Intro to New Media Studies, Spring 2008

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Final Project Write-Up

April 30th, 2008 · Comments Off on Final Project Write-Up

The first question to ask is, perhaps, What is a webcomic?  The easiest answer is, of course, a comic on the web, but that’s not exactly it.  This is a comic on the internet, but it is one written and produced for newspaper publication and merely archived online, so it’s not a webcomic in the strictest sense of the word, which is the sense I’ll be using in my exploration of the medium.  A webcomic is then defined as a comic produced for and first published on the web.  Therefore, this is not a webcomic, but this is.

One of the first things that could be defined as a webcomic (T.H.E. Fox) was started in 1986, and  Where the Buffalo Roam began in 1991 and Doctor Fun in ‘93.  If you’ll remember from “The World-Wide Web” article we read, these early webcomics coincide with the early days of the web itself, showing that for about as long as there has been the web, there have been webcomics.  Early webcomics are relatively basic and similar to printed comics, but as the internet and computers advanced, however, the possibilities for webcomics advanced as well.  Whether or not these possibilities are being utilized to their fullest potential is another story, though.

If, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message, then what are these possibilities for webcomics that other comics don’t have?  To boil it down to the simplest answer, webcomics have the “infinite canvas.”   This is a theory of Scott McCloud’s that basically states that a webcomic is not bound by the restrictions of page dimensions, and can therefore extend as far and wide as you want.  Theoretically, according to McCloud, you could have entire graphic novels existing on a single page.  Hence “infinite canvas.”  What if, however, you take that idea to the next level?  If you think of this as not just no limit to the page size but also no more having to turn sheets of paper sequentially to get the story, then the possibilities are suddenly seeming limitless.  When I Am King comes closest of everything I’ve found to trying to achieve an infinite canvas effect, which has the downside of also being kind of creepy at times.  Alternately, Scott McCloud’s Carl webcomic plays with the idea of sequence.  (You all might remember a version of this from the Time Frames chapter we read.)  Here, then, is The Right Number, McCloud’s alternative to conventional “page turning.”  It’s a little distracting, though, and it begs the question: What is added by these “novelty” approaches?  I mentioned the medium being the message, and I’m fairly certain that in these cases, the stories come second to the experimentations with the webcomic medium that they represent.  As a whole, I think these innovations should somehow enhance the story or contribute to its theme, since such an emphasis is suddenly placed on the format (the zooming, the scrolling, the non-sequential addition of panels).

When it came to diving into the wide, wide world of webcomics, I started by looking at sites like this, which provides seeming endless lists of what was out there, but did little to gauge  whether or not the things they listed were any good.  That’s when everything that class members tagged on del.icio.us started to come in handy.  I combined the webcomics you tagged with the recommendations I gathered from the maybe twenty or more friends/acquaintences/younger brother/younger brother’s high school friends that I polled for their favorite webcomics.  It was then that I was able to get a better sense of the sorts of things that made a successful webcomic, if, by successful, I mean “one that people read.”  From this, I sort of gauged which ones were recommended the most.  After looking through probably forty or fifty different webcomics, however, I found a certain number of things I could sort of sum up as typical themes–Namely, the internet, technology, pop culture, gaming/sci-fi/fantasy, and other variants and strains of geekdom.  (Which I really can’t poke fun at; I’m a geek myself.)  I suppose that this might be because the sorts of people who typically start a webcomic are more likely to be people already involved in internet culture and other aspects of New Media.

The typically New-Media-skewed subject matter brought to mind Turkle’s “Video Games and Computer Holding Power,” where she talks of existing in and losing oneself to a simulated world in video games.  Most immediately, I made the connection between this essay and webcomics when I learned about sprites while doing my research.  They are, essentially, webcomics where the characters are images taken from video games, sometimes with colors altered, but often looking just as they appear on the screen.  The first of these is said to be Neglected Mario Characters, and the first really popular one was Bob and George.  I personally feel that the creative possibilities for these, both visually and otherwise are limited, but I find it interesting to see how the simulated world of video games that Turkle writes about is extended here, where the creator can essentially “play God” in an existing world, where the rules of play are suddenly much more flexible.  The results, however, are still directed at people who are fans of the video game world from which they originate.  Taking this a step farther, however, one can start to apply Turkle’s idea of alternate world and identity to other webcomics.  For instance, the writer-artist of Toothpaste for Dinner often uses his strip to vent his own thoughts.  (Or poke fun at himself.)  Meanwhile, the two main characters in Penny Arcade (interestingly the webcomic that the most people recommended to me) can relatively easily be seen as avatars of their creators.  On the flip side, the protagonist of Planet Karen is the creator, and the strips are recaps of her actual daily life.  (Or so she says.)

From here, there are so many other things in my findings I want to discuss, from the evolution in art from a webcomic’s first strip to its most recent (for instance: the start and end of Planet Karen and the start and end of Penny Arcade), the utilization of “free speech” on the internet (there’s more swearing, violence, and sex in webcomics than, say, a Green Lantern comic book, even if the basis subject matter is more or less the same), and the transition many webcomics are making (or trying to make) from internet to printed book.  I will, however, move on to the final project part of my final project.

Clearly, the cumulative result of my work on this project was creating my own webcomic, which I titled Tilting at Windmills, because, honestly, that reflects how I felt throughout much of the process. I toyed with the idea of the infinite canvas but ultimately went with the more traditional format, mostly because I don’t yet have the coding skills to have panels zoom or go on forever.  In fact, until this project, I was more or less computer-illiterate.  I could essentially surf the internet and use a word processor.  Creating a webcomic, then, forced me to learn how to use an FTP client (to a certain extent), how to do a limited amount of html coding, and the pros and cons of various venues of free webhosting.

Firstly, I spent awhile fooling with ideas for a webcomic, most of which never made it to paper.  I decided against doing any one-shot humor strips, because I’m afraid I won’t be funny, and then played around with a bunch of running storyline ideas, including one that resulted in me drawing this.  (And then questioning my sanity.)  I then decided on a sort of combination high-school-and-superhero story, which, while admittedly not original, was something I was fairly certain I could do.  At the same time, I knew I’d fall into the traps of pop culture references, geekery, and poking fun at myself.  (All of which I did by the third strip, which is the one currently on the front page of my site, where I make fun of my own extreme liking for Doctor Who.)

First, I tried drawing a strip in colored pencil, which not only ended up about an inch-and-a-half too long for my scanner, but also was too difficult to do cleanly and consistently to make it a good medium for my webcomic.  I decided, therefore, on inking very simple artwork and coloring it in Photoshop, which wasn’t really something I had ever done before.  (I scanned some random doodle in and colored it as an experiment first, before starting my actual webcomic.)  About halfway through being Photoshopped, a page of my webcomic looks something like this.

Then came the issue of webhosting the comic.  Currently, I have it hosted on two different sites, because I was trying out the pros and cons of each.  The first one is on freesitespace.net, a free webhosting service that has been around for a month or so.  The nice thing about the site I have there is that I figured out how to add an “About & FAQ” section, which is sort of nice but sort of pointless, as nobody’s asked me anything yet, so I had to make some questions up.  I also have an external links page there, which I rather like, but again, is rather pointless.  The problem, however, is that it’s not a hosting site designed for webcomics, so editing it to serve my purposes was really awkward and still unsatisfactory and unwieldy.   It also won’t let me edit the coding for the basic page manually, although I can edit (and gloriously mangle) all of the sub-pages.

The other site I’m hosting my webcomic on at the moment is comicgenesis.com, which while having the most painfully recursive sign-up process imaginable, is still more amiable to webcomic hosting.  (Hence the site’s name.)  The only real problem I have with my webcomic site here is the advertising, but that’s not too bad.  It was on this one that I got to build my site more or less to my liking using an FTP client.  (Yes, I actually–more or less–know how to use that now.  I am ridiculously impressed with myself.)  To be fair, I did make some epically unpleasant errors while working my way through; for instance, I had my strips running in reverse order for awhile and then had the second one about five times.  Now, however, it’s doing more or less what I’m telling it to.

In conclusion, I mostly just want to say that I learned how to do far more with New Media in this project than I imagined I ever would when I first started and I’m really looking forward to improving my webcomic site and continuing it.

And, of course, I’ll be happy to answer any questions and elaborate on anything I’ve talked about.

Original post by Alyssa Johnson

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