As a webcomicker, Tracy White made her mark, and she made it early.

It’s difficult to tell if she was the first online autobiographical cartoonist. Nor can we be sure if she was the first webcartoonist whose comics linked to a comment section for the readers.

But there’s little doubt that she broke new ground by using webcomics in a special way.

Many another artist has used the electronic toolbox– animation, hyperlinks, and so forth– for dramatic visual effect in their work. But hardly anyone in the field has comprehended how to use these methods linguistically, to modify the meaning of the words and pictures.

Tracy’s cartoons change before our eyes, but it isn’t merely an eyecandy distraction. In her work, the changes have meaning. They show the pulse of life, the confusion of thoughts crowding into a young girls head, the contrast between the words that flow from the lips and the knowledge of the heart. Tracy has used the webcomics toolbox to extend the language of comics, and comics are better for it.

In this regard, Tracy was, and still is, a pioneer.


Tell us about your background. How did you become interested in comics?

My current background is a pale green, pantone 628 to be exact. Growing up it was Victorian style wallpaper, yellow with white stripes and little flowers. I still have a sample of it in the parents’ bedroom of the dollhouse my mom and I put together when I was a kid.

My interest in comics started when I developed an addiction to sweet tarts and giant pixie sticks (I liked the purples ones best). Every weekend my father would take me to the store. The comic book rack was at the end of the candy aisle, and I gravitated to Archie, Casper, Richie Rich, Super Friends, Thor and MAD. In fact I still have some of my favorite ones on a shelf at home. For what I don’t know, but it’s nice to look at them every once in a while.

I pretty much stopped reading comics when partying became more important than the Sunday trips to the deli mart, and rediscovered them toward the end of high school when a friend, who was obsessed with Flaming Carrot, took me on my first visit to a full fledged comic book shop. I hadn’t realized there were whole stores dedicated to comics. I picked up Yummy Fur by Chester Brown and haven’t looked back since.

What course of study did you take in college? Did you go through different phases where you were thinking about other avenues to explore?

I took a sort of s-curve route to college. I wasn’t a fan of high school and it was only by some miracle that I managed to graduate. I didn’t go to university until I was 21. But by then I wanted to learn and knew exactly what I wanted to study. I was very focused because I’d been living on my own since I was 18, so the whole party thing had zero appeal. I majored in modern European history with an emphasis on Germany and minored in creative writing.

When did you start putting comics on the web?

1996. I was in a grad school course with the unwieldy name of Interactive Telecommunications Program; basically a place where you get to play with new technology. At the time, Netscape 1.0 had just launched. I got together with several women in the program and we started publishing a web zine, gurl.com, for teen girls. Each of us had sections and since I was the mad doodler who liked to tell stories, I made comics.

The web site got sold when we graduated. It still exists and, although it’s changed a lot since we launched it, some original elements remain. For example a couple of the comics I did between 1996 and 1998 continue to be part of the site. I occasionally get email from girls who read my stories, relate to them and want to share their own experiences.

 

At the time you started, were there many webcomics around to follow as examples?

I hadn’t seen any web comics, but I had just finished reading Understanding Comics for a class in school and was totally inspired. This was still the era of the 14k modem, so the thing I remember most was that I had a 10k maximum for each page. I ended up working with two bit black and white line drawings because they came out to about 5k, which meant there was no lag time for the images to appear on the screen. That’s actually why my work is black and white. What started as a necessity became my style.

When did you eventually encounter other webcomics?

I don’t remember which sites I found first but I do know that in February or April 2001 I went to APE (my first comic convention) and met up with many artists whose work I’d admired. If I try to name them all I’m bound to forget names; it was pretty overwhelming. I met Scott McCloud, who I’d been in email contact with. We all went out for dinner. It was energizing to talk to so many smart creative people who were thinking about digital comics and had such diverse ideas. I’d never had whole conversations about comic before then.

You were already doing webcomics for four years when McCloud’s Reinventing Comics came out. Was there anything that surprised you about that book? It seems like you were already exploring some of the ideas McCloud talked about.

I don’t know that anything surprised me but it did reinforce my conviction that there’s a lot we can do and more to explore.

Your comics are autobiographical. What inspired you to take that approach?

I wonder if people go through similar experiences. If maybe, we’re not as different as we seem. I think other people wonder the same thing. I figured if I published stories about myself and asked people to respond, maybe we’d find out that sometimes we weren’t as alone as we’d suspected. I don’t know about anyone else, but finding out I’m not the only one who went through stuff, or felt a certain way makes me feel less isolated. Getting Drunk was the first comic I ever did. It’s also my only online comic drawn on paper first.

You often label your stories “95% true.” Wheredoes the other 5% come from?

Real life isn’t neat. It doesn’t have perfect pacing, loose ends don’t always get tied, or take years before they can be. To tell the stories in ways that I think are clear and interesting, I need to be able to edit and move events around – and sometimes change names- so I leave myself a 5% creative license for 100% freedom from confusion. Lynda Barry has a great word for revision of personal history: autofictionography.

Is it tough sometimes to be this truthful in a work that’s going to be seen by the general public? Have any of your friends become upset about seeing themselves in your stories?

It’s funny. You wouldn’t know it but I’m actually a very private introverted person. The comics I put up are the ones that talk about things I’ve made peace with, moments I’m not afraid of, or embarrassed by anymore. I guess writing about these events is my way of letting them go.

As for my super fabulous friends, no, they’re not upset and I use pseudonyms for the ones I’m no longer in touch with. I think the person who has the hardest time is my mom. Whenever I tell her I have a new comic up she finds out things about me she didn’t know. Things that, as my mom, are hard for her to read about.

Your work seems focused on the high school experience. Do you have any intention of doing comics about your college years?

When I started making comics for gURL and later AOL and Oxygen TV they were looking specifically for teen content. As someone who did not have an easy teenage experience but turned out o.k. I like writing about it.

I don’t know about college years specifically; I don’t think my experience was very universal because I was older when I went, didn’t live in a dorm and kept my social life separate from school. That said I have no doubt that stories about being in my 20’s are waiting on the sidelines of my brain to come forth.

Can you tell us more about the gig with Oxygen TV? Did your work get on the air?

Yeah it did. I was doing Traced comics for their teen site when I was asked to make a pilot. It was a great experience- they wanted to use myonline stories so I had to rethink presentation. TV is a totally differentmedium but I didn’t want my work to completely lose its roots so while there’s a lot more movement it’s minimal compared to most animation.

I also had the addition of sound, which was an interesting new tool to play with. On-air audio can really drive the story line. I worked with an avid editor and a fantastic producer; we put together an 8-episode series of shorts that ran on the network.

Are the episodes still available?

No they aren’t on TV anymore, Oxygen shifted its focus away from teens. I may stream them online but only if I think they look good.

 

Your comics are notable for experimenting with animation and other features that are only possible on the web. How did you get into using these techniques?Did they represent a particular technical challenge at the time?

I’ve always thought that if I was making a comic for the web then it should not be able to work on paper and vice versa. At least not without rethinking the presentation. In other words, if I’m creating an online comic then I really want to think about what works well on the web and how that can, or can’t help the narrative I want to present.

A challenge in the mid 1990’s was that most browsers required plug-ins. If you didn’t want people to have to download extra tools, then you stuck to what the most people would be able to view easily.

I guess the whole plug in issue is partly why I am now adverse to using programs as opposed to programming to get the layouts and interactivity I want in my work.

There’s been lots of discussion over the years about animation and other webcomics effects. For example, in a Comics Journal interview, Tristan Farnon said, “…quite frankly I don’t think online comics should move. I don’t think they need animation, or sound effects. They don’t need to squeak or squawk or blink or flash or make noise or magically reach a hand out from the monitor and jerk me up and down. They should be happy to lie there quietly on the page.”

What’s your take on this issue?

I’m all for trying new things, but I’m not interested in using technology just because you can or because, well, it looks cool. It’s like over accessorizing. Let the work be seen and the technology can compliment it. Why not have a squawk, or occasionally a blink if it’s done thoughtfully, judiciously, and sensibly in the context of the story? I think the only way we progress in any medium is to experiment, go as far out as possible and see what works, or doesn’t for that matter.

In the next little while will we still be using desktop computers where the main input device is a mouse or a tablet? Will we even need desktop computers? And if our main interaction with computers is, say, through gestures, voice or touch, how might that change the way comics are presented and how people relate to them?

Technology is in such a nascent stage, who knows what’s going to happen? Who knows which kid wonder, whose been playing with computers since day one, is going to come up with some innovation that we can’t even imagine. Remember for children today there is no “before webcomics.” I can’t wait to see what they come up with in a few years.

Your electronic special effects seem to be a way of taking the traumatic events you’re portraying and poking a little bit of fun at them, making them lighter, less serious, more like a game. Do you think of them that way?

Wow. You know Joe, I’ve never thought about them that way. Maybe it’s true but on a subconscious level. Usually I’m thinking about wanting to draw attention to a specific moment. I think it’s important to recognize that even when you’re in emotional pain there can still be humor. I mean that’s the thing about life, there are shades of gray.

So while everything can seem beyond horrible there are still moments when you’ll crack a smile at something which touches you, or laugh even if it’s the last thing you thought you could do or wanted to do at the time. I never underestimate people’s ability to see humor in difficult situations; sometimes it’s all I’ve had to get me through them.

You seem very big on interactiveness. Not only do you employ message boards embedded in the comics, but in both Field Trip and Babble Fish, you give the reader the choice of alternate storylines. What other kinds of interactive action would you put in your comics if you could find a way?

Once I’m happy with the story flow then I think about presentation. I try not to peruse ideas before hand. It’s the subject matter of the comic that suggests what I can do, not the other way around.

Working autobiographically is interesting because I know what happens so I don’t have people choose an ending or, say, become one of the characters and alter the ending because then it wouldn’t be autobiographical. This means I focus more on ways to do layouts or have people add commentary, or be able to use peripheral interactions to reveal more story detail.

Babble Fish (about a talking Carp) was fun because it’s not about me, it’s docuficiton. I read the true story in the paper, visited the eye witnesses and then imagined the rest. However like Traced, there’s a known outcome. So once again the interactivity became how to navigate, how to present the tale in a non-linear manner and how to reveal extra layers of details or bring in relevant ancillary information like the rss feed I embedded in one of the pages.

In terms of pushing interactive storytelling online games are at the forefront. You may know World of Warcraft. It’s this incredible middle earth world where millions of people are building their own narratives on top of backbone storylines. The question becomes, as a webcomics creator, how much creativity are you willing to give away to your audience? Are you going to be ok with developing characters that you have no control over and narrative that can go anywhere? Or are your more interested in controlling the story line, be it linear or non linear? What parameters to set up is an individual thing.

There are some online comics that let people assemble cast members, place them in panels and fill in words. There are others where people send in dreams or titles, or pieces of ephemera and someone creates a comic from it. And there are self contained narratives that focus on playing with format. What’s important is that there are options for the webcomics audience and that there’s a constant flow of new ideas.

It seems to me that your animations and rollovers have an effect on the meaning of the words and the pictures. Dialog has a somewhat different meaning when it appears and disappears because of the animation. Pictures have a different meaning when you can roll your mouse over them and one part turns green, as in Loser.

Do you agree that these things change the meaning of the words and the pictures? And if so, how much do you feel you understand how it changes the meaning? Do you think you’re in control of it?

I don’t think I’ve ever articulated why I use animations and rollovers in my comics before. But you’re correct, both things are devices I use to emphasize emotions, express time, or set a mood. They’ve taken the place of panels and word balloons neither of which appear in my online work.

I’m very aware of how I employ these digital tools within an image.

Although my drawing style is simple, nothing happens technically without lots of thought before hand. ‘Loser’ is a good example of this. The layout structure is that a person needs to rollover a specific part of the picture, which turns green, to reveal a second layer of detail. The rollovers occur over elements in the images that I want to bring to the fore. For example when some girls are offering advice their lips are what turn green to emphasize that what they’re saying isn’t all that they are thinking. A click lets you know their thoughts.

In Awkward I use timed animation to emphasize things like the overwhelming sensation you can have when there’s too much going on in your mind. The thoughts quickly and literally clutter up the page as you’re watching it. It mimics how the mind can just take off in a bazillion directions when under stress (at least mine does.)

At the same time that I’m aware of how I’m manipulating my comics, I think that the sub-conscience always finds it’s way through; there are often things that I don’t realize have come out in the story until someone looks at it and tells me, or when I’ve put it aside and then revisited it later.

Technologically, you seem to advocate a cautious approach; you don’t want your work to require browser plug-ins that your readers may not have. Do you think there will be a point in time when something like Macromedia Flash will be widespread enough that you’ll be encouraged to use it?

Actually just the opposite. I believe artists should try everything and anything.

Originally I eschewed plug-ins because I knew I’d lose people if they had to stop in the middle of a story to download some app to view the comic. But I don’t worry about plug-ins anymore. Most browsers have everything and programs like Flash are easily viewable. Today I think about whether my work will look and function the same on each platform because there are no global standards. What’s perfect on IE can look like another beast on Netscape, or Safari or Firefox, etc. As a webcomics creator part of what I need to know is which browsers and versions of them most of my audience is using and then design for them. Although I’m anal and try to make sure everything works on all platforms.

So far I haven’t had a reason to use Flash. I’m not partial to vector based graphics for Traced; the really smooth lines are too slick for the look I want. Also as far as interaction design and layout, I prefer to write my own code. It’s clean and I have more flexibility to do exactly what I want. I wish I could say I was this great programmer but I’m sorta clumsy. I rely a lot on my smart and generous tech whiz friends who help me realize ideas in XML, CGI, and java script. I feel lucky to be able to collaborate with them and with a friend whose an information architect. It’s nice to discuss comics with people who have different backgrounds and creative focus.

I gather that you teach a graduate course in digital comics at New York University. Is that still going on? What are the students like?

I’m an adjunct professor at the Interactive Telecommunication Program. It’s part of NYU’s TISCH School of the Arts. Each semester my students are completely different, which is great because I learn a lot from them. They come from all over the world and range in age from twenty something to fifty something. This means there’s a lot of cultural diversity in how to tell a story. I never thought I’d be teaching and was very happy when I was asked to design a digital comics course. It really keeps me thinking.

Is it scary living in New York City?

Is it scary to live in the country? I think it must be. I mean, you’re by yourself in a house, an entire house, possibly with stairs leading to a second or even a third floor. An evil person comes by and the odds are they’ll get you. I feel much safer in the city; there are literally thousands of apartments for bad people to choose before going into mine- if they ever get to it.

When I speak to non-city dweller friends the talk sometimes turns to thing like basements, boilers, and driveways. They might as well be from another planet- I have no idea what they’re talking about. We don’t have to worry about stuff like that in the city; that’s the beauty of apartment dwelling. I also happen to love walking, something which seems to be non-existent outside of many cities.

I do sometimes fantasize about living on a farm with goats and making cheese, but then I’d have to learn how to drive.

What’s this obsession you have with dark chocolate?

I’ve always liked chocolate, my grandmother was a chocoholic, she ate some everyday. Whenever I came over she’d give me a glass of milk and two squares to eat with it. She was a bit fanatical about milk chocolate- kept multiple bars in her pantry (if you keep chocolate in the fridge it looses it’s flavor) – but I don’t have a sweet tooth so when I discovered it was possible to buy chocolate by the cocoa percentage a few years ago I slowly found my way to the darkest brands. Right now I hover between the 85% and the 92% cocoa bars with the occasional 99%. There’s a site called chocosphere that’s become my lifeline. What can I say, I take chocolate seriously.

Traced
Tracy White
Free


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