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Monday, March 21, 2011

Webcomics 101

Some time ago, I fell in love with graphic novels. Now, I am not as avid a reader as I should be, and I tend to take a lot of influences from the books I read. There are many graphic novels that I have not read or that are on my "to read" list, including some big players like Maus and Sandman (although I have not read all of Sandman, I have read some of it, and most of the story has been revealed to me by my sister, who has read it). Regardless, I found that even huge, game-changing American graphic novels lack a certain dynamic. This is, of course, not universally true. Elfquest and Mage, for instance, have been masterfully done in all aspects. I think that, because of my love for movies and my love for graphic novels, I think in pictures. Some graphic novels are too influenced by the written word or by movies. They primarily consist of an 8x11 page divided into 12 or so equal squares, each depicting a scene. Although I am a huge fan of Watchmen and V for Vendetta (even before they were turned into movies - in fact, I am sad that they turned Watchmen into a movie as it was too good in graphic novel form and a movie could only bring it down), most action-packed or thematically dramatic scenes stick to this format. Again, not all, but a good deal of them. Further, they often have an excess of language within each frame. Unlike Japanese comics (which are starting to influence American comics, I think, for the better), plot points and characters' feelings are conveyed via word or though bubbles.

I digress. I have always thought in terms of pictures. Cinematography. What is the scene that I want people to actually see? What do things look like? What does the camera show and not show? And, how do I want it laid out? Just as food has a "mouth feel," so do comics have a "page feel." Wendy and Richard Pini, of Elfquest, wrote a book on how exactly they write the comics. In it, they describe using the frames themselves to tell part of the story. Although at the time it was still laid out on an 8x11 sheet of paper, the frames were not uniform squares. They were more dynamic, with larger ones imparting importance or small, quick ones showing fast action. She put them in shapes to draw attention to the knife blade, or to draw the eye up to the important part of the page. Many comics, nowadays, take some of these ideas to heart. They use them to make the page more interesting, to improve its "page feel." Who, after all, wants to read a page of dense images with dense, small print and muted colors?

Many webcomics, particularly the ones that are in the shape of a page and not a single strip, try to use this now. The images may be like pictures atop a black background. Or, perhaps, for a dramatic scene, there are no words and the entire page is cut into ragged, long frames. However, there is so much more comics can do ones they hit the internet.

Scott McCloud is a master of the art. In this comics trilogy, he shows you first how to understand and appreciate what is going on in comics. I'll come back to the second one in a moment. The third book, shown above, gives you a direction of where comics are going and what has happened now that comics have hit the internet. There is so much that I think it is a miracle he was able to fit it into a single book. The second book is a beautiful study on the processes and tools comics authors and artists have available to them, and how to utilize the media. Movies do not always do the book justice, just as books based on a movie are usually not as powerful. This is because the story was thought of in a different medium (print, screen). Comics is halfway between, and has special exceptions and rules all to itself. This is what makes it so powerful, but also makes it difficult to excel in.

I think that any story can be told in any medium. However, HOW you tell that story differs drastically. You may be the world's greatest author, but that doesn't mean you can visualize something an audience would be willing to sit in front of for an hour and a half. You may be the greatest director, but the only reason your book is successful is because it is living off your name; it would be unable to stand on its own merit. It is a rare talent who is able to traverse the media. Such talents, though, do exist. Michael Crichton wrote screenplays for his movies, just as Yoshitaka Amano's art has been used for animes, games, and comics (each of which is a unique medium).

Again, I digress. Webcomics has a unique advantage to comics in that there is no longer a page restriction. This not only means that your comic can be infinitely large (previously, no publisher would print it if it was that long), but each individual page can be any shape, size, or style that you want it to be. Furthermore, webcomics allow you to hyperlink. This new medium is called "Hypertext" and has been, until now, used only for websites and banking. The term literally means going beyond the text, or the makeup of the page. A hyperlink, as I'm sure you are aware, takes you to a new page. Http means "hypertext transfer protocol." But as a comic, hypertext changes in unforeseen ways. It is often referred to as "New Media."

For a while I have been trying to figure out how to utilize webcomics to their fullest potential. The biggest stumbling block is that I am not an artist. I cannot draw anything other than a schematic or something technical. Not that I am unable to learn, but a lack of time prevents me. Here are some of the ideas I have come up with. If you wish to work with me as an artist on these, please do not hesitate to get in touch. If you wish to steal these ideas, understand that I am only giving you the broad scope of things, and I will leave enough of the details blank that you will have to work your butt off to make it good.

-A comic that tells several stories over a single page... This page, however, is so large that it cannot possible fit on any single screen. Because of this, the user looks about the scene, for instance an overview of Central Park, and picks up bits and pieces of the story as they search.
-Using hypertext to create a do-it-yourself adventure through webcomics. The disadvantage is, you have to have completed every possible arc and page before you make it available to the public.
-Using hypertext and bitmapping to allow a reader to click on images, objects, words, or characters within a comic. Each one will take the user to some interesting side-information, and perhaps even side-plots that would normally remain unseen and untold.
-Disguising the story within the actual comic website itself. This would be akin to The Real Inspector Hound where the actual story is not what takes place in the play, but what takes place behind the scenes. Of course, this would involve links to other sites, such as facebook.
-A webcomic where the pages animate (this has been done by others, but I feel it can go much further).
-Tell a story involving time travel where, as the reader goes through the story, the "archives" change.

These are all interesting and not necessarily easy-to-pull-off ideas that I may never see come to fruition. Time has become a major, major constraint in my life at the moment. Even now, I am only posting on here because of Spring Break. I have returned to school to pursue a degree in engineering, and soon I shall become a father. I am trying to write my first novel and am working on a basic webcomic (nothing too special) with my brother. I should also be looking for work. At some point in the equation, sleep would be good, too. Perhaps, however, God will give me the opportunities to turn my ideas into something real. For now, they are only pipe dreams.

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