Webcomic reviews! That’s a completely original idea!

Back in 2009, during my previous webcomic-reviewing life, I discovered Komix! after that site made multiple appearances in the ads for Da Blog. Though my initial main concern was the ability to add RSS feeds for comics that didn’t have RSS feeds at the time, I got the sense that the real core of the site was its interface for browsing comics’ archives and tracking your progress, which I ended up making use of for my Scary Go Round review. On the other hand, it was essentially run by a single person who gave it a weird gimmick of adding exactly one new comic to the service a day. Eventually, several comics (including Order of the Stick) lost the ability to use Komix to browse their archives (which, since Komix’ browser loaded the full content of each page without stripping out or adding ads, I didn’t quite understand), and the site as a whole inevitably fell by the wayside as its proprietor became busy with real life.

When David Morgan-Mar and his friends started mezzacotta, one of the “half-baked” ideas they trotted out on it was Archive Binge, Morgan-Mar’s attempt at creating a Ryan North-esque webcomic tool. The idea was to make it easier to catch up on webcomics with massive archives by allowing people to create their own custom RSS feeds to read them in chunks of up to ten comics a day. Somewhat paradoxically, the entire point of it was not to “binge” on a webcomic’s archives in a short amount of time, but rather to consume the comic in more sane portions spread out over a period of time. Perhaps something like “Archive Diet” or “Archive Tour” would have been more appropriate. Regardless, I got the sense that the project eventually stalled with a somewhat disappointing number of strips supported.

Fast-forward to about a month ago, when I learn from Fleen that Morgan-Mar has handed over control of Archive Binge to some outfit called Comic Rocket that I’m hearing of for the first time. Comic Rocket turns out to be something akin to a better-supported, more-professional version of Komix. It, too, seems to have as its main feature the ability to bookmark your place in any comic and move it as you go along, which (in theory) makes it a great home for Archive Binge, but it also seems to have considerably more support from the webcomic community, more people working on it than just one, and way more comics in its system than Komix has ever had. (It also recently finished a crowdfunding operation to create a mobile app that ended up surprisingly disappointing, only making its $5000 goal fairly late and barely cracking its $7000 stretch goal for Android support; I wonder if it would have gotten more support if it were on Kickstarter rather than the more obscure, Matthew “The Oatmeal” Inman’s success notwithstanding, Indiegogo?)

One of the things that has long held me back as a webcomic reviewer is my desire to hold some sort of archive binge for all but the most continuity-free strips. Even complete gag comics with zero returning characters or continuity still get archive-binged to a limited extent, because it’s not just having a proper appreciation of the events leading up to the present, it’s also about having a large enough sample of work fresh enough in memory to form an opinion of a comic as a whole. And archive binges are time-consuming things; even Gunnerkrigg Court, which struck me by the speediness of its archive binge, damn near monopolized a weekend, and that’s time I don’t actually have. So I can sympathize with Morgan-Mar’s desire to make it easier to catch up on a long-running strip. Hell, I’ve done it; on at least two different strips (Doonesbury and Sluggy Freelance) I’ve stared a thousands-of-comics-long archive in the face and told myself that just by reading two comics each day I’m already doubling the comic’s update rate and so will have to catch up eventually, no matter how long that takes.

So I’m going to try an experiment. I’ve identified four or five comics I’ve been meaning to review and started Archive Binge feeds for all of them (as well as a few other comics I want to catch up on). Once those feeds are all caught up, I’ll move them to my tryout space for reading as it comes out for however long it takes to get an impression of it in that state, at which point it’ll be time to write the review. I hope this will allow me to write reviews significantly faster than the snail’s pace I seem to have always worked on them at without getting too much in the way of other obligations. That said, I’m a little worried about how this will change the reading experience; I’ll be getting a comic in little dribbles at a time, dribbles that will have to compete with several other dribbles for my attention, and the process of archive binging will be stretched out over a substantially longer period of time. I may be moving substantially faster than the comic’s own update pace, but catching up this way may impede my ability to get that sense of a comic as a whole.

The way Archive Binge itself is set up doesn’t help; although it’s tied in with Comic Rocket’s own interface and now supports every single one of its comics (including more than a few newspaper comics), beyond that it probably hasn’t been modified much from its mezzacotta incarnation, not even affecting the bookmark under any circumstances (while there were times I wished I could decline to advance Komix’s bookmark, not having the option to start moving it when I’m on the same page as it is a major pain with Comic Rocket). To me, the most glaring issue is that there seems to be no way to increase the rate of update beyond 10 comics a day, which seems low. It’s nowhere near sufficient for Homestuck, but even beyond that it seems to cause older webcomics’ archives to take a disturbingly long time to get through (expect me to review a lot more low-continuity gag-a-day comics and meme factories) and doesn’t provide that good sense of a webcomic as a whole I’m looking for, which could exacerbate the reading-experience issues I worry about. 20-25 would seem to be a more realistic cap; I originally intended to set the update rate for each strip at whatever would take no more than 15 minutes to get through, but quickly decided to set them all at 10.

Personally, I have to scratch my head at Archive Binge’s very structure, which dumps whatever number of links you set into your RSS reader. Regardless of the comic, they’re all links, so you have to click on them to bring them up, but you’re not going to be clicking on each link to bring up each comic; you’re going to click on the first link and then you’re going to want to use whatever interface that page presents to move to the others. Naturally, most RSS readers sort entries in reverse chronological order by default, which means the link you’re presented is the opposite of the one you want, and while Google Reader (for example) allows you to sort each feed oldest first, a) setting it for a folder’s full view doesn’t set it for the child feeds, despite the reverse appearing to be true, and b) it only allows you to set whether or not to show read items on a global basis, despite this seemingly being a prerequisite for the oldest-first view to be of any use at all (aside from, well, archive-binging) and thus defeating the point of making the latter something that can be set feed-by-feed (a lingering general issue I have with Reader).

(To be fair, the issues with Archive Binge’s implementation are multiplied by a) two false starts on getting started with this experiment causing unread entries to pile up in Reader and, more importantly, b) other things about Reader that interfere with Archive Binge’s apparent intended workings, namely, the fact that all entries are marked as read automatically as you scroll down, with entries taking a ton of space in a small window. If I were working in Internet Explorer’s RSS reader, all entries would be marked as read as soon as I left the page, and the sort order would, ideally, be completely irrelevant.)

If I were designing it, I would tie it in much more closely with the other functionality of the site, and indeed make it something that was less of an RSS feed and more something that applied to your Comic Rocket account directly, essentially providing a direct reminder (or something) to stop once you reached the end of your allotted pages for the day, and tracking pages still to be read for the day as a subset of the entire unread portion of the archive.

But then, I’m not sure Comic Rocket understands what the point of bookmarks are when it comes to webcomics, because they seem to be trying to give their site a “social” dimension, allowing you to “share” what comics you’re reading (and not allowing you to choose which ones to share except indirectly by content rating), despite the fact that the bookmark function (which is how “reading” is defined) is primarily useful for catching up on webcomics, not reading them as they come out, or in other words, when you’re trying out a new webcomic as opposed to already knowing you like it. As it stands, Comic Rocket is of limited usefulness for tracking comics you’re already reading, especially if you have an RSS reader (which, you know, you kinda need to use the whole Archive Binge thing); if anything, without Archive Binge being more integrated into the main Comic Rocket interface, trying to use it to read comics as they come out just gets annoying because it gets in the way of the comics you’re trying to catch up on.

As such, I’m not sure I know what Comic Rocket is actually trying to do, and I’m not sure they know either. I think they have potential as a “comics page” to keep up with your favorite webcomics as well as those comics you’re trying to catch up on (without losing the aspect of linking to the original site as opposed to simply stealing images from it), but right now they seem to be trying to serve several masters at once and serving none of them well. It is in “beta”, as meaningless as that can seem on the Internet, but there are definitely enough signs of unfinished business, especially where Archive Binge is concerned (besides the above, clicking to set up a new Archive Binge feed doesn’t take you directly to actually set it up; you have to click again to “edit” your new feed to do so, which seems to violate User Interface Design 101) but also in other areas (the site and Archive Binge in particular is damn near useless when it comes to Girls with Slingshots, where its crawler picks up old, outdated news posts along with actual comics, which probably afflicts other comics as well), that maybe it can improve over time.

Regardless, I’m going to give Comic Rocket and Archive Binge a go, and I’m going to press on with this experiment for the time being, so look forward to more webcomic reviews sometime in April; I’ve added a tentative schedule to the Webcomic Review Index that I reserve the right to change at any time (and incidentally, with ArtPatient not updating in ages, I’m running low on ideas for future webcomic blog reviews; any other good webcomic blogs you know of, preferably not podcasts or behind a paywall?). But I do hope the proprietors of Comic Rocket try to figure out why some webcomics had Komix access shut down and avoid those same mistakes; fortunately, their robust system of bookmarklets, partly designed as a way to avoid using the interface, seems like a potentially viable backup plan if they can continue to collect archive links (not to mention being the only competent way to read comics like Girls with Slingshots).

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