Webcomics: The Narrative Form the Internet was Made For

Humans tell stories as naturally as we speak, constantly finding new ways to express ourselves and share our imagination with others. As the technological revolution continues to unfold, storytelling needs to be reimagined. With the Internet, we have created Plato’s khôra, the realm of raw matter within which we, every one of us a Demiurge in the making, can shape a new creative reality. Some people are already trying to find ways to do this, and with the instantaneously recyclable blank canvas that the Internet provides, their attempts are most always novel and exciting.

Webcomics stand at the forefront of this movement, reshaping storytelling in a manner that questions both how and why we tell stories. That statement may, at first, seem a bit dubious. In the world of literature, visual narrative practice is quickly dismissed as unrefined, held back by the stereotype of gaudy superheroes – a judgement, I should add, which is comparable to the assertion that prose novels cannot be considered masterpieces because the majority of those published are smut romances.

These visual chronicles are the underground rebellion of the established graphic novel industry; they are independently written, drawn, published by each of the creators, held up through webcomic collectives and financed voluntarily by their readerships.

Most of the debate over whether to allow graphic novels into the auspicious category of ‘literature’ has been silenced by genre titans like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, with help from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, a critical theory on the subject of visualized narratives. But webcomics are often left out of this discussion for a few reasons; the most glaring being their seeming lack of professionalism. Webcomics remain shrouded in the suspicious literary realm of the self-published, lacking the institutional support of their physically tangible counterparts. Another reason for the lack of attention is that – in similar fashion to graphic novels – webcomics initially entered the Internet scene as a descendant of newspaper strip comics, following a pretty simplistic standard “gag-a-day” style of comic construction.

And that is often what pops into our head nowadays when somebody says the word ‘webcomic’: short, snappy gag comics that we idly scan while scrolling through Instagram or Facebook. But this conception is limited, and ignores the wide expanse that the webcomic culture has become, developing into all different directions.

Long-form webcomics, which tell an overarching story through a series of individual updates, have taken the standard comic book serialization and transformed it into a staggered narrative for the Internet audience to consume. Entire worlds are being created online, exploring new genres and artistic styles: Minna Sundberg delves into a post-apocalyptic world with Scandinavian landscapes and mythology, Randall Monroe discusses scientific philosophy using stark minimalism in xkcd, and Andrew Hussie’s cult-classic Homestuck draws Internet humour into a multi-media design within a “choose-your-adventure” theme. Sam Alden’s Haunter is a beautiful story with zero dialogue, whose kaleidoscope world is flushed out by watercolours; McGill alumnus Abby Howard’s comedy-horror webcomic, Last Halloween, uses black and white visuals with the lack of page constraints to dramatize the depths of shadows, while Emily Carroll’s creepy short webcomics take the typical scrolling style of Internet reading into account as the audience drops slowly deeper into her stories.

All of these examples are to say that webcomics have exploded across genre and artistic categories in leaps and bounds, breaking down our strict divides and presuppositions about where the limits of storytelling rightfully lies.

What’s more, these visual chronicles are the underground rebellion of the established graphic novel industry; they are independently written, drawn, published by each of the creators, held up through webcomic collectives and financed voluntarily by their readerships. Many of us envision the Internet as the medium through which our society can reach a utopia of creative availability: an open-access vehicle that can act as the locale for both the creation and the performance of our artistic works. What most people don’t know is that webcomics are already actively achieving this goal. Video streaming sites like Netflix and YouTube still struggle to pull film away from the pre-internet standards of narrative formulas, and while podcasts are coming into their own with shows like Welcome to Nightvale, which broke the boundaries of what type of story an audio recording can tell, their experimentation is still fledging. Webcomics hit the ground running in the early millennium and haven’t stopped since, crafting their own creative spaces to freely test the limits of their medium.

The Internet has given us an opportunity to reengage with our methods and notions of storytelling, thereby redefining the relationship between storyteller and audience.

Scott McCloud wrote a follow-up to Understanding Comics, with a book exploring the changing industry and medium of visual narratives, Reinventing Comics. It  was published back in 2000 and it focuses on the rising trend of digital comics – something McCloud had high hopes about. He discusses the “infinite canvas” that the Internet provides, and brainstorms ways in which multimedia can be used to produce an effective narrative. Homestuck achieved this by using single page animations to tell the story in videogame coding style, rife with Internet humour and meta-jokes based on its own format. “Time”, an award-winning strip from xkcd, updated a single frame hourly for 123 days to tell an increasingly complex story of exploration and new beginnings. The ways in which artists are adapting to this medium and finding new ways to use digital tools, not just as a platform for storytelling but as aspects of the stories that contribute new dimensions beyond what a physical copy could – even McCloud couldn’t have seen this coming, which is entirely the point. On an infinite canvas there lies infinite possibilities.

Nonetheless, webcomics are more than just their artistic potential; who is getting to read these stories is an important part of why webcomics have been so successful. Putting aside the problematic question of how many of us truly have access to the Internet, webcomics exist on a platform that is completely free to the audience. I have not run across a single webcomic that requires payment of any form to read it – most webcomic artists make their money from donations or from selling merchandise, often through webcomic collectives that were established by other artists, like Topatoco and Hiveworks. This lack of financial barrier makes webcomics accessible for anyone to consume.

While Hollywood, online gaming and mainstream media continue to fail in that regard, webcomics are telling stories that we can all be a part of.

A lack of corporate ties has also turned the medium into an incredibly diverse community, both in terms of authorship and storylines. Lighten Up by Ronald Wimberly brings into question how much the traditional industry of comics still dismisses the voices of people of colour within their storytelling, while webcomics are being praised for their increased representation. Webcomics are breaking boundaries not just with their inclusion of LGTBQ+ and racially diverse characters, but also by normalizing these identities into our fantasy worlds, our mythology, and our imaginations on a platform that can be accessible to those struggling to find representation, but also private for those who aren’t necessarily in safe surroundings. Inclusion within stories is how we come to feel included within our communities, and while Hollywood, online gaming and mainstream media continue to fail in that regard, webcomics are telling stories that we can all be a part of.

This is the essence of why webcomics deserve more attention: because storytelling is an integral part of what it means to be human, and it is deserving of growth. The Internet has given us an opportunity to reengage with our methods and notions of storytelling, thereby redefining the relationship between storyteller and audience. Webcomics are exploring new ways in which stories can be expressed, and by utilizing the freedom and accessibility of the Internet, they are putting value back into the act of storytelling itself.

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