Many webcomics allow you to start reading anywhere in the series. Even if it’s not specifically written in the classic gag-a-day format, there could well be enough information on any given page to allow you to step into the story seamlessly. But many other webcomics are take advantage of the endless supply of pages to tell more longer-form stories. They’re meant to be read over a period of years with more dramatic payoffs down the road. So what do you, the reader, do when you come across a webcomic like this...
The above image is a screen capture from Der-shing Helmer’s The Meek as the page looks while I’m writing this. The part of the story you can read flows smoothly enough, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense out of the context of the rest of the story. But if you’ve heard really good things about the comic and you do want to be in the loop, how do you go about catching up to speed? Fortunately, most webcomic creators -- especially those working on longer stories -- provide several options to help new readers out.
Very near the comic itself, one can almost always find links to both the very “First” or just the “Previous” installments in the series. This allows readers to jump back to the very beginning to sift through one page at a time, or read the story backwards until they understand enough to start moving forwards. Though this latter idea sounds unusual, I’ve done it myself on a few comics and I find it works surprisingly well. An “Archive” is often available as well, usually available through the main site navigation, if you’d prefer to jump to a specific point in the story. Sometimes, as in the case here, the creator will call out natural story breaks if you don’t want to read everything from the very beginning and are content to just jump in at the start of, say, Chapter Three.
I’ve noted previously that many webcomics sell print versions of their stories in order to make money. But another benefit, for the reader, is that it provides them with another venue to catch up on the current storyline. If you don’t want to read 50 or 100 or 500 pages of a comic online, you can purchase the earlier installments in book form and read them away from your computer at your leisure. Not surprisingly, these are generally available through a “Store” link in the site’s main navigation.
Occasionally, webcomic sites will have additional links in their navigation like “About,” “Cast” and “FAQ”. Implementation on these types of links can be a bit inconsistent, unfortunately, but they generally provide some good summary information about the comic and/or its creators. They will sometimes list out their objectives, their creative processes, the comic’s history, character biographies and other information that, while perhaps not vital to understanding the comic itself, helps to explain things in more clear detail for newcomers. Some of these are so well-written, in fact, that reading the previous comic pages might not be necessary at all.
Some readers, though, just have a very specific thing they want to know. Something that might not be covered in the standard questions, and they’re not about to go rifling through a decade of daily strips in search of an answer that might not even be there. That, of course, is when a “Message Board” or “Forum” comes in handy. A reader can pop in, ask whatever particular question(s) they have and, hopefully, get a quick answer or two. Questions can also be asked in the “Comments” section that is often tagged to each strip, but that area is generally reserved for comments and questions about that specific page and tend to be a little harder to follow-up on.
A lot of what I’m discussing can readily be seen in The Meek screen shot above. It’s one of the reasons I opted to use it as an example. Of course, every webcomic has its own differences from others. There might not be a “Cast” section. “About” might discuss the creator and not the comic. The “Archive” might be sorted by date or by page or perhaps each page is individually titled. But in looking for a counter-example to use -- here’s where a webcomic creator is doing it badly, if you will -- I find myself extremely hard-pressed to find one. There are certainly some webcomics that are easier to follow and understand than others, but even the most difficult ones I’ve come across cover enough of the bases well enough that it’s not too difficult to sort through. I think the worst offense that I’ve seen is that one of the links was low enough on the page that I had to scroll a little to find it!
That says a lot about jumping into webcomics. In picking up the latest issue of a printed comic off the rack, a reader doesn’t have much recourse when it comes to catching up if everything isn’t provided in the context of that single issue. It winds up being a hunt for back issues and trying to find useful resources online. With webcomics, everything is provided right on the very site where you read the latest installment. One click away from its debut. One click away from a set of character biographies. One click away from a group of people who you know are reading the same story. And, if you’re really, really, really stuck, you’re still only one click away from contacting the person making the darn thing!