A Webcomics Bump on the Horizon

What are the first comics that come to mind when you think "webcomics"? Probably the comics aimed at the internet generation, like Penny Arcade, Dinosaur Comics, Questionable Content, 8-bit Theatre. Pick your favorite but chances are you're thinking of one of those and really, they're comic strips, not comics. That may sound like semantics but really it isn't, especially when you consider some more expansive "webcomics" that act more like "webcomicbooks". Though it may require some looking-out pretty far into the comics business horizon, some recent releases suggest the webcomics landscape may have a slow-growing bump on its horizon.

Since the launch of FreakAngels early last year, the comic has slowly been building up steam and just released its third trade. Unlike its webcomics cousins, FreakAngels has the viable option to sustain itself through trades and not just through advertising and merchandise. This is partially because Warren Ellis' name is attached but also because it's a comic book. Simple as that. Serious, narrative, visual art building to something bigger and not just a bunch of one-shot strips.

In an industry where serialized comics continue to be pushed to the fringes through higher prices and declining readership, trades are becoming an increasingly relevant form for comics publishing. Providing free serial readership on the web and collecting them into trades looks like it could be a successful business model for the future. Ellis’ FreakAngels is paving the way for lesser-known comics by showing how comic books can be feasible on the web but also, and maybe more importantly, by adding a great deal of awareness to comic books on the internet.

Take a look at Sam Hiti’s new Death-Day. It's a previously published author taking his newest creation onto the internet and offering it for free in the hopes of generating interest. Evan Dahm has been working this model with Rice Boy since 2006. It finished up in 2008 and he promptly began releasing Order of the Tales. It just makes more sense for writers and illustrators not at the top of the comics foodchain to take their creations to the web instead of trying to break into the comics publishing world. Their published comics would most likely only be seen by a handful of people in select comic stores in bigger cities. That's you know, if there's a publisher out there ready to put it out and that publisher can easily get it into comics stores, which basically means it's gotta be something resembling a big company. At least big enough for Diamond to accept distributing it. Not entirely bleak, but certainly limiting. Putting it on the web bypasses all that and keeps the work within the spirit of comics, while still reaching a potentially notable audience, and attempt sustainability--maybe through ads or something and ideally, eventually that trade.
Marvel and DC have recognized the future of comics and the Internet with Marvel’s subscription service and DC’s Zuda.com. Both have taken the high-tech route with a ridiculously complicated viewer involving zooming and lots of arrows. The technology in these cases, ends up distracting from the content. Reading comics on the internet should not require anymore effort than it does in real-life. It just shouldn't. You turn a page with your hand in real-life, you click a mouse to turn "the page" on the internet. That's that. The complex viewers Marvel and DC employ reek of business types and I.T dudes spitting out data about "interactivity" and "web apps" and "Web 2.0".

And there's even Marvel's "motion comics" which rest awkwardly between a comic and a movie and are too close for comfort to those cheap animated cartoons that zoom into a single still with dialogue over top. They don’t even approximate what it’s like reading a comic. No visual narrative, nothing. Altogether the big two have missed the lessons of the successful webcomics: simplicity.

Death-Day and Order of the Tales are perfect examples of successful webcomic layout. Although Death-Day was just released, you can already see the organization is simple and appealing. To read the comic you scroll down, and to go forward or back you click the corresponding button. Tales is similar, one page is displayed at a time and is organized by chapter. One of the most enjoyable things about discovering a new webcomic is powering through it in a similar way to reading a physical comic book. The simplicity of design allows this to happen.

Simplicity helps and complexity hurts, but without good, solid content, none of it matters. Obviously, whether a webcomic is successful ultimately depends on the quality of the comic itself. The reason FreakAngels, Death-Day, and Order of the Tales are so exciting on the web is because they are good. You can easily envision them in a store on the shelves too.

FreakAngels is carried by its art. The premise is psychically powered twenty-somethings living in post-apocalyptic London. Ellis’ writing has always been a bit too shocking for the sake of shock to me, but here he stays out of the way and develops interesting world and characters. Paul Duffield’s art compliments the writing and fills in the narrative bones Ellis has laid down. It all has a weird steampunk feel to it. Duffield’s London is absorbing--giving weight to the actions of the sometimes bratty FreakAngels. The flat digital colors and fairly straight-forward art lull you into a steady reading pace and then, an ornate building or structure appears and pulls you out of it.
Hiti’s Death-Day is almost too early to tell about the plot. A future army, ruled by a robotic linking of thousands of heads, is trapped on a planet with strange monsters and orbs. His art is atmospheric with detailed attention to the bizarre alien scenery and to the bizarre war technologies. This gives the world an eerie effect like seeing an old picture of yourself doing something you don’t remember. It's scratchy and has a decidedly handrawn vibe to it but loses nothing in the transition to the web. The characters and faces are almost cartoony, highlighting the themes running through of the expendable faceless soldiers and groupthink. It’s not exactly clear where Death-Day is going but it really leaves you wanting more.

Order of the Tales is Dahm’s second online work set in Overside. It’s a fantasy work in the vein of Bone or Lord of the Rings but with Dahm putting his own very unique twist on things. There are strange electronic robots walking around and various animal and monstrous races all interacting. An unappreciated aspect to comic is it's imagination of Order of the Tales has it in spades. Absolutely everything is imaginative from the houses to the horses. Like all good fantasy/sci-fi, it hooks you in with action and a quick-paced story while parsing out bits of information about that world at large that adds to the characters. His art looks more evolved since his work on Rice Boy showing intricate landscapes and even the eyes of his characters. The main character Koark's eyelids are much darker than anyone else and act as a way to tell him apart from other characters. In Fantasy, which isn't really subtle in the first place, using a sledge hammer technique like black eye lids is effective because it's used sparingly and gives heavy expressiveness to the character than needs it most.

Dahm, though only around for three years or so, is a seasoned vet as far as these type of webcomics go. To have operated for this long, he obviously has a following and a certain amount of popularity. Webcomics gauge popularity and sales essentially in the same way as the current comic issues market. They act as a niche market and determine what is popular which will eventually turn into trades or maybe even movies and other actually money-generating things. It's also an issue of respectability for these new "webcomicbooks". People are stuck treating webcomics as second-class because they're caught in the notion of webcomics as strips not stories or where a comic unworthy of print ends up. This needs to stop, just as comic books themselves had to become more than adolescent fantasy. Webcomics like FreakAngels, Death-Day, and Order of the Tales can do just that.

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