Webcomics Vs. eBook Readers

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

Okay, so the Amazon’s Kindle can’t handle images.  Neither, for that matter, can Sony’s Portable Reader System, a similar E Ink product that arrived in 2006 but received considerably less buzz.  This lack of image support has caused much complaint both within webcomics and in the general market.  Obviously, a device without image support is useless to webcomics readers and creators.  But the level of disappointment surprised me.  It hadn’t occurred to me that webcomics readers were really waiting for a new portable display technology.  Nearly every major display we have readily available on the market today is optimized for image display, from computer monitors to television screens, to PDAs, iPhones, and iPods.  And plenty of those are portable.  Granted, PDAs and iPods aren’t ideally sized for reading comics, but as laptops get increasingly lighter and more tablet-like, they will almost certainly fill the portable reader needs of any comics fan.

eBook readers simply aren’t needed for digital comics to advance.  There’s no lack of consumer technology for viewing images.  What we lack is a consumer technology that adequately handles large chunks of text.  That’s the point of E Ink—it makes large blocks of text more readable by eliminating the backlight and glare typical of existing display tech.  That said, it’s still a new technology.  Of course it will eventually handle images as well.  The fact that it doesn’t need to is beside the point—I don’t need image support in order to listen to music on my iPod either, but it sure didn’t take long for that to show up.  And there’s much more demand for images on eBook readers than there ever was for images on iPods.

The big question isn’t “if” or even “when,” since it probably won’t be very long—prototypes have already been seen—but “what will images look like on the new technology?”  Again, eBook readers aren’t backlit, and they don’t have much glare.  Those two aspects are what make screen displays appear similar to high-gloss paper.  Take them away, and you take away the glossiness as well.  (That’s the goal, after all, since glossiness isn’t well suited to text.)  Does that mean that comics won’t look as good as they do on screen?  Well, yes and no: different comics will look good on different devices, just as different comics look their best on different kinds of paper.  Black and white line art tends to look better with less gloss.  So does color artwork that strives for a more antique quality, such as Seth or Chris Ware.  But flashier art styles that use a lot of bold colors may end up looking flat or washed out, even once the technology matures.

And that diversification of display quality may be the most interesting possibility that eBooks have to offer webcomics—just as we have options other than high gloss when creating a print project, we may finally have an option other than high gloss when creating for the screen as well.  For those interested in exploring matte palettes, eBook readers may ultimately offer not just a new distribution channel, but new artistic opportunities as well.

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RSS Reconsidered

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

Last month I presented a list of webcomics technologies that have failed to ignite my technophilic enthusiasm, despite their popularity or general usefulness. Over the past several weeks, I have given one of those technologies, RSS, a second chance.

First a quick recap of my original objections to RSS, based on my early attempts to use RSS readers:

  1. Tracking RSS reads required keeping an additional application open, on top of my usual web browser. I’m already a multi-tasker, and disliked the additional clutter.
  2. As a creator, I wasn’t keen on having to create and maintain another tool for my website.
  3. As a reader, I found that only about a quarter of the blogs/comics I read had RSS feeds at the time, so using the reader didn’t really save me much effort anyway.
  4. Once my web browser was open, I just didn’t often remember to open the RSS reader, since it was basically redundant technology.

Despite all this, I did respect the goal of RSS — I can certainly appreciate the desire to have a single service tracking my web reads, keeping me informed of updates, so that I don’t waste time looking at sites that haven’t changed since my last visit. For this reason, I fell in love with Piperka.net rather quickly. It performs that same function, but without any of the problems that made RSS unsatisfactory; Piperka is a website that I can keep open in a tab of my regular web browser, and it can track almost any webcomic with no effort on the part of creators.

Of course, Piperka isn’t perfect. Comics that use non-standard content management don’t slip easily into the system (It’s only recently that Dicebox was finally included, and even now it only seems to catch updates when there’s a new chapter, rather than a weekly update). And for some reason Piperka will occasionally miss updates, sometimes several in a row, but will later randomly catch up. Or not, depending on the strip. I can’t remember the last time Dan Mazur’s Palindramas showed up in my Piperka updates, even though it updates pretty regularly. So there’s definitely room for improvement.

So, with all that in mind, several weeks ago I adopted Google Reader as my primary tool for following any webcomic I read that supports RSS. And just to be completely thorough in my experiment, I added most of the blogs I read to my RSS subscription list as well.

Some of my original objections fell away immediately — Google Reader is web-based, just like Piperka, and can be used in just as convenient a fashion, with no need for extra applications. I also found that a much larger percentage of my regular reads support RSS these days. The fact that so many comics hosting services have automated RSS feeds certainly helps. In fact, there were only a handful of exceptions among webcomics, and the only blog I couldn’t find a feed for was This Modern World.

Given the current near-ubiquity of RSS feeds, the RSS reader wound up with an advantage over Piperka — it’s much rarer for it to miss an update than for Piperka. In fact, the only site whose updates I’ve noticed as absent from my RSS reader is Webcomics.com. Whether this is due to a glitch in the reader or an error in the site’s own RSS code, I couldn’t say.

Another advantage that Google Reader offers over Piperka is the option of collecting webcomic and blog updates directly in the reader. Piperka is able to track any webcomic, with or without creator approval, precisely because it doesn’t scrape any content from the sites; it simply lets users know when those sites have updated. On the other side, since RSS feeds are creator-defined, they allow creators to opt-in to RSS syndication. Not all do, but enough do to make it a worthwhile feature for users of the software. And so long as all you want from the site is the comic itself, the presentation is perfectly satisfactory. My only major frustration on this front has been the Narbonic Director’s Commentary, where the feed sends me each day’s strip (which I’ve already read) but not the commentary (which is what I’m now following the strip for).

Ironically, I’m far less satisfied with the technology’s handling of blogs. Neither Journalista nor The Comics Reporter include images in their feeds, which is a big part of the value of both those sites. Journalista’s feed is still useful, since the bulk of the blog is text, though the lack of images makes it harder to scan quickly for interesting items. The Comics Reporter becomes nearly unreadable without images, however, since Tom Spurgeon has a habit of making posts with nothing but an image, a title, and a link to the subject of the post. And since the links are tied to the images, you don’t get those either, making it impossible to judge my interest in any of the books or events he’s mentioning without jumping back to his site for each one. And if that’s not troublesome enough, his posts also come through my RSS reader without any line or page breaks, making longer articles completely unreadable.

Of course, most of these content inclusion difficulties are likely due to user implementation, not a fault of the technology itself. And, with the exception of the missing paragraph breaks in The Comics Reporter, may even be conscious decisions on the part of the content creators, since it’s still desirable for them to draw readers back to their largely ad-supported web sites. For content creators, RSS feeds do pose a conundrum in finding a balance between financial self-interest and audience accommodation; creators looking to make money need ad views, while readers don’t want to have to jump out to the website every time there’s a new post. One solution some creators have found for this problem is to imbed advertising directly into their feeds in one way or another.

In the end, though, the problems of RSS are far outweighed by the benefits—I’ve gotten very comfortable with my RSS reader, and don’t see myself dropping it as I have in the past. The technology has matured considerably since my early trials; as of today, I am officially a convert.

Three Technologies I’m Just not that Excited About

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

I love technology. Whether it’s little gadgets like my iPod, or useful applications like Google Calendar, I love all the little tech innovations that make life easier and more fun. The first time I heard about webcomics, I was thrilled. Automated content management? Fantastic! Integration of multi-media elements into webcomics? All over it. Do I want an iPhone or a Kindle? Oh my god, yes. Can I afford them? Not remotely. But I want them nonetheless.

And yet, there are certainly technologies that just don’t excite me. My first response to the “blog” was a hearty “meh.” I haven’t a clue what the appeal of MySpace or LiveJournal is — more industry-oriented variants, like ComicSpace make a little more sense to me, but just barely. And I still have no idea why the hell my telephone needs to take photographs. It’s bad enough that people can call me and talk to me no matter where I am, now they can demand that I send them pictures too? No thanks.

Sometimes I change my mind. Blogging, for instance, has won me over. Once I started seeing professionally themed blogs, news blogs, political blogs, blogs that served an informal journalistic purpose, the idea finally clicked for me. I still ignore most of the blogs that appear under the webcomics I read, but I can see the value of blogs, even if I think there are far too many of them.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to reexamine three webcomics-related technologies that have garnered my thorough disinterest in the past. I will lay out here, for the record, my initial reactions, and the reasons why I’m resistant to them. I will then devote a solid month of active usage to each before reporting back on my experiences and whether or not I’ve been converted.

RSS Feed Distribution

I’ve twice tried to use RSS reader applications to manage my blog reading. (One was Awasu. I can’t remember what the other was.) In both cases, I added about a quarter of the blogs I read to the reader (the other three quarters didn’t offer feeds), then proceeded to follow those blogs in the reader for about two weeks. After that, I stopped using it, mainly because I forgot I even had it. With so few of the blogs I followed readable in that form, I wasn’t able to break the habit of going to my web browser for blog-reading purposes. And, in any case, I disliked having to open a whole other application just to do some extra web browsing, especially since I tend to do my web browsing on more than one computer.

Now, many folks have been singing the praises of RSS feeds as a convenient way of reading comics; Webcomics.com’s own editor, T Campbell described the technology to me as “almost indispensable.” After my uninspiring early encounters with the technology, though, I’m skeptical. I can certainly see the appeal of not having to check every individual webcomic I read. It’s a huge time suck. Which is why I’m a devoted user of Piperka.net — a lovely little service that monitors my webcomics for me, and automatically generates a list of all the sites that have updated since my last visit. And unlike RSS, it manages this without putting any onus on comics authors to add yet another annoying technical doohickey to their websites. This is great for the creator, since they don’t have to do any extra work to have their comic included, and great for me, since almost every comic I read is included, instead of just the ones with RSS feeds.

So what do I need RSS for? I haven’t the faintest idea. One thing I can say for certain, though—if any RSS reader is going to impress me, it has to be web-based. I’m already a multi-tasker; with four or five applications running on my computer at any given time, I certainly don’t need a sixth. And I need to be able to access it from any computer, without installing new software to each one. Fortunately, it looks like RSS readers have moved in that direction since I last tried them out, so maybe my impression really will be different this time around.

Comics for Portable Devices

I already hate using my cell phone for anything at all, up to and including talking on it, so I’m not going to bother trying to read comics on it. But I’m open to trying comics on my iPod. I’ve seen a little bit already — I did download a handful of Brain Fist strips while I was working on my Daniel Merlin Goodbrey article. And I thought Goodbrey made good use of the delivery mechanism, crafting comics that benefited from the odd screen size. But I’m reminded of a Jason Shiga comic that was once described to me — the pages were all laid out vertically in a box. Each page had tabs on it, and the tabs each had holes in them, that allowed the pages to be lifted out with a metal rod. The holes were lined up just right so that inserting the rod into a different series of holes resulted in your lifting out a different series of pages. Each combination of pages told a different story.

It’s a remarkable idea, and my understanding is that the execution was very effective and entertaining. I’d love to see Shiga’s comics contraption in person and spend some time playing with it. But if that was how all of the comics I read were distributed, it’d be pretty ridiculous. It’s just not well suited to anything that isn’t designed expressly for that purpose, and it’s not efficient even for the ones that are. I feel much the same about reading comics on portable devices. It’s nice for the crazy formalist experiments that bend the technology to their will. I don’t mind an occasional inconvenience for the sake of a unique comics experience. But it’s really not how I want to read Wonderella.

Still, I do like my iPod, and I do like finding new uses for it (I just bought my first few RiffTrax today), even if I don’t normally use the video features. And with ClickWheel having just announced a bunch of new features and a deal with 2000AD, now seems like a good time to give the technology a try.

Downloadable Comics

Of the three technologies I’ll be looking at, downloadable comics is the one that I have the least initial opinion on, since I know the least about it. I did set up an account at Wowio a couple months ago, and downloaded a few comics. I read them, and the experience was fine. But I forgot to go back the next day to download more, and haven’t been back since. I just wasn’t that grabbed by it. I’ve never particularly liked reading any sort of document in PDF format, though it certainly has its advantages — the ability to print chief among them. I just wasn’t moved enough to go through the hassle of downloading and storing the files. But I wasn’t exactly turned off by the technology either—this really might be a case where I just need to get used to the new process before the advantages will really become clear to me. For now, let’s just call me “neutral” on the topic, and see what happens once I’ve immersed myself in it for a few weeks.

Start the Clock…

I’ve decided on RSS feeds as the subject of the first of my four-week technology stints. I’ve selected the reader I will use (Google Reader), and have started building my subscription list. For the duration of my trial period, I will use this reader as my primary means of staying up to date with my webcomics, relying on Piperka only for those series that don’t have RSS feeds. Check back next month for my full report.

NOTE: The incarnation of Webcomics.com for which this series was begun ceased publishing prior to the completion of the series.  Only my report on RSS feeds was completed.

A Stray Thought on Digital Comics Hardware

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

When reviewing reader applications for online comics, I was struck by just how much effort Marvel put into solving the problem of presenting vertically oriented comics on a horizontal screen. With multiple layout options, including full page, double page, various zooms, and their elaborate Smart Panels solution, Marvel’s designers might be a bit overly concerned with this problem; after all, most readers don’t get up in arms over vertical scrolls these days. But I do have to admit, it really would be nicer to be able to see a full page of art at a readable size, rather than having to choose between full pages with illegibly small text, or readable text on incomplete pages.

Still, after reviewing five different comics readers, all of which attempt to address this issue to one extent or another, none entirely satisfactorily, I can’t help thinking that the final answer to this issue won’t be new software, but rather new hardware.

The first time I saw a commercial for the iPhone, the feature that caught my attention more than any other wasn’t the touch screen, or the convergence of technologies, or the convenience of real portable internet access. It was the simple fact that when you turn the device upright, the screen automatically reorients itself, switching smoothly between wide-screen and tall-screen layouts. It’s probably not a particularly vital feature to a handheld internet telephone, but if my desktop monitor could do that, then print formatted comics could look just as good on screen as any web-native strip. You could even utilize the beautiful high res full screens such as in CBZ files or DC’s Zuda, and really make the most of both the page and your screen.

If comics were the only use for such technology, then it wouldn’t likely happen. But it seems there is already a demand for such a device in a number of markets, such as gamers, designers, and even avid users of PDF documents. As a result, rotating monitors, though not yet common, are available: For example, Asus makes a 19” LCD flat screen with 90 degree rotation. Meanwhile, the company Portrait Displays is producing a software package called Pivot that handles the screen reorientation. Such monitors may still be a little pricey for most folks—at $349 (on Amazon), the Asus model I mentioned above is the least expensive I’ve seen. Of course, if you really want the tech now, without dropping the cash, there are plenty of DIY tutorials out there.

So far as I can find, none of the currently available rotating monitors automatically reorient the way the iPhone does, but I have no doubt that the technology will come to our desktops soon enough. And after that, maybe Marvel will feel free to go a little simpler when they design the amazing new reader application for their next online comics initiative.

A Survey of Digital Comics Readers

This article was originally published on webcomics.com in 2008.

Every few years, a traditional comics publisher makes a renewed plunge into the webcomics market. And each time they do, they feel the need to introduce some “revolutionary” new piece of comics presentation software, as if this is what some purely hypothetical online comics industry has been waiting for. “Finally,” we are meant to exclaim, “we can actually read comics online!”

Given how the vast majority of webcomics do just fine as a succession of image files on web pages, it is a curious phenomenon.

There are a few reasons why they do this, such as concerns over Digital Rights Management, as well as efforts at branding the comics reading experience. Neither of these purposes benefit readers, of course, but it’s also increasingly clear that at least some of the comics software developers are making a good effort to improve the comics reading experience. For publishers re-purposing print comics to the screen, the goal is to balance text legibility against the appeal of displaying full pages of artwork all at once. Also, most reader applications attempt to do away with the manual scrolling that some readers complain inhibits their reading enjoyment. Of course, many supposed features of these applications actually make the reading experience more irritating rather than smoother.

With a new batch of such readers having just arrived in the past year, it seems worthwhile to survey the current contenders and see which ones have finally started to pick up on legitimate reader concerns, which have developed worthwhile innovations of their own, and which still think blink text is the hip new thing on the internets.

The first two readers up in this survey are the two that made the biggest headlines last year, coming as they do from major print publishers who have, in the past, shown pretty poor understanding of how to approach web-based comics. These are, of course, Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited (DCU) and DC’s Zuda Comics.  The other reader applications covered in this article had smaller budgets to work with, but really seem to have been designed with reader or artist concerns in mind. None of these is as high profile as Zuda or Digital Comics Unlimited, but each has its own advantages—and two even have the advantage of being available for use by any comics creator.

Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited

Digital Rights Management (DRM), of course, plays a big role in Marvel’s decision to use a reader application (not to mention its decision to only include older comics). Right-clicking has been high-jacked, with all controls removed from the pop up menu. The ethics of DRM can certainly be debated; what can’t is the effectiveness. Since any on-screen DRM can be easily defeated by a simple click on print-screen, readers are pretty useless for this purpose. Also, rumor has it that the reader itself automatically caches copies of the comics pages on the reader’s hard drive, making DCU’s DRM even less effective.

The first bit of good news about Marvel’s digital reader is that you don’t have to keep the default settings. This is very good news indeed, given how awful the default settings are: page transitions use those goofy animated page turns that were cool for about three and a half seconds ten years ago, and the text is much too small to read comfortably unless you use the kludgy magnifying glass tool to blow up individual text panels.

The controls for changing both the transition mode and the page display are easy to find in the top right-hand corner of the reader. Go for “plain” on the page transitions (you can skip right past the “cube” option, unless you really enjoy motion sickness.) As for page display, the single-page display is a big improvement over double-page as far as text goes, though it then requires scrolling, and loses the view of full-page art. The better option is the “Smart Panels” view, which introduces each new page by displaying the full-page art before zooming in to smaller sets of panels with large, readable text. The rectangular outlines that briefly highlight panels as you pass through can be a little distracting at first, but are ignorable. You also have a choice between “smooth” transitions or “jump” transitions. Both are okay; “smooth” introduces a little bit of a lag in text display, but retains a better sense of page flow. “Jump” is a little abrupt, but allows for a more natural reading speed.

The Smart Panels mode also provides the best navigation to be found in this particular reader. All three modes allow you to turn pages with the left and right arrow keys, which is much preferable to hunting the little arrows in the page corners. In Smart Panels mode, you have the added feature of being able to zip back and forth between the panel you’re currently reading and the full-page art—nice if you like stepping back to see how particular panels fit into the larger flow of a page.

One additional navigational option is the “autoforward,” which turns the page automatically after a set interval of time. This one is excellent for readers who enjoy the challenge of having to read very fast, so that they can finish each page before they run out of time. It’s kind of like a speed-reading video game!

None of the modes allows you the basic “click anywhere on the page to advance” navigational methods that most webcomics readers have come to expect as standard.

All told, the reader is bloated, but it really isn’t bad—it has some strangely useless features that you can easily ignore, and some terrible pre-sets that you can easily change, but once you adjust the settings, it offers a reasonably comfortable reading experience. Not an excellent experience, by any means, but much better than seems likely at first. Of course, navigating a confusing set of useless options to get the thing to work properly may be more of a hurdle than many potential subscribers are willing to deal with.

The Good

  • Multiple display options
  • Multiple navigation options
  • Easy toggling between panel view and full-page view

The Bad

  • Bloat
  • Invasive DRM
  • Truly wretched default settings
  • Multiple ridiculously useless, nausea inducing transition modes

The So-So

  • Smart Panels mode offers good readability and art display, but introduces odd panel outlines and possible lag time.
  • The reader seems as though it could support page layouts beyond re-purposed print comics, but that potential is unlikely to ever be tested

DC’s Zuda Comics

While DC also uses the reader to remove the option of saving images from the right-click menu, it at least still makes use of the menu, including a variety of navigation commands. DC does take a slightly looser approach to copy protection than Marvel, though, choosing as they do to include the option of printing out comics pages. Of course, given that DC’s online comics are free, one wonders why they’re concerned about DRM in the first place. There isn’t really a whole lot of incentive to digitally pirate online comics that are already free. Or, at least there wouldn’t be, if not for the fact that some people just don’t like reading comics in reader applications, preferring pure image files. So, essentially, DC’s attempt to prevent piracy introduces incentive to piracy where there previously wasn’t any. So I guess that balances out.

Just like Marvel’s viewer, DC’s Zuda starts the reader off with a bad set of defaults. The reader window is quite small, and the page art is clumsily reduced—not only is the text too small to read comfortably, but the artwork itself is badly aliased. It’s not quite so bad as to be completely unreadable, but it sure makes one wonder whether DC really wants you to read it or not.

Fortunately, Zuda also offers alternative settings; it doesn’t offer as many options as Marvel’s DCU, but that’s largely a good thing, since most of what it leaves out are the useless features. No page flips, cube turns, or autoforwards here. Instead, you just get one lovely alternative: Full Screen mode. And that’s really all you need, because once you go into full screen mode, the artwork pops into beautiful, full-size, high-res images with big readable text. And since Zuda’s content is all web-original, DC mandate has all comics formatted to fit screen dimensions, eliminating any need for scrolling (while also eliminating the flexibility normally associated with online publishing). As useful as Marvel’s Smart Panels are in the Marvel viewer, nothing like that is necessary in Zuda.

Unfortunately, as nice as the full screen display mode is, navigation still leaves something to be desired. Like Marvel, DC has neglected to include “click to advance” navigation. What’s more, the on-screen page turn buttons are even smaller than Marvels, and require the use of an auto-hiding toolbar. Zuda does include keyboard commands as well, but they’re not very intuitive; why on Earth would they assign page turns to the chevron keys instead of the arrow keys? And what’s worse, keyboard navigation gets locked out once you go to full screen mode. (This could be a glitch on my own system, but I tried it in both Firefox and Explorer, and had the same result in both.) This is particularly frustrating, since the full screen mode has the potential to offer a highly immersive reading experience, if only the reader didn’t need to stay aware of the toolbar in order to turn pages. (Alternatively, you could use the navigation commands in the right-click menu, but this isn’t really an improvement.)

Those little navigational glitches are really the only thing holding this reader back. If they just re-enable keyboard commands in full screen mode, and add in click navigation (neither of which should be difficult to do), DC will have a very nice reader on its hands—it’s nicely streamlined, without any unnecessary clutter, and really presents the art in an enjoyable way. It could even pull off the trick of improving the online comics reading experience. So long as you’re in full screen mode, anyway; if you’re actually using Zuda, it’s best to pretend that the small screen mode just doesn’t exist.

The Good

  • Gorgeous full screen display mode
  • Printable pages
  • Perfect screen-fit pages; no scrolling

The Bad

  • Terrible, unreadable small screen default mode
  • Glitchy navigation in full screen mode
  • Rigid page formats
  • Unintuitive keyboard commands

The So-So

  • DRM is present, but half-hearted

ComicMix

To say that ComicMix’s reader prioritizes reader concerns isn’t to say they leave publisher concerns out entirely; ComicMix still includes branding, for instance. But the branding never overshadows the usability of the software or the readability of the comics, as it often does any time a publisher becomes overly concerned with creating a unique reading experience. (Marvel has been particularly susceptible to this pitfall.)

ComicMix’s reader is a simple affair—nothing revolutionary, but nothing pointlessly flashy either. Pages appear as JPG files in the main window (and there’s no DRM here—you can treat these pages like any other JPG file, including saving or copying the images), with a toolbar at the top of the screen for navigating them. The usual options are present: single page view, double page, or thumbnails. The best reading is to be had by zooming in on a single page, but since the pages are print-formatted, this means seeing only half a page at a time. Unfortunately, there is no way to quickly toggle between zoom levels without losing your place on the page.

Navigation is similarly simple. Like Marvel and DC, ComicMix has left out the click-to-advance navigation, but they’ve done the next best thing—one-button scrolling/page turns with the space bar. There are a handful of other keyboard commands available, but with the occasional exception of the zoom controls, you don’t really need any of it; everything essential is achieved with a tap of the space bar. Simple, quick, and easy to find on your keyboard.

All told, using this reader doesn’t feel that much different from reading image files on a standard HTML page, with the addition of zooming controls. That’s a good thing; new readers to ComicMix’s site won’t have to waste any time learning odd controls or hunting for hidden settings. They can just get straight to reading comics.

The Good

  • Simple, intuitive controls
  • No DRM
  • Very easy to jump right into reading comics without needing to learn the software

The Bad

  • No quick toggle for zoom levels

The So-So

  • Adequate display. Readable on par with most traditional webcomics, but no option of high-resolution display.

The Tarquin Engine

The first of the creator-centric readers we’ll be looking at is the Tarquin Engine, a Flash-based reader developed by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, and available, for a fee, to anyone who wants to use it. This reader serves a very different function from the other readers discussed so far, however—it is not designed to ease the reading of print-formatted comics, offers no DRM, and is devoid of any branding efforts. Rather, it is specifically a tool for creators looking to explore more experimental layouts, including infinite canvas works, horizontal-scrollers, and branching narratives, while keeping reader navigation relatively simple and free of manual scrolling.

Navigation in this reader is unlike in any other reader—since it’s intended to handle branching storylines, one-click advancement is impossible, since readers need to be allowed to choose between multiple paths. Instead, navigation is mouse-based, with the mouse pointer turning into navigation arrows that indicate each possible path along the comic. It can be a little confusing at first, but is fairly easy once you’ve spent a few minutes playing with it.

The most impressive examples of The Tarquin Engine at work can be seen in Goodbrey’s own comics, such as Externality or Don’t Shoot the Chronopath. Note that zooming out from an individual panel to view the full page layout, before zooming back in to where you left off is also easy—just click the space around the panels to zoom out, then click on the panel you want to zoom back to.  Other creators have used the reader effectively for much simpler purposes, though, such as the story Birdseed, by Austin Kleon.

Image display is a little trickier. Since the reader is flash based, and integrates a fair amount of dynamic image resizing, it really works best with vector artwork. Scanned artwork often doesn’t look it’s best in this reader, scanned text especially tending to look a bit ragged. (See S.J. Roberts’ Hot Lunch: The Psychadelic Transubstantiation or Nicholas Ivan Ladendorf’s Puppet in Chief: The Media Trix for example.) This may simply be a matter of needing different levels of resolution for different panels, but still, most of the creators using the Tarquin Engine to translate print comics to the web haven’t quite succeeded at keeping the image quality as high as it could be.

Also, unlike the more mainstream readers, The Tarquin Engine is not well suited to very long comics, due to a lack of clear pagination. In other comics readers, even where there is no bookmarking function, it’s a simple matter to note the page you’ve left off on in your reading and get back there later. This functionality could be effectively mimicked; since the software supports external hyperlinks, chapters could be separated into multiple instances of the reader, on unique web pages. The result would be very similar to Brendan Cahill’s presentation of his Flash-based comic, Outside the Box, except with integrated navigation for reaching the next chapter, rather than requiring the “next” button. And this would work just fine, so long as chapters were consistently relatively short. But this method adds yet another step to the process of preparing comics for presentation with the software. Not to mention that that this approach loses the appeal of capturing a large quantity of material with a self-contained application the way more traditional readers do.

In short, the Tarquin Engine offers some very interesting possibilities for formal experimentation; indeed it effectively handles navigational scenarios impossible in any other reader. And while I do hope that the existence of the tool might inspire more creators to explore multi-linear narratives, where traditional comics are concerned, this reader doesn’t achieve anything that can’t be done more easily, for both creators and readers, using other tools. For this reason, it will likely remain a fringe application, brought out almost exclusively for those projects that truly require it.

The Good

  • Enables branching or non-linear narratives
  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Highly customizable to the requirements of individual stories
  • Available to comics creators in the general public

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content
  • Scanned images often appear distorted (possibly due to user error)

The So-So

  • Navigation is effective, but not immediately intuitive
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

Infinite Canvas

Like the Tarquin Engine, Markus Mueller’s Flash-based Infinite Canvas application is designed specifically to empower creators interested in exploring dynamic layouts and infinite canvases. It seems to be capable of handling branching narratives, but is primarily suited to sprawling infinite canvases. Indeed, for handling infinite canvases or side scrolling comics, it is the most elegant option of all the readers examined for this article. (As a caveat, I should mention that one of my own comics was created and is displayed using this application.)

Navigation is simple and intuitive—in addition to basic forward and back arrows, Infinite Canvas is the only reader surveyed that allows readers to advance simply by clicking anywhere on the comic. Tym Godek’s Two Confessions shows the effectiveness of this navigation at its simplest in a brief side-scrolling comic. But, as demonstrated by Derek Badman’s Maroon Part 43, no matter how a comic’s layout twists and turns around the infinite canvas (even allowing diagonals, rotations, and fades), the reader never needs to adjust their approach to navigation—a single click will always take them to the next panel.

This reader could effectively be used for displaying print-formatted comics as well, easily mimicking the panel-to-panel transition mode of Marvel’s Smart Panels. There’s no obvious option for zooming out to view full page art, however, making it somewhat less suited to the purpose than those readers designed with more traditional comics in mind. Also, like the Tarquin Engine, Infinite Canvas would require multiple linked instances of the application in order to present longer comics that would require multiple sittings to read. Ultimately, this is another reader designed to address fairly specific needs; it does what it’s designed to do beautifully, but is not the ideal solution for most comics.

The Good

  • No fixed page dimensions
  • Enables easy reading of large, infinite canvas comics
  • Simple click-to-advance navigation
  • Customizable to the requirements of individual stories

The Bad

  • Not well suited to long batches of content

The So-So

  • Available to comics creators in the general public, but only for Mac OS. (Finished comics will operate on any operating system.)
  • Enables branching narratives, but branch points are not always clear
  • Excellent tool for formalist experimentation, but would be a little overcomplicated for more traditional comics

The Final Tally

Marvel brings up the rear, due primarily to excessive bloat. The Tarquin Engine and Infinite Canvas offer inspired solutions for specific concerns, but can’t adequately handle stories of any real length.

Zuda offers the best display options, but is hobbled by glitchy navigation. In the long run, though, Zuda’s may actually hold the most promise. It is still labeled as a Beta run—if they really do put in the work of fixing the navigational glitches, and make an effort to push full screen as the primary viewing mode, they may just produce an excellent comics reader application, one that pairs usable functionality with superior image display and readability. But potential is not the same as achievement, which leaves…

ComicMix’s application may not be the most inspired entry into the comics reader marketplace, but it is simple and intuitive, and offers a very comfortable reading experience, making it the winner for the day.

A Writer’s Best Friend: The Editor’s Role in Webcomics

First published in Comixpedia, June 2004

A Defense

As everyone knows, chief among the benefits of producing an independent webcomic is the freedom from any sort of editorial input or criticism. In the absence of the editor’s stifling presence, a comics creator can maintain a pure artistic vision, and is thereby free to reach his or her full potential.

That seems to be the prevailing opinion, anyway. That editors might actually have useful skills and services to offer is a little-considered possibility.

For instance, a good editor might:

  • Proofread
  • Spot continuity errors or inconsistent characterizations
  • Point out plot holes
  • Provide special expertise, helping to keep facts accurate
  • Act as a sounding board for developing ideas
  • Mediate disagreements between the writer and artist
  • Offer a reader reaction, to help the writer gauge whether the story is achieving the desired effect
  • Provide encouragement and moral support.

Ultimately, the involvement of a skilled editor will help the writer to produce tighter, more polished work. Work that’s not only more enjoyable for readers, but that is also more satisfying for the writer. Unfortunately, most webcomickers will never reap the benefits offered by an editor, as the very word “editor” has become practically synonymous with “adversary.” Internet gossip offers no shortage of stories about oppressive editors who view their job as controlling projects rather than facilitating them, regardless of the ill effects on the stories being told. What gets forgotten is that these people don’t simply represent “editors being editors.” They represent “editors being bad editors.”

Within webcomics, the result of this misunderstanding has been a widespread disdain for editing, even among editors. Most take a completely hands-off approach, in the interest of promoting creative freedom. Even editors who believe strongly in the value of editorial feedback are gun-shy about offering their services, unless it’s particularly called for. GraphicSmash.com‘s editor, T Campbell, for instance, comments: “Generally, I just proofread, unless the creator asks for help or I really, really feel the creator needs help to go from ‘really high potential’ to ‘really fulfilled potential.'”

Helping creators to get from “really high potential” to “really fulfilled potential” is exactly what the editor is there to do—something Campbell learned first hand as a writer, through his experiences with his own editor, Greg Eatroff. Eatroff has worked with Campbell since the outset of Campbell’s comic, Fans!. Far from being an adversary, Eatroff is a valued member of the creative team: “Greg…sees every Fans! script before the artists do and makes comments on about every other page…. He probably deserves more credit than he gets for co-plotting some of the stories.”

What’s more, as Campbell demonstrates, webcomics creators have the unique freedom to choose their personal editors. Eatroff’s presence is no accident—Campbell wanted him specifically because Eatroff was particularly knowledgeable about fandom (the chief theme of Fans!), and was therefore able to provide an important perspective that Campbell lacked. The choice was a good one, and over time, Eatroff became as much a part of the collaborative process as the writer and artist.

Of course, not every writer wants his or her editor to be quite so intimately involved in the creative process. But the beauty of choosing your own editor is that the editor works for you, and not the other way around. This means the writer sets the boundaries, and decides just which editorial services to utilize, and how much input to accept. If the relationship doesn’t work out, if the editor doesn’t perform as well as hoped, or if the editor tries to exert too much control, the writer is free to move on.

The only real obstacle is simply choosing the right person in the first place. What qualities do you look for? This person should be intelligent and literate, of course. It should be someone interested in the genre you’re working in, and ideally who is even knowledgeable about your subject matter. It should be someone whose opinion you respect—otherwise the editor’s feedback will be useless. It should be someone who will be honest with you about your work’s weaknesses, but who won’t get offended if you don’t follow every suggestion. But most importantly, this person should be someone who wants you to be the best, most successful writer, you can be. It should be someone who believes in the artistic goal you’re trying to achieve.

If the bad editor is an enemy, then the good editor will be the exact opposite—the good editor is a friend. In the end, the chief benefit of being an independent creator is not that you can work without an editor—it’s that you can ensure that your editor will be an ally, working to help you reach your full potential.

Rethinking the Editor

Editing comics is a tricky business, very different from other forms of editing. For starters, the editor needs to have a solid understanding of both good textual writing and good design, and how they balance and support each other within the comics medium. And when something goes wrong in that balance, the editor needs to be able to tell whether it’s a problem in the writing or in the design. Or whether the problem is somewhere else entirely.

When asked: “Which do you consider to be your primary talent as a comics creator—writing or illustration,” John Barber, creator of Vicious Souvenirs and an assistant editor for Marvel Comics, answered: “Probably that weird part in the middle that sometimes falls to the writer and sometimes to the artist…the part where the story is translated into physical relationships between words and images.”

If it is true that making the translation from story to comics is a unique skill in itself—independent of both the writing and the illustrating—then this is an essential skill for anyone looking to edit comics.

Consider this: A prose editor usually has a good idea of what a novel manuscript is going to look like. A comics editor has no such a luxury. Did the writer create thumbnails? A full script? A Marvel-style script (a plot breakdown, with dialogue to be added later)? As Barber points out, each of these methods divides the “translation” responsibility between the writer and artist differently:

“If you were writing a comic…Marvel-style, then the artist is handling this part completely. The writer may be supplying some part of the general pacing, but the artist’s doing most of the work in this middle area. If you’re doing thumbnails for the artist to follow (and he does follow them), then it’s all you doing this stuff. A full script favors the writer, but the artist still likely has a lot to add to it.”

The editor needs to be flexible enough to adapt his or her editing to any of these creative methods, and to understand how and by whom the bulk of the translation work is being done. Without a solid understanding of the translation process, a comics editor won’t even know which member of the creative team to talk to about problems in the work.

In many ways, the comics editor is less like a traditional editor, and more like a little-known position within professional theatre—the dramaturg. The dramaturg performs a wide array of responsibilities, among them the development of new plays for production. The dramaturg is neither director nor playwright, but works very closely with both. If the writer’s job is to create a work of dramatic literature, and the director’s job is to create a dramatic performance, it is the dramaturg’s job to ensure that the end result is an effective synthesis of the two. This includes helping the director to keep the look and staging in accordance with the spirit of the script. This also includes helping the playwright to identify and rework areas of the script that aren’t working as well as they could.

In other words, it is the dramaturg’s role to facilitate the translation of the script into an aural and visual work that actually expresses the script rather than simply using it as a vehicle—to make sure that the production is not just a good show, but a good show that the writer will be happy with. And when something isn’t “playing,” it’s the dramaturg who needs to be able to tell whether it’s a problem in the script or in the direction.

The comics editor-as-dramaturg makes considerable sense. This person would approach the project as neither writer nor artist, but as someone who can work closely with both, to help each understand the other’s needs. The comics dramaturg would work to ensure that the completed comic is not just fun to look at, but also expresses the spirit of the script to the writer’s satisfaction. This would be a person interested in, and skilled at, the process of translating from words to comics.

In fact, the entire undertaking of editing comics seems much less tricky when viewed in terms of the dramaturg. Both roles operate in the middle of the creative process, shepherding the work from a textual presentation to a visual presentation. And like the ideal editor, dramaturgs are never “in charge” of the production. Rather, they facilitate the creative process when they can, then stand aside to let the creators work.

Putting it in Practice

Once you have chosen an editor and established the degree of input you expect, the next challenge is actually integrating the editor into the machinery of the creative process. This can vary with the number of creators involved in the project, the writing method, and the updating schedule.

The place of the editor within a writer/artists collaborative team is fairly straightforward. For starters, a collaborative team is generally more likely than an individual creator to work with full scripts for complete story arcs. This means the editor will have both a complete view of the work being edited and enough lead-time to do the editing.

Whenever a full script or thumbnail draft is available, it makes sense for the work to be edited before it’s sent to the artists. The more polished the writer’s work is, the less need there will be for changes to the completed illustrations later. What’s more, if there are weaknesses in the overall narrative, it’s far better to identify and fix them before the artist has illustrated the troubled pages. That way, you avoid finding yourself in the position where you need to choose between redoing large sections of artwork or settling for a less than perfect execution.

Once the script is finalized, the editor may serve as a resource for the artists, helping to locate reference material where necessary, serving as a sounding board for design ideas, or simply weighing in on disagreements between the writer and artist. Alternatively, the editor may not come in again until a draft of the artwork is completed, at which point the editor would read the final product with an eye toward clarity, flow, and faithfulness to the writer’s story. Additional dialogue tweaks may also be suggested. It’s worth stressing again, that in all these tasks, the editor is working in an advisory role. The creators may use or reject the editor’s advice—the goal is simply to have a trusted third opinion.

For individual writer/artists who create full script or thumbnail drafts before illustration, the process wouldn’t be substantially different. Again, the most extensive editing would be done at the script stage, with the art edit focusing primarily on locating instances where an idea that’s clear in the artist’s head is not so clear on the page.

The greater challenge is for the creator who begins directly with full artwork, since any major revisions would require major alterations to, or even new versions of, illustrated pages. In this case, it’s a good idea for the creator to share notes and outlines with the editor before beginning work on the art. Through these notes, and discussion of the story, the editor can help spot larger issues, such as logical problems or inconsistencies in the plot, early on. Then, the editor can focus on more detail-oriented editing for the full pages.

Regardless of the method of production, maintaining generous lead-time is vital to making the most of your editor. After all, it’s useless to have substantial, solid feedback if there isn’t time to complete revisions prior to publication. This can be particularly problematic for creators who tend to create new episodes the same day they’re due to update. Unless your editor happens to be someone always available, such as a spouse or roommate, it is essential to maintain a buffer of at least a few days, if not weeks. But that can be yet another benefit of having an editor—by creating an artificial deadline, they can help you to prevent late or missed updates.

Of course, all of these methods are subjective; how you choose to work with your editor should be tailored to fit your own creative process. The goal of working with an editor is to produce stronger, more polished work. Obviously, that can’t happen if you have to change your methods so much that your creativity becomes inhibited. Finding the best way to work with your editor may take time and careful thought, but it’s worth the effort.

The fact is the rise of webcomics does offer creators a new world of creative freedom. But how we use that freedom is up to us. Just because we are unencumbered by corporate stricture doesn’t necessarily mean we have to abandon editorial guidance. Rather, it simply means that now is the opportunity to get the editors working for us rather than for corporate interests—and that means that editors can do more for creators now than they’ve ever been able to before. It’s just a matter of seizing the opportunity while it lasts.

A Practical Guide to Collaboration

First published in Comixpedia, May 2004

One of the most liberating facets of online comics is that it has made it easier than ever for creators interested in working collaboratively to find each other. No longer must writers troll local comics shops and art schools in the hope of finding like-minded artists. Instead, they can go straight to a large community of comics creators, where geography is no barrier. They can get to know the people they hope to work with, and everyone can see samples of each others’ work on their websites before committing to any sort of collaboration. All in all, the internet has allowed for more people to experience more productive and rewarding collaborative experiences.

Rewarding though collaboration can be, however, it does offer a number of obstacles and challenges that must be addressed if the overall experience is going to be a positive one. Fortunately, none of these challenges, from choosing a collaborator to calling it quits, is insurmountable, with a little forethought and some basic courtesy.

Choosing a Collaborative Partner

There’s a theory in directing that the most important task a director performs is simply casting the actors. Choose the right people to work with, and they’ll instinctively know what you need from them, and will quickly respond to changes in your direction. Choose the wrong people, and you’ll waste hours of time trying to shape them into the people you should have cast in the first place or looking for ways to compensate for the things they just can’t give you.

Choosing a collaborative partner for creating comics isn’t much different. Choose the right partner, and collaboration can be a fun and rewarding experience that results in great comics. Choose poorly, and the results will be disappointing at best. Writers who choose the wrong artist will be constantly frustrated that the story they want to tell isn’t coming through on the page. Artists who choose the wrong writer will face projects that simply don’t hold their interest, or that they find too confusing or abstract to visualize.

That you should find a partner whose work you enjoy is obvious; it’s important to remember, however, that just because someone is highly talented doesn’t mean they’re right for a particular project. Sometimes a mismatch is obvious—an artist whose preferred medium is black and white line art generally shouldn’t be paired with a writer who wants to make vibrantly colored kids’ comics. Other times, there are subtler issues; when illustrating a particularly somber piece of writing, for instance, there can be a fine line between melancholy and morbid. Two artists may have very similar styles, and yet one will be right for the project, while the other is entirely wrong. Either way, every project makes specific demands of its creators, some of which simply can’t be worked around. If your partner can’t meet those demands, no matter how good they are at everything else, the results simply won’t be satisfying. It’s essential that you lay out exactly what the deal-breakers are for your project before choosing your partner.

It may be something simple–John Troutman, for instance, has one very straightforward need: “I write comics about lovely young women, so it’s pretty much a prereq that [potential artists] can draw attractive ladies.” Meaghan Quinn fits the bill; after a year and a half of working together on their co-creation, Vigilante Ho!, Quinn has recently taken over art duties on Troutman’s Felicity as well.

Other times, a project’s demands can be a bit more ephemeral. Dale Beran looks for a quality of “hyper-rationality, or uninhibited irrationality that comes out in an emotionally fragile sort of way.” Absurdly over-precise? Perhaps. And yet, one look at A Lesson is Learned but the Damage is Irreversible reveals that he found exactly what he was looking for in artist David Hellman. Beran knew what he needed and held out for it; the difference this made is plain to see in the work.

Of course, there’s more to collaborative creativity than just technical skills. A collaborator is someone you’re going to be in frequent, if not near constant, contact with. Unless you’re just working on a short one-shot, this is someone you’re going to be talking to for a long time to come. Finding a collaborative partner who is someone you can at least tolerate, if not outright like is at least as important as finding someone whose work you respect. Sometimes it’s best to begin close to home: many successful collaborations grow out of existing friendships. Working with a friend can make the entire process more fun, since it becomes an opportunity to spend more time with a person you already enjoy being around. It can make the successes feel even more rewarding, and can even make it easier to be honest when the project hits rough spots. As John Troutman points out: “…it’s a lot easier yell at your friends and prod them into working since they already kinda like you anyway. As opposed to a stranger, who might say ‘Who does this jackass think he is, ordering me around? I QUIT!'”

What’s more, collaborators who are friends first may find that they are already in synch creatively. For instance, Dale Beran and David Hellman were friends before they were collaborators, which goes a long way toward explaining how they’re able to compliment each others’ unique styles so well.

Either way, whether working with an old friend or a new acquaintance, it’s often best to test the waters of a new partnership. As Gisèle Lagacé, who has collaborated with T Campbell on Cool Cat Studio and Penny and Aggie, advises: “If there’s a fight along the way, well, that might put a halt to things. I guess all I could say is choose your collaborating partner wisely. Don’t commit to a long story at first. Start small and see how it works.”

Short one-shots are ideal venues for testing a new partnership. They let you try out the working relationship in a way that leaves an easy opportunity to bow out if it doesn’t live up to expectations. And if a partnership isn’t going to work at all, it’s much better to find that out in the middle of a minor six page story, rather than partway through a massive multi-year epic.

Communication and Courtesy

Once you have found a partner and planned out a project, the key to keeping the partnership strong and productive is good communication. This begins with simply making sure both partners know what their responsibilities within the partnership will be; you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where an important task doesn’t get done simply because each person thought it was the other’s responsibility. If there’s any doubt—ask. Make every effort to clarify uncertainties before they become problems.

On a more day-to-day basis, there are two arenas of communication where partners need to develop positive habits: the administrative and the creative.

In the administrative arena, the goal is to keep your partner up to date on project status. Are you going to be late finishing the next script? Let your illustrator know. Those last few panels are taking longer to color than expected? Tell the writer to expect a delay. Whenever you finish a major task, let your partner know. Whenever you’re going to be late, give ample warning. If it’s at all possible, try to give your partner an accurate idea of when you’ll be finishing up the next phase of your work. And whenever any established plans are forced to change, make sure everyone is aware of the changes.

This is all just simple courtesy. It’s a safe bet that your partner will have more on his or her plate than just this one project—nobody is sitting around with nothing to do, ready to jump in whenever you’re ready for them. Everyone has schedules to work around, and that means the more advance knowledge you have of when work will need to be done, the more efficiently you can plan for it. As Bob Stevenson (More Fun, with Shaenon Garrity) says, the best approach is to “treat it like business from the start. Don’t miss deadlines and respond to each other quickly.”

In the creative arena, good communication means establishing clear expectations and honest response to each others’ work. This means that both partners need to have an ability to take as well as give criticism. If either side is afraid to speak their mind for fear of causing offense, the result will be a cold and uncomfortable partnership that never lives up to its full potential.

Does the script call for an unrealistic level of detail in a particular panel? Rather than just trying to muddle through, let the writer know that you can’t do what the script is asking of you. Talk to the writer about the best solution. Perhaps less important details can be trimmed. Or perhaps the panel should be split into multiple panels. Similarly, the artist should be comfortable pointing out when bits of plot aren’t clear, or characters are behaving inconsistently, or even if there’s just a more interesting way to stage a particular event than how the script details it.

On the other side, the writer needs to be able to request changes from the artist when necessary. For example, if the action in a panel isn’t clear, or when a panel is focusing on secondary details rather than the main idea, or if the tone just isn’t right. However, it should be stressed that the best way to avoid the need for too many such revisions is for the writer to be clear about what they want in the first place.

Of course, in order for writers to communicate what the want, they must first know what they want. Don’t tell your artist “do whatever you want here” unless you really mean it. Too often, “do whatever you want here” is writer code for “I don’t actually know what I want here, so I’m going to make you do it over and over until you magically figure it out for me.” This is a surefire method to aggravate even the most patient artist. When you find yourself stuck or unsure about a sequence, be honest with yourself and be honest with your artist. If you admit to the block, then you have an opportunity to work through the tough spot as a team. If you try to fake it with insincere offers of creative freedom, you’ll just be wasting your partner’s time.

A final point worth stressing is that for some people, ease of communication is a foremost factor in choosing a collaborative partner in the first place. As Dale Beran explains, “If what you’re saying just doesn’t compute (which happens to me often) then it’s a wreck. It’s sort of how I started playing guitar. A friend of mine wanted to teach me because he needed a guitar player for his band. Never mind I could barely play, and you couldn’t spit without hitting a guitar player at college. But he just figured we shared a sensibility, so he thought it would be easier to teach me from scratch rather than finding some asshole who would do his own thing. The relationship really comes first, then the art and the skill and all that.”

Rights, Contracts, and Division of Labor

In the informal world of webcomics, contracts between collaborative partners are still relatively rare. Of the eight people surveyed for this article, only John Waltrip (Rip & Teri, with T Campbell), has a contract with his partner. Especially since so many partnerships are formed out of existing friendships, asking for a contract can seem superfluous or even impolite. Still, where matters of money are concerned, a formal contract is never really a bad idea. However, whether signing a contract or not, the details of ownership and division of earnings should always be agreed upon before any work begins.

The most common financial arrangement is a 50/50 split, but there are certainly no rules on the matter. Work-for-hire arrangements do exist on the web, as well as a number of other very individualized agreements. For instance, since John Troutman and Meaghan Quinn collaborate on two comics, rather than splitting the income from each comic in half, they each keep all the income from one comic–unless one or the other should take off in a big way, in which case they plan to renegotiate. As Troutman points out, “as long as details like this are to the satisfaction of both people, it doesn’t really matter how ludicrous those details are.”

More complicated than the money issue is the ownership issue. So long as the collaboration is ongoing, an assumed 50/50 share seems logical. But if the partnership is dissolved, several important questions arise: Which partner has the right to continue the work? Is the continuing partner obligated to consult the departed partner on business decisions pertaining to the portion of the work he or she contributed to? Does the departed partner own a share of new material derived from creations he or she contributed to? These are complicated questions that are best answered long before such difficulties actually arise.

The third major detail that’s commonly arranged by contract or in pre-collaboration discussion is the division of labor. Fortunately, this tends to be a much easier matter. The major determining factors in assigning a particular task to one partner or the other are: A: Who’s better at it? and B: Who has the time to do it? When the answers to both questions match, then it’s a no-brainer. When they differ, then it usually comes down to how immediately pressing the task is.

The most obvious division is: The writer writes, while the artist illustrates. Coloring and lettering usually fall to the artist, though there are exceptions. Plotting may be done by the writer alone or as a joint effort—there’s no rule here, just the question of what works best for your particular partnership. Administrative tasks, such as maintaining the web site and publicizing the comic often fall to the writer, on the grounds that the writing tends to be less time-consuming than the artwork. (Though it should be stressed that “less time-consuming” implies neither “less important” nor “less difficult.”) But here again, “often” should not be taken for “always;” division of labor ought to be handled in the most practical manner, while making sure that neither partner is left with an unfair share of the work.

Crisis and Calamity

A student director who was recently working on a production of David Auburn’s play, Proof, at Emerson College ran into problems when she was trying to set up the first rehearsal. Despite several phone calls and e-mails, she was unable to get a hold of the actor who had agreed to play Hal. After a week, she finally managed to reach him, at which point he confessed that he really couldn’t do the play, but hadn’t called her back because he didn’t know how to tell her. So she cast a new actor, only to suffer a repeat of the previous situation: another week of no communication followed by an “I don’t have time, but didn’t know how to tell you” phone conversation. So she was two weeks into what should have been her rehearsal period (and she only had two months to start with), still with no Hal. She could have lost only two days instead of two weeks, if only the actors had simply told her as soon as they knew that they couldn’t do the part.

Nearly every writer surveyed (and even one of the artists) had the same primary concern about entering collaborations–that the artist will bail on the project. This is no idle fear; few writers have avoided the experience of investing themselves in a project only to have the artist drop out at the last minute–or worse, after the project is already several pages underway. And it’s not at all uncommon for artists to simply disappear without a word, instead of saying outright that they can’t do the project.

This is not to say that artists are immune from the problem of writers dropping out. It does happen. But it’s far less common, due to the longstanding perception that writers need artists, but artists don’t need writers. When artists over commit themselves, they’ll usually favor their solo work over collaborations. Writers don’t usually have that option, since all their work is collaborative.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable that you have to back out of a partnership; you’ve committed to too many things, you have a new day job, you’ve had an offer of paying work, you’re having a baby–life gets in the way. Regardless, when this happens, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about it backing out. Topping the list of “wrong ways” is simply going incommunicado. So long as your partners believes you’re still working together, their hands are tied–they can’t bring in a replacement until they’re certain you aren’t coming back, and until that happens, the project is dead in the water. Your partner needs to know when it’s time to move on or they can’t continue to work. So if you are leaving a partnership, always make sure to tell your partner; there’s no more basic a courtesy than that. “I didn’t know how to tell you” is never an excuse. Just be honest and direct. Your partner will be much happier for it.

Better yet, try to give your partner as much advance warning as possible. First of all, this will allow your partner to line up a replacement early, hopefully avoiding the need for a hiatus between artists (or writers, depending on the circumstance). And second, advance warning will let you and your partner plan a smooth and satisfying exit. This is especially important if your partner won’t be continuing the project without you, raising the question of whether a major story will be left unfinished, such as when Gisèle Lagacé left Cool Cat Studio: “T had this nice story all written out for Cool Cat Studio and in the middle of it, I just pulled out. I feel terrible about it; for him and for my readers. But what’s done is done. So, to anyone planning a collaboration effort, stick to it and even if things start to get rough, try to pull out gracefully and do a nice finish–you’ll feel better in the long run.”

Of course, this is largely assuming that the partnership is ending peaceably, due to lack of time or some similar issues. If the problem is a matter of personality clash or artistic differences, that can be more difficult. Even in less pleasant circumstances, though, it pays to keep your interactions as civil as possible. Avoid making decisions out of pettiness or spite, or you risk the whole disagreement escalating to a point where everyone ends up miserable. What’s more, do your best to keep such disagreements private, especially if you hope to find new collaborators in the future. Nobody wants to work with someone who has a reputation for hotheadedness.

In addition to the question of how to break off an unhappy partnership, there’s also the question of when to break it off. If the project is something of limited duration, it may be worthwhile to just do your best to compromise and get the project done; at least then you’ll have some finished work to show for it. For a long or ongoing project, it’s probably best to start planning your exit as soon as it becomes clear that your differences are irreconcilable; which is to say, before the situation devolves into one of unbridled hostility. This is especially true if you’re working with a friend. Sometimes good friends just aren’t suited to working together, and it just isn’t worth sacrificing a good friendship to maintain a poor collaboration. Still, so long as the situation hasn’t become unbearably dire, it’s still best to give ample notice rather than quitting in a huff.

Finally, always keep in mind that every team works differently. What works well for you with one partner may not work at all with another. Staying flexible in your approach to working with new people is key. And not every partnership will work; that doesn’t necessarily mean collaboration isn’t for you–it may be that you’re just working with the wrong person. Find the right person, though–someone who inspires you as much as you inspire them–and collaboration can be as fun as it is productive, leading you down artistic paths you might never have discovered on your own.

Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

First published in Comixpedia, March 2006

Last month, I talked about some of the basics of keeping character dialogue distinct, such as by maintaining an awareness of the different sorts of words that different characters would be apt to use.  This month, I’m continuing the discussion with a look at some of the more stylistic choices you can make in crafting dialogue.

It’s very rare that anyone writes truly naturalistic dialogue.  Hardly anyone attempts to capture all the false starts, stammers, run-on sentences, “ums,” and “ahs” that typify actual real-life conversation.  In real life, most of these non-verbal utterances are meaningless space fillers; in writing dialogue, the goal is to convey ideas and personalities, not to make a study of contemporary vernacular linguistics.

Used thoughtfully, though, with an eye toward expressing a character’s emotional state (rather than simply out of the habit of trying to capture “realistic” speech), these tics can be used to add further nuance to dialogue.  A simple “um” can mean a lot of things; it can express confusion, forgetfulness, disdain, shock, or any of countless other causes for being at a loss for words.  What’s important to remember, though, is that different people find themselves at a loss for words for very different reasons and to different degrees.  Some characters are unflappable, always knowing precisely what they want to say in any given situation, rarely leaning on non-verbal crutches.  Others are naturally nervous, frequently losing the thread of speech, falling instead to “um”s and “ah”s in a vain attempt to communicate.  Some intentionally use non-verbal utterances a form of avoidance; for instance, in Spike’s Templar, Arizona, when talking to his abrasive editor, Benjamin uses them to acknowledge the editor without having to actually talk to him.

Just as there’s no reason to capture every little stutter, there’s also no reason to commit every variation in pronunciation to paper (or pixels, as the case may be).  This tells you nothing about who the character is.  Yes, it can signal the reader as to where the character’s from, but that’s a background detail, not a personality trait.  And if the character’s ethnic or geographic origin plays a significant role in who they are, then that will be expressed through their personal values and behaviors, not through the funny way they say “hello.”  In most instances, trying to capture an accent in dialogue is just going to make the dialogue difficult to read, as readers are forced to translate your phonetic spellings into understandable words.  Not to mention the risk you take of alienating readers if your representation is stereotypical rather than accurate.

Of course, none of this applies if you’re talking about an affected accent.  If a character is knowingly speaking in an unnatural voice, there is usually a definable, character-driven reason for it, and so this needs to be made clear to readers.  Take, for instance, Jackie in T Campbell’s Fans, who often speaks with a heavy English accent, despite not being English.  Within Jackie’s long pattern of insecurity and attention-seeking behavior, her false accent is a clear expression of her desire to be a more compelling person than her natural self.  And if the textual representation of her accent seems exaggerated and annoying, that’s because her accent is exaggerated and annoying.  It’s one of the reasons why several of the other characters in the comic don’t like her.

Of course, false accents aren’t the only sort of speech affectation a character can display.  Other commonly seen affectations include characters who routinely misuse large words or characters who never use contractions.  (That last is particularly common for robots—contractions apparently being a more difficult concept for robots to grasp than metaphor or idiom, for some strange reason.)  Often, these affectations are used simply to give characters visible distinctions from one another.  As with false accents, though, if an affectation is to provide a character with something more than arbitrary novelty, an understanding of why he or she adopted that affectation is necessary.

Dialects are a bit trickier, since they combine pronunciation with issues of vocabulary and word choice.  But again, the pronunciation isn’t really relevant to the character.  Authenticity, however, may demand some adjustments in word choice.  If your character is from Brooklyn, for instance, that doesn’t mean you have to spell the number between two and four as “tree” every time he says it.  But if that character walks into a pizza shop and orders “a meatball grinder and a can of pop,” you’re going to strain credibility.  At the same time, this doesn’t mean you have to throw in every bit of regional jargon you can think of.  An overabundance of these superficial trappings can grow tiresome very quickly, especially if they rely on inaccurate stereotypes.  Not every southern woman calls people “sugar.”  Not every valley kid abuses the word “dude.”  Your character might—but that’s a choice to make with some consideration.

Of course, there are exceptions to all of this.  If your story actually is a cultural study, for instance, steeped in the nuances of a particular region, then a closer approximation of that regions dialect is probably called for.  But it better be a dialect you’re intimately familiar with if you hope to create something both believable and respectful of the people you’re writing about.

And then there’s the dialect of one—the stylized speech that comes from the heart of the character, with only incidental origins in a particular region.  For example, I wouldn’t necessarily know where any of the characters in Spike’s Templar, Arizona live if it wasn’t in the title of the comic.  But when Reagan delivers a line like, “G’wan upstairs.  I’m comin’ for th’ both-a you in ten minutes.  She’s gettin’ walked t’class whether she’s ready or not,” it’s not because she’s from Templar, Arizona.  It’s because she’s got a big, brash, indomitable personality, and nobody’s going to make her put a third letter in the word “the” if she doesn’t want it there.  Her dialogue is brimming with personality, and the dialect stems from who Reagan is, not where she’s from.

Expressive Dialogue, Part One: Mannerisms and Word Choice

First published in Comixpedia, February 2006

This past September, I had the pleasure of meeting Ryan Estrada at SPX. During one of our conversations, he let drop an interesting bit of trivia about himself: he has only said the “F” word once. At the time, I didn’t press him on why he leaves that particular word out of use, or about what motivated him to make that single exception, but those questions stayed with me. Given that this is an increasingly common and, many would argue, particularly useful word, the conscious decision not to use it necessarily raises interesting questions about Ryan as a person: Does he take a moralistic view of obscene language? Or does he take the view that cursing is a crutch for those with small vocabularies? Or is this just another of the odd personal challenges he tends to assign himself?

All of which is to say that the small details of the words people use and how they choose to express themselves reveal quite a lot about who they are and what they value. While there’s certainly more to writing comics than just the text, there’s no denying that the writer’s most visible contribution to comics is in the words themselves, especially dialogue. It’s easy to make the mistake of writing characters who speak the same way you do — it’s certainly what’s going to come most naturally. And it can work for certain types of comics: journal comics, political comics, or other comics that are designed to give the author a direct mouthpiece. But it doesn’t do much for developing a story with a cast of multiple distinct characters.

Different people speak differently; they use different words and different syntax. Understanding the individual speech mannerisms of your characters will go a long way toward helping you distinguish them from each other, as well as from yourself. Does a particular character speak in short clipped sentences? Long, rambling monologues? Are they plainspoken, or do they like to use colorful metaphors? Do they use a lot of complex technical jargon?

And perhaps most importantly: Why? Speech mannerisms shouldn’t be arbitrary, unless you’re just playing it for laughs — they should be expressions of the character, revealing more about who they are and how they think than the content of their speech alone would do. For that same reason, when answering the question of why characters speak the way they do, it’s important to go beyond simple stereotype. It’s easy to decide that a character uses lots of technical jargon “because she’s a scientist.” But “scientist” isn’t a character; it’s a background detail. There’s no reason why a scientist must necessarily use constant technical jargon at all. Some scientists also like to read poetry. Or go to church. Or drink beer while watching football. And all of these things will affect the way they speak just as much as their technical background. Possibly even more so in casual conversation. Sure, the technical jargon is likely to fly freely in the lab, but in a restaurant, or a bar, or at a friend’s party, other impulses take over. Our careers do influence how we communicate, but that’s just one of a multitude of factors.

An excellent example of clearly distinguished, expressive dialogue can be found in Spike’s Templar, Arizona. Right from the opening sequence, we see sharp contrasts in speech mannerisms. Mr. Pierce, the cantankerous newspaper editor, speaks in long rambling sentences, punctuated with violent imagery. He employs genuinely sophisticated vocabulary and tough-talking vulgarity in equal measure, and uses both to assert his superiority over Benjamin, the story’s protagonist. (Admittedly, the angry newspaper editor is a stereotype, but Pierce appears to be a minor character, so it’s not as big of an issue.) Benjamin, by contrast, is quiet and non-confrontational. He uses only the most perfectly neutral language, saying as little as possible, frequently not even going so far as to articulate actual words.

Taking the idea of expressive dialogue a step further, not only do people take their speech cues from myriad sources, but they also tend to modify their manner of speaking in different contexts. Most people don’t talk the same way at work as they do at home. They don’t talk the same way with their parents as they do with their friends. We use different words, different syntax, different modes of communication as befits the context and the audience of what we’re saying.

This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the case of vulgarity, an entire classification of words that are considered acceptable in some contexts but not others — though those contexts can vary from person to person. Most people will refrain in a religious institution, out of politeness, if not faith. On the other hand, some people are perfectly at ease swearing in front of their parents, while others would never think of it. And, of course, there are some people who consciously choose not to use these words at all. Or who only curse when they’re very upset. Or only during sex. Or who curse vocally, but never in writing (or vise versa). Some people will curse freely among members of their own sex, but rein it in among members of the opposite sex. Some people use expletives in a calculated way, placing them for greatest effect. Others pepper every statement with expletives, like they’re just another kind of comma.

The important thing to remember is that the particular usage should demonstrate not the author’s attitude toward coarse language, but each particular character’s attitude toward it. Too often, writers treat expletives as a binary, with either no expletives at all, or constant expletives, completely neglecting the fact that everyone has their own personal style of swearing. Knowing when a character is and isn’t willing to use coarse language can reveal a great deal about their comfort level in different situations and around different people. It can reveal the settings they consider sacrosanct, or the people to whom they are deferential or respectful. Even minor fluctuations in a character’s use of expletives can reveal insecurity, or pride, or reverence.

Looking again at Templar, Arizona, there’s Benjamin’s neighbor, Reagan, a powerful presence who takes over any conversation with casual confidence. Like Pierce, she provides a clear contrast to Benjamin’s reticence, but without the hostility. She curses just as freely, but where Pierce used vulgarity as a weapon, Reagan’s cursing is casual and unaffected — it belies an honesty that puts you at ease about her intentions, even when she’s making you do things you don’t want to do (such as forcing Benjamin to go out and see the city, despite his hermitic tendencies).

And against the backdrop of both Pierce and Reagan, foul-mouthed pair that they are, Benjamin’s own failure to utter even a single curse word thus far is glaring. It comes off not as a moral choice, or a matter of respect, but simply another symptom of his insecurity around people. He doesn’t curse because words like “fuck” are stronger than he is. He’s just not ready to handle that kind of language — not in the face of other people, anyway.

Expressive Dialogue, Part Two: Stammers, Accents, and Affectations

The Writer’s Lament

First published in Comixpedia, January 2006

I’ve often heard comics creators lament that so many comics readers will completely ignore incompetent writing for the sake of pretty art. It seems that all too often, smooth lines, slick colors, and dynamic design end up overshadowing the facile dialogue, tired jokes, and predictable or even incoherent storylines that accompany them. Of course, I’ve heard the opposite complaint as well – that too many readers will ignore incompetent art, so long as the story is compelling. Not surprisingly, I’ve mostly heard the first lament from creators who consider themselves writers first, while the second comes from those who count themselves as artists.

And, of course, there is truth in both complaints. Comics are a dual medium, simultaneously a visual art and a literary art, but rarely does a comic exhibit art and writing of exactly equal quality. As readers, each of us has our own preferences for the standard of art we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good writing, or for the standard of writing we’re willing to tolerate for the sake of good visuals. Naturally, the best works are those where the art and writing are of equally excellent quality, but where that doesn’t happen, we all weigh one over the other, even if only slightly.

Me: I’m a writer. As such, I’m wholly sympathetic to The Writer’s Lament. I came to comics from a background in small press literary publishing. I spent the early part of my life writing, reading, and publishing fiction and poetry. More recently, I spent three years studying playwriting. When I’m reading comics or writing them, that’s the background I bring with me. What I don’t bring is a background in fine art, or illustration, or even much by way of design. (I’ve done a little bit of magazine and web design, but nothing anyone would call professional quality.) As a result, I approach comics as a literary art first and a graphic art second.

Now, I’m not saying that’s how anyone else should view it, and I’m not trying to convince anyone. And I know full well that you can’t master either without having an understanding of the other. But I wanted to make clear where I stand, because when I talk about making better comics – whether in the context of improving the state of the industry, or just my own work – I’m almost always talking about raising the level of the writing. More sophisticated humor, more interesting plotting, more elegant dialogue, greater depth of subtext: these are the things I want from print comics and webcomics alike.

All of which is to say, I want better stories. Comedies that delight rather than just amuse. Adventures that thrill rather than just distract. Tragedies that hurt rather than just sadden. Now I’m certainly not implying that the art plays no role in this – of course it does. But it begins in the writing, because it begins with having a story to tell.

I should clarify here, that I’m not just talking about pure scriptwriters like myself – whether you’re strictly a wordsmith or you’re a solo creator, or even just an artist who occasionally dabbles in the plotting, it’s a rare comics creator indeed who doesn’t have a hand in the writing somewhere along the way. Whether you think of yourself as a writer or not, odds are you’re still writing, and we can all bring something more to the process.