The aliens landed on February 4, and they landed on Reddit. Their vehicle: a four-panel comic strip. “Friends arriving soon,” one large-eyed extraterrestrial said to another, checking their watch. “Let us store irregular shapes inside shapes with flat surfaces.”
“Your home is beautiful,” two other aliens coo, appearing in the doorway.
“Thank you,” responds the first pair. “We own things, but have hidden them.”
That was it. A simple strip that reframed a banal human tradition—cleaning the house in anticipation of guests, something countless people had done for the Super Bowl the day before—through the eyes of an interstellar anthropologist. Yet, Reddit welcomed its alien overlords with open arms: The strip, posted to the popular subreddit r/funny, received more than 30,000 upvotes.
For illustrator Nathan W. Pyle, who has published two books and built a significant social-media presence, it was a necessary first step for his newest creation. “When you build a big following, you can get thousands of likes on something even if it’s not very good,” he says. “Reddit has been crucial for me because they upvote and downvote things pretty objectively.”
Three weeks later, those aliens have re-appeared 11 times, and Strange Planet, as Pyle’s burgeoning webcomic is known, has exploded online. “If it’s something that makes Reddit laugh and it makes my mom laugh,” Pyle says, “that overlap is a pretty strong indicator.” A dedicated Instagram account has more than 250,000 followers, and each new Reddit post outperforms the last. Birthday parties and wine tastings, sports fandom and coffee; by now, you’ve either sent one to a friend or been sent one by a different friend. The aliens, it appears, have found themselves a foothold on the internet.
Yet, the success of Strange Planet is only the latest in a recent resurgence of a very particular kind of webcomic. Four-panel strips have been a fixture since early 20th-century newspaper comics like Mutt and Jeff and the concomitant appearance of yonkoma (“four-cell”) manga in Japan. It’s the perfect three-act-structure: You start at one end, develop conflict in the middle two panels, and resolve with a punchline at the end. But thanks to a number of factors—not least of which is the rise of Instagram and Reddit—a gridded, two-by-two variant has come to dominate the internet.
First, though, you can probably blame/credit the death of Google Reader. “People don’t go to websites anymore,” says Gary Tyrrell, who has run the webcomics blog Fleen.com since 2005. Without the ability to push their work into your RSS feed, shareability became key for artists who needed to get their work in front of as many eyeballs as possible. The two-by-two, Tyrrell says, “knocks down one of the precursors toward virality: you’ve got something in a distinct chunk. Something about the two-by-two says you don’t need to know what the previous was and what the next one did.”
For its fans, the format presents formal advantages. “When I worked in TV, getting a tight shot and wide shot are things you want to be able to do in the field,” Pyle says. “Two by two lets you do a wide shot, a tight shot, a profile.”
“Two-by-two is the greatest,” says Rich Stevens, who has written and illustrated the webcomic Diesel Sweeties since March 2000. “You can unveil things to people differently; if you’ve got a progression in the background, like a coffee pot filling up, it reads really nicely. You can play with colors and diagonals and symmetry.”
That symmetry, which sets the two-by-two apart from its linear four-panel counterpart, has its roots at least partly in the 1980s and ’90s strips that influenced so many of today’s creators: Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes both dabbled in single-panel presentations that distilled atmosphere and humor into a single image—and helped accustom readers to expect funny in a square form. “It’s strange to imagine Gary Larson in a different time,” Pyle says, “but his stuff is so good and so succinct that he would rule the internet if he was around now.”
While two-by-twos had been in webcomics from the beginning—Tim Buckley’s hugely popular Ctrl-Alt-Del used the format from its 2002 debut—they were by no means the dominant form. In recent years, Alex Norris’ Webcomic Name also made the linear three-panel strip a much-emulated format. “That was just everywhere for a while,” Stevens says. But in 2017, Instagram introduced carousel posts—and with them, the ability to present multiple images sequentially in a single post.
For creators who had been relying on Facebook and Tumblr, and even Google Plus, they had a new perfect platform. Instagram already prized the square; now, artists could use that square for both micro and macro storytelling. Tyrrell cites Chris Hallbeck’s Pebble and Wren, an episodic webcomic that the artist has drawn as a two-by-two since its creation in August 2018: On Instagram, Hallbeck posts each episode as a swipe-able slideshow of individual panels that culminates in a four-panel presentation.
While narrative flexibility might be great, social media has wreaked a different kind of havoc on readers’ media habits—and people swiping through a series of panels is by no means a foregone conclusion. “Before Twitter, you could do 12- or 16-panel comics and people would read them,” Stevens says. “Attention spans have changed. Four is even really pushing it.”
But a two-by-two grid of squares (or strategically padded rectangles) is also a square, and one that fits perfectly into a daily scroll. Catana Chetwynd, whose eponymous relationship webcomic (“me & bearded boyfriend doing things,” the description reads) has more than three million readers on Instagram. Like Strange Planet, it first caught fire on Reddit; after Chetwynd made an iPad comic, her boyfriend posted it to the platform. But now, Instagram is her first line of offense: She posts new work there, then shares it from Instagram to every other platform.
And after more than two years of growth, she’s learned what works. “The simpler the comic, the better it tends to do,” says Chetwynd, who lives in upstate New York. “Four panels might do better than five or six, just because it involves less reading and more of a glance.”
“I know people read my work in literally seven seconds and move on,” says Pyle. “If I have a 20-word joke and I can make it 19 words, it does better.”
Today, comics illustrators and fans rattle off favorite two-by-two webcomics that are diverse as they are plentiful. For Chetwynd, who cites Spy vs. Spy as an influence on her own monochromatic work, it’s the ornithologically askew False Knees. Pyle points to Elizabeth Pich and Jonathan Kunz’s War and Peas: “It really understands how to stage something,” he says. “It’s so nice, really lovely and clean.”
Neither mentions Diesel Sweeties—though that’s likely because Rich Stevens doesn’t put it on Instagram. At least, not yet. “I like Twitter best, which could be why I forgot about Instagram,” he says. “But this might change everything!”
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