The Berkeley Beacon

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Don’t Ctrl+Alt+Del online comics

By Andrea Shea / Pop Columnist
September 27, 2012 at 3:13 am

Let’s be real: In regards to art and storytelling, webcomics are usually scraping the absolute bottom of the barrel. Even with graphic novels like Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen becoming more widely accepted as literature, comic fans are still hard - pressed to convince the general population that there’s something worthwhile to be found within your average monthly 32-page issues, let alone anything published on the black hole vortex that is the Internet.

Still, webcomics are far more ubiquitous than their paper-bound counterparts. We see them posted on Facebook or reblogged on Tumblr or pinned on Pinterest. These days you’d be lucky to find someone who’s never seen at least a couple pages worth of Dinosaur Comics or Questionable Content.

The accessibility of the webcomic form is both its greatest strength and most crippling weakness. Admittedly, any shmuck with MS Paint — let alone a tablet and stylus — can create what could generously be referred to as “content” (ever read Ctrl+Alt+Del? Don’t). But in more gifted hands, the very nature of web - comics suggests the potential to take sequential art to a whole new level of story immersion. 

Artists and storytellers no longer feel restricted by margins or static images or pages with which reader interaction is solely limited to removed observation rather than engagement. The Internet is an inherently interactive medium, and comic creators are beginning to realize the scope of possibilities at their disposal.

One of the most notable and recent additions to my list of “Webcomics That Push Boundaries” is xkcd. I’ve been a fan of artist Randall Munroe’s ongoing work for years, but it’s his 1,110th comic, aptly titled “Click and Drag,” that truly sets him apart.

In the final panel of what appears to be a rather brief comic, a stick figure man (characteristic of xkcd’s minimalist style) holds a balloon and makes an awed comment about the vastness of the world. ‘Cool,’ I thought. ‘That’s nice.’ But then I glanced again at the title and obediently did what I was told: I clicked and dragged. What I, and troves of other readers, discovered within the seemingly limited confines of that final panel was an enormous, detailed map that Munroe had drawn out, all the details of which could only be found by, well, clicking and dragging. Engaging. 

In my exploration of the world Munroe had created, I found airships and lovers breaking up and skyscrapers and stargazers and a whole underground tunnel society beneath the surface. Stick figure people alone, together, on a journey, at work, or in deep thought. With one measly panel, Munroe had me glued to my laptop for two and a half hours, and I’m still not convinced I’ve seen it all. Now that is how you ensnare your audience. 

Even more notable is celebrated comic writer Mark Waid’s foray into uncharted webcomic territory. Best known for his work on major print titles such as Kingdom Come, The Flash, and Fantastic Four, Waid has since departed from mainstream comics to explore the new media frontier through his digital comics website, Thrillbent. Unlike comiXology, which simply offers the same standard monthly issues in pixelated form, Thrillbent is home to Waid and artist Peter Krause’s weekly “issues” of Insufferable, their flagship superhero comic book/webcomic hybrid that the pair created with web format specifically in mind.

As a result, when you first view page one of issue one, you might be a little confused. Understandably so, as the single-panel page is pixelated and blurry. You can make out the outline of a man’s face, but the details are indiscernible. This is not a corrupted PDF file, as the same man’s face jumps out at you upon hitting your right arrow key to turn the page, clear and perfectly defined as you would expect.

It quickly becomes clear that the man is fiddling with the settings of a camera that is trained on his ogre-ish mug, and that the reader is viewing him from the perspective of the camera itself. Sure, you could express the same general idea in a printed comic, but the adjacent panels would ruin the immediacy of the effect, the active engagement that the reader feels. Waid and Krause pull all sorts of similar tricks throughout the PDF pages of Insufferable, and their use of whitespace and layers and focus has all the trappings of a movie whereim the reader is completely in control of the pacing with every subsequent page turn.

This is the sort of thing that pushes the boundaries of comics as a wholly legitimate storytelling and artistic medium. These kinds of creative leaps are what will force the usually stagnant evolution of comics into a brighter future. There’s just no other way to say this: What Munroe and Waid and Krause and plenty of others are doing is some revolutionary stuff that deserves more than the typical scoff and eye roll with which a lover of sequential art in all its forms is, unfortunately, all too familiar.