I've long debated in my mind over whether or not Sprite Comics can truly be considered art. They are derivative by nature; there is very little creative effort by default, so unless the author spends a great deal of time making the blocking of a scene look interesting or the writing particularly entertaining, there's very little substance beyond whatever is added to the recycled assets. The general consensus on the Internet today seems to be that they are a waste of space, but I like to think they can be made into something more.

When the internet was young and Sprite Comics were still a relatively new subgenre of the equally new Webcomic world, a popular topic on the various message boards and Geocities-esque user sites was "how to create a sprite comic," and I can think of no greater framework to illustrate my views than an examination of the creation of a Sprite Comic. This won't be a tutorial, per se, as I feel there is very little that hasn't already been said, said again and parodied by some of the most famous internet personalities. What this will be is an abridged insight into my process, the evolution of said process and a cross-examination of how other sprite comics of the past have variously attempted or failed to elevate themselves to a higher standard of artistry.

Brian Clevinger, the author of 8-Bit Theater, cited by many as "the only good Sprite Comic on the internet," has just one entry on his site's FAQ at the time of this writing, and it's this:

Q: Should I make a sprite comic?

A: No.

I used to disagree with this answer, because of course I did. This is also where Brian's brevity fails him, I think; without proper elaboration, he isn't doing a good job of discouraging people. Hopefully this article will rectify that mistake, but I'll leave you to that conclusion.

My interpretation of Brian's answer boils down to this: you shouldn't make a sprite comic, because if you're asking a big sprite comic author if you should make one, you're very likely not willing to put in the effort to make your comic look good.*

This is key; Sprite Comics as a medium are infamous as havens for the lazy and the talentless, and the amount of effort you need to put into making one look passable is often equal to or greater than the amount of effort you would inevitably put into making a hand drawn comic. I know for sure that if I hadn't spent years refining my sprite stuff and spent that time drawing instead, I'd probably be making Sluggy Freelance money (or getting brutally mocked by the internet, which is always an open option.) But I haven't learned to draw as of yet, and this is an article about Sprite Comics, not what could have been.

So we'll perform a simple timekeeping exercise. I'll show you an example sprite comic, and then I'll show you a reproduction and the amount of time it took me to make.

This is strip number 2,656 of Bob and George by David Anez, incorrectly considered by many to be the first Sprite Comic on the internet and widely believed to be the strip that popularized Sprite Comics as a medium. This is the third to last strip in the Bob and George archive and the final strip that isn't a flash animation. While I suspect there may indeed be more complex strips hidden in the depths of its archives, I chose this for its ease of access.** Moreover, it was likely on the main page of its home site at some point in time, so if for no other reason, I consider it representative of the work.

Sometimes I wish that I could challenge my own self...

This reproduction took around 15 minutes, most of which was spent placing the characters, writing the dialogue and wrestling with the editing software. The aim of this exercise was speed, so details like the relative size of the characters went unnoticed. The main point of this "homage" is to illustrate what many web users in the early to mid 2000s knew all too well: Anez's formula was simple to replicate. There were thousands of completely identical Bob and George clones, many of which were hosted on the Bob and George webspace.

At least Anez seemed to draw his own word bubbles, as much as one can draw word bubbles with MS Paint. So extensive was the laziness of those that lived in the shadows of Anez and the other titans of the sprite world, that there came to exist various word bubble sprite sheets. In the spirit of Bob and George cloning, I implemented one such sheet in the making of this strip.

These time saving practices are not entirely without precedent; it can at least be assumed that Anez kept a stock of various pre-assembled assets to save time when making strips. His characters are more in scale with the background in the example strip, but I don't doubt that said background was, in some way or another, pre-assembled on a sheet on his hard drive somewhere and ready to be lined up in a strip, much like the background in my replicant strip. His characters, being edits/recolors of Mega Man sprites, already have a broad array of gestures and movements by default. This built-in expressiveness is partly why Mega Man became such a popular choice for sprite comics - if you ever come across a sprite comic filled with Mega Men, you can blame his expressiveness and David Anez.

The task of replicating the style of this strip (in a broadly generalized sense) was such a simple one, it fits neatly into two 30 second animated GIFs:



Yes, this sure is a comic strip.

And with that, we move on to something a little bit more complicated.

This is strip number 1,094 of Pokemon X (No, not that Pokemon X) by Recon Dye. Together with "Pokemon: Pebble Version," it either inspired or popularized a vast, interminable sea of copycat strips that all followed the non-plots of the early Pokemon games beat for beat, relying on the quirky internal logic of the Pokemon universe for their humor (with such golden mainstays of observational comedy as "why are the Pokedex entries so weird?" or "how do pokeballs work?" or "what does aplomb mean?" or "what if pokemon but swear words?") These types of strips absolutely clogged the comic sub-forums of fansites like Serebii.net, and while there were strips that tried to invent their own stories, the idea of a "Pokemon adventure strip" became so utterly cliche, so univerally reviled, that they were (at least in the realm of the Pokemon fandom) on par with sprite comics themselves in terms of sheer infamy.

But what I might not have gotten across here is that most of these duplicates were, like the myriad duplicates of Bob and George, low-effort. The characters of Pokemon X accomplish a great deal of expressiveness, emotion and gestures using very tiny sprites with very few default poses. Recon Dye made a swath of edited and custom sprites for his strips, as well as rudimentary 3D models in specific cases. So, while the duplicates of Bob and George might have been missing the modicum of subtlety in the way Anez constructed his strips, they were still mostly on point in the sense that Anez's style was simple to duplicate. The copycats of Pokemon X's sub-sub-subgenre style have fewer excuses, because the style takes a great deal more time to replicate, as you'll soon see.

This style emulation took approximately three hours and nine minutes to make. Unlike the Bob and George "homage" above, this strip's goal was to follow the style as closely as possible, regardless of how much time it added to the process. In lieu of outright copying Recon's general style of facial expressions, I attempted to do my own on the fly. The results are haphazard - Recon mixes resolutions to accomplish his expressiveness, a tricky process that is frequently hit or miss. As you can see, both replicant strips so far have remained fairly faithful to the source material's general overall "visual feeling," but this particular strip took a considerably longer amount of time due to all the differences in character placement and scene scale, as well as filter effects like shadows. In case you haven't caught on to my oh-so-subtle point by now, the thesis of this article is that effort = time. I know, it's revolutionary. But effort doesn't always equal quality. Pokemon X is one of the more carefully-crafted sprite comics out there, but it's also kind of a trainwreck. I could (and likely will) dedicate an entire article to reducing it and its author to subatomic waste, such being the depth of my critical analysis.

For the moment, however, we'll turn our focus to the other progenitor of the "Pokemon Adventure" comic style.

I know some people have trouble telling sprite comics apart, but I really hope I don't have to point out the decline in quality here to you.

This is strip number 2,166 of the aforementioned Pokemon Pebble Version by Josiah Lebowitz. Having started at roughly the same time as Pokemon X (both began their run in early to mid 2003, though the lack of timestamps in Pebble Version's archive makes accurate dating difficult) it's fair to say that both were in some way responsible for the slew of identical "Pokemon Adventure" strips that clogged the internet for the remaining half-decade that was to come. I'm sure one can surmise from the much more simplified style of this strip which of these the Pokemon fan community chose to mimic the most.

Pebble Version updates at an absolute breakneck pace. Whereas Pokemon X is still sporadically uploading backlogged strips that were meant to go online in the early 2010s and has just barely gotten to the halfway point of the "game plot" it's following, at the time of this writing, Pebble Version has outright finished the plot of the original Generation III Pokemon games, and may in fact be the only "Pokemon Adventure" comic to ever have the distinction of doing so.

Let's examine why.

This reproduction took roughly 20 minutes to make, a fraction of the time it took to emulate the visual style of Pokemon X. Much of the time was spent summoning the assets from my hard drive, as this was done several months after the previous strip replicant and I didn't have the sheets ready. Additional time was also added on purpose because I challenged myself to make it just a little bit more visually appealing by emulating some of Josiah's earlier strips instead of his newer, flatter works. In any case, I've already waffled on enough about why the visual style of any given sprite comic will contribute to its production time - I would hope you, the reader, understand this by now - what I haven't addressed so far is that the majority of sprite comics, and indeed every single sprite comic I've used as an example in this article so far, relied on some form of pre-existing intellectual property to carry the narrative and/or humor. The logic seemed sound to the authors of the movement - why bother coming up with original characters or jokes when the characters are right there in the sprites, and the observational video game humor writes itself? It goes without saying that the sprite comics which didn't heavily rely on a video game IP in some way or another were few and far between.

The main reason 8-Bit theater is so fondly remembered isn't so much because it was a faithful retelling of the first Final Fantasy's plot, because that game had very little plot to speak of. What made 8-Bit theater a joy to read was its witty characters, its observational humor which dug at the fantasy genre and RPGs as a whole, and the little ways it diverged from the game plot to make its own story. People call it "the best sprite comic ever made" because it brought an original premise to something that was already known. So how does one make a sprite comic with an original premise? It's easy to fall into the "original character, donut steel!!!!1111!!!" trap. So how do you avoid it? Let's take a closer look.

This - and I can't stress this enough - is the most important thing to overcome when approaching Sprite comics. I've spent the entire article up until now hinting at this, bludgeoning you over the head with this, dissecting the history of this. I'm guilty of falling for this delusion, myself - it's the biggest beginner's trap with this medium, and you'll only be doing yourself a favor by sidestepping it.

Granted, now that sprite comics have been supplanted in popularity among the low-learning-curve crowd by other things (Source Filmmaker, anyone?) and overrun in the search results with mountains of stale clickbait proclaiming "the death of Sprite Comics" and "the era of low-effort sprite comics," maybe it's not as easy a pitfall as it once was. Maybe the imaginary modern internet user in my fantasy scenario who actually somehow wants to make a sprite comic would be intelligent enough to use the vast research resources at their disposal and who am I kidding people still think the earth is flat, this'll never happen.

The point is, sprite comics aren't "the win button." You can't slap down two characters on a dualtone background and get instant internet gold. You need visual dynamism: emotion, gestures, expression! Informed scene blocking, non-static backgrounds, panel arrangement that shakes up from strip to strip if you can. All of these things are harder to do in sprite comics because you're working with a limited set of readymade assets made by someone else. Nine times out of ten, you're going to have to start making your own expressions and gestures for your characters, and you might even have to start constructing your own backgrounds if you have a specific setting in mind. Comics are a visual storytelling medium, and if you work solely within the limits of one specific thing, you'll be left with something painfully flat. A friend once compared the process to trying to tell a compelling drama with model trains. It's possible, but you're going to have to do some serious editing magic, and you'll probably have to draw some faces on those trains.

This one's a little more abstract, and assumes at least entry-level skill on your part in the realm of creative writing. A lot of sprite comics seemed to arbitrarily define their tone and content by the assets that were available to them, and this ultimately harmed them in the long run. Clevinger stood above his stylistic peers because, in spite of the fact that he used sprites from the NES Final Fantasy entries and chose to retell the plot of the first Final Fantasy, he refused to let those limitations guide the tone of his story and the emblematic banter of his characters. Most sprite comics contemporary to Clevinger featured writing that was dominated by community in-jokes, stale video game references, and author self-inserts. Can you make these things work? Sure you could, under the right contexts; in-jokes are fine if they aren't the dominating feature of your comedy, video game references are passable when used in moderation and not as a crutch for lack of any better humor, and even author self-inserts can work when presented under a dense layer of post-irony and not as the main character of your story. The point is, you can make these concepts work, but they shouldn't be the star around which the solar system of your writing orbits.

It should be noted as well that the plague of "sprite writing" is somewhat co-morbid to the notion that because you're writing a comic strip, everything you write has to be comedic. This is just silly, and webcomics proved it wrong almost since their inception, for better or worse. In fact, if you want to tell a more serious story, it's honestly better if you don't try to force a punchline on every page, because otherwise your readers might start giving you funny looks and accusing you of having tonal inconsistency issues. Punchlines are optional.

Granted, I might be getting a little too deep into my own asshole with this one, as "sprite writing" is one of those intangibles that was obvious to everyone who was part of the scene at the time, but just isn't easy to define to modern audiences today who might not really have any idea what a sprite comic is. It represents a kind of unabashed, immature irreverence that isn't really found in a lot of other mediums, largely because many of the people who got into sprite comics were novices or kids. In some cases like Neglected Mario Characters, it elevates the work into something legendary, but in most cases it lessens a strip, largely because it tries to do loftier things and it just can't because it's too mired in the irreverence of "sprite writing."

And that's not to say you can't be irreverant, that's not the point. Sprite writing is like a general self-disrespect that permeates the work, I think. Comics plagued by "sprite writing" never think of themselves as true comics. They go out of their way to broadcast to the world, in some way or another, that they are in fact sprite comics and they are in fact being written by an author on the internet and yes, in fact, there will be jokes. But we can see with our eyes that it's a sprite comic, we don't need to be reminded of this at every turn.

If you want to tell a story with a setting that you think might be too ambitious for a sprite comic, try telling it anyway. Test your limits, push the boundaries of the medium, see how far you can go! If you think you can't make a scene work without turning a character's head a certain direction, edit the sprites you have! If you think you can't make a story work without a certain camera angle that you just don't have, try mapping out the background you have at another angle! It's all possible, it's just not something you can do with a snap of a finger. You'll need a cursory understanding of graphic design principles, and knowing a bit about drawing wouldn't hurt, though I'm not exactly very competent in that department, so you could probably inch by with a passing knowledge of basic concepts like anatomy, lighting and perspective.

Early tutorials in the golden age of Sprite Comics focused heavily on what you shouldn't do, and while there are pretty clear-cut faux pas in the realm of creative writing, there's not much to be gained in focusing on them here (at least not yet.) The takeaway here, above all else, is that you shouldn't let the reality of the sprites guide the words. You may not be able to draw, but that's okay. Pretend this is just like any other comic, and the roadblocks might not seem so insurmountable to you. They'll still be there, sure, it's an unavoidable fact of the medium; but you shouldn't let that get to you. You shouldn't write the sprite comic as if it's a sprite comic.

Right then. Step 3 is kind of a tangled mess, and gets into a realm of thought that really ought to warrant its own article, so we're going to diverge once more. This long, rambling tirade continues in Part 3.

*I'm sure what he actually meant was something more like "no, the internet doesn't need more of this garbage," but whatever, bear with me here

**I feel such easily accessible strips ultimately represent a work more to the general public than an obscure strip buried beneath layers of archive navigation. While I'm sure the average internet user of today might not have trouble understanding how a webcomic archive works, I still go into these assuming some people might enter one of these sites and judge the work entirely on their experience in the first few pages of navigation.