by Kevin Czap
So as we were planning on getting this here blog going, Darryl expressed interest in making sure that as many different formats of comics were covered, especially minis and webcomics. L and I agreed wholeheartedly (which is part of the reason we make such good blogging partners I believe). D went on to talk about how he had a lot to say about webcomics in particular, so expect to be educated in that respect soon.
However, I can’t just let him have all the fun. Webcomics are something I’ve thought a great deal about for the better part of a decade. Some of you may know that I even took at a shot at making one of my own. The whole sphere of comics on the web (which some might split some hairs over the distinction from honest-to-Jehova webcomics) is a strange one, and somewhat difficult to talk about. Honestly, it’s as easy to talk about the whole of webcomics in one breath as it is to do the same as printed comics. That is to say, nearly impossible — there is just too much diversity, too many different nooks and crannies to fit under one umbrella. Despite this, it would at least seem to not be the case.
There’s a kind of general conceptual profile of what a webcomic is, and while it can be pretty amorphous, I get the sense that when most people think about webcomics, they’re not thinking about this.
A few weeks ago Blaise Larmee started running a new webcomic called “2001.” Updating throughout the week, while it has only been going for a short time there is already a fair amount of content up. The whole experience is kind of breathtaking – Larmee’s simple elegant cartoons of young people are set against a seemingly abstract field of black with spots of white (presumably these are stars). As the images have progressed, other white shapes appear, and only just now was I able to put together that there is more deliberate purpose to the placement of them than I first thought. By the most recent (as of the last weekend in January), they now suggest the exterior of a building, set against the night sky. Knowing Blaise’s interest in architecture (as seen in other works of his) this makes sense, and I’m really stunned by the effect of it. He’s been able to simplify the information just past the point of intelligibility, although the signals are still there to put it back together.
This imagery is perfectly suited to the poetic actions the figures perform. Because of the update structure, we are given the piece image by image, which creates the impression of time under the influence of the moon’s gravity. The slow motion depiction of a girl falling or the two girls twirling each other in a circle has a real dreamy quality that I’m loving. These drawings remind me a lot of Winsor McCay – not just in terms of the clean line but especially the poses Blaise chooses.
Besides the aesthetic reasons why I’m so intrigued by this comic, it’s the way Blaise is approaching the issue of webcomics that gets me really excited. As I started to get into earlier, if one were to get uppity about it, there’s a difference between webcomics and comics on the web – the latter being a comic that is fully capable of appearing in print without any alteration. And this presentation makes sense, considering most of them are bound for a book collection at some point in the future. now, I really don’t care about this distinction. I am not interested in trying to separate print comics on the internet from pure webcomics – I don’t put a lot of stock in that distinction or any that excludes or neglects otherwise deserving work.
Anyway, with the disclaimer out of the way, let’s start talking about these things. What we usually see is a webpage with a bunch of typical website information, links, etc. The comic is featured prominently with buttons to click back and forth, or maybe there’s some kind of flash mechanism that controls the experience. Anyway, this has become the model for how to do things. As much as I tried to simplify things with Spoilers, this set up was pretty much a given for me.
With “2001,” the comic becomes the page. The images are blown up to cover the entire width of your screen and you just have to scroll down. There actually is navigation, but it’s fixed at the top and so minimal that it’s easy to miss. On a larger monitor, the effect this presentation has is immersive, you become engulfed by the images. On a smaller screen, like a phone, the images scale to a perfect size. I have to believe that this was at least part of Larmee’s intention, allowing the comic to work in as many ways as it could.
This isn’t Blaise’s first attempt at making a comic like this, having experimented with a similar format with a handful of fumetti strips like “Shower Comic” and “Cat Comic.” I think with “2001,” however, he’s really managed to match the approach with the perfect design – all the elements harmonize so well that I’m hard pressed to find an unnecessary part. And it’s in this aspect – how well designed it is, that gets me so excited.
I like to approach comics from the point of a view of a designer – when thinking of a new project, I’m thinking what kind of object am I making? What are the physical constraints, what is it supposed to do, etc (I talk a bit about this in my post with Noby Noby Boy). Call it a lack of imagination, but I find it hard to separate the presentation of a comic from the comic itself. If a comic originally on the web appears as a book, it becomes a new comic, in a way. The act of adapting a webcomic to print is usually fairly painless, because the inevitability of collection is acknowledged at the start. However, when the work is more specifically designed for web presentation, the decision to translate it to paper gets trickier. Dash Shaw’s Bodyworld was one of the most exciting webcomics I’ve read, not so much for how it worked as a webcomic, but just because it was so beautiful, well written, etc. However, it was constructed to take advantage of the vertical scrolling of the infinite canvas. When it was published last year by Pantheon, I was a little nervous about the experience, and it’s true, from almost every source I’ve heard talk about it, it’s really cumbersome to read in book form, compared to the ease of page scrolling.
Other examples, like the outstanding MSPaint Adventures, are frankly impossible to put in a book because of the use of sound and animation. Still, even Problem Sleuth has been collected as a book… Of course, I understand and share the preference for printed matter – there’s something really exciting about the comic book as a physical object. The recent chapters of the Acme Novelty Library are reason enough to never get rid of comics in book form. Beyond the pleasant tactility of books, though, there’s something – either familiarity or time or psychological association – that makes reading easier on a paper page than on a screen.
I feel like the choices Blaise has made in how he presents “2001” go a long way in addressing these issues. By removing or minimizing as many distractions as possible, when you go to blaiselarmee.com, you’re pretty much alone with the comic (nevermind about any associations with the monolith from that other 2001…) In a way, he’s replicating the experience of reading a printed comic – entering the page is cracking the cover open. By keeping to such a simple setup as well, Larmee has ensured his project has legs, being easily mutable to mobile devices, as I mentioned earlier. The fairly lo-res gifs that make up the comic aren’t very taxing memory wise, so it cuts down on load time.
What’s also intriguing is simply that there’s nothing known about this project beyond what’s been put up. I have no idea how long it will run, what’s going to happen, anything. Notice also that the comic takes up the entirety of Blaise’s main website. It’s unclear what will happen when it wraps up. Presumably he’ll move it to a unique url at that point, but at best that’s a guess. The ethereal implication is nice, and adds to the dreaminess of the whole comic for me.
What gets me most excited about this project, however, is that it reminds me of how much is still possible in comics. One of the most valuable things that Blaise Larmee brings to the table is his willingness to experiment. In spite of the sometimes incendiary things that get said over at Comets Comets, it’s clear to me how much Larmee loves comics. What he does is attempt to get at the heart of the concept of comics and see how many different forms it can take. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of making something that isn’t “comics,” which in his case is a big asset – he can go places others might not even think were possible. This is exactly the kind of attitude that needs to exist in art. They might not all be winners*, but the fear of failure is never a good enough reason not to take a chance.
NOTE: I came across this interview with Blaise about “2001” after I had written this article. I’ll also mention that there’s a similarity between “2001” and some of the work of Blaise’s that appeared in Smoke Signals, which I think is what he’s referring to in the interview.
*That’s just a personal preference. It’s not that I think it’s terrible, just that “Labor Day Comic” stretches my patience just a bit. As always, form your own opinion.