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