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Friday, 12 April, 2002, 10:40 GMT 11:40 UK
Comics turn a new page
Courtesy Scott McCloud:
Does being on-screen mean comics can't work?
Forget musclebound superheroes. Forget scruffy pages stapled together. The future life of comics could be a bit more grown-up. And it could be online. Giles Turnbull reports.

In case you hadn't noticed, comics have been growing up.

They have been expanding into new subjects, gaining new audiences, and - thanks to the internet - could be poised to change radically how they are written and read.

Comics on the web can stretch outwards and take up as much space as they need

Scott McCloud
At least, that's the view of one cartoonist, who has made it his business to help drag comics out of its rut, lose its image as a sidelined and neglected art form, and raise expectations of what it can achieve.

He is Scott McCloud, and until a few years ago he was just another professional American comic artist, well known among comics fans for his post-modern superhero story Zot!

But all that changed in 1993, when McCloud published a comic book about the comics industry, Understanding Comics.

Courtesy Scott McCloud
Computer screen gives more space to tell a story
This book broke all the rules. It had no superheroes. It was certainly not for kids. It was a reasoned discussion about the state of the comics scene, complete with many hard-hitting criticisms.

It was hugely popular, and McCloud took his call to arms further in a hard-hitting sequel, Reinventing Comics, explaining how computers could be the answers comics fans had been looking for.

There were wonderful opportunities ahead for comic artists, McCloud declared - if only they were brave enough to grasp them.

The most basic problem for the people who produce comics, McCloud told BBC News Online, was that any published material had to fight for shelf space in a shop.

"The most innovative work has trouble being seen at all," he says.

Courtesy Scott McCloud
Understanding how comics work on paper is essential to understand how they can work online
"Every piece of shelf space has to be devoted to the best selling material for the retailer.

"But there is no shelf space in cyberspace. Rather, there is unlimited shelf space. Comics on the web can stretch outwards and take up as much space as they need."

The internet brought a new, direct link between the creators and the readers of comics.

"The artist and the readers can communicate directly for the first time. At the artistic end you have freedom to explore different shapes - comics no longer have to fit on the printed page.

"They can occupy a much larger space, or incorporate multimedia - although if you have too much multimedia in the form of animation or sound or video, you start getting to the point where it ceases to be a comic any more.

"Many people are pursuing that, especially in the last year or so. A lot of comics have been coming online that explore these new ideas."
The Beano has made a smooth move online
McCloud keeps a close eye on developments in online comics. His own web site [see Internet links] acts a showcase for his work, and he uses it for a variety of projects.

These include short, spur-of-the-moment cartoons improvised from titles sent in by fans ("The Daily Improv" page) and I can't stop thinking!, an online continuation of some of the themes outlined in his books about comics.

One huge advantage of using the internet for comics is the chance to broaden the audience. Comics spent too long wrapped up in the world of muscled superheroes, and while the medium has shown signs of expanding into new genres, the internet will help bring in new readers.

McCloud says: "Lots of work traditionally focussed on one area, namely superheroes, to the detriment of all others. Attempts to broaden that in comics stores largely failed, because the people who might be interested in other genres had no reason to go into the stores. They were unaware of what was available.

"We can approach a comic because it's a comic, or because the subject matter is something we are interested in.

I am known mainly as the kooky guy who talks about the internet a lot

Scott McCloud
"If you write a comic about fishing, it might appeal to people who go fishing, but they are unlikely to visit the comics store to buy it. The internet can change that."

McCloud knows that he is known as something of a maverick. "Among my peers, I am known mainly as the kooky guy who talks about the internet a lot. I don't mind being associated with my books about comics, especially Understanding Comics, which I still rather like."

There will be more comics about comics, he says, but not for a while yet.

"I want to concentrate on writing some fiction for now. There's a long online comic I want to do, about a man who is obsessed with phone numbers."

Do you think comics can work online? Will they ever have the appeal of the paper and ink version? Add your views below.

Your comments so far:

Online comics are rubbish. The web is not suited to things that take a while to read. An online comic would take forever to download. And you would lose the gestalt effect of being able to take in a whole page at once. "Experts" like McCloud need to be kept away from comics, which work best when their creators roll with the essentially trashy nature of the medium.
DV, Ireland

Another benefit of the online medium is that traditional print comics have always had to be conservative in order to reach an audience wide enough to make them profitable in syndication. Web comics can push the boundaries much further - daily strips such as Sluggy Freelance or Goats would never work in a newspaper.
James, UK

I'm not into comics in a huge way.. but I like to buy something that's tangible. How can you have a rare internet comic?
Matt Whitby, UK

I am not very familiar with online comics, but I have reservations about the idea. There is just something about holding a comic book in your hands, something that really can't be described. When you care about the characters so much that they feel like your close friends, I think there is a definite need to hold the book in your hands and smell the ink on the paper more so than stare at images on a computer screen and turn the page by clicking the mouse. It sounds incredibly silly to say such things about a comic, but the X-Men and Spiderman are good friends of mine and it just wouldn't be the same to read them from a monitor.
Nick, US

I fear the net will do to comics what fast food did for restaurants. There is nothing like finding a comic you bought many years ago while spring cleaning and sittind down to read it - bringing back all the memories of youth but at the same time discovering new things that only an adult would understand. How can that be possible with the ever shifting internet?
Ivan, UK

An amusing satire of McCloud's ideas can be found at this page.
Steve Barham, UK

Online comics do work well, especially Scott McCloud's work. I agree with the vast majority of his conclusions especially concerning micropayments (small payments made to the comic creator online - currently this is quite difficult because of credit card commission etc). There are a vast array of different genres within comics and it is certainly an underrated medium.
Paul Goodison, UK

It's a clever storytelling medium which isn't tedious, as I thought it might be, and the fantastic art shows very well. It saves having to go into a dreary comics shop. Being free doesn't hurt either! It won't ever replace the real comics, but it's a great alternative and gives new talent a showroom without having to find a comics publisher.

I've seen fantastic examples of online comics that take full advantage of an unlimited format - such as Demian5's "When I Am King" and Tristan Farnon's "Leisuretown". The main problem is hammering out micropayments. Once a system such as PayPal becomes mainstream, artists can profit from their work.
Noonie, US

Comics will definitely work online provided the artists think about the medium they're using. A great deal of the appeal of comics is visual. This means the whole frame must fit on the screen at one time... no frames and no scrolling. Unfortunately, too many online comics at the moment try to reproduce the paper form without realising the limitations of the screen. It's not a technical problem though, it's artistic and there's no reason it can't be overcome.
Alcuin, UK

Online comics give people more of a chance to dip in to the subject as they want to. I work in a professional services firm and the "indenture" cartoon ( is read by many people I know just because it is so acutely relevant to us. I would never have found it if it wasn't on the net.
Paul, UK

I visit the Dilbert web site daily. The humour on this site will strike a chord with office workers everywhere. Indeed, many of them e-mail ideas for material. Well done Scott Adams!
Ian Thomas, UK

You only have to look at sites like User Friendly to see how an online comic strip can be successful. This one, for example, is now on its fourth book taken from the online strip.
Mike Dunderdale, UK

I don't really read comics. I wouldn't know where to buy them first of all! Putting them on the internet would be great, means better accessibility for people like me.
Andres Senior, UK

"This book broke all the rules. It had no superheroes. It was certainly not for kids." So... just like most comics then.
Rich Johnston, UK

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