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Webcomics: Experimental Literature

Sam Link
Feb 29, 2016


The internet is a strange and wondrous place for literature. It’s given us fanfiction that becomes multimillion dollar empires (for better or worse!), the ability to easily and relatively cheaply self-publish our own work either in print or digital media, and the ability to find information on anything rapidly, as well as disinformation and outright falsehood.

But, before all of that, there were web comics.

The nature of webpages lend themselves to graphic expression, and any ordered gallery website layout – which have existed since the earliest days of the web – lend themselves easily to a picture narrative. These combined to give cartoonists a new medium of expression as newspaper comics pages shrank, one that didn’t have editorial or censorial oversight. So, needless to say, there are a lot of really strange comics on the internet.

But, there are also some gems of tossing out traditional narrative structures, approaching controversial subjects with humor, and genuine art. Two of my favorites are Randall Munroe’sXKCD and the long-running Sluggy Freelance.

Randall Munroe used to work for NASA, and helped put rovers on Mars. He’s also a phenomenal artist. You wouldn’t know it from his award-winning webcomic XKCD, which exchanges artistic excellence for the adventures of very precisely drawn stick figures with well-developed personalities: Cueball, Megan, Black Hat Guy, Psychotic Female, Beret Guy, and White Hat Guy among others. A dedication to scientific accuracy leads to hidden information, such as a pattern of constellations in the sky secretly communicating that a story is taking place ten-thousand years in the future in central Italy, as well as some comics that are purely educational. XKCD’s unique combination of humor, drama, educational content, and innovative design has netted extensive critical praise, including a Hugo award for “Time” - a single comic of the building of a sandcastle that was, in fact, a slow-moving animation that ran for several months telling an epic story of a post-apocalyptic world – if you had the patience to check on it every twenty minutes, twenty-four hours a day.

Most comic strips in newspapers either run for a few years, or have been running for decades under multiple artists. Sluggy Freelance first appeared online in 1997 and has appeared daily since, entirely written and primarily drawn by a single individual. A combination of traditional comic strip, urban fantasy satire, self-aware geekiness, and science fiction, Sluggy follows the adventures of Torg, a freelance web developer, and his friends. A propensity for playing with conventions runs heavily through the series, including the early quest for a “cute animal mascot” resulting in the acquisition of Bun-bun – a switchblade-wielding, hard-living immortal mini-lop locked in an eternal battle with Santa Claus, Kiki the ferret, and later Aylee, a hideous alien with the attitude of a cute animal mascot, apart from periodically eating people. Between time-travel, dodging multiple attempts on his life by an evil corporation, dealing with an obsessed immortal assassin/bodyguard, and battling inter-dimensional horrors, Torg also tries to earn money (including the horror of taking a 9-5 job at one point), deal with neurotic housemates, and pay the rent. It’s a combination that has to be read to be understood, but it works well, and has been referenced in the works of historical fantasy author John Ringo in several books – including a crossover with the Sluggy Freelanceuniverse.

The range of webcomics is wide, from dealing seriously with social issues (Jocelyn Samara’s Rain, Sophie Labelle’s Assigned Male), to surreal dark humor (Chris Onstad’s Achewood, Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal), to distinctly adult philosophical and observational comedy (Corey Mohler's Existential Comics, Tatsuya Ishida’s Sinfest), to specialized workplace situational comedy (Gene Aumbaum’s and Bill Barne’s Unshelved). The art ranges from Ishida’s professional-level inkwork, to XKCD’s stick figures and everything in between. Without the restrictions of editors, or the expectation of turning a profit for a publishing house, web cartoonists have created stories that would be hard to find elsewhere, giving representation to voices not normally heard and turning common wisdom on its head, all with a wink and a smile

At the library, we have many books on cartoons and cartooning and on the basics of web design. With the availability of free and low-cost graphics software and scanners, as well as free and low-cost web-hosting and easily configured galleries, anyone with an idea and a pen can try their hand at starting a webcomic. It’s a great way to practice both your creative writing and your artistic skills, and pick up a few new skills along the way as you learn to digitize media and create a website. And if you aren’t the best artist, or the best writer, don’t worry – creating is its own reward, and the best way to improve is to practice, and in my experience the best way to practice is to do the thing you want to do.