Webcomics are one of my big comics blindspots. For a host of reasons (most notably, that I already spend ~8 hrs at a computer each day), I’ve never kept up with webcomics regularly. I think I’ve read exactly one webcomic front to back … no wait, I clicked that link, and there are years’ worth of pages I haven’t seen. See? I am terrible at following webcomics.
Because this blog professes to be about ALL comics, I’ve recently considered starting a new, webcomics-focused feature. I figure this new feature might help me fill in the gaps of my webcomics knowledge and also encourage me to re-engage with comics I started reading but dropped over the years.
As I began my “research,” I clicked over to what I’ve been told is one of the current hottest webcomics platforms: Webtoon. After poking around a bit, I settled on reading Tower of God … and I was met with a very different kind of comic.
The few Webtoon comics I’ve encountered so far are all vertical scroll comics. That is, each “page” of the comic operates not as a static set of panels that the reader looks at and moves on from, but as a column of story that the reader scrolls down through. This format was designed to make comics easier to read on mobile phones – where screen sizes are condensed and showing an entire comic page’s worth of content in one static webpage does not work, because each panel is too small to read. Vertical scroll comics fit all their content within a narrow strip of narrative, sized appropriately for mobile devices, that reveals itself as readers scroll and scroll and scroll down the page – making webcomics readable on mobile.
While the vertical scroll format may have been created simply to make webcomics more mobile-friendly, I’ve found it actually carries a lot of additional, unique strengths that make vertical scroll comics far more compelling than “traditional” webcomics. A vertical scroll comic gets to play with timing, pacing, and readers’ expectations in ways that traditional webcomics and even print comics cannot, creating a uniquely compelling reading experience.
Blank Space + Hidden Information = Heightened Emotion
I first encountered vertical scroll webcomics while teaching English in South Korea. My fourth grade students, especially, loved vertical scroll comics. When they found out that I love comics, too, they spent a bunch of pre- and post-class time showing me their favorite vertical scroll comics, and watching my reaction as I read them.
My students watched my reaction because, most times, the comics they shared with me were horror comics. And as I’ve thought more about vertical scroll comics’ strengths, it makes sense to me that most of the comics my students loved were horror comics. Because vertical scroll comics can manipulate readers’ reading experience and emotions in a way that totally makes sense for leaning into the horror genre – though, of course, these tricks can also be used to manipulate readers’ emotions in other genres.
For one thing, vertical scroll comics can create a near-infinite amount of delay between one narrative moment and the next. In Tower of God, for example, each episode cuts to the comic’s title sequence roughly two or three scrolls after the episode begins. But the comic does not simply drop its title and move on, back into the action. Each time, it places a buffer of black space on top of and below its title, creating a “cinematic” title reveal sequence that would be impossible to recreate in a left-to-right reading comic.
In static, left-to-right reading comics, you can only slow a reader’s progress so much (repeating or blank panels help, but readers’ eyes can simply skip those), and you can only ever hide so much information. For example, in a print comic, a reader’s eye is going to take in both pages that they see after a page turn every time, even if only for a moment. For that reason, surprise story points or shocking moments mostly should not be placed on the right-hand page of a print comic. By the time a reader gets to that right-hand moment in the narrative, they’ll already have seen and processed it on some level. Despite a creative team’s best efforts, the moment will have already happened for the reader, and as a result, it will lose some of its impact.
In a vertical scroll webcomic, creators can hide information, and they can control how long it takes readers to be able to access that information. A horror comic’s jumpscare moment can actually come out of nowhere, hidden by two scrolls worth of anticipation-building blank space and the bottom of a reader’s screen. What would be a dramatic, one-second splash page in a superhero comic can become a three-scroll dynamic reveal, with pieces of that reveal laid out along the scene’s vertical space, rather than being available all at once.
In short, vertical scroll webcomics can create a sense of anticipation and surprise that typical comics cannot. And there is nothing that keeps a reader reading a comic (or any story) more than anticipation – that feeling of not knowing but needing to know what will happen next. In normal comics, a reader has complete control over how they advance the story. In vertical scroll comics, a reader has a much smaller level of control – giving the narrative more power to shock or surprise them.
Scrolling Creates Narrative Inertia
Vertical scroll webcomics’ other greatest strength is the act of scrolling itself. Typically, comics ask readers for only a minimal amount of physical interaction to progress their story. In print, readers must turn a comic’s pages once every few minutes. Typical webcomics make readers click a “Next” button once per page, a tedious chore that (if you’re like me, at least) actually blunts a user’s progress, rather than aiding it.
Vertical scroll comics, however, turn the act of reading into physical interaction with a comic’s narrative, creating a sense of inertia that keeps readers moving through a story. Each quick, effortless scroll rewards the reader with new information, feeding into the action-reaction response that the very best and worst websites use to retain readers’ attention. I’m rewarded, immediately, for scrolling (notably, there’s no lag or loading time on scrolling, and readers scroll once every few seconds as opposed to turning a print comic’s pages once every few minutes), and so my brain learns that I should keep scrolling. So I do, accessing new information every few seconds and creating a scrolling-excitement-scrolling feedback loop that propels me down through a page, toward its end.
As for when that end may occur … my brain simply doesn’t know. Because vertical scroll comics can also be infinite scroll comics, there is a variability to each page’s size and structure that keeps my all-too-structurally-aware brain in the dark about how much action is yet to occur in a chapter. An episode of Tower of God may end within twelve scrolls, or it may end within twenty. Because I don’t know when a page of vertical scroll comic will end, I keep scrolling in search of that ending. Being in the dark about a vertical comic’s page length is rougly the same as being in the dark about a movie’s runtime. A movie is always much more surprising and exciting when you don’t know when it might, abruptly, end. And so is a comic.
(I know: I could just look at my web browser’s scroll bar to see how much “space” is left in a vertical scroll comic. But, I never do. I don’t even have to try not to; it just never happens. I think it’s because, on my Chromebook, a comic’s content is spaced fairly far away from the browser’s scroll bar. I am looking at the comic, and so I do not see the scroll bar.)
This physical inertia and variability pushes readers to keep reading to the bottom of each vertical scroll webcomic page. And because they’ve digested so much content within just one page, it’s fairly trivial to ask them to click the “Next” button at that point, where they’ll be rewarded with so much more than just nine additional panels of narrative.
These Strengths Have Kept Me Reading Vertical Scroll Comics
Vertical scroll webcomics’ unique strengths have, so far, kept me reading them fairly regularly. I’ve checked in with Tower of God a few times over the past couple weeks, and I just recently started reading Lore Olympus. If you have any additional vertical scroll webcomics you think I should check out and talk about on the blog, be sure to link to them in the comments below. Because if I’m going to take on that additional webcomics-focused feature, I’m gonna need to find a lot of good webcomics to read.