Although I’m going to have to start this article about webcomic design by breaking my “don’t blog about blogging” rule, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.
Anyway, when I was preparing yesterday’s article to be posted, I got distracted whilst searching for one of the links I included in it. In other words, a webcomic I was linking to (Winston Rowntree’s excellent “Subnormality“) distracted me once again. But, in the midst of being distracted by the latest update, I noticed that Rowntree was using a really clever structural technique that I’d never really thought about before.
If you’ve never read “Subnormality” before, many of the comic updates are just standard vertically-scrolling webcomics. However, unlike many other webcomics, quite a few of the updates are deliberately too wide to fit onto one computer screen. For a long time, this seemed like a really annoying and bizarre design choice, but after reading one update I finally understood it.
In that particular comic, there are sometimes two whole “scenes” of the comic right next to each other. Due to the width of each comic, only one will fit on the screen at one time. Each of these comics follows a different pair of characters. Yes, you can keep scrolling horizontally from one comic to the other, but that’s not what you’re supposed to do.
From the way that the comic flows, it’s quite clear that it is left up to you, the reader, to pick one storyline or the other. Despite not using any programming or hyperlinks, this comic was actually (sort of) an interactive comic! I was absolutely astonished.
This was a technique that just wouldn’t work in a print comic (without very large pages or very small panels). It was a webcomic-specific technique and, when I finally saw it for what it was (rather than just an annoying “why can’t I read both comics at once!?” thing), it absolutely blew my mind. It was another reminder that webcomics can do everything that print comics can do, and then some more.
Then, of course, it made me think about my own webcomics. For time and consistency reasons, most of the comics I produce are either square 4-6 panel “newspaper comic”-style comics, or they’re 4-9 panel “A4”-sized comic book pages. Even so, I’ve probably made at least one very slightly inventive design decision – albeit for a variety of practical reasons:
The most innovative part of my webcomic design was the decision in late 2015/early 2016 to use a square format for my shorter webcomic updates, rather than a traditional rectangular “comic strip” design (like I used to use from 2010-2013). Originally, this was just because I wanted my comic updates to be the same size as most of my watercolour paintings are – but I soon realised that this design was vastly superior to the old rectangular design I used to use.
Not only did this allow me to use larger panels, whilst also making my comics less wide (so they’ll display slightly larger when viewed on a computer) – but it also meant that the panels themselves were perfectly square. Whilst long and thin panels are useful if you want to cram a lot of dialogue into each panel, they also mean that the art can often be “squashed” slightly. So, having square panels was a good way to strike a balance between the dialogue and artwork.
It’s a design style that still allows me to take inspiration from all of the print comics I’ve read over the years. It’s a design style that requires no real explanation. It’s a design style that makes planning each comic a lot easier. It’s a design style that still instantly makes me think “I’ve made a comic!” when I finish a webcomic update.
Another slightly innovative design decision that I made, again for practical reasons, was to release my “newspaper comic”-style webcomics in mini series of 6-20 daily updates. This was mostly to stop myself from getting webcomic burnout, but it also meant that I could structure these webcomics more like a TV show (eg: with several distinctive “seasons”, rather than one continuos comic).
Whenever I see an inventive or unusual webcomic design, my first thought (after a few seconds of pointless webcomic jealousy) is often something along the lines of “I should copy that“. But, this usually isn’t the best approach to take when designing your webcomic.
If a particular format or style really seems like the kind of thing that you would be a “natural” at, then go for it. But, if it seems complex, unusual or more of an interesting novelty than anything else, then just admire it for what it is and keep using the style that you’ve been using. This might not sound like very good advice, but there are a few reasons why I’ve said it.
When it comes to webcomic design, you need to find a design that is completely intuitive for you. You need to find a design that you can use regularly, without even really thinking about it. You need to find a design that is functional for you. You need to find a design that won’t get in the way of actually making the comic. You need a design that will allow you to keep up with your posting schedule.
Normally, this type of design will evolve of it’s own accord through a lot of trial and error. If you’re not sure how to get started with this, then just start with a “standard” format and see what changes after you’ve been using this format for a while. If you spend a lot of time with one webcomic format, then you’re naturally going to start working out subtle ways to make it more efficient and/or easier to work with.
Although making regular webcomics might look like a glamourous thing to someone who has never made one, the reality is that they can take a fair amount of time and effort. Don’t get me wrong, when it goes well, it can be the coolest thing in the world. But it means that you’ll sometimes be making webcomics when you have writer’s block or when you’re in a rush etc..
So, when it comes to design, it is often better to go for reliability and functionality if you are making webcomics that are posted online regularly. Hyper-inventive designs only usually work in webcomics with no regular update schedule, for the simple reason that working out an inventive design can take almost as long to do as planning the actual comic itself.
And, if you’re making comics that are posted several times a week, then you probably won’t have time for this. So, stick with the design that works for you, even if it might not be particularly “innovative”.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂