Overthinking it: “Serial Webcomics”on October 4, 2011 at 12:00 am
(DISCLAIMER since I don’t know a ton [yet] about my readership. I reference and link to the artist of another comic strip. I have no idea how anyone will feel as to how his feature’s tone or content compares to mine. Please use common sense when navigating the Internet: Make sure you are aware to an appropriate degree of the things the people you care about are experiencing; and make sure you are making the people you care about appropriately aware of the things you are experiencing.)
I’ve decided to try out a new feature here on the blog. I call it “Overthinking It.” I enjoy when other cartoonists ponder ideas and events related or semi-related to the craft, so I thought I’d pick a non-update day (Tuesdays) and go to town my own self. I may or may not update every Tuesday.
I recently read a series of posts by Brock Heasley about how his process of writing (beforehand) and then refining (afterward and also “as he went”) the script for his SuperFogeys feature. Here is the first post, which I think is the most likely to be interesting to those unfamiliar with his strip; the subsequent posts are also useful, but make heavy use of examples from the feature itself.
I’m one of those that disagree with his opening sentence, and I’d like to present my evidence here. Now, obviously, this all hinges on what he means by the tern “serial webcomic,” which is as nebulous a term as “webcomic,” so if he and I were in a face-to-face conversation where we could come down to specific definitions, I might find that I agree with much of what he says. But for the time being, here are my “problems” with what he puts forth.
First of all, he seems to have nailed down a pretty specific definition for the format of webcomics that I find to be too narrow. His description seems more appropriate to newspaper comic strips. While it’s true that most aspects of this format have been transferred to and become common on the web, I find some exceptions to what he’s talking about here.
For example, I’ve read many features published as if they were a comic book, and updated regularly one page at a time (for example, a page a week). There are other comics that make more use of the “diary” format of blogs, so that they tell a cohesive story without regard to format – one day might bring a newspaper-comic-strip format, another might look more like half a comic-book page, etc. etc. Still others are designed more natively for the web, with each panel as a separate image, scrollable side-to-side or up-and-down for updates with differing numbers of panels.
Thus, what he considers to be the “natural” limitations of webcomics are really not true unless you’ve committed to telling a long-form story in regular installments roughly equivalent to a single newspaper comic strip, or between a third and half of a comic book page.
One might remark that measurable success in webcomics does lean heavily toward the format of which he claims the limitations. I’ll confess to not knowing much about business models of other formats, but there are certainly artists who have found it worthwhile to continue writing stories for some of the “alternate” formats I listed above. Webcomics is such an entrepreneurial and slow-burn endeavor, with such a mixed success rate for any trend, that I feel it would be narrow, if you had a story better served by a different visual format or update schedule, to cram it into a “more familiar” format just so you could jump on board with a “proven” business model. But again, I have to confess a certain degree of ignorance here, and I’m not enough of a success in that area to be pointing fingers.
Secondly, he seems to be putting a stark black/white contrast between “gag-a-day” and “continuity” features. While many features do fit squarely into one or the other, I contend that there is a spectrum in between the two extremes. ESPECIALLY if you are going to try and contend that “Gag-a-day comics don’t depend on you keeping track of things like storylines and relationships,” which I find pretty egregious.
Storylines: Think about your top three non-Sunday Calvin and Hobbes strips. My guess: At least one of them is part of a storyline at least two weeks long. It’s possible that you don’t even come up with a favorite strip as much as you come up with a favorite way Calvin used a cardboard box (again, most of these are part of longer storylines.) Many of my favorite Peanuts strips also fit into this category.
Relationships: I’m guessing that what he means is really “the dynamism of changing relationships.” But that’s not what he said. I’d really like to know what he would say Snoopy and Woodstock, Peppermint Patty and Marcie, Jason and Paige Fox or Skull the Troll and Brent Sienna have. These are all examples of characters who are more or less peers, so with the possible exception of the Foxtrot characters, you can’t claim that the “relationship” is a function of setting or premise, arbitrarily caused by position or relationship (like Beetle Baily and Sarge or Marvin and his parents).
It’s pretty common for successful comic-strip writers to remark that at some point the characters write themselves. That is, that at a certain point your characters develop to the point that they’re not just doing what you want them to do within the story and relationships, but they’re surprising you by what they do. You start feeling not as if you’ve come up with another character trait, but that you’re noticing a preexisting one just like you would in a real-world friend. The characters and their relationships start fueling material more, and more naturally.
My contention is that this phenomenon is the mark of great writing, and that it is not of a different type employed by writers of longer-form stories with more cohesive plots. The difference is not in the kind of writing, but in its chronological place in the production process.
One person hashes out characters and themes, builds a plot around them, then goes back and re-tools each, perhaps several times, until they are more cohesive, then separates everything into installments and picks up the drawing tools.
The other develops characters with only nebulous ideas about what kinds of interactions they’ll have. Before long, certain kinds of interactions and events become interesting to write and draw. These eventually recur often enough to be explorations of theme. Eventually, the developments of characters and their relationships, combined with the events and themes the artist has already used, develop into specific directions for longer continuity and plot, and more cohesive themes.
Obviously, you can do any number of diagrams as to how predominant plot, character, theme, or any other individual elements play in different kinds of stories. You would certainly find trends that correlate to the different formats. But the successful result is the same: characters you care about and identify with doing things you find interesting and identify with.