Prompted by a comic’s fans comparing a review done on a single chapter to be “like opening up a book halfway and expecting the author to cater to your ineptitude,” a line that got me thinking.
In comic books it’s a cardinal rule that every single book/story/chapter should be treated as though it’s the first one the reader has ever picked up. Characters should refer to each other by name. Their interactions should convey to the audience the kind of people they are and how that relates them to one another. Conversations and narration should sufficiently catch up any newcomers to where the narrative is at within the first few pages. What’s happening? Who’s it happening to? Why?
Webcomics are a different animal than comic books, sure. A reader who gets introduced to a comic book with issue #11 of a series only has that one book in their hands. Going back to the previous ten chapters may or may not be a convenient option. Webcomics, on the other hand, have all of the previous chapters right there in the same place as the newer material — it’s all included the same package. Many people contend that starting a long-form story based webcomic at Chapter 4 instead of Chapter 1 is like opening up a novel and doing the same thing; I can see where this comparison comes from because of this.
But webcomics are not novels. Novels generally are not released one page or chapter at a time like webcomics usually are. For many readers the most recently released content is their first exposure to the work, very much like coming across single issues of comic books on a stand. Say the reader is hooked by your newest page. They want to know more about an element of the current story. They crave context! Are they going to go back a hundred pages or more to start at the onset of the entire franchise, or are they going to go back to the beginning of the most recent apparent jumping-on point (the start of the current chapter, surely)? Well, if they’re intrigued by something going on in the current story they’ll probably choose the latter.
Nobody with any sense picks up the penultimate issue of Batman: Death of the Family from 2013 and then goes back to start reading at Batman #1 from 1940 just because they’re interested in why the villain is wearing his own face as a mask. No, they’ll pick up the first comic in the Death of the Family chapter from 2012 and read from there. If the writer is worth his salt he’ll explain everything we need to know from thereon in.
These things need to be considered when making long-form story based webcomics, even ones with one main plot that runs throughout the entire series. If you use chapters then there must be a reason, even if it’s just to mark the resolution of one sub-plot and the assumption of a new one, and if you’re dividing your story like that anyway then please show consideration for new readers who have been conditioned by 75 years of comic books to see the start of a new story as a jumping-on point. If they can understand what’s going on enough to like it, they will probably go all the way back to page 1 and start chewing through the archive. But first you need to hook them. If you display your latest page on your homepage and/or promote it on sites like Reddit and Twitter and the various social media outlets trying to reach new people, think of that as the bait for any newcomers. The current chapter has to be the hook.
Story driven webcomics are not comic books and they are not novels. They are new. They are weird. They require their own considerations and their own approaches.
I would love to hear any insights people may have, whether they agree with what I’ve expressed here or not. I’ve always liked questions better than answers.