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Webcomics format examined by Ellis and Waid


This webcomics thing is heating up!

Actually, what’s heating up is that a new population of webcomics immigrants is moving to this new land and trying to learn the customs and shortcuts of the new society. And the natives—creators who came of age with the web as their native platform—are probably rolling their eyes and going on with business.

Warren Ellis muses on the two-tier format that the immigrants are adapting:

What else do we notice about these three screens?  Two-tier storytelling.  Isn’t it strange how all three teams have gone to two-tier, independent of each other?

Maybe not.  You’ve cut the print page in half.  If you want each screen to make sense as a discrete entity, you have to respect the cut.  If you want each screen to contain enough information to make it worth reading, you need a strategy to maximise your panelling.  And if you want to be able to stretch out and get a big picture in there while still maintaining storytelling coherency, you’ve kind of got to go wide on the page.

¶ Meanwhile, George Gustines at the New York Times has also discovered webcomics, via Mark Waid’s various enterprises.

When reading a traditional comic, the eye cannot help taking in the whole page at once. The digital format and the pace of the Infinite Comic can lead to more surprises. As each successive panel appears on the screen, each tap or click can reveal a new caption, subtly change an illustration or replace it entirely. Focusing and blurring effects can heighten the reading experience or simply allow one to appreciate the artwork, which is richer and more vibrantly colored than the printed page.

Mr. Waid, a celebrated writer for Marvel, DC Comics and small publishers, noted that there were compromises in making digital comics. The Web may be infinite, but the borders of monitors, tablets and smartphone screens are not. Even on an iPad, the “canvas” is about 20 percent smaller than the standard comic book page. But “the trade-off is international distribution,” Mr. Waid said, “as opposed to having to rely on niche hobby shops scattered across the nation.”


  1. Heh! We’re doing it wrong.

    I just think it’s kind of ironic that print comics peeps are flocking to the web, when us webcomickers rely on print to make any real money.

    That’s right — if we want to make money off the work itself, we print it. On real paper made from real trees.

    Go figure. ;)

    We’d actually started with the two tier format, and went to a more traditional page layout after our first GN. Why? It was a pain to smoosh the pages back together for print and readers felt that they were actually getting “less” comic, if that makes sense.

    Again… our format changed because it was easier to *print* — because that’s where the money actually is.

    We’ve been doing our webcomic for about two years now and get pretty decent traffic (averaging over a half million monthly page views from 50,000 visitors) It’s much more exposure than we’d get by self-publishing alone, but only a small percentage of those readers support us financially.

    So we’ve got traffic, some wonderful fans… and hellacious hosting bills. Sure, we get a few hundred a month in ad revenue and donations and such, but it’s eaten up pretty quickly by the expense of keeping the site chugging along.

    Eh, maybe we’re just doing it wrong. If others can figure out how to better monetize the webcomic itself — vs. relying on print or merch (that’s often unrelated to the actual comic) — that’s awesome. I’d really love to hear it.

    (Now, to be fair we ARE trying something different to try and monetize digitally — we just launched a Kickstarter a day or so ago for an immersive comics reader App, but it seems like print campaigns tend to take off faster: http://kck.st/MVG6Be)

  2. Ironic that advancing tech pushes storytelling back from “splash page every page” style of the last decade or two back to the panel grid based style of the newspaper strip of old.

  3. We adopted a similar format for the webcomics Contropussy and Hot Mess a few years back, citing the need for the stories to fit e-readers and small laptop screens. Glad to see Waid and Ellis confirm what we were on to and that the mainstream comic media is taking note.

    To bounce off of what Kneon is saying, I rather welcome creative talent inviting their built-ins audiences over to the web. There’s room for all here!

  4. Sunday comics use three different layouts:

    named for how much space they occupy on a traditional comics page.

    (Please look, to understand panel layout)

    The last major strip to use a half-page was Calvin & Hobbes, and that did not conform to the traditional six panel layout. (4 squares x 3 tiers)

    Usually, the first two panels are not related to the rest of the comic, as they will be discarded if the strip is run at third size. (4 squares wide x 2 tiers) (Why run a comic at third? The panels are not reduced from the half-page layout.)

    In a quarter layout, all the panels are used, but are shrunk. (6 squares wide x 2 tiers)

    There is an alternative layout, used for tabloids and comics:
    2 3
    4 5
    which has four tiers. (3 panels wide, 4 tiers)

    The half-page layout has three tiers, the third and quarter have two.

    Using the Sunday comics template adapted for a 5:4 monitor, a four tier by four panel layout would work (half/third). Using the quarter layout, it is possible to run five tiers by six panels. (This would also fit the 4:3 ratio of iPads.)

    My suggestion: display a post-sabbatical Calvin & Hobbes Sunday comic strip on an iPad. How much detail is lost?

    Then paste two third Sunday comics together into a four tier comic, and see how that displays.

    (Or do a Google Image search for various Sunday comics and see how they display “full image” on a tablet.)

    As to Ellis’ conjecture that only half of the page can be used, limiting the experience:

    Compare to the Carl Barks and Asterix layouts.

    Barks used one sheet of paper for half a page of art (as seen in his splash panels using half of a page). Generally, his pages used four tiers of panels. Asterix uses the same layout, as does Lucky Luke.

    This layout is perfect for mass market paperbacks, as two tiers can be rotated ninety degrees to fit one page. The opposite page runs the bottom two tiers of the original art.

    Superman in Action Comics #1 used three tiers. Other stories in that issue generally use an eight-panel, four-tier, layout (2×4). Batman in Detective Comics #27 uses four tiers.

    Yes, it means you can’t have a double-page-spread (four pages of art board, if using the Barks method). Nor can you have a full-page spread (two pages of board). You can have a half-page spread, which Barks used infrequently in the middle of stories, and since the reader is used to smaller panels on tiers, the half-page panel has the impact that a full-page splash would have. The panoramic scenes of Tralla-la are quite effective, yet are economical, allowing for the regular tiers to tell more story, giving a satisfying chunk of story in 22 pages. (Or ten pages.)

    Compare to Supergirl #9, which has 71 panels on 20 pages. 3.5 panels per page! Compared to Uncle Scrooge, which would have 5-8 panels per page. (If you do a word count, it’s even worse: 16 panels have one word balloon, 6 panels are silent or have just a sound effect in the Supergirl comic.)

    So maybe a limited homestead for these new immigrants is a good thing.

  5. My favorite webcomics use 4 tier layouts. I think old guys who can’t get with the times are using 2 tiers. They’re squares.

  6. Waid and others like him are anticipating the success of digital delivery of comics through mobile devices. The goal is to reach an untapped audience that is suddenly discovering comics and to make their experience as convenient and entertaining as possible. This of course is also anticipating the death of print comics.

    It makes sense to format the work with the intended delivery in mind. Eliiis was clear that his work on Freakangels was developed with print in mind and the digital deliver adapted to that primary focus. The same would be true of a comic designed for digital to be adapted to print.

    This reminds me a lot of when Marvel would slice up a comic page to make it conform to a Pocketbook format. The end result was usually offensive only to hardcore comic fans who understood the difference.

  7. I find it weird that there’s so much attention on the format of webcomics, as if it matters that much. Look at Kate Beacon, probably the most successful webcomic cartoonist who has made the transition to print. All her comics vary in size, sometimes even in style, and people still read it because it’s good. There are times when her comics are just one long scroll, with lots of white space in between each drawing. Doesn’t affect it one bit.

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