Surprising The Audience: The Webcomics Way

Storyteller in any medium want to surprise their audience from time to time. If the story is are about adventure or drama, or told as a thriller, delivering surprises effectively is paramount. And whereas humor can often be achieved by surprising the audience with something totally unexpected that makes no sense even when you rethink it, drama works best when the surprise comes, well, surprising in the moment, but makes a lot of sense in hindsight.

Surprising, yet inevitable is the holy grail of any kind of storytelling involving drama, suspense or mystery.

To achieve the surprising, yet inevitable effect, the surprising thing has to be there already, but cleverly hidden, before it is revealed.

  • In theory, textual media have an advantage here, because – again, in theory – the author can simply omit to mention the fact before it is revealed.
    • In practice, this can be used wonderfully in short stories.
    • It it will usually work rather badly in a novel, if the reveal happens late in the story and the surprising fact has to be omitted for to long: “WTF. You gave me a whole chapter with the hero trimming his nose hairs – pretty gross, by the way – but you forgot to mention he has a f****** computer chip implanted in his brain???”
  • Visual media need to use tricks to surprise the audience, often hiding things in plain sight so they are seen but not noticed.

On the screen, in movies and TV shows, good camera work, editing and visual effects can produce astonishing success in this regard, but I’d argue that webcomics have an advantage here because, as I mentioned last week, they can naturally get away with arranging shots and panel layout in a clever way, whereas in movies or TV shows advanced techniques are more noticeable.

First I will present examples from two of my favorite webcomics I haven’t mentioned before: Protege and Drive.

Further examples will come from two comics I’ve already presented in earlier post: Deep Dive Daredevils and Space Mullet.

Since talking about anything that is supposed to be a great surprise is by definition a SPOILER, please make sure you are up to date on these comics, or don’t care about spoilers, and CLICK for more to read on (and maybe write a comment).

Protege is an espionage thriller that has quite a couple of plot twists and surprises, but two examples stand out that demonstrate the particular webcomics way:

  • In a flashback sequence, the backstory of one of the morally ambiguous protagonists is revealed: As a street urchin, she was part of a gang of children led by an older man. On one page, she seemingly killed the boy according to the old man’s order’s, but on the next page it’s revealed that she actually killed the old man instead. This is achieved by careful choice of the shot for the last panel of the first page.
  • In another sequence, we see the debriefing of one of the villains. The focus switches to the boss, who holds a video conference with some of his conspirators. On the following page, we suddenly see a wall of screens, suddenly the villain gallery is enlarged both literally and figuratively, and we get to understand the immense scope of the conspiracy. The stunning reveal on the second depends on the restriction to one screen only in the first page, which makes perfect sense in a webcomic; cropping the shot in a similar fashion might look highly artificial in a movie.

Drive is a sci-fi webcomic with its own unique take on Space Opera. It’s an excellent mix of humor with suspense and drama (and action), and often surprises the reader with plot twists, or rather what I might term plot explosions: Wait, there’s even more going on right now? Sometimes it delivers surprises visually, typically in The Webcomic Way:

  • We have seen it all the time from when we got the first glimpse at this funny little guy, but little did we know that his ability to feel gravity comes from his mohawk.
  • Even without an update or page turn separating them, panel like the bottom one here showing The Emperor’s flagship La Invincible manage to surprise us. The great thing is that when reading a comic – remember my post last week – the reader will pause and look for details, and find the small ship  side by side with the big one, and can fully appreciate the picture. This is difficult in movies or on TV; in the DVD comment on the Firefly pilot episode Serenity, Joss Whedon muses about how the zoom-out that shows the Serenity in front of the big, abandoned wreck they are pilfering does work very well, exactly, because the viewer has a hard time finding the Serenity in the image (unless you go play single-frame, but then you miss out on the dynamic experience).
  • The same effect is even more pronounced in this panel where some protagonists find out who’s here with them. Here another comic trick is used: The speech bubble points our eye to the tiny ship, which we might otherwise have mistaken for random stray pixels.

It’s no longer a surprise, but when our well-known friends, the Deep Dive Daredevils were first introduced, it was rather gradually that we recognized them for what they are:

  • What kind of submarine is the Custer?
  • Was it just the intercom cracking, or is there something special about The Captain?
  • Maybe we understood, but we didn’t comprehend, that there is indeed a strong sci-fi element present, until the crew executed countermeasure Maru Delta?

When I introduced you to Space Mullet last week, I knew it wouldn’t be the last time we met them (and it’s not like this time will be). This comic uses The Webcomic Way-style surprise to draw the reader out of her own world:

  • This control room looks nice, you think? You haven’t seen anything yet. Trust me on this. And this.
  • This is a change in tone rather than in plot direction, but I think it delivers quite a punch: On the upper half of this page, the missile is more of an abstract concept (something that would be “put on the screen” in Star Trek), but the bottom panel makes it far more real and threatening. It also increases the pace, at least if the readers heartbeat is a proper measurement.

Next week, I’ll describe how great sci-fi webcomics establish a sense of space that makes the reader feel immersed in a world beyond the sky, and especially how they avoid the problem of scale, that often makes sci-fi scenarios look ridiculous because the distances in space cannot be portrayed on the limited canvas our eye can take in at once.

Example will be taken, yet again, from Space Mullet and Drive, and from another webcomic that I’ve not yet introduced, Greasy Space Monkeys.

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