Reading Backwards

By | Tuesday, July 07, 2009 1 comment
Typically, when I come across a serialized comic, I try to find a good jumping-on point where I can begin reading, and watch the comic evolve. If it's new enough, I'll just zip back to the very beginning. If it's more of a gag-a-day strip with some serial elements to it, I just pick up wherever I happen across and assume I'll be able to figure out the rest as I go.

The trick with finding that jumping-on point, though, is... well, finding it. It's pretty rare that you just happen to start reading at such a point; more likely, you stumble into the middle of a storyline and have to backtrack at least a bit until you find the start of that chapter/episode/adventure. This is the primary reason why, back in the day, writers were told to write every issue as if it were somebody's first. And it worked. I started reading Fantastic Four smack dab in the middle of John Byrne's Negative Zone story that ran through a good chunk of 1983 and, despite not knowing how the story got to that point, I was easily able to hit the ground running without any more details of the 250-some issues that came before. (These days, writers are directed to write "for the trade" so any single pamphlet might not have sufficient information to start anywhere, but any given trade paperback will.)

Serialized webcomics have a different challenge in that regard. Any single installment of a serialized webcomic is not likely to contain everything a reader knows to start at that point. There's generally just not enough time/space in that one page/panel to convey that much of the whole story. But if it's done well, there'll be enough to entice readers -- to pique their interest enough to return regularly or shoot back to the nearest jumping-on point. (Hopefully, it's conveniently labeled as such for them by the creator(s)!)

This morning, I came across Sin Titulo for the first time. Dropped in 148 pages into the story. It had good artwork, and I was intrigued enough to want to read more. Now, I could have easily clicked back to the beginning to start reading, but instead I just click for the previous installment to see a little more about the two characters. And I clicked to the next previous installment. And the next.

Before I knew it, I found myself 50 pages into the story, having worked backwards from page 148. One page at a time. And the whole thing made complete sense.

That I was actually able to read the story backwards actually made a point of interest in and of itself. How had creator Cameron Stewart been able to successfully -- and, I believe, unintentionally -- written a comic that could be read backwards?

His first success in this regard is breaking down each installment into a relatively self-contained scene. Any one page holds its own independent of the previous and/or the next. That means readers are NOT left with portions of speeches or half-completed actions to pick up on. Each page starts a new scene, so each page effectively becomes a new jumping-on point. Additionally, the page layouts and scene shifts between pages are treated identically throughout the story, so going forward or backward does not change the reading experience. The reader goes through eight equally-sized panels to get a single scene, then reads another eight equally-sized panels to read a different scene.

The other thing working in Stewart's favor with regards to reading his comic backwards is that the story inherently revolves around a series of small mysteries. The puzzle pieces are being revealed through the story slowly. The thing that Alex (the hero) thinks he sees in the 147th episode didn't really make sense until I got up to page 22 and even then, it's still unclear what exactly it is. Who exactly is Vacek? I think the story, if read forwards, would bear some similarities to one of those "accidental spy" stories where the protagonist becomes involved in some plot by a freak coincidence and is forced into a unique situation with no foreknowledge, just like the audience. And, like the best of those accidental spy stories, the pieces only put together the whole picture slowly. Whether going forwards or backwards, we're given the pieces (albeit in a different order) but not enough of them to see a complete picture either way. But it's enough to show the reader that Stewart knows what he's doing, giving the audience enough reassurances that the ultimate conclusion will result in a satisfying payoff.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading Sin Titulo, or any other comic, backwards but it's a fascinating experiment in storytelling, and an enlightening examination of good techniques. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the tale forwards, and don't doubt that it'll be an even better read that way!
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Pj Perez said...

Sometimes when I check the webstats for my serialized webcomic, I notice people reading it backwards as well. And then I caught myself doing it with a new comic I discovered today.