our magnificent castle?" "It's all been washed away."
began for many as a fascination with the physical, with the feel
of yellowed newsprint and a wrinkled glossy cover, with the wide
range of smells at the comic book shop, has joined the hordes
and moved online. Now, a click away from Microsoft and the New
York Times, the modern comics reader can browse Seth's sketchbooks
at Drawn & Quarterly , get a healthy dose of media skepticism
from Tom Tomorrow or see who is kicking the crap out of whom at
Marvel. While comics are not a special case, the current incorporation
of electronic media has placed the art form in a state of uncertainty.
Faced with a media world dominated by television, the move to
the web leaves comics in a position surprisingly similar to its
previous paper incarnation if you can look past the buzzwords
and the imitations (animation is animation, even on the web).
This essay will examine comics' current state from the viewpoints
of the reader, the collector and the creator to take account of
where comics are and where they are going in relation to the Internet.
most popular form of comics are the strips that populate most
daily newspapers, although if you asked most people if they read
comics they would probably say no. While comic strips are vastly
different from comic books, they present the reader with many
benefits and drawbacks from the transition to the internet.
more people log on to read the morning paper, more have turned
to the web for their daily comics. The large comics syndicates
have made the move to the web in full force, taking with them
their stable of cartoonists, and have set up one stop shops for
dailies online. The syndicates' online push reinterprets the newspaper
comics page in a very telling way. While all of the strips represented
by a particular syndicate may be represented, they are shown devoid
of any context other than their own - comic strips as warehouse
outlet. A strip's past surrounds it, rather than the present of
the other strips. The effect of this shift may seem innocuous
at first, but what happens to the dailies when every strip is
placed in context of its whole run? An anecdote from Zippy
Griffith gives us an example of the unintended consequences
of context for a comic strip.
have a friend back east who reads Zippy in the Boston Globe
and sends me what he calls "vertical" comic strips - he reads
the comics vertically instead of horizontally on the daily comic
strip page. In the Boston Globe, the order of the strips on
the first page is Doonesbury, Zippy, Garfield, and For Better
or For Worse. So if they work nicely, which happens every three
or four days, he finds the panels which line up vertically and
he reads them and then cuts them out that way - the third panel
of Doonesbury, the third panel of For Better or For Worse, etc.
It's kind of frightening the way it works sometimes." (Groth
can provide an experience for the reader that the author or indeed
the editor never intended. Readers heading towards their daily's
homepage in the morning are experiencing the strip separately from
the rest of the events of the world for the first time in over a
century. The newspaper reader who reads the nation's news and then
balances that out with a trip to "Doonesbury,"
or a quick "FoxTrot"
on his morning commute receives a view of the world that is much
different than an online trip through King
Features or Universal's
web sites. The utopians will tell you that the linking of the sites
on the internet achieves an always-on global media environment that
gives everything immediate context. In the 4th dimension, this might
be true, but in the 2nd dimension where readers make their choices,
the visual landscape is much more cohesive than a Sunday newspaper
spread out on the breakfast table. The access to a strip's entire
history at any point is a valuable resource to any reader, but robs
him of the inherent weirdness of the 21st century media landscape.
format of the comic strip is a natural fit with the web right now.
The quick nature of their presentation and their technique of building
up a larger narrative out of smaller pieces and a longer time is very
similar to the collaborative nature of the net. A reader may bring
to the table an intimate knowledge of the past strips or may show
up fresh and unassuming. Running jokes lend themselves well to hypertext.
Comic books have much to learn from the move made by the dailies.
of comic books have always been a different breed. Unfortunately,
the restrictions of the reading experience are presenting huge barriers
to a move to the web by comic book creators. Unlike their daily cousins,
most comic books could not fit comfortably in a browser window.
now, traditional comics have the web beat in several categories. Comics
are more portable, many feel they are physically easier to read in
the hand than on a screen and most readers are comfortable going to
their local shop to browse the shelves for new issues or scour the
bins for hard to find back issues. The web is a tremendous opportunity
for comics to broaden their readership, but it is still so new that
older readers are going to put up a lot of resistance to reading all
of their favorites online.
sites are organized as pages, borrowing the lingo of our traditional
book culture, although a web page is rarely completely visible to
the reader. A person with a book in hand can scan an entire spread
in a book quickly to appreciate the design or search for a quote.
A reader at a web page needs to scroll down to read the rest of a
page, which is especially problematic for comics. On different monitors,
drawings are cut off in different places, transitions may not seem
as obvious and just how do you turn a web page?
on a computer, reading anything on a computer is a fundamentally different
experience than reading from paper. Most readers feel much more comfortable
reading paper than a monitor. A physical comic can be bent or folded,
and held at the perfect angle for reading for each individual reader.
Some readers will throw a few books in their backpack and pull them
out to read on a crowded bus or a train. Others will only read under
certain conditions of quiet or calm. Placing a piece of software in
between the content and the reader changes the relationship between
reader and content. When artists present their work in a comic, the
reader fells what the author intended, can take in the whole page,
a spread, fold the book over to compare distant pages. The web browser
enforces a level of sameness on all content within it that could not
be farther from the physical property of a book.
readers in areas served only by a mainstream comics store or no comic
shop at all, the web is an opportunity for access. Comics shops and
their patrons are still looked upon with suspicion, and so many areas
of the country are underserved by a well-rounded shop. For a reader
who only has access to The
Fantastic Four the web can be a place to read new work or to purchase
books that would never cross the county line.
has given us the most succinct definition of comics with his work
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, he left out one
crucial detail - if you grew up reading comics, that is. What McCloud's
definition leaves out is the physicality of the medium. The feel of
the covers, the way the ink sticks to your fingers after too long
and the different grades of paper all leave very real traces on a
reading experience. The portability of the comic book, as with any
book, has long been an advantage the paper world had over the electronic.
Online comics are always pristine, they never yellow, crinkle or fade.
Only readers who grew up with paper comics may even mind that the
comics are more ethereal than earthy, but the lack of substance with
online comics takes them farther away from the real. This may be nostalgia,
or it may be necessary. The next few years will decide.
are on the cusp of a major change in the way we interact with the
internet. The changes in store for the Internet may very well place
the art form in a network setting accessible from anywhere, stored
as bits, but read on paper with electronic ink. As more and more people
use the web from handheld computers or public kiosks, or on pages
"printed" with electronic
ink, some of the context surrounding comics may come back to it
and the reader will not be tethered to a pc. The push for wireless
access and for improved quality of displays promises to return the
reader back to 1990, when a book could be read on a bench at lunch,
or in bed by a dim lamp instead of sitting at a CRT being bombarded
have been a medium in transition over its entire history. The beginning
of the 21st century and the presence of the Internet does little to
change that. In 5 years, these questions may seem totally irrelevant.
The future of comics does not depend on a move to the net, as we can
see by the resurgence of independent publishers like Top
Shelf, the success of the Xeric
Foundation Grants and an amazing crop of young talent pouring
their hearts out with pen and ink. The net has given comic strip fans
amazing access to their favorites and new strips waiting to be discovered.
Comic book readers are not as lucky, but the net presents them many
other opportunities. From sketchbook pages to notes to message boards,
the net has proved a great resource for the comics reader, if not
a great presentation for the work itself. However, the future may
bring us the access of the net on the paper that we love. On our way
to the train in the morning we could swipe our 6"x9" reader past the
content server and load up on the latest run of Eightball or download
classic issues of Sandman that we will read on paper in our hands,
just like in the 90s.