It’s 12:01 a.m. on a Monday morning, and once again I find myself hunched over my laptop furiously refreshing my web browser. My favorite webcomic, “Minor Acts of Heroism,” is due to update at any minute, and last week’s cliffhanger has left me in six straight days of excruciating suspense.
As I wait anxiously for the next single-page installment to appear, I silently hope the rigors of my author’s day job won’t interfere with what looks to be a strong, original storyline that could easily unfold within a year or two. Though some webcomics shun continuity in favor of weekly spontaneity, many artists take a more linear approach to their work, choosing to write and illustrate their own multi-volume fictional tales, which are drawn and released page-by-page on a daily or weekly basis.
These definitely aren’t your dad’s Marvel Comics mass-productions: Webcomics rarely generate much revenue, and their creators are usually freelance designers and marketing artists who have lovingly poured time and effort into these beloved pet projects as personal creative outlets. The results are often stunning and always entertaining — if you haven’t laughed and cried after reading Der-Shing Helmer’s “The Meek,” then you’re either a rock or Keanu Reeves.
As an avid reader and listener, I rejoice in the idea that the art of the illustrated story could translate well into digital form. The recent surge in the quality and quantity of webcomics has reassured me that while storytelling’s methods may be changing, the talent rallying behind it is stronger than ever. But why is this method so effective? Why do thousands of readers return week after week expecting only a tiny fraction of a narrative they’ve been following for months or years?
I was faced with this question on the night webcomic giant Sarah Ellerton posted the final pages to her pièce de résistance, “The Phoenix Requiem.” I had checked back every Monday and Thursday for nearly three-and-a-half years to watch her 800-page supernatural drama-romance-mystery unfold. Every missed update seemed like a tragedy; every three-page release felt like a second birthday. So what had kept me coming back? Did this magnetism lie in a fluke that arose when the speed of technology collided with a slow artistic process?
It wasn’t until I revisited one of my favorite childhood book characters that I realized I, like many fans, was actually being sucked in by a storytelling method almost 1,000 years in the making. If you aren’t familiar with Scheherazade, then you are at least familiar with the stories she told — 1,001 nights’ worth of them, to be exact.
Picture this: You’ve just been married to a sultan who has a nasty habit of beheading each of his wives the morning after he marries them. You have a staggering memory and a special way with words. What better way to stave off your own demise than by threatening to leave a particularly good story unfinished?
Scheherazade’s bargain paid off. By ensuring her entrancing stories were only halfway done by sunrise, the murderous sultan was forced by his own burning curiosity to hold off from collecting her head until the next night’s tale had wrapped everything up — and she ensured hers was a never-ending story. After keeping up the act for 1,001 nights, the sultan finally realized the error of his rather irrational habit and admitted that the long wait for the story’s conclusion had in fact opened his eyes to Scheherazade’s beauty and intelligence.
This element of constant suspense keeps webcomic fans coming back for more, even if our weekly wait is only out of artistic necessity. Each update is a new cliffhanger, even if it lacks a staggering revelation or a key plot element. Even the final page of a chapter isn’t satisfying, since the next one is bound to open up another action-filled arc that sparks a new world of questions.
The element of constant curiosity would be lost if an artist decided to post an entire story in one go. By forcing us to slow down and enjoy the story, webcomic artists allow us an element of intimacy that would be lost if we were simply permitted to gorge ourselves all at once on their intricate illustrations and carefully crafted narratives. We have time to study their characters. We pause and appreciate their styles. We catch the nuances in their pages, each of which takes upwards of 15 hours to finish each week.
For those of you who haven’t started reading webcomics, there’s still time to catch up — even if you’re not a fan of fiction. The witty mathematical humor of “xkcd” will satisfy any engineer or computer programmer, and “Hark! A Vagrant” hilariously satirizes historical figures so obscure that even the best history professors couldn’t name them all. But find a webcomic that catches your eye. Give yourself some little nugget of happiness to look forward to every week.
And never pass up an opportunity to experience a good (online) story.