Sprite Comics: The Unspoken Medium

If you were ever a fan of Mega Man, Pokemon, Final Fantasy, Bionicle, or Sonic the Hedgehog (especially Sonic the Hedgehog), then you’ve probably run across a sprite comic or two. Although most sprite comics come across as low-quality fanfic material, this variation of the web comic carries its own history and nuances.

For those not in the know, “sprites” are basically the pixelated characters, backgrounds, and objects used in most 2-D video games. When ripped from a game using an emulator, these sprites are often assembled into sprite sheets, which are posted on such websites as The Spriters Resource or Sprite Database. As a result, it’s easy for fans of almost any age to turn their idea for a fanfic into something visual, without years of drawing practice.

This, of course, leads to an abundance of sub-par material. Earlier generations were not blessed with the gifts of Photoshop or similar programs, which greatly limited the degree of customization allotted to a given panel. For example, take a look at issues #1 and #1767 of AkumaTH’s Sprite Comic. Note how the earlier comic uses the same background and magnification for each panel, and how any special effects are low-quality, MS-Paint inserts.

Additionally, many sprite comics are started by children and young teenagers. A popular trend among these young spriters is to create a self-insert character, who can act as either an author avatar, protagonist, or both. The likability of these characters is very much dependent on the writer, as well as how they interact with their environment.

Bob and George, an influential Mega Man web comic by David Anez which ran from 2001-2007, is notable for not making the author the main character. This author, Dave, simply exists to set necessary events in motion (essentially breaking the fourth wall), but the spotlight is actually on the title characters Bob and George. However, this results in a common trend among sprite comics where the author plays a limited roll: out-of-character stupidity, specifically on the part of official characters. Mega Man and Bass are described as being complete idiots, Dr. Light is an alcoholic, and Roll is desperately unhappy. Since this is a work of parody, it can be assumed that the official characters are given these flaws as a means of accentuating either the snarky quips or intelligence of the authorial or fan characters. Whether this tactic is interpreted as artistic vision or self-gratification is up to the reader.

Stupid is the new funny. Comic copyright David Anez, 2000-2013.
Stupid is the new funny. Comic copyright David Anez, 2000-2013.

In contrast, AkumaTH uses his author avatar, Akuma the Hedgehog, as both author and protagonist. While this could have held the story back, since an author avatar is essentially God of the comic, it has since been established that there are two versions of Akuma, who take on the rolls of protagonist and author respectively. By taking away control from the character of Akuma, the character himself has become more fleshed out, committing less fourth-wall-breaking actions and becoming more immersed in the world of the narrative. Additionally, this need to make Akuma a fleshed-out character has led to other characters receiving development as well: for example, both Sonic and Mega Man are featured, but neither one is treated as stupid or inherently inferior to the author. All official characters in the comic, whose origins span from the Mega Man, Sonic, Mario, Digimon, and other universes are given as much development and importance as fan characters. As a result, the character of Akuma becomes less gimmicky and more of a welcome addition to an ensemble cast.

Whether or not these comics are any good, they allow for young writers to develop much-needed storytelling skills. Some of these spriters even take what they learn drawing sprite comics and move on to authoring pen-and-pencil comics. For example, the web comic artist known as Psyguy spent his adolescent years writing and spriting the fan comic known as That’s My Sonic! before moving on to such drawn projects as Beetle Man and GG-Guys. Of course this doesn’t mean authors just “grow out” of sprite comics. As I previously pointed out, AkumaTH has been producing sprite comics since 2001, and the sprite comic known as 8-Bit Theater was a slightly more mature sprite comic written by a man in his late twenties.

Look to your right, then left, then up, then down. All of them are dangerously stupid, but each in a different way.
Look to your right, then left, then up, then down. All of them are dangerously stupid, but each in a different way.

More importantly, these sprite comic authors have forged their own artistic community. Authors such as AkumaTH, as well as other authors on his host site, The Middle Ground, occasionally initiate crossovers or collaborative projects. Of these projects, the annual event known as the World Spriter’s Tournament, functions in a manner reminiscent of the character battles described by fellow contributor CMCCRZY. Numerous sprite comic authors are allowed to enter their original characters, but they are also required to sprite the comic in which their character appears. As a result, a sense of community is formed.

This community of competitive spriters is in no way unique, though. Google “sprite” and you’ll find links to countless sprite forums, where spriters have both their comics and sprites critiqued by fellow artists. Looking up sprites on deviantArt will yield similar results, though on deviantArt most sprites and comics are the results of one individual rather than groups. In spite of this, it is common for spriters to create commissions for inexperienced spriters or fans, much like an illustrator might take commissions at an anime convention.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about sprite comics is that, contrary to what an inexperienced reader might think, they don’t all look the same. As proof, here are several renditions of Sonic the Hedgehog:

example1

 

These are all different ways in which different spriters have sprited one character. Note that none of these are direct rips from any Sonic game. Essentially, these sprites prove the degree of visual variation which is possible in a sprite comic, whether the sprites it depicts are of fan characters or real ones.

Overall, sprite comics are a mixed bag. Some of them are cut-and-paste parodies with little artistic integrity, whereas others are well-written, original, and maximize what one can do with pixels and digital imagery. Regardless of quality, sprite comics continue to evolve as a splinter-faction of the web comic, and will continue to see new innovations by new and old spriters alike.

All comics and sprites posted belong to their respective owners, and have been identified above to the best of my ability. I do not claim ownership to anything featured characters or comics mentioned in this article, and upon being informed of missing or incorrect information, I will make any necessary updates to make sure you get credit. Please don’t sue me.

  2 comments for “Sprite Comics: The Unspoken Medium

  1. March 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    I was Google searching Bob and George with AkumaTh because of a Tumblr question I received when I came across this. I am quite honored that you would use me as an example of the advancement of Sprite Comics from its beginnings to now.

    The article is very informative showing that Sprite Comics is a mix bag with quality stuff out there (like for a recent example, Mega by Djoing).

    • March 17, 2013 at 10:53 am

      Thanks, that’s pretty much the message I was trying to get across. And I definitely intended to include you in this article from the beginning. I mean, you were there when it started, and you’re still making stuff (including spin-off works like that H.I.R.O thing). Not including you would’ve omitted a big part of sprite comic history. That’s not flattery, that’s a fact.

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