“Evolution” of comics

In reading several of year end wrap ups for the webcomics scene, I’ve seen the term “evolution of the art form” of comics used several times. I just have one question: What does this phrase mean?

There are two ways in which the word “evolution” is used, and I’m curious what people intend. In everyday speech, “evolution” means a growth into something more advanced than it was before. More (scientifically) accurate, it means an adaptation to/from/with a new environment, but not connoting any sort of advancement or progression.

If people mean the second sense of “evolution,” then I can totally understand it. The Internet is very different environment posing interesting avenues for adaptation.

However, if people mean “evolution” in the first sense, regarding a progression to something better…

In what qualitative ways has the “comic medium” really become more “advanced” in the last hundred years at all? People are still drawing pictures in sequence and pairing them with words. Yes, the structure has changed – a la “language change,” but this type of gradual unconcious change isn’t what I think people mean.

So, some new methods of coloring have emerged from new technologies, and the Internet allows for different packaging in layouts. For formalists, I can understand how these experiments provide a fertile realm for experimentation, but in most cases they don’t radically change the content of the story much (that a “message” is being conveyed by sequential images). To me, layout change like the Infinite Canvas seems a little superficial to call a major evolution – it just provides interesting (artistic) formalist experimenting.

And, some may argue that writing and storytelling have gotten better over the years, which in some domains is certainly true. Then again, pick up a book of Winsor McCay and it might surprise you. Of course, good writing and storytelling aren’t dependent on the media they’re enacted on. Someone could write a masterpiece on the nearly-infinite-canvas of a toilet paper roll and it could be just as good writing as something on the Internet.

I’ve also seen the term “evolution” used regarding economics and fandom. Without a doubt, the web provides economic potential for creators that has never been seen before. And, inventions like OhNoRobot! for fandom does provide a resource unique to the power of the web. This is certainly adaptationist.

So, what I want to ask then, is the “evolutionary potential” of the Internet simply for economics purposes and for formalists? If these are what people are using this term for, it has nothing to do with the “art form” of sequential images. Am I right that this is somewhat of a flowery vacuous term, or am I just missing something?


  • Now, I myself am a bit of a formalist and that’s what excites me about the potential of webcomics. I don’t know about “evolution”, but I think webcomics has the potential for a different experience than standard comics. Take your mention of the infinite canvas.

    Not to argue that infinite canvas is a major advance in storytelling or anything, but I do think the difference can be a little more than superficial. Take (from Randy Carboni’s Mermbutcomics). Essentially it is a single wordless image. Taken as a whole it tells a story, yes, but it is not what one would consider “comics.”

    But, presented in infinite canvas the act of scrolling effectively splits the image up. As we scroll through we read a little bit more information which we then process into a “story.” There are no explicit panel divisions but the experience of reading the image is much different than taking it in whole. The scroll/split is read more like comics, yet it is also a different reading experience than panel-to-panel narrative.

    This piece by piece reveal is unique to the infinite canvas. I think it’s at least a slightly different “grammar” than standard comics. coupling it with animated transitions (, )adds another dimension to the reading.

    Not all infinite canvas takes advantage of this property and much of it is just a new packaging of an old form. But I think the potential is there to maybe make at least a tiny revolution in the what comics can be.

    But for the most part any talk of evolution is indeed a “flowery vacuous term.” webcomics is in large part a flowery vacuous community filled with much hype and hyperbole.

  • I do agree with your comments. I can see how the Infinite Canvas and digital delivery can alter a reading experience in significant ways, but the alteration of the structural form is still largely superficial. It really only changes the navigation system. Not that this couldn’t lead to broader changes in the actual visual grammar — it certainly could — but since its largely limited to formalist ventures that won’t go a long way in broad scale changes for a community.

    I should also add that I do enjoy formalist experiments, though they largely break from VL grammar. Your piece about pets was a very cool piece of artistry, though I wouldn’t say it follows the visual language grammar.

    I also thought Merbutcomics piece was cool. The aerial view of imprints in sand is very much the way that the Australian sand narratives work.

    I’d say that here the units (panels) are “null” valued (not depicted, but implicit), and that the path of footprints gives the linearity, not the scrolling. Again though, the scrolling device is still just a navigation change from our intuitive preferences of reading a page. It may be a “single image,” but the shape of a browser forces you to read only a portion at a time.

    Technically, though a regular “comic” page doesn’t give preferences for how its read either (its a “single image” in this regard), but its units are demarkated and we have a rule system for our reading order. Don’t forget, trails and numbering were used plenty in early “comics,” even when they were just a linear strip.

  • It may be a “single image,” but the shape of a browser forces you to read only a portion at a time.

    That’s my point exactly. Only a few infinite canvases, and this particular strip is one, take advantage of this effect. Taken as a whole it is not a comic. There is no demarkation of “time.” As you say, the footprints give the impression of linearity.
    We could just as well be following just behind who ever was leaving the footprints, in “real” time – but only as viewed through the widow of the browser. Taken as a whole the footprints are simply a physical record of the event. It’s the navigation that makes the panels implicit and therefore turns the image into comics. The presentation creates the structure. This is only possible in the use of infinite canvas.

    Like I said though, this effect is mainly represents a potential of the form, rather than a standard in the practice. And like you said, it doesn’t (and probably won’t) represent a shift in the community as a whole. But I think this and effects like this (effects unique to the properties of the web) bear closer examination.

  • I certainly agree that there should be further experimentation and examination.

    I don’t think, though, that its the browser that gives the linearity to that piece. The footprints themselves give the linearity and that linearity could come out even if the whole thing was presented as one image on a wall.

    The browser just means that we experience them piece by piece. The difference is that reading it off a wall lets you see the whole of the piece — but how is this different from seeing the whole of a comic page?

    I will concede that this creates a very different reading experience than reading it off a single image would, and that’s certainly a worthy realm to play with, but structurally its still just a navigation issue.

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