There are a lot of comics out there that many people don’t think of as comics. Assembly instructions for Ikea furniture. The safety procedures pamphlet in commercial airplanes. Magic books that explain how you perform all the tricks. Just because they don’t feature talking cartoon animals or hyper-muscular, spandex-clad heroes doesn’t mean they’re not comics.

In fact, almost any sort of instructional guides can be made in comics form. Will Eisner famously brought the idea to the military and created comics to show G.I.s how to clean their guns and repairs their Jeeps. Many recipe books are enhanced with a series of photographs (fumetti) to detail how things should look at each step in the process. But, as I sit and think on it, I’ve seen that use of comics rarely transferred online. I’ve come across a few cooking-based webcomics, but that’s about it. You’d think with the popularity of “life hacks” and “instructables” there would be a greater interest/desire for what you might call practical webcomics.

There’s a good reason why there aren’t, however: YouTube. Or, more generally, online video.

Video is an easy way to create a set of instructions for someone. You simply point a video camera at someone who knows what they’re doing and let them explain it while they’re doing it. It takes barely any time or effort beyond the actual doing of whatever it is you’re trying to show. You certainly can add additional graphics or effects and do some judicious editing and all that, but you don’t have to in order to get your message across. Any more, you don’t even need special equipment; you can do everything you need to using the phone you already have.

Meanwhile, trying to do the same in a comic format takes considerably more time, and utilizes a completely different set of skills. Even a seemingly simplistically drawn comic like Cooking Comically (which I guarantee is more complex than you think it is) takes more effort than pointing your phone in the general direction of your backyard grill for 20 minutes. Given the disparity in effort between the two approaches, it’s no wonder that video gets used more frequently.

But it’s also that additional thought and effort that goes into comics that often make them better suited for instruction. Not only can background distractions be eliminated, but by narrowing down on individual panels, the creator can really focus on the most important elements, and highlight for the reader what they should really be paying the most attention to. This is what comics do.

Print comics have the “advantage” in instructional comics in that there aren’t any real alternatives, practically speaking. If you want to include instructions on how to build that Lego Helicarrier in with the Helicarrier itself, they need to be included as a paper comic. You could maybe include a DVD or Blu-ray with video instructions, but there’s no guarantee the consumer would have anything to play it on. So in that context, comics have no competition. But online, all manner of media formats are available and webcomics frequently (and sadly) often take a back seat to the bad iPhone camerawork of Aunt Martha as Uncle Ted tries not to burn those burgers he threw on the Weber.

About The Author

Senior Editor, Comics & Lifestyle

Sean Kleefeld is an independent researcher whose work has been used by the likes of Marvel Entertainment, Titan Books and 20th Century Fox. He writes the ongoing “Incidental Iconography” column for The Jack Kirby Collector and had weekly “Kleefeld on Webcomics” and "Kleefeld's Fanthropology" columns for MTV Geek. He’s also contributed to Alter Ego, Back Issue and Comic Book Resources. Kleefeld’s 2009 book, Comic Book Fanthropology, addresses the questions of who and what comic fans are. He blogs daily at