Posting this here so I can read it off my phone if necessary. Accompanying presentation is here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1_FzifkmD6t-3M7fG_xQD0oEE5yIFAJp_FWaO6L8zFwM/edit?usp=sharing
SLIDE 1 I’m very glad to be here. I presented at this conference back when it was The New Narrative and I’m glad to see how much it’s grown. This paper is based on my ongoing book project, Between Panel and Screen: Comics, the Future of the Book, and the Book of the Future. As the title indicates, this book is concerned with what comics can tell us about the future of the book both as an information technology and as an art form. And my overarching assumption in the book is that the book of the future will be neither purely print nor purely digital but that it will be a hybrid of both. It is often believed that technologies like the iPad and Kindle and Amazon.com are going to destroy physical books, that the paper book is an inevitably dying medium. SLIDE 2 There is a massive body of critical literature that expresses nostalgia for the printed book and bemoans its inevitable demise. This attitude is so common that Ben Ehrenreich gave it a name: “bibilionecrophilia: the retreat of the print-faithful into a sort of autistic fetishization of the book-as-object.” And yet there have been recent indications that the book is not in fact dead. On May 1st, in a Wired Magazine article called “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be Paper,” Brandon Keim (KIME) surveyed a wide variety of studies showing that comprehension was reduced when readers used e-books rather than printed books and that there was still a large constituency of readers that preferred print, despite the greater portability and convenience of e-books. Keim’s argument was similar to that of many others who complain about digital media, but the novel point he introduced was that paper and digital can be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. He suggests: “Maybe it’s time to start thinking of paper and screens another way: not as an old technology and its inevitable replacement, but as different and complementary interfaces, each stimulating particular modes of thinking. Maybe paper is a technology uniquely suited for imbibing novels and essays and complex narratives, just as screens are for browsing and scanning.” SLIDE 3 This argument is a little reductive, but it gets at the central point that I’m trying to make, which is that paper and digital don’t have to be mutually exclusive because they each serve different purposes. Perhaps the paper book is ultimately going to go the same way as the vinyl record, SLIDE 4 which seemed like a dead technology but has made a comeback because of a small but economically significant group of customers who believe it provides a superior listening experience to MP3s.
So why do printed books provide a superior reading experience to e-books? Principally because of greater material richness. And bear with me because I promise this paper is about comics, we’ll get there soon. Compared to e-books, paper books are more interesting on a visual level, in terms of the layout of the text on the page, and also on a sensory level, in terms of the feel and physical construction of the book artifact and even its smell. SLIDE 5 And a significant trend in American prose fiction right now is the accentuation of the physical and visual characteristics of the printed book. There have been a number of recent commercially released books that do bizarre things with typography or physical layout. I’ll just show some examples: Anne Carson’s Nox SLIDE 6, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes SLIDE 7, Mark Danielewski’s Only Revolutions SLIDE 8, Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts SLIDE 9. Now a few decades ago this sort of formal experimentation was limited to expensive limited edition artists’ books. But all the books I just showed you are commercially released books which I’ve seen at my local Barnes & Noble, SLIDE 10 which is what we call Indigo/Chapters in the United States. And the reason why books like these are becoming more common is specifically because of competition from e-books. Garth Risk Hallberg uses the term Kindle-proofing as a tongue-in-cheek label for the phenomenon where authors employ material or typographical features that are impossible to replicate in digital format. A book like A Game of Thrones or The Hunger Games can be digitized without obviously changing the basic nature of the reading experience, SLIDE 11 notice I said obviously, but something like House of Leaves SLIDE 12 is impossible to replicate on the Kindle without causing serious and immediately visible changes in the basic structure of the text. And I should also note that Kindle-proofing is motivated by the need for the prose book to compete with the visuality and interactivity of digital media, but paradoxically, Kindle-proof literature is also part of the same overarching cultural phenomenon that gives rise to digital media. In the wake of the graphical user interface, we are witnessing a general cultural turn away from the gray page of crystal goblet typography and toward visuality and expressive graphic design, and this trend is exemplified by the current popularity of both e-books and Kindle-proof print books, as well as, of course, the rise of the graphic novel.
So now we finally begin to see why comics are relevant in this context, because if print books are trying to compete with e-books by emphasizing their physical and sensory properties, then comics are already doing that very effectively, and prose fiction and other prose genres can take lessons from comics in terms of how to make reading a visual and physical experience. In prose fiction, Kindle-proofing is still only a minor tendency. In comics, it is the norm; you could almost say that every comic is Kindle-proof to the extent that when a print comic is digitized, the difference is much more obvious than in the case of a prose novel. In that sense, the literary novel, to the extent that it employs the Kindle-proofing technique and pays attention to the physical structure of the page and the physical properties of the book object, is taking conscious or unconscious inspiration from the graphic novel. Another way to say this is that the more visually interesting the prose novel becomes, the more it resembles the graphic novel.
So reading comics helps us come to grips with the increasing prominence of the graphic surface of the page and the physical artifact of the book, not just in comics but in reading more generally. Comics reading is all about surfaces. If reading a prose text is typically about penetrating into the text in depth, looking through the graphic appearance of the words on the page to the nonverbal concepts that those words connote, then reading a comic is an act of scanning laterally across the surface of the page. SLIDE 13 Now this is not just true of comics. Terry Harpold writes that “reading is, before it can be anything else, surface work,” that there is a “crisis of surfaces that reading represses and memorializes, and that rereading, especially close, critical reading, must repeat.” But I would suggest that this crisis of surfaces tends to be more visible in comics than in other media. In comics, compared to prose fiction, it is difficult to avoid the realization that you are engaging with a physical, tangible reading surface. And comics often enforce this realization. Think of all the comic books with infinity covers, or comics where the cover appears to be torn away to reveal the first page SLIDE 14, or comics that ask you to navigate through the pages in non-linear order SLIDE 15
Therefore, in the first place, comics scholarship needs to be attentive to the importance of material properties such as lettering, typography and publication design on the reading experience. Peter Wilkins asks, “Is colour in comics equivalent to typography in prose fiction? To answer this question we would have to do a detailed analysis of reader’s responses to the differences between the colour and black and white versions of the same text, say Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim which is being re-released in colourized form. We should probably conduct such analyses because it would help us understand the differences and similarities between comics and prose narratives in terms of how we process information.” But this sort of analysis is important not just because of what it tells us about comics, but because of what it tells us about reading more generally, about the ways in which reading is conditioned by its physical and material form.
Even more than that, reading comics can help us understand the ways in which the book of the future can use its own visual and physical substance as a tool for creating meaning. One way that print books can retain their relevance is by not only accentuating their own physical and visual qualities, but by actually using those physical and visual qualities as tools for signification. The book of the future could function as what Katherine Hayles calls a technotext, a text that interrogates the inscription technology that produces it, and creates reflexive feedback loops between form and content. And again, comics are particularly good at doing all of that. I want to give a couple examples to clarify this. First, since I’m in Toronto, I’ll talk about Scott Pilgrim. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books are intensely self-reflexive about their own materiality. There are numerous scenes where characters show awareness of the fact that they’re in a comic book, like when Scott tells Ramona “My last job is a really long story, filled with sighs. Maybe we can get into it in a later volume.” But when the Scott Pilgrim books were reprinted in color, O’Malley took the blurring of the line between text and paratext to another level by having the books themselves actually acknowledge that they were being reprinted. SLIDE 16 In the black and white edition of volume 3, Scott asks Ramona “Is that your natural hair color?” and Ramona replies “What? No. Maybe. I guess it could be.” And then there’s a footnote that says “NOTE: this book is in black and white.” So this kind of implies that in the black and white edition, the world that the characters inhabit is black and white and they can’t see colors, so Ramona doesn’t know what her natural hair color is. So obviously, this joke only works when the comic is in black and white, and O’Malley realized this, because in the color edition of this volume, the footnote instead says “NOTE: this was funnier in black and white.” So the text itself had to change in order to acknowledge the fact that the characters no longer live in a black and white world. And I wonder if we can imagine other cases where physical changes to the book, such as the introduction of a new typeface, would actually change the story. Like, what would a prose novel look like if the characters were aware of the typeface in which the story was printed.
But let’s look at an even more complicated example of how comics can use their own physical and material features as signifying tools, in ways that are very rare in prose fiction. Consider Matt Kindt’s ongoing series from Dark Horse, MIND MGMT. Now when Kindt started this project he had only done graphic novels and had never done a monthly comic before. So he asked himself: “”What can I do to make this monthly comic something I’d actually enjoy or want to pick up? I started to look objectively at the monthly comic and what it’s about. It’s sort of an ugly medium when you think about it – the covers and the ads and everything. I’m just trying to find a way to subvert that and use all that stuff in the story I’m telling in a way that makes sense.” SLIDE 17 And so the way Matt Kindt took advantage of the unique formal features of the monthly comic book was to put material on the back covers and the inside front covers that was relevant to the story. On the inside front cover of each issue is an installment of a chapter of an ongoing story called “The Second Floor” which is tangential to the main plot. The back covers often feature fake ads that are somehow relevant to the story, or other similar features. On the back cover of issue 8 is a fake ad for a romance novel which features some of the characters in the main story. PASS AROUND The back cover of issue 12 is designed to look like a torn-out page from a Mind Management Psychological Profile and Assessment Questionaire, and on this cover, even the UPC code is incorporated into the narrative framework, because right below the UPC code it says “When finished, please use the following code to catalog this entry.” And only some of this material appears in the hardcover and trade paperback collections. This use of reflexivity even extends inside the actual story itself. Each page of the comic has a light blue border around the edge, and at the top of each page the following statement appears in the same light blue color: “When filing report all essential details must fall within this solid “live area” box. This is the border for a standard, non-bleed field report.” SLIDE 18 So this implies that each page of the comic we’re reading is an extract from a field report filed by an agent of the titular spy organization, and that these reports are filed in the form of original comic art pages. Just in case you don’t know this. In a piece of original art, the live area is the area in which all artwork and lettering has to be contained in order to ensure that it will show up in the finished comic. A “bleed” is when the artist intentionally draws outside the live area in order to make the artwork extend to the very edge of the page. SLIDE 19 So in MIND MGMT, by using these terms, Kindt makes the reader aware of the fact that he or she is reading a comic book, but at the same time, he incorporates the existence of the MIND MGMT comic book into the narrative universe of MIND MGMT. To explain this more simply, Kindt seeks to give us the impression that the MIND MGMT comic book is an artifact that originated from within the same fictional universe it depicts. And this is kind of a cool trick. Some prose authors have attempted to do the same sort of thing – for example, the Harry Potter spinoff books, Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, are supposed to look like the actual textbooks that Harry, Ron and Hermione used. SLIDE 20 But it is still very rare for commercial fiction to actually use its own paratextual or physical features for narrative purposes in the way that MIND MGMT does. When was the last time you read a novel where the copyright page or the inside back cover actually contained material that enhanced the story? And a comic like MIND MGMT is a prototype of how the physical book can compete with the digital book through the intelligent use of its physical materiality.
In conclusion, I think one reason why comics matter in 2014 is because they represent the best prototype we have of what the printed book of the future is going to look like. I believe that in order to survive, the printed book is going to have to become more like a comic book. And to conclude, although this point is outside the scope of the present paper, I think comics are also a prototype of how the digital and the print book can coexist and productively inform each other. In this paper I’ve made it sound like printed books and e-books are in competition with each other, but what I was trying to suggest with the vinyl records analogy is that the two types of books actually fill different niches in the market and that they don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. We can even imagine books that involve both print and digital technology at once – an early example of that is Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen – and while I don’t have time to demonstrate this, I think comics are uniquely well equipped to take advantage of this sort of digital-print synergy. In short, I think one reason why comics studies is important is because of the insight it offers into the question of the future of the book and the book of the future.