Saturday, 21 January 2012

Digital Canvas - The Long And The Short Of It

In the world of webcomics, there exists a great divide that isn’t seen in ink-and-paper comics. Two camps, two different styles of writing, split right down the middle of the web and (coincidentally) my brain; the Long-Form webcomic, and the Gag-A-Day webcomic. You don’t really see this distinction anywhere else, because the Gag-A-Day format only really works on the internet or in newspaper strips. But which camp are you in? Which is best?

Long-form webcomics have the advantage of actually having a story to follow. In most of the better cases, the author has even planned ahead and knows what’ll be coming up, leaving the opportunity to foreshadow and plant several Chekhov’s Guns along the way. This format also has the space to establish characters and really give them development, as well as establish a setting, giving readers a firm sense of place. And talking of development, longer form webcomics give the artist the opportunity to grow in skill, especially when they’re practicing with the same characters or settings for a while. In a nutshell, readers of long-running paper-and-ink comics will probably enjoy long-form webcomics.

Todd’s Long-form quick picks:

On the downside of the Long side, it can sometimes be a pain to go back through a huge established archive and start from page one, knowing that it’ll take at least a few days to get through the whole story AND the story is still updating for those few days. If you read through the archive too slowly, you start feeling like Achilles in the philosopher Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles vs. the Tortoise. Another downside to some Long-Formers is the fact that they never seem to want to end, or at least never end naturally with a proper conclusion. This can be down to the perceived pressure of keeping the readers entertained, or for the love of a fairly consistent pay check, or simply because the author never wants to stop! In bad cases this can lead to uncomfortable story-stretching, and endless filler.

Gag-A-Day comics (or more accurately, Gag-A-Page) have the advantage of accessibility. It usually doesn’t matter where you start reading, you’re already laughing. Indeed, some of these webcomics even have a “random” button that’ll take you to a random comic from the archive. But Gag-A-Days can have fun with continuity as well; running gags and cameos of favourite one-time characters are used to great effect in this genre, rewarding the long term readers. Gag-A-Days also have the opportunity to be “relevant” - they can quickly riff on the news of the week to get a laugh out of whats happening right now, without having to divert a long-running storyline just to fit. Indeed, the skill to do just this is evidence of a quick thinking author with good writing skills. In short, if you have a low attention span, or just need a quick fix of funny, Gag-A-Days are for you.

Todd’s Gag-A-Day quick picks:

Unfortunately, relevancy can also be a downside. A comic that ties into todays news won’t necessarily be funny in a few years time, with some jokes ageing very quickly. Imagine clicking that random button and reading all those “THIS. IS. SPARRRTAAA” jokes all over again. Yawn! And of course, even the first time round you read it, there’s no guarantee that every punch line hits the mark 100% of the time.

So each has its pluses and minuses, personally I read a selection of both types! But is there some sort of middle ground out there, some sort of ideal compromise? A few webcomics attempt to alternate, telling a long story interspersed with a few gag pages, and I have read a few of these. I’ll quote a good friend of mine, who says “it reaches a point where the quality of one comes at the sacrifice at another, my personal effigy being Sluggy Freelance.” I haven’t read it myself, but apparently it’s the gag pages that are lagging behind the epic story pages. This is of course personal opinion, so your mileage may vary.

Something I find a lot more enjoyable than this alternating technique is the use of story arcs to tell a series of contained tales, but can also lead on from one another. This way you get the ease of finding a good jumping-on point at the start of each arc, the closure of the end of each arc, plus the joy of a longer continuity to follow. And the author can throw in a gag arc between other stories if they feel like it.

Todd’s Story Arc quick picks:

So back to the original question: which is ‘best‘? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder my friends. I’ll let you make your own minds up!

Todd’s been agonising on where to categorise webcomics with “chapters”: are they Story Arcs or pieces of a Long-Form?

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