Webcomics and the Infinite Canvas

Please note: though this blog post contains no comics examples within its text due to the logistics of space, please see the hyperlinks provided for relevant examples of each webcomic mentioned.

There’s already been some discussion on this blog about memes and rage comics as they relate to electronic literature, but I think it’s interesting that no one has yet to touch on webcomics as a medium yet, considering the promise they hold for analysis.

Plenty of webcomics are perfectly capable of being viewed both on and off a computer, but there are many that simply can’t be printed, as they were created with the specific intent of being viewed digitally. The Wormworld Saga is perhaps the most well-known example of what’s commonly referred to in comics studies as the “infinite canvas,” or the idea that comics presented to a viewer through a computer need not adhere to any dimensional guidelines at all, as scrolling is such an easy and intuitive way to move about the page. Instead of being broken up into pages, Wormworld’s panels extend all the way down until the end of each chapter in one long, unbroken column, creating an experience entirely unique to the digital medium, as such a thing would be impossible to print.

There are other webcomics that normally don’t utilize the infinite canvas, but will upon occasion whenever they have something more extended or complicated to discuss. XKCD has done this multiple times in the past, as has a lesser known comic called Nedroid*, but I mention these two as examples because they’ve both put out books of prints in the past in order to better monetize their franchises.

The general rule for electronic literature is that for something to be considered e-lit, it has to have been “born digital,” or created with the specific purpose of being viewed on a computer. Under such a definition, I am sure I would meet little resistance in asserting that Wormworld shoult be considered e-lit. But the question remains, how should we classify webcomics that oscillate between making use of the infinite canvas and ignoring it completely? What about what I like to consider to be “hybrids”—what about webcomics like XKCD?

Although not all webcomics demand to be read on a computer and on nothing else, all webcomics do have one basic thing in common. Although not necessarily “born digital,” each is still created with the intent of being viewed on a computer monitor—even webcomics that don’t experiment with the idea of the infinite canvas at all, like Dinosaur Comics. I would assert, therefore, that all webcomics should be considered, at least peripherally, as forms of electronic literature, if only for the fact that they were created for the digital age.

*The actual name for Nedroid‘s comics is technically Beartato Comics, as Nedroid is actually the artist’s pen name, but Nedroid is much more widely recognized as an overall title simply because “Beartato Comics” appears nowhere on the comics website itself.

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