As may be obvious, getting out more than one post a week is proving challenging, so expect that as the current pace for the moment. Unfortunately, despite not having the time to write multiple posts, I still find the need to discuss multiple topics, so expect the following to be long, meandering, and occasionally incomprehensible.
When Good Meta Goes Bad
T Campbell writes about a number of webcomics that have recently tossed meta-humor into their strips… often with terrible, terrible results. There isn’t too much I can say he didn’t already cover – he even cops to the fact that his own work doesn’t so much dabble in metahumor as dive in head first, and that any criticism he tosses upon others is also a warning to keep a close eye on his own comics.
But the things he said needed to be said. Least I Could Do seemed especially in need of being taken to task, wherein what starts out as some clever tongue-in-cheek self-mockery suddenly turns into Sohmer explain how his comic is awesome, and everyone else sucks.
Hint: If you need to brag about how cool you are, you’re doing it wrong.
You know what is cool? Dead Winter. I’ve mentioned the comic before, ever so briefly – but at the time, the comic was only a few months old, while now it has had a chance to much more firmly establish what it is and what it is all about.
Interestingly enough, things don’t appear to have moved all that quickly – our main cast has mostly come together and is making their way out of the zombie-infected city that used to be their home. But we’ve learned quite a bit more about some of these people, and the stakes have continued to rise as they try and find their way to safety.
What I love the most about the comic, though, is the fact that the zombies are rarely the threat, in any given circumstance. They are omnipresent, constantly seen in just about every single update, even if as no more than misty figures in the background… but right now, our protagonists are less concerned about the zombies, and more worried about Frank, homicidal chef and all-around unpleasant guy.
The zombies are… an obstacle. A dangerous, deadly part of the scenery. But they are, in classic zombie style, slow enough to be avoided in most circumstances. A danger only in numbers, or if you get cornered. A danger when you are distracted. But they aren’t the villain of the scenario – just a hazard that keeps the cast on the move in their search for safety.
So, in the past few days, I have played through and completed On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 1, which is the first in potentially a long series of Penny Arcade video games.
The game itself isn’t bad – it is short, though with new episodes planned, from the sound of it, four months apart, the length is entirely reasonable. The game system is straightforward, but with enough quirks to avoid become redundant (at least during the 5-6 hours of play.) It isn’t an especially difficult game – I only died once or twice in the entire thing, and there is absolutely no penalty for defeat, as you just get bounced out of a fight and have to start it over again, sans any consumables used during the battle.
What the game is, however, is wholly and unabashedly Penny Arcadian. Every random bit of dialogue, the hundreds upon hundreds of little details and jokes scattered throughout the game, the storyline and the art – all bring together the best elements of the comic strip and the skills and talents of Gabe and Tycho. The game is incredibly funny, from the most profane depths to the most profound observances. The vulgar jokes and toilet humor fit side-by-side with a brilliant apocalyptic tale about clockwork robots, cannibalistic hobos and a cult of mimes that worship “Yog Sethis, the Silent One.”
That’s really the success story of the game. Penny Arcade has fully translated itself into the medium of a video game, and indeed, provided the strongest element of the game in its sense of humor, characters and story.
Given how many other attempts for webcomics to branch out into other media – such as the attempted animation series of PvP and CAD – have met with a somewhat tepid response, and have suffered from difficulty capturing the heart and soul of the comic in a new format… I find the solid first step of the Penny Arcade Adventure line to be a definite milestone for webcomics as a whole.
Admittedly, it has never been argued that Penny Arcade has established itself as a brand well beyond what most other webcomics have – the success of PAX and Child’s Play make that exceptionally clear. But I still feel this sets the stage for more attempts by webcomics to push their boundaries ever further.
Chainmail Bikini has announced its trek to the land of the Eternal Hiatus. Chainmail Bikini was, in and of itself, nothing too special – another comic about D&D that makes all the usual jokes about all the usual subjects. It had quality art, but its true claim to fame was being written by Shamus, who had produced the absolutely brilliant DM of the Rings.
Sadly, Chainmail Bikini never quite lived up to its predecessor – despite having a genuine artist on board, it didn’t bring anything new to the table, and while DM of the Rings had carved out a dynamic little niche on its own, Chainmail Bikini wasn’t saying anything Knights of the Dinner Table hadn’t already said a decade earlier. Sure, the art was nicer – the art was spectacular, in fact – but as a comic entirely driven by humor, the art was also largely irrelevant. The humor itself wasn’t bad – just nothing new, and nothing strong enough to really draw in an audience.
Thus, in many ways the end of the comic almost leaves me hopeful – with this out of the way, perhaps Shamus will find himself stumbling upon a concept for another webcomic as unique and addictive as his first. He has already been doing a number of short comics at his blog, all focused around video games and the inevitable stupidities that come with said video games. From what I can tell, they’ve been funny, though my lack of video game knowledge has rendered several of them mostly inaccessible to me. Still, it definitely provides some hope for whatever he comes up with next.
Until then, however, we’ve got Darths and Droids, which has now smoothly settled into the true void left by DM of the Rings – and, 100 strips in, is going strong. Taking the Star Wars movie as its set-up, and using a game system that seems an amalgamation of all sorts of game out there, it manages to hit all the elements DMotR did… and even add one more. The “art” (screenshots) are well-chosen for maximum effect, the jokes manage to riff on both the mentality of game players and the inherent silliness of the subject matter… and it also manages to present the gamers with increasingly distinct personalities. Oh, in DMotR you had that to some extent – Legolas was played by the power-gamer, Gimli by the role-player.
But Darths and Droids has that, and also manages to make some of the characters likeable – like Sally, the younger sister of one of the players, who seems to grok roleplaying in the way that only a child’s view of make-believer really can. (And who manages to make Jar-Jar Binks an enjoyable character, even as the power-gamer playing R2-D2 makes the droid seem like a colossal jerk. Seriously, that’s impressive.)
So, what could possibly be better than a comic about a game that uses movie screenshots to tell its story?
How about a game about a comic that tells its story through… fisticuffs!
I think it is safe to say I’m excited about On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, and rather amazed it is only a week away from launch. Even better, Penny Arcade is celebrating the occasion by producing their own prequel comic for the game. I continue to find myself amazed that they’ve captured an interesting and exciting backdrop (steampunk adventures in the 1920!) that still feels completely and fully Penny Arcadian. The same sense of whimsy, the same saucy humor.
I suspect May 21st will be a day to remember.
With the onset of allergy season, I’ve finally been persuaded that Durkon was right.
Anyway – so there was this Iron Man movie that just came out, and, like, it was really good.
But it very much got me thinking about the character. I mean, I’ve never really liked Iron Man. I’m not even talking about whatever nonsense is going on with his current situation and the entire Civil War storyline – I’ve simply never found the character interesting.
Discussing it with my friends, I claimed that he simply wasn’t an iconic superhero the way others were – and I know that term is something of a meaningless buzzword, but what I meant was that there was almost no identity to Iron Man himself. Tony Stark had character, sure – he had all manner of flaws, and thus plenty of opportunity for character development and progress and redemption.
But Iron Man was just… an armored suit. Just some guy with a fancy piece of technology – indistinguishable from any number of nameless soldiers in power armor. Tony Stark wearing the armor was no real different than Tony Stark without it, whereas other hero/secret identity relationships were complex and intriguing. Superman vs Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne vs Batman, Spiderman vs Peter Parker.
While there are also some that have no real seperation from their costumed selves, that is usually because their secret identities are almost meaningless behind their superhero nature. The X-Men are primarily defined by being mutants, sometimes on the run, sometimes fighting for their people – but Cyclops is Cyclops, and Scott Summers simply happens to be another name that character sometimes uses. B
But Iron Man is just a metal soldier. Iron Man isn’t Tony Stark – it is just a suit of armor Tony wears. And there is no real personality behind that mask, no new persona.
Or, at least, that is how I previously viewed things.
As mentioned before – the Iron Man movie was really, really good. It had fantastic acting, a great balance between character development and action scenes, and some damn fine humor worked into the mix. Great graphics, solid pacing, etc, etc.
And after seeing it, I came to realize that Iron Man was iconic, in certain ways. Was, in fact, almost the perfect superhero icon for the modern age. The businessman, the industrialist, the playboy – that is Tony Stark.
But the inventor? That’s Iron Man.
Iron Man is about imagination, and pushing the limits of technology. And, of course, about doing good with that technology. It is not just about wearing some power armor, but wearing the absolute best power armor that the human mind can build. About doing so through trial and error, and eventually getting to feel the raw enjoyment of success, the thrill of flight, the sense of accomplishment.
Iron Man is the suit of armor – but also everything that went into making that. And realizing that suddenly made the character interesting and appealing.
I have to rate the Iron Man movie as the best superhero movie I’ve seen. Because making a movie about character I already like – that’s easy. But making one that takes a character I’m indifferent towards, and propels them into one of my favorite characters?
That’s a whole lot more impressive to pull off.
When I was browsing through my backlog of comics, one of the ones I had fallen behind on – and was expecting to shortly put aside – was You’ll Have That. For pretty much all the same reasons as I mentioned on Monday regarding Taking the Bi-Pass.
YHT is another slice-of-life strip without much in the way of an agenda – more polished artwork and presentation, to be sure, but how much more does it have to offer? Isn’t it just another collection of the same sort of casual jokes and storylines seen in so many other places?
So I was wondering – and then I actually bothered reading through the missing month or so of comics, and found myself hurtling through the archive to get caught up, eager – even desperate – to see how the current storyline was going to end, and what the fallout from it would be.
The storyline in question (SPOILERS!) involves Steve (best friend of Andy, the strip’s main character) discovering that his girlfriend once briefly starred in a “Girls Gone Wild” style video – at which point he breaks up with her. And… it’s a reasonable sort of thing to have happen, which isn’t to say his response is itself reasonable but that it is typical – it seems true to life, and exactly the sort of dumb situation that makes for the usual ridiculous drama.
This, really, is YHT’s strong point – it manages to wander along through the normal elements of life, and it does have its share of boring (which is to say ordinary) events wander in along the way… but it also brings in an appropriate amount of excitement, without ever making it seem forced or out of place. When relationships form or break apart, when new characters enter or vanish or suddenly start punching people in the face… it all feels natural.
Which is why it can be easy to think that nothing much happens in the comic, right up until things get shaken up. And YHT seems to be doing just that, while also not letting its current moment of drama overwhelm the entire focus of the strip. That kind of balancing act can be hard to pull off – but clearly it seems to be working, as I find myself eagerly awaiting each update, when not so long ago I was planning on ditching the strip entirely.
This week, we saw yet another moment of change as Steve decides to shave his head. I’m reminded of a similar recent storyline from Girls With Slingshots – but while that one spent what seemed like ages building up to the moment of eradication, YHT dove right on in. For the better, I think… the longer the build-up, the more likely that the culmination of the storyline won’t live up to expectations. GWS – which is otherwise about as excellent a strip as can be found – does seem to have its one weakness in overindulging in redundant jokes rather than actually cutting to the point.
You’ll Have That, on the other hand, simply does its thing and then moves right along. And given that’s usually how life actually works, that can be awfully compelling indeed.
I can’t recall when I started reading Taking the Bi-Pass.
Now, to be fair, that is the case with the vast majority of comics I read – but usually, if I make the effort, I can track my path backwards and puzzle out what crossover led me there, or what other webcomic posted a link for me to follow. Or, occasionally, what random banner ad managed to actually succeed in snagging my attention and drawing me in.
If nothing else, I can usually recall the experience of reading through the archives, and then adding the comic to my daily list to be followed on a regular basis.
Yet with Taking the Bi-Pass… there is nothing. I know I must have encountered it in the same fashion as other comics. I know that I must have one day stumbled upon it, read through it, and added it to the list. But there is no memory of doing so. It simply became part of my routine, without my notice.
Which is why, perhaps, it has taken me this long to actually realize I don’t get anything out of reading it.
Now, in fairness, I certainly don’t have a wealth of terrible things to say about the comic. Indeed, if anything in it actively repelled me, I’m sure I would dropped it from the list long ago. But just as the comic isn’t actively bad in any real sense, it isn’t good, either. It is altogether harmless and plain… and so I read it for month after month almost without noticing it. It was one link among many, briefly clicked on and checked every few days, and the content behind the link vanished from my mind almost as soon as I looked upon it.
It’s not hard to find the reason: the strip is, at heart, a slice-of-life comic. Sure, it has plenty of gags about pop culture and geek lingo – especially in its early strips – but the driving force behind it is following “the lives and random adventures of a small group of friends.”
The thing is? Life is dull.
Some people might have crazy adventures 9 days out of 10 – but not most of us. Most people spend most days doing ordinary things and living ordinary lives. And even those times when life is good and fun and enjoying – it is largely because you are living in that moment. You are hanging out with friends and throwing around jokes and chatting about random things, and right then and there, it is a blast.
But go ahead, try and take a snapshot of that conversation, try and find a way to share those inside jokes and the hilarious banter with others… and it falls short. The jokes don’t work without the context of the moment and the atmosphere of the group.
The moment is lost.
Life is dull.
Life is also, admittedly, filled with vast excitements and moments of wonder, with incredible adventures around very corner, with a thousand shards of genius found in every second of the ordinary – but it takes a special talent to be able to notice and enjoy such things. And it takes an even greater skill to be able to share such sentiments with others – to paint a scene and realize the moment in all its raw glory. To convey why the evening with friends was filled with laughs, or why the drive to the airport was a nerve-wracking experience, or why a visit at the museum felt so genuinely enlightening.
Without that skill, you can still recount your experiences… but it ends up as a slideshow, a series of hollow moments and faded images, with the colors never quite as vibrant as they were in life. And you know, that’s fine – sharing your life with others, even the dull and boring parts of it, is a lot of what the internet is designed to do, and forming those connections is not a bad thing.
But it isn’t something I need to read a comic for.
The art in Taking the Bi-Pass has come a long way from the beginning, but has never really pushed beyond its own limits. It is serviceable, and good at presenting a cartoony feel, but breaks down when it tries to depict an infant. Still, progress is progress, and “slow but steady” is a perfectly reasonable method of improvement.
The characters in the strip manage to fit the ‘everyman’ tone of it while still remaining relatively distinct. The storylines… less so, but they tend to be good while they are in motion. Seeing these characters slowly moving forward with their lives, going through marriage, having a child… there is a good feeling to it. There is no real sense of action or urgency as the strip essentially proceeds in real-time… but again, slowly but steadily, it moves forward much as life tends to do.
The website is reasonably well laid-out. It could use a cast page… but at the same time, the strip is often just as easy to read without having to know anything about who the characters are. That’s the benefit of being drawn from life – situations are easily identifiable and characters easy to empathize with. The layout of the site does a good job of balancing out the comic itself with the regular newsposts from the creator, and having that bit of personal connection to the author is likely more useful than anything else that could be presented to the reader.
It isn’t a bad comic. I read it faithfully, probably for years, without ever having a moment where it let me down, offended me, or drove me away. It has room for improvement, sure, but it doesn’t really try to go beyond what it is – there is no pretension to it, no posturing or arrogance. It’s just a strip by an ordinary guy about an ordinary life.
There just isn’t any reason for me to keep reading it. I like the characters… but don’t feel any need to see their story unfold. Indeed, I can visualize it on my own, with ease – I doubt there are any great surprises down the road. And I don’t need to see the little details or the small jokes as they play out, or see more of the same riffs on geek culture that I’ve seen a hundred times before.
There might be those around who do, and that’s all to the good. The comic is certainly no worse than the majority still found in the newspaper – it is the same sort of peaceful and plain material that many find a comfort in having as part of their routine.
But I’ve already got plenty of other comics to take that role. A few seconds each day might not cost me much, but I’ve still got plenty of other uses to which I can put the time.
This year’s Webcartoonists’ Choice Awards were announced several weeks ago – which is essentially a hojillion years in internet time – but I felt I should comment on them a bit anyway.
First off – I’m actually rather sad I didn’t make any predictions this year, as for once nearly all of the comics I was rooting for ended up as the winners. The main exception was Lackadaisy, a comic not on my reading list, which claimed quite a few awards this year. Given that it did the same last year as well, one would think it would stand as an easy choice to be added to my reading list, but somehow I still haven’t gotten around to doing so.
This was actually a really good year for the WCCA’s as a whole. Moments of drama were relatively few and far between – though not absent entirely. The ceremony itself (in the usual form of online comics) was incredibly well-done and easy to read, as opposed to the sprawling madness found in some previous years. The entire event felt more professional than it has in the past, and that is by far a step in the right direction.
This year featured the removal of the ‘genre categories’ – awards given out to the best sci-fi strips, the best superhero strips, the best romance strips, etc, etc. I was somewhat afraid of this change, largely because those fields gave some smaller fish out their a chance to compete while the usual big names swept the primary categories. But going through the awards now, I don’t really feel the loss as much as I expected – and looking over past years, it is definitely obvious that such categories often required a great deal of stretching to even find enough nominees for the ballot.
So, having said all the above good things about this year’s WCCAs… on to the complaints!
Only two, and the first one is merely to point out that, as usual, the event has an amazing lack of advertising. For something that is designed around getting input from webcartoonists all over the web, they do an incredible job of flying below the radar – from the beginning of the nomination process to the announcement of the results at the end. And I think that very lack of reaching out to the larger webcomic world as a whole is a key reason for the occasionally static results – we see a lot of the same winners and nominees, even in categories that aren’t necessarily the right fit for them.
And, yes, some of that is the natural result of this sort of event being a popularity contest at heart, and there isn’t anything wrong with that – but it also feels like it has one relatively small group of people involved in the entire show. If they can expand their audience, and draw in more participants, I think that would be a very good thing indeed. And the only way that is going to happen is if they actually make an effort to spread the word every year when the awards are actually happening.
Complaint number two is a more genuine one – I was appalled when I see PvP nominated for Outstanding Website Design. I know he pays people to professionally put together a website for him – that does not mean they do a good job!
His design last year was relatively slick and effective, but his latest site is completely out of control. There is no way to easily go to the first strip. I repeat – there is no easy way to go to the first strip!
There is not a button that takes you there. There is not a button that takes you to an archive! You can manually go to the little calendar widget buried in the bottom-right of the page, well below the fold, and select May 1998, the first month listed there, and then select the first comic. And it is not all that difficult a task, but it is about three steps more than such an act should require!
Similarly, when you click on an individual date in the calendar widget, it brings up, not a page with the strip itself, but a page with a thumbnail of the strip! Clicking on that then brings you to the comic itself.
Look. These are not horrendous, life-changing mistakes. Will it turn away some new readers? Sure. Will it frustrate regular readers trying to hunt through the archives? Probably. Are either of those problems that big a deal? Not really.
Seeing them on what is supposed to be one of the most professional webcomics on the net, on the other hand, is really disappointing. Normally, I wouldn’t have any problems with it. Similarly, I would normally be able to forgive the sheer amount of links and promotions and ads and other craziness plastered all over the page, because Scott Kurtz does have a lot happening and needs a place to put all that stuff.
But when the site is being nominated for being one of the most “Outstanding” around… well, as I said, it is disappointing. Not as a mark against Kurtz, really, but as a sign of how easy it is for a comic to be nominated simply because it is a big name, rather than because it is appropriate for the award at hand.
Well, it has been a few weeks since my last post – let’s assume I give you the usual excuses about being sick with the flu (which I was) and how work has been especially busy (which it has). With that out of the way, how about I get right back into game – and how better to do so than deal with endings and beginnings, and the sadness of each?
When Home on the Strange mentioned, last November, that it was ending, I found myself saddened by the news. This shouldn’t be a surprise – it is the natural response to such an announcement – but more surprising might be that my reasons for sadness where entirely tangential to the comic itself. Oh, it was a good comic, and one that provided more than its share of amusement… but as much as I liked the cast and crew, I wasn’t really going to miss them. They had their run, and it was a good one. Nearly two years of solid, constant updates is certainly a triumph in its own right.
What I knew I would miss would be the commentary on the strip.
The loquacious fellow known as Ferrett is the writer of the strip – or primary writer, rather, as it is was clear that the entire process of producing each strip was a collaborative process with the artist, Roni. In any case, Ferrett had a specific set of ideas in mind when they went about creating a webcomic – indeed, the entire thing seemed to be approached in a very formulaic fashion. A pinch of regular updates, a dash of nerd culture references, an appropriate blend of cliffhangers and punchlines, and a whole kitchen filled with other tools and techniques designed to produce a perfectly balanced webcomic that will attract new readers, while keeping old readers coming back for more.
I’ve heard the occasional denouncement of this form of manufactured comic, but I never put much stock in it – if it produces a quality comic day after day, isn’t that the bottomline of success? If he simply draws upon what he knows readers want – such as reliable updates and an easily navigated website – why in the world should anyone complain?
But even aside from the convenience of it, I enjoyed the chance to really observe the inner workings of a comic. To see how it was put together, and why. To see analysis of what worked and what didn’t.
And Ferrett did not disappoint, with several posts discussing theories of comic writing, and a whole series of posts reviewing other webcomics – often with specific insights drawing on his experience producing Home on the Strange. And, of course, often detailed notes and comments posted alongside the comic itself with every update, laying out the author’s thought-process right there for the audience to see. Thus it was sad to know that with no more Home on the Strange, there would be no more discussions of random spikes in the strip’s readership, or the challenges of specific story arcs, or confessions of how surprising it was to discover the popularity of certain secondary characters.
Speaking of which – today, they have posted the comic’s final strip. The strip largely wrapped up several months back, but they promised one last conclusion if reader’s made a final donation drive. (Which they did.) The final strip was there to address the fate of a character who was never intended to be the star of the show, but somehow resonated with a surprising portion of the audience – Branch, the annoying chatterer with poor social graces who goes on and on and on about all those little minutiae that no one else actually cares about.
Yet despite being designed as a pest and a nuisance, Branch gained a following. Like Mike in Something Positive, it turned out that readers are all too willing to root for a bumbling social misfit to overcome their own weaknesses and become something… more. Perhaps because many of us recognize that character from our own social circles – the one that everyone finds somewhat creepy and discomforting, but also feels sorry for. And perhaps because we also recognize many of those same elements within ourselves – maybe only in bits and pieces, maybe to a much smaller degree, but still there nonetheless.
Whatever the reason, Branch’s first real storyline was when the comic really seemed to take off – and when the comic came to a close, the one burning element people needed for closure was an answer to “What happened to Branch?”
Especially given that, in her last appearance previously, we saw that for all the progress she had made, she still couldn’t connect to people in person – and it looked like, maybe, she never would. And the only mention after that wasn’t altogether promising, either.
So what was her final fate? Well, I suppose you can go and see for yourselves. And the answer… well, you can judge that on your own, I suppose. There’s a preview to the right, but all in all, I think the answer… is that it ended well.
I don’t think anyone can deny that the artwork for the final strip was absolutely gorgeous. And the final fate of Branch itself… seems fitting, and as happy an ending as could have been for the path she had walked down.
And now Home on the Strange has truly come to an end.
Ferrett is producing a new webcomic, co-written by himself and Catherynne M. Valente, and drawn by Avery A. Liell-Kok. “My Name is Might Have Been,” the comic is called. It currently has five strips to its name. The artwork is stunning and the writing is superb.
I am reasonably sure it will be gone from my reading list within a week or two. Not due to any true fault of its own – but it just isn’t for me.
It is a comic about rock band, and guitar hero, and all the little details and understandings those games entail. And I’m confident those familiar with such things will find it sheer genius… but it just doesn’t resonate for me, unfortunately.
So that too is sad… but I’ll get over it.
After all, I read enough webcomics already as it is.
It always bothers me when a small, petty detail ends up distracting me from enjoying a comic.
Take today’s Dominic Deegan, wherein (spoilers!) we discover that the mysterious assassin who has been hunting oracles is not Dominic’s sister, as everyone feared, but instead Luna’s.
It was one of the better done plot twists I’ve seen in the strip – subtle enough to not be completely obvious, but also one that makes a reasonable amount of sense after the reveal.
I had difficulty noticing this, however, because the language of today’s concluding panels produced an irrational rage entirely disproportionate to the crime. Luna says, “The Oracle Hunter isn’t your sister, Dominic. She’s my sister.”
Those last three words bothered me. She could have simply said, “She’s mine.”It is not all that big a difference – the extra two syllables slow down the reveal and diminish the effect and the wording is somewhat redundant. But how big a deal is that, in the end? So Mookie could have used a more powerful line to finish today’s strip – is that worth raising a fuss about in any possible universe?
I suppose not. I’m not saying he should have done it better, or that it was a major flaw in the comic. And yet – it was enough to break me out of the moment. One minor mis-step, and nothing more.
Sometimes, that’s just how these things go.
Anyway! I haven’t posted much of late, for which I have… little to no excuse. Nonetheless, time is likely to remain at a premium for a bit, so despite the fact that there are plenty of interesting things to talk about, I am unlikely to do so until sometime next week.
Fear not, however – the Main Man of webcomics criticism has stepped back into the field and is currently running through a comprehensive series of posts on all the comics he reads. And the snark seems to be flowing in significant quantities, so it makes for a damn fine read. So for anyone desperately in need of some genuinely insightful webcomics criticism, go and enjoy the Websnark.
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.
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?