Posting this here so I can read it off my phone while running my presentation off my laptop. Accompanying presentation is here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1r_HP1XPijI9x4xGikbHFF19Gnm0YEMDtCy98P4wpYIY/edit?usp=sharing
First, although it’s not directly relevant to this paper, I want to use this forum to say that one of the problems confronting comics studies as a field is fragmentation. Before coming to this conference I had the impression that film and media scholars were not interested in comics. Now I realize that that isn’t quite true, but rather that the comics scholars in English departments and the comics scholars in film departments are not in dialogue with each other. And like Scott Bukatman was saying the other night, one thing that would help advance the field is if these two segments of the comics studies community could interact more.
The actual paper is about how comics can serve as a prototype of synergy between print and digital media; comics are a productive example of how print and digital modes of publication can exist in a mutually supportive rather than an antagonistic relationship. On July 25th, the Onion, America’s finest news source, reported that the medium of print had died. SLIDE 1 The cause of death was attributed to print’s inability to compete with digital and social media. Yet just six days earlier other evidence suggested that print was only mostly dead, which is the same as slightly alive. SLIDE 2 At a Comic-Con panel on the topic Digital vs. Print: Friends or Foes, industry executive Jeff Webber said that comics were the only segment of the print marketplace that had not been negatively impacted by digital media. The print comics marketplace is surviving, albeit in a highly reduced state compared to the fifties when comics were a major mass medium. And yet digital comics are also a massive industry, probably far more popular than print comics. So in the contemporary comics landscape, print and digital are coexisting and it even seems like each is driving sales of the other. And this paper seeks to suggest some reasons why this is. What are comics doing right that other media aren’t doing? What can we learn from comics about how new and old media can interact productively?
So in the first place, an argument I have often made is that comics, compared to text-based literature, are much more likely to exploit the specific physical features of their chosen media – that in comics, materiality tends to have a level of prominence that is comparatively very rare in prose literature. There are just all kinds of comics, both print and digital, that could never conceivably be reproduced in digital format without destroying a large part of the reading experience. In terms of print comics, examples that come to mind are Sunday Press Books’s giant editions of Winsor McCay, SLIDE 3 or Chris Ware’s Building Stories. SLIDE 4 And there are just as many digital comics that equally resist translation to print, and I assume the stuff Drew will discuss in his paper will be an example of that. It’s mostly because of this that Hillary Chute has said that “Comics is a site-specific medium; it can’t be re-flowed, re-jiggered on the page; hence, it is spatially located on the page the way that poetry often must be.” Now in an article for the Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky claimed that Chute was wrong because of counterexamples like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which was originally published as a 4-panel comic strip but was later reprinted in paperback books which used horizontal or square formats. SLIDE 5 In a post to the comix-scholars list which I’m quoting with permission, Jeet Heer pointed out that Berlatsky in fact was wrong; Peanuts is capable of being reprinted in different formats because Schulz consciously designed it that way. But he went on to explain how Chute and Berlatsky’s positions could be reconciled: “All cartoonists … have to be thinking in spatial terms, whether they choose to be spatially flexible (as Schulz did) or spatially fixed (as McCay and Ware did). Spatial awareness is inextricable from comics, whatever the choice might be.” And I think this tension between fixity and flexibility is an important formal property of comics. Paradoxically, comics are irreducibly tied to the material form in which they are embodied, and yet they are also capable of being remediated into other material forms. We could also think of material fixity and material flexibility as two different options both of which comics are equally capable of employing. And material flexibility, in particular, explains how a single comics text can exist simultaneously in print and digital form at once without the two being competitive. In order to see how this works, let’s look at my primary example, which is the work of Monkeybrain Comics and in particular their best-known comic, Bandette. SLIDE 7
Monkeybrain is an independent digital comics publisher which was founded by Chris Roberson, a comics writer, and Allison Baker, a film producer. In an interview with me, Roberson and Baker said that they chose to start a digital versus a print comic company largely for practical reasons; print comics require a massive capital investment and are not easily scaleable and Diamond has a monopoly on distribution. This also meant that Monkeybrain was less constrained in the sort of comics they were able to produce. Monkeybrain comics cut across a wide variety of genres and are often difficult to categorize in generic terms, which makes them difficult to pitch to print publishers. An example here is their most critically successful title, Bandette, which is about a French super cat burglar and it’s just the most awesome comic ever and if you all haven’t read it you need to. SLIDE 8 The creators, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, apparently pitched it to numerous print comics publishers and were repeatedly rejected. It was too weird for superhero publishers and it seemed too much like a superhero title for indie publishers. And this was despite the fact that Paul and Colleen were both established creators who had published in both the superhero and alternative comics markets. So Chris and Allison approached Paul and Colleen and told them to do whatever they wanted, and Bandette was published through Monkeybrain and became an incredible success and won an Eisner Award, and Dark Horse, who had previously rejected the project, now picked it up and published it as this hardcover book. HOLD IT UP This is a rare success story but many of Monkeybrain’s comics are similar in that they’re done in a style similar to that of so-called mainstream comics but they explore more quirky subject matter and are often directed at an all-ages audience.
Now the above account suggests two important things about Monkeybrain. First, the only thing they contract for is digital rights; everything else remains the property of the creators. For Bandette, for example, Paul and Colleen were free to make a deal with Dark Horse for print rights. And second and more importantly, Monkeybrain comics are not specific to the digital medium but are also capable of being translated into print form. Unlike Thrillbent, another digital comics publisher founded by writers of print comics, Monkeybrain comics do not include digital-specific features like motion or touchscreen functionality. This seems to be partly due to differences in emphasis or interest between the two companies. The way Chris explained it was, “With Thrillbent, Mark and his partner John Rogers and company are experimenting with digital as a form; with Monkeybrain, what Alison and I and the creators we work with are doing is experimenting with digital as a distribution mechanism.” So Monkeybrain’s goal is not to do things impossible in print, but to publish comics that could be published in print but for which print publication is not currently economically viable. In the case of Bandette, its success on Monkeybrain made the printed edition possible, by proving that there was in fact a market for this title no one was willing to take a chance on at first.
So the example of Bandette proves the flexibility of comics, it suggests that a given comic is not irreducibly tied to the material form for which it’s created. At least some digital comics are capable of being printed and vice versa. But this is not to say that comics can be translated perfectly from print to digital form. There will always be subtle but important differences between the two, both in terms of form and in terms of the affective experience of reading, and that’s why one format can drive sales of the other. Now let me again demonstrate this with Bandette. While Monkeybrain comics can be printed, they are also powerfully shaped by their digital format. Monkeybrain comics are distributed primarily through Comixology, the major app for purchasing and reading digital comics, and are probably most often read on a tablet. SLIDE 9 And this is a Comixology T-shirt that I’m wearing. So on a tablet, or at least on my Kindle Fire, the screen is too small to easily read a comic page by page, so the most convenient way to read comics on a tablet is by using Comixology’s Guided View functionality, where panels are displayed one at a time. SLIDE 10 This radically changes the reading experience because it fragments the page into individual panels, almost turning it into a very limited animation. And it prevents you from noticing the overall design and layout of the page, or from paying attention to what Thierry Groensteen calls arthrology, the network of connections between both adjacent and nonadjacent panels. As a way of mitigating this effect you can choose to view each page all at once both before and after reading the page in Guided View, but again, when you do that you can’t read the individual panels easily. So this creates a separation between what I suggested earlier were the two modes of comics reading, the reading of the page as a unitary whole and the reading of each panel individually. Another more practical effect is that for Guided View, Comixology divides each page into separate blocks which may or may not correspond to individual panels. I don’t know yet how exactly this works, but either there is some person at Comixology who formats every page for Guided View, or they use an algorithm that does it automatically. Either way, the choice of how to format the page is not necessarily made by the actual artist, and it sometimes has weird results. In issue 1 of Amelia Cole, another Monkeybrain comic, when you view this panel in Guided View, it skips over the left-hand side of this panel here, which actually contains important visual information. SLIDE 11 And Guided View doesn’t work well at all with pages that have more complicated layouts. Another Monkeybrain comic, Aesop’s Ark, uses full-page compositions without traditional gutters or panel borders and therefore reading it in Guided View is an awkward experience. SLIDE 12 Guided View works best for comics that have clearly delineated panels which are the same shape as the tablet screen. So one reason Bandette works well as a Comixology title is that it fulfills that criterion. I don’t think there’s a single panel in the entire book that has a diagonal or curved border. SLIDE 13 This is probably not deliberate, I have another Colleen Coover comic here which also includes only rectilinear panels, but it does suggest that Colleen’s artwork is ideally suited to the specific demands of Comixology. SLIDE 14 Obviously the subject matter here is rather different.
So if Bandette is such a perfect work for Comixology, then why is there a print version at all? One obvious answer is that the print version of Bandette is marketed toward existing comics readers who do not have a tablet or who are unwilling to read comics in digital form, or who are simply unaware of the existence of Comixology or Monkeybrain. And there may be enough of such readers to make publishing Bandette a financially viable proposition, because comics fans are notoriously passionate about print. For example, in my own case, I have a collection slash private library of well over 10,000 comic books and I routinely buy comic books whose stories I’ve already read in reprinted form and I enjoy the smell of old newsprint. SLIDE 15 And printed comic books satisfy this desire for sensuous engagement with materiality more effectively than tablets do. Not to say that tablets do not have physicality, but compared to the comic book, the tablet is a much more slick and smooth artifact with much less tactile or sensory richness. And incidentally I have not yet read Ian Hague’s Comics and the Senses but he argues at great length that senses other than vision play a crucial role in comics reading. This means that even for readers who have read the digital version of Bandette, the print version offers some value-added. To go back to an earlier point, it allows you to read the individual panels and the entire page simultaneously, and it also seems like a more substantial, permanent artifact, something you can keep in your library – which incidentally is kind of odd. Something that came up in my interview with Chris and Allison is that prior to the ‘60s or ‘70s when the modern collector culture began to develop, the comic book was viewed not as a permanent part of a collection but as a disposable artifact, and I’ve seen several old references to kids throwing comic books away after reading them, which is still the case with manga magazines in Japan. Whereas now the disposable form of Bandette is the digital form, which may be automatically deleted from your tablet to make room for more recently downloaded comics. In my own case, having read most of Bandette digitally, I found both that I don’t like reading comics on a tablet and that I wanted to make the comic part of my library, and so I was willing to shell out for the hardcover version despite already having read much of its content.
So the point is that Bandette exists in both print and digital form at once, and these two versions of the text offer different reading experiences and cater to different desires. As a further step beyond this, we could envision a comic where the print and digital versions actually work together to provide an experience that’s unobtainable with either version alone, and this would constitute digital/print synergy on a formal as well as an economic level. Currently the best example of this that I know of is not a comic but an artist’s book, Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, where you have to hold the book up to a webcam in order to actually read it. SLIDE 16 And Marvel is currently doing a rather half-assed version of this with their augmented reality comics. But the point I’m leading up to is that if digital-print synergy is possible, if these two media platforms can coexist harmoniously rather than the one causing the death of the other, then comics offers us a vision of how that can happen.