Do I think too much?
Many people have commented on the advantages of the web, whether it be artistic freedom, or certain ideas that wouldn’t work on the printed page (such as Scott McCloud’s "infinite canvas"). For the most part, people deigned not to follow these ideas, mostly because, while they were good ideas, they just weren’t practical, or didn’t work as well as people thought they would.
While there were some good comics out there, most were highly experimental, confusing, hard to navigate, and/or nice to look at, but lacking in substance. Also many of them were short, self-contained comics that got to the end of their story and stopped. Most serial artists continued with their four panel layouts and their long form comics because those work.
Then Aeire came along.
Now, I mention Queen of Wands for two reasons. One: Aeire used the infinite canvas in a way that supported her story, and also did it in a way that increased the effect of the writing. Two: She was mentioned positively for doing so multiple times by Eric Burns. There may have been other writers that got the infinite canvas to work, but I don’t know of any comics that got more positive attention than Queen of Wands. Might be because I came in so late. (I actually think Damonk had the best use of infinite canvas of all the expanded story comics I’ve seen.)
Anyway, many of the commentary sites I’ve read have said something about innovation in webcomics. Now it’s my turn.
Before I begin, I should say a few things to put this in perspective.
I am writing this right now on September 11th 2005. The reason that it has taken so long to go up is because I wanted to wait until I had readers who would comment on my site. That being said, it might be out of date.
I am not trying to be the next Scott McCloud. The ideas I put forth are going to be defined as semi-serious. Basically I’m just saying "what if?" I think they might be neat ideas, but I’m not saying anyone should do them, or even that they would improve comic art as a whole. When I say them, it might seem like that, though.
I am not, nor do I ever intend to be a webcomic artist. I am merely a fan. I am, however, an artist. I am a musician. I am learning to write art music. I think I have some understanding of how art works. My views on art and comics must also be fully understood. I am going to use many examples from music, and I might use some terms and people that you haven’t heard of. If you would like to know what some of these things are, I will gladly answer any questions in the comment section, and I will not think that anyone is stupid for asking, unless they start asking questions for the sole purpose of annoying me. Then you might have some trouble. Otherwise, it’s fine. Ask away.
As for innovation, I support it full-heartedly. As an artist and a writer, I know that if it weren’t for people coming up with new ideas, art would stagnate. To be a truly great creative mind, you have to write something that is your own, that noone else could write. My piano teacher once made the analogy "If you write a really great piece and it sounds exactly like Beethoven’s 5th, people aren’t going to want to listen to it. They already have Beethoven’s 5th." It’s the same with all forms of art.
I will say, however, that the innovators in different forms of art aren’t usually the ones that write good works. These are usually their successors. Many great artists are people that took whatever everyone else was doing and did it better. Shakespeare did not do anything original. Neither did Bach, Haydn, or Mozart. They wrote great works, but they all had someone before them who wrote good works in their style and proved it could be done.
Using a more recent example, Schoenberg invented many new ideas in music, including serialism and sprechstimme. However, I don’t listen to his pieces. I much prefer Alban Berg, who was a student of Schoenberg and took his ideas to make them work. John Cage is also very important, experimenting with aleatoric music and such, and he made it work, but John Cage’s works are only interesting if you know the theory behind them (and sometimes even then they’re not that good) George Crumb, Penderecki, and Lutoslowski made pieces I can actually listen to and enjoy. Terry Riley started the minimalist movement with In C, which is hard to listen to, mostly because it usually goes on for so long. However, he paved the way for John Adams and Phillip Glass.
The reason for this is simple. Most innovators and experimenters ask the questions, "will this work?" and "what can I do with this?" That is the very essence of experimentation. Most artists, once the form has been established, however, ask the question "How can I make this great?" Their pieces tend to be better because they are worried more about quality; they have ideas that would work in the style rather than trying to make the style work for them, and they learn from their predecessors what does and does not work.
Innovation is important, especially when art moves to a new medium. The new medium we have for all art right now is computers. Music is using computers to make sounds that can’t be made by acoustic instruments. People are drawing and writing on computers, and they’re using this thing called the internet to distribute their art.
Do I want to be an innovator? No. We’ve had enough innovation in the last century to last a while. I want to be one of the people to take these new ideas and prove that they can be used to make something just as good or better than the old ideas, and they can be used in conjunction with the old ideas as well. It seems to me that many other artists are taking this view as well.
One thing I like about the twentieth century is the merging of different art mediums. Many artists are blurring the lines between the different forms, genres and styles that are out there. This hasn’t happened in a long time. It used to be that there was a clear division between visual art, music, writing, dance, and theatre. The performance arts have always been closely connected, but even then there are clear divisions. Opera is music. Ballet is a dance. Broadway musical is theatre.
However, the lines are not that simple nowadays. (I could argue about the opera/musical distinction forever, but I will not) There are many musical pieces that require performers to act. Poetry, which before was only writing, is again becoming a performance art, and sometimes a visual art as well. Music has also been fused with pictures to add to the experience. One of the big changes that brought this about was the invention of motion pictures, which fused visual art, writing, and performance art into one cohesive unit.
Another form that fused two different categories was comics. These also started becoming popular sometime in the twentieth century (although technically they were around much longer). Comics joined visual art and writing together in a way that they complemented each other and increased the effect through combining the two.
This brings us to comic theory, and though I am not a creator, I do think some basic guidelines would help.
A comic’s main purpose is to tell a story. Anything that takes away from the story should not be used. Anything that might add to the story should be considered. Even joke comics like Perry Bible Fellowship have stories. The arc is just tighter than comics where the story spans over several strips. Comics are writing. This needs to be remembered. If the art’s good, but the story is lost, then the comic doesn’t work.
Art and writing should complement each other. This is pretty obvious. That doesn’t mean that the art needs to be good, or that the writing does either (it’s harder to get away with bad writing, though). It means that the whole should have at least as much effect as the individual parts. If the art and the writing are incongruous, the story falls apart.
It is the goal of every artistic endeavor to have its audience react. The audience is decided by the creator. It can be the creator itself, or a niche group. For the purposes of this essay, we’ll define the audience as "a group of people who read webcomics." So the final phrase is "It is the goal of every webcomic to have a group of people who read webcomics react." After telling the story, this is the second-most important goal. How they react is not always important. That they do react is.
These rules, I believe are three that can never be broken successfully. Now for those which can, even though it’s hard.
Occam’s razor can be applied to art as well. If there are two ways to say the exact same thing, then the simpler way will be the most effective. Now by simple, I don’t mean visual simplicity, I mean simple in terms of audience reaction. The fewer distractions there are, the better the audience will respond. This means the art can be quite complex, but it should be laid out simply. This is why many comics work. It is a simple design, and the simplest that can effectively tell the story.
So any innovations to the comic form must not affect the simplicity. Actually, they should make the comic simpler, and easier to understand. If a new technique does nothing but add to the complexity of the work, it is not an effective technique.
There are many comics on the web right now that are really complex and also impossible to understand. Some require you to click, and where you click decides the order of the story that is told. While that is effective in its own way, it doesn’t tell the story as well as it could.
The more control the artist has, the better his idea will come out (note, this is a universal he, meaning it is a pronoun that includes the female half of the population as well). Interactive works are appearing in all different mediums. The more interactive the work is, though, the more chance the audience will stray from the artist’s original intention. Nowadays in most music, the composer will dictate, the dynamics, tempo, phrase markings, articulation, playing style, tone, emotion, and anything else he can think of in his music. This is because for the piece to come out right, these need to be controlled. In every medium, the artist should try to control as much as possible, or at least what he believes is important. The audience is there to go on a ride, not to be the driver.
That out of the way, let’s get to some innovations.
I’m surprised how few comics take advantage of time to tell their story. I’m not talking about animation, because animations don’t count as comics. Artists can control the speed that their audience reads the strip, though, whether it be through using flash to separate the panels, or even controlling what loads when. One of the main advantages of online comics is time is actually a factor which can be taken advantage of for effect. See how these comics use time to their advantage to have a better effect on what their reader sees.
Jack. (Twist, twist, twist) (Note: Dave Hopkins puts the words TTFN at the end of every story. This is a three strip short. To get to the strip I’m talking about, read the previous two. Warning: mature themes)
Both of these comics fit within the standard comic format, but they have taken advantage of both time and space to create a larger effect. The Flatwood strip uses a gradual reveal to control the pace in which the audience reads the strip. The Jack strip uses moving and changing panels to create a chaotic effect. Both work quite well.
I’m not talking about individual strips, though. I’m talking about archive reading.
If an artist can control time, then the best way to do so would be to control the load time of each strip, or only those strips which are important. It will have a larger impact on readers that are going through the archive for the first time, which is the first thing I do whenever I start reading a new comic. Since many comics are serial in nature, they would be able to take great effect of it using the time between strips to help the mood. Also as an artist, I know how fun it is to mess with your audience.
Say you have a strip which ends in a cliff-hanger. You can make the next strip take longer to load to increase the suspense, or if you have a full-color eye candy strip in a normally black and white comic, you can make it so that it jumps to that page the second the reader clicks the next button, increasing the shock of the reader and through that, the effect.
By controlling the time between strips, you are also controlling the pace the reader goes through the strips. Say that you have a serious section with a lot of information you want the reader to digest. Lengthen the time between strips will force the reader to read slower, and to think about the strips while reading it. If you feel are better when they are sped through, you can shorten the time, and hopefully the reader will follow along. The subconscious is an interesting thing. If something changes pace, person’s natural tendency is to change their pace along with it. You can get someone’s heart to beat faster by playing music and slowly changing the tempo so that it’s not noticeable to us. If many strips in a row are slow, the reader will slow down with them. If they are fast, the reader will speed up.
Well, it seems like a good idea to me.
I’m not sure if any comic artists do this yet. I know some flash comics control the time between panels, and it’s kind of the same idea as that, but just using normal comics. I'm not sure if we have or can make the technology to do that either. I am not technologically gifted nor do I pretend to be. Two comics in particular where I think this would work really well are Dominic Deegan and College Roomies From Hell. (Dominic Deegan because of the multitude of cliffhangers and the ebb and flow of high and low points, and College Roomies because we know Maritza is evil, and I think she’d like doing something like that).
That’s basically all the ideas I have for the moment. That entire essay was for the last three paragraphs. How do you like that?