Come In Alone: Issue #11

Fri, February 11th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

The new buzzword in online conversation is "content." Everyone's gone Content-crazy in the last few weeks. Content has been tossed around with vague resolve over the last year or so, but the AOL-Time Warner copulation kicked it into serious intensity. Suddenly, everyone wants Content. AOL Time Warner, and the repercussions rippling off from that fusion, so the Wisdom goes, will put another umpty-billion people on the net over the next couple of years, and they're all going to be looking for stuff to entertain them. The Wisdom has it that, no, they won't all go to Usenet and download free porn. No, they'll all be looking for narrative entertainment experiences, just like the TV taught them to. The Wisdom suggests that all these zillions of people shout at the radio for not having pictures and stab their magazines and newspapers to death because the pictures don't move and talk, but there you go. Apparently, we approach all media as if they were television now.

Anyway, we're now in a position where every Internet start-up on the planet is looking for story material to charm the new users with. And I'm getting a lot of emails about this, because, of course, the simplest, most direct and richest way to communicate in words and pictures is... comics. I've got a bonus on my side because, in addition to being Master Storyteller and beloved the world over, I've got a little experience in writing very short animation sequences (for the PC game HOSTILE WATERS, coming to a store near you this summer, and all that). This helps, in an online world where, most often, we're not quite talking about comics. We're talking about Webcomics.

What are Webcomics? Nobody knows. In the same way that "comics" is just such an utterly wrong label for what the comic is, "Webcomics" doesn't get close to the form under discussion.

Probably the best Webcomic I've seen so far is Jenni Gregory's ABBY'S MENAGERIE. I urge you all to go and look at it. It's at http://abbysmenagerie.com. As you'll see, it's really just a comic, told panel by panel, using the animated-GIF technology to time the appearance of the speech balloons and captions. Simple, clever and elegant. It nods to the new medium for its distribution without making concessions to it. Researching Webcomics has turned me into a bit of a purist, and I love ABBY'S MENAGERIE for its uncompromised strength.

"Probably the best Webcomic I've seen so far is Jenni Gregory's ABBY'S MENAGERIE. I urge you all to go and look at it."[Abbys Menagerie]

But, as I say, it's on the "pure" end of the scale. The further the other way we go, the less like comics Webcomics look. By the time we get to http://www.stanlee.net, we're not really talking about comics at all. Stan's said in print that what he'll be showing on StanLee.Net aren't comics. What they are, are little movies, using the limited animation available to 56K-and-under viewers via the Macromedia Flash technology. This is the biggest, most-capitalised and most corporate of the webcomics sites I've seen. Only preview material relating to the intended three series are available, all of which look rotten, and belie the supposed involvement of intelligent people like Steve Gerber. Stan stakes out the "debased" end of the scale, and has people questioning the condition of his after-all-no-longer-young brain, with this and his other big deal, http://www.backstreetproject.com, wherein he turns vile identikit clone-pop creatures The Backstreet Boys into superheroes. I'd've been more impressed if he turned them into humans.

Also on this full-motion, soundtracked end of Webcomics are things like Jonni Nitro, available at http://www.jonninitro.com. Check this out. The animation, derived from live-action filming, is chiaroscuoric, reducing the filesize and making the thing easily viewable to anyone with a crappy 28K connection (like me). The actual stories so far haven't been much cop. Evidently Marc Silvestri and Scott Lobdell are getting together to direct and write an episode, which will at least make the visuals more challenging and the dialogue snappier.

[Jonni Nitro]"The animation, derived from live-action filming, is chiaroscuoric, reducing the filesize and making the thing easily viewable to anyone with a crappy 28K connection (like me)."

James Hudnall is evidently running a Flash Webcomic at http://www.thehud.com. But I can't make it work. Full points to Jim for getting out and doing it on his own, and a bit of a slapping for what one friend reported as an apparent three-megabyte download. If nothing else, drop in and give him your amoral support over this HARSH REALMS crap.

[Feynman]

Somewhere in the Webcomic middle distance is Mark Badger's work at Lemon Custard, http://www.lemoncustard.com/. Take a look at the piece called FEYNMAN! to see how he uses Flash to work pacing and timing. Technology slaved to storytelling, using it only to achieve very specific sequential-art effects. If there's a real use for Flash in making pure comics on the Web, then it's here.

Because, as far as I'm concerned, as soon as it starts singing and dancing and animating and turning the pages itself, it ain't a comic anymore. I'm sorry, but I've read far too many of these things online now, and it's made a Puritan out of me. If the sodding thing starts talking to me, boom: it's not a comic anymore. Call 'em Webcomics, call 'em Webisodes, call 'em what you like.

What they are, is something else entirely. Something becoming. Something that uses prose and comics timing and illustration and animation and music and pretty much any other thing you can think of. They're being grown out of comics, but they're something new. An art even more hybridised than comics, an even weirder-looking bastard.

The rub, however, is this: they're all crap. Well, not all of them. But enough that the generalisation holds. The basic storytelling values and coherent, original conceptualisation of ABBY'S MENAGERIE, or the moody, atmospheric and Java'd-up RUST at http://www.popimage.com/, make these and their few companions stand out very sharply indeed against a horribly poor crowd. For every ABBY'S, there's a hundred pieces of worthless gibberish like WHIRLGIRL.

If new readers do come to the net in their zillions looking for Content, they're going to have a rough old time of it. But what they will get to see is a new way of telling stories in its earliest stages. Something between prose and illustration and comics and posters and radio and cinema and TV and animation, with music. This, I find interesting. This is why I commend Webcomics to your attention. Not because they're good stories, because by and large they're not. But because you're getting to see something new being born.

The Russians, when they mean something to be done gloriously, say it is to be done with music. So it is the same, I feel, with telling stories, and new arts. These things should be done with music.

Out on to the Web with you.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My website, currently undergoing an update, is http://www.warrenellis.com. There is a COME IN ALONE discussion area here on CBR.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read ENTERING SPACE by Robert Zubrin (1999), listen to PLAY by Moby (1999), and hit space.com at, unsurprisingly, http://www.space.com. Today's recommended graphic novel is CLOCKWORK ANGELS by Lea Hernandez (Image, 1995, details at http://www.divalea.com). Now begone.

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