Sans Genre VI
(image from this)
We're deep into what will become the history of webcomics at this point, with a readership for the comics medium's online format that soundly eclipses even the best selling Diamond-distributed Wednesday books. Deal with it, folks -- not only will the adventures of the Doom Patrol and the Agents of Atlas, if not necessarily Batman and Wolverine, be digital-exclusive by the end of the decade, so too will a large part of the interesting new alt- and art-comix work. It's already started: Dash Shaw's Pantheon-published print version of BodyWorld might be hanging off those Borders shelves now, but you could read the thing free online for like a year before that. People worry (online, mainly) about comics' shrinking presence in the newspapers and what it means for the survival of the venerable, wonderful comic strip format, but the reality of it is that the strip is still the most popular format comics come in, it just doesn't come on newsprint any more. Most interestingly to me though, these days it seems like more artists than ever before are engaging the webcomics format as the "infinite canvas" spoken of most prominently by Scott McCloud in his -- problematic but still occasionally dead-on -- book Reinventing Comics, which itself had an almost Paper Rad-ugly retro-digital thing going on its cover.
That book came out a long-ass time ago though, and McCloud's conceptualization of online comics as able to utilize infinite space, unrestricted by the borders of the physical page, took a while to catch. I'd guess there are a few reasons for that: first of all, the technology just wasn't really there for the works I'm going to talk about in a second to do what they do and still look good (and just as importantly, interface good) while doing it. Remember when it took a solid minute for an image to load on your computer? Nobody wants to read comics like that. But secondly, I really do think that it took a new generation of comics creators to see the digital environment with clear eyes and bring true vision to the comics they put into it. Give McCloud credit, he conceived of webcomics that were more than pages, but his practice of what he preached was pretty wack, and not even in a way that's going to look cool and retro ten years from now.
Today's boom of young creators making web-specific comics that not only work better online than in print but engage with the visual experience of computer reading is comparable to the boom of formally audacious material that hit comic books in the early 1940s, a little while after the format got its start. The washed up and/or aspiring newspaper strip artists who staffed the comic book ranks at the format's inception couldn't see the page turns and opportunities for extended visual narrative that the new way of making sequential art offered. It took a few years of young kids who weren't from any other world coming into the game before the Eisners and Kirbys appeared to show everyone the potential inherent in comics magazines. Same again during the rise of the "graphic novel", which started out with some pretty embarrassing fumbling around in Extended Pictorial Storytelling by comic book-format natives like Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, and Eisner himself. There too, it took quite a while before anyone (in America, mind you) was producing long form comics-with-spines that both stood up aesthetically and actually utilized the long form to do something more substantial that 24 pages could fit.
And here we are once more, with a fucking crazy new format that anyone can see has the potential to massively expand what comics can be. It's in the how that it gets tricky. More than tricky really: impossible to address critically. How webcomics are going to change the substance of what the medium is is impossible to say because it hasn't happened yet. All we can possibly do is look around at the work that's different from your average printed-object comic, that's operating in a way that's not the same, and catalog it to be recognized when its mode of operation pops up again and the real fun -- influence -- begins.
If I had to pick a "most-influential" webcomic out there right now it would probably be the aforementioned BodyWorld, which Dash Shaw serialized on the web between 2007 and 2009. It was hardly the most widely read webcomic (from what I understand, that honor goes to Penny Arcade, shudder), but it was certainly the only one to push the webcomics-specific "scroller" format into print -- wide-release, major-publisher, New York Times-reviewed print, no less. 2010's printed BodyWorld featured a vertical, rather than horizontal, facing-page orientation, to be read down in the manner of a scrolling web page rather than across like a book, and fold-out inside-cover flaps designed to mimic separate browser tabs. (It looked like this.) Oddly enough, and though it's a great comic, I think BodyWorld's greatest legacy is going to be formal rather than content-specific: the printed version was the earliest prominent formal expansion of beyond-web comics that led back directly to comics as they're experienced online.
Interestingly, where BodyWorld the book falls down is where the webcomic is most formally exciting. While I certainly felt cool as hell reading that thing on the subway, there were two places in particular where the printed page simply failed to convey a device that not only worked but felt innovative and unique online. The first of these was the chapter breaks. BodyWorld was a comic that stuck tightly to nine- and twelve-panel grids until the very end, and when a chapter was over the panels simply stopped, often in the middle of a tier (see above). It worked great online, mimicking the abrupt, understated endings of Youtube videos or audio clips, but on the printed page it left big holes of unfilled space, creating an unsatisfying sense of the page as a design unit. The second, bigger failure of print to live up to Shaw's digital vision came at the end, after the grids break down into a monumental "splash page that scrolls down and down, far taller than could be fit whole on any computer screen (below). On the computer, read in one smooth motion from top to bottom, it was a filmic experience brought to still imagery, a long vertical pan down a futuristic cityscape. In the book, however, it was more image than could be accommodated; the single picture split up into seven different pages, impossible to view or even really conceive of as a single thing, requiring three page turns to view in its truncated entirety.
I don't want to or mean to declare the "comics page" dead, or even a relic of the past. The printed page carries its own potentialities: texture, ink registry, variances of gloss and buff and size. There is also a single-minded purpose to printed comics, which are individual objects that exist only to be read and looked at; webcomics, which share in the general ether of the internet, something else always only a tab away, are perhaps less deeply engaging, less holistic about being what they are. (That's not a value judgment in any way; comics themselves are not a holistic form but a mongrel hybrid that grew into something beautiful, after all.) All this being said, the fact remains that many young and exciting artists are creating their early comics work on the web these days; and not only that, they're doing things in it that simply don't translate to print. Webcomics are no longer just a cheap way to show people pages or a convenient and accessible platform for a daily strip. They are an aesthetic destination in and of themselves, with their own parameters and potentials to be explored.
Probably the most exciting webcomic currently running is Blaise Larmee's 2001, a monochromatic experiment in bracing literalism that feels a bit like Jaime Hernandez's "Maggie and Hopey" stories reconstructed for a post-millennial audience of ADHD computer lifestylists. 2001 is a full-screen scroller webcomic: a single one of Larmee's wide, deep-focus panels takes up the full width and twice the height of the average laptop's browser window. Scrolling through it is disorienting, a demand for constantly realigned perceptions as the characters' motions are tracked around inside the box of the computer screen. The between-panel motion in 2001 is almost animation, the perspective constant, the figures' movements captured in painstaking, diagrammatic detail. They move across the screen and gesture dramatically. They recede into the black background and come so close to the viewer that their white forms fill up the window almost completely.
In a recent Comics Journal interview, Larmee said "I insist on staying in the present moment. 2001 exists, for me, in real time." That's all well and good as the kind of vague artistic statement of purpose we hear so often from the buzzword-spouting likes of Grant Morrison and Matt Fraction, but what distinguishes the quote is how well and clearly Larmee is able to pull it off. In 2001 what's being lost from comics as traditionally practiced is the removed, almost omniscient view of in-story time that the ability to apprehend a page full of sequenced panels at a glance allows. Instead, readers are as caught in the single moments of Larmee's panels as the characters themselves are, frozen in his frozen moments for the long scroll through them, unable to access the comic from any other point. While a superficial comparison could be made to all-double-page-spread comics, it falls apart with a little thought: a printed book with pages can be entered into anywhere and read in any order, the flicks of the leaves from front to back or vice versa allowing the reader to transcend the story's order of events, to choose to live outside it even once it's been entered. But when you go to 2001's website you start at the top and the only way to go is down, through the comic exactly as it progresses, vision flowing with it. You can scroll back up, too, but even then the movements between panels are precisely defined, sequenced with an exactitude that leaves no room for interpretation. In a way it's as close to "objective truth" in storytelling as I can think of comics getting.
Also jacked into Larmee's precision-guided use of the scroll, but less chained to the exactitudes of formalism is Connor Willumsen, whose standout works are the serialized "Everett" and the recently released standalone piece "Blackhold". "Everett" carries a bit more of traditional comics' look, with tiers of multiple panels visible all at once on the screen, but like 2001, this is work that demands to be read one way. In "Everett" the scroll acts as a kind of internal gravity for the comic, economically drawn panels pushing the eye quickly across the tiers and then down in such a rapid succession that it's easy to read long passages of it while slowly scrolling downward without stopping. The tiers are restricted to the standard width of the screen, but the layouts are able to take in an unlimited amount of vertical area, and unlike Shaw and Larmee Willumsen plays with that ability. Long passages of empty gray pass between tiers of "Everett", tall vertical panels sluice down into squat grids or tiny images before exploding into full-screen tangles of line. "Everett" is basically a standard-width comic that measures out at the the height of a small building, and Willumsen uses the unprecedented continuous space webcomics allow to full effect, mixing solid, basic comic book-style layouts with dazzling formal experimentation that could never succeed on facing pages that require turning.
Willumsen's "Blackhold" is something else entirely, a completely panel-less single image that goes even further into the scroll. Like 2001, its images take up the full width and many times the length of the screen, but in "Blackhold" there are no dividers, none of Larmee's demarcations between separate pictures, separate moments. Instead the whole thing is one astonishingly smooth slide from beginning to end, a progression from one place to another that presents disconnected single images in the manner of all comics, but moves through them with a speed and slickness that has nothing at all to do with the typical gridded, bordered-in reading experience. It's about as close to animation as comics have gotten, panel-less and easy to read without stopping the downward motion of one's scroll. Movement on a screen, the only difference being that the reader dictates how fast everything goes. And though the black-and-white dot matrix background behind the images can get downright hallucination-inducing if it's scrolled through at too constant a speed, there is one element of "Blackhold" that absolutely can't be replicated on paper, no matter its size. Willumsen's drawings for the comic are not digitized in the standard tiff or jpeg formats, but rather as moving gifs, which flash staccato bursts of bright red and yellow from Willumsen's still drawings. It's a fascinating addition to the comics artist's toolbox, one that leads the reader to question whether it's still comics at all. But then, these things are supposed to be successions of still pictures that somehow manage to move, and given that the light wherever you happen to read a comic dictates so much of your experience of it, why not let the digital environment allow its artists one extra element of control over their work?
That extra control that's so apparent in Larmee's work, and that battles with the speed of the reader's scrolls in Willumsen's, is almost entirely given over to the audience in 1981, a webcomic by artist David Gray with "conceptual oversight" by JCorp, an association of internet memesters who like to hang out on Larmee and friends' Comets Comets website. If BodyWorld was too big for the printed page, 1981 is too big for the screen, its images requiring side- as well as top-to-bottom scrolling to view in their entirety. It's completely enveloping; no matter what section of the comic you happen to be looking at, there's more on all sides, surrounding you. The comic is almost completely abstract, with no story or characters to speak of, only repeated visual motifs that echo down the page. It's a bath for the eyes in a mist of pixels, the shimmering pastel colors and lo-fi graphics manipulation more a contemporary artist with a MacBook's imagined view of a past time than anything that could actually have sprung from the titular year (least of all in the comics medium).
Again, 1981 is something that exists on the very bleeding edge of what's generally agreed upon as "comics", its use of sequential image putting it right there with any issue of The Walking Dead, but everything else either mutated or stripped away, intent most of all. Rather than a storytelling vehicle, 1981 is a place that exists entirely so that thirsty eyes can soak in a little pleasure, no engagement with anything but the pictures and their lines and colors necessary. It's hardly the next big thing in the medium, but the fact that it's being done alone is interesting, and the fact that it succeeds so well at simply being gorgeous to look at makes it roundly successful. 1981 is perhaps the least likely webcomic of all time to be given a print version; formal impossibility aside, it's tough to imagine an audience for this kind of lighter-than-air, pure-visual exploration existing in comics shops. The true home for this work is on the web, where a few minutes' visit to just about any website is worth what it costs you, and where there's far too little that just feels pleasant to take in.
As I write this article, I'm realizing that it could very well be obsolete in within a few months -- or hell, even as soon as the next installment of Larmee or Willumsen or Gray's comics go up. Things change in a flash on the web, and writing an aesthetic survey of content that could only exist on it is a daunting thing. Speculating on web-based history to come, on the impact that what's going on now will have on the future, is downright hopeless. But with that said, I hope none of this is remotely relevant tomorrow, or as soon as I hit the post button in a few seconds, because that will mean somewhere in the neverending ether someone will have posted something brighter, newer, something that uses comics to do more and risk more. And that's well worth losing a bit of commentary for. I do want to point out, however, that writing this has forced me to use more new formal terms than I've ever used in anything before. The mere fact that we have to consider the directions we scroll in, the file formats of image uploads, the size of our browser windows, the function our screens serve as points of entry into exciting new comics, when we discuss these works, makes them worth discussing. Get used to those terms. They're not going anywhere.