You, Too, Can Be a Comics Whiz

Lore Sjöberg Email 06.03.04
A Bob and George comic from April, 2004.

When David Anez decided to create a Web comic in early 2000, he had an idea, a domain name and a self-imposed deadline. What he didn't have was a scanner. With no way to put his drawings online, he turned to a source of pre-made art: a collection of pictures taken from Capcom's popular Mega Man series of video games.

The first episode of Anez's Bob and George featured -- rather than anyone named Bob or George -- a little pixilated Mega Man explaining that he was going to entertain the audience while the author got the real strip ready.

For the next two months, Mega Man and other characters from Capcom's games traded quips and gunfire, and in the process helped to launch a Web comics phenomenon.

Video-game characters in a comic strip were not unheard of, but the remarkable thing about Anez's comic was that rather than using drawings of the characters, he used the actual video-game character art -- "sprites" in programming jargon -- along with some simple backgrounds and word balloons. The effect re-created the feel of the game with a minimum of artistic effort.

Anez eventually got his scanner and twice attempted to launch the "real" Bob and George -- a hand-drawn comic about superheroes in college -- but both times he abandoned the strip and went back to the Mega Man characters.

"Eventually I realized that I can't draw and that the hand-drawn comic idea was dead in the water," said Anez. "So I stuck with the sprites."

While Anez wasn't the first person to create a comic strip from video-game sprites, his strip was the first to gain widespread popularity, and it inspired others to create their own sprite comics. One such person was Brian Clevinger.

"I thought of doing a sprite comic before Bob and George," said Clevinger. "And I thought it was a really dumb idea. Then someone sent me a link to Bob and George and I read it all in one night and I thought, 'Hey, I'll give it a shot.'"

Clevinger's comic, 8-bit Theater, uses sprites from the first Final Fantasy game for the Nintendo Entertainment System. In the more than three years since its debut, 8-bit Theater has grown to be the most popular sprite comic on the Web, and, according to Comixpedia, it's the third most popular Web comic in existence.

Encouraged by the success of these two strips, and the relative ease of cutting and pasting sprites, hundreds of others have launched their own sprite comics. The self-described Very F*cking Big List of Sprite Comics has more than 1,200 entries with names like The Pointless But Hilarious Quest and Megaman Da Man. A few of these strips feature original graphics designed to resemble old-school computer art, but most reuse video-game graphics. Mega Man and Final Fantasy are common sprite sets, but Mario, Link and other game characters make appearances as well.

As with any unauthorized use of copyright material, the potential for legal action hangs over the sprite comics community. Sprite-comic Web pages typically have a disclaimer acknowledging the copyright of the original owners, but neither Clevinger nor Anez have heard directly from the corporate owners of the images.

Anez has made some attempt to resolve the copyright question. "A friend of mine asked them (Capcom) anonymously on my behalf and they replied with something along the lines of, 'Sprite comics are illegal and Capcom will never officially endorse them.' They're almost certainly aware that sprite comics exist, but they've never contacted me to take them down, so I'm not sure what their unofficial stance is."

For this reason, Anez avoids selling merchandise featuring the Mega Man characters. "It's one thing to use the characters in a free online comic to entertain people, but to stick them on a T-shirt and sell them for $20? I felt that if Capcom was going to get upset over something, it would be better if I wasn't trying to make a profit off of their characters."

Despite their numbers on the Web -- and maybe because of them -- Sprite comics are often seen as substandard by comics fans.

"Sprite comics have a bad reputation," said Fred "Piro" Gallagher, whose Web comic MegaTokyo features intricate scanned-in pencil drawings. "I think the reason is that with sprite comics, there's easy entry."

Gallagher doesn't hold this against sprite comics, however. "Good sprite comics rely heavily on writing and placement of the sprites," he said. "There are many examples of that. Sometimes people are very successful and come up with great ideas. Sometimes they don't."

Mike Krahulik creates, under the pen name "Gabe," the art for the popular Web comic Penny Arcade using a combination of hand drawing and Photoshop effects. He and Gallagher view sprite comics in a similar light.

"I don't know that I'm enough of an asshole to say that they're on a lower level than other comics," he said. "There are people who can't draw who want to make comics, and that's a good way to do it."

Like many sprite comics creators, Clevinger points to his lack of drawing ability when discussing his decision to create 8-bit Theater. Despite this drawback, and in spite of the popularity and financial success of his comic, he said he wouldn't do a sprite comic if he had to do it over again.

"I would have gone out of my way, found an artist and done it that way," he said. "Primarily because sprites are so limiting. On one hand, I love the way they look, but there are the copyright issues, and there's so much more I could do as an artist if I could pick the angles. I feel that as a storyteller it wouldn't be as limiting."

Why continue the comic, then? "It's paying the bills, for one thing," he said. "And also, as much as I complain about the limiting factors, it's a lot of fun and I enjoy finding new ways to approach the material."

For his part, Anez continues to support new sprite comics, publishing a guide called How to Make a Sprite Comic and even hosting some on his site.

"It's nice to see that people lacking the ability to draw are still able to tell their stories and their jokes by using sprites," said Anez. "I would say that there is plenty of room for new sprite comics."

Related Topics:

Culture , Gaming , Lifestyle , Gaming Reviews

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