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POW! Web comics burst out of the panel.

An infinite medium leaves room for innovation — and new artists

By Tony Rehagen

In his 2000 book, Reinventing Comics, cartoonist and comics theorist Scott McCloud proposed a revolutionary idea. He suggested that the nascent internet could forever change how comics work. No longer would artists be confined to the physical page. Online, as long as artists still placed one panel next to the other, they could take their stories in any direction they wanted. Readers would be able to scroll left, right, up, down, and diagonally, through time and space, on and on into infinity. McCloud called his theoretical drawing board the “Infinite Canvas.”

And then, for more than a decade, nothing happened. Oddly, though comics’ tales of super-hero fantasy, adventure and sci-fi have stretched generations of readers’ imaginations, the pulpy, colorful medium has been physically fixed in the past. Like everything else, comics migrated online, but only in static virtual strips that fit into a single screen and e-books that could be tapped through on a tablet — left-to-right, left-to-right — just like any comic book that had ever existed.

Finally, in the past five or six years, writers’ ambitions for the technology of comics have started to catch up with their creativity. Digital platforms like Marvel’s Infinite Comics, Watchmen author Alan Moore’s Electricomics, and the wildly popular Korean-based WEBTOON have created outlets for new, direct-to-web comics of all genres.

In these stories, readers can find the little digital candy — the animations, music, and sound effects — that one might expect. But the real change in online comics is the realization of McCloud’s infinite canvas, a fundamental shift in how readers engage with the medium.

“Comics can take you forward and backward or stop time altogether. These digital technologies expand the ways to represent and express time.”

Hillary Chute, a distinguished professor of art and design at Northeastern University

“At its roots, comics represents different moments of time as space,” says Hillary Chute, a distinguished professor of art and design at Northeastern University who has written or edited six books about comics and graphic storytelling. “Each frame is a moment. Depending on sequence, comics can take you forward and backward or stop time altogether. This can be amplified in an online setting. All of these digital technologies expand the ways to represent and express time.”

Comics have always been unique among media in the way they depict time. Each panel captures a scene, a moment in a story. Depending on the size of the panel and its words and symbols, that moment can last a split second or a minute or as long as the reader wants it to last. Almost all of the story’s action actually takes place between those static pictures, in the blank space, or “gutter,” that separates two panels — and inside the reader’s mind. As a result, traditional cartoonists had to plan their stories around page sizes, page breaks, and page counts.

So far, web comics’ industry standard has followed user habits: Most simply scroll down. But the new format allows another change that fits McCloud’s “infinite canvas” vision: the panels (and gutters) can be as short and long as the writer wants. For instance, a web comic might open on an aerial shot of a cityscape. Then, as the reader scrolls through, the panels gradually zoom in on a block, a building, a window, and then a specific character. Small, wordless frames capture quick moments that fly past like a virtual flip book. Suspense can build as the reader frantically (or hesitantly) scrolls through long black gutters to reach the climactic scene. The effect is almost cinematic.  

“With scrolling, every panel becomes a reveal,” says Stephen McCranie, creator and illustrator of Spaceboy, a popular sci-fi comic on WEBTOON. “You can make moments last a bit longer. Traditionally, the audience has been able to read as fast as they want to. Now, they’re forced to sit for a while.”

Web comics are also returning control to the creators in another way — by providing the tools and forums for up-and-coming voices. No longer do budding artists need to go through the gatekeeper publishing houses to be read. “There is something about comics throughout history that has always been about immediacy and urgency,” says Chute. “Like the underground comics of old, you draw what you want, print it immediately, and then publish in an uncensored and unedited space.”

WEBTOON, which launched its English language service in 2014, is at the forefront of this movement. The site’s main platform, which is open to anyone, has featured 100,000 series in the past six years and now attracts 10 million monthly readers. Meanwhile, WEBTOON Originals, a curated site that pays its comics writers, is home to some of the biggest names in web comics and has 1.5 billion app views worldwide outside of South Korea.

This open marketplace of ideas not only produces a seemingly endless stream of comics, but some artists believe it’s also bound to yield some of the more exciting future innovations in comics and graphic novels. WEBTOON already includes vertical comics, animated comics with music, and even choose-your-own-adventure comics. Maybe someday, someone will come up with an augmented-reality comic that will enable the reader to virtually explore a panel then, “jump” across the gutter.

With all these multimedia possibilities, at what point do comics cease to be comics and start being something else? “I don’t place that much importance on what is or is not comics,” says Chute. “If people are interested in comics, they’re interested in the relationship between words and pictures in the service of telling a story.”

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Tony Rehagen is a writer based in St. Louis.

Top image by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images

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