Daily newspaper strips have long been, well… long. They’re typically three or four panels placed side by side to create a single, straight, horizontal narrative. The specific sizes may have changed a bit, but the basic format goes back decades. Interestingly, when the notion of reprinting newspaper strips in a collected book format became more popular (you can find Bringing Up Father reprints dating back to 1919, but I’m talking about the back half of the 2oth century) publishers generally opted for the handy pulp novel format of 7″ x 4″ because all of their printing presses were set up for that already. The horizontal strip format didn’t really work for the vertical book, and a lot of time went into reconfiguring the art to the taller style, typically by splitting the strip in half and stacking the first two panels over the last two.
It wasn’t until 1980 when Garfield started getting the reprint treatment that things changed. The strip was hugely popular which made reprinting them a no-brainer decision, but Jim Davis felt the strips worked better horizontally and was able to demand the books also be horizontal. The strips were left intact, and publishers started paying more attention to formatting their books to fit the content instead of the other way around.
Why is this relevant to webcomics?
Many, if not most, webcomic creators serve two masters creatively when it comes to the basic design and format of their comics. They need to have them presented well online (obviously) but they also frequently keep in mind that the strip will eventually be seen in a printed format as well. Consequently, you’ll see a number of webcomics that are clearly formatted as if they were a typical pamphlet comic.
What I find myself wondering, though, is why use that format at all? Most webcomic readers will encounter the strip online first. Often, that’s the only place they’ll encounter it since such a small percentage of readers will go on to purchase a printed edition as well. So the notion that it might sell better because it will match what’s on the shelf at a local comic shop isn’t really valid. How many comic shops have you been in that carry anything webcomic related? How many of the ones where you have seen something had more than a couple books by a local author?
Webcomic collected editions are primarily sold online or at conventions, where there’s some degree of physical removal from the next book. So why let the a book format dictate the format of the comic itself? Why work backwards to replicate the look and feel of an end product that’s fundamentally different from the starting point? Wouldn’t it make more sense to start with a reader’s primary encounter with the story (via a screen) to suggest the format, and then find a book format that capitalizes on that format?
Whatever you think of Garfield today, it was a hugely popular and successful strip back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Pioneering, in some respects even. That horizontal book layout was called “The Garfield Format” for a reason, and a lot of people copied it. So why would a creator working on a webcomic not want to emulate the thinking that led to a change in the entire industry?