I’ve talked a few times here about formatting webcomics, and how they frequently borrow from their predecessors: newspaper strips and comic books. But not every webcomic does that, of course. In Reinventing Comics, Scott McCloud talked about the notion of the web as an “infinite canvas” where one comic could scroll, in theory, in either/both directions indefinitely. He and others have toyed with that notion, making webcomics that take several minutes of scrolling to get from start to finish. Others have gone in the other direction, creating webcomics that only display a single panel at a time, forcing the reader to click every few seconds for more than a few lines of dialogue.
Christopher Baldwin, however, has been playing with an interesting format idea I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. Baldwin has been working on webcomics since 1996 with his dramatic strip, Bruno. He’s probably most famous for Spacetrawler, which he worked on from 2010 to 2013. His latest strip is called Anna Galactic, which he began in early 2015.
The formats of Baldwin’s previous strips are fairly common. He’s used both the horizontal newspaper strip style, as well as the more upright full-page comic book style. Although he has played with the individual page layouts from time to time, most of his storytelling follows a typical grid pattern you would find with those formats. He’s doing something different with Anna Galactic, which I find incredibly clever.
The challenge webcomic creators often face is that, while the story they’re trying to tell is unwound over the course of several chapters, they need to keep the readers engaged on a daily page-per-page basis to ensure they keep coming back. Some of the more talented creators are able to keep the story moving along, but are still able to end each day’s strip on either a punchline or piece of dramatic tension. No small feat, especially over the course of months and years.
What Baldwin is doing with Anna Galactic, however, is drawing the story to fit a series of standard comic book pages (presumably to sell in book form later) but he’s only presenting as many panels as is necessary to get to the next punchline or dramatic moment, even if that’s in the middle of a page layout. Online updates, then, can begin with what appears to be the second or third panel in a row, or end without going all the way to the right of the “page.” This allows Baldwin to tell the story in a more natural manner, letting the story beats fall where it makes the most sense and not forcing them into the bottom right panel of every page.
While this could lead to some uncomfortable dead space at the start of each installment, Baldwin fills the extra space online with his and the comic’s name/logo. While this would be a waste of space in printed form, it’s essentially irrelevant online for the same reason that an infinite canvas is possible. But when Baldwin does go to print the story, he can simply run the panels together and create complete page layouts. The story beats would still flow naturally, and might appear in the middle of a page somewhere instead of with a forced rhythm at the end of every page.
Baldwin’s recognized and is taking advantage of the difference in formats between print and the web. It is, as I said, a particularly clever insight and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more people comment on it or replicate the idea.