Webcomics are first and foremost a visual medium. As such, effective use of artwork is an integral aspect of any successful webcomic. However, due to the large amount of time that goes into planning and drawing a comic, often certain aspects of the comic’s art will suffer. Artists will often use (and abuse) such time-saving measures as copy-and-paste (CaP), use of dialogue dumps to minimize art, sparse backgrounds, and more. (Karen Ellis goes into this with more detail and humor in her diary comic.) Another thing (related to CaP) that artists will often use is what I call the “talking head” method, where static figures end up fairly immobile while talking to each other.
Admittingly, this is a problem inherent in visual media, and not just for comics. If characters are in a fairly immobile situation, such as sitting on a sofa playing games or talking, stuck in a car, or even stuck in a cubicle at work, then there’s not really much action for the artist to work with. Of course, character types and personalities can help modify this (such as having a fidgety character, or someone who’ll readily whap someone at a perceived insult or even just joking around), but if the characters are sitting around talking, it’s difficult to avoid the talking head syndrome. But as the latest update for Megatokyo proves, it can be done, and can bring a scene to life in the process.
Fred Gallagher often derides his artistic abilities, perhaps because of his roots as an architect rather than a classical art student (though I don’t know the specifics of his education, Gallagher has admitted to possessing a master’s degree in architecture). I must admit some amusement at his dismissal of his architectural artistic skills; one thing I regretted in the six months I was creating a comic was my own inability to draw decent buildings (or draw at all really). Gallagher has an attention to detail that is both the bane for MT (with the amount of time that goes into each comic) and one of its brightest aspects. Unfortunately for Gallagher, he’s a poster-child for artistic complexity, though he’s been trying to decrease the time spent on each comic.
The panel that initially stood out for me was the fourth panel of Wednesday’s comic with the prongs of Ping’s fork sticking out of a piece of pie she was eating. It soon dawned on me that this was just a piece of the larger puzzle; Gallagher was showing two characters eating and drinking in the comic even as they carried on their conversation. Nor is this the first time he’s done this; five years ago we watched Tohya Miho and crew chatting over tea and cake, though admittedly Gallagher’s art has improved significantly since those earlier strips. However, these strips seem fairly immobile. They’re snapshots of set moments, and while they show movement, these movements don’t flow. (Of course, part of my view on this may be because Gallagher used three straight panels of CaP. I understand his wanting to showcase the shock Piro was in, but I feel there are better methods of revealing shock, like dropping a fork or cup.)
In comparison, the latest strips with Ping and Ibara Junko flow from panel to panel. Rather than giving us brief photographs of the events, we’re getting a feel of motion without animation. We’re watching them eat and drink, with motions carried through from moment to moment while they talk. This encompasses hand gestures, changes in facial expressions, and body positioning. Even the brief use of CaP found in panels 6 and 8 of this previous strip are disguised through Ping’s motion and a shift in camera angle. It is these touches that help turn a static media into something fluid and living.
It is this eye to detail with the humanistic touches that brings Megatokyo to life, and increases the connection readers feel toward the characters. The characters feel alive, and draw people into the story. People want Ping to find love, and feel bad for Ibara’s embarrassment concerning her dad hitting her up for money at school. This emotional investment is what keeps people coming back even with the erratic update schedule MT is currently going through. Ironically, this attention to detail is one of the very things causing the intermittent update schedule, but when it works, Gallagher slams it out of the park, making the wait more than worth it.