Pushing the Boundaries of the Digital Canvas
Designing for the web is a real pain sometimes, as anyone who’s ever played with HTML can tell you. Unlike designing for print, where what you put on the page is more or less exactly what you get, almost nothing designed for the web is guaranteed to look that way when another person views it. People use different browsers, different screen sizes, different devices, different tweaks for loading images or blocking ads. What looks great on one screen may be completely unintelligible on another.
This poses an additional challenge to webcomic creators, who have to not only create a comic, but then deal with the extra hassle of trying to make it look right for most of the people most of the time. And unlike print comics, with their familiar formats and trim sizes, webcomics have no such standardization.
Which is where the fun begins.
Webcomics owe most everything to print comics, and the influence of their ancestors is oten evident in their shape and layout. Gag-a-day and slice of life comics tend to be short and horizontal like newspaper strips, while lengthier adventure or fantasy/sci-fi pieces often appear in taller, issue-shaped segments, all ready to be turned into a book-shaped print volume one day. But unlike print comics, webcomics don’t have to stay the same size and shape as when they began. They can change shape from issue to issue or even day to day, all at the whims of their creator and the demands of the strip’s content.
Even when webcomics do have a standard format, it’s not infrequent to see their creators break that format months or years down the line. (I still remember being weirded out for over a week when Questionable Content changed its shape at strip #2600 from long and skinny to its current rectangular shape.) Often, these changes occur as webcomic artists’ abilities improve and they begin to experiment with less conventional arrangements of panels. Unlike a book, where each page must be the same size regardless of content, the web is flexible. It’s a canvas that can change its size with every page. It can support animation, or even sound. It can lead in multiple directions, or invite the reader to interact with it. It can do almost anything the creator can imagine.
A number of webcomics have absolutely stunned me with the way they’ve challenged the boundaries of this digital space. After almost eight years of running in mostly the same double row of strips, Meredith Gran began to expand her slice-of-life webcomic Octopus Pie. First, longer and more elaborate page layouts began to creep in; then the comic switched from black and white to color. And then came the glorious marriage of the two in the final page of Chapter 46, “The Witch Lives.” One of the comic’s main characters, Hannah, is struggling to pull her life together in the wake of her breakup with her long-term boyfriend. In a single, near-wordless page, Gran strategically arranges isolated panels along the length of vast, vertical white space. The isolated images act like snapshots in time, blinks of feeling in a period of emptiness, which the reader must actively scroll or swipe through, making an effort just to move through ordinary actions, rather than the usual effortless eye movement from one panel on a page to the next. The story told, and the mood evoked, is astoundingly deep and moving, all thanks to a brilliant use of extended vertical space.
A few chapters later, Gran has an equally strong comic (drawn with Mike Holmes) which again uses length and wordless scrolling past panels to evoke a vivid mood. This time, rather than isolated panels on a white page, every inch of the pixel canvas is filled with color and movement. There’s a sense of fluid movement, like a film, in which we follow a single character from the same perspective through a long, winding string of rooms and spaces. I don’t know how these pages could possibly be recaptured in the collected trade volumes—but I do know that the latest print volume is tall and skinny, while the three previous trade volumes were wide and flat.
Webcomic creators have also done impressive work to prove that there’s more ways to use an animated GIF than for cats and reaction shots. Zac Gorman’s Magical Game Time comics often use subtle animated effects to evoke a sense of mood, such as in this tribute to The Legend of Zelda where the simple act of animating raindrops manages to capture something of the mood of the games that a stationary comic might not. On the other end of the spectrum, of course, we have Jeph Jacques reminding us that a silly GIF for a punchline can be an awful lot of fun too.
And then there’s xkcd. His characters might all be black-and-white stick figures, but Randall Munroe has repeatedly created astounding comics with just a little extra tech wizardry from behind the curtain. In his comic “Click and Drag”, Munroe places the focus of the comic on a large square panel that acts as a lens through which the reader can see a small fragment of a vast hidden picture. By clicking and dragging, the reader can navigate the image for themselves, exploring the world beyond and creating their own infinite variety of panels each time they pause to look at the details within the frame.
A few months later, Munroe pushed the boundaries of a single panel even further in his Hugo-Award winning comic “Time.” In this comic, a single panel on the screen changed content every half hour for ten straight days, and then continued to change once an hour for months. The resulting comic contained over three thousand unique panels, each one replacing the previous panel with no means of reading backwards or forwards. Munroe transformed the act of reading a single-panel comic from a fleeting experience to an extended act of performance art, one which no one–not even the creator himself–could possibly experience in its complete entirety.
The book is by no means dead—thank god. And there will forever be printed media that simply cannot be done justice when translated into a digital form. But webcomics are proving that the opposite may also be true, and that not every digital comic must come secondary to its own print reproduction.