Truly Digital Comics

Curator's Note

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.

 

Comments

Roger Whitson's picture

TimeTexT and TimeImage

I really love what you are doing with text and time in the video you showed us.  Digital comics can add a temporal depth to sequential storytelling that complicates most traditional definitions of comics. If, as you can see from my post, Ware is using the touch function to complicate the need for visual sequentiality to be communicated with space - your comic does the same thing with text - replacing space with time. 

I’m thinking of Theirry Groenstein’s argument that comics are definied by what he calls "iconic solidarity," which means, "independent images that, participating in a series, present the double characteristic of being separated […] and which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in presentia" (18). In Groenstein’s definition, it is the very fact that images are presented together that makes it possible for them to be read sequentially and not, for example, as a mosaic or as a single composition. (Though comics have played with this tension in the past). 

From what we’ve seen, I think digital comics complicate that situation a little bit. Even though we still are in the realm of sequential and coexistent images, and may need to be for the product to look like a comic, there are small ruptures using temporal and tactile media, that can change that experience. I also like what you say about keeping the control of the text in the hands of the reader. I think that’s key.  

Laurie N. Taylor's picture

Text Placement on Changing Panels

First, thanks for sharing your comic!

One aspect of this example that I find particularly interesting is the use of text. With the full screen of the iPad used for a single panel, in some cases, it seems like you’re exploiting the possibilities of that size to show the image with some text and then add subsequent text panels after the user touches the screen (seconds 31-34). This effectively shows the time progression of the panel, using panel placement and structure for implied timing as with print comics and then also using the timing of the user feedback/touch to progress the text/story. 

As Roger notes in his comment, the definitions of comics and sequential reading are further in play when digital comics explore the form and the reading practice even further. I think the explotation of the small, but large screen when presenting a single panel on the iPad is very interesting and informative. Clearly, works on the iPad can also be shown/used on iPhones and other devices, but are you conceptualizing of your work on one or the other or many? As you shift your from print to digital, I’m curious as to how you’re framing your creative and design processes and your perspective on the affordances and constraints of the platform for presentation/use.

Katherine Tanski's picture

But what about community?

Before I start, I have to admit that you are one of my favorite comic book authors, and the fact that you’re contributing to this project makes me like you even more. 

Roger’s point above that you are "replacing space with time" is an interesting one, but it makes me wonder about the "cool" factor (in the McLuhan sense) that has always made comics unique when compared with other visual genres like film. When comic panels and pages become "animated" does that lessen the participatory impact? Personally, when watching the demo I found that while I enjoyed being able to see one panel at a time (because as you said, scrolling and stretching traditional forms of digital comics is ultimately unsatisfying), I disliked having captions and word balloons placed on top of the image, and I disliked the sequence where panels were added on the same "page" one at a time. It almost felt like a motion comic. 

I don’t want my medium to be changed. What I want is a new way to enjoy the medium I already love. I want a different kind of reading experience. What I would love authors and distributors to look into are different kinds of "special features", such as behind-the-scenes stories or drafts of artwork, more akin to what comes with a DVD, and more social media options, such as a direct link to email the comic author, or artist, or even the company. Or perhaps a link to an online forum for discussion just about this comic.  It seems to me those kinds of experience are what are missing from the traditional digital comics experience. If you’re purchasing a digital comic, you’re not hanging out in a comic book store speaking with other fans about the latest issue or admiring the latest artwork sketches in the display case. 

It’s this sense of community, being invited in through the use of behind-the-scenes features, and through interactions with other fans, that digital comics creators are ignoring. It’s this sense of community that made me want to read comics in the first place. As local comic book stores continue to close, online reading communities will become more important, and digital comics interfaces can act as doorways to this interaction. 

Roger Whitson's picture

Reading an Integrated Community

 @Katherine: I think this is a problem in the ebook industry as well. Kindle tries to replicate a sense of community by allowing you to post your notes to Facebook or Twitter, but as status updates. It doesn’t make much sense to me. 

There are, of course, online fan sites devoted to comics -and, as you mention, message boards and Twitter accounts. But I think a more integrated experience,  would be needed before you could talk about recreating that experience of being in the comic shop. So: I agree, but I wonder if the technology is there yet (beyond links) to create a fully integrated community experience with comic books. 

I’m also interested in the way that Laurie talks about different display options for digital comics. While Comixology works really well on an iPad, for example, it’s not so good on the iPhone. 

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