Introduction

I've been reading webcomics for decades. I've seen them be born, flourish, be abandoned, decay, make it to print form, disappear from the 'net, win awards and be forgotten. And I've seen them change format.

For a long time, webcomics were published in formats not unlike those found in print. Some, especially those striving for daily updates, follow the daily strip format, with a certain (fixed or variable) number of panels in a row; others took advantage of the greater liberty the web gives, by using “sunday-style” multi-row paneling, sometimes with a side-joke near the title. More artistically ambitious projects went for the “full-page” comic, with print-page tables paced either to manage to squeeze at least one joke per page, or going full graphic novel.

Recent times, however, have seen the emergence and spread of the “long-strip” format, obviously designed for mobile consumption, or at the very least for a visualization on screens in a portrait orientation rather than the classical desktop landscape orientation.

While quite convinced that its first solid foothold was in the Far East (Japan and South Korea at least), most likely due to the earlier spread of mobile web consumption over there compared to the West, and while today it has undoubtedly gained widespread adoption globally, I'm not entirely sure where the long-strip format originated.

In fact, my first encounter with an infinite canvas experiment was Nine planets without intelligent life, followed by the Wormworld saga. Only much later I realized how widespread this was elsewhere (see e.g. the relevant tag on Mangadex), and noticed it becoming widely adopted “on the Western front”, as testified by the vast number of long-strip format webcomics present on WEBTOON, but also by more professional products such as Pepper & Carrot (a permissively licensed humorous graphic novel by a French artist passionate about the free-software and free-culture philosophies, David Revoy), or even [The Resistance][resistance], written by Straczynski and illustrated by Mike Deodato Jr..

Why the long strip?

I see the long strip as the evolution of the episodic single-page webcomic. To show why, let me first discuss briefly how the choice of format for (web)comics correlates with narrative choices.

The “daily strip” format, for example, is usually matched with “a joke a day” content: each strip is self-contained (even when part of a longer narrative arc), and must provide an end-of-strip conclusive or pausing effect (e.g. the punchline in a humorous comic).

The full-page format is usually used in one of two ways: one is similar to the daily strip format, but with more room for content; the other is the graphic novel narrative style.

Full-page “dailies” (or, more frequently, “weeklies”) must still achieve the conclusive or “pausing” effect, at the end of the page (instead of strip). The larger visual estate available allows for more sophisticated set-ups, and can better tie-in pages belonging to the same, longer narrative arc, but the pacing is still board-based.

A narrative style matching that of a graphic novel is also possible with full-page releases. In this case, page-based pacing is not necessary (although it can still help keep the reader's attention), but as a counterpoint the reading experience can become fragmented with slow releases. In this case, some authors may opt for a different release schedule: rather than releasing (or trying to release) individual pages at the given schedule, they choose to release full episodes (spanning several pages) at once (obviously on a less frequent schedule), providing the reader with a more consistent reading experience, at the cost of reduced “engagement” (buzzword du jour), which is sometimes recouped by posting sketches or other complementary material on a more frequent basis.

But then again, what is even the point of restricting oneself to the “printed page” format when the release schedule is episodic and the target is online publishing? This is where the long strip comes in handy: it gives greater artistic freedom, it's quite easy to navigate (scrolling) even (or maybe especially) on mobile, and it allows a fuller utilization of the visual estate (again, particularly on mobile).

Ups and downs

There are a few downsides to the long-strip format.

First of all, subsequent print publication may require some restructuring (unless the continuous strip was designed with this in mind from the start, with sacrificial filling in strategic places). This, of course, is not a downside if the material is never supposed to leave the web as medium.

Obviously, two-page spreads are simply impossible on a long strip, although wider solution are possible (and used), with single panes placed sidewise compared to the standard reading direction.

Finally, there is a lack of fractional addressing: when reading a page-based episode release, it's possible to use standard browsing features to e.g. bookmark a specific page, while this is impossible (or at least much harder) for continuous canvas releases (although publishing websites may provide more fine-grained bookmarking solutions of their own).

With episodic releases, the time between one release and the next can be significant, and it may be helpful to provide the readers with a reminder of what was going on. With page-based content, the reader can simply go back a few pages to make sure they connect with their last reading point, but with the long-strip format this becomes cumbersome, due to the just mentioned reduced granularity in content addressing.

On the other hand, the long-strip format provides a natural, seamless way to integrated callbacks into the first lengths of the episode (frequently, this is provided before the logo/title), similar to the callback page(s) found in multi-volume (printed) serial publications, or to the «Previously, on [title]» introductions sometimes used in organic TV series.

In this way, providing appropriate recaps becomes now the author's responsibility (as opposed to the reader's choice), and when reading through old published episodes in one sitting the recap itself may actually break the narrative flow for the reader. On the upside, the author-controlled recap can provide more appropriate references to previous material, compared to simply going back a couple of pages, especially with very intricate storylines.

Filling with style

I would group the drawing style for the long-strip format in two categories.

The first one, that I've only come across in Western comics (examples: The Wormworld saga and [The Resistance][resistance]), takes full advantage of the entire canvas width, and while there is still a panel structure, it's frequently overlaid and/or intermixed with full, colorful backgrounds or full-width, border-less and junction-less scenes.

By contrast, the style more frequently adopted in Eastern comics (and may Western comics that imitate the style) presents a more sparse and empty layout, with single panels covering a sizeable percentage of the canvas, but not all of it, and abundant blank space between them. The extra space can still serve a purpose, such as by hosting the speech and thought bubbles without covering the scene, or by providing chromatic hints to narrative changes (present time versus flashback, reality versus dream, pauses and scene changes, etc).

(A third category could be reserved for webcomics that, while using episode-long canvases, maintain an internal page-wise structure, and are thus effectively equivalent of page-based comics, although presented on a continuous canvas with pages on top of each other and with no observable discontinuity; Pepper & Carrot falls in this category, which is quite obviously aimed at providing easier conversion to print format.)

Aside: not the only option

Infinite canvas (either as in the experimental NPWIL, or in the long-strip format discussed so far) has become the common way to exploit the freedom allowed by electronic consumption over classic paper, but it's not the only one. Other common ways to extend/expand the “reading experience” include complementary multimedia (such as soundtracks, as seen and heard in Always Human) or small animations (sometimes limited to single panels, as seen in Questionable Content (list), sometimes used more aggressively, such as in Shiloh).

One of the most (technically) astounding experiments in this regard is most definitely To Be Continued, an Italian (also available in English) science-fiction graphic novel about teenage superheroes, their daily struggles in the shadow of the older generations, and their surprising destiny. The visual format is 16:9 landscape, and while most episodes are essentially “paged”, with standard navigation (left/right keys or mouse clicks), some take advantage of (not-really) linear scrolling to provide something closer to the infinite canvas experience, frequently with a “non-uniform” scrolling direction (with junction-free panels spread out on a convoluted path).

Consumption

As an avid reader of visual content (comics and graphics novels), I can't call myself a big fan of the long strip format. While it does make (arguably) better use of the flexibility allowed by the new (compared to print) medium, I find most of the production uncomfortable to read on my favorite hardware platform, the laptop.

This shouldn't be surprising, since the new design is quite obviously geared towards other means of consumption (primarily, smartphones —to the point that when reading e.g. [The Resistance] on a landscape screen you can clear read the advisory: «For the best reading experience view this comic on a mobile device.»), but it is quite annoying.

On the one hand, reading this content on the desktop results in a massive under-usage of the screen estate (contrary to one of the possible advantages of the infinite canvas), or requires impractical tricks (such as putting a laptop on the side and rotate the screen contents). On the other hand, even the mobile phone with the crisper display remains immensely more tiring for my eyes than any moderate-to-high quality laptop display, even for content designed to be consumed on such a tiny display.

I'm not sure what the best solution would be, or even if there is one. Maybe some kind of adaptive panel placement, that can take advantage of wider screens just as well as long and thin ones? Or maybe just spending less time reading webcomics?