It's fresh, it's fascinating, and it's free, it's another fantastically full installation of Spandexles Reads! This week, Patrick checks in with the Locke & Key: Grindhouse one-shot, while David and I examine some of the more fascinating aspects of webcomics presentation, navigation, and interactivity. That might sound mundane, by I can guarantee it's a topic that more and more creators in the online world will be tackling and talking about in the years to come. Don't believe me? Well then you'll just have to read on to find out what the fuss is about!
Patrick Smith // Gets gruesome
This week I picked up the Locke & Key: Grindhouse one shot by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. I've been reading the main series primarily through trades, which means I’m about one arc behind, and although I don’t think I’m as out and out in love with the series as a lot of people are I’ll be the first to admit that it's a damn fine comic book, so I was interested to see what the creative team could do with the one shot format. I think it's worth mentioning that the actual story in here is only about sixteen pages long, while the rest is padded out with some architectural drawings of Keyhouse, the book's main setting. Although it's interesting to see just how much detail Rodriguez put into that place, I did find it kind of annoying that I spent four dollars on a book with only sixteen pages of actual comic. To be fair, those sixteen pages were pretty damn good, with the story focusing on an earlier generation of the eponymous Locke family as they deal with some bank robbers that decide to hole up at Keyhouse before their getaway. Anyone familiar with this series knows that these robbers might as well be three rats walking into a lion's den. Hill has always been a writer with one hell of a mean streak, and with the limited length of this story enhancing that particular quality, the reader is all the more aware that by the end of this tale a whole lot of horrible stuff is going to happen. Also, Rodriguez’s art seems to have matured since the last time I saw his work. He's always been great with details, but his character design usually seemed a bit off. Here, his design is much more relaxed and refined. I don’t know if this book was really worth the four dollars I spent, but at the same time it’s pretty hard to complain with a story as strong as this.
David Anderson // Gets interactive
I think we can all agree that the most important thing a webcomic needs, besides pretty art and good writing, is a really good user interface. It's easy to put down a couple arrow buttons, but the real key to a good UI is the archives. Most of the time it's good to have your comics arranged by date and title because that system is reliable and basic, but some sites have some more interesting solutions. I'm kind of miffed that Penny Arcade doesn't stick with a date/title system, but their keyword search is still pretty good. Click a term and you get every comic tagged with that label along with a tiny preview, so it's clean, easy to use, and likely to present the comic you're looking for.
Most comics seem to prefer to use the VCR style arrow buttons to show how to navigate an archive linearly, but I've seen some sites with design choices that take getting used to. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal has arrows that aren't too easy to differentiate, except through their position. Until you get used to it, you'll be trying to click to get to the previous comic and end up back at page 1 by accident. I've seen some comics with really talented writers whose work really suffers because of their site's poor navigation. Often, it's the archives that were totally broken, with entire books skipped over when you clicked an arrow, or 404 errors popping up when you search by chapter. I've even seen some comics put arrows at the top and bottom of the page (which is somewhat ungainly), and others that make the FWD button kind of redundant by allowing you to advance by simply clicking the comic page.
Those are just a couple examples. The point is, you can have a fun comic, but if it takes hours to find the page you're looking for, that can hurt people's impression of your work.
Anthony Rosen // Gets radical
Having a poor UI or terrible navigation in your archives is like handing someone a great comic with terrible binding, whose pages are so out of order you feel like you're reading a 'choose your own adventure' book. It's a facet of webcomics that seems obvious and intuitive to most people, but most people don't realize just how much the internet is changing the way we read comics.
David has scratched the surface of one of the most fascinating aspects of webcomics: the browser. As a tool utilized by the artist, it's more interactive than a wooden frame and easily more versatile than a real life page. The browser offers an unprecedented amount of untapped potential to the artist in the ways that they present their work. Some, like Zac Gorman, have starting incorporating Macromedia Flash into their work, like a painter using an accent color, to convey motion or movement in fascinating ways. Some have begun to explore the infinite canvas, the ability of the browser to provide unlimited space and function as new kinds of panels or borders, like in this Octopus Pie strip from last year. Some have incorporated elements of interactivity to expand the experience of their work and seemingly blend mediums, like Homestuck. Some artists have used the browser in more subtle ways, such as when XKCD explored the idea of Umwelt by using each reader's IP address or their website referrer to determine the comic they saw this past April fools day*. These are all experiments that not only demonstrate the versatility of the browser in the world of webcomics, but also in illustrating just how far the rapidly mutating medium that is comics has come.
*Credit for assembling the XKCD April Fool's collection goes to Reddit user SomePostMan