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STRIP FOR THE WEB
COMICS AND THE INTERNET GO TOGETHER LIKE MARGE AND HOMER, AND WITH INTERACTIVE TECHNOLOGY IMPROVING ALL THE TIME THE POSSIBILITIES, BELIEVE MANY DESIGNERS, ARE ENDLESS.

- Ever since Richard Felton Outcault's ‘ The Yellow Kid’ appeared way back in 1896, comics have been a popular form of entertainment. A compromise between print and television, they appear in all shapes and forms, from three-panels such as ‘Garfield’ and ‘Peanuts’ to graphic novels, which are more akin to movies in print.
- The quickfire entertainment aspect of comics means they are often ideal for the Web. For JohnJohn.co.uk's creative director Christine Boulanger comics are an international language, and can replace hundreds of words that people don't have time to read. "When properly used they are a great way of communicating to many people in a short space of time."
- Predictably, many online comics were initially little more than scans of syndicated strips. Many had their own websites that would offer supporting features to increase traffic. Due to the early demographic of Web users, niche-oriented strips, such as Scott Adams' Dilbert, did particularly well, later even making animated appearances on Shockwave.com.

"COMICS ARE A GREAT WAY TO MAKE PEOPLE DROOL AND COME BACK FOR
MORE ON COMMERCIAL SITES"

Bartcroonenborghs, The Independents

LETTING LOOSE

- The Web also enables individual creatives an outlet. One of the biggest success stories is JP "llliad" Frazer's User Friendly, which chronicles the adventures of a small internet service provider. Initially intended to be a one-month run of cartoons, it rapidly gained an online following and after many pleading emails Frazer was convinced
to continue creating new cartoons. They have now been produced daily for over three years.
- This method of achieving online support for comics also paid dividends for Lightmaker's Herman comic, which originally started out as the company's corporate mascot, appearing in a few screensavers. "The development of hermanshomepage.com was basically a response to our clients' and children's fascination with the character," says sales and marketing manager Robert Noble.
- Littleloud's chief producer David Jacklin suggests this sort of direct response, along with the low cost involved in producing Web comics, means the medium can be exploited all the more. "Because comics enable anyone to publish work, there is loads of great stuff that would never have seen the light of day on television or in print," he says. "The pace of production also tends to be faster online - meaning it's a medium for amazing ideas."
- Scott McLoud is one such comics creator who takes this idea to the extreme. For one hour each morning, he improvises a panel or two until a story is complete. The Morning Improved section ofwww.scottmccloud.com documents his progress with bizarre comics such as The Parallelogram's Revenge and Man-Eating Shoes.

"COMICS ARE A GREAT WAY OF COMMUNICATING TO MANY PEOPLE IN A SHORT SPACE OF TIME"
Christine Boulanger, JohnJohn.co.uk

BACK TO BASICS

- "The Internet brings back the punk rock DIY days of small press comics," says Dan Whitehead from Cool Beans, the producers of the strip Cool Beans World. "Uploading new chapters to our site costs us the same if ten or 10,000 people read them. Traditional comics are often strangled by the cost of production and distribution, but with the Internet you can reach a global audience, and it costs less to make than a small, local run of a printed comic."
- It's no surprise then that more and more artists and writers are turning to the Internet to publish their work, but of course, there are more advantages to the Web than easy distribution.
- By using Flash and the inherent capabilities within multimedia, comics can be brought to life. "Usually there is a wide gulf between comics, animation and movies," says Cool Beans writer Pat Mills. "Cyber comics and animation closes the gap by adding movement and sound."
- JohnJohn.co.uk director Benoit Viellefon believes the Web can also remove the most irritating problems of printed comics. "Instead of having many frames on the page, you can have just one, and build your comic rather like a cartoon. This prevents the reader from accidentally glancing at the end of a story before reading it all, which is massively useful when it comes to punchlines!"
- He suggests that an entirely new dynamic is being created, as comics creators get to grips with animation and sound. "We're seeing the emergence of an Internet type of 'film' that's half-way between storytelling, comics, cartoons and illustration."
- Kerb director Jim McNiven agrees. For him it's as much to do with economics as style. "Comics have to be exciting and full of motion without the luxury of animation and so are drawn in a dynamic style.
- When you transfer this ethos to online animations, you can save time by using similar shortcuts. The likes of speed lines and crash zooms give people the feeling of action with very little work. If you're using a vector package such as Flash, these are easy to execute, just requiring a bit of scaling."
- Depending on your methods, online comics can also be a cost-effective means of producing material. As David Jacklin says, "Littleloud creates animation for both online use and conventional advertising campaigns. We've recently started work on various projects, which are primarily positioned for TV, but due to the technology we use for development, they will also be available online."

"WHATEVER THE INTERNET EVOLVES INTO, COMICS WILL BE THERE"
Dan Whitehead, Cool Beans

CROSS MEDIA OPPORTUNITIES

- Cool Beans' production process also means it can move seamlessly between different media. Having started life as Web-based comics, several of its properties are now being prepared for release as graphic novels, and others as full-length CGI movies.
- Lightmaker's Robert Noble thinks that this is only possible thanks to the unique nature of online comics, "Our recent work with PC Pepper can be delivered cross platform on Web, TV, PDA, mobile phone and also in the more traditional print environment."
- Despite all these positive aspects, online comics sometimes remain a hard pitch, particularly in the UK. "The British mostly consider comics to be childish, unlike in mainland Europe, Japan and the USA," says Benoit Viellefon. "This means most of the innovative online comics will probably come from outside the UK." He hopes that the popularity of online comics will destroy the prejudice that they are merely for children and nothing more.
- Bart Croonenborghs, multimedia designer at The Independents, agrees, suggesting that comics are "a great way to make people drool and come back for more on commercial sites. Even banners might be cool if they were online comics."

THE FUTURE'S COMIC

- One thing's for certain - the potential of online comics cannot be ignored. With technology evolving at such a jaw-dropping speed, the scope for this medium continues to grow rapidly. "Online comics will continue to have a huge amount of promise," says Benn Achilleas, Future Visions' director, "They can be a passive or interactive story, a game, and a learning resource all rolled into one."
- In fact, a true level of interactivity is almost certainly the next step. This will undoubtedly bridge the gap between games and traditional comics. "We're working on systems that will allow us to produce branched storylines, where the reader can choose their own path through the comic," says Dan Whitehead. "This will enable you to see events from a different perspective each time."
- David Jacklin agrees. "There's a big scope for interactive comics, both for the Web and IDTV," he says. "Users should expect to be able to engage with the work, participating in storylines and outcomes, and be able to access extra scenes, information, facts or humour, depending on the production."
- "The possibilities are endless," says Dan Whitehead. "Whatever the Internet evolves into, comics will be there. More powerful PDAs will make online comics on the move a reality, whereas the probable merging of DVD players, games consoles and digi-boxes could see you reading your favourite comics on your television. You'll be able to join in the action scenes with yourjoypad and listen to the writer explain the creative process behind it all, Comics are one of the most adaptable forms of storytelling around. It's going to be exciting."
- Pat Mills is also excited about the future for comics on the Web: "The Internet is finally taking comics out of the doldrums, making it a cutting-edge popular culture art form again." As Bart Croonenborghs says, maybe it's time to start recognising this work: "Comics are a digital art form - spread the word."

TEXT: CRAIG GRANNEL

JohnJohn interviewed in Create Online magazine issue, June 2002

 

CASE STUDY 1
COOL BEANS


- Founded in 1996 by Nick Percival (an ex-2000AD artist) and Matt Percival, Cool Beans Productions enables traditional comics producers to build on their expertise and embrace the added opportunities that multimedia can offer.
One of the company's main projects is CoolBeansWorld, a dark and gritty online comics site containing exclusive material for subscribers. Top writers and artists are involved, including Simon Bisley, Mike McMahon and 2000 AD'S creator Pat Mills.
- "We produce everything from comedy animations and strips to hard-edged adult horror and sci-fi stories," says marketing manager Dan Whitehead. "Along with exclusive material, we also have some that was originally available elsewhere in printed form, but was for some reason overlooked at the time."
- Current projects include Scarlet Traces, a sequel of sorts to HG Wells' War of the Worlds, where the Victorians have assimilated the Martian technology into their everyday lives, assuring the continued dominance of the British Empire.
- Like much of the work on the site it often moves away from its traditional roots. "Just scanning pages of comics and uploadingthem doesn't make full use of the medium," says Whitehead. "We use animation and sound effects to give the reader a richer and more rewarding experience than if they were sat on the loo with a paper comic!"

 

CASE STUDY 2
KERB


- "All of our artists come from a traditional illustrative background," says Kerb's creative director Jim McNiven. "Plus, they also tend to share a love of comics and graphic novels, along with having a strong feel for character generation."
- It comes as no surprise then that many of the company's staff have produced their own comics. While many of these have been personal efforts created as a labour of love to learn the trade, the skills involved have undoubtedly come in handy for Kerb itself.
- "Being able to show really strong character illustrations when pitching has helped us to sell ideas where otherwise we may have been let down by our lack of story-writing experience," explains McNiven. "For instance, our guys who have comic book illustration skills tend to draw awesome looking storyboards. This convinced Bravo to commission us to produce Hellz Kitchen, despite Kerb having only previously done a few limited pieces of animation on the Reading Festival website."
- Other commissions have also benefited from these skills, including a highly illustrative animated video for Dave Stewart, and a Kerb-produced comic that is currently being adapted for television. "The dynamic style of comics lends itself to animation and print," says McNiven. "So it enables you produce work that can be easily adapted for many different forms of media."

 

CASE STUDY 3
JOHNJOHN.CO.UK


- Comics are a major influence in JohnJohn.co.uk's innovative style, as director Benoit Viellefon explains: "When I first saw Flash, I thought it was the perfect tool for me. I began building highly animated sites, but bandwidth restrictions meant I had to be careful, so I mixed animation with a comic book-style approach."
- He created the company's simple yet memorable style with creative director Christine Boulanger. "Most so-called innovative design on the Web was in-your-face science-fiction," says Boulanger, "We were concerned about the global lack of humour and freshness, so created two smiling characters performing silly choreography on our home page."
- The BBC noticed its novel stance and asked them to create a Christmas calendar with an animated GIF for each day. "Instead, we suggested a series of Flash animations," says Viellefon. "These were half way between a comic strip and cartoon, in order to be more dynamic. The site's traffic doubled while they were online." Since then, the company has also worked on Flash films for broadcast with Nickelodeon, under the direction of Bomb productions. "We created storyboards, characters and animations, and wrote the music," says Viellefon.
- A knowledge of comics has been an advantage. "We remain innovative within the English market, partly due to the total lack of knowledge of comics in this country," says Boulanger.



- 10th June 2002 -