(From Irregular Webcomic! Click for full-sized cryptids! Man, I really am taking after Websnark, aren’t I?)
I’d like to expand on the points made in today’s strip on Irregular Webcomic!, but before I do, I want to talk about someone else.
McCloud was a creator of comic books, mostly deconstructionist superhero stuff, but he was mostly concerned about the legitimization of comics as an art form. So in 1993, he wrote a book called Understanding Comics, in which he talked about the medium seriously, deconstructing its methods, exploring what is and isn’t comics, and the like. And because he wanted to practice what he preached, he published it as a comic book.
In 2000, he wrote a follow-up, Reinventing Comics. Whereas before he was talking to people outside the comics industry, this time he talked to people inside it, outlining twelve “revolutions” that could help comics survive and thrive as an art form. He especially talked about the then-nascent medium of webcomics and how the Web had a number of advantages that allowed it to thrive as an art form on its own. The most famous of these is probably the idea of the “infinite canvas” – that, similar to the idea that, since Wikipedia is not a paper encyclopedia, it can talk about a lot more topics than Brittanica (and for the love of God please do not make this a battleground regarding whether it really takes full advantage of this), so too can webcomics extend over a much larger space than would ever be practical on a sheet of paper.
In practice, though, creating larger, more expansive comics taking up lengthy stretches of the page is rather impractical. It takes a lot of work to create a big comic, and as a result the infinite canvas is really only utilized as occasional novelty acts in more standard webcomics, or as one shots. It doesn’t help that there really is a sort of limit on the amount of space you can devote to a comic, the size of the screen (people don’t like scrolling, and they REALLY don’t like LOTS of scrolling, especially horizontal scrolling which is harder to do with a mouse wheel), or that a lot of webcomic artists would rather prefer to be able to publish print publications of their work. After all, for most people, webcomicking is really more of a hobby.
The same goes for the other much-ballyhooed benefits of the Web for the comics medium, such as interactive or multimedia webcomics. (Especially when you consider that “multimedia webcomics” in particular can blur the lines in regards to exactly what is and isn’t a webcomic. For example, is Homestar Runner a webcomic? If not, on what grounds?) There have been occasional experiments in all of them, but generally there haven’t really been many, if any, ongoing webcomics that actually take full advantage of their medium in ways they can’t do in print.
Which brings us to Irregular Webcomic!
IWC, despite the name, is anything but irregular. David Morgan-Mar has faithfully produced a strip a day for virtually the whole history of the strip. He likes to joke about how his strip has been “more regular than many webcomics that actually claim to be updated regularly”.
The “irregular” part comes in the specifics. You see, Irregular Webcomic! is actually seventeen different webcomics, known as “themes”, and those are updated semi-irregularly with each nightly update of IWC itself. There isn’t always one a night, as the themes cross over rather often, often in combinations you would never think possible. Some (Fantasy, Cliffhangers, Steve and Terry) are updated more often than others (Supers, Imperial Rome), and a few (Martians, Nigerian Finance Minister) seem to be abandoned entirely. Some are also more like unifying elements than full-on webcomics, despite occasionally having non-crossovers (Me [yes, Morgan-Mar himself appears as a character], Death, Miscellaneous).
The original conceit was that all these different “themes” reflected different role-playing games (pseudo-board-game kind, not video game kind) Morgan-Mar (as “Me”) was playing (if there’s a third tradition in most webcomics, RPGs are it), although that seems to have fallen mostly by the wayside, especially in the newer themes. (Only Fantasy and Space really show any signs of being role-playing games anymore.) The older themes (Fantasy and Space again) were and continue to be played out by semi-realistic looking figures (well, as realistic-looking as figures of hobbits and aliens can be) but by and large, the vast majority of themes, which is to say the vast majority of strips, have been played out by LEGOs, which have become the strip’s trademark. (Exceptions are Martians, although even that has key LEGO figures; Supers, which is hand-drawn by another artist; and Miscellaneous.)
It’s important to note that, hand-in-hand with this structure, Morgan-Mar has a rather robust navigational engine that facilitates all of this. You could, conceivably, just read IWC right straight through, like a conventional webcomic, although, especially at this point, IWC shuttles between themes every day. (For example, yesterday’s comic was in the Espionage theme. The day before that was Mythbusters (yes, based on the Discovery Channel show, and done with LEGOs too – and they’re not alone; Jane Goodall, appearing above, is a character in Steve and Terry, which is itself a not-really-them-honest version of the late “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin from Morgan-Mar’s native Australia; Shakespeare has a theme where he’s transplanted in the modern day; Espionage is a takeoff on James Bond; Cliffhangers is a takeoff on Indiana Jones; there are actual themes named Harry Potter and Star Wars…), and the one before that was Space, and the one before that was Cliffhangers…) But you can also read each theme as an individual webcomic, following the strip as it follows one plot and completely ignoring any others. IWC has gone on for almost 2000 strips, but you don’t need to read all of them to understand just one or two themes. And the ability to read it five days at a time is just gravy.
You can’t do that in print. Well, at the least, you can’t do that in print and expect much of a following. I’ve actually conceived of a similar structure for Da Blog, where each tag could conceivably be read as its own individual blog, so that, for example, you could decide to read just my “nba” or “my comments on the news” posts, and ignore my “webcomic” or “about me” posts, except where I tag an “about me” post as “my comments on the news”. In webcomics, it actually opens up brave new worlds of storytelling possibilities. I envision a large, expansive world with several different webcomics weaving in and out of one another, perhaps even with different writers, which could be read individually but which forms a complete picture when read in total. Wait, that sounds like modern comic books. But one important difference would be the ability for strips to exist in multiple comics at once. There are other possibilities for the format as well that I probably have never even heard of. Scott McCloud, I would hope, would be proud.
The really funny part is, Irregular Webcomic! is one of those things that’s a pioneer but doesn’t really define its field; it sort of falls by the wayside, but what it pioneers is ripe to be overtaken by other, sharper minds. For example, IBM pioneered the germ of what became personal computing, including operating system writing, before Apple and Microsoft came along; now they barely even exist in the computer industry, now serving as mostly a consulting firm, near as I can tell. There are some themes I’m interested in – Mythbusters, Death and Shakespeare come to mind – but after certain current plot lines wrap up, or at least come to a stopping point, I’m probably going to stop following IWC every single day. (Of course, given the irregularity of the strip, I’ve been waiting six months for them to wrap up…) I would continue to follow just the ones I’m interested in, but Morgan-Mar doesn’t offer individual RSS feeds for each theme; instead, his one RSS theme lists the strip number and any themes it’s in. That makes it harder to follow individual themes instead of the whole comic. I kind of have to agree with Eric Burns that I actually find Morgan-Mar’s side project, the group-produced Darths and Droids, a re-enactment of Star Wars as played by RPG players (thus taking off on ground previously trod, for Lord of the Rings, by the now-ended DM of the Rings), more consistently entertaining, even if it’s hit a slow spell for the moment. In fact, D&D is one of only two webcomics that holds a place in Internet Explorer 7’s built-in RSS reader.
Which is odd, because the other one of those two is also set in that role-playing game milieu, and it wasn’t that long ago that I was barely even aware of RPGs’ existence, certainly beyond the venerable Dungeons and Dragons.
But we’ll talk more about Order of the Stick later in the week.