When I first started this column, I made a distinction between webcomics and newspaper comics on the web. What I didn’t distinguish at the time was the difference between webcomics and digital comics, an oversight that I will now attempt to correct. Since both are provided through and read on electronic devices, the line is a bit murkier and not as obvious for many people.
The difference between digital comics and webcomics is not unlike the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web in that many people confuse the two because of some similarities in the delivery mechanism. The Internet is the global network of computers that are constantly sending information back and forth, while the Web is a subset of that, focusing expressly on the documents designed for being viewed through a browser. Most pirated comics, for example, are not available on the Web, but are downloaded via torrents that are offered via the Internet. The short version is that, if you’re not interacting with a document through a Web browser, it’s not part of the World Wide Web.
Speaking of pirates, let’s take a look at a couple to see where webcomics and digitial comics differ. Zap! is a webcomic by Pascalle Lepas and Chris Layfield. It’s a science fiction story that follows Zap Vexler’s quest to regain (or recreate!) his identity. Though first mate Reona ran afoul of some pirates in Volume Five, and they’ve established a truce to reach their complimentary goals.
To read the comic, you go to their website and call up the page you want to read. Like most webcomics, there are forward and back buttons alongside the pages of art, some commentary from the creators and links to other parts of the site, including news, forums, an FAQ and a store where you can buy some of the original art or print copies of the story. The comic is available to read for free with archives going back to its inception in 2003.
Let’s contrast that against Bonnie Lass by Michael Mayne. It’s available through comiXology. The story here centers on a female pirate who’s stumbled across an ancient totem that her father couldn’t figure out. She’s bound and determined to prevail where he couldn’t despite his old adversaries hounding her. It’s mostly an old school pirate yarn, but there’s some interesting anachronisms built in to the story’s world as well.
While there is a website about the comic, the comic itself can’t be read there. The only way you can read it, in fact, is to go to the comiXology site, register and pay them $1.99 to download each issue. Then, you can use their app on your iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch or Android to read it. Having their comic read through an app is an important point for creators, as they need to select an existing app to partner with or develop one on their own. In effect, they’re looking for an electronic distributor. And these electronic distributors, it should come as no surprise, take a percentage of the sale price before it gets back to the creators.
Typically, digital comics like these are told in larger chunks. Often somewhere in the 20-30 page range, much like a standard pamphlet comic. Though there are free digital comics available, you generally have to fork over a bit of coin to get access to them. They’re pulled down from the Internet, but you don’t look at them through a Web browser. Since you’re paying for the download, ads are, at most, minimal and you can more easily focus on the comic itself. These differences stem more from the underlying business models, but let’s keep our focus on what’s more readily apparent to the average reader.
Webcomics are told in a more staccato fashion. Either one page at a time or, more frequently, between two and four panels at a time. There’s more “distractions” that accompany the comic. But they’re free and read through almost any Web browser, regardless of whether it’s a PC, Mac, gaming console, smart phone or whatever.
Webcomics and digital comics can be seen in much the same way as comic strips and comic books. Newspaper strips tend to be shorter and amid a lot of other information that might also interest a general audience; comic books are longer and you pay specifically for that story and that story alone.
Of course, the rules aren’t always hard and fast, so some confusion is almost inevitable. But if your interaction with a comic seems like an online version of reading the newspaper funny pages, it’s most likely a webcomic. And if you’re looking at a comic that seems more like you picked it up from the electronc equivalent of a spinner rack, it’s more likely a digital comic.