It’s the rare webcomic that doesn’t improve artistically over time. If you look at early Questionable Content or Penny Arcade (among far too many to list), you’d find raw art that the artist undoubtedly would prefer to ignore. For some cartoonists, the rawness of their early artwork is too painful for them and they end up replacing it. Indeed, a growing number of comics have undergone relaunches to tighten up the storyline and replace outdated artwork with something that it far closer to the artist’s current skills.
The problem with these relaunches occurs when the cartoonist has a considerable backlog of story already existing. Retelling the old story risks alienating readers (unless there are fairly significant alterations, such as those found in Picatrix and Earthsong). This is especially true when the current story is at a fairly pivotal point, and fans are eager to learn what comes next, which can lead the cartoonist to start burning a candle at both ends, revamping the early story while continuing the comic.
Starship Moonhawk, one of a small number of science fiction webcomics, is a prime example of this dual-burn approach to cartooning. When I first stumbled across the comic, I soon stumbled across a holder page explaining the “jump” in the archives, and the presence of over a hundred pages of older archives. Considering several chapters of the story were not yet drawn with “version 3.0,” I opted to read through the old archives and get a feel for what’s going on.
One of the first things I noticed was the anatomy differences between the anthrofeline aliens in what is probably “version 2.0” of the comic, and their current appearance. Current artistry for the cat-aliens has a fairly traditional catgirl design, while “version 2.0” actually took a rather innovative approach to the cat-aliens to be far more feline in structure, with hind legs that had similarities to the design of the hind legs of real-life felines. While it is undoubtedly considerably easier to draw the cat-aliens with human-form legs and very short fur, I actually regret seeing this element of uniqueness abandoned with the more modern art.
Unfortunately, the comic hasn’t been updating long enough for me to determine if changes have been made to its basic plot (in which the protagonists are striving to stop the machinations of a provocateur who is trying to start a war between two stellar empires). There were some problems with that initial plot (including how easily the other aliens were duped into breaking a peace agreement, and the presence of a third group of aliens whose allegiances weren’t fleshed out very well) that hopefully will be dealt with in the relaunch.
These issues also highlight a flaw in relaunches that attempt to continue telling the existing story while retelling the old story; the cartoonist may find that the old story is too constraining, but be unable to break from older aspects that don’t work very well. This is a very good reason why relaunches should often drop the existing story, and just start anew. The cartoonist can then tell a story that evolves naturally and can change (sometimes significantly) from what came before.
There are some elements of “version 2.0” of Starship Moonhawk that work quite well, and the older story is worth reading. However, I’m left wondering how long it’ll take cartoonist Michael C. Prokop to fill over a hundred back pages of archive while continuing the current storyline, especially with a weekly update. Prokop would probably be better off to focus on revamping the archives and adjusting the story when it needs to, than attempting to burn the candle at both ends.