focus is telling one story through from beginning to end. Graphic novely.

    There’s probably a category of 5) what I did not think of. Very few webcomics are going to fit entirely into one of those categories, but I think that this more represents the field than the vague “short” and “long” form.

    Personally, I think the Eisners should ignore webcomics unless they’re in comic book form that has made it to print. It’s the comic book form that Will Eisner pushed that they’re interested in, and they’re doing themselves and anyone else affected a huge discredit by pretending otherwise.

    I think on a level, Burns was right. It’s the means of distribution. All comics have to learn to work in the confines of that distribution. For example, you can always tell whether a story comic went web or print first. Generally, a good story comic on the web has an “umph” feeling to each and every page, as that’s all the audience is left with for a time. The originally print comic lacks this, sometimes painfully so, while offering pages meant to read continuously at a slooow pace.

    So I think a webcomic is a comic that uses the web and uses it well.

    Or manages to trick people into thinking they use it well. Most people will take frequent updates over decent content. Dreamland Chronicles, anyone? *retch*

  10. I have the same problem with my comic… it appears to be a gag-a-day webcomic, but there is actually a long form structure, layered in themes and indirect narrative.

    But you would only know that if you actually read it, which they were obviously unwilling to do.

    It’s their loss, since I think that sort of discrimination is overlooking one of the truely great quality of webcomics, which is the non-standard formats that they can follow… I think the narrow vision is a hangover from the print format days and nothing more than that.

  11. […] always ask ourselves what is a webcomic? Do they fall into the same categories as print comics? This article is a year old but it’s still worth reading. Another year old post gives us some webcomic […]

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