The Webcomicker

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Some thoughts on fixed art comics

A yellowing page over at The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark.

So, I was considering putting up the obligatory "Merry Christmas, everyone!" post, and then I decided that you guys deserve more than that. You don't come to this blog to be wished a Merry Christmas, you come to read about webcomics, gordangit!

So here's a post that's been sitting on the back burner for a few weeks. I've been wanting to give my insights into "fixed art" comics, and specifically what works and what doesn't.

Now, let me preface this post by saying that I've only ever actually read three fixed art type comics: Dinosaur Comics, Indie Tits, and of course The Adventures of Brigadier General John Stark. I know there's at least one more good fixed art comic out there but I couldn't remember the name and I couldn't find it (what do you search for on Google? Fixed art? Cut and paste? Sameness?). Anyways, I think these three are at least a representative sample of what could be considered "good" fixed art comics.

So, the question at hand is, why is Dinosaur Comics so consistently good (and improving all the time, some would say) while the other two comics seem to be languishing? It's certainly not the writers. Indie Tits is done by Jeph Jaques, who has received a lot of praise recently for his innovative stories and ability to really grip his audience. And I don't think anyone could legitimately call into question the writing skills of Eric Burns. Yet both of them have put their fixed art strips on hold, at least for the moment, and neither of them have enjoyed huge success with their ventures, in spite of both of them having a large readership to leverage.

And the problem, I think lies in their choice of fixed art. Anyone out there who's thinking of starting a strict form comic needs to take extreme caution in their choice of artwork, because whatever you choose you're going to be stuck with for the rest of the life of your strip, and you've got to make sure that it gives you enough freedom to allow your creativity to shine through. And my contention is that neither Indie Tits nor Brig Gen John Stark allows its author enough freedom, while Dinosaur Comics has the perfect balance.

Let's start with Indie Tits. Now, Jeph Jaques has even allowed himself a bit of cheat in this comic by having four different fixed arts which him can use at whim (as this archive page so perfectly demonstrates). One bird on a branch, two birds on a branch, three birds on a branch, and two birds standing side-by-side. So he's got a lot of options available to him for any given day. The problem is that each strip is only two panels long, and in each strip the two panels are the same. By only having two panels, Jeph severely limits the amount of dialogue he can have in his strip, and by using the same art in both panels he prevents the strip from having any action to it, meaning that all the humor must come solely from the dialogue. Now, in general with a fixed form strip the humor will be coming from the dialogue, but by not having any movement of the characters within the strip, there can be no sort of progression. It's just got to be a "wham bam" quickie joke, hoping to draw a laugh. There's no ability to have a traditional set-up and knock-down. And you can write these super quick jokes for awhile, but eventually you'll just run out of ideas.

My suggestion to Jeph Jaques is this: If you want Indie Tits to be more interesting and be able to do more with it, extend the length to 4-6 panels, and have different birds, with some birds flying in and out in different panels. Then you should be able to do some good things.

Now let's talk about Brig Gen John Stark. In this comic Burns provides himself with plenty of room to stretch his prosaic muscles with 5 panels. He also has some action, as the good general moves around from frame to frame, with some frames giving us the more introspective close-up and others giving us a more extroverted far-off view. But here's the problem with this one: There's only one character! With the way Burns has structured the strip there's nothing he can do but sit and have John Stark lecture at us day after day. Now, this isn't all bad; I mean, that's basically what Burns does with Websnark and it's worked out well for him, but when you try to translate that over to a webcomic, it can get a little dry. I mean, Stark can only talk about himself for so long before we run out of interesting events in his life. And there's a statute of limitations on Peggy Shippen jokes. Burns could dispense with the premise of the strip and just use John Stark as a mouthpiece for his own commentary on various things, but then the strip would basically have degenerated into a blog, and that's not very exciting. So eventually he's just not going to have anything else to say.

And I'm not quite sure what Burns can do to improve the strip. I honestly think if he wants to make it a long-term project and have it remain good he needs to have some method of dialogue, as opposed to just monologue. But with his source material that could be a problem. I mean, it's pictures of a statue (it's actually ONE picture of a statue, cropped up several ways). Maybe if there had been another statue nearby he could have taken a picture of both of them but I doubt there's another statue close enough for him to do that. Probably his only option is to have some implied characters offscreen (which Dinosaur Comics actually has from time to time, most notably with God and the devil). He could have some offscreen tourists passing by that he could argue with, or something like that. But I'm convinced he's needs dialogue to keep the comic fresh and interesting.

So let's look at Dinosaur Comics, and the formula for success. Now, I'm not saying that Ryan North's writing skills don't carry the comic. They do. Without question the strip would have quickly died were it not for his skills. But the Dinosaur Comics artwork specifically gives him the freedom he needs for his writing skills to flex and blossom. Notice that the strip has three characters onscreen, so there's plenty of opportunity for interaction. It's got six panels, which gives him enough time to set up and knock down a joke, and the last panel provides a perfect space for an additional remark which can really enhance the core joke. And the dinosaurs move around from panel to panel. It's not always the same dinosaurs in every panel, and their poses change. All of these elements work together to provide North with a canvas that actually has a lot of potential variability, and therefore more creativity from comic to comic.

So, if you're thinking about trying a fixed art comic, make sure you have all the elements you need to allow you to keep making new comics every day without running out of ideas. I think it's definitely possible to have a fixed art comic and have it be good, and I'd like to see more of them, but you've got to plan ahead!

Now, go have a Merry Christmas.


At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Minivet said...

Well said! I've followed all three of these, and your reasoning makes a lot of sense.

At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only other fixed art comic I read is "The Angriest Ricecooker in the World":
That, too, suffers the problem of too limited art and cast.

Good for a giggle nonetheless.

At 12:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was very interesting to read.
I'm thinking of starting on of these.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger Peter C. Hayward said...

This post was instrumental in inspiring my fixed-art comic, "Samwise and Friends" (


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