Kleefeld on Webcomics #11: The Infinite Canvas

By Sean Kleefeld

If you’ve been following along with this column, I’m hoping that by now you’ve started to at least browse through a few webcomics. Whether they’ve been ones I’ve mentioned or ones you came across from somewhere else, you’ve probably noticed that they tend to fall into one of two camps with regards to formatting. They either look like they’re designed to drop nicely into a standard newspaper funny pages layout, or they’re the same size and proportions as a typical monthly comic book. One might ask: where is that alleged “infinite canvas”?

For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “infinite canvas” was coined by Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics. He was referring to the fact that a webpage does not have any physical boundaries the way a piece of paper does. A comic strip or book can only contain artwork in a format that fits on the piece of paper it’s printed on; a webpage, by contrast, can continue scrolling in any direction indefinitely. The comic artist, therefore, is not required to format his/her work to any particular set of dimensions. The digital canvas will allow the work to fill as much space as it needs and, for all practical purposes, is infinite.

So with an infinite canvas readily available, why do so many webcomic artists duplicate formats meant for print?

Let’s answer that by looking at a webcomic that does take advantage of the infinite canvas. Aaron Diaz’s Dresden Codak has been running since 2005 and has deliberately avoided letting itself be easily categorized or summarized. Stories range in length, style, tone and subject matter and updates are irregular. But Diaz always delivers intelligent, well-crafted pieces that’s earned him a loyal following. Taking a look at two consecutive strips side by side (both shrunk to 25% so this column doesn’t drag on too long!) it’s easy to see how comfortable Diaz is with letting the needs of the story determine the length of his art.

The strips work very well online as the reader can scroll down as long as needed. But the inconsistency in length between strips would make printing these two pieces in a single book impossible from a practical perspective. The first takes up almost, but not quite, twice as much space as the second and would require a page that was twice as long. Or leaving the second page half-blank.

Walt Kelly, when preparing his Pogo newspaper strips for book publication, laboriously reworked much of his art so that it would flow better using a different layout. Looking at Codak, that could conceivably be done here as well but, it would be very labor intensive. Rather than selling books that reprint his Codak stories, Diaz has taken to selling individual prints of his pages, several well over three feet long! They could all be purchased individually, of course, but the reading experience would be disjointed as one moved from one print that was 44” x 15” to the next that was 16” x 22” to the next that was 17” x 29”. The cohesiveness of having all those pages bound in a single volume is functionally impossible.

Which gets to the heart of why many webcomics are formatted like print comics. As noted before, many webcomic creators earn a good chunk of their money by selling printed copies of their work. In stands to reason, then, that the more easily it can be printed and bound, the easier it is to earn a few bucks from it. Many print shops are already set up to run a set of relatively standard sizes, so by accommodating those standards, it’s cheaper to produce printed books. Not following those standards can be done, but it means that printers have to make a number of changes and adjustments that they don’t normally plan for. That takes time, and time costs money.

Consider, for example, your desktop printer. If you type up a letter and hit “Print”, it will spit out onto your desktop with almost no additional effort. But if you typed up an envelope as well, you’d have to physically adjust the printer to align the envelope properly and manually feed the envelope into the printer before your hit “Print”. And you’d probably double-check the settings too. It ends up taking more time to print the envelope because it’s different than your usual letter.

The same idea is true for printing books. The comic book and doubled-up comic strip sizes are fairly standard any more, and so it’s easy for printers to work to those specifications. Because it’s easier for the printers, it’s cheaper for the creators who, in turn, try to pass the savings on to their readers. Creatively, the infinite canvas is an exciting prospect but financially, it’s a daunting one.

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