The webcomics blog about webcomics

Fleen Guest Column: Anne Thalheimer In, “Is Sequentiality A Word?”

Editor’s note: This is the first of the Fleen Guest Columns; this came about because we were put in touch with Anne Thalheimer, who has some interesting views on comics, art & suchlike, and was amenable to writing them up for us.

Anne, by the way, has studied comics at the graduate level, written a book on gender/comics issues, has written on comics for Popmatters, and works in that [web]comics-friendly Mecca of Northampton, MA. Want to join in the fun? Throw us a suggestion, we’ll ask you to send us some copy; just like the Op-Ed page, if it doesn’t require too much fixin’ we’ll run it.

Both Natalie Dee’s work (which she calls “comic art�) and Sam Brown’s (which he calls “stick figure art�) are interesting to me for a number of different reasons. I enjoy the similarities in their visual styles; the simple lines, bold colors, and the “cute� feeling they both evoke. I also like the seeming dissonance between this “cute� look and the fact that Dee’s work often as not is peppered with profanity and Brown’s is, well, there’s monsters and fangs and bloody folks. These are not necessarily bad things; as a reader, I actually find the dissonance they create kind of engaging.

Brown’s work is particularly savvy in this sense, as he creates pieces from titles readers email him, and so you click on the title and the image opens, and you’re left to wonder how a certain title sparked the image that you’re seeing. You see the title, and then the picture, and you’re left to make the connection. Dee’s work does something similar when looking through her archives as sometimes the connection between the image and the title is readily apparent, and sometimes the title itself is what makes me laugh, as it provides a new frame through which to view the work, which shifts how I think about what I’m seeing.

That said, in all the times I’ve seen Natalie Dee’s and Sam Brown’s
work appear on this site, there’s always a comment or two asking, either, Are they webcomics? or, what I think might be the real heart of the question, Are they comics?

I for one am voting yes, on both, but I know this answer will spark some interesting debate. It’s debate that, by the sound of it, has been waiting to happen for a while. So let me put down a little groundwork, explain my thinking a little, and then we can get to the opening bell of that much-anticipated first round since I’m interested in what folks have to say on the topic.

However, I want to preface this piece with one simple thing: if you don’t like a site, for whatever reason, you don’t have to read it—the great thing about webcomics is that there’s lots and lots more out there. But if you do like a webcomic, enjoy it. Support it. Buy swanky merch, or subscribe, or tell your friends about it, or send the creator in question something awesome, like a space pen or a finger puppet, and don’t worry too much about the definitions.


These folks state that, basically, webcomics are comics that appear on the internet. I like this definition for two main reasons, even though it at the same time feels maybe too facile.

First, the definition’s inclusive. For a medium that’s still relatively new and somewhat underground though certainly gaining attention, being inclusive feels important, and more in the spirit of the publishing freedom that webcomics affords (more on that in a minute).

Arguably, the more varied stuff is out there, the more likely it is that the increasing numbers of potential readers getting online to look at a site will eventually find something, somewhere that strikes their fancy. Not everyone’s going to like the same stuff, and webcomics with words (like comics with words in general) have a double-whammy; any potential reader’s generally got to like both the writing and the images in order to keep reading. ( I have a more difficult time reading comics that visually don’t appeal to me no matter how spectacular the writing than I do with reading things where the visuals are compelling but the writing’s not so much.)

Caveat: since there can be comics without words, I imagine the same thing should apply to webcomics. In this case I imagine sequentiality would be critical; a single image with no words might not be a comic on its own, whereas a sequence of images with no words could be considered a webcomic. You could potentially have a wordless webcomic where the page would open, you’d see the image, and you’d have to click to see the next image. Technically these would be images in sequence, even though you wouldn’t see multiple panels at the same time.

And I think this might be the primary sticking point for some readers: Natalie Dee’s work and much of Sam Brown’s work are single-panel pieces which folks might call a host of things, but they wouldn’t call them comics because there are not sequential multiple panels.

Hold that thought.

Second, the definition obviously implies that there’s something essential and fundamental for webcomics about publishing on the web even if they do not take advantage of some of the cool hypertext options particular to web-publishing. (This almost begs the question of what to call a webcomic that is collected and re-published, but this time in book or minicomics or — dare I say it? — in the comic strip section of the newspaper? It’s still a webcomic, even though it is now being read offline, yes? No?)

Basically, what webcomic doesn’t take advantage of the most basic bonus of publishing online, which is, simply, the fact that anyone with access to a few tools and a little bit of technical know-how can publish a webcomic? It evokes, in some ways, R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, producing their own minicomics and selling them on the street, not just defying the Comics Code Authority but skipping it entirely. (Arguably, webcomics have a wider potential audience than minicomics, as anyone with access to a computer and a connection could get online and click, whereas sometimes it takes a little more work to get a minicomic.)

Natalie Dee’s pieces generally contain words, although sometimes not many, and Sam Brown’s do not always, though I would argue in Brown’s case that the situation I described above — reading a title, then clicking on it to see an image — can potentially be considered sequential. With Natalie Dee’s work, and within the panels of other comics as well, there is sequentiality in visual flow: do you jump to the words first, or the image? Where might reading the title fall in terms of this sequence? How does that change when you look at the archives and see the title first, and, like Exploding Dog, click on it to see the image?

It would be lax of me not to reference Scott McCloud’s work in this discussion. In Understanding Comics he set down a working, if sometimes controversial definition of comics as juxtaposed and other pictorial images arranged in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer (9:5). In Reinventing Comics, in writing about the essence of comics — something seemingly latent in the definition of comics — he uses the term digital comics, which he calls comics that exist as pure information (203: 2) and states that online comics are all digital comics in a technical sense, but many are still no more than repurposed paper at heart (203:7); a particularly interesting statement in thinking about webcomics being syndicated in newspapers, printed in paper collections, or, in some cases, both.

It’s worth noting that I’m thinking of webcomics and online comics as interchangeable terms, which might be not fully accurate. It might also be worth delineating some of the specific differences between the terms webcomics, digital comics, hypertext-based comics, and online comics. They don’t seem to all be fully interchangeable, as later McCloud does state, For the most part, here at the turn of the century, digital comics mean Web comics — and Web comics, for the most part, mean hypertext-based comicsâ€? (230:1-2). It’s an interesting discussion, but, like McCloud, at this point I’m interested more in the essence of the thing — and in favor of inclusion — rather than working out exact definitions. But it doesn’t mean the definitions aren’t valid or interesting. Actually, this is kind of where we started.

So we’re back to the question, Is it comics? And if they’re not, what are they?

… and there’s the bell!

Fleen thanks Anne for her contribution. Get commentating!

As much as I like the idea of sequentiality being what defines a comic, I’m not entirely convinced on that point. A single panel – even one without a title or even a caption – can still convey a joke, idea, or scene. For example, the Far Side, which is certainly in the same vein as the strips referenced above.

In my opinion, the distinction between “comics” and “webcomics” is that webcomics don’t have to fight for limited shelf space in a nerdy specialty store to reach an audience. Many people who wouldn’t label themselves “comics” fans still may read a particular favorite webcomic without connecting it to the larger culture of “comics.”

And that’s, I think, the promise and the appeal of webcomics — that, despite their stylistic differences, the characteristic that they all share is the lack of boundaries in terms of the audience they can reach. In fact, they share that characteristic with every website in the universe, including websites that have more readers than any printed comic book can claim. And unlike Barnes & Noble, the interwebs are a non-zero-sum realm where shelving something in the “graphic novel” section does not preclude shelving it in “art” or “humor” or “fiction” or any other category as well.

That being said, I wonder what the benefit is for something to be considered “comics.” I think the world probably has more fans of, say, “humor” websites than it does of “comics” websites.

The term “webcomic” — in my opinion — is not a description of the content, but a description of the delivery system.

I’d like to propose a radically different standard. TRUE webcomics, like champagne or bourbon whiskey, MUST come from a particular geophysical location – in this case, Northampton, MA. (Or, maybe, Easthampton, MA. Whatever. It’s cool.). All other webcomics are merely imitators and pretenders.
This doesn’t do much to help define what a webcomic IS, but it will cleave a clean line into what a webcomic isn’t: Anything that DOESN’T come from the fertile comic dreamlands of western MA.

If I don’t know how to properly categorize something, how can I possibly enjoy it properly? Creators, please make sure your work fits into easily recognizable pigeonholes, thanks.

I nominate Luling, Texas.

Seriously though, this is an important debate. For example, today I was eating a granny smith apple, and I thought to myself “Yeah, it’s good… but is it comics?”

Many people…still may read a particular favorite webcomic without connecting it to the larger culture of “comics.â€?

Personally, I don’t see that situation as a good thing! Comics, as we all know, have an interesting and important history in America (never mind the rest of the world) which is often overlooked, disregarded, or still considered immature even though many of the central issues (like censorship) are still generally relevant.

So one of the benefits (as I see it, anyway) of something being considered comics, or categorized as comics, is that the specific work links the item in question to this larger history.

This is a great guest column! Well thought out and ripe with conversation apples. Props to Anne.

The thing that defines a webcomic, in my opinion, isn’t its sequential or electronic element. The thing that defines webcomics, as a medium, is their immediacy— the fact that they are so accessible to their readers and, so often, shaped by them. I mean, Anne cites Brown in her column. His title to image stuff is exactly what I’m talking about. How many other art/entertainment forms exist outside of webcomics that are so immediately transformed by the viewer/reader/listener?

What if I made a three panel “humorous drawing” in which none of the panels were sequential at all, and were generally unrelated to each other in tone, form, theme, subject, style, content or plot?

That is, what if the only sequentiality were in the presentation, and not in any other aspect of the reader experience?

The only way to get comics to be taken seriously by the “establishment” is to have such a wide diversity of comics of all colors, shapes, kinds, credos, etc. that there is quite literally something for everyone.

Once everyone is reading comics, lazy academics will write about what they know, rather than struggling to learn new stuff.

Some say this has already happened.

This is the classic Music Appreciation 101 question: Is John Cage’s 4:33 “music?”

Sure it is, to someone who observes it as such.

I think it’s far more important to experience something, be it one of Sam Brown’s fantastic drawings or John Cage banging on a detuned piano, than to debate whether or not it’s “comics” or “music” or what have you.

Hey guys, someone tell me if Sean Howard’s new series “IF Only…” is a comic. His argument is that:

* Comics don’t need pictures
* Comics don’t need panels
* Comics do, however, need divisions between instances of time, and that is provided by the player’s commands.


* Comics don’t need pictures

Comics DO need pictures. Comics without pictures is called prose (or, in this case, non-interactive fiction). I’m not a big fan of art taxonomy but I think this is something I have to stand firm on.

And dudes, when Jon Rosenberg gets firm, you’d better get lubed up or get out of the way.

This is why I always keep a minimum of three lubed dudes between myself and Jon at all times.

I dunno. I think the REAL question is whether or not Natalie Dee is simply trying to draw Exploding Dog with the addition of “naughty”.

[…] Webcomickers will be found at opposite ends of Massachusetts starting today, what with Jephy McJacquespants, the Applegeeks crüe and Rob Balder holding forth at Genericon, on the campus of RPI, in Troy, NY (and rumor has it that at least one more long-time webcomic guy lives ’round those parts). Meanwhile, look for Paul Southworth, R Stevens 3, J-Ro, and Shaenon Garrity bringin’ the love and panel wisdom to Vericon, on the campus of Hahvahd in Cambridge, MA. If bring Southworth some lube, I will give you a dollar. And yes, I know that Troy, NY is not technically in Massachusetts, but I did my graduate work at Rensselaer, and trust me, it’s bloody close enough. And, given the cold snap in the Northeast this weekend, coolness will be in extra-abundance. […]

I was waiting for you to jump in on this issue, R., after yesterday’s email exchange!

(I’d be happy to continue that conversation either here or there.)

(This is in regards to Jon Rosenberg’s comment above, and not so much to all the talk of lubricants, carnal or otherwise.)

Before publishing Fate of the Artist, Eddie Campbell made some pretty convincing arguments that willfully manipulated typography could be the visual component of comics (something about borrowing on written language’s roots as both literal and metaphorical representations of ideas). Sadly, I can’t remember where I read these opinions (The Comics Journal? his pre-Fate of the Artist blog?).

While I’m not certain I complely agree with this opinion, it’s interesting to think about.

[…] Uncategorized Editor’s note: Fleen Guest Columns are still cranking along, with Anne Thalheimer deciding to wade into our little kiddiepool of opinion and spite for another go-round. If you want to get in on the fun, email me (that would be Gary) at a domain that is named very similarly to this here blog. Thank you, and drive safely. […]

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