I think to appreciate the potential of online comics, you need to think of them not as traditional comics, but as multimedia comics.
Multimedia comics is really not a new concept. Look at the early MAD magazines, for instance. You had traditional panel comics. But you also had photography, parodies of newspapers, funny text pieces-- virtually anything those guys could think up.
Another favorite comic of mine along those lines is the National Lampoon High School Yearbook. Almost all photography, as I recall, with lots of text and a lot of stuff that appeared to be 'pasted' to the pages. If you read it carefully, there was even a kind of story that unfolds.
WATCHMEN, ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, CEREBUS-- comics have been carrying the concept of multimedia forward into a broad variety of settings and applications.
But with online comics, this concept is beginning to explode.
Want an example of an online multimedia comic? You're looking at one-- the comicon.com virtual convention.
Look what it's got:
Links to 'traditional' online comics, rows of panels that have simply been scanned in and posted.
Animation ('Cape Guy').
Photography (for example, see Michael Cohen's booth).
Drawings and paintings-- the 'artshow'.
Permanent text-- the keynote address.
Interactive text-- the discussion boards.
Alternate paths-- the 'main floor', where you can 'wander' around and pick a 'booth.'
'Evolving' sequences-- the Interactive Story, which also features alternate paths.
'Evolving' data bases-- the Connect Sales Directory.
Comicon.com of course is by and large utilitarian in its design. But there's no reason why all of these concepts and more couldn't be employed in creating an artistic expression.
For example, say you wanted to portray an imaginary city-- for example, Anvard, from Carla Speed McNeil's award-winning series FINDER. You could assemble maps, vistas, phone books, museums, neighborhoods, memory flashes, histories, stories, mythologies, a daily news broadcasts, a 'walking tour' (like she has in the books).
There's no limit of what or what kinds of information you could assemble. The incredible artistic challenge, though, would be in forming it into a unified experience. Comics, animation, sound, interactivity must be used to bring the city to life.
Take the same basic concept and turn it on its head-- how about if you wanted to portray a PERSON. Say you have an artistic work, 'Portrait of my Father'. First step would be to come up with a less corny title. But the same volume of material could be assembled, but from a much different perspective. One person's life history-- their house, their family, the jobs they've held. And once again, the crucial role of the artist in breathing life into it.
The biggest challenge to imagine and anticipate in multimedia comics is an attempt to portray a STORY. Because the way we think of stories is linear-- one path from beginning to ending. But the online environment is not linear. As soon as we find ourselves channeled down one path, the natural impulse is to break away.
One solution that has emerged to creating online 'stories' is the role-playing game. But that approach is very limited-- the richest vein of story material doesn't deal with physical action, but with the emotional life. Can you create an emotional role-playing game?
I guess we'll find out.
I wanted to point out the Cayetano cartoon for the first week of April at his Magic Inkwell website. It's a good example of a multimedia comic. It begins with a simulation of a comicon.com discussion board message, then segways into a series of photographs.
The discussion board simulation carries on, indirectly, a tradition from multimedia comics in the print medium, such as Mad Magazine and Acme Novelty Library. In Mad and Acme, bogus advertisements are used for satire and other artistic statements. These intrusions from another mode of expression fit with the comics, because we've become accustomed to them from other comics which have 'real' advertisements.
By the same token, the discussion board is something we're accustomed to in the online environment, so when one shows up within a comic strip, it seems to fit.
This is an important idea in trying to imagine how multimedia comics can evolve. Let me relate it back to the development of the novel in the history of literature.
The first novels grew out of books designed to train people to write proper letters. These books consisted of series of letters used to demonstrate different writing styles appropriate for different occassions. Some of these books started having little stories that went along with them, which were used as the subjects of the letters. This form was known as the epistolatory novel.
Why didn't writers simply begin by composing long-form novels? Because it hadn't been done, and their ability to imagine such a thing, a story of such length and complexity, was limited. Epic poetry and the theatre were the models they had to go on, but these forms were quite different from what the novel would become. The epistolary text, though, was an existing structure they could build upon.
The modern multimedia cartoonist faces the same challenge. We don't know what a multimedia epic will be like. We have to make it up as we go along. And it will hasten that evolution if we attempt to build upon the already-existing structures.
For example, imagine a message board consisting of entirely fictitious messages-- just like the epostolary texts of old. With the new technology, the reader could even add new messages to the message board (viewable by their logons only?) and a fairly sophisticated program could generate responses that are in line with the these of the other fictitious messages.
Say you're viewing a Klingon message board. You add the message, 'I like to take my Teddy Bear to bed with me!' And the answering program responds, 'What!?! Those are not the words of a Klingon warrior! Are you mocking me?!?'
For another example, say you created a work titled NAHOO. It would resemble YAHOO except that it would be entirely fictional. Fictional advertisements, fictional news and entertainment updates, fictional email with fictional spam, fictional results when you search the web.
How does this relate with cartooning? Well, I think multimedia cartoonists are going to have to be idea artists first, and craftspersons at drawing second.
But here's an idea for how to use cartooning in NAHOO. In fact, I was debating with other cartoonist on the UNDERSTANDING COMICS thread about how the mind interprets a cartoony face as compared to a realistic face. Now imagine if you had a work like NAHOO, and in all the places were a photograph would normally appear, a cartoon illustration was used instead.
In the news section, for the President's state of the union address, a cartoon President with a cartoon Speaker of the House behind him would be show. For the latest movies, cartoon shots from the movies. You'd be creating a world in which all faces were iconic! (Maybe to continue the inversion, the site could feature comic strips made up completely of photographs!)
Not only would this be fascinating, but it would make it a lot easier, faster, and more flexible for an artist to build something like NAHOO.