The Elements of the Webcomic

An example of Genre Analysis

From: So Damn Bright

As comics continue to cross the digital divide into the online world, with most recently mainstream superhero comics along with a number of independent serials being republished for the iPad and other tablets, the effects of that transition are becoming increasingly important to comic genres in general. Nowhere is this more evident than in the “webcomic.”

Historical, technological, ethnographic shifts in computer usage are transforming the accessibility of this two decade old genre. While these changes are having a distinct effect in terms of longevity, popularity and accessibility, economic and structural factors of the webcomic have remained unchanged. Webcomics balance traditional comic structural elements, low budget aesthetics and, more importantly, the ability to be archived, remembered and recalled. These attributes define the genre which ranges drastically in terms of style and content.

History 

The advent of the webcomic accompanied the earliest experimentation of the Internet for entertainment use. Comics like T.H.E. Fox, published in 1986, set the precedent for some of the principles of webcomics.  Webcomics became something produced almost exclusively for the Internet, using often digital tools. In T.H.E. Fox’s case, the use of pixel art was employed to create ostensibly one panel comics showing the exploits of a fox. The comic was published over a seven year period, with posts occurring more infrequently as the comic came to a close. The goal of the comic’s creator had been newsprint syndication. Consequently, the publishing of T.H.E. Fox very much resembled the basic structures and styles of traditional comic strips, namely, being brief, easy to read, drawn in a variety of styles, but easily approachable in terms of draftsmanship and design. It also was marketed to a very specific audience, the upper/middle class, primarily white suburban computer user, often young and affiliated with geek and nerd culture.

This particular audience would remain the mainstay of webcomic readership, but would quickly become a subset of a larger audience as internet usage increased. Furthermore, the webcomic itself would face stiff competition from traditional comics as syndicated strips moved to the web. Comic strips like Garfield were available via the Internet legitimately as early as 2001 and were highly promoted by web providers such as America Online who created specific links from their welcome page to daily syndicated comic strips. These comics also continued to be produced for syndication and, as a consequence, a distinction arose between those comics released specifically for the web and those that were merely appropriated for the web.

Technological advancements and the advent of Web 2.0 would steadily facilitate the production of webcomics. Domain names became easier to purchase and the ability to create websites easier to accommodate. RSS Feeds allowed web users to know exactly when a webcomic was published rather than having to return repeatedly to a website. Finally, and perhaps most notably from the purview of the artist, the ability to create and color images on computers and even scan previously made images became significantly easier.

As a result, larger and more groups of authors could easily produce webcomic content. Amateur artists could publish and link to each other’s websites cheaply and effectively while toiling at day jobs. Such is the case with So Damn Bright, a comic by Erich Perry that clearly uses computer art in coloring, if not drawing the entire comic. He started using “Wordpress” software to publish to the web, and worked on his comic while applying for jobs[1]. That webcomics are a secondary career for many of its publishers is common and informs the genre as a whole. Few have the time or ability to publish detailed renderings and comics, and, as in Perry’s work, exhibit less than photorealistic designs unless they utilize digital photography. On occasion, a comic artist, such as Scott McCloud or Dash Shaw, who publish both web-specific and Book-Specific comics achieved success primarily through their books and magazine publishings. In short, the genre remains amateurish, capitalizing on the more democratic, not to mention free, technologies of the web and Web 2.0 to publish their work.

The Webcomic Industry 

The traditional model of the webcomic is based around the page, more specifically the webpage. Framing the content, primarily, are banner advertisements. In the case of more established artists, such as Scott McCloud or Jerry Holkin and Mike Krahulik with Penny Arcade, these ads, often posted by Google Ads, promote their comic books and related merchandise. As is the nature of much personal web content, the comics rely on clicking on those ads and purchases in order to generate revenue. Such is the case with So Damn Bright, where the primary, if only, source of consistent revenue comes from the banner ads at the top and sides of the page. While one banner, advertising other comics remains fixed, the banner on the side of the page changes every time a link on the page is clicked. This creates a whole set of conventions based on archiving and interconnectivity in the webcomic genre. Webcomic creators encourage clicking on their archived comics specifically so that they can display more ad content. With each click on a previous or older comic strip link, a new ad will inevitably pop up that a viewer might potentially click on. Additionally,  by including other comics’ links, a convention on almost every webcomic page, traffic to all sites increases. By creating a community of interconnected comics, the webcomic industry promotes each site’s output.

Furthermore, the content of the advertisements is made to match the content of the page. As a consequence, Perry’s advertisements are of either comics (at the top) or various aspects of Geek/Nerd culture including advertisements for Geek dating sites and online games. In this way, the content of webcomics, in terms of subject, remains fairly consistent.

Still considered a genre for counterculture/subculture/nerd culture, the advertisements are generated to match the content and vice versa. It is not surprising that the female characters in this comic might be a fairy (a fantastical allusion to nerd culture) or a “goth” (a teenage counterculture symbol). Webcomics tend to appropriate some aspect of the nerdy culture to which they advertise and are associated. Even the most sophisticated of webcomics, such as Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld, retain specific stereotypically phalocentric and fantastical elements that are associated with comics with which it is linked for those sort of sales.

While male characters and fantastical creatures dominate many webcomics because of the potential sales opportunities, not to mention the attraction to male/nerd culture, the ease of production has contributed an interesting array of characters. Experimentation with female characters and the primacy of female characters is common in webcomics although male protagonists still tend to dominate. Certainly, these female characters are explored in more depth than in many traditional and commercially printed comics, to which these web artists lack entree. Still, as in traditional comic culture, the webcomic is dominated primarily by white men. It should be noted that while Perry’s comic clearly has female characters, these characters are ancillary to his main character, “Never.” In this way, both core audiences are appeased, Perry is able to explore what has been called a “Seinfeld-esque” relationship and any additional traffic that comes from female and wider internet audiences.

 

The Webcomic Medium

 

The webpage is not only important because of its connection to the webcomic industry, but also as the framework for which the webcomic is constructed. Ultimately, the conventions of the webpage inform the design and structure of the webcomic through the use of links and assembling the page itself. Choices in comic construction, which have ties to its historical tradition and its means of production have direct results on each webpage of a comic. Ultimately, web comics remain, as a whole, easy to access and scroll. Many, including Perry’s work, resemble a traditional Sunday page or single page comic strip, with historic ties to the comics originated for newspaper and magazines through the 1960s. Other comics, such as Girls with Slingshots, opt for a daily three panel or four panel comic strip style. Still other, more novelistic webcomics, with full story arcs, such as Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld or Scott McCloud’s The Morning Improv, take advantage of the “infinite canvas”[2] of the webpage to extend their page ad infinitum. However, few comics experiment with the draftsmanship beyond the ability to continuously scroll down a page. While certain notable exceptions allow for such draftsmanship, their examples are exceptional compared to the vast majority of webcomics that remain committed to a simple and accessible way of paneling. Even fewer comics are experimental in terms of paneling beyond one or two comics. Instead, many comics are constructed in such a way as to allow the reader to see the entire comic within a page, or to merely hit the “down” arrow or key to reveal the rest of the comic, rather than following a series of links (taking advantage of that particular aspect of the web medium), using many videos, etc.

However, few comics have content that is merely one page in length. Most are part of a series, with releases every week (as is the case in Perry’s work), every day, etc. However, it is a rare comic that merely places these pages on top of each other, taking advantage of the infinite canvas of the webpage. Instead, they employ hyperlinks to create daily archives. That this convention exists bolsters the somewhat conservative appearance of webcomics. Readers can access the day’s comic and then click a link for another day in the same manner that they might read a book and turn a page. The overall conveyance of meaning through the webcomic is inherently simple.

As a consequence, many comics have story arcs from comic to comic and full stories. While the comic can certainly be understood via a single page gag and/or joke, such as the punchline, “It’s a comfort issue”, in Perry’s comic above, the story is quickly understood by following a few links to past comics to be part of a larger story arc about the relationships of these characters born out of many comics in succession. While certainly there are webcomics that do not have traditional story arcs, many make use of the same stockpile of characters, even if those characters do not appear in every issue. This convention certainly ties back to traditional comics, from Mad Magazine to Love & Rockets.

Further, those specific media choices in terms of the comic medium (as opposed to the web) are also equally conservative. Use of either photorealistic or abstract characters are often abandoned for a more accessible iconic[3] and cartoon  style. Such is the case with Perry’s work. While artists may, on occasion, employ different visual styles, such as the use of pixel art in Diesel Sweeties or more abstract photography in A Softer World, the work is characteristically simple in visual depiction. Formal experimentation in terms of visual style (such as the subtle work of Art Spiegelman in Maus or the fanciful designs of David B. in Epileptic or even the psychedelic mishmash of Kim Deitch) are largely absent from webcomics, which opt for structural and visual simplicity. Their codes and signifiers are inherently elementary and easy to communicate to a wide audience of both core nerdy fans and newcomers to the genre.

These media specific choices, combining both conventions of the producer (the webpage) and the artistic history (the comic) are significant for the construction of the genre. There were many conventions borrowed and utilized that lent simplicity to the page and character design, yet  helped distinguish these comics from its predecessors and attribute to the specific reasons why comics like Perry’s appear the way they do.

Discursive Conclusions

It is through these previous analyses that an understanding of the various genealogies that have come to define the webcomic, as envisioned by Perry and others, is revealed. They engage the reader through characters and repeated views, capitalizing on the architectures that make up webpages. Comics, such as Perry’s, employ the use of simple draftsmanship and construction so that readers can see a page and comprehend it within seconds, reviewing it in their daily browsing on the web and then moving on. Unlike more experimental “graphic novels,” most webcomics can be read within seconds and understood. The reasons for this are consummate with the reasons for most webpages’ accessibility, that one browses the internet rather than dwelling on one page or image for too long. As a consequence, it is perfectly logical that in terms of draftsmanship and personal style webcomics are so easily accessible. A shorter comic could be read and digested before moving on to another page.

However, it was the desire, supported by the technological capacity in Web 2.0, to archive that allowed the webcomic to become unique as a genre. The ability to archive allowed for the webcomic to be almost instantly part of a larger collection. Each strip or issue of So Damn Bright provides a link instantly to the first issue. The fact that one can quickly move throughout the archive opens up possibilities for readers to become quickly addicted. The recurring characters, stories and themes can develop over many issues and become the hallmark of the webcomic, which becomes the aggregate product of its many issues. Some webcomics, such as the soap opera-esque Questionable Content, have fantastic woven story arcs over hundreds, if not thousands of strips[4]. This particular aspect of archiving not only benefits the comic, making them easily accessible and its the characters, stories or even style additive, but also implements a business model for merchandising and revenue, opening with each click into a link on the archive the possibility of revealing new advertisements and incremental sales.

The archival nature of the webcomic has informed not only the stylistic choices of its authors, but also the nature of the stories being told, the promotion of female characters and more humorous and relationship-based stories (and with it the inclusion of more female characters). As with sitcoms, it requires less research to develop characters over thousands of strips than to create a comic full of action, adventure and high stakes. In the cases where such webcomics exist, like Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld (and it should be noted that Bodyworld was made into a published graphic book), the entire comic is significantly shorter, but still allows one to click through a multitude of links as chapters, keeping with the general framework employed by webcomics at large.

Not only is experimentation encouraged by the flights of fancy and fantasy that are inherent to many of these comics, but also those fantastical characters are depicted as decidedly more “normal” in order to focus on the content of the specific page. In Perry’s comic above, the fact that one character clearly has wings is never really addressed, and often fanciful characters, from robots in Questionable Content, to angels and devils in Sinfest, are interspersed with very normal characters or act reasonably. These fanciful characters, marketed, as stated earlier, to a specific often geeky, white male audience, behave more normally than their superhero counterparts in traditional comics. Part of this again is a result of the structural elements and accessibility of the comic. The reader of So Damn Bright is concerned with the content of the page, the joke at the end of the strip primarily. It is this use of gag humor from xkcd to Bodyworld that each page acts as a single unit of a larger theme, ultimately defining the webcomic as a genre.

Additionally, these single units must be produced in series, partially because of the needs of the web, along with the desire to have one’s site (and links) accessed as often as possible, and partially because of the short nature of many webcomics. As a consequence, consistency becomes another inherent aspect to the successful comic. These comics must be produced in a consistent serial fashion in order to attract readers back to sites, to keep arcs fresh and interesting and to establish the readership’s understanding of the rules of the particular comic. Some comics, such as Sinfest, may publish one larger comic each week along with five shorter strips. So Damn Bright publishes (and promises to do this on their website) a new comic at least once a week, every Monday. Those interested in Never and his roommate Anxiety can check the site, the archive and the advertisements weekly and see an arc slowly develop as Never falls in love with his roommate over the six month development of this comic. In this way, the webcomic shares more, historically, with the comic strips of the 1940s than with today’s gag comics. Operating in a variety of styles, subjects and content, the webcomic is driven more by the desire for daily viewing and its inherent structure than the modern comic strip, obsessed with a single joke, with little consequence or connection. As with the comic strips of the 1940s, one can begin reading these complex strips at any time and almost immediately begin to understand the given relationships and because of the archival quality of the internet, explore the complexities of the relationships and styles of the strip in a way few in the 1940s ever could.

Final Thought

The genealogies that have created the modern webcomic are a blend of technology, culture and form. No doubt, the fact that the internet provided a new mode for creating and distributing the daily alternative comic strip paved the way for many to publish their own comics on the web. As the webcomic took prominence, its adherence to developing characters and stories distinguished it from traditional print comic strips and comic books, which rely much more on archetypal formats and characters. This has become a hallmark of the genre and speaks to its potential future.

While webcomics do work on the same principle of units as their printed cohorts, it is ultimately their development, achieved through their archives, that makes them unique. As authors become familiar with their medium and as they continually publish and progress, their ability to draw improves, their characters deepen, their jokes become more thematic and inherent to their particular strip. Not only do the authors see this improvement, but they broadcast it, through their archive, for the world to see. The creator of Questionable Content begins using almost block-like figures, drawn on paper and matures, over time, to producing computer colored realistic-looking human beings. In his six months of drawing So Damn Bright, Erich Perry  has made similar progress in rendering more complex figures and stories and often comments on his work as well, noting changes he has made, experiments he has done, etc.

This is rare in the comic world, where artists often either belabor a story or, in serials, the author and/or artist are dispensable compared to the character. Even those strips drawn by the same artists over years (such as Garfield) were never produced with the keen awareness of the fact that their archives would one day be seen. Recognition of this development speaks to its great potentials, where characters over years can have strange and interesting arcs, little side stories and visually wonderful experimentation. In short, as the webcomic develops, it has the potential to show the capriciousness, the erratic beauty and the consistency of life, which can be tracked, link by link, page by page, from its inception to its death, for all the world to witness. Ultimately, it is this development that carries a reader back to So Damn Bright, wondering if Never and Anxiety will get together or not, whether Never will ever find love and, if nothing else, to see Erich Perry become a true comic artist as the years pass.


[1]           As of December 8th according to the author’s Twitter page.

[2]           See McCloud’s Reinventing Comics

[3]           See McCloud’s Understanding Comics

[4]           As of the publication of this article, the series was on the 1847th strip

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