The Formal Legacy of Webcomics

I recently learned about an exhibit on webcomics starting this week and running several months at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York (link via Journalista). From the above-linked page:

Infinite Canvas: The Art of Webcomics brings comics from the web page to the MoCCA stage. The exhibit explores three aspects of online comics: the unique format and design of webcomics, their appeal to niche audiences, and the transitions between web and print comics.

Curator Jennifer Babcock, who also draws the syndicated webcomic C’est La Vie, explains that webcomics are free of the space constraints and editorial censorship to which printed comics are often subjected. Webcomics also provide an outlet for a greater diversity of creators and audiences, she says, resulting in numerous niche-specific features.

I’ve already pondered on the issue of webcomics reaching niche audiences on this blog, so I’ll set that aside for now. What puzzles me somewhat about this exhibit, however, is the focus on the “unique format and design,” especially the decision to title the exhibit “Infinite Canvas.”

For those who might not be familiar, Scott McCloud introduced the term “infinite canvas” in Reinventing Comics, a sequel to the influential Understanding Comics half devoted to webcomics. It refers to the ability to make a comic not constrained by the dimensions of the page, which could theoretically scroll off the edge of the screen into infinity. Scott predicted that this could be just one of the many aesthetic innovations that comics artists would employ once they realized what they could do with digital tools. (He also devoted a bunch of space discussing how comics would be distributed online thanks to micropayments, which hasn’t really worked out for comics as well as it has for music. See Sam Ford’s recent C3 post on this. Webcomic artists, for the most part, make their living off advertising and merchandising.)

The thing is, the most popular webcomics don’t typically use an “infinite canvas” or much else that you couldn’t do in print. Admittedly, my webcomics diet is much smaller than it used to be, but at one time or another, I have read quite a bit of each comic getting top billing on Infinite Canvas‘s poster. Yes, these comics can do color and distribution/production in general more cheaply than in print, but print still does it too. The artists frequently draw their comics using Wacom tablets and may give an intentionally digital aesthetic (see Diesel Sweeties), but again, that’s not so different from what we see in print, and doesn’t take advantage of what only the online environment can do. Webcomic strips do have more flexibility to change their panel layout than newspaper comics (will that be one or two rows of three panels?), but the restriction on the print side has more to do with industry constraints than the formal limitations of a piece of paper. Heck, I think it was the author of Mom’s Cancer who said at Comic Con 2006 that he intentionally made the comic in a simple grid so as not to alienate people who don’t have much grasp of “comics literacy.”

So what are webcomics doing to take advantage of the relative freedom offered by the online environment? Some comics make clever use of alt tags for little bonus punch lines. I know that there are some diehard formalists out there who love to experiment with things like animation and sound (Scott McCloud included). For the most part, though, the webcomics that are providing a living for their creators—and the ones mentioned to advertise the Infinite Canvas exhibit—are not major formal innovators.

I’m okay with that, personally. These comics are much more related to discuss with regard to distribution to niche audiences, which is how they got to make money in the first place. These are the comics I’m more likely to return to and read again. I’ve always been interested in experimental comics as well, but I’ve seen more influential work among print artists such as Chris Ware than among webcomics artists (and then I got back into video games, which kind of cut into the time and money budgeted to comics). And actually, I think that you see more interesting formal innovation when artists impose limits upon themselves than when they really have an “infinite canvas” (see Gene Kannenberg’s thesis on using the page as a unit of design).

So, if I’m missing something big going on with comics, including the big names mentioned on this poster—and, given my reduced comics consumption, I admit that this is likely—now is the time to chime in.

3 thoughts on “The Formal Legacy of Webcomics

  1. It seems to me that calling the canvas on the web “infinite” is kind of a misnomer. As you point out, it certainly does allow more—or at least different—flexibility than the page, but don’t you think we’ve just swapped the constraints of the page for the constraints of the screen? Instead of being limited by what you can fit on a page, you’re limited by the readability of an image on a screen. Sure, you can scroll, but I can definitely understand why some comic creators choose to stick with a more traditional format in that regard: scrolling can be distracting, especially when you’re trying to follow a flow.

    Not to mention that, unlike books, monitors vary widely in their resolution, ability to display different colors, etc. Less so than perhaps around ten years ago, but the lowest common denominator is probably still an issue for some creators.

    I think in many ways, we’ve just substituted one set of practicalities for another. And I agree that perhaps the interesting part is what the new medium allows for in terms of production and distribution rather than “art.” But then again, maybe I just haven’t seen a good example of the “infinite canvas” on the web.

  2. The exhibit talks about how and why many webcomics don’t use the “infinite canvas” format but also has examples (on an LCD screen) of some successful examples.

    Another point that the show stresses is that webcomics aren’t constrained to a standardized format like many printed comics are (think weekly comic books, newspaper strips)

  3. Neat—thanks for the clarification, Jennifer. Actually, reading about the exhibit and writing this post finally inspired me to revise a paper I wrote awhile back about formal experimentation in comics, which I’ll soon be submitting to a journal. When I first wrote that paper, I was pretty convinced that the infinite canvas was going to be the next major formal innovation in comics, based on some of those successful examples. (Jason Lex’s “The Strangler” was a favorite of mine.) Now I’m especially interested to see how this is presented in the MoCCA exhibit. (Anybody who feels like meeting up in/making a trip to NYC together, let me know!)

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