Welcome to article five of the KISS: Usability & Webcomics 101 series. Today, your comic archive.
Another important part of any webcomic is the comic archive. At its heart, the comic archive is about granular access to past content. Unlike the comic navigation, which takes you through a webcomic one strip/page at a time, the archive provides your readers with an overview they can use to drill down to a specific strip or chapter. Typically the archive is on a single page linked off your homepage and, depending on the size of your comic, can be quite large. Sometimes the archive includes ‘new reader’ guides or other tools to make past strips more accessible.
Comic navigation and the comic archive rely on each other to create a truly usable webcomic site. A comic archive without navigation buttons is just a list of links, and navigation without an archives page can make it difficult for readers to find where they left off while reading.
Get the full scoop on organizing your archive and ways to display it after the jump.
Types of Archive
The first webcomics organized their archives by date, which is easy and simple to understand, but as websites have become complex, other options have become available. Selecting a type of archive will determine the primary way you’re allowing people to reach your older material. Your method should be appropriate to the type of comic you are creating. Gag-a-day comics may not have chapters to organize their pages by, but long-form stories need the additional information offered by chapters or storylines to help readers catch up. Here are a few options:
Date-Based: The date-based type comic archive was the original and is the most common type of archive out there. After all, most comics are by their nature sequential and therefore the order in which the pages were released is very important. A date-type organization is functional, but basic. If you update frequently, have chapters, or discrete story arcs, a list of dates can quickly become unwieldy and just the date has very little information for the reader who wants to find a specific page. Sometimes giving each strip a name can help alleviate that problem.
A La Mode, for example, uses the (I believe standard for Smack Jeeves?) date-based list to organize comics. Starting from comic 1 makes the list more intuitive than if the pages were in reverse order.
Chapter/Storyline: An increasingly popular way to organize your archive is through the use of a storyline or chapter based archive. Instead of a list of dates, the archive is sorted by chapter with the pages in each chapter underneath. This method offers readers with a more specific way to jump into the archive and retains the sequential order of the pages. Naturally if your comic does not have discrete storylines or is one-shot in nature, you probably don’t have a need for this type.
Kiwi Blitz has an attractive example of a chapter archive. Here the author has also included short excerpts about each chapter, the characters introduced, and even what the chapter is named for.
Subject/Theme: While it remains rare, some types of comics may benefit from organizing their archive by subjects or themes. Doing so would allow readers to find, for example, all the appearances of a particular bit character or see all your gags about pineapples. Unfortunately maintaining this type of archive may be a lot more work than some of the other types as you would need to be able to tag carefully for particular subjects. I could see it operating best in tandem with a more traditional option.
Search Box: You wouldn’t want to use it alone, but a search function for webcomics is becoming more and more common. If you have transcriptions for each comic, you can use a text search to make it possible for readers to find all the comics with, for example, a particular character in it. Search functions are only as good as your metadata, so be sure to keep your transcriptions, keywords, and tagging up to date. If your comic CMS does not have built in transcribing, you can try a service like Oh No Robot!.
Formats for Archives
After you’ve decided how best to organize your webcomic’s archive, you will also need to choose a way to display it. As always, you’re looking for the clearest, most accessible, and preferably attractive way of getting your archive in front of your readers. Here are a few common formats to consider:
List: The simplest format to create, a list format displays links to all your comic’s pages on a single page. This can make it very easy for your readers to see every single strip you have to offer, but may intimidate some readers if your archive is very large. Including a year or chapter headers to organize the list more clearly will help people pick up where they have left off.
Calendar: The calendar format only works with a date-based type archive and displays a set of monthly calendars with the dates you updated as links. While this is another way to get everything visually on a single page, calendars sometimes take longer to load. In addition, they lack space for the extra metadata your readers may need to find a particular strip (chapter headings, strip names, etc.).
It should be noted that calendars are also often used one at a time as a secondary comic navigation. This is, in my opinion, a better use of the format. It only loads the current calendar, but still gives readers a way to hop around within a several week span around the strip they are currently viewing.
Dropdown: Dropdowns can be used with either type of archive, but they are especially effective when you have chapters that allow you to break up the long list of strips. Dropdown menus are space saving, but can sometimes be tricky to scroll through. They are best used in conjunction with other options.
Chapter List: The chapter list is a variation on the List which focuses on displaying chapter numbers and names. Typically these will take your reader to the beginning of a chapter. Chapter lists are very effective as a space saving devise and will direct your readers to the beginning of discrete sections, but they can lack the granularity of the other formats. This can be overcome with a second page, small page number links (like Kiwi Blitz uses above), or an expanding function to display thumbnails (or links) to the individual pages.
Build a Better Archive
Ultimately the comic archive is all about giving your readers the best way to access your older material. With that in mind, the best archives are ones that offer a variety of entry point. You can easily mix and match the basic types and formats discussed above and, as your webcomic grows in size, provide “new reader” guides which can point to important moments in your story (or your funniest gags).
A solid example, Yet Another Fantasy Gamer Comic uses a mixture of a list and chapters to make the nearly 1500 page archive accessible. In addition, YAFGC also uses a custom RSS feed tool called Archive Binge which allows readers to consume the comic at a steady pace. It wouldn’t be sufficient alone, but it is a nice addition to the archive page and one that can help take the sting out of a long list.
Try to locate a single strip in the archive of a webcomic with a large archive that you are already familiar with (such as Sheldon or Schlock Mercenary). How easy was it? What would you to do to make that discovery process faster?