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Reading between the Lines

Online comics discussed by Sam Redlark

The Right Number by Scott McCloud

Kicking Hitler to Death by John Barber and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey

Vicious Souvenirs by John Barber

Directions by Neal von Flue

The popularity of the internet has given a huge boost to the comic book industry, uniting small pockets of readers across the globe, and raising the public profile an artform that gets only occasional lip service elsewhere in the media.

There are currently thousands of websites devoted to comics - to individual characters or titles and also to particular writers and artists. The online forums operated by the two big western comic book publishers, DC and Marvel, generate huge volumes of discussion and this is supplemented by numerous fan-run message boards. Many comic book creators who would have previously communicated with their readers in the letters column at the back of each issue, are now using the internet instead. In a business where a poor selling title risks cancellation, it makes sense to stay in touch with your audience.

The online networks that have developed between readers of comic books have also enabled amateur artists and writers to meet and collaborate on their own comics. Although a few of these collaborations may be independently published and emerge in print form, it is more common for them to appear either on creator-owned websites or on sites such as ModernTales.com, which allows independent writers to display and sell their work over the internet.

The majority of these webcomics continue to use static artwork, presented in a strip or page layout. The only significant change is the transition from paper to the cheaper digital format, and the method of distribution. However, the internet has also given rise to a different kind of writer who is using multimedia technology to tease out the latent potential that has lain dormant in the printed comic - an artform that, at its best, always seems to be straining to rise up off the page and take on more fluid, three dimensional forms.

Scott McCloud has long been known as a forward thinker in the industry. The author of two insightful books – Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics - as well as being a writer and artist of graphic novels, he was already thinking about the potential of digital comics in the early 90s.

Scott’s current web comic, The Right Number, is the story of a man who misdials his girlfriend’s phone number by one digit and ends up going on a dinner date with a nearly identical woman. Realising that individual characteristics are organised by telephone number, he begins a search for his perfect partner, using the keypad of his phone as a means of fine-tuning his choices.

Unlike a traditional comic book, which usually presents a series of panels on a single page, in The Right Number only one panel is clearly visible at any time. The following panel in the sequence is reduced to a tiny rectangle and buried in the centre of picture. While the prospect of something unrelated to your current position in the story, buried right in the centre of your field of vision, may sound counter-intuitive and overly obtrusive, it is Scott’s beautifully rendered artwork that draws the attention. The care he has taken in the composition of each frame means that the subsequent panel often appears to have been strategically blended in with its surroundings. For instance, it sometimes looks like a postcard or a photo pinned to a wall.

Navigation through the piece is controlled by mouse-clicks, allowing the reader to zoom towards the next picture in the story, the contents of the old panel gradually being pushed out of the frame as the new one grows larger. This method of transition is often used to great effect and the movement between the panels takes on an important role in the narrative. In one instance, in order to get to the next panel, we appear to be travelling down the corridor of a library, the casually drawn figures at the distant end of the passageway coming into focus before disappearing out of the frame.

The panel transitions in The Right Number are generally very simple and subtle, in keeping with the measured tone of the story. In comparison, the work of John Barber uses a spectacular array of different techniques to get the panels onto the screen.

In his collaboration with Daniel Merlin Goodbrey - Kicking Hitler to Death - the Fuhrer is rescued from his Berlin suicide attempt and transported forward in time, where a mysterious stranger literally kicks him to death. Any notion that this beating is being inflicted for moral reasons is quickly dispelled by a wicked punchline at the conclusion of the story.

The action takes place inside a circular window. Clicking on the circle allows the next panel in the sequence, usually a small segment of a circle, to slot into place somewhere inside the frame. Eventually the window starts to look like a pie chart composed of different panels – a non-linear montage of Hitler being beaten to a pulp, which periodically fades out, restoring the frame to an uncluttered circle.

John’s ongoing title - Vicious Souvenirs - adopts an even more radical and varied approach, in which the panel transitions are used like a second language, fluently informing the reader about the way the characters move, communicating their emotional state or giving a sense of the pace of the dialogue.

“I hope that as a reader reads more of Vicious Souvenirs, the mechanics fade into the background,” says John.

All the same, reading the comic for the first time, it’s hard not to be floored by the staggering array of effects which drive the narrative while staying true to the comic book structure.

Vicious Souvenirs is the story of Wikkid and Diesel, two generation X superheroes who get drawn into a morally ambiguous plan for world domination. In the first issue - "The Last Honest Man In LA" - panels stack-up on top of one another like a pile of irregularly sized photographs; artwork fades onto the screen; and when the two heroes jump from the top of a skyscraper, Diesel plummets to the bottom of the frame which shudders as he hits the ground. Meanwhile Wikkid floats to the ground in a separate panel, that drifts back and forth like a falling leaf. When a bank vault is prised open, the frame stretches apart, filling the screen with white light. Wikkid and Diesel’s shock at encountering a character called the ‘Jeweler’ is communicated by a panel that appears to project outwards from the Jeweler’s face, followed by a further panel that rotates in three dimensions and then flips over, depicting the two open-mouthed heroes in black and white. The issue concludes with a psychedelic sequence, in which the different sections of the frame come apart from one another and then reconfigure on the screen, before sliding off towards the margins.

Neal Von Flue’s Directions quartet is less story oriented and, conceptually, more experimental than the work of Scott and John. Although some clicking is involved, which causes certain features of the artwork to change, the main interactive element is the exploration of large canvases that don’t fit completely onto the screen and require the reader to scroll around and explore.

Neal’s artwork bears little relation to conventional comic strips and has more in common with the quality painted or digital artwork that occasionally finds its way onto the covers of print-based comics. In particular, his work shares certain style elements with the artist Dave McKean, who provided the covers for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.

Directions mixes traditional artwork with more complex digital pieces to create what looks like a series of layered transparencies and colour filters, juxtaposing scratchy images of landscapes, silhouettes of wild grass and vegetation, hand written pages, scrawled song lyrics, anatomical diagrams and grotesque caricatures of the human figure. These four pieces require long, often disorientating, viewings in order to penetrate the surface and appreciate how the different strata work in relation with each other.

A common theme interlinking all four Directions seems to be the stripping away of layers and meanings, exposing the often unpleasant realities lurking underneath - this imagery being sympathetic to the layered composition of the art itself. Structurally each piece is organised around a particular direction – for instance a hyperlink at the beginning of "Left" transports the reader to the far right of a long horizontal artwork. Returning to the beginning involves slowly scrolling back to the left.

At present, the majority of webcomics draw only a small number of readers and there is a sense that the audience for these digital titles is still crystallising. The first issue of The Right Number has currently sold just under 2300 copies. In comparison, a top selling print title will generally shift over 100,000, with popular books occasionally selling over 200,000. If The Right Number were a print based title, it would sit somewhere near the bottom of the top 300 best selling comics.

“We are talking about an audience that isn’t really an audience yet,” says Neal. “It’s a microculture of a subculture, and a subculture that is frowned upon by culture at large, so really the webcomics audience is primarily made up of other webcomics artists.”

These low reader numbers make the possibility of webcomics generating substantial profits for their creators a hope for the distant future.

“I think asking, here and now, if making a decent income through online comics is possible is like asking someone in the late 1800s if it is possible to fly. All the main elements are there, but few people, if any, are actually doing it,” says Michael Patrick – author of the online comic, Gary and Agnes.

However, the work of Scott, John and Neal is representative of a growing professional ethic, within the webcomics community, aimed at providing high quality content which can be sold online and may one day provide its authors with a viable source of income.

The Right Number, Kicking Hitler to Death, Vicious Souvenirs and Directions all retail on the BitPass system which allows readers to access online comics in return for small payments. Conditions vary, but usually each payment allows an issue to be viewed on multiple occasions over a period of several months. Vicious Souvenirs is also hosted by ModernTales.com. Here the most recent issue is free but readers pay a subscription fee to access the archives of previous issues.

At the time of writing, Scott was charging 25c per issue of The Right Number; John Barber’s comics were retailing at 35c per issue, while Neal was selling each part of Directions for 25c, or 75c for all four. Typically a print based comic will sell for around the 2-3 dollars in the US and around £2.00 – £2.50 in the UK. Theoretically, the comparative lack of overheads should allow writers of webcomics to make profits from much smaller audiences.

“If I wrote an episode of The Right Number each month and I had 20,000 or so people reading it, I’d be making quite a comfortable living.” says Scott. “I don’t have those numbers but I believe, in time, audiences of that size will be reading online comics.”

Neal also remains philosophical about his small number of readers and upbeat about the future:

“BitPass is an excellent system and it’s the first money I’ve made on comics, real or digital, so I can’t knock it. It just needs momentum.”

At a point in time where the traditional comic industry finds itself at a crossroads - where small comic shops are struggling to remain solvent and there is uncertainty over the future of comics appearing in monthly instalments - online comics represent fertile new ground, teeming with creative possibilities - perhaps lacking in large audiences but slowly growing in popularity.

“I think digital comics will continue to inspire a lot of amateur artists to try their hands when they might otherwise have not,” says John.

“The good stuff might not be the most popular or most financially lucrative, but I imagine that it will be noticed by someone, somewhere.”


Additional Links:

Thanks to: Scott McCloud, John Barber, Neal Von Flue, Michael Patrick, Warren Ellis and Ryeman for their input. Thanks also to the posters at Incandescent and members of Rob Kamphausen’s Message Boards, for providing background detail.

The graphic at the top of the page is borrowed from Neal Von Flue's Directions.

© Sam Redlark March 2004

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