This essay originally ran here in March 2011. It has been slightly edited to fit this site’s format.
Andrew Hussie has any number of gifts as a storyteller, but arguably one of his boldest and most interesting is how he deals with pacing, notable in his epic masterpiece “Homestuck.”
Most webcomics – at least, most humor webcomics, and humor is absolutely the dominant genre in webcartooning, with a predominance that arguably rivals the superhero genre’s hold on retail-offered comics in the West (though with far less consequence) – follow the same general format; which is to say, they follow the format laid out by generations of newspaper comic strips.
It’s not as a stupid as it sounds on its surface. Most humor webcomics expect you to return regularly, and hope to gain new readers, and so they follow the format of individual strips with punchlines. Many of these strips, over time, add elements of ongoing storyline in the background to reward repeat visitors, and eventually they reach a point of schism – the moment when the humor, and the plot, begin to rub up against each other, and the cartoonist must choose a path for the continuing comic to take. Some strips go dark, some jettison the baggage and stick to the jokes, and some very talented cartoonists who follow this path keep the balance.
Unfortunately, though, even the best comics to follow this newspaper strip-like format inevitably leads to a staccato rhythm in its storytelling. Some people have found ways to make it work – Rich Burlew’s The Order of the Stick works a great rhythm by using whole pages and keeping the jokes on rapid fire through dialogue, and it eases back on the start-stop-start-stop rhythm of a gag strip.
Hussie doesn’t fall into that trap. Part of this comes from the format, and part of it from how he chooses to tell stories.