From the newspaper to the computer screen: what are the benefits of online comics?

The rise of the digital has disrupted many aspects of life: from the way we research, to the way we contact one another, to the way we lock our houses. The disruption of newspapers and magazines is common knowledge, and this in turn has affected the way cartoonists work. Over the years the Sunday funnies page has had less space allocated to the funny and often thought-provoking illustrations and many cartoonists have headed over to the digital realm. One of these is Toby Morris, a cartoonist for RNZ and The Wireless. He tells us how his craft has changed, and how this isn’t such a bad thing. We also chat to fellow cartoonists award-winning Anna Crichton and long time cartoonist Brendon Boughen for their perspective.

Toby Morris is an Auckland-based illustrator and comic artist who made his first comic at the age of thirteen and previously held a position as an advertising creative. He’s the creator of the Pencilsword as well as being half of the duo Toby and Toby, behind the series ‘That is the question’ at radionz.co.nz and also one of the lucky few that makes a fulltime living from his craft.

Morris’s comics aren’t like the ones in the paper. His are long-form, almost like a short story. They also incorporate gifs, which make his characters move, something that to him is a new and positive consequence of a transferral of comic art to the digital realm.

“I think the biggest change has been the gif thing,” he says.” That’s something new I have been exploring, having the ability to make things move a bit. Sometimes it’s just people blinking and sometimes doing some simple animation can be part of the joke or message. That’s a new sort of door that’s opened up to play around with.”

He says another positive outcome of online comics is having more room, something which makes Pencilsword possible. “ … If it was in a mag it would be four pages. It’s only in that digital space that I get the room to say more. I don’t want to ramble on infinitely but if it was in a traditional magazine or newspaper I would have less space. Traditional political cartoons are worth one panel, just a little box on the editorial page. When it’s on the Wireless or Radio New Zealand it doesn’t make a difference.”

Newspapers are squeezed and are finding it tougher, he says. “Something like a cartoon was seen as a bit of a luxury, but now on website I think they’re perfect in a way and I think the digital dome is really perfect for cartoons. They work even better, I think. People can share and Tweet better than they could share a newspaper page. It communicates a complicated message in a simple way, perfect for a social media and digital audience.”

Despite this, he says it can be quite time consuming. “It usually takes me two weeks. Usually about a week’s writing and throwing ideas around and then a week’s worth of drawing. Because they’re longer they take a while.”

As mentioned above, Morris is part of the duo Toby and Toby. A unique partnership consisting of Morris, the illustrator and journalist Toby Manhire. Morris says this collaboration has been really fun

“My day job before this was as an advertising creative so I’m used to the teamwork of the visual and the words coming together. For me it’s sort of a teamwork thing that I’m quite familiar with. It’s been fun we’re trying to make it collaboration, not just him writing and me illustrating. Trying to come up with ways that illustrations are incorporated into the actual gist of the actual piece.”

“It’s just something a bit different to what anyone else is doing. It’s relatively unique and Toby Manhire is an amazing writer and he’s hilarious so anything he writes is going to be hilarious.”

He says comic art lends a kind of storytelling that a news article might not. “Firstly especially for what I’ve been doing, there have been quite serious or complicated topics. By its [comic art’s]nature. It’s quite unassuming, inviting, unpretentious and unthreatening. It’s a light easy read in some ways, which could be a bad thing if people didn’t take the medium seriously but I think you can use it to your advantage and talk about some serious things,” he says.

“The other benefit with it is that there’s the telling or showing and with comics you get to do both at the same time and those two things combined can be quite effective emotionally I think. If you can get those two things in synch.”

He says he’s thankful for the opportunity with Radio New Zealand. “ … With what they have done with the Wireless and Radio New Zealand they have had a real willingness to try new things and experiment. And you’ve seen some of the traditional media outlets in New Zealand are reluctant to properly engage. It’s cool to be at Radio New Zealand,” he says.

He says if we’d asked him five years ago to guess how RNZ would react to the changing times, he wouldn’t think they’d have gone about it the way they have. “They’re thought to be traditional, but out of all the media companies they have been really innovative and open to supporting people who are doing new and interesting stuff with the Wireless. So I give them big props for that.”

You can check out Morris’s work for The Wireless here.

Cartoonist Anna Crichton has a few accolades under her belt. She’s a five-time winner of the Canon/Qantas Media Editorial Artist award and she’s been published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Currently she draws cartoons for the Herald and is also a ceramicist.

‘A Blind Affair’ Hand drawn with a dip pen and ink on watercolour paper – Metro Magazine, 2013

And as her Tumblr page reads, she can also be described as a: “Dark haired woman, middle aged, seen lurking in the park. Covered in white ceramic dust. Appears mostly before school closing time. Accompanied by small hairy thing with a mustache. Speaks an indecipherable language.”

So what does Anna Crichton think of comic art in the digital age?

“I personally like the sort of old fashioned hand drawn and hand coloured works, it’s becoming more and more rare these days,” she says. “Quite a lot of the cartoonists are drawing the line work by hand or on a tablet and then they are filling it in with colour digitally. And you can always tell unless it’s been digitally coloured [on a tablet]in but you don’t get the subtleties of what the ink or colour will do on the paper or how the colour might affect the colouring and the way it bleeds into the paper or how the colour moves around. You don’t get those accidental blips, which I really like with a hand drawn work.”

She also prefers the old tools of the trade, the very old tools of the trade. “I draw with an old fashioned dip pen like they used a couple of centuries ago and I use paper which is a little bit rough but you get a lovely texture or line when you drag a pen over the paper.”

She says it doesn’t matter if you prefer to produce comics digitally or traditionally. “The ideas have always got to be original and they won’t be different really whether it’s digital or hand drawn when we are purely talking about a technique.”

While Morris says he takes about two weeks to create a long-form Pencilsword comic, Crichton says she takes about five or six hours. “But if I was to try and create the same thing on a computer in the same style I could never do it. I would never be able to master the technique or the tools to create the same thing.”

The great thing about computers, she says, is the ability to blow things up to billboard size. “But then again, if you get a really good scan of my illustrations you can blow it up really large too.”

She says hers are pretty much all print. “The great thing about doing them by hand and having a piece of paper with a drawing on it is then I can have an exhibition and sell originals to people quite cheaply and they have a piece of art work … If you buy one of these you see it in print and then you see the original the original always looks so much better because the news print absorbs a lot of colour and effect.”

It’s more about having well developed concepts, she says. “The concept is as important. Clever, witty concepts. What I like to do is be suggestive in the drawing and people look at it and get the gist but won’t visually repeat what’s been written about. I think a good witty story telling drawing can make people more interested in reading the column [it’s related to].”

And then we have Brendan Boughen, Microsoft PR manager by day, and a cartoonist named Jim by night, or rather, a cartoonist named Jim when he gets the time to enjoy his hobby.

He says the name Jim has been around since he was a foetus, and was the nickname his dad gave him when he was “in utero”, and it kind of just stuck.

Boughen has been cartooning since he was a teenager. He is now 40. He used to have a comic strip in a small newspaper back in the day and that was the only publishing medium at the time. “ … And 30 years later, everything is online,” Boughen says.

“It’s definitely becoming increasingly digital … I don’t need to go to a printed magazine now to publish something. I’m on Twitter, I’m on Facebook, I have my own Twitter and blog. And just the immediacy and the community that’s forming on Twitter is a real self-sustaining thing and a very encouraging community to be part of.”

He says one of his comics he uploaded to Twitter had 337,000 impressions and a lot more people followed him just within 24 hours. “No one paid me for that but the thrill of it being out there was enough for me.”

“If you’re trying to make a living out of being a cartoonist, that becomes more of a challenge. There are some very courageous ones out there, Toby Morris, who’s just gone from DDB to working fulltime with his comic art. [And] other guys like Gregor Czaykowski. He’s recently gone fulltime in the last few months and he’s getting subscribers through Patreon.”

“These guys are putting stuff out there everyday. They are all online, and the Oatmeal, and he makes his money by selling merchandise and putting out his small line of things which he can sell.”

He’s got a few magazines which still publish him, he says. “As in printed word on paper. But for me I do keep the day job so I can pay the bills and all that and do the cartoon stuff as a hobby in my own time and I really enjoy that.”

He says in regard to his own craft, he uses a combination of traditional and digital methods. “I’m still very much a fan of pen on paper so most of my cartoons I have drawn first and foremost are outlines just on paper and I can do that pretty quickly then I scan it onto my Surface device, a Microsoft PC tablet device, which I then edit using a number of programmes.”

His are pretty simple, he says. “I can even do what I need to do in Microsoft Paint. Then touch up, add colour and touch up mistakes. I don’t yet feel hugely comfortable drawing straight onto the screen.”

His strength is for short-form comics, he says. “I don’t have the time or patience. I go for the funny. There’s a lot of funny cartoons that are there to illustrate … my aim is to get a laugh out of people in three to five seconds and if I don’t get that I will make it clearer.”

If he could, he would love to do it as a living he says. “ … And maybe 20 years down the track when I’m sick of working for Microsoft, which I’m not, I love my job. But perhaps when I hit retirement age I’ll do it full time.”

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