Webcomics as a Gateway: From Middle School to Art School
When I was in middle school, my older brother introduced me to the webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court, a tale about a young girl beginning school at a complex magical institution. Like most webcomics, Gunnerkrigg Court was not released all at once. Instead, it updated three pages each week.
I sped through the backlog of a thousand pages in an entire weekend. I was captivated not only by the story, but by the unusual art as well. Before, when I thought of comics, I thought of the realistic rendering of Western superhero stories. Gunnerkrigg Court clearly drew on different traditions, mostly those of animated cartoons, especially Japanese anime. The art also drastically changed over the course of the comic as the artist (Tom Siddell) visibly grew more and more comfortable drawing the characters and the setting. Look at page one versus page one thousand two hundred fifty three! Yup, that’s the same character!
I began reading as many webcomics as I could find, usually through lists of recommendations that artists would include on their webcomic’s website. I noticed that dramatic improvements in the art were common in many webcomics that spanned months or years. As a high school student who had just begun to take my penchant for doodling seriously, it was inspiring to see artists who I admired show visible growth in their web comics. Watching these artists progress was a terrific reminder that every artist goes through different stages with their work, but with continuous practice, improvement is inevitable. This experience is unique to the webcomic format, and I think it’s part of the reason why webcomics are so attractive to younger readers. (plus they’re free!)
I was also attracted to webcomics because of the all the different kinds of people in the stories. Webcomic artists don’t have answer to anyone the way syndicated comic strips or serial superhero comics do, so it’s easier to feature people outside of the mainstream, which I loved. As a gay teenager, it was difficult to find queer people in popular media who actually resonated with me. Most of the queer characters I saw on television had storylines that centered entirely around their queerness, and to me, that didn’t make sense. Nobody’s life revolves entirely around sexuality, so why would theirs? When I started reading webcomics, I discovered characters for whom their queerness is visible, but doesn’t dominate their storyline.
For example, Cucumber Quest by Gigi D.G. is a comic based on cliches from role playing games, which were very important to me as a kid, but normally don’t include queer characters at all. In this comic, however, a character named Almond has another girl as her love interest, but her main storyline as a character has more to do with her relationship with her brother. I found Almond (and other queer characters in the comic) refreshing because of their complexity as characters, and because they introduced queer people into a genre almost completely dominated by heterosexuality.
The digital format of webcomics gives an artist room to experiment in ways that print comics do not. On a computer, you can create comics that don’t fit conventional page sizes (such as in Firelight Isle by Paul Duffield), or that integrate GIFs (Thunderpaw by Jen Lee), videos and music (Ava’s Demon by Michelle Czajkowski), games (The Black Brick Road of Oz by Xamag), or even parallax (Space Monsters! Space Ships! By Mackenzie Schubert and Charles Olson).
Beyond their inventive use of new technology, webcomics enable direct contact between the reader and the artist in ways that would be impossible in a museum, bookstore, or art gallery. Many webcomics are closely linked to the artist’s social media accounts, since many use as vehicles to promote their comic, announce updates, and connect with the people who enjoy their work. Artists can receive feedback directly from their readers, or see fanart or fanfiction that their readers create.The interaction between the artist and reader can even affect the way comics are made — in both subtle, unintentional ways and in very deliberate ways.
The experimental webcomic Problem Sleuth by Andrew Hussie was intended to be an affectionate parody of adventure games that used player-submitted commands. In a similar way, Hussie invited readers to submit commands to advance the plot of the comic. Although, he quickly discovered that letting hundreds of readers control a single story doesn’t exactly lend itself to being a coherent story, and after a while began to write the narrative himself.
On the other hand, increased contact between the artist and their readers can be a blessing and a curse. Fan entitlement can become a huge issue — I’ve seen fans who mistreat artists, sending angry messages about late updates or sick days, and who forget that many webcomic artists are sharing their stories out of the goodness of their hearts. More often than not, webcomics are passion projects — labors of love that is no one should think they are entitled to.
Webcomics were my gateway into the world of art. The practical, easy access combined with superior representation of marginalized people and the direct interaction between the artist and reader is an experience unique to webcomics that I am grateful for, because it set me on a path I may never have taken otherwise. I now study illustration at college, something my middle school self would never have foreseen, and I hope someday I can bring the joy of art to another young kid, just as these comics did for me.
Here are a couple more of my favorite comics, if you’re interested:
Romance and robots: O Human Star
Magical girls and college: Agents of the Realm
School clubs and spirits: Paranatural
Witchcraft and resistance: Witchy
Short stories and autobiography: Johnny Wander
Spaceships and long-lost love: On a Sunbeam
Rom-coms and fish markets: On a Sunbeam
Horror and hilarity: The Last Halloween
Prophecies and unlikely heroes: Rice Boy
New worlds and unusual beasts: Prague Race
History and silliness: Hark! A Vagrant!