For all my love of the webcomic genre, I must admit there is one inherent flaw that webcomics suffer compared to their print brethren: the tendency of readers to view a webcomic update as a single entity, rather than part of a whole. While this doesn’t matter for gag-a-day comics such as xkcd or Penny Arcade, for storytelling comics such as Footloose or Megatokyo, this can be at times problematic. Nor is this only a matter of drawing in new readers, who gain their first impressions of a comic by whichever page is present when they stumble across a comic; current readers can get quite vocal at perceived flaws in a comic’s update when in fact the seeds of the incident were planted several comics back.
One example of this can be found with the romantic comic Red String, and fan reactions to the latest update. Often those webcomic forums that have achieved critical mass to gain an active community tend to have bursts of activity, often centered around favored characters who end up in emotional situations. This is especially true for ‘shippers, or fans who are passionate about the pairing of characters they consider favorites; the smallest of signs can often result in ‘shippers ending in a frenzy of forum posts wailing on how long it’s taking or how stupid such-and-such a character is and how they need to just open their eyes or the like. (I must admit, I was once a part of the ‘shipper community in one forum, though character actions later made me realize that the relationship wasn’t going to happen.)
Recent events in Red String have indeed sent ‘shippers into a frenzy; the very title of Chapter 35, “Friends No More” and the poses of two of the characters left many hoping that secondary characters Reika and Eiji would finally hook up. (And yes, these ‘shippers are as passionate over their select characters as the most die-hard of soap opera viewers are of their select shows.) The latest update, with Reika smacking Eiji upside the face after he prevents her from running off, resulted in a bit of frothing in the forums, with some fans complaining how it’s “okay” for girls to hit guys, others wailing about how Reika’s an idiot, and of course some declarations of fan-hate of Reika. About the only thing that is missing from this brouhaha is declarations of “I’ll never read this comic again!” and that was visible a week prior (and resulted in cartoonist Gina Biggs taking a break from the forums because she didn’t want to deal with the bs and fans refusing to wait until the chapter end before rendering judgment).
The problem lies in part with reading the comic as an independent entity, rather than part of a whole. When starting at the start of the scene, the situation is explained better. Reika is not only in a situation where she’s feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed, she also is just now having her feelings for Eiji pointed out to her by Eiji’s older brother, Ken’ichi. Right after that revelation, Reika and Ken’ichi walked in on Ken’ichi’s girlfriend Aiko hitting on Eiji (with Eiji trying to get away from Aiko), and the stage is set for a slap that may be unwarranted, but is definitely understandable.
While I rather enjoy the new update format for RS, I do have to wonder if Biggs might be better off taking a page from fellow cartoonist Sarah Ellerton. Ellerton’s comic, The Phoenix Requiem, updates twice a week, but with each update consisting of two or three comics. Ellerton also works to pace those pages so they work together in mini-arcs that blend in with the previous story comics… but are not as confusing on their own. This problem with being blinded from the story with the latest update can also be cured with occasional short archive crawls; by rereading segments of the comic (primarily with the latest storylines), fans can better get an understanding of the context of the update as part of a whole, instead of on its own.