Digital Comics [February 20-24, 2012]
by Alisa Perren — University of Texas at Austin
February 19, 2012 – 23:00
Monday, February 20, 2012 - Roger Whitson (Emory University) presents: What Makes a Comic Book Digital?
Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - Mark Waid (Comics writer, editor, and publisher) presents: Truly Digital Comics
Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - Mark Sample (George Mason University) presents: Meanwhile is Big but not Boundless
Thursday, February 23, 2012 - Zach Whalen (University of Mary Washington) presents: It Moves
Friday, February 24, 2012 - Laurie N. Taylor (University of Florida) presents: Re-Born, Born-Again Digital Comics
Theme week organized by Roger Whitson.
Image from Noel Kirkpatrick.
Are digital comics digital because they are created using digital tools? Maybe, but the definition would lose meaning since most comics produced today are created using Photoshop or distributed through digital applications like Comixology or Graphic.ly. I’m more sympathetic to the idea that a digital comic exploits digital technology to create an experience that is uniquely enjoyed in a digital environment. I have two examples that serve, for me, as illustrations of what digital comics can do.
Chris Ware’s Touch Sensitive, created for McSweeney’s, explores the touch interface of the iPad by comparing it with, as is stated in McSweeney’s description, a world where “the act of touching seems to shift from that of affection to aggression.” As readers move from the early panels, which feature pleasurable swipes that float from one linear panel to another, they gradually move into sequences where panels flicker in and out of the composition. Furthermore, the touch-swipe feature is complemented with a sudden shift in panel composition towards the end, which imagines a future where direct touch has been entirely replaced with haptic interfaces. The experience of reading the text mirrors the growing alienation of the characters from each other. Ware has a large personal investment in book publishing and design, and this investment is reflected in the lavishly produced covers and book-jackets featured on several of his comics. In Touch Sensitive he parodies the simulation of touch on the iPad and in digital culture but creates a very different encounter with touching in the process.
Second, Evan Young’s The Carrier uses GPS, email, text message features, and the internal clock of the iPhone to construct a serialized story about espionage and amnesia. Each of the chapters of The Carrier is delivered in real-time and over a period of ten days. If, for example, you read the first chapter at 3:30, you will receive the next chapter 45 minutes later. Text messages lead the reader to webpages that feature polls or other interactive features. Certain GPS coordinates unlock further features, like community contributed Flickr images or hidden email messages. While not as critically or aesthetically sophisticated as Ware’s comic, Young’s The Carrier extends the digital comic into a multimedia ecology of interrelated content and invites readers to help create the story.
After a 25-year career in the print comics industry, my passion for the ink and paper of my youth is waning. Storytelling through comics’ unique alchemy of words and pictures is still my first love, and it’s probably the thing in the world I’m best at—but as print costs continue to rise and profitability drops to unsustainable levels for smaller publishers who aren’t backed by media juggernauts like Disney and Warner Bros, I no longer see designing for print-first as viable.
Over the past year, I’ve begun exploring the emerging digital comics medium and, in preparation for launching my own webcomics this summer, I’ve produced several short examples to demonstrate the tools digital allows writers and artists. (See the accompanying video clip, from my iPad, for a brief example.) Most “digital comics” offered by large publishers are little more than clunky adaptations of previously existing material first designed for standard portrait-format print comics, not for landscape-format monitors and tablets. When reading a print comic, you can see the entire page at once, and artists use that as a design tool. But print comics captured on the screen are almost always too large to “take in” without scrolling about or enlarging or isolating individual panels—the comics equivalent of the old “pan-and-scan” evil of presenting widescreen movies on square televisions by inelegant cropping and editing. Hence, my new passion.
As I proceed, my artists and I are constantly learning more about what does and doesn’t work with digital. Yet without resorting to the crutch of cheap, limited animation, we’re still able to suggest movement by altering the art between panels on the “page turn” that happens when the reader taps the left or right edge of the screen. We can break long captions or art elements into pieces that seem to “drop in” as the pages are turned. And we’re only just beginning to learn. I encourage my artists to break borders figuratively and literally—to imagine infinite canvases, new visual language, and more. The only place I stop short is at the addition of voice, music, or anything else that takes the full and total control of time away from the reader; that’s the one essential element of comics (the consumer’s ability to decide the rate at which s/he wants to absorb the story) that I feel is inviolate. As for the rest…welcome to the future.
Crammed with nearly 4,000 possible storylines, Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile (2010) is a cartoonish yet algorithmically complex graphic novel, pushing the limits of what comics can do with the printed form of the book. A Choose Your Own Adventure book on steriods, Meanwhile features an elaborate series of maze-like paths and tabbed pages to help the reader guide the protagonist Jimmy through his adventures with time travel and doomsday devices. In 2011, the legendary interactive fiction author Andrew Plotkin released (with Shiga’s help) a digital version of Meanwhile. It’s available as an iOS app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. The Meanwhile app includes the entire contents of Shiga’s graphic novel, but instead of tabbed pages, the reader uses the touchscreen interface to navigate through Jimmy’s story.
As a kind of extreme, logical conclusion to the evolution of the codex, Meanwhile presents an edge case for digital comics. Reading the two texts side-by-side raises a number of questions. If Meanwhile can be successfully adapted to the digital form, why not other comics? If the Meanwhile app can make extensive use of the affordances of digital technology—such as what Scott McCloud calls the infinite canvas—why not other comics? And what aspects of the book does a digital rendering of Meanwhile reveal and obscure (in much the same way the two-dimensional Mercator Projection reveals and obscures—not to mention distorts—aspects of the globe)?
Finally, if we step back from the specific case of Meanwhile, what lessons can other creators and scholars of both print and digital comics learn? There are questions of interactivity and ergodic play, of space and pacing, of distance and nearness, of zooming and the z-axis, of cognitive ease and legibility, and many more. And as we pursue these questions, how can we keep in check our nostalgia and biases, approaching digital comics with open yet critical eye?
The video I’ve edited for this discussion is a compilation of Youtube reaction videos, a popular genre wherein intrepid individuals point the camera at themselves and record their reaction to something, usually something horrifying or disgusting. In the video to the left, the subjects are all reading and responding to a webcomic by Korean artist Horang, which you can read in English translation or in the original Korean. First, though, a warning: this is one of those things that tries to startle its readers, like that maze trick or the haunted car commercial. View it at your own risk, and do not turn your speakers up.
The memetics at work in the circulation this comic have a good deal to do with the social construction of the act of its viewing, which is another way of saying it’s a cheap — some might say gimmicky — prank that one person uses to embarrass another. But at the same time, it’s also a uniquely constrained example of digital technology enabling a specific property of a comic for a special purpose.
So far this week, we’ve been looking at digital comics in a number of ways, including the intersections of print and digital affordances, a glimpse at possible futures, and the fundamental question itself. But we haven’t yet really looked into the whole culture of webcomics, which is entirely premised on digital technology for its existence. I don’t know that all webcomics are essentially digital simply by their being viewed on the web, but the relatively straightforward digitalism of a well-placed animated GIF can be charming, unsettling or parodic in ways that don’t necessarily disrupt the “unique alchemy” of comics (to borrow Mark Waid’s term).
Referring to this Korean webcomic, Scott McCloud seems to agree, mentioning as an aside that what truly makes this effective is not that the comic moves, because it doesn’t. Rather, it’s takes hold of the browser’s scroll function and moves rapidly through a series of closely juxtaposed images, creating an illusion of animation by wrenching control away from the reader.
So I’m curious, can a concept of Digital Comics account for the baroque complexity of Meanwhile alongside shocking horror comics and the pseudo-interactivity of MS Paint Adventures or its inexplicable, so-ugly-its-almost-beautiful spinoff, Sweet Bro and Hella Jeff?
MAD Magazine originally published Antonio Prohías’ “Spy vs. Spy” comics in print. Since the initial printings, MAD Magazine and its contents including “Spy vs. Spy” have been re-born and born-again in many digital forms. For instance, MAD Magazine released various compilations of issues on DVD (Absolutely MAD Magazine - 50+ Years) and CD (Totally MAD: Every Issue of MAD Magazine 1952-1998), as well as the MAD television show on Cartoon Network.
The born-again or re-born digital versions are interesting in terms of how comics change across different creation and distribution media, and how those changes are informed by prior versions. “Spy vs. Spy” by Prohías is perhaps particularly productive to consider with regard to these changes.
While best known for creating “Spy vs. Spy” for MAD Magazine, before this, Prohías was an established political cartoonist publishing in newspapers. Some of his original cartoons are in the 1960-1961issues of El Avance Criollo, published in Cuba until seizure of the paper in 1960 and then subsequently published in exile in Miami, Florida (http://scholar.library.miami.edu/cubamoderada/periodiquito.php). Prohías’ cartoons work in El Avance Criollo spoke directly to Cuba’s political situation (e.g.; http://dloc.com/UF00077417/00001/4), displaying some elements and themes later found in “Spy vs. Spy”.
Recent versions of “Spy vs. Spy” include animation that follows the original comics, some versions of which follow the original comics more closely than others. Many of the versions cite Prohías as the original creator. Additionally, fan comments on the videos sometimes include additional information on Prohías. It is interesting to note that Prohías is cited, given how many comic strips, books, and characters are rewritten in different media formats without mention of their original creators. The citation or lack of citation for creators is also interesting in relation to how different aspects of existing works can be born-again and re-born into digital versions and how those aspects can influence whether or not attribution is maintained.
In thinking about what re-born and born again digital comics will bring, attribution figures prominently. How does attribution and the propagation of citation impact digital comics and does it do so differently for those that are born digital, re-born digital, and born again digital?
Mon, 20 Feb 2012 04:00:00 +0000