Kleefeld on Webcomics #63: Besting Demons

Earlier this week, Warren Ellis posted some thoughts about the relatively recent spate of print comics creators getting into webcomics. He of course didn’t mention every creator who’s dipped their virtual pen into the webcomics inkwell, but there’s more than a handful these days. In fact, there are more than a few people known as webcomickers that actually had a long career in print before webcomics. Phil Foglio, for example, had a regular comic in the pages of Dragon Magazine as early as 1980 as his current strip with his wife Kaja, Girl Genius, also started as a print comic. As did Karl Kesel’s Section Zero.

One of the things Ellis points to in his piece is that many of these newer webcomics we something of a convergence on a similar format, roughly the equivalent of half of a printed comic page. That makes the graphic that shows up on the web more horizontal, therefore fitting most monitors better, but still allows for a fairly easy transition when the book is slated for print. However, what strikes me as more interesting about Ellis’ post is that he notes that, while working on Freakangels, he deliberately wrote the pages with the printed page foremost in his mind, with how it looked on the web as a secondary consideration. The story was written as a print comic, even though it premiered as a webcomic. Ellis notes that “it was mostly about ease of experience and ease of transition to print (where the money was).”

Several years ago, Marvel and DC altered how they approached their stories a bit. Instead of going with whatever length and pacing made organic sense for the story, they began focusing on four- and six-issue story arcs. That way, one arc could be easily collected in a trade paperback and resold in the bookstore market. It could be seen in the stories themselves, as what-should-have-been-a-five-issue-story got padded out to six issues, making for some awkward, drawn-out scenes. And plot points would only be mentioned once during an entire arc, making it difficult for readers to jump on to a new title unless they happened across the beginning of a story arc.

The problem was that the creators were developing their stories for the trade paperback market, but having the work being first distributed in serialized pamphlets. They were trying to serve two masters simultaneously, and the result was frequently less than ideal.

This is evident, too, in early 20th century pulp stories starring the likes of Doc Savage and John Carter. Reading those books today, readers find that each chapter ends on an almost overly dramatic cliff-hanger of an ending, only to be quickly resolved at the beginning of the next chapter. This is because the stories were never intended to be collected in book form; they were written as serials for monthly magazines. Here again, the format of the story itself is, in part, dictated by the venue in which its meant to be taken in. Presenting the same material in another format can produce clunk results that don’t always work as well.

That’s not to say working towards two ends can’t be done! I was quite struck when I discovered a trade paperback collection of Jack Kirby’s newspaper strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force. Despite it being designed to be read as a daily newspaper strip, it still flowed together surprisingly well in something more akin to a graphic novel. More could almost certainly have been done with the overall design and layout, I’m sure, but the pacing and structure worked well in both the serialized and collected formats. There are few storytellers as talented as Kirby was, though.

But even the best cases, one venue is going to take precedence. Looking back at Girl Genius, you can see how the Foglios have changed their storytelling structure from the earliest installments (which were originally print only) so that there are now more natural breaks at the end of each page to accommodate their online delivery. But, the page itself is still structured and executed like it’s designed for printed publication. Which it was. Selling the printed copies here is still the primary design driver, as Ellis noted with Freakangels.

Other webcomics, such as Tozo, the Public Servant and Dresden Codak, are designed with a greater emphasis on their initial online delivery. However, they’ve been given differing considerations when it comes to printed comics. Aaron Diaz has recently mentioned issues concerned re-configuring some installments of Codak for a book format. David O'Connell, on the other hand, has relied on a fairly rigid grid structure that creates an easy three-tiered printed page, making pamphlet versions of Tozo much easier to format.

It’s almost inescapable these days that any given piece of art, webcomics included, will ultimately be viewed in formats other than what they were originally designed for. That’s a demon that all artists, whether they want to or not, have to contend with. Webcomics get printed, newspaper strips are read in feed readers, pamphlet comics get downloaded, graphic novels get serialized. But the more a creator is able to think about how her/his work might get used in those other venues, the more consideration can be given to them, and the more smooth the transition might be. As Ellis also noted, “Accepting and exploiting new limitations is always part of a new format.”

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