Final Project Write-Up

April 30th, 2008

The first question to ask is, perhaps, What is a webcomic?  The easiest answer is, of course, a comic on the web, but that’s not exactly it.  This is a comic on the internet, but it is one written and produced for newspaper publication and merely archived online, so it’s not a webcomic in the strictest sense of the word, which is the sense I’ll be using in my exploration of the medium.  A webcomic is then defined as a comic produced for and first published on the web.  Therefore, this is not a webcomic, but this is.

One of the first things that could be defined as a webcomic (T.H.E. Fox) was started in 1986, and  Where the Buffalo Roam began in 1991 and Doctor Fun in ’93.  If you’ll remember from “The World-Wide Web” article we read, these early webcomics coincide with the early days of the web itself, showing that for about as long as there has been the web, there have been webcomics.  Early webcomics are relatively basic and similar to printed comics, but as the internet and computers advanced, however, the possibilities for webcomics advanced as well.  Whether or not these possibilities are being utilized to their fullest potential is another story, though.

If, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message, then what are these possibilities for webcomics that other comics don’t have?  To boil it down to the simplest answer, webcomics have the “infinite canvas.”   This is a theory of Scott McCloud’s that basically states that a webcomic is not bound by the restrictions of page dimensions, and can therefore extend as far and wide as you want.  Theoretically, according to McCloud, you could have entire graphic novels existing on a single page.  Hence “infinite canvas.”  What if, however, you take that idea to the next level?  If you think of this as not just no limit to the page size but also no more having to turn sheets of paper sequentially to get the story, then the possibilities are suddenly seeming limitless.  When I Am King comes closest of everything I’ve found to trying to achieve an infinite canvas effect, which has the downside of also being kind of creepy at times.  Alternately, Scott McCloud’s Carl webcomic plays with the idea of sequence.  (You all might remember a version of this from the Time Frames chapter we read.)  Here, then, is The Right Number, McCloud’s alternative to conventional “page turning.”  It’s a little distracting, though, and it begs the question: What is added by these “novelty” approaches?  I mentioned the medium being the message, and I’m fairly certain that in these cases, the stories come second to the experimentations with the webcomic medium that they represent.  As a whole, I think these innovations should somehow enhance the story or contribute to its theme, since such an emphasis is suddenly placed on the format (the zooming, the scrolling, the non-sequential addition of panels).

When it came to diving into the wide, wide world of webcomics, I started by looking at sites like this, which provides seeming endless lists of what was out there, but did little to gauge  whether or not the things they listed were any good.  That’s when everything that class members tagged on del.icio.us started to come in handy.  I combined the webcomics you tagged with the recommendations I gathered from the maybe twenty or more friends/acquaintences/younger brother/younger brother’s high school friends that I polled for their favorite webcomics.  It was then that I was able to get a better sense of the sorts of things that made a successful webcomic, if, by successful, I mean “one that people read.”  From this, I sort of gauged which ones were recommended the most.  After looking through probably forty or fifty different webcomics, however, I found a certain number of things I could sort of sum up as typical themes–Namely, the internet, technology, pop culture, gaming/sci-fi/fantasy, and other variants and strains of geekdom.  (Which I really can’t poke fun at; I’m a geek myself.)  I suppose that this might be because the sorts of people who typically start a webcomic are more likely to be people already involved in internet culture and other aspects of New Media.

The typically New-Media-skewed subject matter brought to mind Turkle’s “Video Games and Computer Holding Power,” where she talks of existing in and losing oneself to a simulated world in video games.  Most immediately, I made the connection between this essay and webcomics when I learned about sprites while doing my research.  They are, essentially, webcomics where the characters are images taken from video games, sometimes with colors altered, but often looking just as they appear on the screen.  The first of these is said to be Neglected Mario Characters, and the first really popular one was Bob and George.  I personally feel that the creative possibilities for these, both visually and otherwise are limited, but I find it interesting to see how the simulated world of video games that Turkle writes about is extended here, where the creator can essentially “play God” in an existing world, where the rules of play are suddenly much more flexible.  The results, however, are still directed at people who are fans of the video game world from which they originate.  Taking this a step farther, however, one can start to apply Turkle’s idea of alternate world and identity to other webcomics.  For instance, the writer-artist of Toothpaste for Dinner often uses his strip to vent his own thoughts.  (Or poke fun at himself.)  Meanwhile, the two main characters in Penny Arcade (interestingly the webcomic that the most people recommended to me) can relatively easily be seen as avatars of their creators.  On the flip side, the protagonist of Planet Karen is the creator, and the strips are recaps of her actual daily life.  (Or so she says.)

From here, there are so many other things in my findings I want to discuss, from the evolution in art from a webcomic’s first strip to its most recent (for instance: the start and end of Planet Karen and the start and end of Penny Arcade), the utilization of “free speech” on the internet (there’s more swearing, violence, and sex in webcomics than, say, a Green Lantern comic book, even if the basis subject matter is more or less the same), and the transition many webcomics are making (or trying to make) from internet to printed book.  I will, however, move on to the final project part of my final project.

Clearly, the cumulative result of my work on this project was creating my own webcomic, which I titled Tilting at Windmills, because, honestly, that reflects how I felt throughout much of the process. I toyed with the idea of the infinite canvas but ultimately went with the more traditional format, mostly because I don’t yet have the coding skills to have panels zoom or go on forever.  In fact, until this project, I was more or less computer-illiterate.  I could essentially surf the internet and use a word processor.  Creating a webcomic, then, forced me to learn how to use an FTP client (to a certain extent), how to do a limited amount of html coding, and the pros and cons of various venues of free webhosting.

Firstly, I spent awhile fooling with ideas for a webcomic, most of which never made it to paper.  I decided against doing any one-shot humor strips, because I’m afraid I won’t be funny, and then played around with a bunch of running storyline ideas, including one that resulted in me drawing this.  (And then questioning my sanity.)  I then decided on a sort of combination high-school-and-superhero story, which, while admittedly not original, was something I was fairly certain I could do.  At the same time, I knew I’d fall into the traps of pop culture references, geekery, and poking fun at myself.  (All of which I did by the third strip, which is the one currently on the front page of my site, where I make fun of my own extreme liking for Doctor Who.)

First, I tried drawing a strip in colored pencil, which not only ended up about an inch-and-a-half too long for my scanner, but also was too difficult to do cleanly and consistently to make it a good medium for my webcomic.  I decided, therefore, on inking very simple artwork and coloring it in Photoshop, which wasn’t really something I had ever done before.  (I scanned some random doodle in and colored it as an experiment first, before starting my actual webcomic.)  About halfway through being Photoshopped, a page of my webcomic looks something like this.

Then came the issue of webhosting the comic.  Currently, I have it hosted on two different sites, because I was trying out the pros and cons of each.  The first one is on freesitespace.net, a free webhosting service that has been around for a month or so.  The nice thing about the site I have there is that I figured out how to add an “About & FAQ” section, which is sort of nice but sort of pointless, as nobody’s asked me anything yet, so I had to make some questions up.  I also have an external links page there, which I rather like, but again, is rather pointless.  The problem, however, is that it’s not a hosting site designed for webcomics, so editing it to serve my purposes was really awkward and still unsatisfactory and unwieldy.   It also won’t let me edit the coding for the basic page manually, although I can edit (and gloriously mangle) all of the sub-pages.

The other site I’m hosting my webcomic on at the moment is comicgenesis.com, which while having the most painfully recursive sign-up process imaginable, is still more amiable to webcomic hosting.  (Hence the site’s name.)  The only real problem I have with my webcomic site here is the advertising, but that’s not too bad.  It was on this one that I got to build my site more or less to my liking using an FTP client.  (Yes, I actually–more or less–know how to use that now.  I am ridiculously impressed with myself.)  To be fair, I did make some epically unpleasant errors while working my way through; for instance, I had my strips running in reverse order for awhile and then had the second one about five times.  Now, however, it’s doing more or less what I’m telling it to.

In conclusion, I mostly just want to say that I learned how to do far more with New Media in this project than I imagined I ever would when I first started and I’m really looking forward to improving my webcomic site and continuing it.

And, of course, I’ll be happy to answer any questions and elaborate on anything I’ve talked about.

Random Notes

April 24th, 2008

Just wanted to congratulate (albeit a bit late) those who presented last Thursday–I found all of your findings very interesting!

I’d never heard ning.com, so I was impressed with the way you created a network and got so many members. I’ve never been much for social networking sites, so hearing about them in general was kind of interesting, because I’d never really thought about them and their potential uses before.  Similarly, the presentation on Gaia was interesting, because it seemed almost like a social-network-meets-Second-Life thing, which seems to open up all sorts of interesting possibilities.  Then I wondered about where in such a venue you draw the line between the actual you and the created/avatar/whatever you . . . Maybe I’m still not sure how all that works.

Finale was especially intriguing to me, as someone who’s pretty much resigned herself to never writing a song.  This program, however, made me think that maybe I could.  Not a very good song, probably, but, hey, I can read music, I can tell whether or not I like how something sounds, and if I can simulate various instruments, I no longer face the issue of “I can’t play the oboe/violin/guitar/etc.”  I wonder now how many people have been able to tinker with the program to produce passably listen-to-able little ditties that they otherwise would probably not have.  (Or even actual, good, full-out pieces.)  Since you can compose a piece that no human can possibly play, is there then the danger that computers will someday eclipse human musicians?  Or are more humanly-possible pieces also easier to listen to, as well as play?  When you look at how much music has evolved and branched out in the last century alone . . .

Anyway, those are just some notes for now.

Good luck to everyone going tomorrow!  (Or, technically, later today.  In less than six hours, actually.  Which means I should get some sleep.)

Further Musings on My Final Project

April 13th, 2008

Let’s see if I can post this before my internet goes out again . . .

Most of this is the stuff that I’m still untangling in my head, but–

I was thinking about webcomics in relation to the creation/escapism into alternate identities that we were talking about with the Turkel essay on video games, and putting aside the traditional argument of comics as escapist literature, I was wondering if webcomics might be even more so, while in a way being less so.  Since the writer/artist has more total control than they would in other publishing outlets, they can be said to be playing god to their comic in some sense, and some definitely use it to make their own identities “worth reading about,” so to speak, such as Karen Ellis in her webcomic, “Planet Karen.”  And a certain amount of that sorta happens in “Toothpaste for Dinner” on a fairly regular basis.  So is illustrating a version of yourself for internet publication the same as escaping into an identity, even if that identity is you? At least, the version of you that you choose to print.  And then what can you say about webcomics that feature a single long-running protagonist? Can you suspect the writer(s) of escaping into that identity? But if you can, what kind of guys would want to escape into the identity of Dr. McNinja?

And . . . Um, maybe that’s all for now, because the internet is being wonky again.

[insert witty subject line about video games]

April 8th, 2008

I’m not sure why I’m blogging so late at night, so I apologize for any incoherence. (Actually, it’s because I’ve been busy knitting a skirt out of plastic bags. Which, yes, is for an actual grade in an actual class.)

Anyway, I was (as some others have done) going to talk a bit about how I feel about video games. Or how I felt, and then ended up questioning that feeling after the reading.

I really have never been much of a video game person, honestly. My favorite video game is eighteen-wheeler truck racing. I’ve never gotten farther than level two on anything. So, clearly, not a huge gamer. And since I grew up in a house that didn’t have them until my brother bought a Gamecube a few years ago, I grew up feeling that there were so many more interesting things to do with your time. Like others in our class, I advocate going outside, interacting on a non-virtual level, etc, etc, but then the reading gave me the idea of video games as, well, interactive literature, to simplify and summarize. And now what am I supposed to think? I advocate interaction. I advocate losing yourself in a book. Or a movie, because, honestly, I can lose myself in “Casablanca” every time I watch it, as cliched as that may sound. So how can I really argue against losing yourself in an interactive film?

Maybe it’s the high-score, beat-the-level aspect, which triggers an addictive/competitive thing that still makes me a bit leery. Maybe it’s the fact that a game takes so much longer than a movie. Maybe it’s the kids who lose sleep or the people who shell out large amounts of money the second a new game or a new system comes out.

Or maybe it’s just sour grapes, because, after all, I’m the person who can never get past the second level.

Just a Few Random Notes

April 2nd, 2008

Forgot to say in my blog earlier: Throughout the short story, I was really banking on the twist ending that the Kimonians are actually humans and that that was what Bishop and the others were going to become, so when he was talking about school and advancing, I thought, Aha! I was right! He’s going to educate himself and develop slowly into a very tall beautiful smart thing! No go, though. And maybe that’s just the self-centered humanness in me talking, always instinctively wanting to make us the best and most important and the center of everything.

Or: “I am the core and center of my universe” is a fair statement for anybody. Which is probably slightly misquoted, but it’s from Theodore Sturgeon‘s novella, The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff, which “Immigrant” kind of reminded me of. Sort of. In a very roundabout, only tenuously related way. In the novella, there are a couple aliens studying Synapse Beta Sub-Sixteen (I’m surprised I remember that!), which is . . . hard to describe. Reflex, kind of. Social impulse? Subconscious hive-mind? Okay, let me go to Google for this one: Synapse Beta Sub Sixteen is akin to a social inner-ear, a “reflex of reflexes,” allowing an individual to “reflexively adjust when imbalanced in his sociocultural matrix.” This synapse allows for cultures to evolve as a single unity, to, at times of great crisis, rise up and overcome – without this synapse, no culture stands a chance at prolonged survival. 

And they find out we don’t, as a whole, have it. Unless, er, you set our house on fire. In which case we Synapse Beta like mad. Anyway, the point is, since we don’t use it, we’re prone to selfishness/violence/greed/et cetera. So as I read “Immigrant,” I remember thinking that (if we could pretend that both the story and novella existed in the same sci-fi realm) perhaps the Kimonians just had buckets and buckets of Synapse Beta Sub-Sixteen, which would explain their society. Because, honestly, even if the entire human race was incredibly intelligent and telepathic, we wouldn’t have the peaceful, money-free, for-the-greater-good* society that they have. We would still probably be greedy, shifty, and aggressive, because, well, we’d still be human. The Kimonians must possess some secret Ingredient X that negates all those petty, self-serving ambitions. Because in all our centuries of human advancement, we still haven’t managed to shake those. We’ve just gotten more sophisticated at executing them.

*I don’t think I can use the phrase “the greater good” without thinking of Hot Fuzz. Ah well.

    Dessine-moi un mouton!
    Quand on veut un mouton, c'est la preuve qu'on existe.