Looking back at Scott McCloud’s ten webcomic tips

2008-12-30-images-topten

As a change of pace, I thought it would be nice to take a look at something written about webcomics but one of sequential art’s most influential voices: Scott McCloud.

McCloud’s thoughts on webcomics, which were written nine years ago, often get a bad rep because he was wrong on the micropayments issue. (Chief antagonist: Scott Kurtz, unsurprisingly.) That’s unfair; no one can really predict which economic model eventually succeeds over the other, since it’s the market (e.g., the audience) that ultimately decides what or what doesn’t work. I seem to remember experts laughing at Apple for offering songs at $0.99 when you can get them on Kazaa for free. Yet Steve Jobs is out there, laughing himself all the way to the bank on his iTunes money.

Micropayments, though, aren’t the only thing McCloud wrote about. He also compiled a list, perhaps overly optimistic, of where he would like to see webcomics as a field transcend to in the future. His ten tips were encapsulated in comic form within the panels of I Can’t Stop Thinking! #3.

Do they still hold up today? Or has time and the demands of the readers proved him wrong?

#10 – Choose your name wisely.

This is always a good tip. I’ll bet when Josh Lesnick created Girly, he didn’t think about the perils of having to secure a very expensive domain name. (The comic’s been on gogirly.com and is currently at girlyyy.com.) I’d also suggest googling a title ahead of time and seeing what pops up. “Find Chuck Norris” might be an awesome name for a comic, but it’ll probably end up on the 30th page of hits after “Google won’t search for Chuck Norris because it knows you don’t find Chuck Norris, he finds you.”

#9 – Don’t make ‘em hunt and peck.

McCloud’s tip is to use the image itself as link to move you to the next page. I don’t know if this is such a great tip anymore. First, the page forward and page back buttons are more or less standardized now. Second, this tip may have been defeated by new technology. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to zoom in to a comic page using the double tap on the iPod Touch, only to inadvertently click on a link that you weren’t expecting. It’s MADDENING.

jdo0736l

#8 – Think before you hatch.

Use cross-hatching sparingly. This will probably be the most controversial ruling, since most people will argue that art has no boundaries man, and you shouldn’t limit how an artist does his or her work. But the reality is that art does has boundaries, one of which is the medium. Webcomics are presented on a light-emitting screen. Simple, clean shapes just look better. I think that’s why so many webcomics created using Flash continue to thrive: they’re just more aesthetically appealing than an overly cross-hatched comic that looks like it came from an alternative weekly on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.

#7 – Get your fingernails dirty.

Scott here is saying that you should learn HTML. Now, while learning HTML is always a good idea, coding has gotten far more complicated these days than it was in 2000. Perhaps it’s a good tip in the long run, when you want to give your site a distinct look. However, there are tools available from sites like WordPress that, while generic in appearance, do look more professional than beginner’s HTML.

#6 – Use the Web to get on the Web.

Or, find free downloads. I’m not really qualified to comment on this, since I’ve been using a Mac for the last five years and I have no idea what tools are for free on the PC. Still, I imagine this is a good tip. DaFonts, for example, is an absolutely invaluable resource where you can download several fonts, including a lot of nice looking comic fonts, for free. And, unless I’m mistaken, I think there’s still a free copy of Paint Shop Pro floating around somewhere (which is a must for people who don’t want to spring for the very expensive Corel or Adobe products).

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#5 – Learn GEOMETRY.

This one really ticks Scott McCloud off. You can tell because he draws himself yelling at the reader. Shame on you, webcomic types, for making Scott McCloud lose his cool. I imagine his hand trembled as he drew that panel, his voice catching in his throat as he tried to control the rage within.

His point: it’s very necessary to learn how to use the dimensions of the screen properly. Most webcomics I’ve encountered have adapted fine. The biggest culprit? Those comics using Flash format. Shadowline, for example, is the home of Carla Speed McNeil’s Eisner Award winning Finder. However, there is no good way to view these pages. It takes forever to load, and when it does load, the lower part of the page is cut off. If you zoom out, it’s difficult to read the text.

#4 – Small is beautiful.

Or minimize your image file size. Oh ho ho, the days before broadband when anything over 4 KB didn’t load properly. You might think we’re beyond this, now that our computers are capable of faster speeds. But what about those friggin’ Flash comics? Despite running on a high-speed broadband wireless connection, Zuda Comics is still plagued with slow load times. Unless you’re competing for that phat DC publishing contract, I wouldn’t wish Flash on anyone.

#3 – Trade in the “page” for the “window?”

This ties into McCloud’s theory of the infinite canvas, which everyone praises but no one implements. I’m of the opinion that the infinite canvas is only good as novelty — such as in “Pup” (reviewed here) or Nawlz (reviewed here) — or a one-off panel, like the transition of Starslip Crisis to Starslip.

The web has evolved differently from what McCloud expected. People are tired of scrolling. Online magazines that used to print long articles have been breaking them up into manageable sizes. Like the old saying goes, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” A scrollable page, like the ones featured in McCloud’s “I Can’t Stop Thinking!” series, is too much information at once in a medium that’s drowning in it.

sgt-pepper

#2 – Do something only the web can do.

This is the Holy Grail of webcomics. Charles Kochman calls it the “Sgt. Pepper moment.” Which is, include sound, motion, interactivity, an expanding canvas … any of the advantages that the printed page can’t bring.

Very, very few people have done this. Why? Well, it’s a lot of work. If it’s done wrong, it’s very distracting. And I’m guessing most artists didn’t want to be computer programmers. Heck, I’m an engineer, and I hate computer programming. (Plus, when it’s time to compile them in a volume for people to read, the cutesy touches don’t translate to the printed page.)

In its heyday, Argon Zark!! tried to pioneer the way (and frankly, I don’t come across many webcomics that handle animation as seamlessly). Most anyone has done, though, are GIF animations of the simple kind.

But, you know, that doesn’t mean McCloud was wrong. There may still be a day when it’s a standard feature to remove word balloons so you can admire the art, or when raindrops dance across the panel, or when onomatopoeia is replaced by actual sounds. I guess we need to wait until there are tools available that make adding that kind of effect easy for artists, especially ones who don’t want to hassle with coding.

#1 – Value your freedom.

With webcomics, there are no editors … so rest assured the vision you put online is your own. There is absolutely nothing I can add to this tip. It’s golden.

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About El Santo

Somehow ended up reading and reviewing almost 300 different webcomics. Life is funny, huh? Despite owning two masks, is not actually a luchador.

Posted on August 5, 2009, in comics, The Webcomic Overlook, webcomics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. #9- I always click on the image to take me to the next one. I also use the browser’s back button if I want to go back. I find hunting for the “Keen Buttons” annoying and never use them.

    #8- Personally, I find Flash drawn comics all look the same. I also find the “Nickelodeon Cartoon” art style most bomb-diggities use a huge turn off.

    Cross hatching only remains a problem on lower resolutions/ image sizes. 1027×768 monitors are now the low end of things. In a few years, the technology will make this point irrelevant.

    #5- The only problem I encountered with this is in trying to present enough information in that sideways rectangle for the readers. It’s fine if you’re doing a gag strip because you don’t need to include nearly as much visual information as a story comic.

    Since the story comic needs more panels to get it’s ideas across, you have to scroll. I personally prefer the sideways scroll, but that makes web-dorks cry as the inhuman torture they have to endure when moving their mouse to the right. So you’re left with either an abbreviated visual sentence, a lot of jam-packed panels, or a tall scrolling page. So most opt for the third.

    #4- Perhaps we should change it to “No shitty flash DRM interfaces are beautiful”?

    #3- Then your options are: a) Do a gag strip. b)Show one or two panels at a time of your story comic.

    Unfortunately, the only solution to presenting a long form comic to these lazy types who hate scrolling is something like the Tarqin Engine where everything IS scrolling past in a window. Which as we know, is also a sin.

    Personally, I found it to be very elegant and thought it a pity that gag-strippers always heaped so much scorn upon it.

    #1- Gee, I was thinking that it’s more profitable to scour Metafilter/ 4chan/ knowyourmeme.com for gags rather than use my freedom to do something new and original.

  2. “Heck, I’m an engineer, and I hate computer programming.”

    I got a chuckle out of this. I’m an engineer, too. Most of my engineering buddies *hate* programming, but I *love* it. Just one of those things, I guess….

    • It takes all kinds. One guy in my department is a huge programming nut, and he demanded a job where he could use his mad skills to develop a tool for us. We’re glad to have him! I’m personally in it for the more tangible aspects, though, so data manipulation gets to be a bit of a headache. :)

  3. “People are tired of scrolling. Online magazines that used to print long articles have been breaking them up into manageable sizes.”

    The first sentence is not implied by the second. Online magazines and newspapers are not breaking things up because people are tired of scrolling. They’re breaking them up because they get more ad impressions with each page you visit. One article on one page with four ads becomes four pages with four ads each.

    Most of these “manageable sizes” require a user to scroll anyhow, since they’re often longer than the brower window to begin with. They just also require the (I would say “annoying”) extra step of clicking at the bottom of each page. These artificial breaks are entirely driven by their revenue model and say nothing about a reader’s preference.

    This become increasingly awkward when you look at a site such as The Onion’s AV Club, where an article may be broken up into several pages, with each page containing a huge list of the first page of comments! Why load in only half of an article but also load in screenfulls and screenfulls and screenfulls of comments which are intended to be read after you complete the article? Ad revenue.

    This very page scrolls a fair amount. In fact, with the masthead, menu, headline, and image of Wayne & Garth, I have to scroll before I even read the first word of your article. People are tired of scrolling? Might as well say people are tired of breathing, because you have to do both of those things in order to use the web.

    • Actually, that is a very good point, Greg. I had not factored in the ad revenue. What you say makes sense.

      However, the final statement — that scrolling = breathing — doesn’t make much sense to me. Perhaps it was a misunderstanding. My point was that people don’t like scrolling for an extended period, not scrolling at all. The “infinite canvas” philosophy, if I’m following McCloud’s examples properly, involves stretching a comic much farther than the average length.

      Plus, isn’t it possible that breaking up pages is both a way to get advertising revenue and manageable at the same time? In my experience, when sites like The Agony Booth began splitting their articles into separate pages, it made it easier to bookmark your place in the article in case you were called off somewhere and you wanted to finish later (typical articles are 14-15 pages). Wouldn’t this be the same argument as to why publishers long ago eventually went away from the scroll and toward bound books? You can put a bookmark in books, but it’s not so easy when it’s one long sheet.

      • The comment about breathing was more snark than sense. My intention was to say these are both requirements for using the web at large. One must be breathing (dead people don’t surf URLs) and one must also scroll.

        
        

        I’m sure if you check with Scott, you’ll find that infinite canvas isn’t about stretching a comic farther than its ideal length, but about allowing each comic to be its own ideal length. Short comics remain short. Long comics are free to be long. Average length comics remain average.

        
        

        I’m not arguing that breaking content- be it prose or comics- into multiple pages is wrong. It absolutely has its place and usefulness. I do believe, however, that “people are tired of scrolling” is not a true statement nor is it a compelling argument against long, single-page comics. Long comics inspired by the infinite canvas concept will continue to be rarer than the page by page model, but they will be rare based on creative and technological factors rather than dogmatic ones.

        
        

        You could argue that some long, infinite canvas comics are overlong and would be better served to be put into a smaller format or broken up into chunks. On a case by case basis, I would probably agree, but it doesn’t invalidate the concept of infinite canvas. Bad creative choices will always be made. Consider that a very large number of 4-panel comics are really just two-panel gags stretched to fill the given length. Maybe a better term for infinite canvas would have been “elastic canvas?” This would better point out that, without the restriction of a printed page, small comics can be even smaller and long comics can be longer– Every comic becoming its ideal length.

        
        

        You made several good points in your article, but I think you were a little off-base on this one.

  4. In Understanding Comics, McCloud talks a fair bit about how comics show the notion of time in a way that’s fundamentally different from most other mediums.

    Animation and sound both take place in real time. To me, this has always meshed badly with comics time. You’re busy reading the comic at your own pace, and then all of a sudden you’re jerked into reading it at the animator or sound designers pace, only to be dropped back into your own pace a panel or two later. For me, it’s like being in a vehicle that constantly starts and stops.

    I would also say that in that Argon Zark page, the animation pulls the eye towards the panels it’s occurring in. So you have to struggle to make the eye move away from certain panels.

    There may still be a day when it’s a standard feature to remove word balloons so you can admire the art,

    This is a really good idea, though.

  5. Some great advice. I particularly enjoyed the part about using the dimensions of the screen properly, it’s really important! And I hate scrolling too.

  6. Re: 3 and 2: The infinite canvas didn’t become popular, I think, because McCloud was wrong on micropayments. It reduces the need to serialize but most non-micropayment schemes work best when you serialize. My full rationale: http://morganwick.blogspot.com/2009/02/webcomics-identity-crisis-part-iii.html

  7. I have a question that may reveal my ignorance: Why would you WANT an infinite canvas?

    Reading Mr. Wick’s blog entry, I got to thinking how McCloud’s definition of comics makes it a form with a certain rhythm.

    McCloud calls comics “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence”

    So the whole point is that you focus on one section of the comic, followed by another, followed by another. So you have a sort of rhythm when you read them that goes panel, gutter, panel, gutter, panel, gutter, panel, etc.

    Even if there aren’t gutters, there’s still a space where you’re transitioning from one “panel” to the next; if there isn’t, then you aren’t reading comics.

    All that putting your comics on separate pages does is give you a slightly longer beat in your rhythm; panel, gutter, panel, gutter, panel, page… panel, gutter, panel gutter, etc.

    And, well, so what? By definition, the composition of the entire comic is secondary to the individual elements inside it. Given this, it’s hard to see what pressing artistic concern is answered by doing away with pages.

    Any change is going to make some kind of difference in how you view a work of art, but I really think getting rid of pages is mostly a novelty thing. I think it’s more like the invention of 3-d film than the invention of talkies.

    Frankly, that’s how I feel about the web as a whole, when it comes to the art of making comics (Commerce is a different story, of course).

    • “Why would you WANT an infinite canvas?”

      Because some people enjoy the obvious: A browser window and a printed page are not the same thing.

      Having a comic on a two by three grid or a one by four grid in a browser window is just as arbitrary as having it on a one by twenty, or eight by fourteen grid.

      The whole point of IC is that you can shape the comic any damned way you want and not have to worry about running out of paper. ie: You’re not limited by the method of presentation.

      Plus, any resistance to the idea is idiotic seeing that the second your comic is too big to fit into a browser window, you are making an IC comic. It’s a non issue. Near everyone does it even without thinking of it.

      McCloud was right about it being a window. Some just want to keep the view as print small as it has always been because they can’t provide anything bigger.

  8. I have to say I haven’t really seen many people take up the challenge presented on #2. The only examples I know of are done by people who draw in flash and therefore have the options of animation and interactivity directly available.

    One popular title doing this is Dead Winter. A few pages have slight animations, like when one character is channel surfing in one panel and you see the screen change and his finger press the button in an endless loop, or when one panel is a first person view of someone about to faint and everything in it is going in and out of focus. The artist has a few pages that are fully animated but I liked those others more, they worked better with the story. If you haven’t already heard of this comic I’d recommend you to check it out.

    I’m reminded now of the old Captain Underpants comic books where they set up a few pages so you can flip them back and forth to look like animation.

  9. Probably the greatest taking up of the challenge of #2 has been mspaintadventures, with in-depth animations, playable flash games, and reader-interactive plotting earlier on.

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