Hervé St-Louis had a piece last week looking at webcomics from an information architecture (IA) perspective. He provides more in-depth definitions than I can devote time to here, but the upshot is that the way comics are formatted—broken down by pages and panels with a discrete flow not only from panel to panel, but within a single panel—is essentially an exercise in IA. The creator’s goal is to break down the broader narrative into smaller, manageable chunks and guide the reader through the entire story.
He also touches on the user experience (UX) of webcomics. Notably, he looks at the differences between print and on-screen. Many of the points he raises are not new. Computer screens are horizontal, so it doesn’t make sense to use a vertical comic format that mimics print comics, for example. He also provides a very concrete example of why the notion of the “infinite scroll” isn’t very effective in webcomics. He gets into some other experiments with font sizes and such.
St-Louis has some background with IA and UX, so it’s no surprise that he’s very conscious of that when working on his webcomic, Johnny Bullet. But more importantly, he was willing to sit down and experiment with diffent ideas about form and function. Many cartoonists I see do not do that, and simply adopt whatever they see in other comics that they like. Without any real expertise, there is some validity to that approach, but without any additional reflection, it leaves the creator with a webcomic that’s designed to someone else’s ideals. That may happen to work fine, but maybe not.
Many webcomickers design their webcomic pages to mimic a print format because that’s their ultimate goal; however, that blithely ignores the format where most people will see it first: online. Phil and Kaja Foglio have partially addressed the IA issue in their storytelling of Girl Genius. While each page advances the overall story, they also each end on a dynamic moment so they stand alone relatively well. Readers still feel they’re getting a discrete and satisfying portion of the story with each single page update that way.
Cristopher Baldwin has addressed the problem a little differently in Anna Galactic. He formats the pages for print, but then cuts off what is presented online wherever it serves the story. This leaves some occasional extra white space before and/or after a day’s update, but it will fit together nicely when it gets printed. I give Baldwin props for trying something a little unusual here.
However, they both still present their comics mostly vertically, causing a minor UX problem. The original Tozo story by David O’Connell simplified his page layouts to a three-tier grid. He then presented a single tier with each update so they fit nicely on a horizontal screen, but still presented well in a traditional pamphlet format. He also tried, like the Foglios, to put a small dynamic moment at the end of each tier, but that was obviously much more difficult. That is perhaps why he’s gone to a full-page per update format in his current story.
In any event, each of these creators is trying to address different problems that many webcomickers experience, whether they realize it or not. Their experiments may not always be 100% successful, but they are not simply relying on others’ (assumed) expertise in IA and UX, and perhaps missing some of the underlying rationales behind the creators’ decisions. Why they’re doing what they’re doing is often as significant as what they’re doing.