Lessons Webcomics Can Learn From Comic Strips

By | Friday, August 24, 2012 1 comment
Webcomics, in a broad sense, have something for everyone. There's a wide variety of genres, styles, tones, frequency... Personally, I try to read a bit of a range of material, but I obviously have my own preferences and biases. And with new webcomics coming online all the time, I try to check out new ones as I find them.

What I typically do when I discover a webcomic I hadn't been reading is flip through the previous dozen or so installments. Any single day's comic might happen to be from when the creator was having an off day, so I figure the dozen give me a better sense of the overall gist of things. This is easier with non-continuity-laden strips, of course, but serial ones still usually provide enough to get the feel for it even if I don't understand everything.

I noted, a couple years ago, how insular and self-referential Marvel comics had seemed to become. I'm not sure if that notion is really commonly accepted among fans but I know I've seen the complaint from comics folks on the outside trying to look in. That's one of the reasons readership isn't growing -- the stories themselves are often written in such a way that precludes invitation to the readers, EVEN IF all the basic facts are provided in-story. The stories read very much like they're written for people who are already comfortable and familiar with the entire backstory and, if you're not, well, then you're just out of luck; we didn't want your kind around here any way.

I think this is a commonly acknowledged issue for comic fans who aren't completely and solely invested in Marvel and/or DC. So I have to wonder why you write a webcomic that way?

I finally gave up on Wapsi Square, which I've been trying to wade through for the past several months. I liked the style and tone, and the art was well done. It seemed like the type of strip I'd enjoy. And the day-to-day storytelling works well, especially considering how few panels usually get posted at a time. I got a decent sense of the characters, and seemed to be following along well enough, but...

It felt like that same wall I was talking about in that Fantastic Four comic from before. Like a lot of the story was predicated on my having a deep understanding of everything that's happened in the past 10+ years it's been running. Like he's got enough readers and doesn't need any late-comers like me, thankyouverymuch. I doubt that's intentional, and, even if it is, I don't have any reason to think creator Paul Taylor would be anything other than pragmatic about it. He's likely just telling the story he wants to tell.

There's nothing wrong with creating an elaborate backstory that takes place before your readers join the story. Star Wars: A New Hope is a prime example of how it can be done well. It starts off in the middle of a Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia's ship, demanding to know what she's done with the plans for the Death Star. There's obviously a lot that went on to get to that point, and viewers are told bits and pieces of it ("You fought in the Clone Wars?") but nothing tethered to appreciating what's going on right now. (All viewers need to know about the Clone Wars for that movie is that it impressed Luke.)

But, if you refer to the backstory only obliquely, you can't expect new readers to come on board if your current story is entirely dependent upon it. Star Wars: A New Hope would not work if you first started watching an hour into it. Yes, most webcomics have their entire archives freely available, but who's going to read through a decade's worth of strips to figure out today's? Not me, certainly. A year, maybe two, I'll sort through. Ten? No.

I might suggest webcomic creators -- at least the ones creating serialized work -- go back and read some of the great continuity strips from back in the day. Little Nemo in Wonderland, Little Orphan Annie, Wash Tubbs, anything by Milt Caniff... Whether you like the art or the story or the characters or not, they did do a good job of making the stories accessible to new readers. They might start in the middle of a storyline, but they were given everything they needed to know to hop in and follow along.
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Mark Stokes said...

Very good article, Sean. I've often wondered how some of these comic book series are able to rope in new readers when they're so insular like they are. The great thing about the Golden Age comic strips is that they featured continued storylines which were built on what had gone before, and they always left the door open for new readers to walk right in.