The Subculture of Sprite Comics
So, I've been wanting to write an article like this for a while now, coming from the view of someone actually involved in the forum.
Take note, of course, that not only is this all opinion, it is of the most biased type of opinion you can get. By no means expect this to be the absolute say on this matter. If it does happen to stir up discussion, even up to debate, it will have more than achieved its purpose.
There's a reason why Artwork III (now "Comics", but old habits are sometimes hard to break) has persisted as one of the most drama filled (and to many others, just plain annoying) forum of BZPower history. Several, to be in fact. I honestly think that AIII has evolved beyond a simple separate section of the forum for people to post their comics.
Artwork III, simply put, is a subculture.
That seems quite a lofty title to attribute to the forum, especially where the masses of other creative forums have, let's be honest here, a much more gratifying reputation. BZPRPG, BBC, Epics, Short Stories, General Art, all of these have history of being reputable parts of the forum to hang around. Inevitably, Comics and Comedies were shafted into being the least attractive parts of the forum as a whole, which, at that point, was honestly justified. Both were the spawning place of newer aspiring comedians/writers who started out with their skill level not anywhere near tolerable and then moved on once they began to master what they had practiced. For the longest time, Comics was home to the "MSPaint generation", who's only drawback was not that they used a certain tool, but that they used it poorly. This was not a welcome site to any newcomer, and those who saw what they had to offer as a whole routinely turned around without a word, save for the required post in the ever recurring "What Forum Do You Visit The Least?" topic.
But Comics had something different about it - several things, in fact - which led to them developing their own history, legends, generations and more,
For one, it was the method of making the sprite comics themselves. Sprite comics in general have had a poor reputation, mostly because they were the results of ripping the actual game sprites from numerous games and placing them in premade backgrounds from the levels included in the ROM. Complete with some unreadable text and horrendously written stories or jokes, they cluttered up the internet chock full with their sub-mediocrity. Generally speaking, the video game forums faced the brunt of this onslaught, with the obvious connotation that, at the time, most sprite comic makers were satisfied with either directly ripping the game sprites or minute edits to the bases. Very rarely was a whole new spriting style made for an existing sprite base or new sprites made for a series that had no basis in sprites whatsoever.
But for Comics, something interesting happened. Not only were 100% hand-pixelled sprites actually created and used, they actually became the norm. Ironically enough, while BIONICLE's early Game Boy Advance exclusive titles did include a variety of Matoran sprites, never were they known to be used in BIONICLE sprite comics. Instead, the standard was (unknowingly) raised for the entire forum by having different artists make it general practice to create their own representation of the characters, pixel by pixel, and put them in different "poses" for others to use. In other words, what is known as the sprite kit. This practice is unheard of in other general fanbases that have sprite comic communities, and while hand-pixelled creations had always existed, never had they been so expansive and diverse. In fact, it was the fact that each artist hand-pixelled his sprite that led to different styles of sprites existing simultaneously and in turn, different styles of comics. In fact, that is the perfect segway to my next point:
Note: The following is a rather large rant on the history of the Comics Forum; feel free to skip past it if you want to get to the point proper instead of getting a more in-depth look.
While there were numerous kits made before the time, arguably the two most popular in the early days of comics were Razor (made by Marty Razor Kirra) and the various Rayg series (made by InnerRayg). The two were as different as day and night: the massive headed, skewed proportions of Razor Matoran, compared to the more set-like and anatomically correct (for toy-based biomechanical beings, at least) Rayg Matoran, Toa and everything else drew a distinct line in the sand between the styles of comics (there were, of course, several other kits that saw frequent use, such as the Chibi and Rahi Zaku Mega Kit (otherwise known as RZMK), but their styles folded mostly into the Razor and Rayg sides, respectively).
The lines they drew were best personified by the most popular comic makers of those styles back in the day: the Editorialist for Rayg users, and Dark709 for the Razor ones. Dark709's early Razor strips followed a classic formula: a slapstick, almost random sort of style of humor reminiscent of the Merry Melodies of Looney Tunes fame or the more recent SpongeBob SquarePants. The Editorialist had started out with Razor, but soon switched to Rayg and took on the embodiment of a more situational comedy, an almost dry humorist look at the world the characters lived in. While this didn't stop each from crossing into the established "territory" of the other, clear lines were certainly drawn between the two. Lavaside Rahi took note of this in his own article, "In the days of Razor and Rayg..." (which, from the point of view of someone who actually lived through this era, has a lot more credence than my own opinons do). Obviously, with such a common denominator separating the forums, there was plenty of controversy to go around. Razor users were "childish, random and nonsensical", while Rayg users were "stuck-up, sarcastic and rowdy".
The differing styles were in turn represented by the kits they used: the more cartoonish Razor was used for the zany humorists, while the more "edgy" comic makers found refuged in the more grounded in reality Rayg. Even after those two kits fell out of use, their successors more or less followed the same formula with the advent of Razor icon Dark709's Chimoru (which notably gained more of a following after the retooling of the kit into the less ugly Chimoru Omega) following Razor and Rahi Zaku Mini Kit (more commonly known as RZMIK, not to be confused with RZMK, the Rahi Zaku Mega Kit noted above*.
Dark709 still stayed as the mainstay Razor/Chimoru representee, but the Editorialist left and was succeeded by not just one comic maker but a whole group of them. Often just called "The Group", they took the essence of Rayg humor to a new level, developing and popularizing the "multi-author series" (or MAS, as they are often referred to as), a cooperative circular format introduced with their Project Klinkerpoop, and moved into a more definite snarky style of comic making. It was also during this age that many users started to switch to different programs for comic making that offered them a wider range of tools. GIMP was the common tool of use due to the obvious benefit of its cost (free!), while Photoshop was used by those who could either afford it or had a copy stashed on their parents' computer for some unknown reason. While before colored text and static pixel lines were used to differenciate between the characters' dialouge, stroked text and word bubbles began to spring up. Graphical effects began to be less pixelated and instead done with brushes, patterns and filters. Backgrounds went from two blocks of color to a gradient and wood pattern, a black line firmly inserted between the two to mark the end of one and the beginning of the other.
Even farther after that, Chimoru Omega began to become larger and larger due to fan additions, with more poses created as time went on. Six Shaded Chimoru Omega (a fan revision by Gerlicky) slowly replaced Chimoru Omega as the de facto version of the kit, and a comic maker named Dokuma made comic history when he actually took
care to make his sprites look like they fit into the photos as a whole and, at the time, made the most photorealistic series to date. Other comic makers like Nuparurocks and RZMIK Revolutionist Emkay took it further with series like The Fourth Wall, Irreversable and Worlds Beyond the Horizon of the Mind, making use of the "Photorealistic Comic Technique" (or PRCT, as Ennar nicknamed it later on). Ironically given its appearance, RZMIK soon became the icon of serious stories within the forum, contrasting the more popular episodic comedic series.
The controversy also continued on, with the same general arguments given before, but with an additional point of argument: graphics vs. humor. Several started to state that one was more important than the other, while another vocal group voiced the latter. This was rooted more in style than actual kit use, but many saw the early veterans as an example of what the comics forum should emulate instead of focusing on "shiny new backgrounds and explosions on unfunny comics were just a shine of gloss over a rusted car". Others found that the older veteran comics were outdated in visuals, and that "No amount of humor in the world could make any unreadable comic enjoyable".
The Group soon faded away and Dark709's visits became less and less frequent. In their place sprung the Continuities, groups of comic makers that banded together to create their own personal cooperative BIONICLE universe and timeline. While the original famous continuity, the North Western Isles Continuity (NWI, of course) had existed during the age of the Group, they never really got anywhere and had faded as well by the time the Group left. BZPower was instead greeted by the International Comic Continuity (the ICC), which gathered many popular comic makers together in order to tie all of their series together in a cohesive timeline. The success of the ICC led to many others making their own spinoff continuities, although none but the Next Generation Continuity (the NCG) managed to stick.
With continuities also came continuity wars, and these spread throughout the forum like wildfire, often escalating into flame wars that had to be broken up by the ever vigilant Pohuaki. Even beyond that were untrue conspiracies of members trying to shut down other series or get people banned, which by themselves gave the forum a more sinister undertone than previously thought possible.
* To make matters worse, most comic makers refer to RZMIK as RZ, and even more confusing is that what most comic makers refer to as RZ/RZMIK is actually RZMIK Revolutions, a fan revision by Emkay and Tahuri, which added colored outlines and 360-degree views to the original kit.
Well, wasn't that an oh-so-informational history lesson, you say, but what does this have to do with your original point: why comics are their own subculture? Well, unlike the other forums, the separation in art styles and humor led to a giant separation within the forum, almost like two opposing political parties. We had controversy and legends and debates and spokesmen, but most of all we had an notable evolving style that enveloped both parties and made several key stops along the way. The kits unified the forum while also separating them, and the evolving status of quality in the forum alongside the many comic makers who came and went gave us something more than just the usual addition and subtraction of artists in the forum. Using sprites gave us a common ground, something that allowed enough diversity for personal style but enough in common to properly track the style of a evolving art style. This was more easier to identify than normal writing, and the common ground made it easier to pick out than general art or MOCs.
The next point was BZPower itself. Unlike the Library, whose forums were given leeway, AIII originally had the strictest revival limit around: 20 days with no posts and the topic was dead. This led to one of the things that have also driven many away from the forum itself: the spirit of competition. Competition, of course, is nothing bad in an of itself, but within Comics it seemed to take on a more sinister tone. The only way to keep your series alive was to become popular, and if your series wasn't popular, it often died with no resulting fanfare.
As a result, popularity became a key player in the forum. The amount of pages and posts in a given topic drew much more attention than it should have, becoming almost like a trophy as to how popular you were among the other members. Competition drove critics to be harsh and for newer comic makers to be constantly put down, but it also gave many members the motivation to improve. Many strove to be "the next Gavla", "the next Dark709" or "the next Nuparurocks", and studied the more popular series intently to see if they could try and do something more.
This unfortunately led to harsher critics, but it also gave the forum a sort of "survival of the fittest" aspect to it. Several members were made to pay attention to what was current or be washed over by the waves of newer or popular comic series' posts coming in. GIMP was pressured onto many users and the result was that the noobish members got weeded out quickly, if not by the death of their series by the critiques that they met. This was not to say that the critics were upright snobs who never really gave any useful advice; there were layers of useful tips and tricks laced into the reviews and there were also countless newer members who were apparently astounded that anyone would find their work anything less than amazing. What it did mean, though, is that the older comic makers were not afraid to be blunt and didn't bother to sugar-coat what they had to say. The newer members either had to get with the program as soon as they could or just leave the forum.
Again, the comic revival limit did contribute heavily to the evolving state of the art style. When comic makers left or when newer comic makers just fizzled out, they died and they stayed dead. This resulted in something resembling the layers of earth in an archeological digsite. The death of a comic series often discouraged newer members, and the rules didn't permit them to restart their series without something new. This led to piles of dead series in "layers" coinciding with the art styles of the age while the new "dirt" or posts of popular and new series covered them and shuffled them lower and lower down the list of topics. MSPaint style comics, while they would endure popularity through the lower levels, were quickly killed during the GIMP layers and remained buried while the current comics continued on. If the comic maker came back, he had to try something different. Very few continued to do the same thing (although there were many notable ones, take my word for it) and when they soon became talented enough, they kept their series going. Basically, the terrible series would, more likely than not, get buried under the new layers of posts very quickly until they finally got something that kept them alive enough to keep up with the top layers.
While it was far from a perfect or even ideal system and by no means meant that every comic series on the top layer was a good one, it kept the system alive and kept the art style evolving.
That's why Artwork III is the subforum it is today. That is why members find it harder to pull away. That is why, even after many have been banned, left the site, or just plain retired, they still check back up from time to time and even return once in a while.
Its not just because of BIONICLE. Its not just because of what they created. Its not even just because of the community of members. No, they all contribute to varying degrees, but that's not it. Some came back after BIONICLE ended. Some came back restarting everything they did before. Some came back even when other people they knew didn't come back with them.
I think its more deep that than. Its because it has unique combination the art style and the rules it was blessed and cursed with that all unwittingly shaped the forum into one of the most interesting subcultures on BZPower. And because of that sense of culture, its a lot harder to pull away.
Spoiler tag removed. The spoiler tag is only to be used for spoilers. - Kohaku