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The Magic of Web Comics

Web comics are a wonderful example of how digital publishing can reach beyond just delivering black-and-white text to readers and exemplifies the digital realm’s near-limitless possibilities. While web comics started out as an obscure moon orbiting the planet of digital publishing, content creators have since colonized it into a little world of their own.

Web Comic History

Modern web comics predate the world wide web. Eric Monster Millikin, a pioneer internet artist and social activist, laid claim to the first web comic: a parody of the Wizard of Oz called “Witches in Stitches” that he self-published on a CompuServe server in 1985. However, Hanz Bjordahl’s Where the Buffalo Roam was the first thing resembling what we would call a web comic today.

The world’s love for comics created a desire to share them in any way possible. The creation of the internet – the ultimate sharing tool – caused the slow trickle of comics to become a flood. David Farley’s gag strip, Doctor Fun, was the first regularly updated internet comic with its own website in 1993.  

In The Verge Cat Ferguson said,  “…in those early days, webcomics were some of the most influential pieces of the early-ish internet — vibrant and weird. They formed followings, which became communities, which became culture.” Internet comics became their own culture and have helped shape the world of internet humor, as well as art, to this day.

Like video games, message boards, and social media, web comics have become a cornerstone of the internet.

Web Comics, a New Frontier

Garrity mentions that web comic authors “began to colonize [the internet] with comics, mostly black-and-white, newspaper-style strips.” However, digital screens are capable of more than mimicking paper. 

A web comic’s real magic lies in the things that cannot be done in traditional print. Garrity notes an important moment in 1995 that would alter the course of web comic history: 

Well do I remember sitting in front of my uncle’s modem-enabled computer in 1995, waiting half an hour for each page of Charley Parker’s full-color, animation-embedded, visually experimental Argon Zark! to load. Story-wise, Argon Zark! is geeky simplicity itself… But Parker was playing with flashy and imaginative visual ideas when most webcartoonists were still drawing basic art with BASIC gags. 

Web comics boomed in the late ‘90s as pioneering artists began to explore the medium. 

How Web Comics Direct Our Gaze

With traditional print comics, and even simply drawn web comics, there is nothing stopping the readers from looking at the “wrong” spot in the comic. Sure, authors can draw your gaze; but with digital screens, artists can direct your gaze.

The Team Fortress 2 web comic is an excellent example of how a comic can direct a reader’s gaze. When readers open up the first panel of a comic it seems simplistic; the art is bare, and maybe only half of the digital panel is filled. A simple command along the bottom of the screen changes the game: “Click image or use space bar to advance.”

The TF comics only display what the authors want the reader to see at any given point. Clicking reveals extra panels on some pages of the comic. The comic also allows writers to present real-time modifications of what is already in a given panel at any time; one character’s expression may change, or a new drawing may supersede the current panel. Furthermore, an entirely new drawing may overlay what was already on the screen. 

The author never has to fear that a reader will be confused by the arrangement of panels on a page if the grids themselves appear in the correct order. Timing is an important aspect of comedy, and Team Fortress comics strive for a lot of humor. Punchlines in a web comic retain the power to surprise an audience much more reliably than a print comic. 

Many web comics also insert animations within their panels to great effect. An excellent example is the Mr. Lovenstein comic, “Pushy.” Sure, an author can convey button-mashing in other ways, but the best way to convey the joke is by simply having the character within the comic mash the button repeatedly; the comic only gets funnier the more that readers watch it—which is only possible on a digital screen. 

The Shapes and Sizes of Web Comics

Web comics are not bound by traditional size constraints required of print comics. Traditional comics require strips to fit into certain sizes and shapes that xkcd consistently resists. The comic, “I’m Sorry,” has a completely different shape than “How Old,” which has a completely different form than “Earth Orbital Diagram.” Randall Munroe is confined only by his imagination when it comes to the size and shape of his comic. 

LINE Webtoon is another popular website, and application, for reading web comics that approaches the shaping of comics from an interesting angle. What Webtoon offers is the equivalent of selling comics as scrolls since grids in comics confuse readers all the time. Panels run vertically, and readers progress through the comics by scrolling from the top to the bottom of comic pages. In an article from Medium, Webtoon explains that: 

The transition from flipping through pages to scrolling down a monitor screen has given more freedom to readers in terms of story tempo and flow. Absence of grid freed the genre of cartoon from the limitations of layout and gave authors more space to experiment with each panel. 

Authors can extend the comic-reading experience and add tension to comics; tempo and flow become tools of the trade on Webtoon rather than the liabilities of more traditional formats.  

Web Comics Allow Reader Interaction

Users have a unique amount of interaction with authors that is impossible in print publications. An excellent example is SrGrafo who comments on Reddit posts with quickly drawn comics that act as jokes or puns on the subject at hand.

Another example of user interaction is Existential Comics, a strip thatalways has specific and obscure references to philosophers. At the end of each comic there are links to information about the philosophers that streamline the process of learning what the joke means for readers not philosophically inclined. 

Cyanide and Happiness takes a fun spin on things and has a section on its website called “Random Comic Generator” that is based on their physical card game Joking Hazard, but allows for a heightened level of interactivity. The generator is a work of art by an author in comic format; a huge part of why it is art is the quick and simple user interaction. A button takes up significantly less space than Joking Hazard and its expansions. 

Web comics helped create the internet culture that we have today. They have taken comics and removed many of the traditional constraints associated with the medium. Digital Publishing allows authors to experiment with timing, tension, animation, and even direct citations in ways that traditional print comics only dream about.