How Much Realism Should You Include In Your Webcomic?

2016 Artwork Webcomic realism article

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how realistic webcomics should be. This is one of those questions where there aren’t really any “right” or “wrong” answers or, more accurately, the “right” answer will depend on both the writer and the context. However, as I’ll explain later, it’s near-impossible to make a “100% realistic” webcomic for a number of reasons.

I’ve been thinking about this subject because I found myself distracted by TV Tropes repeatedly in the days before writing this article. In particular, one page called “Reality Is Unrealistic” which lists many of the common misconceptions people have about reality due to inaccurate portrayals in films, TV shows, comics, novels, video games etc…

This, of course, made me think about the subject of realism in webcomics. The interesting thing is that different webcomic creators have different attitudes towards the levels of realism in their comics – whilst some comics like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” might include realistic social commentary, realistic characters etc.. they also occasionally include things like supernatural creatures and other highly unrealistic things.

Even a “realistic”/ “serious” webcomic like Jeph Jacques’ “Questionable Content” still features some fairly low-key science fiction elements (eg: highly advanced robots, extremely advanced space stations etc..). I haven’t followed this comic for quite a while, but just a quick look at it still shows that it contains these sci-fi elements (even if I don’t recognise any of the new characters).

On the other hand, more comedic webcomics like Zach Wiener’s “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” or Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant!” take an even more malleable approach to realism for the sake of humour, even if they focus on historical and/or scientific topics.

But, ironically, the most realistic daily comics can often be found in newspapers. Peattie and Taylor’s “Alex” springs to mind for starters, but even that will very rarely feature unrealistic settings and characters (eg: Narnia, the ghost of Christmas past etc..) for the sake of comedy. Likewise, Scott Adams’ “Dilbert“, a newspaper cartoon about mundane office work, features a talking dog.

But, as you may have noticed, regular comics – whether in print or online- very rarely feature a completely “realistic” depiction of the world. If anything, it’s probably best to talk about degrees of realism, rather than whether a comic is realistic or not.

There are a lot of reasons why daily and/or weekly comics are very rarely “100% realistic”. The first is due to the medium itself – since cartoons are often drawn in a fairly stylised way, they are unrealistic by their very nature. As such, it’s often less of a surprise or a shock when a comic includes unrealistic elements (eg: when compared to a TV show etc..).

Likewise, cartoons have a long history of being comedic – and good comedy will often subvert the audience’s “realistic” expectations. So, including any kind of humour in your webcomic will usually involve making your comic slightly “unrealistic” in some way or another.

Secondly, webcomics are often made by just one or two people (often to a tight schedule) and, as such, the creators may not have the time to research everything. This is usually why comics can end up including unintentionally unrealistic elements.

Likewise, it is often easier to find inspiration regularly for daily comics if you have a few unrealistic elements you can use when you’re feeling slightly uninspired. If your webcomic is strictly constrained by the “rules” of reality, then thinking of good comic ideas can become significantly more challenging.

Thirdly, reality is – for the most part- extremely boring. People read webcomics and comics to escape from reality.

There’s no rule against making your webcomic “100% realistic”, but I wouldn’t advise doing this unless you are extremely confident in your abilities and are prepared to do a lot of research. Even then, there’s still the risk that your comic might become unintentionally unrealistic. So, if you want to make a “realistic” webcomic, then it’s usually best to aim to be “90% realistic” or something like that.

However, although I’d argue that webcomics should be at least slightly unrealistic, they should still have their own consistent “rules” regarding unrealistic elements. This is mostly so that the audience will know what to expect and to give the illusion of a “realistic” setting, albeit with a few unusual elements. The instant that your comic becomes something where “literally anything can happen”

For example, when I re-started an old occasional webcomic series this year (look in the “2016” section of this page for more comics) one of my rules was “Zombies can exist, but ghosts cannot”, as shown in this cartoon:

"Damania Resurgence - Debunked (Censored Version)" By C. A. Brown

“Damania Resurgence – Debunked (Censored Version)” By C. A. Brown

This rule allows me to include “unrealistic” horror-based humour, but it also means that the audience knows what to expect. Were a ghost to suddenly show up in the comic, it would seem “unrealistic” in context and ruin the comic update in question. So, even in “unrealistic” comics, the audience still expects some level of consistency and predictability.

At the end of the day, go for a level of realism that feels comfortable to you and which works well in the context of your comic. Yes, it can take a bit of trial and error to work out exactly how realistic you want your webcomic to be – but it’s a subject that is worth thinking about.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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