Page Formats: The Pros and Other Pros of the ‘Traditional’ Look

This discussion comes up a lot in forums, probably ever since Scott McCloud debated the value of the comic page layout in Reinventing Comics or one of his “I Can’t Stop Thinking” appendices. Why indeed should anybody choose to present a comic page upright when the browser window has a sideways format? Some people go as far as claiming they would never read a comic they’d have to scroll for. Actually, these are the kind of people who usually formulate these sentiments more generally, as in “nobody would ever read a comic they’d have to scroll for”.

Which isn’t true. As (non-representational) surveys show, most web readers are fine with scrolling, as long as they only have to scroll in one direction – down or sideways. (This sounds like a bummer for the Infinite Canvas crowd, but it really isn’t. First of all, that’s art and you can get away with a lot of things, and second, Infinite Canvas readers expect that kind of play.)

I thought a lot about page formats since I started publishing online. And it brought me right back to the ‘traditional’ upright page!

My first online comics had a variety of formats – infinite canvas, strip format, cut-down page splits, full pages embedded in a wider layout. (I apologize for the German-ness of these examples – it wasn’t until much later that I started publishing in English. It’s really just for illustration, so no harm done, right?) But, with the exception of the strip, they were short-term experiments. Serializing wasn’t an issue.

When I started serializing Conny Van Ehlsing at one page a week, I considered cutting the page into halves or other fragments for the web but decided against it. In the long run, it would have compromised my page layouts once back in print format. And I was just starting to really explore page layouts!

Also, the whole page has a rhythm the cut-down half-page doesn’t have. It would have meant for every printed page to have two page-turners, or for every other online page not to have a resolution.

Instead of putting less page online, I found myself putting more story into each page to make it a satisfying read worth waiting a week for. So the medium really did inform the message! In print, these stories turn out to be very tight and fast-paced. (Sometimes maybe too much so.) It’s a compromise I can live with.

There are consequences for the layouts, too: What you see of the page needs to be instantly readable. No panels that use the full height of the page unless you can read them from the top down, and the horizontal panel sequence isn’t that much of an issue. No double-page spreads. (Well, not until I found a nifty way of switching the layout for a page spread.)

No scrolling just to understand the sequence of word balloons. You read, then you scroll. Never make your readers scroll only to (maybe) find out the read wasn’t worth their effort. For the same reason, comic blogs make me uncomfortable. The typical blog layout that shows the latest page first means you’ll have to scroll down for the beginning of the comic, then up again, unless it’s published backwards.

Scrolling itself really shouldn’t be an issue – everybody is used to that from practically every web page worth reading, and if I can’t get a reader to move her index finger down the mouse wheel a little to find out how the page ends, I probably won’t get her to click for the next page either. (It’s different for for gag-a-day strips and cartoons. Gag readers want a quick laugh at a quick glance. I wouldn’t depend on them to scroll for it. But in a long-form comic I expect readers to be ready to engage in the read.)

And let’s face it – if my comic fails to compel readers to even finish the first page they see, I can hardly blame it on the web design, can I?