If you open up a newspaper to find the funnies, there’s probably a few things you’re expecting.
- A specific group of characters per comic
- A consistent art style
- A consistency in content
Part of being a newspaper artist is having a comic that is completely consistent, that doesn’t change styles or content, so readers know what to expect and don’t have to keep up with it every week. They can just open up any newspaper and enjoy whatever content is there.
Webcomics function a little differently. While they can exist as a series of stand-alone comics, most take advantage of the existence of archives on the web to catalog their stories, develop their characters and change their art style. Bill Holbrook, author of Kevin and Kell, says that the reason he created Kevin and Kell as a webcomic (and currently the longest-running one), was to take advantage of the existence of archives to build longer narratives and more complicated storylines. Kevin and Kell also exists as a newspaper comic, but its primary publishing is through the web.
However, as with any aspect of the web, archives carry their cons as well as their pros. Many webcomic artists have changed their artistic style over time, or improved in artistic ability. And it can be painful to know that anytime someone new finds your comic, they immediately go to the “horror” that is your first art. And sometimes this will turn people off from the comic if they’re not a fan of the original art style. But it also means that the artist gets to experiment with their art style, and try new things over the series of the comic.
Say you don’t think your old content is professional enough. Or you want to redo it/publish it in a more professional fashion. Many webcomic artists will turn their comics into a series of graphic novels. It’s created a reverse from the old standard of regular comics being converted for the web. And it provides a unique challenge to artists, because many don’t start their comic with the possibility of printing in mind. So it’s a long process to go back through and re-format things, or re-organize daily/weekly content to be viewed all at once.
The archive also can be a dangerous pit to fall into for those artists whose style has changed over the years. It can be a very tempting thought to go back and redo your old comics to match your updated style and advanced art ability. But then your artistic ability advances even more and your style changes, and you have to redo them again. And again. And again. And pretty soon you’re never writing new content, just redoing the old over and over again.
The creation of social media meant that our past would never truly be private again. And the existence of archives means our artistic past never will either. But both show how much improvement can be made over time, and humanize the author of such content. We are all evolving, learning people, who make mistakes and go through terrible periods and learn from it. The comic Sinfest exists as an epitome of this. The author begins with fairly good art, and somewhat biased, inappropriate comics or jokes, that clearly show his worldview and sense of humor. But as the comic goes on, his art style begins to change, and with it his content. He goes from making jokes about a potential “matriarchy”, to creating a feminist resistance group within the comics that fights the patriarchy. A patriarchy that exists in a fashion similar to the matrix in coding people’s behavior and assumptions. His characters go through drastic reformation of thought and personality, and through the lens of his comic we see his own worldview changing. And it’s not something that could have been predicted or planned for, and it’s not something that could have happened in newspaper comics. It exists solely because of the nature of the webcomic.