By Alison Gazzard and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey
Many of today’s leading digital comics services primarily aim to offer a reading experience that replicates traditional comicbook forms on a tablet or smartphone device. This approach, although valid, raises questions as to what features of print based comics need to be retained in their translation to the digital form and what can potentially be changed. Part of the challenge of the Electricomics project lies in answering this question and delving into how the language and tropes of traditional comics are impacted by digital technologies.
The aim of this article is to present a snapshot of our current research and the ideas discussed during our recent presentation at the British Library during The Fifth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference. None of the ideas or approaches discussed here should be thought of as the final word on digital comics, but rather as part of an ongoing exploration of the form. One of the starting points for this exploration has been the concept of the page itself. In comic books and graphic novels, pages are particularly significant units. A useful definition of the page comes from Charles Hatfield (2009), who observes that:
‘The “page” (or planche, as French scholars have it, a term detonating the total design unit rather than the physical page on which it is printed) functions both as sequence and as object, to be seen and read in both linear and nonlinear, holistic fashion.’
In setting out to create native digital comics, retaining the concept of the page gives comic creators a useful unit of layout with which they’re already intimately familiar. In traditional comic books, stories are built around the turn of the page, which allows creators to delay the delivery of punch lines or craft moments of surprise or suspense within their narratives. The page also serves to presents the panels it contains in fixed juxtaposition with each other, allowing for both linear and nonlinear reading as outlined by Hatfield. This simultaneous juxtaposition of images is identified by many prominent comic scholars as a key aspect of the form (McCloud 1993, Groensteen 2013, Miodrag 2013).
The established comics industry (publishers, artists, writers, inkers, colourists, letterers, etc) also bases all costing around traditional pages. Construction and composition of each page forms a vital part of the communication process between the different members of the arts team. In the early stages of the Electricomics project, we’re in the process of transitioning from traditional page to digital planche. In this transition we’ve observed a tension between the comics creators, who take a holistic view of the page, and the technology partners, who are keen to deconstruct the page into separate assets and mechanics that will need to be implemented in the toolset.
In general, the development of digital comics has seen the page change alongside other digital media to become more “plastic” (Murray 1997) and mutable. Panels can be delivered individually to the screen and their contents altered individually, rather than as whole-page units. This allows surprise and suspense to be achieved in the individual delivery of panels or for narrative effects to be created from the rearrangement or alteration of existing panels (Goodbrey 2013). Although it’s important to also recognise that the more these effects are relied upon, the more they weaken the fixed simultaneity of images and the potential for non-linear reading.
It is also important to consider the page within the larger context of the multipage format. Traditional, printed comic books and graphic novels have the quality of flippy-throughiness’ (Nichols 2013). Due to the nature of their construction it’s easy to flip forward and backwards through the pages and there is a fixity to the physical location of all the information in the comic. This idea ties into Groensteen’s concept of comics as a spatial network, where ‘every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others’ (2007).
Digital pages by the very nature of their lack of fixed physical structure, erode the quality of flippy-throughiness. The more a digital comic embraces the mutable nature of the screen and seeks to control the individual display of panels, the more markedly this erosion can be observed. As the reader’s concept of the comics wider spatial network becomes less manageable, this can serve to interrupt the rhythms of reading that are inherent in how we read and explore multipage comics.
One approach to the challenge presented by the lack of flippy-throughiness in digital comics is to embrace McCloud’s concept of the ‘infinite canvas’ (2000). In an infinite canvas comic, all the panels in the network are given a fixed spatial relationship on one large plane or canvas. The screen then acts as a window under the reader’s control, which can be moved around this plane in order to read and navigate the comic. This gives the reader a fixed spatial configuration or shape to hold in their head and full control over their progression and place within the network.
Making use of an infinite canvas approach to creating digital comics can be problematic, in that it diminishes some traditional page layout techniques and can be problematic in terms of costing and production nomenclature. But within the physical limitations of a digital environment, the infinite canvas perhaps best captures the spirit of how a multipage work is traditionally read, explored and flipped-through.
The reader of a comic is not just, as Lefèvre (2009) notes, ‘a passive agent: he or she looks at images with prior knowledge and activates the images.’ As the reader explores the spatial network of a comic, their reading activates the words and images in the network to create the fictional passage of time that exists within the narrative of the comic. Rhythms of reading are built up through exploring this spatial-temporal relationship between the reader’s own experience of time and the portrayal of time within the story world of the comic. Another aspect of digital remediation that impacts on these established rhythms of reading is the integration of animation into the spatial network. As Groensteen (2013) asserts:
‘Comic readers generally set their own rhythm, with no constraints; as soon as they have to make allowances for the exact length of an animated image or sound, the reading process must be synchronised with these additional factors, and readers’ freedom is sacrificed – or else this synchronization may already have been programmed by the author, who therefore also imposes the rhythm at which images scroll.’
The active nature of the comics reader invites parallels with the role of the “user” in interactive fiction. A useful way to potentially examine the temporal relationships in comics is provided by Jesper Juul’s work on time in videogames and interactive narrative sequences. Juul (2004) proposes the idea of ‘play time’ which in comics we can equate to “reading time;” the time that the user takes to navigate and read the page as presented to them. Opposed to this is ‘event or fictional time’ that occurs within the narrative itself. We can depict the relationship between the two with the following diagram, modified from Juul’s original to include our new, comic-specific terms.
Our relationship with the comics sequence relies on negotiating the control of our own reading time alongside the fictional time of the narrative (as created in collaboration between the reader and the comic’s creators). However, digital comics can sometimes break the normal rhythm of this relationship by adding in what can be seen as “cut-scenes;” moments of animation or animated transitions where control is taken away from the reader. In this instance the reader loses their sense of ‘agency’ (Murray 1997) within the rhythms and interactions of their own reading.
One approach to the integration of animation that sidesteps this issue is the use of “ambient” moments of looped animation with panels. Groensteen (2013) identifies an essential conflict in digital comics between ‘two types of temporality: the concrete, measurable time of motion and sound, and the indefinite, abstract time of comics narration.’ However, looped animations are by their nature also indefinite. By nesting these animations within fixed point in the spatial network of the comic, they do not interfere with the established rhythm of reading.
There also exists some precedent in print for the use of such animated loops. Cohn (2010) describes the concept of ‘polymorphic’ panels in comics, that that depict multiple events with no fixed duration, such as a dog shown in multiple positions in one panel, as it chases it own tail. Ambient animated loops or animations that depict recurring events without a fixed duration can be seen as a continuation of such techniques within the digital context.
Experimenting with different approaches to the integration of animation in digital comics is an important part of the Electricomics project. Alan Moore has already started to explore the uses of animation in his development of the Winsor McCay influenced Big Nemo comic that will released with the toolkit. In his script, Moore describes the integration of small sections of animation and discusses these in relation to the way “traditional” special effects and animation techniques can further extend the diegetic space of the world without interrupting the overall flow of storytelling for the reader. In a recent interview with us about this work, Moore notes:
‘I personally like the idea of trying to retrieve traditions and techniques and approaches from the kind of ‘stone age’ of comics and seeing what you can do with those approaches given the additional dimension that modern technology affords us’
‘[It's] definitely a way of trying to take the basic techniques that Windsor McCay had created at the turn of the last century and finding out that, yes actually, they did work beautifully in this new medium.’ (Moore 2014)
The issue of maintaining a sense of control over the relationship between reading time and fictional time also has implications for the inclusion of elements of interactive narrative in the design of digital comics. As a team we’re just beginning to grapple with ideas on how to signify reader choice without overly disturbing rhythms of reading or dropping the reader out of the story world.
In these early stages of the project, as suggested in the introduction to this article, it would seem premature to draw too many conclusions as to the nature of the digital comics medium. However, based on the body of our research to date, we might reasonably be able to conclude as follows; while certain qualities of print comics are eroded by digital mediation, creating successful digital comics can be seen as a balancing of tensions between maintaining the key characteristics of the comics form and embracing the new qualities offered by digital technologies and display.
Cohn, N. (2010) ‘The limits of time and transitions: challenges to theories of sequential image comprehension.’ Studies in Comics. 1(1) pp. 127–147.
Goodbrey, D. (2013) ‘Digital Comics – New Tools and Tropes.’ Studies in Comics 4(1) pp 187-199.
Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics (trans. Beaty, B. and Nguyen, N.). Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Groensteen, T. (2013) Comics And Narration (trans. Miller, A.). Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Hatfield, C. (2009) ‘An Art of Tensions.’ In Heer, J. and Worchester, K. (eds) A Comic Studies Reader. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Juul, J. (2004) ‘Introduction to Game Time.’ In Harrigan, P. and Wardrip-Fruin, N. (eds) First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Lefèvre, P. (2009) ‘The Construction of Space in Comics.’ In Heer, J. and Worchester, K. (eds) A Comic Studies Reader. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics. New York: HarperPerennial.
McCloud, S. (2000a) Reinventing Comics. New York: Paradox Press.
Miodrag, H. (2013) Comics and Language. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
Murray, J. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Moore, A. (2014) Interviewed by Gazzard, A. and Goodbrey, D. on 13 June.
Nichols, J. (2013) Scrolls, Codexs and Flippy-Throughiness in (digital) Comics. The International Comic Arts Forum, 24 May, Portland, Oregon.