Friday, December 13, 2013

Some Thoughts On Webcomic Design

In re-imagining Army Ants as a webcomic series instead of a series of full comic books or graphic novels, I've made some changes to the approach I take to design and storytelling. I've found that the slower pace of working on the story one page at a time has caused me to slow down and be more purposeful in some of my decision making (which is a GREAT thing).

With each page of webcomic, a few key objectives guide the decisions I make. Each page should:

- Progress the story. The story has to take at least one step forward. I know that the pacing of a story is going to slow down considerably compared to the same story told over 16 pages of comics. I've been deeply influenced by Prince Valiant here. I'm willing to take a (hopefully minor) hit to the continuity of pages when they are read over an extended period of time to have each webcomic stand alone a little better. I was struck by this while reading a Prince Valiant collection earlier this year (and I'm getting a new one for Christmas - Volume 4 I think - looking forward to it!). Each individual page is a good chunk of story, but I feel like I can only read a few pages at a time. It's not the kind of book you sit down and read cover-to-cover (at least I don't). It's something that I linger over for an extended period, making my way slowly through the text. I expect that the next Army Ants collection may elicit a similar response. Right now, I feel like the two collections that are in print read quite breezy - you can move through either volume in an hour or two. The webcomics are simply denser in regards to storytelling.

- Have some payoff. There should be a moment of emotional or intellectual satisfaction for the reader. There should be the opportunity for a laugh, a moment of empathizing with a character, a moment where the reader as an 'ah ha!', or a bit of drama. 

- Illuminate at least one character. There should be an aspect of character revealed/reinforced/developed in each page. You should feel after reading a page that you know at least one of the characters a little better.

- Bonus Points: An Image. Ideally (although this cannot be a for sure thing every strip) have at least one image that is memorable/cool/interesting/well-composed. Yeah, I know. The whole THING should be this way. However, some panels are going to be talking heads or establishing shots (how many times have I drawn a long shot of the wasp hive to establish that as the setting?). I typically build a strip around one image that came to mind, and I want to make sure that this image stands out in some way. Sometimes, the repetition of the same image (as in this page with Phil) is fundamental to the way the story is happening (I use the same framing to establish pacing, sacrificing cool visuals to make that happen). 

As far as technical things go, I've gone full circle back to crafting the comics on Bristol Board, in the following order:
1. Drawing the whole thing in a 2H pencil and roughing in the lettering (images are 10" wide and 7.5" tall). 
2. Go in and write in the lettering with a fine tip marker.
3. Put in balloon borders and panel borders with a broad tip marker.
4. Rough in most of the line work with a broad tip marker.
5. Go back and do detail work I missed and draw in all line work/hatching/shading with a fine tip marker.
6. Go back and drop in large areas of black with a Sharpie.
7. Erase (this usually takes a few sweeps - erase/clean off shavings/find areas I missed/repeat until done).
8. Scan at 600 dpi in black and white and save as a jpg.
9. Clean up and drop in grey areas (if applicable). I sometimes have to save as a bmp first to clean out the clutter from the image to get clean fill with the grey.
10. Save as a smaller file at 700 pixels wide for publication on the web.

This allows me to publish an image that fits nicely on a monitor, but which when I publish in a comics collection later on will allow me to get two webcomics to a page. In only 120 more comics (so about two years - yikes!) I'll have enough material to publish a third TPB. Honestly, the pace I'm at now (I can create an entire page in about two and a half hours) puts me in a position to MAYBE step up the publication schedule early next year to get back to two strips per week. It's nice to know that when I sit down after putting Gracie to bed with a blank page I can have an entire webcomic done before I go to bed.

The final thing that's different is my overall approach to the extended story. I have a 'general' sense of where the comic will be in the next 30-50 strips, a good idea of what's happening in the next 6-10 strips, and a solid idea of what's happening in the strip following the one I'm working on now. Each strip paints me into a corner, and limits my options going forward. It's a fun way to tell stories. For Year of the Ant, I knew far more details of the end of the story when I started it than I do now with Fall of Valhalla. I know how it ends, and I know some of the key points along the way, but many of the details are still up for grabs. It may take 30 strips to tell the story (unlikely, but possible), it may take 50 (more likely) or it could take 100 (that might be pushing it). Right now, I'm letting it tell itself.