This paper was presented on Tuesday, May 24 2011 at the "Flash Symposium: Short papers on short fiction" at the School of Arts, Birkbeck College, London, an event organised by Zara Dinnen and Tony Venezia from the Contemporary Fiction Seminar and The Comics Grid.
A version of this short paper will be collected for a special issue of the postgraduate journal Dandelion, On Brevity, in the Autumn. For more information on the Flash Symposium, you can read my post here.
[It seems I can't embed the presentation properly. The presentation is here.]
Hans Bordahl's Where the Buffalo Roam is one of the earliest examples of the migration of the comic strip to the networked screen. It started in 1987 as a syndicated strip on various American college newspapers and on invitation of network engineer Herb Morreale the strip was posted on a daily and weekly basis for two years from April 1992 to late 1994 on its own alt group, <alt.comics.buffalo-roam>. Bordahl's strips were very conventional single-page cartoons that were often subdivided into different panels. The creative process behind the strips was traditional and used the Internet first and the Web later merely as a form of distribution. In comparison to most printed comics, the drawing style seemed amateurish, but in practice it made a direct reference to its new computational environment, telling fragmentary mini-stories about academic life (hence predating in theme and audience Jorge Cham's ongoing PhD Comics).
Though its narrative mechanics was essentially traditional, the comics page had been augmented by paratextual information such as the navigational icons, sponsors banners, copyright notice links, etc. The simplicity of the black and white illustration and lettering reflected the demands of online image display and real-time speediness, even reproducing in detail the stylistic limitations of Bordahl's hurried drawing style. The strip was available for free throughout the two years of its publication, which eventually led to its interruption and the appearance, in print, of two compilation volumes available through the site itself.
David Farley's Doctor Fun, on the other hand, limited itself to one-panel gags. Running between 1993 and 2006, it used very bright, flat colouring, and it was technically more of a cartoon than a strip. Farley had been uploading cartoons he had been drawing since the mid 1980s, but unlike Bordahl the work he published after 1993 was made digitally for the Web. Like Where the Buffalo, it offered a bizarre, academic yet silly, popular culture and computer-related sense of humour based on idiomatic, metaphoric juxtapositions.
Like other online comics, Doctor Fun was defined by a hybrid process of creation, the individual strip/panel as narrative unit and a struggle for survival. Constrained to the depiction of a single situation/moment, the individual cartoon wasn't necessarily narrative per se and it could be read independently from other panels. But the recurring characters, themes, motives and situations gave cohesion to the isolated panels, and the hyperlinking gave the entire project a mutireferential narrative structure whose length and pace was decided by the reader, which a printed book would not allow. Since the files weren't heavy they could be downloaded without delay and allowed for easy sharing via email, even in the age of dial-up connections. For ten years it was one of the most popular online cartoons due to its brevity and periodicity.
 "It's difficult to get into a discussion on the comics industry without quickly lapsing in the kind of "I didn't want it anyway" whining usually found in high school newspapers under the headline "Why I Hate Senior Prom." And yet, it has become painfully obvious that two simple words define the state of comic strips today: Death spiral." The Biz, "A Note on the Comics Business" <http://www.shadowculture.com/wtbr/biz.html>. Re-accessed 10 May 2011.
 "You can order "Where the Buffalo Roam" books right online! If you like what you see on this site, you'll love these books (yes, actual books, each over 170 pages!)". The Books, <http://www.shadowculture.com/wtbr/books.html>.
 David Farley is not to be confused with Patrick Farley, a pioneering webcomics artist whose work has also been highly influential and varied. Patrick Farley's webcomic Electric Sheep is now a classic of the form. <http://www.electricsheepcomix.com/>. Re-accessed 10 May 2011.
 As JPEG images of 640x480 pixels and 24-bit color.
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tortipede/4850295997/