Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Deep Thought

This was originally written as part of my and Nick Johnson's "commentary track" for the first installment of THE HOLIDAY MEN. Nick thought it was a little, er, let's call it wordy. So I retooled it slightly so it's less a "me talking to Nick" thing than a "Me talking" thing, and, well, here's me talking about webcomic density:

When I first came up with the Holiday Men concept, it was very, very straightforward (I actually once described it as "the silliest idea I've ever had", something I think is still arguably true). The template for an H-Men story was simple: Holiday Men find out about evildoing, show up, kick the living shit out whatever O’Mega-Mart’s up to this episode, and retreat to the shadows from whence they came.

Getting Nick onto the art was a godsend, because he can do ridiculous action scenes like nobody’s business, and that’s all the H-Men was intended to be. At first. So, knowing Nick was on-board, I went ahead and wrote the first episode as a straight-up action comic, with minimal text.

It took about fifteen minutes.

And that seemed like…an inappropriate amount of time to spend on a 24 page comic. Especially considering how long it was going to take to draw it.

I began to feel lazy, which isn’t unusual. I also began to feel bad about being lazy, which is highly unusual. Even by my standards, which are pretty forgiving, this just seemed ridiculously easy. My writer’s ego or Catholic guilt (an admittedly odd condition for an atheist ex-protestant to have) couldn’t stand me not putting at least a little more into it.

Now, add to this the fact that, by this point, I know we’re starting out with online serialization. Which means a reader’s going to be (potentially) seeing the equivalent of one to, at most, three pages of a standard comic a week. What are they going to be getting for their time?

It seems to me the real webcomic success stories so far have been built in the daily comic strip format: regular installments, more than one or two a week, with some kind of climax at the end of each installment, usually a punchline. Less successful, so far, is the serial release of non-comic strip-format, dramatic webcomics. Why?

I have some theories about this, and the H-Men is an attempt to prove some of them. Only time will tell whether it worked, of course, but here’s one of them, or part of one of them: it’s one thing to have a ten page fight scene in a comic you can read 22 pages of while you’re in the bathroom. It’s another thing altogether to have a ten page fight scene released over 2 and a half months. Getting someone like me to even remember the context of a scene after a couple weeks is going to be tricky.

So, the idea I’m pushing with the H-Men is that, yeah, we’ve got the fight scene, and it’s all there visually if that’s what you’re after. BUT, if a reader wants to, there’s text material there for them to dig into beyond the traditional comic story elements. This approach is hardly unique: heavy text goes all the way back to Hal Foster’s PRINCE VALIANT, at least, but more recent comics I looked to for inspiration were The Intimates, The Nightly News, and The Amazing Joy Buzzards. Each of these used the comic convention of the text caption (way out of fashion in mainstream comics for the last several years) in interesting ways--ways that didn’t necessarily forward immediate storytelling concerns. The captions are value-added material. Or at least, that's the idea behind them.

Do you need to read them? Not really. If you want to watch Santa Claus kick someone’s ass, we’ve got that. If you want to know what kind of magazine the person whose ass is getting kicked read before (or during) said ass-kicking, that might be there, too.

Or there might be a description of what kind of bird is lurking in the background. Or what I had for lunch. Whatever I think might get a laugh.

If you’re giving people two comic pages a week, you’ve got to offer them something more than just a nicely drawn page. You’ve got to offer some kind of satisfying reading experience, on a per-installment basis. The textual elements of the H-Men are intended to do that.

An editor buddy of mine said they made him slow down to read the thing--made him slow down too much. I don’t really know what to say to that. My initial instinct is to take issue with the notion that a comic should be readable quickly. Most modern comics can be read fairly quickly, but I spent twenty+ going through an old Lee-Kirby FF the other night. You want to talk about dense text, you look at these classic silver age things and tell me lots of text on a comics page is unworkable.

I don’t believe it. Or I don’t want to believe it. Our reader(s?) will tell me whether I’m right or just stupid. Or both.


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