Collaboration

Today we’re going to have a look at collaboration in webcomics- specifically, why it’s so uncommon compared to traditional comics and what differences this can make to the stories told.
Webcomics are often made and owned by a single person. This is an enormous departure from the world of comics- even creator-owned comics almost always have at least a writer and an artist, and any comic from the two big houses will have a writer, an artist, a colourist and an editor all contributing to the story told. Most traditional comics are therefore collaborative storytelling; the very best have a syzygy of talent, with all the parts coming together to tell a great story. There’s an element of society to it; all working together towads the best outcome.
Webcomics, on the other hand, are more the work of lone pioneers. One person often does the writing, the art, the colouring (if it’s there) and they have final say over what can happen to the characters. It creates a very different space for storytelling, but it does put a mountain of work on the shoulders of the person telling the story; often there’s as many pages in a month as you’d find in any traditional comic, but all that work has been created by a workforce of one, and usually as a hobby.
The plus side of collaboration is usually consistency. Even if there’s a slightly weak link in the chain, the work as a whole can still be marvellous. When only one person works, they need to be an accomplished artist, writer and plotter, and if they want colour they have to be able to add that too. That said, When someone works on their own they can make works that would never normally be created, and I’d like to highlight a couple of these today.
Dar: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary isn’t entirely what it says on the tin (and it is Not Safe For Work). It’s a six-year diary that’s finished now, yes, but I think you’d be hard pressed to describe it as super girly. It’s about the artist’s own life and expeiences as a young, queer, depressed woman, and it gets better and better as it goes along. The artsist’s won awards and it’s safe to say this would not have been picked up as a traditional comic- the art and writing need to come from the same place because it’s so personal. It also includes probably the highest quotient of fart jokes of any comic I’ve recommended.
Hark! A Vagrant is Kate Beaton’s marvellous take on historical and literary events, characters and creators, and you have almost certainly heard of it. The art is endearing and incredibly expressive, and I can’t think that with a traditional collaborative team it would have worked in the same way- the things Kate finds funny are slightly unique.
Both comics are excellent, created entirely by women and well worth a read. Check them out today!
Alexander “Nines” Patterson

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Depression and Webcomics

No real post this week either, I’m afraid. I’ve been having a hard couple of weeks, struggling with a recent bout of depression, and it’s left me with very little pep.

While I’m here, though, I’d like to point out a comic that deals with depression in a very real and impressive way: Achewood. While it’s not a feminist comic (and fails the Bechdel test fairly spectacularly) it does deal with this one issue very well. Roast Beef, one of the characters, suffers from extremely bad depression, and several strips including the most recent one deal with how it impacts his life. These strips, much like depression itself, do not come with a punchline. There’s often no joke in them other than the inherent difficulties Roast Beef finds navigating life while depressed, and it’s presented in a way to make us empathise with him and his struggles. I’ll have more for you next week, I absolutely promise, but for now go check it out.

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One-liners: Infinite Canvas

Life’s gotten in the way a bit this week- expect a post on monday night/tuesday morning. Until then, ponder this: what’s the best use of the infinite canvas you’ve seen? (Infinite canvas is using the fact that on the internet, your space is essentially limitless in every direction, so you can mokey about with strip structure in a way you can’t in a print medium).

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Favourites

Today I was going to give you a run-down of my favourite female characters in webcomics, but during the read-around I was doing to consolidate my choices I realised- a great female character doesn’t do enough on their own. If there’s one really fantastic woman in a comic, but all the other women are non-existent or one-dimensional, it robs that character of their impact. So I decided instead to give you my top five, in no particular order, webcomics that treat women as fully fledged characters consistently and well.

The Non-Adventures of Wonderella www.nonadventures.com is a fabulously silly comic updated on Saturdays, and doesn’t have continuity so much as running jokes. It follows Wonderella, a thinly veiled parody of Wonder Woman, and the writer’s clearly fond enough of both WW and comics in general that the jokes made at their expense are really well-observed. The reason it’s on this list is because almost all the characters are female, and that’s extremely rare in any media, let alone superhero webcomics. And because her nemesis is called Hitlerella, and that’s just brilliant.

Gunnerkrigg Court www.gunnerkrigg.com I’ve reviewed Gunnerkrigg before, but I’ve got to restate my love for this comic- it’s incredibly sweet, the storylines are driven by female characters, the art is absolutely adorable and it’s just a joy to read. It’s got a chapter change coming up on Monday, I believe, which is a great jumping on point, so give it a try!

Octopus Pie www.octopuspie.com is probably the hardest sell on this list for me, because it’s difficult to explain why it’s so good. Should I focus on the fact that Eve and Hanna, the main two characters, are the two characters who come up the most consistently when I ask people who their favourite female characters in webcomics are? Should I praise the art style, which allows for an enormous amount of expression and being very easily accessible? Perhaps the actual character development? I don’t even know. But I love it, and you should too.

Homestuck www.mspaintadventures.com is enormous. This is the biggest webcomic that I’ve ever read- there are over 2,500 pages, a cast of at least 50 characters at this point, and it updates constantly. It makes the list for some incredibly rounded treatment of female characters- they’re not all villains, they’re not all heroes, and in a couple of cases their motivations are clearly consistent but never defined. This webcomic got under my skin, and it’s probably the one I recommend the most; and part of the reason I love it is the perfectly observed (and occasionally cringe-inducing) depiction of thirteen year olds, both male and female.

Bad Machinery  www.scarygoround.com (and Scary Go Round, the first comic by the writer/artist, which is available on the same site) this is probably the best known of the comics on this list, and with good reason. It’s brilliantly constructed and the characters are real, complex people who do good things and bad things and silly things. Occasionally there is a wendigo, and I am not joking there even though it sounds like I am. Bad Machinery is the easiest one to jump on to, and follows rival gangs of mystery solving teens.

So what did I miss? Which comics do you think not only contain great female characters, but also treat all their female characters as actual characters instead of plot devices or wallpaper? Take it to the comments!

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Late to the Party

Today we’re going to take a brief look at one of the strengths and weaknesses of webcomics as a medium; the archive. Now, the archive is a wonderful thing- it means that none of the storyline, none of the real content of the webcomic, is ever lost. It can be intimidating, though; if we’re late to the party, sometimes there are hundreds upon hundreds of strips that we have to catch up on to understand what’s going on. Sometimes it’s too much.

Traditional print comics don’t have this problem to the same extent. You don’t need a full knowledge of Superman’s 72-year history to enjoy the comics- the characters are essentially evergreen. Most comics rely on knowledge of maybe the past 2-4 years at best to enjoy them., and they include numerous jumping on points; points where the editors mandate a clean slate for the character to some extent, so there are no ongoing plotlines and a new reader can happily get aboard. Webcomics, on the other hand, can require a reading of the full comic to remotely understand what’s going on. Take this panel of Homestuck, for example: http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6&p=004580 (I assure you, it’s effectively spoiler-free). There is no way in hell that a new reader would know what in the name of the bat-signal was going on here. It’s devoid of context and you can only get that context from reading through the archive; though it’s entirely worth it, that’s a daunting task. There are over 2,500 pages in Homestuck.

While the depth of back story required for understanding is a barrier to new readers, there’s a strength there too. Traditional comics have no real story; Lex Luthor is never eternally defeated, Batman’s identity remains secret, Spider-man will almost certainly vacillate between single and married as editorial mandate decides until his sales plummet low enough for him to finally be allowed an ending. Because print comics rely on you purchasing the story itself, there can be no real change if the editors want to avail themselves of your daily dollar. Clearly, they think, you like Spider-man exactly as he is. So they decide not to change the character, and in doing so they rob the stories of any lasting impact. The revolving door of death robs the characters of any chance for an ending, any risk from their endeavours; their heroism, or villainy, becomes meaningless when it changes nothing.

Webcomics don’t have this worry, though. You can read the entire story, back to front, and so it can have an arc. Characters can genuinely change, and never change back. It allows for stories in which death has an impact, in which character growth cannot be undone by a deal with the devil.

So, is the intimidating archive worth it? Is the loss of new readers worth the story you can give the dedicated ones? I’m saying yes. I think it is. Join me next week, when I’ll be showcasing my favourite female characters in webcomics, but until then- is there a webcomic you’ve been put off by because of the archive? Or does a long back story entice you?

Alexander “Nines” Patterson, who clearly holds no opinion about the terrible editorial decisions of Joe Quesada

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Webcomics and the living author

[Trigger Warning: The following contains discussions of rape "humour"]

This week I’m going to talk a little bit about one of the things that make webcomics a fascinating medium; unlike traditional media, webcomics have a living author. I don’t mean that every book ever written is only produced on the death of the writer, of course. I’m referring to a theory of literary criticism set forward by a French literary critic called Roland Barthes in 1967. Barthes argued that when we read a work, we should not consider the author’s background or philosophy; that their intent in creating the work, whatever that intent was, is not the defining factor or indeed a factor we should consider at all when we analyse the work.

This idea’s referred to as “Death of the Author” because regardless of whether or not the author is alive, the analysis of their work says you shouldn’t communicate them; in essence you analyse the work assuming the author died unknown. In a lot of ways, it just makes sense. The first time we read a book, we’re probably not at all familiar with the author’s life and philosophies. We let the book speak for itself. Afterwards, we might find out that the author had a completely different intent to what we read; maybe the author intended a book to speak about the dangers of a totalitarian state, and instead it’s being held up as an example of why such a state would benefit us all. Death of the Author philosophy states that this intent is practically meaningless; it’s just one interpretation of the book among thousands, and it relies on words and ideas that didn’t make it clearly onto the page.

A modern example of this would be with the Harry Potter series of books. After the series had finished, JK Rowling stated in an interview that she had always conceived of Dumbledore as gay. Good for her, but it certainly didn’t make it into her text. It’s perfectly possible to read Dumbledore as straight, gay or other in the books; his personal life is explained, but we never read about his romantic entanglements. In a lot of ways, the best reading from the text alone would be to read Dumbledore as intensely asexual; his life is his work. So who’s right here? Does JK’s pronouncement after the fact change how you should perceive Dumbledore? Does she have any lasting authority over the works she’s authored? Death of the author says no, she doesn’t.

Webcomics, however, are different. I’d argue that they are so different, in fact, that they can be considered to have a living author. Underneath most webcomics, or immediately accessible from the same page as the strip, there’s a blog; a little author’s byline for every strip. The author can be communicated with, instantaneously, between strips. They’re very much alive. Imagine if Harry Potter was a webcomic; JK would be aware from communication with her readers that Dumbledore was not being perceived as gay. Maybe there would be arguments on the forums. She’d have to decide whether she wanted to make the character gay or whether she wanted to leave them ambiguous; altering the strips and scripts to make it clear one way or another. If it was unclear, and later JK said “Dumbledore was always gay”, we’d see it as a bit of a cop-out; she’d had every chance to include a positive gay character, deliberately left it ambiguous, and then claimed it after the fact.

There are a couple of examples of this in action, one pleasing and one thoroughly disappointing. The first is from Homestuck (a personal favourite). Two characters share a kiss in the tired old trope of fighting a bit and then smooching each other. The author, however, left a note in the blog and on the forums; he knows that representation of “romance” is problematic, even damaging. He wasn’t suggesting that these two characters were working in a healthy or even an understandable way. All would be made clear; please bear with me.

This is a great example of how an author can be truly alive. Sometimes, in books in particular but even in a single issue of a comic, we worry that the author doesn’t get how horrible an act one of the characters has performed is. We read on, hoping for a deeper examination of that character’s evil, or for some justice, but too often we don’t get it. Even when we do, it’s an uncomfortable read. A living author can dispel these doubts straight away.

The second example is from Penny Arcade, which I won’t link to from here any more. Recently they made a strip involving an extremely crude rape joke, and there were a lot of complaints. Here, as living authors, they had an opportunity to apologise as soon as possible. They could make it clear they understood how badly rape jokes can hurt victims/survivors of rape, that they understood that making these jokes sets up a culture where rape is funny, not devastating, that they were sorry and it wouldn’t happen again. Instead, they followed it up with a strip where they mocked people who’d complained by deliberately misunderstanding their complaints. A week or so later, the artist had a joke “Trigger warning” above their blog post, warning that discussion of dice rolling was ahead, and making fun of the useful, functional and altogether compassionate point of using trigger warnings in the first place. This was followed up by the author announcing a t-shirt that capitalised on the publicity of the rape joke that was made in the first place.

So the creators of Penny Arcade, through the unique nature of the living author in webcomics, have made it abundantly clear that they think rape is funny, that those who complain about rape jokes are humourless, misunderstanding prigs, that it’s acceptable to mock people who might really need trigger warnings, that they will profit from rape culture. I certainly won’t be reading their work any more.

In this way, the living author can be a blessing- it lets us get off the boat fast enough to keep afloat, instead of reading a disturbing work all the way to the conclusion and realising that the author never found it disturbing at all.

Alexander “Nines” Patterson

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Update Schedules: Demand and supply

This week I’d like to talk about a couple of things- the first is one of my favourite webcomics out there, Gunnerkrigg Court, and the second is how and why update scheduling is one of the most important parts of a fully functional webcomic.

Let’s start with the review first, though. Gunnerkrigg Court follows Annie Carver, a new student at Gunnerkrigg Court. The court itself is a magic and technological wonderland of immense scope, but it’s never overwhelming; Tom Siddell manages to reveal new parts with incredibly well judged speed, always showing the reader something new but never overwhelming them with too much information. Annie and her best friend Kat are the people we follow through this world, and they are both an utter delight. They’re independent-minded, just becoming more than children (Annie’s joining in the first year of British secondary school at the start of the strip, so she’s about 11/12) and their friendship is the primary bond in the comic. The art is much improved from the early strips, but there’s real charm to it from the word go. I won’t say much more because I’d really rather you went and read it; it’s a wonderful blend of myth, technology, and some of the most complex and fascinating female characters I’ve read about in print.

Gunnerkrigg Court, like most webcomics, updates on a Mon-Wed-Fri schedule. This schedule’s so ubiquitous in the world of webcomics that I’ve used it as the name for this blog- it’s become the basic standard by which webcomics are judged, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Whether we should or not, as consumers of media we expect a minimum standard of work to keep our interest. If a webcomic only updates on Mondays, for example, we expect that update to be “worth” three updates of entertainment. The problem this causes is that even when there’s a vast gulf in terms of the time a creator can put towards a webcomic project, we expect the same standard of work. Take Penny Arcade, for example (but bear in mind it’s not a safe space before clicking the link). It’s a behemoth of a comic- it earns its creators more than enough that creating the comic is their primary job. There are quite a few comics out there that do, but we judge all the new comics we read on this standard. A lot of these comics are labours of love. They’ve not had the five years without a regular job just to create, to try new ideas, to boldly split infinitives.  They’ve got an hour and a half squeezed into every day of the week, and an enormous amount of work on a Saturday, just to keep up. It’s one of the reasons that so many new webcomics try using a simplistic or stick-figure style to start off with, to take the pressure off on the art front, but a good webcomic- a good comic, period- relies on the story being told as much by the art as the words.

What I’m driving at here is that we, as readers, get too upset, and consistently too upset, by missed updates. If Penny Arcade takes a week off without any news or explanation? Sure, be a little peeved. But if it’s a new project, it’s already stretched thin, folks. Cut new creators a little slack, and maybe send them a message saying you’re a fan of the comic. Nothing, believe me, motivates a creator like praise.

There are other schedules out there, with benefits and flaws. Questionable Content updates on a daily basis, Mon-Fri, and I know people who got into it just because it was “something to read on a Tuesday”. Ménage a 3 (NOT safe for work, by the way, if the title hadn’t tipped you off there) updates, rather cheekily, on Tue-Thu-Sat. This almost guarantees it a readership- so few webcomics update on these days that if you read Ménage a 3, it’s probably one of only a few comics you read on that day. It means you think about it more, and that translates to a more dedicated fanbase. Warren Ellis has tried something new in Freakangels, as well- they update once a week, with 6 pages. It’s a fascinating idea- it gives you something that feels much more like a print comic, giving Ellis and Duffield the space they need to show more complicated scenes, while still keeping it down to under a page a day’s worth of work. The downside of deviating from the “norm” of Mon-Wed-Fri is that, well, it’s not the norm. People like consistency, and for some people that means checking for updates on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, update schedule be damned. There’s a lot to be said for conforming to that idea. Especially if you’re trying something very new, giving it to people in a way they understand can be extremely important.

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Stick figure comics and the default human

Hi there!

This is the first instalment of Mon-Wed-Fri, which in a completely logical fashion will update on Sundays. A lot of the time, I’ll be reviewing and deconstructing individual storylines or entries in a webcomic, but today I’d like to look at one of the pitfalls that can come with work in a specific type of webcomics medium- the stick figure comic.

Let’s get it out there early- the big problem with stick figure comics is that they’re about guys. If you can, draw a stick figure on a nearby piece of paper. You don’t have to change anything to make that figure male, but you want to make the figure female, you can either go for drawing long hair on the figure, or drawing stereotypical female clothing, which would mean you’d have to draw clothing on all your stick figures for consistency. So why is this the case, when we know full well that many men have long hair, and many women have short hair?

The problem comes, in large part, from the idea of the “default human”. When we’re shown a figure as ambiguous as a stick figure, we imagine a man- usually a straight, white, able-bodied, cis man. This is because, as a society, we’ve framed every other form of human existence as a deviation from this “default human” figure. Think of how often, in the news, straight, white, able-bodied, cis male politicians are referred to as white, for example. Their race rarely comes up in an examination of their politics, unless their work is in an explicitly race-related area. Their able-bodied status won’t be brought up as affecting their feelings about welfare payments; the fact that they’re male won’t come up when they talk about the budget. Their sexuality and gender identity won’t be held up as an explanation for the way they vote on immigration. But if a human being dares to transgress one of these boundaries- dares to be black, or, disabled, or gay, or trans, or even female, then this difference- this deviation from the human “norm”- will be used to try and explain everything about them.

So how does this relate to stick figure comics? We’ve all internalised the idea of the default human. It means that when we look at a stick figure, the vast majority of us will see a “default human”- especially, we see a man. http://xkcd.com/790/ shows a perfect example- the two female characters in the strip have had detail added to show their deviation from the expected stick figure character of the white male. While xkcd is not explicitly feminist, it certainly has some feminist sensibilities, yet it’s unconsciously reinforcing this idea of the default human over and over.

So what can be done to combat this? One idea is to add a small level of detail to every character, thereby individualizing all the characters and ensuring there’s no basic stick figure in the strip to act as the default human. One could also go the other way, and instead remove all deviations from the basic stick figure, but that can cause problems identifying characters, especially in longer comics. A third way- and not one I’ve seen done before- is to frame a different human type as the basic stick figure type. Imagine if a stick figure comic gave all the males a shoulder bar, and left the female stick figures with their arms attached directly to their bodies. I don’t think I’ve seen it done anywhere, but it’d certainly be interesting to see!

Finally, it’s important to note that this problem isn’t a problem about drawing with stick figures- these deceptively simple little sketches can be used to make excellent comics. It’s a problem because of the attitudes and expectations we, the readers, can’t help but bring to the table; when someone draws a basic human, we expect a white guy. The best way to combat this is to make fewer representations of straight white able-bodied cis men, and stop sticking them in tv shows, comics and books to try and appeal to everyone. They really don’t. As consumers of media, we can vote with our daily dollar- support a book or a webcomic that represents more than just this little sliver of society. The idea of the “default human” is poisonous when compared to the diverse mosaic of human life; let’s demand to see it represented in all its glory.

If you want to see this phenomenon in action, the best places to go are www.xkcd.com and www.chainsawsuit.com, both of which are excellent reads as well as displaying male as the default figure. Also check out www.picturesforsadchildren.com, which tends to show a simplistic style with a deviation from the norm to identify each character (not all the time, though) so long as you can put up with a webcomic that is deeply, and sometimes hilariously, bleak. You can also check out cyanide and happiness at www.explosm.com, but bear in mind it is a long way away from being a safe or feminist space.

Alexander “Nines” Patterson

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