Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ramblings on Webcomics

I've been recently asking the question "Why aren't webcomics working for me?" a lot. And by "webcomic" I'm going with a comic that is created for distribution on the web, and not print comics that are eventually put up to attract new readers or what not (though some of what I say apply to them as well). Some times I've been mulling it over in my own head and some times I've been discussing it with anyone who will listen (including some who probably didn't want to) so why not post some ramblings here. I have to post something after all. :) This also means that not all the ideas were originally mine. In fact, I'm not sure who came up with some of them so if you're reading this and think "Hey, that was my idea!" feel free to take credit in the comments.

I will get back to doing reviews eventually but my ability to pick up my comics is pretty sporadic at the moment. So until then, I'll go with a random ramblings when I can.

As a comic enthusiast/nerd/geek and someone who works with and is familiar with computers/the internet you'd think the combination would work well for me. But it doesn't and I don't know why. So here are a few random thoughts on the topic.

So let's look at some differences between webcomics and print comics as I see them.

Content: On the one hand, webcomics appear to have a much wider range of content with varying themes and styles (of course I can't prove this). Although you may have some people trying to replicate an already successful book you'll also have people exploring the freedom that comes from just being able to do whatever you want without having to prove to some guy in a business suit that it's marketable or fits in with their money making strategy. Though I should say that the "some people" who are replicating successful ideas is actually a pretty big number too but I guess that adds to the variety in a way. So having said that there should be something for everyone including me.

Schedule: With comics you have a monthly (or something resembling monthly) schedule or a longer gap if you're going the TPB route. For webcomics, the strips are often daily while ones with more elaborate pages or stories are often a page or two per week, or several pages at once every few weeks. Ignoring the daily strip webcomics for now, that's a pretty significant difference in how the work is presented especially if the creators don't take that into consideration. With a monthly book a single page is just a small part of a story, connected by the pages around it. When you are reading a webcomic that updates a page at a time it can lead to problems. If the page is just a small part of the storyline then it feels more disjoint with large gaps of days between these small parts. The tempo is different and it's harder to build a flow from page to page. Though anyone reading through the archives will probably find it less noticeable. Updating a few pages at a time can improve this as long as it's also taken into account. I find a lot of webcomic creators (including myself) trying to find a balance where a page is a worthy story element on its own while at the same time fitting into a narrative for someone reading the full story. How well that is achieved is left to the reader but I often find it's not a good idea to try to balance these.

Money: Here's a funny one. Most webcomics right now are free online. There may be a special print version or some features that you can pay for but the ones I stick to trying are freely available. And other than free comic book day, print comics are not free. You'd think that would be a plus for webcomics right there but there's something else I'm considering at the moment and that is that the money I've spent on books are actually keeping me spending more. Sounds weird doesn't it? But if you take some series (call it "series X") and say I buy the first 7 issues. Now say I'm only kinda liking the series, I may stick with it at least until the current storyline ends because I figure I've already invested money in the first 7 issues, and if I drop it now it might feel like I've wasted my money on those first 7 issues with no closure on the story. And for an ongoing book that doesn't really have closure with the end of each storyline, who knows how long this can drag on for. So I'm thinking the money has created an investment for me in the series, though it may not be the "financial investment" one may think of. I know, you probably think this is a stupid argument but it seems to be the situation for me a lot of the time. And so with webcomics, if I hit a bad patch the only real "investment" I've made (if it's not an emotional investment) is the time I've put into it. So just giving up on the book means I may feel like I've wasted my time reading it up until this point but it won't feel like I've wasted money. I think this also ties in on the idea of "ownership". People complain about not owning a copy of a webcomic (or a print comic put in a digital library). Sometimes it's about being able to go back and read the book any time they want or at least knowing they have that option but I think on some level there's more of a connection going on. That when you "own" the comic you feel a bit more invested in it. Feel free to tear this point apart.

"Guarantee:" Print comics generally have a company behind them and "guarantee" of continuing, sales and company solvency permitting (is that the right term, "solvency"?). This is a pretty big one. I've been burned too often by getting into a webcomic only to have it stop abruptly when the creator lost interest or just got too busy. No conclusion, no closure, just stopped. Companies generally don't do this. Even if a book is failing you'll usually see some sort of conclusion. Not always a good one but as long as you see it on the solicitations you feel safe in believing the book will be there for the next few months. There is also the issue of the "hiatus" which seems to happen much more often in webcomics as well. And with companies, they'll usually provide some sort of "filler" (ie. a book with that character that's not really relevant to the current story) if you really want it. For webcomics this may mean "fan art" which really isn't "filling".

Quality: This one is very debatable as beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all. At first glance I find print comics to be of a higher quality at least in terms of art and appearance. They have more of a budget, more time to invest in it, often a team of artists, etc, etc. And they are often professionals who have been doing this for a while and have learned to do it well (for the most part). And they probably wouldn't have made it to print if their work didn't connect with a large number of people. Webcomics don't usually have that filtering so you'll get a lot of people whose work only really connects with a handful of people. But on the other hand, there are some incredibly talented individuals working on webcomics that just haven't been given the break they need or choose to go the webcomics route. And they usually have a much invested interest in making it work as it's their own character and their own story. It's often more than a job (not to say that many people working in print comics feel it's just a job, but if they're on a monthly book they generally have an issue or two here and there that were of the "I just have to get something out there" variety). But here's the thing, with print comics you are generally looking for really high quality amongst books that are already deemed by people to be of a high quality. With webcomics, you are often left searching for high quality amongst a sea of comics ranging from extremely amateurish to extremely high quality (with, let's face it, a lot more in the amateurish range). Though that's also not to say that some of the amateurish books can really improve as time goes on and could become a great book too. You can try looking at certain sites (limiting yourself to Zuda or only looking at the books "feature" on drunkduck or some other site) and getting suggestions from various blogs or "Top 100 webcomics" lists but that's not always that easy either. Some have ulterior motives while others just have extremely different ideas of what makes a quality book. It is getting better though.

Access/Ease of Use: This is actually two points that I'm trying to merge here. You'd think by "access" I mean "everyone with the internet has access to a free webcomic" versus "everyone with the money or maybe a library card has access to a comic" (provided the local library carries comics) but actually I mean how you "access" the comic. Do you pick it up at your local/online store or do you surf on over to a website looking for an update (or checking your RSS feed or whatever). Now I'm showing my age here but for me it's become a ritual of heading out to the local comic every week to mingle and check out the new books (both the ones I have on reserve and other stuff). I just don't get that same feeling when I turn on the computer and start surfing around trying to find out what books I normally check out or possibly other books I haven't noticed before have updated. And when webcomics (especially the non-established ones) can bounce around from site to site or have me going from site to site to find all the single page updates I just don't have that same feeling as when I sit down to read a printed comic. Which leads me to ease of use (sorta). When I buy a printed comic I can read it on the bus or wherever else I go. Webcomics I need an electronic device of some sort and often an internet connection to read. So I'm fairly limited there. Overall, the print comic experience (from heading to the store to sitting down reading them) just seems more enjoyable.

Proper Use of the Medium: This one is pretty far out in left field and I know a lot of people don't see things the way I do but here's my thing, I believe that in order to create a better work you have to factor in the medium that you are using. I find even print comic "professionals" sometimes miss out on this, from writers who don't really know how to write a comic to artists who lack the ability to effectively tell a story and make the reader's experience more of a chore and much less enjoyable. But in general, print comics go through several sets of eyes, all having the opportunity to say "hey, some thing's not working right here." The web opens up a whole new universe of possibilities (look at the "infinite canvas" for example or other new presentation formats) that I think we're just beginning to explore. But I think we're at a pretty young stage where creators are using the same mentality that they use in comics. And the funny thing is that some print comic creators are probably stuck using methods from other formats (such as film or traditional text novels) instead of making use of the comic format. And again, this ties in to some of my previous points but I'm just rambling here. :)

Or maybe it's just me, none of this applies to you and you now think I'm pretty insane (or more so than you originally did). But what can I say?

Wow, that was a much longer post than I thought it would be and probably much longer than it should be.


mpd57 said...

I share your confusion and doubts. I tried to start something off like this on the Zuda message boards but no-one seemed that interested. 'Investment' seems key to me. With print comics they are asking you to invest your money whereas webcomics make more demands on your time. Despite readers not paying any actual money perhaps their 'investment' might prove more lucrative over time.

Von Allan said...

Interesting reading, this. And I probably need to give it one more solid read through, too.

I think one other thing with webcomics is the definition is very quickly changing. Webcomics (including my own) tended to be things that readers would read online, either by visiting the main host website or by viewing through RSS feeds. But I think we're (very) quickly seeing that through the iPhone and potentially the Kindle 2, this experience is going to be transformed to reading through handheld devices. That, I think, broadens the definition of what a webcomic is and can be and makes the reading experience even more varied.

It also brings up a "Pandora's Box" of questions. Should content be geared to these screen dimensions? Or a compromise between the requirements of print versus online versus handheld? Or something else? It's a little daunting but also very exciting.


Darrell said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not alone. :)

Von Allan:
I agree, the definition of "webcomic" alone will probably be something argued about for a long time. As for your questions, I think I may leave that for another of my ramblings. I seem to have a lot of conflicting thoughts on that.