Once a comic is printed, the published version becomes static and can no longer be altered. If it’s re-printed later, adjustments can be made and there’s a long history of changes being made between different editions of a comic. Walt Kelly famously altered many of his Pogo newspaper strips when they were first collected into book form, not so much to change the content but so that the strips were better formatted to the new layout. But even so, if you looked at that book collection ten, twenty, one hundred years later, it would look the same.
Of course, online that image does not have to be static. It can be altered at any time, and it’s not uncommon for artists to go back to fix errors that they notice after the work is posted. Sometimes it’s as simple as adding color, other times it’s correcting typos, and sometimes it’s updating the character designs to reflect how they appear later in the work.
But those alterations can take on a more immediate and ongoing presence in the form of animation. What is animation, after all, but a series of drawings that are repeatedly adjusted in front of the viewer? But doesn’t animating a webcomic remove it from the realm of comics and into the realm of animated cartoons? Wouldn’t the resulting work be closer to Bugs Bunny than the Katzenjammer Kids?
This question goes back to how comics are defined. If a comic ceases to be a comic, shouldn’t we be able to pinpoint why and how? While there’s been an ongoing debate on that point going back at least to Rodolphe Töpffer’s work in the mid 1800s, webcomics have worked on their own limits of the defintion based in part around the notion of animation.
Some of the earlier examples of animating webcomics revolved around conveying whole scenes within the context of a single frame. What might take a page or two to relay in a comic would play out in animated form within one panel. Some went further to provide sound or music, or spoken dialogue. “Motion comics” they were sometimes called.
But most of these types of works were produced by larger companies trying to one-up other creators. The webcomics community seemed to settle on these examples as no longer being comics. It’s not that animation was not allowed, but it should be limited in such a way that the reader remains in control of the story pacing. How quickly they progress through the story.
So animations that show ongoing loops—a babbling brook or a ubiquitous traffic jam, for examples—that only help to set a mood would be fine. An animation that shows a specific sequence relevant to the story—a man catching single fish or a cyclist weaving in and out of traffic—veers off into straight animation territory. That said, specific animated sequences have been shown to be accepted into webcomics from time to time, particularly if they’re activated by a reader’s actions, such as scrolling through the panels. The Bongcheon-Dong Ghost and Hobo Lobo of Hamelin are two examples that spring to mind.
The idea webcomickers have largely gone to, regardless of how formalists might define comics, centers around the notion of “does the work still generally read like a comic?” It’s not a particularly rigorous definition, by any means, but then, webcomics is still kind of a fast and loose profession as it is!