There’s nothing quite like getting stuck into a long-running long-form webcomic.
I mean, gag-a-day and strip comics are great too, but you don’t get the same kind of joy you get watching your favourite characters grow and develop week by week: fleshing out backstories, deepening their characterisation, refining the way secondary characters interact with the protagonist/s and even watching them go off on their own adventures, and…
Hang on, whatever happened to that character? It’s been years now since they took that new job in another city, shouldn’t we check in to see how it’s going?
Nope! That character you were invested in has fallen victim to the trope so common in this form of storytelling: the rotating cast roster.
“But I loved that character”, I hear you cry! “Why would the author do this to me?” – now before you rage-quit the comic, or lose interest and let it languish as an open browser tab with the dozens of others you’ll never get back to (looking at you, Steve!), let me explain why your favourite comics do this, and why it really is a good thing.
Cycling out old characters makes room for new ones
As stories progress and develop in webcomics, it’s common for creators to bring in new characters over time. This can be done for a number of reasons (some of which we’ll get to below), but at the end of the day this has a very simple effect: if old characters aren’t cycled out to make room for the new, then the ever-swelling cast gets very hard to keep track of. By trimming the character tree every now and then, the webcomic can focus on the characters which best relate to the stories they want to tell. And speaking of stories:
It keeps the stories fresh
The longer any comic runs with the same cast, the greater the risk becomes of things getting stale. By bringing new characters into the story, with new motivations and new ways of relating to the protagonists, webcomics can prevent the recycling of the same plot lines and the same themes that leads to that staleness. While it’s true some new secondary characters are only ever intended for a short, specific story-related purpose, those that stay around for months and even years can bring a whole new set of plot ideas with them, which can be teased out and developed to strengthen the overall story, reinforce story themes without resorting to repetition, and most importantly:
It helps the comic stay relevant
Like any other long-running media, longform webcomics often find that time passes in a very…. Wibbly-wobbly manner. Storylines can take place over anything from a couple of days to a few weeks or months – but can take years to cover that in real time. A comic can get dated real quick if characters are still using flip-phones years after smartphones became a thing, or aren’t connected to current events, or have now-outmoded perspectives on progressive and ever-changing issues. Bringing in new characters to represent the changing real-world environment the comic reflects, or is commentating on, helps to ground the comic in the familiar, re-engages the audience, and of course:
It helps new readers connect with the comic
If you’re only just finding a long-running comic, it can be pretty intimidating jumping in the deep end – and cycling out old characters to make room for the new makes a great starting point. Whilst few comics are egregious enough to have the new character sat down and ‘brought up to speed,’ the new perspective they bring to established issues in the comic allows those issues to be refreshed and re-introduced for a new audience. And making engagement easier for new readers can only ever be a good thing – especially if that new reader is you!
So now you know a few of the reasons those characters you grow to know and love have to step aside and make room for new ones, we’d love to hear whether you agree that’s a good thing, or are still upset seeing some characters you’ve grown to enjoy sent away to the farm. Are there any comics out there which have created characters you really got to like, before cruelly snatching them away? Make sure to let us know in the comments, and until next time – don’t eat the clickbait!