Can Comics as We Know Them Last Forever?
by Jason Scott Gessner


Image ©1999 Craig Thompson
"So Where's our magnificent castle?" "It's all been washed away."

What 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.

The Comics Reader

The 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.

As 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 creator Bill Griffith gives us an example of the unintended consequences of context for a comic strip.

"I 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 94-5)

Context 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.

The 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.

Readers 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.

Right 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.

Web 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?

Reading 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.

For 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.

While Scott McCloud 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.

We 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 by electrons.

Comics 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.

Lead graphic ©1999 Craig Thompson from his book Goodbye, Chunky Rice
Groth, Gary. "Bill Griffith. Politics, Pinheads and Post-modernism". The Comics Journal. Number 157. pp 50-98. Fantagraphics Books. Seattle, Washington. March, 1993.

Coming Soon......
Part 2: The Comics Collector
Part 3: The Comics Creator  

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