There are two basic forms of webcomics, and they mimic the two forms of newspaper strips. There’s the gag-a-day style that most people think of when they think of newspaper strips: typically three or four panels with at least an attempt at humor. (Nothing personal, but let’s face it: some of these just aren’t funny!) Peanuts, Garfield, and Blondie all fall into this basic format. The other type is less popular in newspapers these days because of format limitations: the ongoing serial. One story that takes place in small installments over the course of weeks and months. Flash Gordon, The Phantom and Mary Worth fall into this category.

Webcomics, with their ability to house an effectively infinite archive, allow for greater opportunities with regards to long-form storytelling. Readers who missed earlier installments can jump to any place in the archives and don’t necessarily have to start reading with the most current strip. Not everyone is going to do that, of course, but the option is there in a way that wasn’t really possible in newspaper comics.

That means that, in theory, a webcomic has greater storytelling flexibility because the creator doesn’t have to recap the previous installment since the reader can read it for themselves at the touch of a button. (Webcomics have the infinite canvas working for them to help in that regard, too, but that’s a topic for a future installment of this column!) This actually can cause problems for the creator, however.

The problem with relying on an archive’s availability is that it can allow a creator to get lazy with their storytelling. There was an old adage in comic books that every issue is somebody’s first, so writers had to make sure every character is clearly identified in every issue, and the broad story is recapped once an issue as well, so new readers aren’t lost. With webcomics, which are generally only updated one page at a time, that’s not really practical to recap the story on essentially every page, but readers still need to be able to get up to speed on the overall plot and character basics within a few pages.  Especially in long-running series where it would take a very long time for a reader to scour through years’ worth of archives in order to catch up and follow the current story.

I can’t tell you the number of webcomics I’ve had to stop reading because I simply couldn’t figure out what was going on. Not because the storytelling was bad per se, but because they never bothered to catch me, as a new reader, up to speed. I wasn’t compelled enough inside of a dozen (or however many) pages to decide it was worth digging through the archives. I’ll dig through the archives if I find compelling characters and situations that I want to learn more about, but if they’re not defined very well in the span of my early reading, I have no idea that there might indeed be something captivating about them from before.

Some creators work noticeably harder on this front than others, not surprisingly. John Allison’s Bad Machinery does a great job of this, particularly for as long-lived as the strip has been, and he further makes things easier for readers by breaking the broader story up into indiviual “cases” which act as easy jumping-on points. Each individual case may as well be an entirely new comic, as far as how Allison treats them, even though he continues using the same characters. Brad Guigar does much the same thing with Evil Inc., although he doesn’t break the storylines down quite as decisively as Allison.

As much as I generally prefer to highlight lesser-known webcomics here, there’s a reason why guys like Allison and Guigar get large followings: they know what they’re doing and make for great examples of all manner of “here’s how to do it well” stories. In this case, in particular, they both have long histories that could easily alienate potential new readers, but they both continue to write stories as if every strip was someone’s first, even though they both have about a decade of strips behind them. Something to keep in mind if you’re working on your own strip and start thinking that your readers can just hit the archives if they get lost.