Electricomics: Digital Pages and Rhythms of Reading

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 'Producing A Series' Panel at The Fifth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference.
The ‘Producing A Series’ Panel at The Fifth International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference  at The British Library. Goodbrey thinking thoughts in left of image. Photograph by @Pilpel

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.

Panel delivery used to create suspense in a sequence from Insufferable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause.
Panel delivery used to create suspense in a sequence from ‘Insufferable Volume 1, Chapter 1′ by Mark Waid and Peter Krause.

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.

Illustration of the infinite canvas from I Can't Stop Thinking! #4 by Scott McCloud.
Illustration of the infinite canvas from I Can’t Stop Thinking! #4 by Scott McCloud.

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.

The relationship between Reading Time and Fictional Time, based on Juul's mapping between Play Time and Event Time.
The relationship between ‘reading time’ and ‘fictional time,’ based on Juul’s mapping between ‘play time’ and ‘event time’ in videogames.

 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.

Polymorphic panel in sequence from Copper #25 by Kazu Kibuishi.
Polymorphic panel in sequence from ‘Copper #25′ by Kazu Kibuishi.

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.

References

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.

Our Inbox Runneth Over…

Since we announced the project, we have received a great many enquiries from people wanting to get involved. Some people already have work out there that is similar in idea to Electricomics in some way, so I thought it might be interesting to put them all up here in one place. I really like aspects of all of them, and I am so glad we have a chance to discuss this kind of thing. If you know of other projects that would fit here too, please send them in using our contact page, or tweet them at us, and we can look at them too.

Man and Guy by Stefan Van Dinther is a great look at story structure in digital comics and explores territory close to that of our own Daniel Goodbrey.Blue Donut Studios are already using limited animation on their storyboarding work, showing that this kind of software has more applications than just comics people making comics. Halftone 2 is a comic creation app which seems to have a lot of great features, and looks really fun to use. Murat is a fantastic project from the Czech Republic by Ondrej Novak & Vojtech Seda and Motiv collective (www.nomotiv.org) I really enjoyed the page view, and the cumulative effect of the moving elements becomes quite hypnotic. I am really impressed by how much of a traditional comic layout they have retained, but also by how much they have crammed in.Lastly there is a academic piece from 2011, “The visual novel medium proves its worth on the battlefield of narrative arts By Alex Mui which is a really interesting look at The Visual Novel.

We’re very lucky to have so many people talking to us, and joining in with the project.

Hopefully this process will become more direct once we have our community area up and running, but until then, please continue to Like, Follow and get in touch, and add your own voice to the discussion!

Leah Moore

Electricomics at the International Graphic Novel and Comics conference

The Electricomics research team, Alison Gazzard and Daniel Goodbrey, will be presenting at the International Graphic Novel and Comics conference on Friday 18th July.

They’ll be talking about all things Electricomics, but especially the project goals, and their approaches to the research side of it.

If you can, come along, talk to Dan and Alison and get involved with Electricomics!

You can get day tickets at £35 each (or it’s £85 for the whole three days) Booking details:

http://www.bl.uk/whatson/exhibitions/comics-unmasked/events/event160729.html

Explaining Electricomics

Since announcing Electricomics last week, we have had a great deal of interest, enquiries and questions about the project. Here I will attempt to answer those questions, or at least explain why we can’t yet answer them.

Electricomics is wholly funded by the Digital Research and Development Fund For the Arts. This is how they describe themselves:

“The Digital R&D Fund for the Arts is a £7 million fund from Arts Council England, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Nesta to support collaboration between arts projects, technology providers and researchers to explore the potential of increasing audience engagement or find new business models.”

The fund requires three parts to any application. An arts organisation, a technology partner, and a research lead, so that the project has a definite benefit for the wider arts community, a definite technological aim which drives the project, and a solid research team to make sure the findings of the project are studied and analysed for maximum ongoing benefit.

In the case of Electricomics, the arts organisation is Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’ Orphans of The Storm, the tech partner is Ocasta Studios, and the research partners are Alison Gazzard at London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, and Daniel Merlin Goodbrey at the University of Hertfordshire.
This large and unwieldy team jointly applied for the funding, using the same huge daunting form as everyone else who applies for it.

On the huge daunting form we explained that we wanted to look at how comics currently exist in the digital space, and explore their translation/transition from page to screen. Hopefully we would do this in new ways to what has already been explored before – so complementing what is already on offer, but using the R&D aspect to explore it in a way that isn’t usually possible with such projects. We wanted to focus on storytelling in particular, and try and find new ways to explore comics narratives using the technology now available.
We wanted to figure out a way to make these innovative comics narratives using a set of tools that the clever chaps at Ocasta would create, we would then put those tools into an app, release the comics we’d made while researching it all, and then let everyone else use the app and create with it.

Amazingly, the Digital Research and Development Fund for the Arts did not scoff and file our application in the bin, in fact we were granted an interview at Nesta’s offices in London. We went down, nervous and mob handed, and managed to answer all the questions without being sick or passing out from terror.
And then we could only go home, and sit and wait.
Eventually, after what felt like an eternity, we found out we’d been selected for the funding.
Once we’d finished congratulating ourselves, we realised we actually had to do this now, it was a real thing.

We held a meeting in the atmospheric and evocative library at 400 year old Delapre Abbey in Northampton. It was quiet, they gave us really nice cakes, and there was no Wifi so we got a lot of talking done. Daniel Goodbrey gave us an incredibly informative primer on digital comics, which introduced us to things we’d not seen before, things which intimidated us, and inspired us. I took notes. I took so many notes I forgot to doodle in the margin.

There was a lengthy wait on the paperwork, we all sat watching our in-boxes but then at last it was all systems go. Green light.
We were Announcing Electricomics!

The announcement happened last week, and from inside the whirlwind of interaction that occurred we discovered three things.

1. People want to know the exact specifics of the app.
2. People want a solid release date for the app.
3. People do not want wishy-washy answers to these important questions.

People may, I’m afraid, still be disappointed. The nature of an R&D Arts project means nothing can be nailed down quite yet. Nailing down is not our business.

Here, instead, is what we do know:

The project lasts one year, during which time we shall create the comics (the scripts are done already, the artists have them, ready to start drawing), attend other learning events and report back to Nesta through interviews and reports by our research team.
The research team will be heading out to do workshops and seminars at various events through the year to find out what you want from the app, and when there is a skeleton build ready, they want you to come and play with it, test it live with them and see what you make of it. They really need your support, online and in person. It’s a fundamental part of the project to include the audience in the process so please, we invite you to join in.

The project is not your usual comics launch. We don’t yet have a release date, or a product to sell, but we still need your support. Hopefully in about a year’s time we will have a fantastic app ready to download and create comics with, and a 32 page comic to read on it.
That is our plan, and now we are contractually bound to pursue it doggedly. We are all completely committed to that goal, and the nature of the funding means we will all be working constantly toward the project milestones, a yearlong tick list of Things To Do, which will result in ‘Electricomics’.
Like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter and we will make sure you are included in the next part of the Electricomics story.

–Leah Moore

Electricomics Launch – Press Release

Alan Moore Creates Digital App

The most famous modern comic book writer in the world, Alan Moore, is leading a research and development project to create an app enabling digital comics to be made by anyone.

Already known for revolutionising the comic book industry in the 1980s, Moore is pushing boundaries again with Electricomics – an app that is both a comic book and an easy-to-use open source toolkit. Being open source and free, the app has wide potential not just for industry professionals, but also businesses, arts organisations and of course comic fans and creators everywhere.

“Personally, I can’t wait,” said Moore. “With Electricomics, we are hoping to address the possibilities of comic strips in this exciting new medium, in a way that they have never been addressed before.

“Rather than simply transferring comic narrative from the page to the screen, we intend to craft stories expressly devised to test the storytelling limits of this unprecedented technology. To this end we are assembling teams of the most cutting edge creators in the industry and then allowing them input into the technical processes in order to create a new capacity for telling comic book stories.

“It will then be made freely available to all of the exciting emergent talent that is no doubt out there, just waiting to be given access to the technical toolkit that will enable them to create the comics of the future.”

Electricomics will be a 32-page showcase with four very different original titles:

Big Nemo – set in the 1930s, Alan Moore and Colleen Doran (Sandman, Wonder Woman, Vampire Diaries) revisit Winsor McCay’s most popular hero.

Cabaret Amygdala – modernist horror from writer Peter Hogan (Terra Obscura) and Paul Davidson (Age of X, X-Factor, Dark X-men)

Red Horse – on the anniversary of the beginning of World War One, Garth Ennis (Preacher, The Boys) and Danish artist Peter Snejbjerg (World War X) take us back to the trenches.

Sway – a slick new time travel science fiction story from Leah Moore and John Reppion (Sherlock Holmes – The Liverpool Demon, 2000 AD) drawn by Nicola Scott (Birds of Prey, Secret 6)

They will also feature the colouring talents of Jose Villarrubia (Promethea, X-Factor, Cuba: My Revolution ) the lettering talents of Simon Bowland (2000AD, Marvel Zombies, Sherlock Holmes-The Liverpool Demon) and logos designed by Todd Klein (Batman: Year one, Tom Strong, Iron Man).

Electricomics will be self published by Moore and long time collaborator Mitch Jenkins as Orphans of the Storm, and funded by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. As a publicly funded research and development project, Electricomics will be free to explore the possibilities of the comic medium, without the constraints of the industry.

The app will be built by Ocasta Studios, under the guidance of Ed Moore (no relation). Ocasta create apps for the likes of Virgin Media, Vodafone, Harveys and The Register. They are excited to be making their first foray into the world of comics.

The research team will be led by Dr Alison Gazzard, who has published widely on space, time and play in interactive media, and is a Lecturer in Media Arts at the London Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education. Joining her, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey is a pioneer in the field of experimental digital comics and senior lecturer at The University of Hertfordshire.

Moore’s daughter Leah will edit the project, having created the 150 page digital comic The Thrill Electric for C4 Education in 2011.

About the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts

The Digital R&D fund for the Arts is a £7 million fund to support collaboration between organisations with arts projects, technology providers, and researchers. It is a partnership between Arts Council England (www.artscouncil.org.uk), Arts and Humanities Research Council (www.ahrc.ac.uk) and Nesta (www.nesta.org.uk).

We want to see projects that use digital technology to enhance audience reach and/or develop new business models for the arts sector. With a dedicated researcher or research team as part of the three-way collaboration, learning from the project can be captured and disseminated to the wider arts sector.

ORPHANS OF THE STORM

Ocasta Studios Mobile and Tablet App Development

Lottery Funded

Download the Electricomics Press Release [PDF Format]
Download the Electricomics Press Release
 [Word Format]

Enquiries: http://electricomics.net/contact/