Friday, November 20, 2009

Format Changing

No, not mine, I mean the changing format of webcomics.  Which still sounds weird.  Let me try to explain this a bit better.

As I said way back in my Webcomic Categories article, the Daily Comic format, 3 - 4 panels on the weekdays, is the most common and typical comic around.  But that format, 3 to 4 panels, is filled with inherent limitations.  Planning the joke and punchline within that small space is hard, filling it with art is hard and doing anything more with it is really hard.

I want to say now that I think limitations are a good thing.  Most people complain that any limitations at all will stifle creativity, and those people are usually wrong.  Creativity comes from taking what you have and making it do something great.  Great comics have been born in the daily comic format and thrived.  The best example is Calvin and Hobbes, which while it pushed the bounds of what newspapers were willing to put up with from a comic artist, it still managed to fit nearly every joke into 3 or 4 panels.

A great many webcomics have done the same, achieving greatness despite a self-imposed limitation.  Yes, it is self imposed because this is the internet, and it is there that one can find the infinite canvas.  This means that the daily comic format doesn't HAVE to apply at all.  Which is where we begin to see the concept of changing formats.

I said that people who complain about limitations are usually wrong, but there does come a point when said limitations should be removed.  Once a comic has done EVERYTHING it can within those limitations, it is time to move on and grow in a new direction.  This is when the comic changes formats.

Now, I'm not talking about story here, or theme or anything, I'm talking about the physical format of the comic.  Often it requires rethinking how the comic works.  A comic that classically told jokes in 3 panels now has 6 to deal with, what do you do to fill the extra panels?  It also provides the biggest chance of failure.

As much as I loath to say it, one of the best examples of panel expansion is Diesel Sweeties, which went from 6 panels to 9.  And failed utterly.  Okay, it had probably failed with me before that, but I know reading through the achieves that as soon as the number of panels increased, the number of strips I read in detail decreased by a lot.  Adding more words did not help this comic in the least.

Another almost failure is Zebra Girl, whose expansion really looks wonderful and didn't hurt the story at all.  Except it delayed it.  By a lot.  So much so that the artist started releasing parts of the comic at a time.  Guess what?  They were basically 3 panels long.

Okay, enough with the failures in format changing.  It often can be a good thing.  Take Sluggy Freelance, for example.  Here's a comic that thrived as a 3/4 panels strip for years, and then stepped off the path into larger strips.  Here it was very successful, rearranging it self to follow the new format almost without missing a beat.

Other comics take their format change in a different direction.  Dr. McNinja started as a black and white comic that is as zany as you can imagine from the title.  Then it added color, and uses it to great effect, especially in the most recent story that features a motorcycle with a rainbow on it.  It's a small change, but considering how limiting a black and white comic can be, adding color is a major change.

And then there's Wapsi Square, whose change is different, but not.  It grew bigger.  Still same number of panels, basically (2 is typical for it), but redesigned website allowed the artist to post MUCH larger panels.  Nothing else changed really.  But the size makes the comic feel, well, different.  Is it better?  We'll see, it's looking better at least.

All of these changes require rethinking on the part of the artist.  Bigger images mean more attention must be paid to the art and presentation.  Color can have worlds of effect on a strip that was previously devoid of it, and more panels increase production time and planning, but also allow for more jokes.

Changing a comic's format isn't the end of the old, usually, but the beginning of the next stage in a comic's life.  It can radically change the strip, or it can just enhance what was always there.  It shouldn't be done willy nilly, but carefully considered as the effects it will have.  Don't fear the change, but be ready to be let down by it.

Well, enough this week.  Until next time kiddies.

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