Panels in pixels

Webcomics are unhindered by censorship, cost, and creative restrictions

July 07, 2018 06:00 pm | Updated 06:00 pm IST

 On the infinite canvas: Panels from an Inedible India strip.

On the infinite canvas: Panels from an Inedible India strip.

Open Stuart Campbell’s webcomics, These Memories Won’t Last, and you find a elderly man with baffled eyes ensconced in a sofa, which is bobbing on the screen to the accompaniment of doom-laden music. As you scroll down the webpage, he goes slowly up and wispy clouds rush in, enveloping him in a haze and making the last-seen panels disappear.

The clouds are a metaphor for what is happening to the man — meant to represent Campbell’s grandfather, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, losing his short-term memories, while events that happened decades ago are coming back to him with the vividness of immediate reality.

These Memories Won’t Last (2016) was nominated for the Eisner Awards, the comics industry’s Oscars. The experience is immersive, and you are made to participate in the story in a way that taps into the web’s unique potential and fast-changing landscape. Created using HTML5, it is meant to work with the current web browser software and may not be readable as technology changes. Technological obsolescence is part of the theme — grandfather and his memories may soon become undecipherable too.

Unique to the space

Webcomics such These Memories offer an experience that cannot be reproduced in print. It is special to the space of the Internet

and a homage to the unique opportunities offered by technology.

Published on the web in 1995, Scott Adams’s Dilbert was the first syndicated comic strip to appear online for free. In a way, it established the ethos of the webcomics culture — unhindered by censorship, free of cost for the reader, at least initially, and enabling direct communication between creator and reader. Big Panda, launched in 1997, was the first site for webcomics; it was soon replaced by the pay-to-read site Keenspot (2000), followed by Modern Tales (2002), which introduced webcomics as a commercial venture. Its viability inspired giants such as Marvel and DC to digitise too, through websites like comiXology.

Meanwhile, webcomics have continued to gain popularity. News aggregator Reddit hosts a sub-Reddit for comics, which has almost a million subscribers. Recently, Global Webcomics Web Archive was launched to “preserve selected webcomics and creator websites from all over the world.”

Inexpensive, to boot

Webcomics don’t have to deal with the space restrictions of print. Comics theorist Scott McCloud calls the web space the comics’ “infinite canvas.” Produced using software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator, webcomics can toy with non-traditional, interactive formats of storytelling, covering varied genres and styles. The production is inexpensive to boot.

Another feature of webcomics is the exploitables — templates derived from original online comics which Internet users can ‘exploit’ by adding their own context and meaning.

Online comics continue to thrive side by side: The Oatmeal , xkcd , Hark! A Vagrant , Cyanide and Happiness , Lunarbaboon and Jake Likes Onions enjoy wide readership. With their wit and humour, they appeal to the post-modern mind, which likes to make fun of grand narratives. In xkcd ’s String Theory, for instance, Randall Munroe makes superb use of two stick figures to mock the inconclusiveness of that monumental theory of physics.

In India, the number of webcomics is on the rise. Brown Paper Bag , The Vigil Idiot , Inedible India and Royal Existentials , with their snark, concision and perfect punchlines, are popular. They usually work by subverting Indian stereotypes.

A strip by Brown Paper Bag, for instance, has a policeman condemning a woman’s choice of clothes but letting the men who harass her go scot-free. Inedible India, a play on ‘Incredible India’, and Royal Existentials use vintage Indian art to make socio-political comments. A Ravi Varma painting becomes a sarcastic take on capital punishment in an Inedible India strip. They are bound to get more popular with time.

The authors are affiliated to the National Institute of Technology, Trichy.

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