The webcomics blog about webcomics

Varsity Level Techniques

One of the things I love about capital-C Comics (web and otherwise, but hold that thought for a moment) is how they can work on you at a really intuitive basis to convey story and emotion and you don’t need to realize what they’re doing or why for it to work. And then somebody comes along to tell you what they are doing and why it works, and you’re all [mime head blowing up with hand gestures — you know the one¹].

Today, I’d like to point you at two people who get how Comics work, from the perspective of construction and the perspective of reader perception, and how it gives creators (especially of the web variety) tools to make and present comics to tell the stories they want.

  • First, Melanie (no last name provided), from MassArt’s animation program, and her final essay (in comic form) for her class on the history and theory of comics. She’s talking about Octopus Pie (a great choice; as is well represented in the record here at Fleen, Meredith Gran spent a decade getting continuously better at both storytelling and Comics), and how it breaks the established conventions of comics.

    She looks first at gutters providing not only a sense of tone and time (which McCloud taught us all about 25 years back), but also Gran’s penchant for using them to convey emotional distance (which I hadn’t seen described before, and which in retrospect makes perfect sense). Also, I’ll note that last page also includes one of Gran’s best-ever panels, with Eve’s lizard brain reacting in a wholly appropriate way. Which, as it turns out, is Melanie’s second area of exploration.

    She notes that Gran excels at visual asides representing interior mood, use of in-scene elements to act as impromptu panel borders, and size and placement of speech balloons to convey tension and release. I’ve commented on some of the same pages that Melanie did, but hell if I’d ever noticed that as Park was pushing self-serving bullshit at Eve, his balloons were getting wider and hers were getting smaller.

    Beyond The Border is a terrific analysis, and I’d love to see more of Melanie’s thoughts on Gran’s work, and comics as a whole. This could easily grow to be a study of How To Comics that’s as long (or longer) than Understanding Comics.

  • Second, let’s recognize that a lot of what Melanie identified in Gran’s work is only possible, really possible, in webcomics. Sure, those two super-tall, verging on infinite scroll Octopie episodes appear in the print collections, but they lack the participatory oomph of scrolling, scrolling, scrolling some more.

    Likewise, there’s a question at the heart of webcomics these days about how to present work to both reach an audience (getting them to your site is a hell of a lot harder than it used to be; getting four panels into a tweet may get many more eyeballs) and make it easy to read. Seeking input into that very question, Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett asked his readers:

    Just out of curiosity: Is it better when I tweet the comics as one big image…or as individual panels to swipe through?

    (Note on LArDK’s tweet: the image in question doesn’t include his URL, but does include his Twitter account name; the era of individual sites vs than social media accounts appears to be at an inflection point.)

    There was a pretty clear consensus towards swiping, but as it turns out reader preference is only one factor that a creator needs to consider. Enter Keegan Lannon, academic researcher with an interest in comics and how we read them. There’s a payoff at the end that I want to discuss, but to get there, we’re going to have to extensively quote from Lannon’s thread:

    So … this is a really interesting question, and I have some ridiculously obsessive thoughts on the presentation of comics. It involves some light narratology and a discussion of directional reading protocols.

    The question is about how we read comics. The obvious assumption (though problematic) is that we read comics like we read lines of text: consider each lexical unit in turn, constructing meaning along the way.

    [Editor’s note: some really interesting stuff about how we read is omitted here — go check it out.]

    A few caveats: reading digitally and reading in print are different, and comics translated from print to digital formats complicates this discussion even further. Mark Waid gave a good talk discussing these issues in more detail than I could here:

    So, with all of that said, one of the more reliable ways to figure out how we read comics is to make use of eye-tracking software to see where people’s eyes go when they engage with the text. A few years back, @zackkruse gave a paper on just such an experiment.

    Granted, it was an incomplete experiment, but the researchers found that when presented with a page of comics readers tend to jump around the page in a loosely diagonal fashion, working from the top-left to the bottom-right, but not purely left-to-right, top-to-bottom.

    [Editor’s note: the next three tweets are what you really need to pay attention to.]

    Likely, you took in the whole shape of the comic first, giving special attention to the panel with the couch as it is the most visually arresting panel on the page. You might not have taken in the “whole” meaning of the panel, but you certainly jumped to that first.

    Presented individually, this would not have been possible. Would the joke still work? Probably. Would it have worked in the same way? Probably not. Seeing the punch line early allows for the reader to read the first three panels in context of that information (however incomplete)

    So, I would answer Kellet’s question by saying it doesn’t matter what the reader wants, but more the effect that he wants to create. The different presentations will allow for different narrative effects. [emphasis mine]

    That right there? That’s a dissertation in the making², but until it gets written creators will have a lot of experimenting to do. Smart ones will discover a new tool for constructing the stories/gags/emotional context they want in their webcomics. Those who master this means of guiding their audience will be able to exert a level of authorial influence that I don’t think any other medium presently has.

Spam of the day:

sup Gary

Oh, not much, just hangin’ out. Maybe play some video games, buy some Def Leppard T-shirts.

¹ Vocal sound effects optional.

² Whoever decides to make it, do us all a favor and team up with Melanie.

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