Webcomics vs. Print Comics: More Artistic Freedom and a Different Means of Distribution

By Janet Martin

With everything from television to books moving online, the constant and growing presence of the Internet is making it necessary to rethink our ideas regarding entertainment, and a change in medium allows for all sorts of innovations that change the way audiences view their usual artistic entertainments. One such form of entertainment is the comic. Scott McCloud, author of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art,” “Reinventing Comics” and “Making Comics,” defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.”

Gary Tyrrell—author of Fleen.com, a self-proclaimed webcomics blog about webcomics—defines webcomics as any comic independently owned and distributed online. Combined, these two comic-enthusiasts create a definition that seems pretty straightforward. But anyone who has read one of McCloud’s books knows that trying to define comics in any way is hardly a simple matter, and moving online does not change things. The world of webcomics is as rich and complicated as the print form from which it originates.

Webcomics Allow for Artist Freedom

First thing to understand is why a fan of comics would turn away from the classic print and turn to something online. According to Tyrrell, it’s a matter of conditions. “I like comics, web or print, for the same reasons—art that serves the writing and vice versa, a sense of novelty (approaching a story type or subject that’s not beat to death), and a sense of pride on the part of the creator that they want to make something good rather than just push product out the door,” Tyrrell said. “Now, there’s a related idea there, which is: ‘Are those conditions more likely to be met by a webcomic than a print comic?’ and for me (I won’t speak for anybody else), the answer is ‘probably.’”

According to Tyrrell, webcomics allow comic artists to create something that is unique and truly artistic without the confines of a large publication company like DC or Marvel. Since anyone can log on to WordPress or Carbonmade and create a website, anyone with a scanner can publish their comics without passing through editors and bosses. “Ownership allows stretching,” said Tyrrell. “Ownership (or very loose editorial mandate—people working on the ‘Adventure Time’ print comics report that their editorial guidelines are very loose and they want an individual author’s viewpoint) means that you aren’t basing every decision on making things as familiar as possible.”

Nvate Comics Webcomics Gary Tyrrell Fleen.com Karl Kerschi Ryan North Kate Beaton

The Flash Credit: Karl Kerschi

Because of the artistic freedom offered by the web, artists like Kate Beaton and Karl Kerschl can create comics outside of the normal superheroes and insane villains. Google “Kerschl,” for example, and you will find plenty of drawings depicting Batman, Robin, and any other collection of classic superheroes. The lines are neat, and the work is hardly terrible, but it isn’t anything special. Now, Google “Kerschl” and add “The Abominable Christopher Charles” to the search and you will find work that steers far from the typical comic, but no less (some might even say more) incredible to view. In Tyrrell’s opinion, this is because of the fact that Kerschl has complete, independent ownership of the Christopher Charles material.

“[Kerschl is] taking the time to tell a story that’s alternately hilarious, pulse-pounding, heartbreaking, and never, ever, ever less than his very best effort,” Tyrrell said. “Until the next week’s update when he does much better. It’s his. It’s his story, and no publisher would ever hire him to tell it, and if he never made a dime on it (and his books sell very nicely and they look gorgeous as well) he would still do it because it’s his.”

Nvate Comics Webcomics Gary Tyrrell Fleen.com Karl Kerschi Ryan North Kate Beaton

The Abominable Christopher Charles Credit: Karl Kerschl

In their article for “Image Text: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies,” Sean Fenty, Trena Houp and Laurie Taylor see the same sort of independent power in webcomics. “In many cases, these webcomic artists are working within the spirit of the Underground movement as reflected in their subversion of comic book conventions and their freedom of expression in content and form.”

Content online must also be separated from print. Without those corporate big-wigs, an author can write about anything they want, not just caped crusaders and their mentally challenged nemeses. “The variety is enchanting,” Tyrrell said about the plethora of content available online. “Why would I limit myself to juvenile power fantasies?”

Webcomic Distribution: Sharing Links and Having a Website

Moving online also means distribution works differently. Without a big corporation working publicity, it can be difficult to get your work out there for people to see. Thankfully, the nature of the Internet makes this an easy fix. When considering this issue, Tyrrell mentions Beaton. “Somebody passed a link to a friend, who passed a link to a friend, who passed a link to Ryan North [creator and author of Dinosaur Comics], who made a point of sharing it with his readers, who include almost every webcomicker of note, who shared it with their audiences, and overnight she’s a sensation in webcomics.”

Nvate Comics Webcomics Gary Tyrrell Fleen.com Karl Kerschi Ryan North Kate Beaton

Credit: Kate Beaton

Because it is so easy to share a link, it is easy to share the work of a comic artist lacking in big-corporation backing. Furthermore, the Internet allows someone to see what the hype is about rather than just hear about it. Take Kerschl and Beaton—you can easily look them up right now and view all of their work without worrying about illegal downloading.

“People that find something that cool want to share it,” said Tyrrell. “It’s not a case of coming up with a plan for publicity, it’s letting the work speak for itself. Nothing will get you a dedicated, willing-to-buy-stuff audience as much as a dedication to your craft, evidence of increasing skill, and an interaction with your audience.”

Interactive Comics: Is Interactivity Lost in this Version of Comics?

A new level of interaction is something else an online medium can change. The creators of “Witcher,” a video game based on stories of the same name by Polish author Andrezej Sapkowski, are releasing an interactive comic for the iPod and iPad based on the video game. According to the trailer, this comic will allow for all the usual enjoyments of a comic as well as the chance to fight mountain lions, charge griffins, and interact with medieval maidens. It is supposed to enhance the comics’ reading experience by allowing readers to get involved with the story. Tyrrell, however, would disagree.

In his book “Understanding Comics,” McCloud describes something called closure, which he defines as “observing the parts but perceiving the whole.” In other words, readers of print comics fill in the parts of the comics intentionally left out by the author—often in the forms of gutters, which are the blank spaces between panels. You may not see the ax drop, but you can assume it happened and create the exact scene in your mind. It creates a sense of interaction, forcing readers to engage with the created material. While promoters of things like “Witcher” claim to allow more interactivity, Tyrrell feels it does just the opposite. “The interaction is an illusion,” he said. “Pop-ups tell you what to do, where to do it, and you’re rewarded with canned outcomes. There’s now closure, it’s in fact reducing the role of the reader from story participant to mechanical button-masher.”

Nvate Comics Webcomics Gary Tyrrell Fleen.com Karl Kerschi Ryan North Kate Beaton

Credit: xkcd

So with Dinosaur Comics and xkcd making their way into the mainstream, it is time to consider them as a separate beast, something outside of the print comics from which they originate. They share some of the basic concepts discussed by people like McCloud, but with a brand new medium comes all sorts of new rules and possibilities. McCloud and Tyrrell are working to figure it out, and until they do, the rest of us can just sit back and enjoy what people like Beaton, Kerschl, and Robert Farley of Electric Sheep Comic are creating.

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